RECORDING the Hammond Organ

North Suburban HAMMOND ORGAN Society

Sometimes it is interesting to begin a tech article with a story, especially a true one. I started my first attempt at recording a Hammond organ around age 14. I had already learned to play a little, and a friend had given my mother a used tape deck, typical of the late 1950s, an inexpensive mono machine that came with a cheap crystal microphone.

I couldn’t wait to try this out and so I brought the machine to my church at the first opportunity. We did not have an instrument so I had to do all my practicing either in the chapel of my church, in which there was an old Hammond console, or else at various music dealers’ showrooms.

I placed the machine close to the Hammond console, set the microphone on a handy chair and proceeded to record a few songs that I had memorized from listening to some Ken Griffin records. I couldn’t wait to get back home so I could plug in an external speaker and listen to what I had done; but when I got home, the results were pretty terrible. The playing was amateurish which was to be expected seeing as how I had only started learning. I could accept that. But the sound quality was very poor. There was not much bass, and what there was sounded very uneven. Many notes of the Hammond were louder than others, and on the higher notes, if I had the vibrato off, there was a very annoying rapid trilling vibration. Obviously, I was doing something wrong, but I had no idea what it might be.

We’ll make a long story a lot shorter by simply stating that a family friend who took an interest in my musical endeavors mentioned a friend of his whose name I only knew as “Ollie.” Ollie was said to know a lot about recording, and this friend suggested that I should meet up with Ollie and perhaps he could help me get better results.

On the appointed day, we went to Ollie’s home. We had dinner there, socialized a little with his wife and family, and then Ollie asked a few questions, such as what instrument was I recording, what was I using for recording equipment and what was I hoping to accomplish. Then Ollie led us downstairs to the basement of his home where, once we went through a double door, I found myself in the control room of a professional recording studio. Ollie’s hobby, which he had evidently turned into a fairly lucrative business, was to make promotional and demo recordings for various musical groups and musicians who were performing in Boston.

As I looked around, I was amazed at the equipment that he had. One of the most impressive things was a huge tape recorder that used enormous reels of recording tape that was two inches wide. There were also several other tape decks that used normal quarter-inch tape such as I used, but they were much nicer machines than what I had and also had many more controls. There were also several very impressive-looking speaker cabinets and all kinds of other electronic equipment which I did not recognize. I soon learned that Ollie had spent over $50,000 on his setup, and that was in 1960s dollars. Ollie then led me through another double door to the main music room of his recording studio where he had a Hammond organ with both a Leslie speaker and a Hammond tone cabinet, a set of drums, some guitars, and numerous band instruments. There were also, I remember, lots of microphones, but they did not look anything like the microphone that I was using.

“Play the Hammond for me,” Ollie said, and as I did, he went back to the control room to record it. After two songs, I stopped. “OK, Buddy, let’s listen to what you played,” he said as he motioned me back to the control room. I sat in a special chair surrounded by some incredible speakers, and what I heard was fantastic. To use today’s vernacular, I was completely blown away by the quality of the recorded sound. It was even better than that of the various Ken Griffin and other organ recordings that I listened to. It soon became evident that it was physically impossible, with the equipment that I was using, for me to get the sound quality that he obtained. When it came to recording, I was using a tricycle; Ollie was using a Lamborghini.

There was no possible way that my parents could afford to buy any similar equipment to what Ollie was using, and I more or less put any efforts to record aside for a while although I did try one thing that he suggested, and that was to stop using a microphone and record directly from the Hammond console output. As he said, the Hammond was an electronic organ and its output signal was electrical, so it could be directly recorded without using a microphone. My cheap tape recorder did have a line input jack, but until then, I didn’t know what that was for.

This did significantly improve the quality, but there was no reverb at all. The Hammond in my church chapel was in a big, reverberant room. There was no need for any artificial reverb there. But of course when you record directly from the console output, there is no possibility of getting any room ambience in the recording. So I called Ollie for advice. Once again, he began with a question. “How many tape heads does your machine have?”

“Two,” I said. “One record/play, and one erase head.”

Ollie politely informed me that such a machine was junk with regard to what I was trying to do and said that I needed to get a three-head tape deck that was capable of playing back the just-recorded signal on the tape even while it was actually recording. He also said that I needed a machine with the capability of adjusting the bias frequency and level; this to get rid of the annoying rapid trilling that appeared on high notes when the Hammond vibrato was off.

I started to look for such a machine, but I found that in 1960s money, I would need to spend at least $500.00 and once again, there was no way that either I or my parents could spend that much money on a tape recorder.

About a year later, however, a friend of my father’s, who bought and sold used electronic equipment said that he had just acquired a used commercial Ampex tape deck and told my father, “Your son can have this if he wants it.” I could not believe my good fortune when my father informed me of this incredible find. This Ampex machine was just the deck and the electronics. It had no speakers, and no case either. It was intended to be installed in an equipment rack in a studio setting such as that which Ollie had. It looked like hell, but it worked flawlessly. Not only that, but following Ollie’s advice, I learned how to add a small percentage of the signal from the playback head back into the input and thus obtained a very nice, subtle tape echo effect which made my recordings infinitely better. Also on this machine I could adjust the bias to get nice results and completely eliminate the annoying trilling on high notes, which Ollie had explained to me was the result of the bias frequency on the cheap machine forming “beats” against the higher frequency tones. [Of course, in the very beginning, I used way too much echo until a professional musician we knew corrected me.] Finally, I had hope for making better recordings. And, although I never again saw or talked to Ollie, nor did I ever learn his last name, I will be forever grateful for his advice and for his introducing me to the art of successfully recording music, especially that of the Hammond organ.

At this point, you might ask, “why can’t I just set up my camcorder, or even a cassette recorder and record that way?” And the answer of course is that you can do this, and you’ll get passable results. But if you really want to do this right, it is more involved, and the purpose of this article is to show you what means and equipment will get you really good, professional sounding results. In this article, we make no assumptions about what kind of recording equipment, if any, that you have access to. We will just inform you of the steps needed to make really first class recordings of the Hammond organ, or other instruments including pipe organs and symphony orchestras as well if you are serious about “doing this right.”

Now you may also ask yourself, “self, why do I need to resort to such elaborate means?” And the truth is, you don’t! But if you want to secure the best possible results, this is how to do it.

One of the reasons why we want to record with professional standards and equipment is that when we attend a live concert, we can see what is going on. The visual cues which our seeing what is happening exert a profound influence on the way our brain interprets what we hear. But if you listen to a recording away from the original site where the music was played, you will not have any of these visual cues. Therefore, your ears hear much more accurately the sound on the recording. In a real room, a phenomenon known as standing waves will make some notes or pitches appear louder than others, and this effect is more prominent on low frequencies. When you listen to a recording in which nothing is done about this, the pedal bass can seem very uneven. Sometimes, which is especially true when recording an older electronic instrument, you can get random pops and crackles if the capacitors in the instrument are old, and there’s always the possibility of getting a little 60 cycle AC power humming as well. (And remember, many Hammonds are well over fifty years old) Somehow, at a live performance, these effects are not so noticeable, but they can be very noticeable on a poor quality recording.

As you will see from this article, it is possible to remove extraneous noises from a recording. You can reduce 60 Hz power humming to the point that it is not noticeable. And there are many other aspects to this as well. In this article, we’ll look at, via several examples, how to record successfully an X66 with a Leslie, a traditional Hammond with either a Leslie or a Hammond speaker cabinet, how to record a small band, and also look at several other recording scenarios with the idea in mind that the finished recording should, as long as it is played back on reasonably good equipment, give the impression of being right there and hearing it live. We’ll look at ways to improve the sound of earlier instruments and how to take an instrument that was recorded in a small room and make it sound as though it was being played in a concert hall. It is not the purpose here to sell commercial audio equipment, and as previously stated, we make no assumptions on what you have access to regarding recording equipment. If you are not selling recordings and are a non-critical listener, you can certainly obtain passable results if you just bring a camcorder, a cassette player, or even a cell phone to a live concert and turn it on.

But if you are planning to get the best possible results, then this article should be a great starting place. We will begin with a list of basic rules which, if followed as well as possible, will guarantee a really good-sounding recording.

  1. Use the best microphones that you can get. Generally these will be cardioid-pattern condenser mics, see our microphone article.
  2. If you are recording an electronic instrument and can directly access its audio output, do this instead of using a microphone.
  3. Record on a multi-track recorder, dedicating single tracks to each channel of a stereo signal and also to each other instrument, singer, etc.
  4. Eliminate room ambience as much as possible; add this after the fact either in the multi-track recorder, or when making the final mixdown recording that others will get to hear.
  5. When making the final mixdown, listen to the multi-tracker’s output on the best possible speaker system.
  6. Use a digital sound editing program in a computer for editing the multi-tracker’s output.
  7. Along with the above is this: always record digitally rather than using tape. Tape has its advocates, but digital sound is generally better, and editing digitally recorded material is infinitely easier than editing tape.
  8. Remember this important differentiation: at a concert, the artist’s live performance is the final product. In a recording session, the mixdown is the final product.

And finally, the three essential pieces of equipment that we need to do this right are these: first, a multi-track recorder. This could be either tape, or more likely a digital audio recorder. In either case, this machine is capable of recording simultaneously on a number of different tracks. Second, if you are recording a Leslie speaker, or any non-electronic instruments, you need really first class microphones; and finally, you need a computer with both a high quality sound card and also a good sound editing program installed.

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