KEYS WEEK 2023: The organ might well be the most underrated of keyboards, at least in terms of the recognition it deserves for its impact in the music world. The sound of the organ has been responsible for some iconic moments in music history with artists like Bob Dylan, The Doors, Procal Harem, Booker T and The M.G.s, Emerson Lake and Palmer and Deep Purple all creating milestone rock and pop tunes in which the organ was used to great effect.
And of course the instrument's impact on both gospel and jazz music is just as dramatic, while even contemporary genres like house music have widely used the organ sound, bringing it right up to date. One of the most popular sounds in music? We'd certainly say so…
And while an organ can be cheaper and more practical than a grand piano to own – unless you opt for the pipe version, obviously – they aren't always the number one keyboard choice. That's because larger organs, especially dual-keyboard style Hammonds, can be cumbersome, and top-end electronic emulations from the likes of Clavia can be pricey.
Many cheaper and more practical electronic keyboards make a good stab at creating an organ sound – check out our guide to the best electronic keyboards here – but they tend to be jacks of all trades sounds wise, cramming in lots of quantity in terms of presets, but not perhaps the organ quality you require.
The software instrument route into organ playing and recording might well be a better bet, especially if you are novice organist or lack the funds to splash out on the real deal. Many of these instruments meticulously sample or model real – and expensive – organ instruments, so deliver a high quality sound for a fraction of the cost of the real instrument. And as they sit on your hard drive, they don't take up valuable space in your studio or home.
Here we round up five of the best software organ instruments to deliver the highest possible sound quality for the lowest of outlays.
IK Multimedia Hammond B-3X
IK's Hammond B-3X was developed over several years, in collaboration with Hammond USA and Suzuki Music Corp of Japan, which owns the Hammond brand.
Based on various different models of B3 from different eras – you can choose tonewheel sets from a 1955 or 1956 B3, or from a 1960 or 1971 model of the later A-100 – the tiniest detail of every component in each instrument has been scrutinised to produce as accurate a sound as possible.
If you know your way around a real organ, you’ll find everything you need faithfully reproduced here: from the full range of drawbars for both manuals to peripheral controls such as Percussion, Chorus and Vibrato.
The plugin combines the warmth of a real-world B3 and Leslie setup with enough digital sheen to enable it to cut through a modern production. IK have faithfully replicated every design flaw that gave the original B3 so much of its character, but they have also made these features user-adjustable so you can tailor the sound to your taste.
Whatever your bag, from gospel to jazz, hard rock or even EDM, with its full complement of tweakable options and effects, the B-3X might well be the closest plugin, compared to the real thing, that we’ve ever heard.
Better still, IK B-3X is now half the price it was on release, so just €149.99 gets you a great sounding instrument.
Cinesamples O: Forbes Pipe Organ
This software library is simply called ‘O’ and upon opening the instrument for the first time, the first chord you play might yield more of a ‘woah’. This Pipe Organ instrument sounds utterly amazing and truly stunning.
Through its endeavours to capture the most perfect organ for 'O', Cinesamples travelled to the Harold Miossi Hall, in San Luis Obispo, California. The organ there was installed by volunteers back in 2006, with 2,767 handmade organ pipes, ranging from comparatively small in size, to a whopping 32’!
Apart from the incredibly detailed realism, O is equipped with plenty of extras, that can transport it out of its church-like domain. With basic envelope control, resonant low-pass filter, EQ, reverb, delay and more, the harmonically rich front-end is perfect for making inspiring textures, or other more commercial organistic patches. Cinesamples provides an enormous variety of preset content, but the interface supplies plenty of scope to get creative.
Cinesamples O: Forbes Pipe Organ is more than just an organ with O-ppeal, it’s a very creative sonic palette for exploring unconventional avenues.
O: Forbes Pipe Organ costs $149 and you can get more info from the Cinesamples website.
UVI Retro Organ Suite
UVI says that Retro Organ Suite, "delivers in a very raw and personal way the sounds that define a near 100 year legacy of electronic organ instruments". And it's hard to argue with that, as you get the sounds of a range of classic electronic organs in six separate instruments.
They comprise Hammer B (Hammond B3), Super VX (Vox Continental), Retrocorda (Philips Philicordia), EX III (Korg CX-3), GT2500 (Eminent Grand Theater 2500) and Combo K, (combining the Farfisa Compact Duo and Combo Compact, Elka Classic, Philips AG7500 and Hammond M100).
It’s important to understand that Retro Organ Suite isn’t trying to be a purist recreation of the original instruments it represents. It’s more a ‘reduction’ of these, designed for quick and easy access to the legendary sounds for which they’re known, with enough customisation to keep tinkerers happy.
Approached with that in mind, UVI’s nostalgic sextet makes for a sonically expansive and satisfyingly playable arsenal of faux organs.
Retro Organ Suite costs $149 and you can get more info from the UVI website.
Arturia B-3 V
Arturia claims the original Hammond B3 organ weighed 400 pounds – that's over 180kg, metric fans – which is pretty much why we're writing this feature. You wouldn't want to lug that original from one room to another, le alone from gig to gig.
Like IK's emulation above, this is another great rendition of the B3, with all its grit, growl and welly – the sounds that see it being used in all of those genres to great effect.
IK might have been involved with Hammond and Suzuki in the creation of its B3, but Arturia has used its years of modelling experience and TAE technology here – the same used in much of its unrivalled V-Collection – to create an equally fantastic organ.
That said, the IK might just win it on the realism stakes while this Arturia can take you in a different B-3 direction with its effects so is arguably the rockier of the two.
B-3 costs €149 – and that is the same as the IK – and you can get more info from the Arturia website.
Native Instruments Vintage Organs
Vintage Organs might be one of the older titles here – but then so are the organs it's emulating – but for a relatively small outlay, it covers a lot of organ ground. You get five instruments, and classic ones at that. There's a VOX Continental II, FARFISA Compact, and three Hammonds (B-3, C-3 and M-3).
The Hammonds differ subtly in tone, with the M-3 perhaps the most obviously different, with a sound that is lighter thanks to the smaller sized organ it is emulating. The VOX and Farfisa, meanwhile, both offer cleaner and simpler tonal alternatives to all three Hammonds.
Vintage Organs has 100 presets covering all five instruments and delivering a wide range or classic organ sounds. It's a relatively small download too – just over a GB.
IK's B-3 might go into more detail and Arturia's deliver more beef, but at just £89/$99 (currently half that price as we write this) this is still a great way into the organ world.
Looking for more great keyboard gear and technique? Get all our reviews, news, features, tutorials, tips and more at our Keys Week 2023 hub page.