This is an extract from a review in Keyboard Magazine Online
Sometimes I think Hammond doesn’t fully understand what they have in the SK line. Read their own marketing, or the list of features on any retailer’s website, and your takeaway will be something like, “So it’s a drawbar organ with more non-organ sounds than usual.” What it is, in fact, is a problem solving Swiss Army knife for weekend (or week-inweek- out) warriors, whose B-3 and rotary sound is certainly the star, but whose other sounds are both plentiful, realistic, and soulful enough to give you second thoughts about hauling your weighted workstation to any but the best-paying gigs.
Let’s qualify that. What the SK calls “extra voices” aren’t going to embarrass your Kronos, Kurzweil, Motif, “SuperNatural” Roland axe, or even your Nord Stage—which is functionally the SK’s most level competition. If, however, you audition the sounds on their own merits, your reaction will likely be, “Damn, I could get through a whole gig on this and sound fantastic.” If the SK1 was hard to take seriously as being this comprehensive—if only because it’s so very tiny—the SK2 being able to play organ on one slab of keys and everything else on the other corrects both the abstract image problem and the concrete ergonomic problem in the same breath.
The SK2 is a dual-manual SK1, plain and simple. The internal sound engine and rear panel connections are identical, and the only difference on the front panel is that a “Lower to Pedal” button (which lets you play whatever’s assigned to the lower manual on a MIDI organ pedalboard) replaces the SK1’s Split button. Whatever happened in the SK1’s lower split zone happens on the lower manual of the SK2. Since we don’t have room here to recap everything about the SK1, we’ve posted our full review from the November 2011 issue at keyboardmag.com/HammondSK1. If you’re new to the SK line, read that, then read this.
Like its smaller sibling, the SK2 compensates for having only one set of drawbars with a useful set of other realtime controls. This includes the volume of the non-organ sounds, organ overdrive (the most natural sounding in this roundup, to my ears), effects (in addition to Leslie) for both organ and non-organ sounds, reverb, master EQ with sweepable midrange, and even a song player for audio backing tracks from an attached USB stick.
As on the SK1, three buttons to the left of the drawbars switch their control between the upper, lower, and pedal registrations, and the “ Favourites” buttons just below the LCD let you save the entire state of the instrument: drawbars, organ and non-organ zone assignments, effects, you name it. My main complaint carries over from the SK1: The drawbars are recessed in a tray, and the south edge of this tray can be a pinch point for the fleshy base of your hand if your drawbar-grabbin’ muscle memory comes from a real B-3 or Hammond’s XK family.
The drawbar tones in Hammond portables dating as far back as the XK2 (reviewed June ’99) have always been a little more present and individuated to my ears than those in competing clones. For that reason, they remain my favourite for pumping through a real rotary speaker, especially the vintage sort, which tend to roll off and smear higher frequencies.
Vox, Farfisa, and pipe organs are incorporated in the drawbar type menu, not in the extra voices, which makes sense—they’re organs. Additional Vox sounds in the “Library” bank of the extra voices (meant for playing downloadable sounds from Hammond’s website) do nicely should you want transistor organ on one manual and B-3 on the other.
Back to the B-3. The two main tonewheel sets you’ll use are B types 1 and 2—though there’s a third “mellow” type. Type 1 skews flutey and jazzy where type 2 is a bit more brassy and suited to rock.
In my November 2011 review of the SK1, I called its Leslie effect world class, and that still stands for the SK2, even in light of other developments since. It’s also the most tweakable of the bunch, letting you edit and save everything to do with rotor speed, virtual mic placement, cabinet type (I adore the 31H “tall boy” setting), and more. You could argue that the Mojo or Numa sim sounds more “holographic” in a head-to-head comparison. However, I also had my Leslie 142 in the room during this round-up and when I compared the SK2 to that, my opinion of it went up. At the gig, it’ll do you right, no question about it.
With one button-press, you can allocate non-organ sounds to the upper or lower manual, but not both at once. In addition, a Solo button mutes the organ on the manual you’ve chosen, letting you layer in the organ or not. You could do this with key zones on the single-manual SK1—and a cheap MIDI keyboard could work seamlessly for the lower zone—but it’s hard to overstate the convenience of having that second keyboard on the same instrument, fed by the same power cord. It just makes things so darned easy.
Again, for space reasons, I’ll refer you to the SK1 review online for my favourite sounds across categories, but suffice to say that the acoustic pianos are more than good enough to get you through a rock or dance band gig, the Clavs and electric pianos have tons of variations and ooze funky cred, there are some analog string machine patches straight out of the ’70s, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Need to hit those sixteenth-note horn parts on covers like “September” or “Give It to Me Baby”? The “Unison Brass” patch has the crisp attack and stacked octaves you need. Two cool synth brasses also hide in the “Wind” category: the mellow, Oberheim-like “Afri” and the brighter, more splatty “Rosa.” You won’t find many synth leads, though. Bottom line: These sounds are anything but afterthoughts.
Earlier, I suggested that the SK2’s most likely competition is the Nord Stage line, which I meant as a compliment. In a way, the SK2 is like the Photoshop mockups I’ve seen some enthusiasts make of their dual-manual dream axe: It can play killer B-3 on one manual and pianos, EPs, Clavs, and synths on the other. Of course, you can play it as a straight two-manual B, but the immediacy of assigning sounds to different manuals, coupled with the quality of those sounds, make it seriously attractive for working keyboardists who need to cover maximum ground with minimum weight, footprint, and setup fuss. True, piano-centric players will insist on weighted keys, but the SK2 is aimed at the organ-centric. Add something with pitch and mod controls (say, a Roland Gaia or Novation UltraNova) to cover synth-heavy parts, and you’ll have a gig rig whose flexibility, tote-ability, and sound will be the envy of all your peers.
PROS Excellent B-3 organ sound and rotary simulation. Deepest editing of any organ in this round-up Quantity and quality of non-organ “extra voices” makes it a one-stop gig powerhouse. Quick and easy assignment of sounds to upper or lower manual.
CONS Recessed drawbars, as on the SK1, feel cramped. It seems reasonable to want two sets of drawbars at this price. Some of those cool non-organ sounds make you notice the absence of pitchbend and modulation wheels.