[ Edit added in January, 2020: If you are reading this to understand how the different organ clones compare, make sure you check out my more recent blog post about a disappointing problem with my Viscount Legend Live. ]

I play Hammond console organs, the kind whose best known exemplar is the famous B-3. There are lots of different console models that are electrically and sonically identical to the B-3, but in addition to their functional similarities, they have another important thing in common when it comes to gigging with them: They are BIG and HEAVY!

So that’s why, when I play at venues that don’t have resident Hammond organs, I usually take a digital imitation that fits in the back of my Prius and weighs less than a tenth of a Hammond console. Hammond players are very lucky that convincing digital simulations of Hammond console organs are easier to pull off than digital simulations of pianos, but it’s still a difficult thing. The industry has produced many generations of these clones starting in about 1980 or so. I started trying to get serious about organ in roughly 2008 or 2009, and as soon as I was ready to perform on organ in public I got a Nord C1. I was happy with it for a long time — about five or six years. Its user interface has a big limitation, though: The role of the Hammond drawbars that we use to change the sound of the instrument while we play is filled by a set of buttons and LEDs. The system is workable, but I didn’t love that aspect of it when it was my main axe. In 2014 or so (long enough for another generation or two of clones to come out) I bought a newer model, the Nord C2D, which has physical drawbars. The C2D also includes some changes in the sound engine and more configurability of the sound. Although the C2D sounds better than the C1 in some important ways, after another five years or so — enough time for yet another generation or two of industry-wide improvements to clones, my ear was weary of some of the C2D’s quirks that I couldn’t configure away.

Compared to the past, there are tons of creditable clones on the scene now. Clavia, maker of Nord keyboards including the C2D, hasn’t brought out a newer two-manual organ, but here are just a few of the latest generation that have appeared since the C2D was introduced in 2012:

Unfortunately the two-manual organ clone market is enough of a niche that I hadn’t gotten to play any of those competing models except the Mojo, and the Mojo didn’t make a strong enough impression on me to make me consider switching. So for guidance I turned to — you guessed it! — the internet. The XK-5 Pro System gets a lot of praise from players I respect, but its price is astronomical. The Legend series and the Mag custom organs get similar praise and are more affordable. But I don’t think there’s a showroom on earth where you can go and play a Legend and a Mag organ side by side. I’ve never even seen a Mag organ in real life; they are not common in the U.S.

My friend and fellow bay-area jazz organist Brian Ho got a Legend Live some time back and has been raving about it ever since. His prior gigging axe was the Mojo that I got to play a few years ago, and he’s repeatedly said he likes the Viscount way better. It took a while, but he and I finally managed to align the stars to do a side-by-side comparison between his Legend Live and my C2D in his garage. It was great fun, but to my surprise I didn’t come away with as clear a sonic preference as I’d hoped.

But it was clear the Viscount is way more configurable than the Nord, and the configurability is easier to access while playing because where the Nord has obscure menus and buttons, the Viscount has simple knobs for lots of things (percussion volume, keyclick volume, crosstalk level, etc.). I decided to take the plunge and buy a Legend Live to try gigging with it. I knew I could keep whichever of the two I preferred and sell the other one. No comparison in a quiet room playing solo will tell you what a gig with a group will tell you about an instrument; you just have to try it in real life, and nothing is more real than the bandstand.

Now I’ve done a blues / rock gig with a friend’s Viscount and a jazz gig with my own, and its sonic superiority over the C2D is more stark now to my ear than it was in Brian’s quiet garage. I’ll be selling my C2D soon, and I hasten to remind the reader that I still think it’s a fine instrument. But the Legend Live is better for me.

Here are two fragments of the same tune (Bobby Timmons’s “Dat Dere”) played (on different nights) by my trio in the same room with the same drummer, through the same Leslie speaker, with the same drawbar settings, recorded with the same microphones and recorder in almost the same position. The only differences between the two setups were the guitarist and the amount of audience noise.

The C2D:

The Legend Live:

Do you prefer the sound of one or the other? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know. The recordings reveal that I still need to make a couple of tweaks to the setup on my Legend Live; for example, I’d like to lower the keyclick volume and the percussion volume a hair. But those are easy changes. I also want to make some adjustments to the Chorus / Vibrato character, and that’s pretty easy with Viscount’s editor that runs on computer connected to the keyboard over USB. The Chorus / Vibrato on the Nord can’t be configured at all if I remember right.