One of the most challenging and unique contemporary instruments that you’ll encounter working in professional studios is the Hammond B3 Organ and Lesie Cabinet combination. A prolific, immediately recognizable sound that is very difficult to reproduce without the real deal, the warm tone bars of the Hammond combine with the tube saturation and modulation effects of the Leslie speaker to create pulsating beds of sound with surprising dynamic and frequency range.
The Range of Sounds from a B3
Depending on how the organist chooses to configure the instrument, a B3 can produce intense bass pedal tones with aggressive, distorted high mids or can be very mellow and subtle. Either way, B3s should be expected to take up considerable space in a mix. They’re often used to ‘fill out’ a song by providing a bed on which other instruments can ride. And, of course, when an organist crawls out of the shadows and lets a solo rip, it immediately captures the listener’s attention and pulls the song to a new place in the process.
Choosing Your Approach
Not only are Hammond B3s versatile in sound, they’re also controversial in techniques. Some engineers focus on capturing the spinning of the rotors in the Leslie design to produce a wide, larger-than-life stereo image. The sound rotates between the left and right speakers as the organist changes the speed of the modulation. Because one could never actually place one’s ears hard left and hard right relative to the cabinet, other engineers instead prefer to create a natural sound more akin to standing in the same room as a Lesie, allowing the modulation of the horns to produce natural volume swells as they pan 360 degrees around the room like a lighthouse. Which approach you choose depends on the format and mood of the music. A sparse song could benefit from the depth and width of stereo miking. On the other hand, a dense composition may call for a more focused sound that is carefully positioned at a specific location in the frequency and stereo spectrum.
There are lots of options for miking a Leslie cabinet and they’ll all produce different kinds of sounds. Because organs can produce very diverse tones, you’ll want to choose mics that flatter the tone that the musician has chosen.
A Leslie cabinet has two main sections: dual spinning horns that produce the bulk of the mids and highs, and a bass speaker that eminates low frequences through a (typical independently) spinning rotor. You’ll need to divvy up the frequency spectrum produced by these two components when you decide what mics you are to use. Mics that work well for guitars will probably also work well for the horns since they have similar types of harmonic tube distortion and bite. The choice for the bass speaker depends on whether you want a loose or tight sound. Keep in mind whether the organist is playing the roll of the bassist with the bass pedals or whether he or she is playing the role of a sustained pad in the song. Obviously you will want to capture a robost low-end if the organ is the primary bass instrument whereas in an accompanying role it makes sense to have a less bombastic booty.
As with guitars, dynamic mics will produce a gutsy, “solid” sound whereas condensors will produce a more “hi-fi” sound with greater sensitivity and frequency response. Be careful with condensors calibrated primarily for vocals as they tend to have high-mid boosts that can be harsh when used on Leslies. Also be prepared for some potential wind noise from the rotors. Mics with wind screens such as the Shure SM58 may help aleviate such noise.
- Popular dynamic mic choices for the horns include:
- Sennheizer 421
- Shure SM57
- Shure SM58
- ElectroVoice N/D478
- ElectroVoice RE20
- And popular condensors for the horns are:
- Neumann U87
- AKG 414 series
- AKG 451
- Shure KSM32
- Any number of flat response, small-diaphragm condensors such as:
- DPA 4011
- Neumann KLM84
- Schoeps Cardiods
- For the bass speaker we’ve got quite a few options as long as they have solid bass response. Many popular choices mirror favorites for kick drum:
- AKG 414 series
- ElectroVoice RE20
- Shure Beta 52
- ElectroVoice N-D868
- AKG D-112
- ElectroVoice RE27
And last but not least, don’t forget DI as an option! Mixing in a DI signal can provide clarity and focus otherwise difficult to achieve with microphones alone.
Since Leslies have mechanical parts, they can produce wind, motor, and pulley noise as they spin. Experiment to find the best placement that mitigates the effect of these sounds while retaining the tonal quality of the instrument. A good starting spot is 45 degrees off the back of the cabinet. A rotor cloth placed on the lower rotor can also aleviate some of the wind noise.
For the bass speaker, experiment pushing in and pulling back the mic from the rotor to get more or less room noise and to vary the amount of sub produced. A good starting point is near the middle of the rotor’s vertical axis. Moving the mic closer to the floor will increase the low-end’s modulation whereas pulling it away from the floor will decrease the modulation, producing a more consistent tone with less throb. Remember that cardiod mics will have a strong proximity effect the closer you put the mic to the sound source. Once you get your horn mics set, use the bass mic placement as an opportunity to balance the frequencies like an EQ so as to avoid having to ‘fix it in the mix’. Do keep in mind that phase will be affected by these adjustments. Always start by keeping the top and bottom mics directly vertically in line with each other.
If you do choose a stereo approach, don’t just pan the sound hard left and right and forget it. Consider pulling the sound in a bit to allow for ambiance to breathe or to widen the stereo image with automation to evoke a swell in space at just the right time in the song.
The amp in a traditional Leslie setup will provide a lot of natural compression to the sound of a B3. Moderate compression with a soft knee can fatten the sound nicely, but don’t go overboard. Much of the beauty of the instrument is in the depth of the textures it can produce and compression will flatten and harden the sound when overdone.
Again, try your best to get the sound you want in the tracking stage with mic choices and positioning as EQ in the mixing stage can quickly make the organ sound unnatural. Use a subtle EQ in medium-wide bands primarily as a way to make room for other instruments competing for similar areas in the frequency spectrum. One exception to this is if you need to add low end to an organ part playing bass lines. A targetted, fat EQ such as a Neve or API can thicken and round out such a sound in very pleasant ways.
Have fun recording organs! They can be a lot of fun.