The Hammond Organ: 310 pounds of heavenly joy. More than 140 kg… and that’s not counting the 60 kg Leslie speaker, the constant maintenance required, the sudden surprises when something stops working during a show. And a price tag in the 5-8000 € range. Needless to say, there is a big demand for lighter, more reliable and cheaper alternatives. I’ve owned a few Hammond organ imitations, starting in the late 90’s with Roland VK-7. It was OK for the time, but when Clavia put out the Nord Electro in 2001, it completely blew the competition away, and I’ve never looked back since. The organ and other electronic keyboards sounded so much better than what anyone else was doing at the time, the interface was much more straight-forward, and it was highly roadworthy. The Nord Stage in 2005 added piano and synth sounds to the sounds from the Nord Electro, at it has been my main keyboard for concerts since the Jean-Louis Aubert tour in 2005/6.

However, there is one thing I always hated about the Nord Stage and Nord Electro… Originally the Hammond organ was built in the 1930’s as an alternative to Pipe Organs in churches and even at home, and the company actually tried to discourage people from using it in other contexts – they never planned for it to be used in Jazz, Rock & Roll, Soul, Hard Rock, Funk, Prog Rock etc. They tried very hard to make it as much like a Pipe Organ as possible. On a Pipe Organ the sound is shaped by pulling out stops to decide through which pipes the air being pumped into the organ is directed. The stops look something like this:

On a Hammond organ the stops are replaced by a set of drawbars above the keys, but it works the same way: you shape the sound you want by pulling out drawbars. A set of drawbars on a B3 looks like this:

There are many ways of playing the Hammond organ. Some players set the drawbars to the sounds they want once and for all and don’t interact a lot with the drawbars while playing. Other players, including me, are constantly changing the drawbars while playing to make the sound evolve with where you are in the song, what the rest of the band is doing etc. When Clavia made the Nord Electro and Nord Stage keyboards, they made the choiche to only cater to the first group of players, and came up with this idea of having LED-based virtual drawbars, that you move by pressing up/down buttons underneath:

It works if you only want to stick with one drawbar setting at a time. But there is no way you can play these virtual drawbars in a musical way during a song. It was a frustrating trade-off to make: To get the best Hammond organ simulations, I had to stop playing the instrument the way I’d always enjoyed playing it. The choice wasn’t difficult, since Clavia’s sounds were so much better than the competition, including some competitors’ models that actually had the physical drawbars I needed for my playing style. But it wasn’t a completely satisfying situation.

Last year, a company in California called Ocean Beach came out with a product, that was essentially a set of physical drawbars you can hook up to the Nord Electro / Nord Stage.

It works very well. It’s very solid, reliable and easy to use. I’ve rediscovered the organ sounds in my Clavia keyboards with this little machine, and I take it with me everywhere I go, studio and live. But it still is a bit of a compromise: it’s not an integral part of the instrument, and you have to tape it on to the keyboard before every show, you have to think about changing batteries, turning it off after each show etc. Not an ideal situation, though a huge improvement over the virtual drawbars.

However, it seems that Clavia hasn’t been ignoring complaints from players like me. After ten years of virtual drawbars, they have finally decided to include physical drawbars on their newest keyboards. And this brings me up to what I wanted to talk about today.

The gig with Imany that I’m doing for the rest of the year is almost entirely a Hammond organ gig. However, the size of the tour isn’t big enough for the production to rent and move around a real Hammond organ, like it was the case when I toured with Jean-Louis Aubert or Johnny Hallyday. So I was looking for alternatives, when Clavia came out with the new C2D organ. I just received one last week and I’ve been rehearsing with it for a few days now. Here is what it looks like:

I am very impressed with this instrument. The real drawbars are a huge improvement, the sound engine is better than anything Clavia has done this far, and it feels closer to a real Hammond B3 than anything I’ve played before. Especially in this live setting, where I wouldn’t have been able to have the Leslie speaker close to me anyway – it’s a big, bulky, noisy thing, that usually ends up somewhere off stage. The times I have played a real B3 with a real Leslie in a live concert setting, the Leslie wasn’t anywhere close, and I had to rely on the sound in my monitors to hear it. And quite frankly, judging from the sound coming out of my monitors these past few days of rehearsal, I would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the real Hammond I played on stage with Aubert and Hallyday, and the simulated sound from the C2D.

I am particularly impressed with the Leslie speaker simulations. There are three: a model 122 with standard miking, a 122 with close-miking, so the Dopffler effect and stereo image become slightly exaggerated, and a model 147. I think the 147 is the one I’ll go with for Imany’s gig, but I’m not totally decided yet. The percussion is better than ever, distortion/overdrive sound great, reverb and delay are very practical inclusions. Maybe my only two demands for the future would be a tape-echo style delay, and the possibility to have the reverb inserted before the Leslie, as some modified B3’s out there have. But considering what the instrument is supposed to do, these are minor complaints!

Basically, this instrument is one of the best I’ve seen in years, and I hope to see you on the road so you can judge for yourself! We’re playing La Cigale in Paris this week (September 20-21-22), and you can find the other tour dates above.