Review: Version 2 ROM upgrade for the Hammond-Suzuki XB-2

by Mark Longo

Hammond-Suzuki has released an ROM for the XB-2 which upgrades the old OS from version 1.x to version 2. Following is a review of the upgrade with before/after type comparisons describing the changes the new ROM brings to the XB-2. After the Review is a list of features found in the version 2 ROM.

Review

I installed the ROM upgrade 2 and was pleasantly surprised to find some unexpected benefits. It turns out that in addition to significantly extending the XB-2's functionality (ex: extended MIDI, better split options, # of presets, etc), V2 actually improves the sound in some important ways, which I didn't expect. The sound engine itself is not modified by the OS upgrade, but the new OS takes advantage of the sound engine's software controlability in some important new ways, resulting in a fatter, more B-3 like sound. It's amazing how much of the available software control WASN'T used in v1.x of the OS.

There are lots of new features extending the XB-2's programmability (a list follows this review), but to my ear, the most important are:

percussion level programmable to 16 levels
key tracking for percussion level taper as pitch rises
percussion level can be controlled by key velocity
key click level programmable to four levels
vibrato/chorus rate programmable to 5 levels
1' drawbar can be disabled by percussion tabs

I feel that the biggest deal here is the enhancements to percussion. The percussion in the old XB-2 was very shrill in the upper octaves, especially in the last octave. This made the XB-2 sound piercing and a bit nasal in the top octave. In an attempt to compensate for that I always used the percussion with the 'Soft' setting enabled, trading some of the classic Hammond attack transients for tone and high end playability. A problem with that is that 'Soft' percussion robs registrations like '888000000' of their punch, leaving you with a choice of shrill highs or muddy lows.

This problem is solved with V2. Selecting percussion 'key tracking' reduces the percussion level in the high end, making it possible to use louder percussion settings without inducing harshness in the high end. Further, since percussion can be programmed to any of 16 levels (plus Soft on/off), it is possible to set the percussion to satisfy any taste. This has the effect of making the XB-2 a fatter, more playable and versatile organ with improved tone and attack across all registers, making it tonally much more similar to a B-3.

Previously, key click level could be set to off, soft, and normal. The normal setting was the loudest available, yet still softer than some examples of real B3 key click I've heard. V2 adds a 'MAX keyclick' setting, which closes the gap. Oddly enough, MAX Keyclick seems to give the attack transient a noticeably beefier low end, so using 3rd Percussion at level 16 with MAX Keyclick will give you all the attack snap you'll ever want (and probably a lot more than you'd want). You might not use MAX Keyclick in all presets, but it's mighty nice to have this option.

The velocity control of percussion level is subtle, but introduces some interesting possibilities for expressive playing, especially when used in ballads or slow blues. When using velocity triggering for percussion I find that the percussion is pretty soft unless you really lean on the velocity. This can be compensated for by programming presets with velocity triggering to have slightly higher percussion levels. Since this feature isn't found on the B-3, purists probably might not use it and I myself find it of limited value, but some folks might consider it to be an important feature.

The percussion on a B-3 is single triggered, meaning that you only hear the percussion on the first note played after an all-notes-off state. This requires B-3 players to play non-legato if they want percussion to trigger on each note played. When playing fast licks, this can be a challenge. The XB-2 also plays this way, but in V2 you also have the option of having percussion trigger on ALL key strikes, not just the non-legato ones. So if your non-legato technique sucks, V2 gives you the option of cheating by triggering percussion on all key strikes, rather than just the non-legato ones.

Presets can be programmed so that the 1' Drawbar will be disabled when percussion is turned on, like a B-3.

Conclusion

In my opinion, the version 2 software provides major improvements to the sound, playability, and versatility of the XB-2. I consider the upgrade to be worth it's cost and much more. Any XB-2 player who is at all serious about getting a better traditional Hammond sound should consider this upgrade a must-have.

Version Checking

If an XB-2 has had version 2 installed, when you turn on the power the version number is displayed in the XB-2 LCD display. If you do not see the version number you are running an earlier version.

Doing The Upgrade

The upgrade includes two new ROM chips, a new and improved owners manual, and instructions on how to do the upgrade.

The XB-2 ROM upgrade is easily installed. The installation requires that you take the top of your XB-2, unplug two ROM chips from the sockets, and plug the two new ROM chips into the now empty sockets. You need to be careful that you don't bend the ROM chip legs when unplugging the old chips and plugging in the new one's or otherwise damage the chips, but anyone of even moderate mechanical skill should be able to manage this.

Various dealers are charging various prices for the upgrade hardware and installation labor. Some of the prices I've heard are unfairly high, especially outside the US, so beware. If you can install the upgrade yourself you can get it via mail order for $149 US plus the return of your old ROM chips. Ask on the Hammond mailing list as to where it's currently available via mail.

Version 2 Feature List

Following is a list of features in the version 2 upgrade with a note as to whether this is an enhancement over previous versions or a new feature. Thanks to John Pittas for getting this list together.

PRESETS BANKS -- New Feature

4 banks per preset for a total of 32 presets

VIBRATO - SPEED -- Enhancement

5 choices: slow, mid, normal, midfast & fast

VIBRATO - UPPER & LOWER MANUAL& LOWER MANUAL -- Enhancement

Independent ON/OFF for upper and lower manuals in split mode

TUNE - UPPER & LOWER MANUAL -- New Feature

+/- 12 half steps, bender length independently selectable

PERCUSSION - TOUCH -- Enhancement

Touch & velocity independently selectable

PERCUSSION - VOLUME -- New Feature

16 volume levels for percussion

PERCUSSION - DRAWBAR CANCEL -- New Feature

        8th harmonic drawbar silenced when percussion is active.  
        Selectable ON or OFF.

PERCUSSION - KEY TRACKING -- New Feature

        Volume of percussion tapers off slightly at top end of keyboard.
        Selectable ON or OFF.

FOOT SWITCH FUNCTIONS -- Enhancement

        Total of 9 functions: Leslie S/F, UM SUS, LM SUS, preset forward,
        MIDI start/stop, UM damper, LM damper, UL damper.

ATTACK MENU - (drawbar attack, keyclick) -- Enhancement

        Menu has been moved from the EFFECT Menu to the Drawbar Menu.  
        5 choices: slow attack, no click, soft, normal, max.

DRAWBAR - FOLDBACK -- Enhancement

Foldback points can be set by direct key input or scrolling.

DRAWBAR - VOLUME & FILTER -- New Feature

        Drawbar volume changes can be sent to a connected sequencer 
        or other MIDI device via MIDI OUT.

LESLIE SPEED -- New Feature

        The slow & fast speed, rise and fall times of the internal 
        leslie effect can be adjusted.

MIDI - VELOCITY -- Enhancement

Increased to a total of 6 velocity curves

MIDI - IN SPLIT GATE -- New Feature

Incoming MIDI data can be set to not recognize keyboard split.

MIDI - CHANNEL ASSIGNMENTS -- New Feature

        Channel assignments from 1-16 for upper and lower manuals 
        and MIDI zones 1 & 2.  Also selectable ON & OFF for each for 
        UM, LM & zones.

MIDI - KEYMAPPING -- Enhancement

        High & low limits for upper and lower manual (split) and 
        MIDI zones 1 & 2.  Key assignment can be done by direct key 
        input and scrolling.

MIDI - OCTAVE SELECTION -- New Feature

+/- 4 octaves from MIDI zones 1 & 2.

MIDI PROG NO. - VARIATION NUMBER -- New Feature

        Select the MIDI variation number for each zone.  Allows 
        XB-2 to work with Hammond GM-1000 sound module.

MIDI-MAX AND MIN VOLUME -- New Feature

Set the volume level for each MIDI zone.

MIDI - CONTROL NUMBERS -- Enhancement

        Assignable control numbers for: foot switch, mod wheel, 
        expression pedal and leslie fast touch tab.

MIDI-DRAWBAR & SWITCH -- New Feature

        Sends the current Cancel Mode setting to a sequencer in 
        preparation for playing back a sequence.

DATA DUMP -- Enhancement

        Total of 5 memory dump options for saving data 
        ALL OUT, GLOBAL, CANCEL, PRESET and PATCH.

FOOT SWITCH - POLARITY -- Enhancement

        "Plus" or "Minus" polarity and alternate/momentary 
        mode selection.

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