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Motivation :: History :: Technical Details :: Dispositions :: Next Steps :: Photos :: Recordings
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Last Update:  04-Aug-2015

An Organ for the Living Room?

Being an organist is a privilege. But to be really proficient in it, so that you can illustrate all the facets of that instrument, is an even greater one. This kind of proficiency requires a lot of training, experience and, of course, the instrument itself. In the beginning, especially amateurs or autodidacts just have very few opportunities to try out or play an organ. This, on the one hand, is a result of personal contacts that are not yet established and on the other hand, there is a very deep connection between the organ as an instrument and the church as an institution, which is its predominate housing. Who else could afford an organ as big as, let's say, a Minster organ in matters of space and money...? Being confronted with these issues, a training instrument was developed step by step in the living room, which, in terms of acoustics, very likely cannot cope with a real pipe organ, but indeed has the ability to maintain the illusion of it. The following article will tell you about the course of events that led to its construction and it is intended to document the construction phase as well as the result.

How It All Started

When I was a child, I was already fascinated by the mighty, versatile sound that was produced by big organs and the motoric skills of the organists who played them. As soon as my parents noticed my passion, they bought a small two-octave electronic keyboard as a present for my ninth birthday. As I started taking keyboard lessons and proceeded with them, the instrument was "growing" as well – until I got tired of the teacher's persistent sermons about correct fingering. These resulted in new songs being introduced very slowly and I felt like my own creativity was locked in a cage. Furthermore, it raised a certain level of frustration, which let me refrain from attending keyboard school any longer. Of course, my parents were very upset about it, especially after they did not get the news from myself, but from my keyboard teacher – after they continued paying for it for several weeks... My keyboard was confiscated and given away – what a nightmare! But after some begging and a lot of hard persuasive work, I finally got my keyboard back and single-handedly continued my "experiments". Nowadays, I've understood the importance of the subject and why my teacher was so forceful, even though I don't regret my decision until now. In the end, it turned out that it brought back the joy of spontaneous playing to me, which still sustains until the present day.


The Keyboard Transmogrification

After some years, while I studied computer science, a good friend of mine let me discover the possibilities that a MIDI-enabled keyboard offers in conjunction with some appropriate software behind it. A more realistic sample set for the synthie was picked up from the web very quickly, which led to various recordings, titled "Live At The WhirlPool Organ Arena" (up to part 20). In December 2010, thanks to the cousin of a friend and co-worker, I was granted the major honor to play the Klais organ located at the Ingolstadt Minster. Even though my experience with "real" organs was very limited and I had not read very much about organs in general until then, it was not just a wonderful experience to me, but, at the same time, the ignition spark for all further activities regarding organs.

As a result, I invested a good amount of that year's tax refund into a second keyboard (a Fatar VMK-88) and in 2012, the veteran "plasteyboard" from the computer science studying era was replaced by a more "organ-touchy" Fatar VMK-161plus Organ. After moving to a bigger flat in 2011, insufficient space was not an obstacle anymore to buy a second-hand 30-key church organ pedal. Of course, it could not be played when sitting on a chair, so an organ bench was needed as well.


Knockin' On Wood

Because prices were way too expensive in my opinion for the wooden "logs" that one would have purchased, I decided to do the carpentry on my own. The result was so satisfying with regards to design, comfort and stability that I was encouraged enough to also build a console construction. As you might see on the photos, the existing terrace-like construction for the two keyboards (I don't call them "manuals" for a reason) was not very comfortable when it came to an ergonomic sitting position. Constantly bending forward with the torso did not just result in lower back pain, but also negatively affected the body balance. This way, playing certain textures on the pedals (like scales of one octave or more) was very complicated, if not even impossible. Thus, the new console, which should be optically compatible to the design of the organ bench, should raise the keyboards to an ergonomically comfortable height and, at the same time, should move them a little bit nearer to the player.

Unfortunately, I do not own the appropriate machines (cylindric grinding machine, router, etc.) that were necessary to finish the upcoming task. That's why some time went by until I went the whole hog together with a colleague of mine. Even though, it should take another year until the console was finished... But the delay was not too bad at all, because in the mean time, I had a deeper glimpse into the profession of organ building and the realization of other people's home organ projects. Based on that knowledge and the desire to have a more realistic playing touch, I decided to save some money for a manuals block with three pressure point keyboards, which is currently installed in the final console. A visit in Salzwedel for the specification, some emails, phone calls and persistent inquiries were successful in the end... Finally, in the middle of the year 2014, I played a drum roll fooor... a 66lb (30kg) package, whooo!


Out of the Box

Installation and configuration of the manuals block mostly could be done without any problems. The only caveat I encountered was the MIDI communication from the manuals block back to the PC when any of the thumb pistons were pressed on the block. After another couple of weeks of waiting for an answer, a very unobtrusive note in my next "bugging phone call" made me listen somewhat more attentively, so in the end, I checked the communication again, corrected a misconfiguration – and voilá, everything worked as it was intended then.

The next step was to purchase a new pedal board that should match the design and material of the organ bench. As the one that I formerly purchased in an eBay auction was an already used and subsequently midified Wersi pedal board, it became a little bit troublesome over the years. The creaking springs beneath the pedal keys were something that I couldn't ignore any longer, and the constant clicks of the switch contacts were getting on my nerves. Not to mention the clashing sound that was produced when the keys were released, which was almost drowning out the music when pedal scales had to be performed at a high tempo. Luckily, I discovered a retailer "around the corner" in Swabia, with whom I finished the whole procedure without any complications in absolutely no time – just in contrary to the trouble that I previously encountered when I bought the manuals block. Finally, there's nothing standing in the way anymore for the grand opening of the "Zahn-Neumann Organ" with several organ enthusiasts from the urban hinterland, which has been scheduled for the mid/end of October 2014...

And the organist said: Let there be loud!

In the mean time, another aquisition had to be made: My good old HiFi stereo system from the year 1993 was just working like it did on the very first day, but meanwhile, we're living in the third millenium A.D., so it's been time to update the set-up to a more state-of-the-art 7.2 surround sound system. Luckily, audio output to a multi-channel audio system is supported in the currently used VPO software (VPO = Virtual Pipe Organ). As the pipe samples are no multi-channel recordings but have been recorded in stereo, the short-hand solution was to simply assign the left and the right channels to the two most suitable speakers in the room (see the sketch-up for details).

The individual stops were distributed choir by choir, while the position was determined based on their perceived volume. That's why e.g. the softer flute stops have been placed in the proximity of the listener's position, while trumpet stops and similar reeds have been placed somewhat more distant from it. Mixture, sesquialter and aliquote stops have been stretched through the entire room so that the overall acoustic impression should be as balanced as possible. The 16' and 32' bass stops do not just utilize the subwoofer, but also the center speaker, as only the combination of both of them can handle the full audible spectrum. Because the pipe samples are "dry" recordings (which means that they were recorded directly at the pipes without any reverb), I activated the reverb option in the VPO software, which makes use of impulse response (IR) recordings that have been captured in physically existing rooms, buildings, etc. in order to produce a more intense "church feeling". The reverb IR profile can be changed easily using only a few clicks, so the soundscape can be altered according to anybody's personal preference. This way, you may have a reverb of five seconds like in an abandoned nuclear reactor hall or even a reverb of approx. eight seconds, just like in the York Minster.


Behind the Scenes

The virtual pipe organ is currently powered by a standard desktop computer, which, in the mean time, is a little bit out of date. The configuration of the machine reads as follows:

As you can see, even moderately priced hardware is able to do the job. The only annoying thing is the laggy sound that occurs when there are other programs running that produce too much of hard disk activity. For instance, current versions of the Firefox web browser seem to have a memory leak, which leads to increased memory-to-hard-disk swapping activity and therefore causes the problem mentioned above. Among the already ordered, but not yet operable new computer hardware, I've bought a solid-state hard disk drive in order to solve this problem once and for all.


Dispositions

I – Great   C-g3 II – Positive   C-g3 III – Swell   C-g3 P – Pedal   C-f1
Borduna 16′
Principal 8′
Quintadena 8′
Gamba 8′
Gedakt 8′
Oktava 4′
Rörflöjt 4′
Gambette 4′
Oktava 2′
Flöjt 2′
Sesquialtera II
Mixtur V
Trumpet 16′
Trumpet 8′
Trumpet 4′
Tremulant
Super-octave coupler
Gedakt 16′
Geigen-Principal 8′
Hålflöjt 8′
Gedakt 8′
Gemshorn 4′
Koppelflöjt 4′
Rörkvint 223
Principal 2′
Flöjtlein 2′
Ters 135
Nasat 113
Septima 117
Oktava 1′
Cymbel II
Fagott 16′
Krumhorn 8′
Tremulant
Gedakt Pommer 16′
Principalflöjt 8′
Rörflöjt 8′
Salicional 8′
Viol Celeste 8′
Principal 4′
Hålflöjt 4′
Salicette 4′
Rörkvint 223
Valdflöjt 2′
Ters 135
Sivflöjt 1′
Scharf III
Dulcian 16′
Skalmeja 8′
Tremulant
Sub-octave coupler
Untersatz 32′
Principal 16′
Subbas 16′
Violon 16′
Principal 8′
Violoncell 8′
Gedakt 8′
Oktava 4′
Flöjt 4′
Nachthorn 2′
Rauschpfeife IV
Kontrabasun 32′
Basun 16′
Dulcian 16′
Trumpet 8′
Krumhorn 8′
Trumpet 4′
  • Couplers: I/P, II/P, III/P and II/I, III/I, III/II; I/4' and III/16' (see disposition)
  • Combination action controls: 1,000 Memory Slots, 30 Generals, 8 Divisionals per division
  • Swellers: Positive (II) and Swell (III)
I – Great   C-g3 II – Swell   C-g3 P – Pedal   C-f1
Bourdon 16′
Principal 8′
Doppelflöte 8′
Dolce 8′
Oktave 4′
Flute 4′
Oktave 2′
Mixtur
Cornett IV
Trompete 8′
Super-octave coupler
Super-octave coupler to II
Sub-octave coupler to II
Geigenprincipal 8′
Synthematophone 8′
Lieblich Gedeckt 8′
Viola coelestis[1] 8′
Salicet[2] 4′
Flute harmonique 4′
Quinte 223
Cornett IV
Scharff[2]
Echo Trompete[2] 8′
Tremulant
Super-octave coupler
Sub-octave coupler
Contrabass 16′
Subbass 16′
Gedecktbass 16′
Octavbass 8′
Violonbass[2] 8′
Gedeckt 8′
Oktave 2′
Posaunenbass 16′
Fagotbass[2] 32′
Super-octave coupler to I
  • [1] Original name: "Viola". Subsequently pitched in GrandOrgue to +10ct to allow for the creation of a beating wave effect.
  • [2] Extension (not present in the original instrument)
  • Couplers: I/P, II/P and II/I; I-4'/P, I/4', II-4'/I, II-16'/I, II/4' and II/16' (see disposition)
  • Combination action controls: 1,000 Memory Slots, 5 Generals, 5 Divisionals per division
  • Swellers: Swell (II)
I – Manual I   C-g3 II – Manual II   C-g3 P – Pedal   C-f1
Pryncypał 8′
Flet kryty[1] 8′
Viola di gamba 8′
Oktawa 4′
Flet rurkowy[2] 4′
Oktawa 2′
Mixtura 113
Flet otwarty[3] 8′
Gemshorn 8′
Flauto amabile 8′
Pryncypał 4′
Flet kryty[1] 4′
Nasard[4] 223
Szpicflet 2′
Tercja[5] 135
Kwinta 113
Krumhorn[2] 8′
Tremolo
Subbas 16′
Oktawbas 8′
Flet kryty[1] 8′
Chorałbas 4′
Fagot 16′
  • [1] Stopped flute
  • [2] Rohr flute
  • [3] Open flute
  • [4] From g0
  • [5] From c1
  • Couplers: I/P, II/P and II/I
  • Combination action controls: 1,000 Memory Slots
I – Manual I   C-f3 II – Manual II   C-f3 P – Pedal   C-d#1
Bordun 16′
Principal 8′
Flute harm. 8′
Fugara 8′
Oktave 4′
Quinte 223
Oktave 2′
Mixtur III
Cornett[1] IV
Geigenprincipal 8′
Gedact 8′
Viola di Gamba 8′
Praestant 4′
Flauto dolce 4′
Tremulant
Violon 16′
Subbass 16′
Oktavbass 8′
Bassflöte 8′
Posaune 16′
  • [1] From c1
  • Couplers: I/P, II/P and II/I
  • Combination action controls: 1,000 Memory Slots, 30 Generals
I – Great   C-g3 II – Swell   C-g3 P – Pedal   C-f1
Open Diapason 8′
Claribel Flute 8′
Dulciana 8′
Principal 4′
Fifteenth 2′
Violin Diapason 8′
Lieblich Gedeckt 8′
Echo Gamba 8′
Octave 4′
Piccolo 2′
Closed Horn 8′
Orchestral Oboe 8′
Tremulant
Super-octave coupler
Bourdon 16′
Violon-Cello 8′
  • Couplers: I/P, II/P and II/I; II/4' (see disposition)
  • Combination action controls: 1,000 Memory Slots
  • Swellers: Swell (II)

To be continued...

Somehow, the organ console still lacks adequate illumination. An optically attractive and my personally favoured device is this luminaire made by Weiblen, but it's quite expensive and I'll have to do some tricks during installation because of the pitched roof area above it.

As I already mentioned earlier in this article, new computer hardware is awaiting its duty. With its generously dimensioned amount of memory and a solid-state hard disk drive, it should definitely be able to simultaneously play back and record the sound without any artifacts. Eventually, a migration to the commercial VPO software called "Hauptwerk" will be considered when the time is ripe. Meanwhile, there are plenty of high-quality sample sets available to purchase. But I'll better not talk about the price, because you can become very poor very quickly on a shopping tour – although, just to be fair, I have to say that the sets are definitely worth their money. Perhaps, one day the five-manual Pécsi-Mühleisen organ from the Palace of Arts in Budapest will finally speak in my living room...

©2002-18, Woody/mC