by Colin Pykett
Published in Organists' Review: August 1998
This version last revised: 23 December 2011
Copyright © C E Pykett 1998-2011
This article first appeared in Organists' Review in August 1998 and it now is reproduced here because of the number of requests received for reprints.
Abstract This article takes a detached and expert look at the current generation of digital electronic organs and discusses their suitability for use in a church or other auditorium where otherwise a pipe organ would have been selected. It suggests objective criteria which might assist those responsible for making this decision, particularly if they are entrusted with the expenditure of money raised from the local community, and examples are included of how three churches decided to proceed. The article concludes that, although the tonal quality of some recent instruments can be superficially attractive, there are other significant factors which need to be taken into account. One of the most important of these is the ephemeral nature of the computer-derived technology which the instruments use and which can lead to problems of early obsolescence.
Dr Pykett is a professional physicist with over 30 years' insight into the electronic music field although he has no connection with the industry. He has played the organ since his schooldays.
In 1987 The Musical Times kindly published an article of mine which attempted to provide guidance to those proposing to purchase an electronic organ 1. Although it generated the predictable volume of vituperative correspondence, I know from the much greater amount of constructive and helpful letters I received that the article had succeeded in its aim. It did not set out to justify or extol the electronic organ; it simply accepted that such instruments existed and were being bought in large quantities, and that some demystification of the subject might have been useful. More than ten years on, it is appropriate to review what was said then because of the advances in technology in the intervening years. Moreover, it is still clear that people are still looking for some objective guidance on the subject, since even OR (with its pipes-only policy) published a letter recently from a correspondent who asked for just that 2.
What has changed in the meantime? The main change has been the disappearance from the scene of analogue organs, which ten years ago still supplied a significant proportion of the market. Nowadays everything is digital, and although my previous article also covered digital organs in some detail, there have been some advances which merit discussion. Associated with the move to digital tone generation has been a general improvement in the way electronic instruments sound. Today even experts sometimes find it difficult to decide whether they are listening to pipes or electronics 3, although this is not of course a universal feature of all instruments! Nevertheless, the fact that electronic stops sometimes augment even the finest new pipe organs, such as that at Southwell Minster, has to be taken as a serious indication of the quality that can now be obtained.
What has not changed over the last decade is the perplexing variety of instruments and the range of prices. A 3 manual electronic organ can cost below £10,000 or upwards of £50,000. Another factor which has not changed is the existence of high pressure sales techniques, particularly at the lower end of the market, coupled with some apparently extraordinary claims in the advertisements. The potential customer might be forgiven for adopting a defensive approach to a trade whose behaviour sometimes seems to contrast unhappily with the restraint of most pipe organ builders.
It is against this background that this article was offered for publication to a journal which accepts no advertisements for electronic organs. Together with the absence of links with the industry in my own case, I trust that readers will be persuaded of the objective nature of what follows. If you do not like electronic organs, turn the page now !
Analogue versus digital
The earliest electronic organs were analogue. They had a set of tone generators, such as the rotating discs of the Compton Electrone, which were brought into circuit depending on which stops and keys were employed. Electrical signals in the system were simple voltages or currents which were electrical analogues of the acoustic pipe waveforms which were being imitated. Most of the generators in the Electrone actually produced a set of pure waveforms (sine waves) which were added together in the proportions suggested by the relative strengths of the harmonics in the pipe sounds - this technique was called additive synthesis. It is an important concept because some digital organs also use it today.
The other technique was subtractive tone forming, in which the tone generators produced large numbers of harmonics, and these were then selectively shaped by filter circuits to modify the sounds as required. This technique is now hardly ever used except by amateurs who wish to build their own organs, as it is straightforward in hardware terms. Analogue organs were available until the late 1980's, when they finally yielded the field in favour of digital instruments.
Digital organs employ numbers, or digits, to represent the desired sounds. You can visualise the smoothly varying voltages flowing along the wiring of an analogue system to be chopped up rapidly into a sequence of voltage values following one upon the other. Moreover, each such value is converted into a binary number related to its strength or amplitude. The reason for doing all this is that microprocessors and the electronic devices that go with them, such as memory chips, can then be used as the basis of the organ. Computers love crunching numbers, regardless of whether the numbers represent a bank statement or the sound of a Willis cornopean. This allows enormously more flexibility than that permitted by the older analogue systems. For example, voicing can be done by simply making small changes to a computer program, rather than by physically soldering in alternative components on a circuit board. Because of the precision offered by the manipulation of numbers, it is also possible to get more faithful reproduction of pipe tones. Perhaps without realising it, many people will have the essence of a digital organ sitting at home in the shape of the ubiquitous PC equipped with a sound card. The way such systems work to emit almost any desired sound as an accompaniment to computer games is identical, in principle, to the hardware and software in a digital organ. However, the demands of a full sized electronic organ still overstretch what even the most up to date PC could do in terms of simulating the sheer variety of stops and the number of notes that need to be processed in real time. Consequently digital organs (and similar instruments such as synthesisers) contain quite a lot of special-purpose hardware and software, though with the current rate of progress in PC technology we can expect this to change in the future.
Types of digital organ
Digital organs began to appear about 30 years ago. These instruments contained a stored replica of the pipe waveform for each stop, each replica being one cycle of the fundamental frequency in length. By repetitively reading out this replica, a note of any desired length could be reproduced for as long as the key was held down. The pitch of the note was determined by the speed at which the replica was read out, and this in turn was governed by which key on the keyboard was selected. Each replica consisted of a set of numbers, typically 32 being mentioned in one of the early patents. Each number was represented as a binary word of around 8 bits. Thus the amount of memory required to store the replica for one waveform was around 256 bits in length, a trivial memory requirement by today's standards. Starting transients such as chiff were not always featured in these early instruments, although there was a gradual attack and decay to prevent the onset of the sound being unnaturally sudden.
Considerable ingenuity was shown in the design of these early systems, particularly as the microprocessor had not then been invented and because memory chips scarcely existed at all. This meant that the whole system was hard-wired. The principle of the system was important in that it is still used by many of the instruments available today which advertise sampled sound. However the modern instruments do use microprocessors, they have available enormous amounts of memory which would not even have been dreamed of in the early days, and the precision with which numbers can be represented is much higher (typically 16 bits per word instead of 8). The upshot is that starting transients are now a common feature, the harmonic proportions due to scaling across a rank of pipes can be accurately simulated as can the regulation of each note, and the imitation of pipe sounds can be very good.
There is a second type of digital organ which does not store complete waveforms in its memory. Instead it stores a set of numbers which represent the strengths of the harmonics of the desired sound. When the stop for that sound is drawn, a computer rapidly assembles a waveform replica from the stored harmonics, and the replica is then read out when keys are pressed. In essence, this is additive synthesis of the type used by the old Compton Electrone but using computer technology instead of rotating discs. This enables very good fidelity to be achieved; the Electrone could only store relatively few harmonics on its discs whereas hundreds are feasible using computers. This system is widely associated with the Bradford Computing Organ developed at Bradford University in the 1980ís, and originally it was marketed mainly by suppliers in the UK. A harmonic representation is well matched to the continuous sound of a pipe once it has reached a steady state, and very accurate reconstruction and precise voicing of the original sound is possible. A further advantage of the Bradford scheme (and similar ones) is that the harmonic structure of the sound can be changed while the note sounds. This makes possible the synthesis of complex sounds such as the piano or harpsichord, and it is therefore not surprising that this type of system is also met with frequently in synthesisers for the non-organ music world.
What to look for in a digital organ
This section of the article will survey the main features that an educated customer needs to look for in a modern electronic organ. The emphasis attached to each feature will depend on the customer's preferences, and often the depth of his or her pocket. However there is one aspect which has to be mentioned first in view of the fact that it seems to get swept under the carpet by some manufacturers. This concerns obsolescence.
Analogue organs were, in general, straightforward assemblies which could be serviced by anyone competent in electronics. Paradoxically, some of the best ones were the simplest to repair. These instruments used enormous numbers of basically quite simple circuits such as transistor oscillators. Digital organs are in quite another category, and since they use computers it is instructive to look first at obsolescence in the computer world.
Many of us will have purchased a state of the art computer, only to discover that a year or two later it has been hopelessly overtaken by a new product. On the face of it this is good for the consumer, provided s/he is prepared to upgrade relatively frequently. Exactly the same situation applies to digital organs. However, an upgrade in this case means the expenditure of many thousands rather than hundreds of pounds. If one is not prepared to do this, one takes the risk that an increasingly obsolete instrument may need repair at a time when the necessary components are no longer available or when the manufacturer for other reasons turns his back. Guarantees may not offer much comfort in such circumstances. We are all familiar with the car or washing machine which remains indisposed for weeks for want of a vital part, or which cannot be repaired at all. Imagine how the situation could affect an electronic organ, which is not only highly sophisticated but which does not enjoy the benefits of the same production volume as items such as those mentioned. Therefore obsolescence means that the long-term total cost of a decision to purchase an electronic organ might not be much less (or even more) than if a pipe organ had been selected in the first place. A good mechanical action pipe organ can be reckoned on to last for at least several decades, perhaps a century or more, whereas during this period the cost of sundry repairs, upgrades or replacements of an electronic organ might become burdensome. This may be small comfort to a church whose main aim is to minimise the initial capital outlay, but it is a factor that needs to be addressed.
To appreciate the obsolescence problem, ask yourself how many churches are still using the electronic organ they purchased 10 or more years ago. Many of this age will have either been disposed of because they simply came to sound so dreadful compared to modern instruments, or because they became unrepairable. One is tempted to say QED. Going further, it would not be unreasonable to ask the manufacturer of the instrument you are contemplating purchasing to state the type numbers of all the integrated circuits it uses, their function, and whether each is "industry standard" or "application specific". An electronics engineer, on scrutinising this list, would generally be able to make predictions about the period over which these essential parts would continue to be available.
Another generic factor relates to the purchase price. Many instruments contain similar if not identical electronic innards, so why should the prices vary so much? The answer to this question relates to several factors such as console construction and customisation. If you want high quality keyboards with top-resistance rather than springy plastic mouldings, or standard drawstop solenoids rather than illuminated tabs, then you are immediately pitching yourself towards the higher end of the market. The few manufacturers who offer, in addition, a customised stop list together with genuinely skilled tonal finishing on site will take you into the top price bracket. (A few makers employ experienced pipe organ voicers who have to be paid for). Instruments of this quality will also tend to have more elaborate and expensive loudspeaker installations, and this is in itself an extremely important factor which is referred to in more detail later on.
A further word of caution regarding the cheaper instruments concerns their internal build standards. For example, high quality key contact assemblies using gold wire are expensive, and to economise some manufacturers may use inferior metals or constructional techniques. In such instruments it is not unusual to find contact wires crudely soldered directly to circuit boards, resulting in frequent and early failures due to fatigue at the joints. Poking around inside the console with a knowledgeable friend may serve to ring alarm bells of this nature before a deal is done. But if the results of your deliberations continue to suggest that a top quality instrument costing tens of thousands of pounds is indicated, would it not be appropriate to review first what could be obtained in pipes for such a sum, perhaps by purchasing second hand? If you do decide to travel down the electronic route, then some of the more detailed issues which follow may be relevant.
Detailed technical issues
We now come to a review of the more important details which separate the better organs from the rest. It is important to consider these factors carefully because a common experience is to be impressed by the first trial of an instrument, particularly for those whose previous experience of electronics goes back to the days when they were truly awful. In fairness, few are as bad as that today.
Voicing and regulation
You will have no more difficulty in deciding whether the sounds of the stops are to your liking than with a pipe organ. But take time to discover how carefully the major ranks have been voiced and regulated across the compass by playing on individual registers. Often the stops will have "voicing points" which correspond to the stored replicas of the original pipe sounds. In cheap instruments there may be only 6 or so voicing points for each stop, whereas the better ones may have upwards of 15. The computer generally blends gradually (interpolates) from one voicing point to the next as you move across the keyboard, and it is often possible to detect this happening although it should not be too intrusive. The process is used to incorporate the changes in volume and timbre which occur with a real pipe rank due to the use of particular pipe scales. (It is possible that a separate replica is used for every note of every stop though this would be unusual in view of the vast memory requirement. Pipe organs, of course, incorporate an equivalent feature automatically!).
Make sure that the characters of all stops are properly simulated across the entire compass, so that reeds for example do not become thin and buzzy in the bass, or flutes characterless in the treble. The whole point of having multiple voicing points is to enable several waveform replicas to be available for each stop, so shortcomings here point to an inadequate understanding of how to voice the organ realistically.
Mixtures and mutations
Mutations must be tuned true, not to the equally tempered or other scale used for the organ generally. Any deviation from this rule will be more noticeable for third-sounding ranks (seventeenths and tierces) than for the fifths (twelfths, nazards and larigots). Try a quiet reed such as a clarinet together with a tierce in the upper reaches of the keyboard - there should be no objectionable beats. However if the incorrect tuning referred to above is in use, there will be a fast beat which will make the sound very rough (and often intolerable).
Most digital organs are replete with mixtures, together with breaks. Make sure that the breaks are sensibly arranged. This is more difficult than it sounds, as the subject of mixtures is a specialist matter and difficult even when dealing with pipes. A good editorial on mixtures appeared in OR 4 which should be considered essential reading. By running up or down the keyboards it should be possible to hear where the breaks occur, and you should at least ensure that nothing particularly daft has been incorporated such as all the mixtures breaking on the same notes throughout the organ. This would seriously affect pleno effects in contrapuntal music.
Number of notes
Sometimes there is rather a limited number of notes that can be played simultaneously and you must find out what this is, either from the salesperson or by trial and error. As few as eight notes per department is sometimes found in the cheapest instruments, and of course this can be embarrassing in some music. Chords containing more than the permissible maximum will have missing notes, and the particular note(s) being dropped might vary while the chord is held. This often happens if the pedals are moving independently while coupled to the department in question. Some bizarre effects can occur in such circumstances. Try playing a piece such as Karg-Elert's Nun Danket (better, Nieland's Marche Triomphale which is really black!) to assess the magnitude of the problem, first with the pedals uncoupled, then coupled to the manuals.
The limit on the number of notes is one reason why octave and sub-octave couplers are seldom seen on digital organs, at least on the cheaper ones, as their use automatically multiplies the number of notes which have to be processed by the computers. The stock argument of the salesperson will generally be to inform you that in a properly designed specification you do not need such couplers. Nevertheless you are the customer, so if you want them then you must find out in advance what the penalty might be. It would be embarrassing to find that the eight note limit reduced to four when the super octave was drawn!
In a domestic room there may be little choice other than to put up with whatever loudspeakers are incorporated in the console. Generally the effect of the organ will degenerate as more stops are added to the ensemble, even if the sounds of individual stops are good. There are a number of reasons why this is so, some of them subtle and difficult to explain. Nevertheless it remains a fact that the effect will be unsatisfactory if too many signal sources (stops) are fed into too few loudspeakers. In a large auditorium it becomes axiomatic that the maximum possible amount of money must be spent on loudspeakers.
For low notes, the size of a suitable loudspeaker cabinet will be comparable with an organ pipe of similar pitch. This is simply a consequence of the laws of physics; it is immaterial whether the sound is to be radiated from a pipe or a loudspeaker. Anyone who says anything else has discovered something so important that he is in the running for the next Nobel prize. The problem of radiating the low frequencies from an organ is in quite a different league from hi-fi systems; the requirements for the sub-audio frequencies from a 32 foot flue stop, for example, will require something like a folded horn many feet in length together with a high power drive unit of substantial size. Anything less will be an increasing irritation to discerning players throughout the lifetime of the instrument. At the same time, high frequencies must on no account be fed into such a loudspeaker or they will be subjected to highly audible cross-modulation effects. They must have their own separate loudspeakers.
Another factor concerns the positioning of the loudspeakers. Medium and high frequency loudspeakers often possess directional characteristics which are entirely foreign to a pipe organ. These effects alone can immediately reveal that the organ is an electronic one.
It is impossible in this article to go into all the requirements for a satisfactory church or concert hall installation other than to re-emphasise the importance of getting it right. For the more expensive organs it will invariably be worthwhile to retain the services of an independent acoustics consultant to advise on the proposals being made by the organ manufacturer.
The term "chorus" is used in the electronic music trade to describe a wide range of effects. Basically, however, it is used as a catch-all descriptor of how to get a quart out of a pint pot.
Much of the effect of a pipe organ is due to its huge number of pipes, each of which is tuned, regulated and voiced individually. In an electronic organ the independence of voicing and regulation is to some extent taken care of by the incorporation of several replicas for each stop. But it is also vitally important to include the small variations in tuning which characterise pipes, both within each rank and between ranks. The techniques used to achieve this are of no particular interest in themselves, but it is important to discover whether they have been incorporated.
Select a principal stop and hold down middle C together with the octave above it. The frequencies of the notes should not be precisely locked in tune, just as they would not be on a pipe organ. There should be some very slow beats between octaves, at least in some parts of the compass. Then try selecting two unison stops, such as a principal and a quiet reed, and play individual notes. Again, there should be a perceptible though very small tuning difference, demonstrated by slow beats, which will assist the ear in determining that two stops are indeed being used. Then test for similar "unlocking" between unison stops and octaves (e.g. 8 foot and 4 foot principals or flutes) when played in single notes. If none of this occurs, the effect of the organ will be tiring and thin particularly in full combinations.
There is a potential difficulty with some organs that, although limited tests such as those mentioned will demonstrate the existence of "chorus", the effects may be different or even non-existent when more stops are employed in full combinations. This is because the computers in the organ have to work harder when more stops are drawn, and there may be insufficient processing power (or even insufficient synthesiser hardware) to incorporate the effect properly in these circumstances.
All electronic organs scan the keys in sequence to determine which notes have been keyed or released since the previous scan. The rate at which the scanning occurs is, or should be, rapid. At least several hundred scans per second are used. However in certain systems the scan rate may slow down if the computers are having to work hard, such as when many notes are in use with full combinations. Some players have reported a perceptible delay between playing the notes and hearing the sound, which can be off-putting since the delay is not constant but depends in a complex manner on the music being played.
The problem is likely to be a minor one but it is wise to test for it when trying an instrument.
It is risky to purchase an organ which will not be matched to its environment on site. A knowledgeable pipe organ builder will, on entering a building, assess its reverberance by at least clapping his hands in various ways. These days, many builders also use electronic equipment to obtain a better understanding of what the building will do to the sounds of an organ. Among other things this enables them to select appropriate pipe scales, wind pressures, and to formulate the voicing strategy. It is particularly important to estimate how much voicing time will be required on site, for business reasons if nothing else.
It will inspire confidence if the manufacturer of an electronic organ does the same. The reason why so few do is probably because their prices are cut to rock bottom for commercial reasons and this precludes much in the way of on-site voicing. If you insist on it, be aware that it may cost at least several hundred pounds per day at today's prices. Even when offered, the flexibility of on-site voicing may be constrained by the particular computer system used in an organ. For example, the characteristics of certain groups of stops in some instruments may be inextricably linked. Thus it might be impossible to vary the power of a reed stop, say, without at the same time affecting a mixture.
In principle, digital organs can easily be tuned to any desired temperament though the cheaper ones may not offer the choice. They do, however, often have alternative voicings (such as "baroque" or "romantic") which can be selected by the player. In this case check whether the temperament changes at the same time. For example, the romantic option might have equal temperament whereas there might be Werkmeister III for baroque, and you may not want this.
Usually, of course, equal temperament is used but it is possible that only an approximation to ET is in fact implemented. For reasons of economy in the hardware and software an approximate set of frequency division ratios might be used in the frequency synthesisers within the organ, and these may give rise to one or two perfect fifths in the notionally equally tempered octave. In true equal temperament all fifths and fourths in an octave will have slow beats, best heard on a principal stop. The presence of perfect fifths can give rise to objectionable beats with mutations on particular notes, even if the mutations are tuned true.
Attack, decay and transients
The attack and decay of notes when keyed or released is generally taken care of in modern electronic organs. Although the means should exist within the hardware and software for it to be controlled, it is important that the effects are musical. Personally I find the attack of pedal notes to be too sudden and lumpy in many electronic organs, compared to the length of time it takes a large pipe to come onto speech in a pipe organ. This may be a limitation of the computer system used, since an extended attack or decay time requires either the supervision of a computer during the period or a lot of memory, or both. In a cheap system this may not be possible.
The subject of chiff, wind noise or other types of deliberately introduced effects during the initiation of a note also needs to be assessed. Most organs possess these features in abundance, sometimes to a ludicrous extent. I know one instrument in which the chiff associated with the "romantic"specification is more intrusive than with the "baroque" one. Clearly, good taste and judgement needs to be applied here.
The swell pedals should not attenuate the sound by an excessive amount, and there should also be a tone control effect such that the higher frequencies are attenuated more than low ones. Such factors enable a better imitation of a real swell box to be obtained. Also the maximum rate at which the loudness changes when the swell pedal is operated quickly should not be too rapid - it should be comparable to a pipe organ whose heavy shutters have considerable inertia. Small features such as these can make all the difference to the effect of an electronic organ. Without them they can be tiresome, artificial and immediately identifiable as electronic.
There should be no unwanted noises emitted from the loudspeakers. Hum at the mains frequency (50 Hz in Europe) must not be present even in the smallest degree. Even if barely audible on its own it will cause objectionable beats near low G on 16 foot stops, which will be most noticeable on a quiet Bourdon or Sub Bass.
Nor should there be any clicks when the stops are operated. It is important to test for this by manipulating the stops while holding notes down both on manuals and pedals, as some organs will not exhibit the problem otherwise.
Digital organs use, and some will radiate, radio frequency (RF) energy in the megahertz region. In extreme cases this can interfere with the radio microphones used in many churches or auditoria. The use of such microphones, or indeed mobile phones, may also cause the organ to emit strange noises or malfunction in other ways. It is wise to insist on an Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) clause in the contract to give confidence that such problems will either not exist, or will be rectified if they do. One reason why this problem may arise on organs is that they use computer circuit boards similar or identical to those in PC's. In the PC, the casing is generally designed to cope with such difficulties by incorporating screening. In organs, the bare circuit boards and their interconnections inside the wooden console may not be screened at all in an electrical sense, potentially giving rise to a number of annoying EMC problems.
Overall tonal impression
The overall effect (gestalt) of an organ can be a most elusive matter. Individual voices may be quite good, yet in combination (particularly full combinations) there may be a strong feeling that something is wrong. Sometimes there is no doubt what the problem is; the pleno of some cheap organs simply sounds screamy and all sense of the individual departments and stops is lost.
The reasons for this extremely common problem are legion and subtle, and if it exists it will be difficult if not impossible to cure. Some of the main problems have been identified above. They include an inadequate loudspeaker system or lack of "chorus".
A related issue is the number of output channels available, since the computers generally have the ability to route any stop to one of a number of output channels. It is a difficult software (programming) problem to optimise this distribution, since it requires a great deal of experience. As an example, it is usually bad practice to use the same loudspeaker for both an 8 foot and a 4 foot principal. One reason why this fundamental error is made so often is that it is assumed that because they both have "unlocked" frequencies (because of "chorus") that there will be no problem. This is a misconception whose explanation is too involved to give here. In any case, the output channel used by a particular stop may differ from one combination to another. Such factors only make the problems more difficult to track down.
Another, more straightforward, problem is due to distortion. Because of the large number of stops in most electronic organs, any trace of intermodulation or other types of distortion will result in a sound which can hurt the educated ear. The human ear is itself highly non-linear, and it therefore requires the sounds presented to it to be as free of harmonic distortion as possible, just as they are in nature. Otherwise our remarkable auditory systems simply cannot unravel the harmonic structure that was originally programmed into the organ. This factor, well known to specialists in musical acoustics, is especially important with the sustained tones of the electronic organ. Unfortunately it is sometimes forgotten by electronic organ makers. In organs where the number of power amplifiers and loudspeakers is pared down to the minimum, the problem is likely to be worst.
From this brief survey of the causes of a defective gestalt, it should be apparent that they all arise from major design decisions affecting the hardware and software architecture of an electronic organ. Therefore it will be difficult, expensive and most likely impossible to put matters right once a purchase has been made. Even defining exactly what the problems are will be elusive and a matter for an expert.
Note that pipe organs can suffer from their own set of analogous problems, such as pipes "pulling" one another or lack of wind in full ensembles. But the difference here is that there are centuries of experience available to enable the problems at least to be identified. Also no pipe organ suffers from the remotest vestige of the harmonic distortions which can plague electronic reproduction, hence the refreshing clarity of sound with which they are associated compared to that which sometimes emerges from loudspeakers.
Examples of some pipe-versus-electronic decisions
We now look at three actual examples of how churches decided whether to purchase an electronic organ. In the first one an electronic was installed, in the second a hybrid solution (pipes plus electronics) was chosen, and the third explains why an existing pipe organ was renovated.
The first example concerns one of England's many ancient and beautiful churches, now standing in rural surroundings away from the small village which it serves. For many years it had used an increasingly ailing reed organ which obviously had to be replaced. Financial stringencies meant that a pipe organ could not be entertained, so after some deliberation a small custom built electronic organ was installed. It consists of only one manual (no pedals) in a small drawstop console, with separate loudspeakers on the West wall of the building. It is far from being just an electronic replacement for the reed organ in a tonal sense since it has a proper diapason chorus, flutes and a reed. This little instrument is entirely adequate for the modest musical and liturgical demands made of it, and its design and appearance are in keeping with the character of the building.
For the second example we go to a small market town endowed with an impressive parish church whose acoustics are wonderful. It had an Edwardian two manual organ of such virility that it was not uncommon for listeners to be surprised that it was, at first sight, such a small instrument. In fact the manual choruses were reasonably well developed with some fine individual registers, but probably its greatest asset was the skilful way its tonal design and voicing so perfectly matched the building. However the pedal organ of two stops was disappointingly limited, possessing none of the design flair of the manual departments. Nevertheless it would have been a scandal to have removed this fine instrument, and so the relatively unusual decision was taken to augment it with an electronic pedal section. At the same time some improvements to the action of the great organ were also undertaken. The pedal organ now contains a comprehensive stop list such that it can stand independently of the manual divisions, and the 32 foot flue stop is particularly effective in this fine church which is large enough to enable these low frequencies to develop. This stop is only successful because the loudspeaker system for this and the other bass stops is sufficiently large and substantial. The instrument has been played by a number of eminent performers who in general approved of the approach that was taken. (And as an indication of the tonal quality, a visiting organ builder wondered how the pedal reed pipes had been accommodated!)
Our final example involves a medium sized Roman Catholic church built in Gothic style around the turn of the century. The acoustic is bright and responsive, especially when the building is empty, but congregations are often large and an instrument has to support some lusty singing. The church had a small one manual mechanical action pipe organ without pedals mounted on the West gallery, and things were reaching the point where some renovation was needed. An electronic option was considered, and a perhaps surprising factor in the discussions was the strong advocacy by some in favour of electronics. This was resisted by the organist among others; he is a professional musician who, although possessing an electronic organ at home, felt that the sort of instrument that could be afforded would be out of keeping with the character of the church and its liturgy.
The solution adopted was to remedy the tonal defects of the pipe organ in a bold manner. Among other shortcomings all of the stops originally used the same stopped bass, and although there was an octave of 16 foot pipes for a pneumatic melodic bass, this had never worked properly. Consequently the open diapason has now been augmented with its own bottom octave, and a new full compass principal has been added with the old principal pipes forming a new fifteenth. A pedalboard with a manual coupler was provided to take advantage of the existing 16 foot basses, and the melodic bass has now been made to work electrically (otherwise the action remains mechanical).
This work, carried out in 1997, has been described in some detail to indicate the value for money that can be obtained even with a pipe organ; it cost around £8000. For this sum it would have been just possible to have purchased a low-end two or three manual electronic organ, but consider the disadvantages: without considerable further expenditure the loudspeakers in the console would have been sadly inadequate, and the typically huge specification would have been out of keeping with the simple musical needs of this church. Such a solution would not have had a shred of the happy integrity of the solution that was actually adopted.
There are a number of points which can be extracted from the above. In the first example, a pipe organ never existed in the first place nor was it an option that could be considered. It is strange that so few manufacturers of electronic organs (are there any?) market a range of standard, small chamber instruments of the sort that was purchased here. Invariably even the cheapest electronics have stop lists and assorted bells and whistles which would have been repellent in the context of this requirement. Fortunately, since only a small organ was needed, the custom option was not expensive and it has turned out to be successful and acceptable to all concerned.
The second case shows how a combination of pipes and electronics can be successful, and perhaps it is an approach that deserves to be considered more often. However, the purchaser must acquire confidence that there will not be intolerable problems of tuning incompatibilities and drift between the pipes and the electronics.
The final case was an example of where the pressure to go electronic was resisted. The type of electronic which could have been afforded would have been an affront to good taste.
Hopefully this survey of the type of questions which need to be asked when contemplating the purchase of an electronic organ will be useful. Together with the examples quoted above of churches which went through this process, some overall conclusions might be:
1. Digital organs may have fallen victims to their own success. They have only achieved it by espousing a technology (computers) so ephemeral that the intrinsic longevity of a pipe organ is something they have difficulty competing with, more so now than ever before.
2. Those associated with deciding whether an electronic organ should be purchased for a church might reflect on the appropriateness of introducing such an ephemeral piece of furniture into an environment where almost everything else is of the highest standard, bought as part of an act of worship.
3. Cheap, standard products may not integrate well into the environment in a liturgical or musical sense. Often there will be far more functionality than is required, for example, regarding the size of the stop list.
4. Even expensive products may suffer from a number of intrinsic shortcomings, some of which have been mentioned in this article (e.g. limitations on the number of notes that can be played simultaneously). Such problems may be magnified with the cheaper offerings.
5. The long term cost implications of an electronic organ should be estimated and compared with that of renovating or purchasing a pipe instrument.
6. The initial outlay for an electronic organ should be compared against the costs of repairing an existing pipe organ or purchasing another, possibly second hand. This comparison should be done particularly carefully if the electronic instrument being considered is in the higher price bracket.
7. The decision to purchase should be taken carefully and objectively, regardless of how seductive and superficially attractive the electronic alternative might appear.
1. "Choosing an Electronic Organ", C E Pykett, The Musical Times, January 1987 (currently on this site - read).
2. "Electronics?", letter to the Editor by D. James, Organists' Review, November 1997
3. See, for example, the review by Paul Hale of D'Arcy Trinkwon's CD on page 130 of Organists' Review, May 1996.
4. Editorial, Organists' Review, May 1996, Paul Hale.