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“Hearing” the Hammond Organ (newmusicusa.org)
68 points by mr_golyadkin 30 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 36 comments

I was surprised by the article. I thought it would be about at least one of two things: the Hammond B3 tonewheel organ, or the Leslie rotary speaker that it’s been almost invariably paired with for half a century.

The B3 itself lets a player adjust the harmonics of the sound on the fly, shifting from a thick meaty sound to any number of thin reedy or subdued sounds with a single half-instinctual shove. The B3 is all over the place, from gospel to rock to radio plays. You’ll know it when you hear it even if you can’t name it.

And the Leslie. Oh, the Leslie. I heard it referred to as “a uniquely American design,” with a woofer aimed downward at a curved wooden wedge and a treble horn for the high frequencies, each piece rotating in opposite directions, throwing sound around a room and affecting the volume and frequencies of the organ in pleasing and interesting ways.

Lots of people have spent lots of time trying to recreate this sound in software, with varying degrees of success. My favorite example (real or simulated, I don’t know) is in Portishead’s “It’s a Fire”[0], since the organ is the main instrument and they put it through its paces: flipping the Leslie between its fast and slow modes while pulling the drawbars, and the tonal structure is wonderfully complex as well.

I think discovering the mechanics of these two things in tandem was part of what sparked my love of synthesizers and how they can be used to create and shift musical moods. The tools are a bit different but the fundamental idea is very similar.

[0] https://youtu.be/7Y26KpgZknY

Just thought I’d point out that pipe organs do a similar thing about controlling harmonics.

But the corresponding control for each drawbar on the Hammond is basically a binary switch instead of a quasi-continuous control.

Further each individual pipe has its own harmonics and timbre while the Hammond tonewherls produce nearly (but not exactly) sinusoidal waveforms.

Fancier pipe organs had multiple pipes at each harmonic. Eg, pipes that mimicked brass or woodwind instruments. This is why pipe organ consoles can be huge and cluttered with tons of switches. The Hammond simplified all that and let you adjust harmonics directly with a quasi-continuum via the drawbars.

With the onset of jazz and rock in the 60’s, the Hammond’s unique sound became highly sought after. The so-called “Hammond Growl” through its tube amps, it’s own analog chorus and vibrato unit, the external rotating Leslie speaker’s effects, and even the “key click”.

When the 70’s came along, pop tastes shifted to newer synthesisers and the last of the B3’s from the assembly line languished at organ dealers.

My favorite example of the B3 is Galactic's "Quiet Please"[0]. At about the 5-minute mark, the keyboardist switches from an electric piano to the organ and makes it sing.


There's a very nice FOSS software emulator called SetBFree. The gui interface is a little goofy, but for real usage you would connect a midi keyboard controller anyway.


The best sounding commercial keyboard to emulate the B3 IMO is the Nord C2D/C2.

As someone who has nearly two decades moonlighting experience as a live sound mixer, stories like this remain a reminder at how bad humans are in general at hearing.

These two instruments are both great, but the Hammond is no analog for a pipe organ. Neither in tone nor the way it interacts with room acoustics. It's fascinating that this could even be a plausible discussion.

You can improve your hearing markedly with practice. I didn't start with "golden ears" but have improved a great deal even as my ears age. But many of my worst days behind a mixing desk got the most positive response from the general audience.

Frankly you make it sound like it's better to not know.

Unless you're in music production, learning "how bad things sound" doesn't sound like a good thing.

Generally I would agree that if you exercise this muscle, it can be hard to turn off.

There's still a lot of room for art in the process, though. With experience you get less attached to your particular sonic leitmotifs, and that helps. Even if you would not personally mix it the same way.

I've gotten quizzical looks from friends when I mentioned how much certain distorted guitar tones and tremolo picking sound very similar to bowed string instruments, particularly the cello.

You can easily imagine someone furiously playing a cello when listening to a lot of death metal, especially Swedish death metal with the classic Boss HM-2 pedal sound.

They didn't really get it, and most of them are pretty big fans of Apocalyptica, who very specifically play heavy metal on cellos. Still, they didn't make the same connection, which made me wonder if my hearing is a bit odd.

You could also add the asymmetrical waveshape of the "blat" of several types of horn instruments (e.g. trombone) to that list of similar tones.

What do you mean, humans are bad at hearing? Most humans have great eardrums. Isn't hearing subjective, and dependent on the goal you are "hearing for"?

What do you mean with golden ears? Do you mean perfect pitch? The ability to hear what is not intended by the sound source to be there?

I'm not speaking of the sensor, but rather the meat computer interpreting it.

Things you can train for include: being sensitive to minute changes in level/frequency/time, picking one source out of many, precisely placing items spatially in stereo, listening for specific types of audio artifacts.

Golden ears could include perfect pitch, but in the production context pp might be translated to a specific frequency, rather than a note.

> I'm not speaking of the sensor, but rather the meat computer interpreting it.

I don't know what rock I've been living under, but that's the first time I've heard the brain referred to as a 'meat computer'. What an image! In any event, a quick search surprisingly didn't turn up any Wikipedia page, bit mostly pages (e.g. 1) denouncing the idea of the brain as a meat computer, associating it with the flailing concept of phrenology (designating regions of the brain as controllers of specific tasks).

I'm not a neuroscientist, but based on all of the pieces of evidence describing brain function I've consumed over the years, it seems obvious to me that the meaty neurons brain to appear to be 'computing'.

1. https://mindmatters.ai/2018/08/the-brain-is-not-a-meat-compu...

Ok, then I understand what you mean, and I agree with you. Most people are bad at hearing, in that context, for sure.

Or rather, we who have decades of experience in this field, have over average capacity for processing music and the sounds/patterns we have studied/practised. Then again, that is true for every field.

I do not however, believe "most people" (with less developed hearing) are relevant to why this "battle for the organs", came to be.

There's a difference between simply hearing a piece of music and enjoying it, and being able to pick out the individual elements and identifying them. It takes training and experience, and it absolutely isn't mandatory, but I've found that I enjoy music even more after I started understanding its elements.

You have to watch Booker T Jones Tiny Office Concert, https://www.npr.org/2011/05/02/135840639/booker-t-jones-tiny..., if you want to see what a real master of the Hammond can do.

Keith Emerson made a pretty good name for himself playing and stabbing knives into his Hammond organ as well.

Steve Winwood (under direction from Hendrix) on "Voodoo Chile": https://open.spotify.com/track/0auKlivXpm76wR63mMJ3pR?si=D0g...

Specifically he used the knives to hold down keys for sustained tones. At least one of his knives was a Hitlerjugend knife, given to him by Lemmy Kilmister.

A common trick with jazz organists back in the day was to slip a matchbook between the top of depressed keys and bottom of underpasses keys as a sustain, usually done on a high octave of the key as a drone.

You can tell a lot about a culture by their instruments.

It helps to really look deeply.

When Hewlett & Packard were strongly involved with the design & production of their legendary instruments these were some of the most well-designed, advanced, high-performance, purpose-fulfilling, and amazingly reliable long-lasting electronics in history.

When Hammond was strongly involved with his it was even better.

I've got a Hammond amplifier built in 1948, sounds like heaven. There's no need to repair or replace any components yet since it's only 2019.

Seemed inspired like Edison or DaVinci.

And a benevolent capitalist not a greedy one, after starting a growing company based only on an insignificant amount of one's potential IP there can be a lot of confidence when there's plenty more where that came from.

Chapter X - The Tickless Clock, Teleview, and the "Classified" Patent http://thehammondorganstory.com/chapterx.asp

I was amazed when I first heard about the existence of the seldom-heard-of Hammond Novachord. First produced in 1938, it's one of the earliest polyphonic sound synths ... 25 years before the first (mono) Moog appeared.



Of course that was in the days before transistors ... and so it used 163 vacuum tubes (and 1000 capacitors). VCAs, bandpass filters, LFOs and on.... Only 1000 were made before the war shut down production; there are only a few dozen left it seems.

Great read. I love the Hammond sound. Joey DeFrancesco[0] is an amazing organ player, whom I instantly fell in love with while listening to him featured on Pat Martino's "Live at Yoshi's"[2] record. I think it's my favorite live album ever, or at least up there. Martino's playing is on another level.

I think Martino is still touring. His 70s jazz-fusiony records were amazing. My favorite are probably his post-break records in the late 90s. Those licks are impossible to play. And forget about improvising that way...

[0] - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhFIupVoVKc [1] - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oyJJltEhvkc

Lest we forget the Queen of the Hammond Organ, Ethel Smith, playing Tico Tico [1] in the film Bathing Beauty (1944).

1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXrnuwZreHg

Love leslies. Wish more bands were using them.

Al Kooper "like a rolling stone"

Billy Preston.

Miles Davis/Cedric Lawson "rated x"

and of course, "green onions" Booker T and the MGs...

I wonder if the sound of the pipe organ can be reproduced from the harmonic plot: https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/hearing-the-hammond-organ/figur...

The harmonic content of a sound is a big component of how we hear it, but the articulation over time of the sound also plays a significant role. This is referred to as the ADSR (Attack Decay Sustain Release) envelope. I would also imagine that each harmonic of a sound has its own slightly different ADSR envelope, so that harmonic profile would change over the duration of the sound.

Not just that, but every note has a different spectrum, and the spectrum evolves in a different way.

Instruments with dynamics - not a pipe organ, unless you include the swell pedal or some of the dynamic effects, like tremulant - the spectrum also varies with dynamics.

So generally, no, you can't accurately reproduce a sound with a single plot of the harmonics.

I'm more curious about how the physicist worked out a spectral plot by hand before sampling and FFTs were invented and oscilloscopes were barely a thing.

I'd guess he sketched the waveform from a scope plot, broke it down into points by hand, and performed a manual DFT - which must have taken quite a while.

Frequency Analyzers have been around nearly as long as oscilloscopes. Basically they’ll sweep a band pass filter and plot amplitude vs frequency on the screen.

Also - you can reproduce a sound by the frequency domain IF you look at the time progression of it.

Some Hammond Organs intentionally had a percussion control where the 3nd or 3rd harmonic would decay over time, giving the instrument timbre a bit of a pop.

> I'm more curious about how the physicist worked out a spectral plot by hand before sampling and FFTs were invented and oscilloscopes were barely a thing.

Before there were digital FFTs, there were analog equivalents. A prism basically does an FFT on light. I don't know, but I'd bet there were many analog based frequency analysis tools available before digital frequency analysis.

Ironic these things go for quite a bit of money now and are sought after by musicians.

Well, certainly unexpected, but some things are just good and become a classic. And yes, they do go for thousands of dollars.

In the case of the Hammond, it seems to be mostly by accident. They were just trying to create a cheaper version of a pipe organ, in effect.

The tone wheels made it possible.

The drawbars allow changing the timbre in a lot of ways, which makes the instrument expressive and configurable. You can adjust the timbre while playing a note! Sort of like using a mute on a trumpet, only more combinations.

The keys make a satisfying percussive click when played, which is also expressive. A Hammond player told me once this click was not intentional (the designers viewed it as a bug), but it helps give the instrument a nice attack, which helps make the starting of the notes apparent to the listener and allows the instrument to be used rhythmically.

The Leslie rotating speaker was an attempt to create some of the acoustic ambiance of pipe organs. (Which is amazing, by the way. The instrument literally surrounds you in some cases. It's like centuries-old surround sound. Not to mention the rich acoustics of a church hall, which is built to encourage reverberation so that the audience could hear an orator in the days before amplification.) But the Leslie speaker's rotation adds not only spatial effects but also doppler. And the speed of rotation can be changed, so you can make the sound tenser or more mellow by varying the speed. So it's great for expression as well.

Incidentally, a lot of other instruments achieved greatness by accident. Resonator guitars (Dobro, National Guitar, etc.) were made in an attempt to get more volume, but they ended up having a unique sound. Electric guitars were made for more volume too, but they opened up an entire new world of tones, as well as different playing styles due to lighter strings. The stereotypical distortion effect on electric guitars (that give them their aggressive "bite") came about because guitar amplifiers just didn't have enough power. The vocoder was developed for speech synthesis and telecom, but it found use in music as a way to give a radically different timbre to a human voice. (Or is it to modulate another instrument's sound to follow the volume of a human voice? Maybe those mean the same.)

Don't forget the Fender Rhodes electric piano, which doesn't really sound like a piano at all. It has its own mellow sound, which has become iconic and is a cornerstone of several genres.

Oh yeah, also a good example.

Coincidentally, I just recently discovered Marcin Grochowina's channel YouTube, where there are several nice Rhodes videos:


On my way to see Mad Skillet now. Medeski is an incredible B3 player who brings out a lot of character from the instrument.

Jon Lord was a big Hammond fan. Love his sound.

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