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
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
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
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.
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...