In 1980 Korg bestowed upon the world an electronic organ. It was aimed not at those with a desire to entertain sleeping pensioners or create scores for porn films, but fairly and squarely at the pop musician. It was well made and full of beans (not literally obviously), but MIDI was yet to be invented, so if you wanted to make music with it, you just had to make jolly well sure you could play. Here's the story of the CX3 in the UK.
Above: The control and drawbar section on an original analogue Korg CX3.
There’s no doubt where the Korg CX3 was meant to fit into music’s grand scheme in the days when Two-Tone and New Wave dominated the pop charts. This product was intended as a replacement for the classic Hammond tonewheel organ (C3 or B3), which undoubtedly sounded fantastic, but was so immensely bulky that by far the easiest option if you fancied using one at a gig was to transport the pub. Korg’s timely rescue package boasted an authentic sound and a drawbar system outwardly identical to the real thing, yet it would fit on the back seat of a car. It was lightweight (for its time) and even offered an electronic simulation of the big Leslie rotary speaker so crucial to the Hammond sound. There was mild overdrive, controllable key contact ‘spit’, and just for the hell of it, a veneered wood finish. Importantly, studio recordists could expect a total lack of unwanted background noise – quite unlike the real deal, but most welcome.
Despite Korg’s aims regarding sound, the CX’s main competitor was not the Hammond C3 (which was never anywhere near a practical proposition for the majority of bands) but cheesy old 1960s bluffers like the Vox and Farfisa combo organs. Though production had ceased, the Vox Continental was still in widespread use during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, sounding far less subtle and classy than the Hammond, but falling into the ‘portable’ category, albeit in a weight-training stylee. Many ‘70s musicians had declared a strong desire for a real Hammond sound coupled with the Vox’s portability and it was out of such a desire that the CX3 was born. Other manufacturers (notably Crumar) had previously dipped their toes in the water, but Korg boasted something more accurate and more attractive. Surely this brilliantly conceived product was going to take the world by storm…
Well, it was a success, but not spectacularly so. Numerous factors contributed towards the Korg’s fairly restrained initial reception. Firstly it couldn’t compete pricewise with the secondhand instruments already prominent in pub-gig land. Worse still, the Vox Continental had a celebrity userbase, with Elvis Costello’s Attractions, Madness, The Specials and many other big UK acts using the dual manual cheese machine both live and on vinyl. So although the Vox sound was still considered less desirable than that of the Hammond, those contemporary, high profile Vox users meant that aspiring keyboardists had every reason to stick with cheaper, used equipment.
Had the CX3 sounded exactly like a real Hammond C3, organ history in the rock and pop genre would probably have ended on the spot. Needless to say it didn’t, and er… it didn’t. The basic drawbar tone was there, but several immediate drawbacks distinguished the CX from the genuine article. Firstly, while things were okay at the bottom end of the keyboard, all was not well up top. The CX was allowed to produce higher frequencies than those of which the Hammond C3 would be capable. So, whereas on the pukka beastie the highest drawbar pitches would ‘fold back’ and drop in pitch by an octave as you passed both the fourth and the fifth G notes, the CX3’s pitch ‘folded back’ just once after the fifth C.
Whether it was simply poor attention to detail or an attempt to ‘rectify’ what Korg perhaps perceived as the Hammond’s shortcomings, it led the sound away from the hallowed town of Tonewheelsville. Coupled with over-polite key volume scaling on the extreme right of the keyboard this made the CX sound weak and tizzy in its upper register, and considering that this high pitched region of the playing area was where most screeching solos would be bashed out, it was a significant flaw.
But what really gave the CX3 away was the speaker simulator, which was attempting an effect way beyond the scope of 1970s analogue electronics. A real Leslie rotating speaker system actually interfered with the way the organ’s tone was dispersed into the environment, cyclically changing the pitch, the amplitude and the phasing, but in a way that altered as the listener moved in relation to it. The Leslie could also spin at different speeds, so the simulation would additionally have to cover all the mind-blowingly complex territory between the slow and fast rotation rates. Korg made a brave (if futile) stab, which was moderately convincing provided you didn’t press the Fast button and speed the effect up, but in the end the only way a musician could get a real rotary sound was to use the monstrous cabinet itself – which to an extent, defeated the object of the CX3’s supreme portability.
Above: If you use VST instruments and you're interested in the type of sounds organs like the Korg CX3 produced, you may like to download the free VSTX3.
As the ‘80s took a hold though, the CX3 began to catch on. Early champions of the CX (notably Jools Holland, who also stuck with the organ through the decades) proved that when used on stage with overdrive cranked and a bit of help from the vicinity of the mixing desk, it was a lively little rascal. As soon as you began to view it as an instrument in its own right, as opposed to a Hammond approximation, the CX3 became a much more attractive proposition. By the mid ‘80s it had to its name a fair list of influential pro users.
The early ‘eighties would see the CX3 suppressing the Vox boom, and largely seeing off contemporary rival products such as Roland’s VK1 organ. But the CX3 was about to be knocked off its perch – out-organed by something which wasn’t even an organ: the legendary Yamaha DX7. Slowly, pop organists began to realise that this fantastic new digital synth was more than just a plink-and-plonkmeister. The DX’s real instrument simulations were far more accurate than those produced by earlier, analogue synths, and organ sounds were a speciality. The green-buttoned upstart obviously wasn’t going to spew out true vintage Hammond tonewheel emulations, but its unashamedly modern-sounding organ presets seemed to be exactly what keyboardists were looking for.
Many Vox users (myself included) sidelined their organs and jumped onto the digital bandwagon, and soon a whole host of rock and pop organists were championing the DX7’s cause on stage. The CX3, unable to compete with the Yamaha’s huge range of extra benefits (not least MIDI), was losing its appeal. The irony was that even though the DX7 was never meant as a Hammond replacement, it had succeeded where the CX3 had generally failed: in the studio. Real Hammonds, where available, would be used in preference to CX3s at serious recording sessions, but this wasn’t the case with the DX7. In fact it was probably more likely that a keyboardist between ’84 and ’86 would dump a real Hammond in a studio for a DX7, rather than the other way around.
In 1991 the CX3 suffered a final blow at the hands of a new rival – the XB2 from Hammond, which ironically took inspiration from the CX3 and appeared in exactly the same format. Hammond’s rip off of Korg’s rip off, of Hammond’s original was, as one might expect, truer to its ancestor, utilising digital technology to nail the original sound with greater accuracy. Unlike the CX3, the Hammond XB2 also featured console vibrato/chorus, plus reverb, key-split facilities to simulate two manuals on a single keyboard, and masses of user-programmable presets. The CX3, which didn’t even have a stereo output, couldn’t compete.
WHERE THE CX3 STANDS TODAY
In a world where Hammond C3/B3 simulations are so refined as to be sonically indistinguishable from the real thing, the CX3 may come as something of a shock. In fact, alongside the best 2011 has to offer, an analogue CX3 just sounds wacky. But once you stop trying to view it as a Hammond simulator, and see it instead as a trip back to the early ‘eighties and the tail end of the ‘post punk’ era, it becomes an irreplaceable and totally unique instrument. The CX3 only has deficiencies when you compare it to a Hammond tonewheel organ. Evaluate it on its own terms, and there is no substitute.