Review: Drawbar Organ


So you want a Hammond organ in your phone? No? Go on, give it a try. Still no? Well, you can sound like Rick Wakeman and recreate some classic 1970s organ prog intros? Yes? There - I knew you were interested. See my review and video below, demonstrating Drawbar Organ for Symbian. It's not perfect, but it's a unique slice of musical fun.

Author: J Rauhala

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The Hammond organ was developed in the 1930s but has been used ever since in multiple genres. According to Wikipedia, the original Hammond organ "used additive synthesis of waveforms from harmonic series made by mechanical tonewheels that rotate in front of electromagnetic pickups. The component waveform ratios are mixed by sliding drawbars mounted above the two keyboards." Most of which you get here in simulated form, on your Symbian smartphone. 

With Symbian^3 supporting multitouch, it's good to see that there's two note polyphony here, i.e. you can hold down two notes at the same time and generally play tunes with two fingers, without the touch detection getting in the way. This is vital to playing anything half interesting and it's a slight shame that three (or more) note polyphony wasn't made possible - I suspect even two note capability is pushing Symbian to its limits on the current processors. In fairness, on a 3.5" screen you're not going to be playing with a full spread of fingers, but playing three note chords would have been cool.

At the top of the screen is a pull down rack of 'drawbars', the sliders that shape the mix of tonal harmonics that make their way into the final sound. You'd have to be a real organ geek to know what each bar does - for the casual user like myself, it's enough to fiddle with each one while holding a note down and find a mix which sounds good.

Here's my demo of Drawbar Organ in action (on the Nokia E7):

You'll observe that I was only really messing around, tune wise - the size of the keys and the two note polyphony limit make playing anything sensible impossible - but it's also hopefully evident that I was having quite a lot of fun nevertheless.

The tone generation algorithms do produce a noticeable amount of digital distortion in addition to the musical forms - this isn't just due to me hammering the limited E7 speaker (though the quality of the speaker in your phone will of course have a big effect on the final perceived audio), but is inherent in the sound generated, sadly. So if you put the 3.5mm output through bigger speakers, Drawbar Organ won't really sound much better.

In addition, there are some clicks and unwanted note transition noises as you play - there's an 'Options' slider in which you can trade off reduced transition clicks for a slightly slower latency (i.e. your key presses and the resulting changes in note don't happen quite as quickly), but the default setting is about right, in my opinion.

Interestingly, you can actually get three note polyphony if you make use of a bug (or should that be 'feature') in the application - pressing a key while you're already holding it down 'locks' the note in place and it will stay sounding while you release your fingers. Leaving you free to play two more notes on the keyboard to produce a three note chord. This is clearly impractical to do 'on the fly', but is interesting from a tech point of view only!

Drawbar Organ is something of a musical novelty, but is one that's well done. It's fun to play and might even help you bash out a tune in the context of music composition or remembrance at some point. Whether it's worth £3 is another matter - in the current app landscape, this should perhaps be half the price, taking it firmly into 'impulse buy' territory.

Right, I'm off to perfect my version of Jon Lord's "Highway Star" keyboard solo - on the N8... Wish me luck! 8-)

NB. There's also a free demo version in the Nokia Store, but this doesn't have the two note polyphony, so do take this into account if trying this one first. Here's the link to the full version.

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 7 Oct 2011

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