All about organs
For more than 500 years organs have worked by stringing together pipes of varying length and passing air through them. Like the internal combustion engine, it is rather surprising they work at all, but such is the development and refinement that a vast number of superb instruments are in use and working well. It is not unusual for them to last 100 years and it is normal to rebuild and upgrade using earlier pipework. The parts that wear out are the many hundreds of small leather valves and rubber tubing that eventually dry or perish. Organs like this are very expensive to build and refurbish because most work has to be done by hand.
A typical village church organ is likely to have a modest specification, have been built between the wars but still is just about adequate for ordinary Sunday services.
Cathedrals, being bigger, need a larger organ and having professional staff tend to want upgrades and rebuilds every thirty years. Most cathedral organs in the UK have some ranks of pipes from previous builds for the very good reason that voicing pipework is a bit like making a Stradivarius violin: we don't seem to be able to do better than the early masters, so we retain the best of the old bits.
Hardly any totally new organs have been built in the UK since the war, though very many have been re-built. The exceptions being Coventry and Llandaff Cathedrals which have had a completely new organ, using nothing from the past The Llandaff organ was commissioned at Easter 2010 and the cost was £1,500,000.
By comparison, the pipe organ in the Grand Temple at Freemasons' Hall in Great Queen Street London was built in 1933 and is very tired. It will need £500,000 to refurbish it and even then it will meet only 1933 standards, with no change to the sound produced.
These have been around since the late 1930s and for the first 50 years were pretty awful. They certainly did not emulate the pipe organ although they gradually improved and many Masonic Temples have electronic organs from this period, because they are cheap, cheerful, can be plugged into a normal power socket and make a noise of a sort.
The big change has come in the last decade when digital technology has brought huge improvements to the sound produced. There has been, for generations, an 'us and them' dichotomy with proper organists looking down very long noses at their electrified friends. This view is changing, and I am one amongst them who now has to admit that if you install the latest digital organ, blindfold the listener and ask him to say whether a large pipe organ is being played or whether he's listening to the loan instrument brought in by a leading digital supplier he will be hard pressed to tell them apart and give the right answer.
The shock comes when you compare prices. You can usually produce much the same sound for a quarter of the cost. Like good Hi Fi, the cost of improved sound beyond a certain point increases rapidly for little discernible change in sound. Llandaff Cathedral had two different digital organs on loan during the recent rebuild; these were top of the range and it is true they are not as good as the £1,500,000 job now in place, but they were acceptable to most people as an interim instrument.
So for Masonic purposes, where money is tight, then we must go for modern digital instruments and I am confident you'll be happy with the sound. You can listen to some sound-bites here
The final point is that a pipe organ needs tuning and maintenance on a regular basis, and for large instruments this can amount to £1,000 per annum. A digital organ does not go out of tune, does not get sticky in the damp and needs little in the way of repairs, so there is virtually no annual maintenance cost, which over ten years weighs heavily in favour of the digital instrument. (See maintenance - below)
On balance, the digital wins on cost and is a very close rival on sounds produced. To confirm this I should end by mentioning Liverpool Cathedral. This has the largest pipe organ in the UK and at present awaits a £900,000 make-over. One of the digital people put in their best instruments and held a 'battle of the organs' with the enormous pipe organ. No one would have dared to do this 10 years ago, but in 2010 it was carried off with panache and all the pipe organ aficionados and the protagonists of digital technology drank coffee afterwards and patched up their quarrels of yesteryear agreeing that digital technology had come of age and is worthy to stand alongside the real pipe organ.
What they sound like
A picture of a digital organ does not make much impact. The better test is to try a soundbite. The snag is, you will hear this through your computer speakers which probably restricty the quality of sound, but try these as an example.
But, and here's the but . . . Most pipe organs are fine and work well after 100 years, provided they have had some tender loving care over the years. By contrast a 20 year old electronic organ will have been overtaken by vast changes in technology. The many contacts and switches become worn, the circuit boards and chips suffer obsolescence and like your 20 year old television is not something you want the neighbours to see. So you have to buy a new one every couple of decades as the old instrument no longer has parts available nor the technical expertise available to repair them.
How did we decide what to buy?
In our research for a suitable organ we considered Allen, Copeman Hart, Makin, Viscount, Wyvern, Phoenix and Rodgers. They all supply a range of digital instruments and have to be competitive with each other to stay in the market at these difficult economic times. The technical differences are few, but it is not just the product specifications that matter.
Firstly they all now use sampled sounds of pipework that include the ambience of the building. So for some purposes these may be recorded in a large cathedral with huge reverberation, or taken in a smaller auditorium with less echo. Most manufacturers are tending to move away from the earlier idea of having a “Reverb” control where you can increase or decrease the reverberation to suit the music you are playing, but these have not disappeared entirely.
Most digital organs now display this on a screen about the size of your mobile phone where you can scroll through such features, if you have the time and eyesight to do so while playing, turning the pages and watching the ceremony.
Finally, some complete organs or their major components come from Euro or US $ sources so currency variations could have influenced the decision. Certainly there is an environmental impact of shipping a large instrument from a distant factory. This coupled with the desire to know the manufacturer and voicer are near at hand, led us to place the contract with Wyvern.
The most important part of the specification is probably the array of speakers. The performance of these has improved considerably in recent years, and to allocate a decent part of the budget to the sound sources, the number of speakers and their characteristics seems important - far more so than buying gadgetry. In the Grand Temple at MMH we have large speakers at the west door, hidden behing grills and these haven't been upgraded for 25 years so new ones will make a huge difference.
Keyboards and stops
Organist call the keyboards "manuals".
The number of stops does not necessarily increase the total volume available from a modern digital organ. A good English Cathedral sound with an additional reed chorus or tuba for fanfares does seem to be available from the instruments with fewer stops, but the effect depends a lot on the speakers selected. (See above).
This picture shows the Organ Appeal Coordinator playing a 3 manual pipe organ with draw stops. It is valued at £750,000, so we're not having one like that.
Draw Stops or Tabs
Many organists like draw stops because they look proper. Some merely illuminate when you touch them and don't have the feel of pulling out a pipe organ draw top. Others are exactly those used when building pipe organs today so have the 'look and feel' of the real thing. Draw stops add about £5,000 to the cost of a digital organ console because each has a hand wired solenoid behind and are costly to hook up. A 35 stop organ will have 45 as they must look the same for the couplers as well, of course.
Messiaen played on a tab stop organ in Paris and did quite well, so I suspect we went for the lower cost option.
The Eco Argument
A project of this sort should consider the environmetal impact of replacing the organ.
It could be said that a pipe organ has a life six times as long as an electronic organ, so the impact of manufacture is something like a sixth of the environmental damage done in building electronic organs six times over the same period. This, of course, is why we should all buy Rolls Royces and avoid changing our car every 5 years.
But when it comes to the operational impact on the environment, a large pipe organ has a motor to run the blower that is the size of a small car engine. This uses a lot of electricity, and often a three phase electrical supply is needed. By contrast the typical electronic organ plugs into a 13 amp socket and uses little more than the desk light that illuminates the music.
When it comes to end of life disposal, both are difficult to recycle. Pipe organs have lead and tin mix and lots of this in the pipework and even asbestos in the sound deadening enclosures used for the swell department.
Digital organs are not much better because the printed circuits and chips contain many non-ferrous metals such as Cu, Al, Sn, etc. The purity of these precious metals is more than 10 times higher than that of rich-content raw minerals. Therefore, the recycling of Printed Circuit Boards is an important subject not only from the treatment of waste but also from the recovery of valuable materials. But the process of recovering this is a costly business.
On balance, the Eco Argument favours a modern digital organ.