Review: Hammond-Suzuki XK-2

Review: Hammond-Suzuki XK-2

by David Jacques

Overview

I must preface this article by stating that like most other crazy American B-3 artists who need a portable instrument, I desire the latest gadget that can faithfully recreate the sound of the Hammond B-3 and Leslie 122 located in my studio. From the original KORG CX-3 to the latest digital simulators, manufacturers have struggled to produce a keyboard that could achieve this. I have owned many of these keyboards and modules including the Roland Keyboards of the 60ís and 70ís expansion board for the JV1080, Roland VK7, Hammond XK-2, and now the new KORG CX-3. I am sure that when the next generation of Hammond clones comes out, I will sell my CX-3 and purchase the next "best thing" (many of you can already tell that I am not married). Although this does not make me an expert, I have a unique perspective, as I have owned and performed on most all of these keyboards.

For years Hammond/Suzuki dominated the clone market with their XB-2. Roland eventually introduced a far superior keyboard that improved upon the XB-2ís shortcomings (terrible keyboard, harmonic beating, insane programming, horrible user interface). The VK7 forced Hammond-Suzuki to go back to school and redesign their new B-3 emulator. The introduction of the XK-2 in 1999 was received by thunderous appreciation from Hammond enthusiasts. "Look, our prayers have been answered: a REAL waterfall keyboard!"

Physical Description

The first improvement one notices on this model is its keyboard. The XK-2 is the first Hammond clone to feature a waterfall keyboard, similar to a console Hammond. In addition, the unit uses the familiar (to most clone users) drawbars-on-the-left design. Although the drawbars seem fragile compared to other clones, they are easily accessible with the playerís left hand. Unlike other clones, the XK-2 also includes pitch bend/modulation wheels. More on that later.

The unit is unusually heavy -- probably due to its "brick house" construction. Real wood end-blocks and top make this keyboard a handsome instrument indeed. Hammond moved the volume, reverb, and overdrive controls to the left [Ed: from the XB-2], where the left hand can easily adjust these parameters. In addition, the programming buttons have been moved from under the keyboard (who thought of that one?) to the top above the center of the keys.

    The rear of the unit features all the MIDI ins, outs, throughs, and audio outputs that one could wish for. In addition, there is a direct Leslie connector for those who have the appropriate model 11-pin Leslie speaker cabinets.

The rear also has two tone controls (bass/treble). Maybe its from years of listening to Lee Michaels at 120 dB, but I am certain that you will find yourself eventually turning the bass way down and the treble way up. Finally, the Hammond logo is present -Ė a nice feature informing everyone in the audience that you have not deserted the original manufacturer of the greatest instrument of all time. (Wait, I forgot that Suzuki bought out Hammond... oh well...)

Programming

The XK2 features a relatively user-friendly programming interface. Itís very easy to create your own sounds and then store them in a user preset. The XK-2 has 64 user-programmable presets -- more than you will probably ever need. Organists use their instruments differently. I prefer to change my sounds on the fly by manually manipulating drawbars and effects (overdrive, etc.). I used the presets to change the programming of my other MIDI devices when I wanted to switch from organ to clavinet, mellotron, piano, etc. This I found very easy and intuitive.

Changing the individual parameters can be a little more dicey. Like most computer controllers, it takes a little time to get the hang of this. You can go into the menu and change just about any parameter. However, the adjustments for generator leakage and distortion are limited and not nearly as programmable as the VK7 or the new CX-3. Keyboard splits are easy to accomplish. The user can also split the organ into upper, lower, and pedal sections, allowing the user to set up a "complete" B-3 with a second keyboard and a MIDI pedal unit. This is not possible on the new CX-3 (címon KORG, wake up!).

MIDI Support

Although not designed as a MIDI controller, the XK-2 really shines in this department. The XK-2 features 32-note polyphonic (unlike the VK7 and CX-3, which are fully polyphonic) and 16-part multi-timbral capabilities. The keyboard is velocity sensitive, but has no aftertouch control. I especially appreciate the inclusion of the pitch/modulation wheels. When I performed with my last cover band I found that I did not need a second MIDI controller to play all those horrible disco songs as the XK-2 controlling my Roland JV1080 was quite adequate.

Keyboard

    Playing the XK-2 keyboard is the closest you can get to the original's action. The waterfall keys are a delight to play. Finally, I could do my Keith Emerson impersonations -- smears and windmill chops -- without worrying about slicing up my hands. Itís amazing that it took the manufacturers so long to realize that B-3 players desire a keyboard similar to the original. Until the CX-3 was introduced with its lightning fast action, this was the best keyboard available on a clone.

The problems with the XK-2 keyboard started after a few months of playing. I noticed a "sluggishness" with the response of the keyboard, like the sound was not on top of the action. It also felt a bit mushy compared to my B-3. But Hammond players know that no two B-3 keyboards feel the same, so it might be just what I was used to.

The Organ Sound

This is where Hammond-Suzuki dropped the ball! When I first heard this organ I really loved the sound... until I played it through my Motion Sound Pro3-T. There is a severe tuning problem throughout this keyboard that causes harmonic beating -- especially when played through a moving speaker. You can also hear it without any Leslie simulation while playing certain intervals. This is quite "un-Hammond-like." Hammond-Suzuki had the same problem with the XB-2, and why they decided not to fix it is beyond me.

The actual sound quality itself is not too bad. 888000000 sounds somewhat authentic. However, the overall sound quality is somewhat muted. That is why you will be turning up the treble control in the back. I found that this organ does not cut through a band mix very well. The percussion does not have the thump attack that a real B-3 has (a quality that KORG achieved quite nicely). And the chorus is not authentic; this is what really separates the clones from the original.

The leakage is muted and cannot be adjusted to the degree that other clones allow. The reverb is quite good, for the very few times that you may use it. And the distortion is unusable, unless you prefer the Jon Lord "20 Marshall PA stacks" sound.

Leslie Simulator

I can summarize the Leslie simulator with five words: "Buy a Motion Sound Pro-3T." This feature is useless. And the amazing thing is that you hear the harmonic beating even through the simulation! If you like the simulator, you should know that it, too, is somewhat adjustable with speed, brake time, mike placement, rise and fall times, and amp types user selectable.

Cost and Portability

As mentioned before, this keyboard is HEAVY! Although I am pushing 46, I still consider myself somewhat fit. But lugging this unit up my stairs at 3AM is no easy feat. Setup and strike is quite easy, as all the connectors are easy to reach and clearly labeled.

The XK-2 is presently one of the less expensive clones. You can pick one up for about $1500US. However, you must consider a few things before you look at the "bottom line." I am certain that you will find the on-board Leslie simulator unusable, making it necessary to purchase a decent simulator. Therefore you can add $300-700US for that. In addition, you will have to purchase a volume pedal for the keyboard, as it does not include one. Add another $50-150US! So you can see how the XK-2 easily climbs into the KORG CX-3 price range.

Fit and Finish

I found the XK-2ís build quality superb. However, the decals just above the opening of the drawbars started to peel off a few months after I had the unit. Be very careful when you move this keyboard, as the wood dings very easily. The first XK-2 I purchased had a manufacturing defect that caused the bottom octave of keys to stick. I am sure that this was an aberration, as all XK-2ís I have played since did not have this problem.

Support

As I had no problems in the year that I owned it, I had no need for support from Hammond/Suzuki. I have heard about other owners experiencing power blackouts and lockups. There are also reports of drawbars not working under certain conditions. Apparently the XK-2 is very sensitive to "dirty" power, so you may wish to carry a line conditioner with you. I can tell you that I purchased my XK-2 from Goff Professional and their support is un-matched in the business. Make sure you buy yours from a dealer who can supply a replacement in case your unit needs repair.

Conclusion

The XK-2 was a major advance in Hammond B-3 clone design. Its waterfall keyboard and intuitive user interface showed progress towards designing the "ultimate" Hammond console clone. However, Hammond-Suzuki fell short when it came to the sound of this organ. Yes, the high C screams when pushed -Ė but the nuances of generator crosstalk, chorus/vibrato, and the disastrous harmonic beating keep the XK-2 from achieving "Great Keyboard" status.

Although I recently sold my XK-2, I must tell you that there is something about it I miss. Maybe itís the cream-colored keys, or the real wood, or the Hammond logo on the back. I look forward to Hammond-Suzukiís next effort in moving the technology forward.


Copyright (c) 2001 by David M. Jacques; adaptation to HTML format by Bruce A. Wahler. The opinions represented within are those of the author, who is not affiliated with Hammond-Suzuki, Roland, or KORG.

Reprinting of this document, in whole or in part, for commercial purposes is prohibited without expressed written consent from the author. Use for non-commercial purposes is freely allowed, with no express or implied warranties of suitability or accuracy.