Electronic Organs and Today's Church

With the advent of computers and digital electronics the modern electronic organ is a far cry from the "plastic imposter" of yesteryear. Organists who formed their opinions of electronic organs in the 1960s and 70s can certainly be forgiven for their biases against these analog "pipe organ imitators" which never achieved much success in their attempt to replicate the sound of organ pipes. These electronic organs were analog models, using tubes and transitors in an effort to duplicate the sound of organ pipes. With the advent of digital electronics and the computer age, however, a revolution occurred in the world of the electronic organ.

What happened? To put it simply, the modern, 21st century digital electronic organ's stops are actually recordings of real organ pipes, digitally encoded and played back over more sophisticated sound systems than existed even as recently as twenty years ago. Instead of an analog imitation of an organ's trumpet stop, for example, a digital organ may have a sample of the real trumpet stop from the real trumpet pipes located in the church down the street. "Is it live or is it Memorex" takes on new meaning when applied to the 21st century electronic organ.

Now just in case you think this writer has flipped his lid, has "gone over to the other side" and is endorsing electronic organs over pipes, hold on a minute! Even Robert Walker, founder of the Walker Technical Company and the nationally recognized guru of digital organ samples whose revolutionary work has led to numerous advances in electronic organ sound, acknowledges that digital electronics aren't quite the same as real pipes. The differences, however, have been lessened, and the actual results of any given electronic organ installation will depend on many factors, just as they do with a pipe organ.

What are these factors? First, the digital sample itself (a "sample" is a recording of an organ stop. The typical sample involves recording about a third of the actual pipes, beginning in the bass and moving to the treble. The missing pipe sounds are then duplicated from the digital recordings of the neighboring pipes until the complete set is encoded). Some electronic organ companies record samples on location in churches. These samples retain more of the actual sounds made by the organ mechanism (valves opening and closing, and the initial attack and release of the pipe as the key is depressed and released). Other companies record samples in sound-proofed studios where the goal is to eliminate everything other than just the sound of the pipe's speech.

Second, the digital samples are played back over a fairly sophisticated sound system involving amplifiers and speakers. There can be significant differences in the "audio packages" provided with digital organs and as usual, one gets what one pays for. In addition to the number of ampliers, audio channels, and speakers, there is also the issue of how the speakers are placed in the church. Many electronic organ companies have discovered that it is better to aim the speakers up or away from the congregation, a far cry from the old days of frontally-aimed speaker systems blasting worshippers in the face.

Third, the degree to which the electronic samples can be manipulated (the equivalent of voicing a pipe, in which adjustments can be made to the speech) vary tremendously between electronic organ builders. Some have only elemental controls, usually involving bass, mid-range, and treble frequencies. Others may have almost thirty different adjusting capabilities in their programs. And the word "program" means just that. The adjustments are done using a lap-top computer which is connected to the organ's micro-processor. Naturally, those builders with the most adjusting capabilities charge more than their competitors. All of the builders will advertise their voicing capabilities but the church which is represented by a knowledgeable consultant can sort through the claims and present the truth to the committee.

Fourth, the acoustic of the church is, as always, a critical factor in the success of any organ, and this is also true of digital electronic instruments. Digital organs, however, may come with a program which can add reverberation or decay time to the sound of the organ. The results of this effect can range from the obvious and unmusical to the fairly sophisticated, depending on the builder and the settings. Unfortunately, such programs won't improve the congregational singing or sound of the choir.

Finally, just as the pipe organ builder must select the specific stops and determine the tonal character of the organ being built, so, too, must the builder of digital electronic organs choose the stops and their character. And just as a beautifully built pipe organ may not evidence the type of tonal palette which is supportive of choir and congregational singing, so the digital electronic organ's tonal resources may be poorly chosen for its task. In particular, the organ's reeds, the loudest stops, may be French in derivation, a style of sound which emphasizes the upper partials of the stop's harmonic overtones. And while French reeds are wonderful for French organ music, they are certainly less successful for accompanying choirs and congregations. Choices must be made for the tonal palette of the pipe organ and these same choices face those who plan on purchasing a digital electronic instrument. Unfortunately, electronic organ builders offer this type of choice at a cost, as it may mean that the desired stops don't come with the "show room model" and the purchaser must consider the additional expense of a custom instrument.

Another important consideration for electronic organ purchasers is the design of the organ console. As remarkable as it may seem, some builders persist in making a console with odd and unusual stop placements and locations. While it is true that an organist dealing with this situation will eventually become familiar with such idiosyncrasies, it may pose difficulties for the amateur or untrained organist who must frequently play such instruments. Another feature unique to some builders is a drawer located in the console which contains additional organ voices and such adjustable items as tremulant depth and rate, reberberation controls, and a sequencing module (this is a device which operates using MIDI and enables the organist to record a piece of music and have it played back on the organ). Many organists aren't trained to operate some of these devices and they may add another level of difficulty to the operation of the electronic organ console. It is possible to ask the builder to change the console layout and design but again, this means customizing, i.e. more money.

A further development has occurred in the past few years which seems to be a case of adding features to the organ simply because they can be added, rather than because they are desireable or necessary. While different companies call them by different names, some of these features include changing the organ's tonal orientation from English or American to French, German, Italian, Spanish, etc. The cost of these "innovations" is considerable, yet very few organists possess the knowledge and taste, much less the patience, to navigate such systems.

What should the church considering the purchase of an electronic organ expect? First, unless the church takes action to prevent it, the presence of a sales representative of any company which catches wind of the church's interest. Unlike pipe organ builders, many of whom represent themselves or who employ a limited sales staff, electronic organ companies use dealers and sales representatives. The overhead of many electronic organs may reach 60% with much of this money paying for advertising and sales commissions. Salesmen are frequently aggressive and many go so far as to plague the pastor and committee chairs or members with frequent telephone calls and visits. When the church retains the services of an independent organ consultant, this individual can assist in devising a process by which a good decision can be made. The consultant, for example, can intercept the sales staff and communicate the method by which the church will go about its work. In turn, the consultant can be helpful to the companies by providing accurate information about the needs and interests of the church, saving time and money in the process.

The use of a consultant usually involves an educational presentation or two to the committee. This helps those lay people who are frequently not knowledgeable about the organ to understand the task at hand. Visits can be arranged to churches to hear and see organs built by those companies which the church may be considering. Later, sessions with representatives of the organ company can be arranged and such sessions will be more worthwhile since some preliminary educational work will have transpired.

There are several large electronic organ companies presently engaged in building digital instruments. There are also several "specialist" builders who primarily build pipe organ but who also make digital instruments using samples produced by the Walker Technical Company of Zionsville, Pennsylvania, the premier producer of digital organ stops. The major builders typically offer "show room" models with model numbers. Beginning with small, two-manual organs with self-contained speakers, these companies offer everything from organs more appropriate to living room settings to custom designed, five manual instruments which often are supplemented with organ pipes purchased from suppliers. Costs can begin at around $15,000 and go as high as several hundred thousand dollars. The typical smaller church should expect to pay between $30,000 to $45,000 for a stock model instrument from one of the major electronic organ producers. The specialist builders instruments typically begin at around $100,000 and may reach $150,000 depending on the circumstances of the installation. It should be noted that the samples used in this instruments and the audio package are significantly larger and more sophisticated and the organ consoles are custom built using fine hardwoods. The cost of all organs increases if there are to be display cabinets and facade pipes.

In determining the value received from any electronic organ builder, the consultant can assist the church in analyzing the audio package of each instrument under consideration. In the world of electronic organs, this is the real area of concern, as obviously the success of the installation will be directly related to the number of amplifiers, channels, and speakers which produce the recorded sounds of the organ pipes. A larger organ, for example, being driven by a smaller audio package, won't sound as good as a smaller organ being driven by a larger one.

Other matters which must be considered include the console and the appearance of the finished instrument, i.e. how the speakers are placed in the church. Regarding the console, questions must be asked about the use of hollow plastic keyboards versus steel or wooden core keyboards. Will the console be constructed of plywood with veneers or out of solid hardwoods? Will the stops be laid out in a manner in which most organists would be comfortable or is the console designed in such a way that the visiting organist would have to become familiar with an operating manual before beginning to play? In terms of the appearance of the organ, will the speakers be placed in an already existing chamber or will cabinets have to be constructed? Who will build them, the church or the organ company? How much will they cost? Will non-speaking facade pipes be used to hide the speakers and how much will this add to the cost of the organ? All of these matters must be considered by the church committee dealing with the organ.

Finally, after all of the education, visits to other churches, sessions with organ company representatives, the church will make a decision and be asked to sign a contract. When the organ is installed, it will have to be voiced, that is, every stop will have to be adjusted to sound appropriately for the space in which it will speak. Decisions will be made about the degree of "brightness" in the tone, the style of many of the stops, the overall volume, adjustment of the tremolos, reverberation, etc. Without the assistance of a knowledgeable consultant, the church must accept the finishing provided by the organ company. With a consultant, the church's interests will be represented during the last and vital stages of the installation when the matters regarding the sound of the organ are finalized. The consultant also represents the church in determining whether the organ has been delivered in keeping with the terms of the contract.

The world is ever changing and this is certainly true of electronic organs. Armed with the facts and assisted by those with expertise there is every reason for the church considering an electronic organ to be pleased with the results. Not every church can afford a pipe organ. The good news today is that digital electronics have made significant improvements to organ sound and these instruments can provide much improved leadership to the liturgical needs of the contemporary church.

-by Keith Shafer, Organ Consultant