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Sub And Super Octaves (and Unison Off)


Peter Clark
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Looking at organbuilder websites (I must get a life) I've noticed a renaissance in sub- and super-octave couplers on new tracker instruments, particularly in Europe. My personal experience of these couplers on mech. action is limited but not particularly pleasant; heavy action (almost impossibly so) and the chance of the octaves sounding up the keyboard.

 

Has there been a major technological breakthrough that enables these couplers to work efficiently with mechanical action? If so, then maybe they should be more available, particularly on small organs, and particularly on the pedal.

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I think most sub and super octave couplers on new mechanical action organs employ electric action - which is also making a come-back on "mechanical" action organs for inter-manual coupling, etc. As you say, sub and super octave couplers employing genuine mechanical action are generally heavy and unpleasent - even on modern mechanical actions.

 

I think sub and super octaves became more widespread when pneumatic action in the mid to late 19th Century made these types of couplers more feasible. There were some isolated experiements with octave couplers earlier than this but met with limited success.

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What real musical use are they for? I know a large mid-19th Century (tracker) Holdich where the Swell has an Octave that was perhaps used for Hymns (the compass is not so large and thus is just accommodating the range nicely). But other than for hymns to make a tune more (perhaps) pronounced I am at a loss. When I have tried them, they just muddle the clarity.

Thanks for some enlightenment.

Best wishes,

N

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This is the sort of question that we should be able to ask on the NPOR and may be surprised when we find the answer. In times gone by the HQ used to be able to run special programmes behind the scenes to answer such questions. I do not know if they still can. (At some time in the future we are promised an upgrade. I would like to be able search on case architects and consultants and perhaps the donor/ funder of the organ. Whether all this would require the data to be entered in a different way I don't know. Maybe they need to establish a focus group!)

 

PJW

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I used to regularly play a 3 manual 1940s Hill, Norman and Beard over here which had Sub, Super and Unison Off on Swell and Choir. The Swell Unison off was useful as there wasn't an independent soft 8ft reed, so I would use the Super and UO with the Contra Oboe 16ft. Without an independent 4ft flute anywhere in the organ, the Octave coupler was much used with the 8ft flutes also. All in all, this organ had a rather inflexible specification (including a Great consisting entirely of diapasons).

 

I've played a few organs back in the UK with these, making the action incredibly heavy when in use. These seem to feature quite a lot on the Cavaille-Coll instruments over in France - although having never played one I'm not sure whether this adds heaviness to the action.

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"Has there been a major technological breakthrough that enables these couplers to work efficiently with mechanical action?"

(Quote)

 

Save if someone invents the perpetual move -something that could save the planet, as energy would

be granted for free with zero-emissions- the laws of the physic obtains, so that if we want sub and/or

super-octave couplers on a tracker action, we will have to limit even more the already lacking

foundation tone in modern organs.

Or, indeed, resort to electric couplers, a non-sense aimed at playing "we say this organ

is a tracker one"... :rolleyes:

 

Now if we agreed upon an electro-pneumatic action, the real name of the game will appear,

that is, the technologic breaktrough which gave those couplers their musical value: lower

halving rates in the scales progression towards the treble, in order to avoid to have

matches as pipes in the last octave of the extended chest (that is, the 73 notes compass

that goes with such couplers in good post-romantic organs).

That way we end up with stops that display slightly different characters between the bass

and the treble, like.....With "mixed scalings" in northern german baroque organs (and others!),

while the use of the octave coupler won't end up with screamings (from the matches).

So the stops are designed, and voiced, according to the presence of those couplers.

 

Same thing with the mixtures; should we want a neo-Schnitgeresque Mixture of, say,

8 ranks, with an actual compass of 73 notes, we shall have 8, 9 or 10 breaks, and shall

end up with the Glockenspiel which is discussed on another thread here. So the Mixtures should

have less ranks and the lowest possible number of breaks, while at the same time they

must be designed to avoid high pitches (which will be cared for by the octave coupler).

That way, it will be avoided to get an obscure soup of high-pitched noises.

 

An example is given by Maurice Delmotte of Belgium who, in his electro-pneumatic organs

from the 1930's, never went higher than 1' at C: "Fourniture 3 rangs: 2'- 1 1/3'- 1' ", which

means we had only two breaks to finish with 2' as the highest rank in the treble -already

a challenge with 73 notes-. This " 1' ceiling " I met also elsewhere in this kind of organs.

 

Besides this, it is the complete specifications design which is modified with such couplers;

for example, Delmotte often dropped the 16-8-4 reed chorus on the Swell organ, building

all reed stops there at 8' pitch.. He spared two stops -expansive ones- for the price of one octave of treble (flue!) pipes, and could offer something else more for the same price.

 

I hope everyone will understand what I mean here: octave couplers and sub-octave couplers (with the possible exception of the Swell to Great in 16', already present in many romantic organs) go with a dedicate organ style,

that is, the post-romantic (sometimes called "late-romantic", an expression I disagree with) one;

if we want to use them in a modern organ today, its design and specifications should be firmly

rooted in that style, without any attempt to "be able to do justice to earlier repertoire"....An old

tune already!

 

Pierre

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What real musical use are they for? I know a large mid-19th Century (tracker) Holdich where the Swell has an Octave that was perhaps used for Hymns (the compass is not so large and thus is just accommodating the range nicely). But other than for hymns to make a tune more (perhaps) pronounced I am at a loss. When I have tried them, they just muddle the clarity.

Thanks for some enlightenment.

Best wishes,

N

Hymns, yes. I can't be the only organist who's resorted to playing 7- or 8-note chords in order to beef-up/brighten the support of the congregation from an underpowered organ, particularly of the "octopod" variety. And probably the Sw8ve/Gt is the most useful coupler in this regard.

 

Manual 8ve to Pedal couplers can be very useful in providing 4' based solo colours for chorale preludes etc when there are only 16' stops on the pedal and, say, 8' reeds on the manual.

 

Strings: where there are undulants, it's nice to make that Mantovani-like sound :rolleyes: As long as the registers are voiced with the use of 8ve couplers in mind. (Thank you, Pierre.)

 

At St Paul's, Covent Garden, there is a Pedal Octave coupler which, IIRC, works on all three pedal stops (open and stopped 16' flues and Trombone 16'). In hymns it comes in handy but of course its use in proper organ music is hugely compromised by the lack of any extra pipes. Technical question: when designing a small pedal department would it be easier (I'm interested only in mechanical action here) to have 16' only with an octave coupler and extra pipes for the top octave OR a separate 8' stop by extension?

 

And similarly, would it be easier to provide a TC 16' extension to the 8' on the swell or have a SwSub8ve/Gt coupler?

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What real musical use are they for?

Well, one can't effectively render Isolde's Liebestod without a Swell and/or Solo sub-octave (or at least some very luscious 16s)...

 

and of course much French symphonic repertoire had Octaves graves in mind for big tutti passages played at the top end of the keyboard (to answer another subscriber, no they do not effect the weight of the keys as they function through the Barker machine).

 

Liturgically, the most useful application of both sub and super is to make string soup (which I find most toothsome on occasions), and also to brighten the Tuba when used for solos against a full congregation (at Hereford Cathedral the Tuba is rarely used without super octave as it simply cuts no ice in the nave). The most useful mini-full swell for psalm accompaniment can often be achieved by adding Sw Octave to the 16' reed plus 4 (and 2?) flues.

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I think most sub and super octave couplers on new mechanical action organs employ electric action

 

Not on ours they don't!

 

To answer Innate's earlier question as to whether there has been a recent technological breakthrough.... No, we've used an old technology, but one that works and which doesn't interrupt the direct mechanical link between key and pallet.

 

http://www.willis-organs.com/floating_lever.html

 

DW

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Well, one can't effectively render Isolde's Liebestod without a Swell and/or Solo sub-octave (or at least some very luscious 16s)...

 

and of course much French symphonic repertoire had Octaves graves in mind for big tutti passages played at the top end of the keyboard (to answer another subscriber, no they do not effect the weight of the keys as they function through the Barker machine).

 

Liturgically, the most useful application of both sub and super is to make string soup (which I find most toothsome on occasions), and also to brighten the Tuba when used for solos against a full congregation (at Hereford Cathedral the Tuba is rarely used without super octave as it simply cuts no ice in the nave). The most useful mini-full swell for psalm accompaniment can often be achieved by adding Sw Octave to the 16' reed plus 4 (and 2?) flues.

 

I was thinking more of the UK - but of course the Graves in France (as well as those from the Western region after making music) are a necessity as we all know, and composers wrote some passages especially because of their presence. But, Ian, I read between your lines for the real answer. Thanks.

N

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Well, one can't effectively render Isolde's Liebestod without a Swell and/or Solo sub-octave (or at least some very luscious 16s)...

 

and of course much French symphonic repertoire had Octaves graves in mind for big tutti passages played at the top end of the keyboard (to answer another subscriber, no they do not effect the weight of the keys as they function through the Barker machine).

 

Liturgically, the most useful application of both sub and super is to make string soup (which I find most toothsome on occasions), and also to brighten the Tuba when used for solos against a full congregation (at Hereford Cathedral the Tuba is rarely used without super octave as it simply cuts no ice in the nave). The most useful mini-full swell for psalm accompaniment can often be achieved by adding Sw Octave to the 16' reed plus 4 (and 2?) flues.

 

I was thinking more of the UK - but of course the Graves in France (as well as those from the Western region after making music) are a necessity as we all know, and composers wrote some passages especially because of their presence. But, Ian, I read between your lines for the real answer. Thanks.

N

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My old Bishop (http://www.npor.org.uk/cgi-bin/Rsearch.cgi?Fn=Rsearch&rec_index=N07297) had six couplers as you would expect for a three-manual, except that rather than a Choir to great it had a Choir sub to Great and no unison between those manuals. I was never quite sure why, though it did make for a nice manual 16 foot bass when coupled to the Choir 8 foot flute.

 

Am I correct in thinking that certain American romantic builders such as Skinner routinely provided 73 pipe ranks and soundboards to ensure that the octave coupler didn't run out of notes in the top octave?

 

I don't know if anyone has invented an entirely mechical Unison Off coupler (though with builders of Mr. Willis's ingenuity I wouldn't be surprised). A useful accessory to have where you have a mild 16 foot reed to avoid playing a right hand solo an octave down (or playing a beautiful 4 foot flute down an octave), though one should always ensure it is off before closing down the instrument...

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OK, so the suspense is killing you all...

 

...otherwise you risk a comment in the tuning book "something's wrong with the Swell - none of the stops work any more" from the next person who plays!

 

Hi all

In a sort of opposite version of the last comment, I asked once, as to why some stops were working without being drawn. ?

______ "check the crescendo pedal !"

 

Jonathan

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"Am I correct in thinking that certain American (Post-) romantic builders such as Skinner routinely provided 73 pipe ranks and soundboards to ensure that the octave coupler didn't run out of notes in the top octave?"

(Quote)

 

Not some builders, but a majority of them in that period -see above-.

 

Pierre

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OK, so the suspense is killing you all...

...otherwise you risk a comment in the tuning book "something's wrong with the Swell - none of the stops work any more" from the next person who plays!

I had a similar experience while getting acquainted with the Mutin-Cavaillé-Coll organ of Metz Cathedral recently.

The Grand Orgue and Récit both have "Unison ON" couplers (foot pedals) which have to be activated before anything will play on those manuals. You have to re-activate them after using the General Cancel. Most disconcerting! Is this normal in France? The Ducroquet-C-C at Aix-en-Provence (the only other French organ I know well) doesn't have them.

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I had a similar experience while getting acquainted with the Mutin-Cavaillé-Coll organ of Metz Cathedral recently.

The Grand Orgue and Récit both have "Unison ON" couplers (foot pedals) which have to be activated before anything will play on those manuals. You have to re-activate them after using the General Cancel. Most disconcerting! Is this normal in France? The Ducroquet-C-C at Aix-en-Provence (the only other French organ I know well) doesn't have them.

 

I gather that a complete record of this organ is available to buy as a set of the Hauptwerk digitalised organ system. I wonder how many disappointed customers try and fail to install the set on their computers, and blame Windows rather than Cavaille Coll when they fail to get any sound!

 

To Pierre: thanks for your correction, I hadn't realised that it was commonplace to extend the octave upwards. I presume that was cheaper and easier to do than to extend the octave downwards for the suboctave coupler...

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I've played a few organs back in the UK with these, making the action incredibly heavy when in use. These seem to feature quite a lot on the Cavaille-Coll instruments over in France - although having never played one I'm not sure whether this adds heaviness to the action.

No further weight is added - due to Barker lever assistance.

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Well, one can't effectively render Isolde's Liebestod without a Swell and/or Solo sub-octave (or at least some very luscious 16s)...

 

and of course much French symphonic repertoire had Octaves graves in mind for big tutti passages played at the top end of the keyboard (to answer another subscriber, no they do not effect the weight of the keys as they function through the Barker machine).

 

Absolutely. I would not part with mine. To answer another contributor: my instrument (as he already knows) is neither Romantic, post-Romantic or even neo-Romantic. If pressed, I should perhaps describe it is English enightened neo-Classical/eclectic - if such a definition exists (since it hardly 'defines' anything....) However, the octave couplers which it has I find very useful for all sorts of things. To give just one example, if we are performing canticles by Boyce, the Swell 4ft. Flute, Sub Octave, Unison Off and Octave give a pleasant 8ft. and 2ft. flute-toned registration, which contrasts pleasantly with the Positive Gedeckt (8ft.) and Blockflute (2ft.), or the Positive Chimney Flute (4ft.) and Sifflute (1ft.) - this latter played down an octave - or the G.O. Quintatön (16ft.) and Harmonic Flute (4ft.) - played up an octave. The Swell registration is of course all the more useful since it is under expression and can be matched closely to the dynamic level of the choir.

 

 

My apologies Ian; I have only just noticed that you had already answered the question posed by Vox Angelica.

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"To answer another contributor: my instrument (as he already knows) is neither Romantic, post-Romantic or even neo-Romantic. If pressed, I should perhaps describe it is English enightened neo-Classical/eclectic..."

(Quote)

 

-Néo-classique.

 

- if such a definition exists (since it hardly 'defines' anything....) However, the octave couplers which it has I find very useful for all sorts of things. To give just one example, if we are performing canticles by Boyce, the Swell 4ft. Flute, Sub Octave, Unison Off and Octave give a pleasant 8ft. and 2ft. flute-toned registration, which contrasts pleasantly with the Positive Gedeckt (8ft.) and Blockflute (2ft.), or the Positive Chimney Flute (4ft.) and Sifflute (1ft.) - this latter played down an octave - or the G.O. Quintatön (16ft.) and Harmonic Flute (4ft.) - played up an octave. The Swell registration is of course all the more useful since it is under expression and can be matched closely to the dynamic level of the choir.

(Quote)

 

Of course, we speak here about detail registrations; there, anyone who is ready to spent time

will find quite interesting things, no doubt.

But if we aim at good results with such couplers in ensemble registrations (Diapason choruses,

reed choruses, Full Swell), the octave couplers need to be borne in mind from the blank page

of the designer.

 

Pierre

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I gather that a complete record of this organ is available to buy as a set of the Hauptwerk digitalised organ system.

Indeed. As are also Aix and Caen.

 

I wonder how many disappointed customers try and fail to install the set on their computers, and blame Windows rather than Cavaille Coll when they fail to get any sound!

The only thing that would stop you installing it is insufficient RAM. The "unison" couplers default to ON when the blower starts.

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"To answer another contributor: my instrument (as he already knows) is neither Romantic, post-Romantic or even neo-Romantic. If pressed, I should perhaps describe it is English enightened neo-Classical/eclectic..."

(Quote)

 

-Néo-classique.

 

- if such a definition exists (since it hardly 'defines' anything....) However, the octave couplers which it has I find very useful for all sorts of things. To give just one example, if we are performing canticles by Boyce, the Swell 4ft. Flute, Sub Octave, Unison Off and Octave give a pleasant 8ft. and 2ft. flute-toned registration, which contrasts pleasantly with the Positive Gedeckt (8ft.) and Blockflute (2ft.), or the Positive Chimney Flute (4ft.) and Sifflute (1ft.) - this latter played down an octave - or the G.O. Quintatön (16ft.) and Harmonic Flute (4ft.) - played up an octave. The Swell registration is of course all the more useful since it is under expression and can be matched closely to the dynamic level of the choir.

(Quote)

 

Of course, we speak here about detail registrations; there, anyone who is ready to spent time

will find quite interesting things, no doubt.

But if we aim at good results with such couplers in ensemble registrations (Diapason choruses,

reed choruses, Full Swell), the octave couplers need to be borne in mind from the blank page

of the designer.

 

Pierre

 

Well, yes - but I would rather have the choice of being able to use the couplers, than a designer deciding, perhaps arbitrarily, that such effects were at odds with the design of the instrument and therefore should not be included.

 

Naturally, I exercise careful judgement and (hopefully) good taste when utilising these registers. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how far one can push the boundaries - and what ostensibly bizarre registrations actually work in this acoustcally arid building. In fact, I have found that the most satisfying registration for Bach's Chorale Prelude on Aus tiefer Not, is the full choruses of Pedal, G.O. and Swell, with the Swell Sub Octave and Octave, and all unison couplers (except those for the Positive), with the upper pedal part played by a colleague on the Positive with Gedeckt, Principal (4ft.), Cymbal (29-33-36), Crumhorn and the Chamade - in octaves. I have yet to hear a convincing version played by one person with the double pedal part played as written. Whatever registration is used I find this method unsatisfactory. Either the lower pedal part is too prominent (or lacking in gravitas), or the upper part is not prominent enough. Even a divided pedal board would not necessarily solve the problem, since it would require the combination system to act also upon the point of division - which would change a number of times during the chorale - and therefore be programmed on several general pistons, in order to take account of these alterations.

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