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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

January 21, 2010

Electronic organs (1)

evelyn @ 1:25 pm

Most new parish organs are now electronic.  The great days when a pipe organ was automatically part of any new church are long gone.  Electronic organs can be really useful and sound well, if they are carefully chosen with regard to both the instrument itself and the church where it will be played.

However, these instruments come in all shapes and sizes, with endless sounds and gadgetry, and it is not surprising that the average organist, let alone the average parish priest, often just doesn’t know where to start when working out the best one to buy.   Here are a few hints:

Quality of sound is by far the most important thing, and you don’t need to be an electronics expert to judge it.  If it doesn’t sound good, don’t buy it.  Sound quality and price don’t necessarily go together.  Even different organs from the same maker may vary in sound quality. You have to try before you buy.

There are a number of manufacturers and suppliers of good electronic organs, but not all of them have local showrooms.  Nevertheless, they’ll all be anxious to sell to you, so they’ll happily tell you which churches have their organs installed.  This can give you the advantage of a chat with the church organist, who’ll tell you how he or she is getting on with the instrument.  And you also hear the organ in its natural setting, a church.  A local supplier may offer to install an organ in your own church temporarily for you to try out.  This is an excellent way to judge the instrument, but it sometimes carries with it a feeling of moral obligation to buy.  If the organ isn’t right for you, resist this feeling; the supplier will understand.

Unlike pipe organs, which can go on for a century and more (the one I play was built in 1874), electronic organs can wear out after a decade or two, although this can vary considerably according to usage and the manufacturer’s ability to supply spare parts.  Advancing technology can also have an effect on a maker’s policy towards earlier models. The crunch comes when parts are no longer obtainable.  This is a particularly important consideration when buying an expensive model; it’s worth finding out what kind of pipe organ could be built for the same money.  And this factor should also be taken into account if you are thinking of buying a second-hand instrument.

The size and shape of the church, and the resonance of its acoustic, are factors that must be taken into account.  Is amplification required?

Don’t pay for a lot of things that you know you will never use, such as automatic rhythms, recording devices or a multitude of orchestral voices.  Enquire if there is a simpler model.  There usually is if you dig deep enough, and it will be a lot, lot cheaper.

Future posts on this subject will look at the basic needs of the average parish in terms of organ sounds.  Also, ways to test out the organ you are thinking of buying.  In the meantime, I’d like to draw your attention to that excellent booklet, Church Organs, produced by the Church of Scotland.  It is downloadable from the SFO website.  Go to Scottish Federation of Organists  and scroll down the page to the section headed ‘The Organ Advice Committee’

And remember, the first and over-riding consideration is the quality of the sound.

1 Comment

  1. Since the above article on electronic organs was written in January of 2010, things have again changed with respect to churches/schools and the pipe organ. Many new pipe organs are being built by a number of new organ builders eager to display their craft.

    At any rate the electronic organ has been with us for some time and there have been countless attempts to make it sound as close to a pipe organ as is humanly possible. One of the big problems was keeping the electronic organ in tune, since the production of overtones which are natural to the pipe organ are not natural to electronic tone production. Therefore compromises had to be made. In some cases the center register was in tune so to speak but the bass may not have been nor the upper reaches of the treble either. Some electronic organ builders devised a method on their more expensive models whereby the organist could turn a little knob which was supposed to tweak the tuning in the upper regions so that they were closer to natural overtones, therefore better “in tune”. The disadvantage here was that the bass remained essentially out of tune with the rest of the organ. In other cases the Pedal was not in tune with the manuals and/or sometimes did not balance the manuals.

    Another problem with the electronic organ is the acoustical one. Regardless of expense, the tone produced electronically occupies only one dimension. The acoustical tone of any musical instrument occupies three dimensions. Putting it another way, no matter how expensive an electronic may be, how many gadgets it may have on the console, the tone still must come out of a speaker. In the final analysis that makes everything dependent upon the speaker.

    From a strictly musical standpoint in church situations, this makes accompanying congregational singing and/or soloists and choirs very difficult, since electronic tone never balances the singers and requires any sensitive organist to be either adding or subtracting stops or constantly making dynamic changes with the swell pedal. The point here is that electronic tone cannot and does not balance acoustical tone no matter what is done. It will always be one dimension versus three dimensions. Pipe organs do not have this problem, even small pipe organs, and churches are finding this out.

    All of the above plus the fact that electronic organs date themselves about like a TV set makes a pipe organ a more attractive investment just from that point of view. Forget the musical problems. Like anything man makes, there are limits and things must be routinely maintained in working condition. Electronic technology changes rapidly on the market making expensive electronic organs too often obsolete in short order. Money cannot buy what is no longer made or available. This is not true of a pipe organ. A pipe organ which is well built initially and kept up with routine maintenance will function indefinitely which we might define as 100 years easily. Many fine pipe organs are still working after 200 to 300 years. The oldest playable pipe organ dates from 1390 A.D.and is played regularly. That’s a record which should be hard to beat.

    Comment by George E. Klump — September 18, 2015 @ 9:07 pm

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