Friday, January 26, 2018

The new instrument (part two)

As an organist, I've seen a lot of brides come down the aisle. I haven't seen a lot of organ consoles do the same.

One week last March, however, I got to see just that. I was scheduled to substitute at a church in Shadyside (that's a neighborhood in Pittsburgh). Normally you get some notion of the organ you'll be playing on a little ahead of time if you show up to practice, but they were in an unusual situation. The new console was being installed that week. When or if it would be ready in time was a little bit up in the air. So I was either going to play the temporary solution-- a small two manual Allen or a much larger, 4-manual, 100-rank...also Allen.

The church had a 6,800 pipe Moeller in the balcony, but it was out of service. As the church debated what to do about that, someone had decided that maybe it was time to go digital.

I can understand if the pipe organists out there are wincing.

 I've had a few run-ins with electronic organs of various kinds. Sometimes I'll start to play one and wonder why it sounds a little odd. Then I see the speakers where the pipes should be and say...ah. That's why.

Digital organs have come a long way in recent years, however. That's why I use the word digital instead of electronic. For a start, they are now using sampled sound from actual pipe organs. Due to the unvarying nature of organ sound (unlike, say a piano) a recorded sound can sound pretty close to the real thing if it is amplified properly. Digital organs are supposed to be cheaper than pipe organs, but going too cheap makes it pretty obvious. It also helps enormously if there are several speakers and they are spaced throughout a large area as if in several large pipe chambers. The organ at Third Church is laid out this way, taking up the empty chamber left when the Skinner was sold in the 1960s (see the last installment). They've even divided some of the ranks of pipes between channels to mimic the way the pipes would be spaced, which is something I found out when I first tried to play the console. One of the speakers wasn't hooked up properly and every other note wasn't sounding from one of the flute stops.  This reflected a typical arrangement of pipes--that the C and C# would actually be on opposite sides, with alternating pipes on each side until the highest and therefore smallest pipes met in the middle. I found that attention to detail impressive.

Allen is quite proud of this organ, by the way. They use it in advertising (it was in the American Organist magazine in July) and have featured it on the website as their Organ of the Week. They should be proud of it. They've done a good job. People say it sounds good. I have pretty picky ears, and not all of the stop combinations are equally convincing to me, but there is plenty to choose from and I doubt most folks can tell any difference. And being digital means the organ never goes out of tune or ciphers, which isn't a bad deal in itself.

That doesn't stop me from wanting pipes, though. There are still lots of them in the rear balcony, and they are in need of some work. Fortunately, we are in the middle of a restoration project. It will likely take a couple of years, but when it is finished, the organ will once again be equipped with thousands of pipes, AND lots of digital ranks. It will be interesting to see how well they all get along. I've never had that sort of organ. Will it be the best of both worlds?

The Allen already has many features. Not only are there around a hundred stops at a go, the digital organ allows you to switch sound libraries, from a German Baroque organ, to a French Cathedral. There are six in all. You can also experiment with alternate tunings, and raise or lower the pitch. It also has a playback system which is useful for recording yourself.

For me it is a useful continuation in my education as an organist. I haven't had such a large organ in a regular church position before, and, having learned the literature, I now find I have an instrument to play it on. This is particularly fortunate in that Pittsburgh is (truly) the oldest city in the US, demographically, and most people have been in their church jobs for decades and aren't leaving anytime soon, so that in the entire first year after our move here, there were only a couple of jobs open that weren't an hour away in a tiny rural church. This was one of them. It is only five minutes from home, and the organ will let me play anything, from German Baroque to French Romantic, from Contemporary to Medieval.

It is strange to see your new organ coming down the aisle. I almost played it a fanfare (on the temporary one). The day I came to practice for the first time the sanctuary was a little crowded with workers so I went into the chapel to practice on the organ there (also a nice feature, to have a backup!). After an hour or so I decided to go see what was going on in the sanctuary and that was exactly when they were bringing in the console on a dolly. I didn't know it was going to be the organ that I would get to play every week since I hadn't yet been hired. At the time I didn't even know if the large console would be ready for Sunday. All week I wondered, as the workers made the connections. The project wasn't complete until Friday afternoon. And it wasn't until Saturday that I got a chance to try it out for the next day. That was a bit stressful. An organ that size gives you plenty of chances to make mistakes. But I got through the service, and here it is several months later and I know the console pretty well.

That is, the half of it that is hooked up to the front of the church. There are a hundred knobs I won't get to play with for a while. I wonder what those will sound like!


  1. I understand completely and congratulations on your position and the congregation’s acquisition of a new digital beast, and someone to do it justice. Last October we installed a great Rodgers Infinity 361. It has sparked enthusiasm on my part, enthusiasm that I didn’t know I had until finding Sounds I discovered that I had been missing. And I had that stressful Sunday of convincing the audience that their money was well spent after only a few hours to familiarize myself with the instrument. Yes, there are some sounds that lack the depth of pipes, but overall, I’m a convert to digital.
    Thanks for your input and blog! I so enjoy it.

  2. Thank you for reading! It's nice to have input from a fellow organist. Just out of curiosity, have you tried the hands-free page turning feature yet? Our organ has one also but I don't have a tablet with which to try it out.

    1. No, it comes as extra expensive software. We didn’t spring for it. The adjustable music desk makes life easier. I can bring it down where I can easily reach.
      Two features I wish for: The adjustable music desk should always be level. Instead I have to eyeball it every time. (And it has to be in the uppermost position to close the organ...). Really, do you EVER need the music at a slant? The second thing, why didn’t Rodgers put a (tiny) clock on the dashboard? Plenty of room, but not plenty of room for a stand-alone clock. See:


I don't bite...mostly.