The Hammond Organ and Additive Synthesis
On Wednesday 18th November I took part in YSWN’sworkshop on the Hammond Organ and Additive Synthesis. A small group of us, having successfully battled public transport, the M62 and the elements, were warmly welcomed at Valley Wood Studio by Katherine. Here, residing in the basement is a vintage Hammond M100 organ and its accompanying Leslie 145 speaker, both much loved by our tutor for the afternoon, Barkley.
My interest in attending this workshop came from having recently started a music degree and choosing a first year module in computer composition. I’ve not got a music technology background so the opportunity to spend a couple of hours understanding additive synthesis from first principles, in a small group, with a friendly expert to hand sounded too good to miss.
It turns out you don’t need a computer and a space-age looking user–interface to do additive synthesis – Mr Hammond did it in 1935 with cogs, magnets, wires, precision engineering and mains electricity, and took his inspiration from an even earlier, much more unwieldyorgan-like machine invented in the 1890s called the Teleharmonium (think steam punk and you get the picture).
Unfortunately there are no Teleharmoniums still in existent but the principle behind both instruments is the same – they make sound ‘synthetically’ by generating electrical currents that are then converted, via amplifiers and speakers, into sound in the form of simple sine waves. Depending on what type of sound you’d like, you can combine several sine waves together in whatever proportion you like (hence the term additive synthesis) to get a specific timbre.
So far so good? At this point in the afternoon I had to take a moment to think how this compares with what is going on in my computer when I’m using a Logic synth. The difference is Teleharmoniums and Hammond Organs generate sine waves using moving parts – they are electromechanical devices, whereas my computer synth makes a sine wave using an electrical oscillator – probably only a few millimeters big. But beyond that the principle of additive synthesis is the same.
Back to the workshop…and going into a bit more detail,we learnt that a Hammond organ makes its sine waves using a tone generator. When you switch the organ on and it whirrs and crackles into life, inside a long axle with lots of different sized cogs – called tone wheels –starts spinning round (and keeps on spinning until you turn the organ off). When the teeth of any of these cogs are allowed to make a connection with a metal plate an electro-magnetic current is generated. The frequency at which the cogs on any given wheel touch the plate corresponds to a particular frequency of sine wave. So with a spinning axle crammed with enough wheels at enough sizes you can generate a sine wave corresponding to every fundamental tone for several octaves of the equal tempermant scale, along with the first few upper harmonics for that tone.
To make the electrical connection happen and the sine wave sound on a Hammond – i.e. to get the cogs to touch the plate – you press down the correct key on the keyboard for the note you are after – e.g. Middle C, and pull out one or more of a set of drawbars located above the keyboard. If you just want to hear the fundamental – i.e. the single sine wave vibrating at 261.60Hz (the frequency of middle C) you only pull out the first drawbar, and the tone wheel corresponding to that frequency connects. By pulling out more drawbars you allow other tone wheels corresponding to the upper harmonic of middle C to connect too – resulting in several sine waves being sounded together.
I’ve not mentioned the special relationship the Hammond Organ has with the Leslie speaker, suffice to say Mr Leslie designed and built the speaker after getting his newly purchased Hammond home and being dismayed at the sound quality compared with the showroom. Hammond wasn’t too pleased about Mr Leslie’s intervention but the speaker caught on with the buying public and has been used in combination with the early Hammond organs ever since.
Turn it on and a lovely black horn shaped speaker starts revolving in its top portion whilst in the lower half of the cabinet a bass speaker starts to billow, like it’s slowly breathing.
I know all this equipment is old and big and heavy and goes wrong, and needs frequent oiling, but there is something strangely satisfying about physically pressing down a key, or flicking a switch, or turning a real (as opposed to virtual) knob and knowing you have initiated an actual mechanical process that is going to result in something quite tangible happening.
Thanks to Barkley and Katherine for such an informative and friendly event!
Additional information about drawbars and harmonics, kindly provided by Valley Wood Studio
On the big consoles – A,B and C series – its 9 drawbars.
The M here has 9 for the upper register keys and 8 for the lower. Drawbar 8 on the lower register is actually two harmonics combined. Has a little red dot.
Any how this is the regular system:
Drawbar One (brown) is the Sub Fundamental
Drawbar Two (brown) is the Sub 3rd Harmonic
Drawbar Three (white) is the Fundamental
Drawbar Four (white) is the 2nd Harmonic
Drawbar Five (black) is the 3rd Harmonic
Drawbar Six (white) is the 4th Harmonic
Drawbar Seven (black) is the 5th Harmonic
Drawbar Eight (bllack) is the 6th Harmonic
Drawbat Nine (white) is the 8th Harmonic
So brown drawbars are the subs or bass harmonics, White drawbars are the even harmonics and thus just octaves above the first white fundamental, and black the odd harmonics. The first white drawbar pulled out will equate to the actual tone in relation to key number.