02/10/13

Vital Organ: Hammond's SK2 Stage Keyboard

Delivering unmatched emulations of the company’s classic tones

Released in 2011, Hammond’s single-board SK1 ($1,995 MAP) and double-decker SK2 ($2,895 MAP) stage keyboards are the company’s first to feature the traditional battery of Hammond voices as well as emulations of a host of other instruments, from brass to Wurlitzer and Rhodes. While the organ presets and Leslie settings are the best you’ll find on the market, the others can be hit-or-miss.

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Dr. Lonnie Smith behind Hammond's SK2 combo organ at Winter NAMM 2012
By Evan Haga
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Hammond SK2 keyboard

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If you want two keyboards and you’re a stickler for authentic organ sounds, from percussion to that iconic Leslie, the SK2 is the right choice. Its twin 61-key ’boards deliver stunning renditions of B3, Vx, Farf and pipe organs. That’s not to mention the portability: The SK2, which we tested, weighs 35 pounds, and the SK1 is a mere 15. By comparison, a regular B3 is a whopping 400 pounds, and Hammond’s single-keyboard XK-3, released several years ago, is about 43 pounds. The SK2 is not particularly large, either: 37 1/4 inches wide by 17 7/8 inches front-to-back by 6 3/4 inches tall.

Along the back panel, it has jacks for MIDI, USB In/Out, 1/4-inch audio, an 8-pin Leslie, foot switch, damper and expression pedals. The jacks are marked on the top of the keyboard, which means you don’t have to lean over to figure out which plug goes where. The bottom and top are black metal and the sides are a mix of wood with a “hi-gloss polycarbonate finish” made to look like a deep cherry wood. It’s a sharp instrument.

With the SK2, it’s easy to assign and adjust different sounds to the upper and lower keyboards. There are knobs to quickly tweak the overdrive, effects, reverb, bass, frequency, gain and treble, and 10 assignable “favorites” buttons. You can have an on-the-nose B3 in the top keyboard and, say, a close replica of a Wurlitzer on the bottom. There’s also a song writer/recorder (though no preloaded backing tracks), and the SK2 holds 100 user and 100 preset patches. Both the SK1 and SK2 have the same number of presets, which, the company notes, account for every Hammond organ ever manufactured. You can also go to hammondorganco.com to download free expansion voices; Hammond plans to update the library with more tonewheel setups in the near future.

Aside from the organs, the Wurlitzer, clavinet and piano presets are among the SK2’s best, though it’s not a one-stop shop. The brass and flutes—and much of the other orchestral sounds, for that matter—can sound canned. The SK2’s selection of piano presets is extensive—a definite plus. The Wurlitzer emulations hold up well, but some sound thin when you nail the note. For my money, the Nord Electro still has better Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric piano sounds, though Hammond is closing the gap and trumps the Nord’s organ tones. And there are more than a few synthesizer presets, which, again, are admirable but not quite convincing enough to warrant trading in your current synthesizer.

The gorgeous organ tones are the SK2’s bread and butter. There are plenty of jazz and rock options, as well as a number of church organs (helpfully given names such as “quiet praise,” “dramatic praise” and “reflective praise”). Also worth noting: The keys’ waterfall action is right on the money for a Hammond.

The SK2 only has one set of drawbars, to keep the controls as simple and straightforward as possible, according to the manufacturer. You can switch between the upper and lower keyboards using a “drawbar select” button. For picky Hammond players who like to tweak their sound mid-performance, it’s a little annoying.

All too often, keyboard user manuals can be full of techno-babble, almost impossible to decipher. Not so with the SK2’s guide, which was easy to follow. And while Hammond sells a number of accessories for multiple keyboards, they’re also offering the heavy-duty, B3-type EXP-50 pedal specific to the SK1 and SK2.

With the SK1 and SK2, Hammond is off to a good start but still has a ways to go to be able to compete with some of the other, better orchestral synths on the market. When it comes to a classic organ sound in a moveable instrument, however, they’re unmatched.

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