Review: Voce V3 Tone Wheel Organ Synthesizer

by Bruce Wahler

The following are facts and subjective impressions about the Voce (pronounced "VO-cheh") V3 Tone Wheel Organ Synthesizer, which I have owned and used for several months. I use the V3 in a two-guitar rock band which plays small to medium sized clubs.

Overview

The V3 is a Hammond organ synthesizer module which simulates the sound created by the 91 rotating tone wheels in a Hammond console model organ -- B-3, C-3, RT-1, A-100, etc. -- as well as a number of subtle nuances associated with the "Hammond sound", all electronically. The V3 uses both analog and digital technologies to provide its sounds, and digital controls to program and modify its numerous customizable features. Included in the design is the equivalent of Voce's highly praised Spin Leslie simulator. The lightweight unit is mountable in a single 19" rack space, plus an optional drawbar module which sits on or near the MIDI keyboard used with the V3.

The V3 can produce up to three channels of output: an upper channel, which also controls the overall tone and character of the patch, a lower channel, which can use its own set of drawbar controls, and a bass pedal channel. The V3 is designed to use any and all of its 91 oscillators at the same time, providing dual 61-note plus pedals polyphony.

As with any Hammond clone, there's some room for improvements in the V3's design, but I believe it is an extremely convincing substitute for the original. This review criticizes the V3 on some fine points, but it's a great choice for keyboard players who cannot -- or will not -- gig with a Hammond console organ.

As the V3 is a small MIDI-controlled rack unit, it has a number of advantages over a real Hammond:

the V3 is more portable;
it needs no oiling or maintenance;
it can simulate a range of Hammonds, from mellow older models to bright newer pieces;
the tone and amount of "dirt" or "bite" can be programmed on a patch-by-patch basis;
the Spin circuitry can substitute for a real Leslie in crowded playing situations;
the speed of the Spin -- or a real Leslie -- can be controlled by a variety of MIDI messages.

Compared to other Hammond clones, the V3 sounds more realistic and musical, and it really screams in the last octave like a real Hammond. It's not a perfect replacement for a B-3, but it's very close. The V3's programmability and MIDI support are first-rate.

Physical Description

The V3 occupies a single rack space (19" x 1.75"). Unlike many rack modules, the V3's is fully "wall wart" free; i.e., the power supply is internal to the unit. Although the user's guide cautions about leaving ventilation holes clear, I couldn't find any on my unit (version 3.4). At around 6 pounds, the unit is very light.

The front panel features four control knobs: Volume, Overdrive (distortion), Percussion Volume, and Percussion Decay, as well as switches for Percussion On/Off, Percussion 2nd/3rd (harmonic), Rotating Speaker On/Off, Rotating Speaker Fast/Slow, Rotating Speaker Spin/Brake, Vibrato On/Off , and Vibrato/Chorus Select. The unit provides 1/4" jacks for output (mono or stereo), MIDI In, Out, and Thru, an effects loop, rotating speaker speed/brake pedal switches, an input for using an analog volume pedal to adjust expression or volume of the unit (it also responds to MIDI control of these items), and an interface for connecting the V3 to a Leslie speaker. All jacks are located on the rear of the unit for ease of use in a rack. The removable power cord uses the 3-pin AC connector popular on both PCs and Macs, making replacement simple.

The V3 is manufactured in the USA.

Signal Routing

The MIDI keyboard, modules, etc. are plugged into standard DIN jacks in the V3's rear panel. Provision is made for adding an effects loop for reverb, EQ, distortion, etc. and for processing external devices through the Spin circuitry. (Interestingly, the effects loop is located after the expression control but ahead of the volume control and EQ. I cannot think of a musical reason for this discrepancy; it's just the way the V3 is designed.) The Spin circuit provides stereo output sources.

The V3 provides two types of continuous pedal control: volume, which attenuates all frequencies equally, and expression, which attenuates high frequencies more than low ones, simulating the human ear's audio response. (Hammond organs use the latter method.) Either of these effects can be controlled via an analog input, with adjustable response, or programmed to use MIDI events.

Programming

Although long-time organists may find the V3's programming menu a bit daunting, synth players will consider it to be a breeze. There are many more programmable controls than those available on either the front panel or the MIDI drawbar module, including main and auxiliary drawbar settings, lowest octave foldback, overdrive, tone generator leakage (that "all-notes-on" sound you hear in the background when you press one key on a Hammond), percussion (on/off, volume, decay time, and harmonic), vibrato/chorus, EQ, and rotating speaker simulation (speed, acceleration/deceleration, frequency shift, microphone distance, and microphone angle for each rotor, plus a horn/drum balance setting). The V3 can save up to 128 organ patches plus 20 rotating speaker settings and 10 MIDI control maps. Users can choose to have the percussion, rotating speaker, and vibrato settings change with each program, or remain in the same state as the last program.

Once you get over the sheer breadth of programming choices available, there is essentially no classic Hammond sound that cannot be called up on the V3. The only areas of improvement that I can see are: a) drawbar foldback points are not programmable (due to the V3's oscillator architecture); and b) the user cannot link a set of upper manual, lower manual, and bass pedal voicings together in a sort of "multi-timbral" patch (all patches default to the same lower manual and bass programs.) Luckily, the MIDI implementation allows the user to work around the second limitation.

Which brings us to the …

MIDI Support

Attention, all synthesizer manufacturers: how come the MIDI support in your digital synth pales in comparison that of the V3, with its analog engine? Virtually every programmable item in the V3's menu -- 52 items in all -- can be accessed by the user's choice of MIDI controllers or channel aftertouch, all in real time. Hammond purists may frown at the idea of controlling key click via the mod wheel, tone generator leakage from the expression pedal, or Leslie speed via aftertouch, but if you decide you need it, it's there. I spent a couple of hours just trying out various control combinations in my MIDI setup to find the ideal mix of functionality and creativity for my rig.

The only problem I've seen with the MIDI implementation is a tendency to overflow when a lot of MIDI data is thrown the V3's way, leading occasionally to the dreaded "stuck note". This problem can be eliminated by filtering "busy" data streams like aftertouch and active sensing when not needed.

MIDI Drawbars

Voce provides an optional set of MIDI drawbars, which also provide controls for percussion, vibrato, rotating speaker, overdrive, key click, and generator leakage. The drawbars can be set to any MIDI channel, and can be used as either main or auxilliary drawbars. The users' guide shows two sets of drawbars connected through a MIDI merger to the V3, for players who want real-time control over both manuals. The MIDI outputs are also useable as controllers for other MIDI keyboards and modules in your system, assuming that Voce's chosen MIDI controller scheme can be matched on your other gear.

On the whole, Voce has done a fine job of simulating the look and feel of the drawbars themselves, and the four knobs are reasonably easy to use. I found the buttons to be a bit small for my hands, though. Also, you need to find a place for the module on your gear, which can be a bigger problem than it seems: the unit will not work well unless it's held in place with the Velcro strips that are provided, and you have sufficient room in front of the module to pull the drawbars out without getting in the way of the keys. This can be a challenge on modern keyboard equipment, where smaller is almost always seen to be better.

Sound

How does the V3 sound? On the whole, so close to a Hammond B-3 that it's scary. Since many players with probably use the V3 with a real Leslie (or another simulator, like the Motion Sound PRO-3 or DigiTech RPM-1) I have separated my comments about the organ module and the Leslie simulator.

The Organ

Does the V3 really sound like a Hammond B-3? With a little adjustment, a definite yes. The folks at Voce have spent a lot of time working on the subtle details that separate most clones from the real thing, like drawbar foldback, key click, and perhaps most importantly, tone generator leakage and Loudness Robbing (a kind of compression). It also has a convincing overdrive simulation which backs off at lower volumes like a real tube amp. It won't replace a tube amp or pre-amp, but it's close enough for me to change from mellow to mild overdrive without touching the controls on my 12AX7-based pre-amp.

I can't really explain why, but the V3 sounds fatter than the other Hammond clones I've listened to, including the XB-2 and XM-1. (I confess that I haven't considered or auditioned the XB-3, since spending the price of a new car -- or the down payment on a house -- for a musical instrument is not a viable option for me!) It may not sound exactly like the Hammond you're used to, but it's as close as putting two Hammonds in the same room - they won't sound exactly alike, either!

Although the V3 is somewhat forgiving of its amplification source, it requires a real tube Leslie, or a good-quality simulator through a high-fidelity stereo sound system, to perform at its best.

What's wrong with the organ part? Not much, except that it's kind of noisy, especially on settings like 888000000. Voce provides a built-in noise gate, which helps a lot, but the noise is still noticeable. If you like a lot of generator leakage, it will probably mask most of the noise, and it becomes less of a problem on the upper end of the keyboard, or when using settings like 808808008 or 888886442. Setting the Treble control to -3dB also helps, although the V3 loses some of its high end punch at this setting. Using a real Leslie, or heavily EQ-ing frequencies beyond 8kHz can help the situation a good deal.

Using the volume adjustment sometimes causes a popping noise when the pedal is pumped quickly. Since true Hammond simulation requires using an expression pedal, however, this is something of a minor problem. Be warned, however: the V3 expression pedal does not have the dynamic range of an AO-28, and it's not as smooth operating as the original.

Since the percussion does not lower the drawbar volume, you have to compensate by dropping the drawbar settings from, say 888000000 to 666000000 (more on this later).

The other issues are subtle, and something of a matter of personal taste: The 1' drawbar doesn't cut out when the percussion is kicked in, and the vibrato chorus doesn't have the upper shimmer that a real scanner vibrato circuit provides. All small stuff, and all (except the vibrato) things that organists have complained about and modified on Hammonds for years.

The V3 also produces Vox Continental and Farfisa Compact tones, in addition to tibia voices. The basic sound is authentic, but here the foldback is a drawback rather than a benefit. Neither of these organs had foldback, so the sounds are very authentic in the lower octaves, but less so at the higher notes. You can mask it on the Vox, but if you really want a Farfisa sound, use another keyboard to get the tone, then add in a little generator leakage on the V3 -- Farfisas bled over onto other notes, too.

The Rotating Speaker Simulator

The V3 contains the full circuitry of Voce's popular Spin rotating speaker effect. Like the V-3, the Spin circuitry has a number of adjustable parameters to allow the user to customize the "Leslie" for personal tastes. I found the factory settings to be a little electronic sounding, but I was able to easily modify that. Does the Spin sound like a Leslie? Well, you won't be fooled in a blindfolded test, even of the Leslie is placed in another room and pumped into a PA system. While I found the cabinet simulation to be pretty good, I was not able to adjust the sound to accurately simulate both Chorale and Tremolo speeds at the same time. Usually the issue was the amount of pitch effect (FM) used for the upper horn: too little, and the Tremolo speed lost its punch; too much and the Chorale speed started to sound like a phase shifter. If I didn't have another alternative (I do), would I stick with the Spin? Probably, but it's not as realistic as I thought it would be.

Leslie Adaptation

The V3 also provides an interface to drive a Leslie through its MIDI controls. The user's guide shows a 6-pin Amphenol-style jack on the back of the unit set up to drive a 122/142 pinout; my version provides a 6-pin DIN jack in its place, requiring an optional Leslie kit. Voce makes kits for many of the popular Leslie wiring styles. At first I felt cheated, but I understand that the original Leslie drive circuit was too low output to fully drive a 122's amplifier, and that most players opted to add an external voltage boost transformer, so it's a wash module-wise, and the DIN jack is more durable than its Amphenol counterpart.

Cost and Portability

Like most Hammond clones, the V3's advantages include portability and lack of maintenance. Since the final system is modular, my gear is more portable than any Hammond, including chop jobs. On the other hand, it's difficult to duplicate the physically dominant feeling that a 400 pound musical instrument provides.

When considering the cost of the V3, you need to factor in the entire MIDI system: MIDI keyboard, pedals (volume, bass, and Leslie), MIDI processors (merger, drawbar module), and amplification system. If you already own a MIDI keyboard controller and outboard gear for your piano, synth, etc. the V3 may be extremely attractive. If you need to buy the whole setup from scratch, you should compare the V3/amp/speaker combo to a new or used Hammond and Leslie, put a figure of merit on the portability, then decide what's best for your situation. The unit retails for US $1395, plus $349 for the drawbar module. Street prices vary quite a bit; prices of US $925 and $250, respectively seem about right.

Support

If you buy a piece of musical gear and it has problems, many companies will leave you out in the cold -- especially the keyboard manufacturing giants. Good companies will stand behind their products and arrange for your gear to be repaired or updated. Then there's Voce ...

Voce's technical support is way beyond anything I've ever experienced in an electronics company. In addition to solving problems, founder Dave Amels is very friendly and open in discussing his product's merits and limitations. He has developed numerous sound modifications over the lifetime of the product, which he is happy to perform on your V3. Don't like the output level? Dave can fix that. Think the percussion is a little weak? That can be fixed, too. Want to eliminate the background noise, and you're willing to live with removing functionality to solve the problem? Even that's not beyond the realm of possibility. If you have access to quality electrical repair talent nearby, he might even give you the information to make some of the easier modifications locally, saving the hassle of shipping it to the factory!

I'm used to calling music instrument companies to discuss weak points and getting stone silence or, "Why would you want to do that?" answers, as well as a strong caution about voiding the warranty. Dave's attitude was refreshing, to say the least. I had my V3 updated to boost the percussion, so that the drawbar/percussion balance at "8" settings returned to a level I was familiar with. I highly recommend this modification. I have heard that Voce updated several users' modules to eliminate other problems in early versions of the V3.

Conclusion

The V3 is a superb product for those players who want a high quality Hammond sound in a very portable package. As with any product, the V3 has its good and bad points, but the unit offers excellent organ tones at a reasonable price, and it weighs a tiny fraction of a console Hammond. If you're in the market for a tone wheel organ, you should check out the V3.

Copyright (c) 1996 by Bruce A. Wahler. Reprinting of this document for non-commercial purposes is freely allowed. Use at your own risk.

No laboratory animals were used during the evaluation of this product!

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