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Organ Tuning


Christopher Price
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Can anyone from the trade explain why the normal practice in tuning is to start on the Principal, rather than the Open 8'? I trained as a piano technician, and in no circumstances would beginning a tuning at anything other than 'mid-C' or the 'A' above it be attempted, due to the acceleration of beats in the higher octave. On the basis that a slower beat is easier to discern accurately, it would seem to be sensible to lay the bearings on the 8' Open, as the intervals will beat strongly and clearly just as well. I have tuned a great many organs this way. with perfectly satisfactory results (and I am exceptionally fussy about correct scales). When reading books on the subject, I always wonder why a method that appears to be more difficult to get right is used? And some of the 'instructions' would be useless to an amateur!

 

The intervals in piano tuning are quite simple, as they beat at one per second for fourths (widened, lower note flattened) and one in two seconds for fifths (narrowed, upper note flattened). My own experience suggests that it is perfectly feasible to apply piano-tuning practices to tne organ. Perhaps no-one has ever realised this?

I have never come across any problems in getting a good scale at 8', as the tone of a Diapason is clear and usually steady enough to rely on.

 

My additional supposition is that as the mid-C octave on the 8' Open is likely to be more stable over time than the Principal, it would seem to be sensible to lay the bearings on this, even if in some cases those pipes sre partly in the facade, or off the chest, as their effect will still be the same aurally.

 

The most stable organ I ever worked on was a tiny Casson Positive, which was a delight to tune, even though the layout was a bit odd!

 

Your replies are eagerly awaited!

 

 

CP

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Can anyone from the trade explain why the normal practice in tuning is to start on the Principal, rather than the Open 8'? I trained as a piano technician, and in no circumstances would beginning a tuning at anything other than 'mid-C' or the 'A' above it be attempted, due to the acceleration of beats in the higher octave. On the basis that a slower beat is easier to discern accurately, it would seem to be sensible to lay the bearings on the 8' Open, as the intervals will beat strongly and clearly just as well. I have tuned a great many organs this way. with perfectly satisfactory results (and I am exceptionally fussy about correct scales). When reading books on the subject, I always wonder why a method that appears to be more difficult to get right is used? And some of the 'instructions' would be useless to an amateur!

 

The intervals in piano tuning are quite simple, as they beat at one per second for fourths (widened, lower note flattened) and one in two seconds for fifths (narrowed, upper note flattened). My own experience suggests that it is perfectly feasible to apply piano-tuning practices to tne organ. Perhaps no-one has ever realised this?

I have never come across any problems in getting a good scale at 8', as the tone of a Diapason is clear and usually steady enough to rely on.

 

My additional supposition is that as the mid-C octave on the 8' Open is likely to be more stable over time than the Principal, it would seem to be sensible to lay the bearings on this, even if in some cases those pipes sre partly in the facade, or off the chest, as their effect will still be the same aurally.

 

The most stable organ I ever worked on was a tiny Casson Positive, which was a delight to tune, even though the layout was a bit odd!

 

Your replies are eagerly awaited!

 

CP

 

 

 

I don't know if anyone could possibly say with certainty why this practice started, but seems to me the most obvious explanation is that the bass and even sometimes the middle of an Open 8' (in a traditional layout) may stand in the case and not within arm's (or arms') reach.

 

I would add a small note to the effect that whereas I can see the reason for checking the bearings when you take over an organ from another tuner, generally the less you touch these pipes the better! Folks here will hopefully be aware that swift tuning is positively good (maybe a counter-intuitive fact) - ideally the tuner does not stand close to the pipes for long or they will warm and thus will become flat after he/she has moved away. Essentially, all fluework in decent (i.e. without leaking upperboards/slides and not too dirty) condition will require should be a quick check, not one that laboriously re-tunes every time.

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I don't know if anyone could possibly say with certainty why this practice started, but seems to me the most obvious explanation is that the bass and even sometimes the middle of an Open 8' (in a traditional layout) may stand in the case and not within arm's (or arms') reach.

 

I would add a small note to the effect that whereas I can see the reason for checking the bearings when you take over an organ from another tuner, generally the less you touch these pipes the better! Folks here will hopefully be aware that swift tuning is positively good (maybe a counter-intuitive fact) - ideally the tuner does not stand close to the pipes for long or they will warm and thus will become flat after he/she has moved away. Essentially, all fluework in decent (i.e. without leaking upperboards/slides and not too dirty) condition will require should be a quick check, not one that laboriously re-tunes every time.

 

Indeed, I agree entirely. My personal observations over the years have been that in many cases the bearings are not always left in a good state, suggesting that perhaps the time spent on each tuning may be limited by economic or practical issues. A really stable scale will undoubtedly help the tuning later on, but only if it's right in the first place!

 

CP

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A possible answer to the question:

 

As tuning is achieved by comparing successive octaves to one set to your chosen tempered scale, in order to minimize errors that may occur at each stage the bearings are set around the mid point of all the octaves of pipes in the organ. If your organ has 5 octaves per rank and ranks from 16' to 1' (in a mixture if not alone) then the middle of these will be the middle octave on the 4'. That is, you will possibly need to tune 5 octaves away from this middle octave in both directions, but no more. If a lower octave is set, there are more likely to be errors towards the smaller pipes. In early organs the lowest pipes would be at 8' pitch (and probably stopped), so the middle octave in this organ would be even higher, but then the ability to set the bearing intervals limits you to using the usual middle (and sometimes tenor octave) of the principal 4'. In addition, as someone mentioned, many organs would not have a metal rank (more reliable than a wood pipe) below 4', so there is an historic as well as practical reason.

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A possible answer to the question:

 

As tuning is achieved by comparing successive octaves to one set to your chosen tempered scale, in order to minimize errors that may occur at each stage the bearings are set around the mid point of all the octaves of pipes in the organ. If your organ has 5 octaves per rank and ranks from 16' to 1' (in a mixture if not alone) then the middle of these will be the middle octave on the 4'. That is, you will possibly need to tune 5 octaves away from this middle octave in both directions, but no more. If a lower octave is set, there are more likely to be errors towards the smaller pipes. In early organs the lowest pipes would be at 8' pitch (and probably stopped), so the middle octave in this organ would be even higher, but then the ability to set the bearing intervals limits you to using the usual middle (and sometimes tenor octave) of the principal 4'. In addition, as someone mentioned, many organs would not have a metal rank (more reliable than a wood pipe) below 4', so there is an historic as well as practical reason.

 

Thanks, a most helpful and lucid explanation!

 

CP

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Coming from the other direction entirely, as you'll know the inevitable harmonic by-product on pianos is to stretch the octaves - thus the highest C is slightly sharper than middle C, and likewise you get progressively (slightly) flatter in the bass. (I expect MM will bounce up Tigger-like and quote some long-dead Yorkshire piano tuner to tell me I'm wrong. To avert that possibility, Google it or read this.)

 

There's also the matter of equalising tension across the soundboard, as anyone who's ever tried to do a pitch raise of more than a semitone in one tuning will tell you. Logically, you have to start at the middle of the keyboard.

 

Freed of both these considerations, the organ tuner can work in an octave where the beats can more easily be heard, and arguably more accurately measured.

 

You also have more than one 'unison' to deal with on an organ, and tuning is always best done at the octave; you therefore need the scale on a Principal to be able to work back and tune the other 8' ranks, and then the other members of each 'family' get set from the 8' parent in each case (Flutes/Bourdons to Stopped Diapasons and Clarions/Doubles to Trumpets, if it wasn't completely obvious).

 

 

Off topic - as a student, I used to make a bit of cash tarting up banger pianos with a process I nicknamed Piano Medic's Instant Recondition - I've still got the t-shirt. Essentially reserved for instruments completely at the end of their life-span and barely good for firewood, it consisted of dousing all the action bearing points in liquid graphite from a garden sprayer, boiling up the bass springs for half an hour (which does nothing to change the metallurgy, but shifted a lot of gunk between the windings), and inserting modelling ply wedges or tin-can shims around loose tuning pins. Then they went up to concert pitch - all of them - sometimes by pitch raising as much as a sixth. By such means, many little offspring were able to get to Grade 3 without their parents forking out a fortune for a truly awful 80s/90s digital substitute which any right-thinking person would be bored with after a month. Anything coming my way which was actually worth tuning I passed on to others...

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Coming from the other direction entirely, as you'll know the inevitable harmonic by-product on pianos is to stretch the octaves - thus the highest C is slightly sharper than middle C, and likewise you get progressively (slightly) flatter in the bass. (I expect MM will bounce up Tigger-like and quote some long-dead Yorkshire piano tuner to tell me I'm wrong. To avert that possibility, Google it or read this.)

 

There's also the matter of equalising tension across the soundboard, as anyone who's ever tried to do a pitch raise of more than a semitone in one tuning will tell you. Logically, you have to start at the middle of the keyboard.

 

Freed of both these considerations, the organ tuner can work in an octave where the beats can more easily be heard, and arguably more accurately measured.

 

You also have more than one 'unison' to deal with on an organ, and tuning is always best done at the octave; you therefore need the scale on a Principal to be able to work back and tune the other 8' ranks, and then the other members of each 'family' get set from the 8' parent in each case (Flutes/Bourdons to Stopped Diapasons and Clarions/Doubles to Trumpets, if it wasn't completely obvious).

 

 

Off topic - as a student, I used to make a bit of cash tarting up banger pianos with a process I nicknamed Piano Medic's Instant Recondition - I've still got the t-shirt. Essentially reserved for instruments completely at the end of their life-span and barely good for firewood, it consisted of dousing all the action bearing points in liquid graphite from a garden sprayer, boiling up the bass springs for half an hour (which does nothing to change the metallurgy, but shifted a lot of gunk between the windings), and inserting modelling ply wedges or tin-can shims around loose tuning pins. Then they went up to concert pitch - all of them - sometimes by pitch raising as much as a sixth. By such means, many little offspring were able to get to Grade 3 without their parents forking out a fortune for a truly awful 80s/90s digital substitute which any right-thinking person would be bored with after a month. Anything coming my way which was actually worth tuning I passed on to others...

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Whilst it is usual to lay a scale from middle C up on a 4' Principal, there are occasional exceptions to this. A friend of mine tunes organs in USA and invariably lays the bearings an octave lower, on the middle octave of an 8' Diapason.

 

When I was an apprentice at Walker's, fifty years ago, I assisted their tuner Stan Garwood. Stan was a brilliant, conscientious and accurate tuner from whom I learned much. He originally trained at Willis's, but had later spent a lot of time tuning Wurlitzer theatre organs via their U.K. connection S.J.Wright (of Kentish Town). Although Stan used a 4' Principal (middle octave) to lay the scale in the normal way on a church organ, whenever we tuned a Wurlitzer he always laid the scale on the Viole rank at 8' pitch, from tenor A to Middle A. I never asked him why, but always assumed that this was the way Wurlitzer's wanted it done. Can any Wurlitzer specialist advise? Perhaps Ed Millington Stout (from San Francisco) can confirm or deny this?

 

Geoffrey Morgan (Christchurch)

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Although Stan used a 4' Principal (middle octave) to lay the scale in the normal way on a church organ, whenever we tuned a Wurlitzer he always laid the scale on the Viole rank at 8' pitch, from tenor A to Middle A. I never asked him why, but always assumed that this was the way Wurlitzer's wanted it done. Can any Wurlitzer specialist advise? Perhaps Ed Millington Stout (from San Francisco) can confirm or deny this?

 

Geoffrey Morgan (Christchurch)

 

A colleague of mine commented that Stan may well have used the Viole as his tuning reference because it would have been the softest voice on which to lay the bearings accurately. Laying a scale on heavy-pressure diapasons, in enclosed chambers would be pretty uncomfortable on the ears. Not so sure why he worked between A - a. Piano tuners were generally taught to work F- f, checking 3rds and 6ths as well, a discipline that some tuners are not aware of but perhaps ought to be.

 

I believe that Stan was widely regarded as a very capable player. I have heard it said that the incumbent of the Dome Brighton was somewhat peeved by his post-tune checkover !

 

H

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A colleague of mine commented that Stan may well have used the Viole as his tuning reference because it would have been the softest voice on which to lay the bearings accurately. Laying a scale on heavy-pressure diapasons, in enclosed chambers would be pretty uncomfortable on the ears. Not so sure why he worked between A - a. Piano tuners were generally taught to work F- f, checking 3rds and 6ths as well, a discipline that some tuners are not aware of but perhaps ought to be.

 

I believe that Stan was widely regarded as a very capable player. I have heard it said that the incumbent of the Dome Brighton was somewhat peeved by his post-tune checkover !

 

H

 

I used to hold keys occasionally for Stan when I was a trainee with HNB. A very clever tuner, who was able to make even the most dire instrument sound musical. When I knew him, he lived in a flat in Putney and used to earn a few extra bob in the evenings playing his electronic organ in the pubs. He retired to an old folks place in Witley.

 

I expect the incumbent at the Dome - Douglas Reeve was peeved, because Stan was such a good light organist. Douglas was very 'protective' of his style and the sound and really didn't like anyone else playing the Dome organ.

 

Stan probably filled in every so often for Bill Mears, who looked after the Organ at the Dome. I also used to hold keys occasionally there for Bill, who use to set the scale on the Solo Clarinet!

 

P

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