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Re-engineering The Organ


MusingMuso

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Simple mechanical engineering is usually the best solution to any given problem, as long as it’s feasible. The organ at St Paul’s couldn’t exist in a pure mechanical form. With many cathedrals adding nave divisions, there is a need for non-mechanical actions. Surely the best thing to do would be to use tracker action when feasible, and embrace technology when tracker action isn’t?

 

;)

 

 

=========================

 

 

Mmmmm!

 

You mean, like a bluetooth console?

 

:P

 

MM

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Guest Patrick Coleman
=========================

Mmmmm!

 

You mean, like a bluetooth console?

 

;)

 

MM

 

Would bluetooth technology carry all the necessary data? Perhaps we should tap into the electrical impulses of the brain - would improve my playing no end!!! :P

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=========================

Mmmmm!

 

You mean, like a bluetooth console?

 

:P

 

MM

 

 

I’m pretty sure that Bluetooth doesn’t have the bandwidth for a medium size console, but I may be wrong.

 

:o

 

I don’t see the problem with sampling the o/p of a console and transferring the data, via fibre optics, to a remote division.

 

;)

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Guest Cynic
I’m pretty sure that Bluetooth doesn’t have the bandwidth for a medium size console, but I may be wrong.

 

:P

 

I don’t see the problem with sampling the o/p of a console and transferring the data, via fibre optics, to a remote division.

 

;)

 

All this is far too hi-tec and expensive. Now, some people have experimented with other materials - indeed extremely inexpensive low-tec ones, one instance that springs to mind was by the great Matthew Copley. In his organ in Blackheath, South London the tracker pedal chests used to be operated by string running over cotton reels.

 

 

How well did it work, you ask?

 

Ah....you can imagine, can't you! In any case, it is now no more, having been replaced with a reliable and time-served alternative by others.

 

I once saw an organ where the builder had dispensed with a pedal roller board by buying a push-bike brake cable for each note and training the outer casing of the cables gently to run inwards towards the manual spacing. I wish I could remember where this was. The inner cables pulled perfectly well because the bends were not too sharp. It was a clever dodge and it worked!

 

I have used burglar alarm reed switches (ex Maplin) for drawstop action contacts a few times. I can recommend this - they're easy to adjust, compact and totally damp/dirt/tamper/shock-proof.

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=========================

Mmmmm!

 

You mean, like a bluetooth console?

 

;)

 

MM

 

Hi

 

Would bluetooth be reliable enough? Especially given that it's now available on many mobile ohones, etc. - the risk of interference to the signal could make life interesting! Also, what's it's range? Another aproach would be MIDI over a radio link (the hardware is available) - I guess it uses one of the standard de-regulated radio mic channels - again I would have some reservations about reliability - a multiplex system only requires a single cable, which should be possible in most installations.

 

Incidentally, tracker has been used for a nave organ - St. James, Edgbaston (now closed and organ destroyed) - see http://npor.emma.cam.ac.uk/cgi-bin/Rsearch...ec_index=N07334

 

To be accurate, the Nave division was elevated on the East transept Wall of the crossing - the main organ in a chamber behind this - trackers ran through an arch in the stone work. See the description on NPOR for the rather convoluted tracker runs involved for this later addition.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT
Incidentally, tracker has been used for a nave organ - St. James, Edgbaston (now closed and organ destroyed) - see http://npor.emma.cam.ac.uk/cgi-bin/Rsearch...ec_index=N07334

 

Every Blessing

Tony

 

 

This reminds me............. There are two organs on the walls (opposite each other in a mirror image) in the parish church of Sant'Alessandro in Colonna (Bergamo), which are played from only one console beneath one of the instruments. The mechanics for keys and stops for the other organ travel down from the console, go in a tunnel under the church and up the other side. A distance of 33 metres!! The organs were built by the great Giuseppe II Serrasi in 1781/2 and constitute Opus 193 & 194 in their books. I have a photo of the tunnel and action. All was restored (Italian style) in 1970.

 

All the best,

Nigel

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This reminds me............. There are two organs on the walls (opposite each other in a mirror image) in the parish church of Sant'Alessandro in Colonna (Bergamo), which are played from only one console beneath one of the instruments. The mechanics for keys and stops for the other organ travel down from the console, go in a tunnel under the church and up the other side. A distance of 33 metres!! The organs were built by the great Giuseppe II Serrasi in 1781/2 and constitute Opus 193 & 194 in their books. I have a photo of the tunnel and action. All was restored (Italian style) in 1970.

 

All the best,

Nigel

 

Is there any chance of some photos? That would be interesting to see.

 

:rolleyes:

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT
Is there any chance of some photos? That would be interesting to see.

 

:rolleyes:

 

How does one share/send pictures here? Only too happy to let you see a nightmare.

 

Best wishes,

Nigel

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How does one share/send pictures here? Only too happy to let you see a nightmare.

 

Best wishes,

Nigel

 

Save them as jpegs (bitmaps will take longer to upload), and email them to a friend who has a website and who is happy to host them. Then simply ask your friend for the urls of the pictures and post those on this site.

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT
Save them as jpegs (bitmaps will take longer to upload), and email them to a friend who has a website and who is happy to host them. Then simply ask your friend for the urls of the pictures and post those on this site.

 

Comrade Coram has most kindly suggested that I could zap the pix to him and so they are now to be found on his Web Site. Click HERE to view the Tracker Tunnel of Bergamo. Best wishes and also thanks to DC,

Nigel

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Guest Patrick Coleman
Comrade Coram has most kindly suggested that I could zap the pix to him and so they are now to be found on his Web Site. Click HERE to view the Tracker Tunnel of Bergamo. Best wishes and also thanks to DC,

Nigel

 

Certainly looks more interesting than a cable! :angry:

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Guest Patrick Coleman
And I think the organist of such an action must be one Signor Caratti.

 

N

 

Even after a stiff gin it still looks daunting! :angry:

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Comrade Coram has most kindly suggested that I could zap the pix to him and so they are now to be found on his Web Site.

 

Good grief - that's quite astonishing! Thanks for that! Now we need to see a divided pneumatic organ with a run of tubes like that?

 

All the rage in years gone by - there must be some left with long, long runs!

 

Anyone?

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Comrade Coram has most kindly suggested that I could zap the pix to him and so they are now to be found on his Web Site. Click HERE to view the Tracker Tunnel of Bergamo. Best wishes and also thanks to DC,

Nigel

 

 

Amazing! But what's it like to play with all that inertia? :angry:

 

Paul

 

Thanks Nigel. Absolutely fascinating, you do have to wonder what it’s like to play?

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT
Thanks Nigel. Absolutely fascinating, you do have to wonder what it’s like to play?

 

I imagine nuance goes out of the window!

That's also why in another post I assumed the organist must be a Signor Caratti, though it could be an emigré lady(sic) shot-putter from the former Soviet Union perhaps.

 

Have a jolly weekend.

Nigel

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  • 2 weeks later...
Guest Nigel ALLCOAT
Thanks Nigel. Absolutely fascinating, you do have to wonder what it’s like to play?

 

Having just returned to re-read this topic I realize that England had the cat's whiskers of a long tracker instrument when Hill provided an action of 90ft for his detached console (1842) in Canterbury Cathedral. Beat that?

 

Best wishes,

Nigel

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  • 2 weeks later...
The one I like is the description of Tallis at Dover priory: joculator organorum.

 

(That one conjours up images as well...)

 

Uh-huh.... thank you for that, Vox....

 

 

Did they splash out on an expensive memorial....?

 

 

:rolleyes:

 

Pox vobiscum....

 

B)

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  • 6 months later...
I was "musing on the move" as one does, and the thought occurred to me that organs haven't changed substantially for quite some time. It's still wood, glue, leather, felt and half-a-million screws holding it all together.

 

When I look at engineering and materials science, I see something quite different: materials engineered rather than crafted, and specifically designed to act in a particular way and to a particular specification.

 

So here is my "thought"........

 

If the organ had never been invented, and someone came along and said, "Hey, if I blow this tube, it makes a musical note," how would you make a musical instrument which used ANYTHING at the disposal of designers/engineers to-day.

 

Remember, it has to last a bit longer than a £30 DVD-player from Asda, but does this mean only the use of natural and very expensive materials, or perhaps other materials and production methods?

 

After all, a Jumbo Jet is a high-tech product, which has to perform with faultless reliability over many years, and in the most extreme conditions.

 

It seems a simple enough question to me.

 

:rolleyes:

 

MM

 

This is an interesting proposition, but has been explored by many organ-builders with only occasional impact on the craft. 20th century organ-building is littered with examples of attempts to apply new materials and a ‘manufactory’ approach to the craft, but with little lasting success.

 

As other have mentioned, Compton is the obvious example, applying as much innovation and standardisation to production as possible, but this proved unsustainable for a number of reasons. Notwithstanding the quality of most of Compton’s work (and the design innovations of Jimmy Taylor’s input), the key issue was (and still is) one of economics – to make standardisation ‘work’, high-volume production of a standard product is essential. Compton’s approach just about sustained the firm the in early 20th century, when the factory was producing huge quantities of instruments, but even then the firm struggled financially, with Compton eventually forced to relinquish ownership of the company he founded. Compton’s standardisation principle implied one style of organ-building – all well and good assuming the market place likes the style, but bad news when it goes out of fashion, or when organists want something slightly different. A quick look at the variety of opinion proffered to the specification proposals on here will give a hint as to how much design flexibility is required by the client. Remember Henry Ford’s thoughts on customisation of his factory product!

 

Mechanisation of production is only of limited application in any craft and, for my money, organ-building is about as standardised as we would ever want it to be. Most organ-builders use standard production components (action parts etc) made in volume (with some degree of economy) by a few suppliers. The application of CAD and CAM help eliminate some of the cost associated with production, but the bulk of organ-building defies mechanical production – pipe-making is a good example. Planer-machines are used, but pipes are still cast, cut, made and voiced by hand and most people appreciate that this is an essential craft exercise where the craftsperson has a tangible connection with creation of a unique and quality artistic product, rather than something that just needs to be made well, to tight engineering and cost tolerances. What machine has ears that can determine musical sound without human involvement? This costs a lot in terms of man-power but is unavoidable. I recently read that the appliance manufacturer Whirlpool aim for less than one hour of labour input into the production of a domestic washing machine. That is about £20 cost for a product which we might expect to pay £400-£500 – the rest goes on design development, plant, overheads, distribution, support, management, marketing, tax etc, and profit of course. Even if it were possible, or desirable to mechanise the bulk of organ-building, what organ-builder would have the resources to develop and build the machinery required, and who would want an organ that is one of thousands made in an absolutely identical style? Volume demands mean that factory production is no more an economic possibility for a craft like organ-building than is it an artistically attractive one.

 

As for alternative or improved materials, organ-builders are a rather adept at trying out new products – with more or less success. Compton seized on Bakelite in the 20s, the neo-classicists introducing aluminium, titanium, Perspex, fibreglass, chipboard, particleboard etc. Some of these have stood the test of time, others abandoned for reasons of questionable longevity or aesthetics. Bellows became schwimmers, which in turn became bellows again…and so the circle turns.

 

Carbon-fibre is probably the most recent innovation – J.W.W./P&S used it in the astonishingly complex tracker action of a large organ for the US a few years back, though had to overcome a variety of challenges presented by some of the material’s physical properties. New production techniques were required, different approaches to gluing to connectors, and particular challenges in supporting horizontal runs had to be overcome. All of this implies a huge development overhead on any such project – and this in an industry that has precious little in the way of profit margin let alone any allowance for R&D.

 

Good engineering (and indeed business) practice would demand that any new idea be thoroughly evaluated by the designer, and that comparison be made with existing options. If the new material does not offer a better alternative to the established product it would make little sense to incorporate it. If it is incorporated, long-term serviceability should be considered – organ-builders are skilled in wood, leather and other traditional crafts (and geared up in this respect) – how many are in a position to make an on-the-job repair on a ‘new’ material, and what is the implication for the maintenance cost of the instrument in the long term? Carbon-fibre is a good example in this respect – for a further insight I would recommend a read of the excellent article on tracker materials by Didier Grassin and Johannes Gunther in the 2003 edition of ‘Organ Building’ (and if you don’t subscribe already, do so if only for these occasional moments of real insight).

 

New organs are their own prototypes – the ASDA £30 CD player, and the Jumbo-Jet both incorporate huge development resources whereas pipe organs do not – benefiting instead from years of received wisdom, and the occasional burst of real design inspiration (usually one in every generation). Organ-building is also a craft trade rather than a manufacturing industry and for my money this is one of its joys. Creative possibility is boundless in the tonal development, visual appearance and mechanical design; anyone after an alternative that is mass-produced and uses lots of modern materials is able to find such a product, only it has speakers instead of pipes.

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This is an interesting proposition, but has been explored by many organ-builders with only occasional impact on the craft. 20th century organ-building is littered with examples of attempts to apply new materials and a ‘manufactory’ approach to the craft, but with little lasting success..... etc

 

 

===========================

 

 

 

Thank you for a considered and well-judged reply; especially since I had thought this thread dead in the water.

 

To pick up on a couple of points:-

 

The first point concerns John Compton. The financial demise of Compton was possibly not un-connected with war-time hostilities, coupled to an adherence on a totally in-house manufacturing process and the loss of skilled labour at a critical time. I don’t know basically, but I can see problems with that sort of approach if anything in the production chain or supply-side was disrupted; as we know them to have been. (I forget when the fire occurred at the factory). Of course, on the plus-side, it did work well during the time that Compton was producing VERY standardised cinema-organs, on which most parts were interchangeable with those taken from others. Of course, volume was the key, and no-one built quite so many organs as Compton in such a short period of time; often with very agreeable rather than musically state-of-the-art results. Of course, when things are going fine and dandy, there wasn’t a problem, but when things went wrong, Compton had a huge works, huge fixed overheads and the attendant costs which could not be paired-back easily or quickly.

 

I still think that there were and still are lessons to be learned from the approach, but perhaps not in these days of very limited organ-building and strictly bespoke designs.

 

The second point is contained in the last posting on the subject, and it is this which most interests me.

 

Quote: - “If it is incorporated, long-term serviceability should be considered – organ-builders are skilled in wood, leather and other traditional crafts (and geared up in this respect) – how many are in a position to make an on-the-job repair on a ‘new’ material, and what is the implication for the maintenance cost of the instrument in the long term?”

 

It is this latter aspect which most interests me, because at a time when labour-costs are higher than they have ever been, and where most of the cost of organ-work is swallowed up by man-hours and payment of wages; profit-margins have to come from a carefully calculated “margin” which, as we all know, can all go wrong when unexpected problems or delays occur. For almost ALL organ-builders, unless supported by a generous benefactor, even a big delay can spell disaster, due to the nature of staged-payments, the punitive costs of borrowing, or even the loss of interest earned on financial reserves. It’s the sort of thing I had to deal with every day in the craft boat-trade, and I’ve seen grown men weep.

 

I have never worked out the cost-accounting, but I’d like to bet that the cost of a new organ, in total, works out at something like 30% materials, 12% profit, 8% other costs and overheads, and maybe as much as 50% labour costs. This assumes a level playing field and a steady, predictable turn-over year on year. Profits can be severely dented even by quite small spikes in things like gas and electric, or a sudden hike in transport costs caused by a sudden surge in oil-prices, such as we have now.

 

There is a very real financial advantage to Japanese “just in time” procurement, and with standardised components comes a degree of predictability and certainty. This is why motor-manufacturers use many of the same components in a number of different vehicles; but I recognise that this implies a certain “economy of scale” in production.

 

However, I’m in danger of straying away from the subject.

 

Look at the way an organ is built.

 

The simple bar and slider chest looks simple enough; though it requires considerable craft-skill if it to be reliable and lasting. The Americans, for instance, largely abandoned them; instead preferring various unit-construction methods; many of which are fairly standard.

 

I would argue that the design of a bar and slider chest is really a bit of a nightmare; even if it works very well in practice. As I said in a previous post, the bar and slider chest is nothing more than a double-valve system separated by a lot of baffles and seals; which is where all the work comes in.

 

I would even suggest that the design, from a maintenance point of view, is upside down; even if this is necessary. Consider just how long it takes to get to a slider; beneath which may be a bit of warping or a small split in the table. Out with the pipes, off with the racks, up with the footboards etc etc. It’s a nightmare!

 

I would suggest, that anything which is attached to the wind-table, and which can be removed as a module from BELOW, without disturbing everything else, has got to be better design than what exists now; irrespective of what materials are used. Because such modules would not necessarily have to conform to the layout of the pipes, they could be standardised to a large degree; with obvious exceptions. So what I had in mind was a three stage system, where there is a key-pallet module, a quite separate registration valve-module (with any number of possible alternatives to the troublesome slider mechanisms now used), and then the actual table on which the pipes rest; themselves of modular construction to more or less standardised dimensions. The table could even consist of modules bolted together, because they wouldn’t contain any moving parts and reliability would not be an issue.

 

It actually isn’t changing anything (save for the possible use of sleeve, rotary or other valve mechanisms in place of sliders), and the mechanically operated pallet-action would remain as before.

 

What it would enable, is a large degree of possible standardisation, greater flexibility

of positioning and ultimately, greatly enhanced access when it come to repairs and maintenance.

 

It’s this latter point which interests me, because it is the one thing which could cut man-hours considerably; thus increasing the potential for better profit-margins at both the initial build and the subsequent repairs and re-builds.

 

Of course, I’m probably sounding a bit like Sir John Harvey-Jones, (who died this week), when he went to Morgan Cars, and could scarcely believe the way they made them. I suspect that if a nutty craftsman went into the “Lion’s Den” and announced his idea for a new musical instrument called an organ, they would all put their heads in their hands and say, “I’m out.”

 

 

MM

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