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Blinded sound tests


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I thought I would investigate the sound of different instruments in some blinded tests. I chose eight musician friends who are either singers or instrumentalists to a good standard. Definitely no organists, organ lovers, organ builders or similar as I wanted this to be blinded and as unbiased as possible. I couldn't double blind as I know too much. What I wanted to know was which instrument of 5 I chose communicated the music best, stressing that I was not interested in musical interpretation but solely in the sounds. I managed to find the same group of pieces played across the 5 recordings, although sadly not all pieces were played in each recording but the comparison I think is nonetheless reasonable and the equipment used was high end and therefore sufficiently accurate for the tests as I know the instruments in the flesh and some of them intimately.

 

I felt that avoiding the opinions of organ related people and asking musicians who are aware of the instrument but otherwise not particularly interested, might go some way to addressing the discourse around what is a good sound, what works and what communicates and be as far away as possible from 'what I like'. Inevitably there are limitations as I did not play any European works prior to the C19th or English works prior to C18th, so we have a caveat to start with. We are also to some extent at the mercy of recording engineers but as I know the instruments well enough, I know that the chosen recordings were sufficiently accurate to be comparable.

 

A sample size of 8 is clearly a considerably limiting factor, but the results were more clear cut than I expected. I would have liked to test more instruments, but non organ people can only cope with a certain amount before their ears switch off. I tested an eclectic H&H, a thoroughbred Edwardian Arthur Harrison, an Edwardian Hill, an ostensibly Edwardian JWW and a good mid period Fr Willis. I think we would all have opinions on the choice, but this is the choice given the strictures placed, and the relevance to the UK organ world. I would have liked to have included a Compton, a 60's JWW, a further neo classique/baroque type instrument, an C18th century instrument and so on, but one can only ask people to do a certain amount in the name of research. The choice was therefore predominantly mainstream and typical. It is important to state that I am not in any way making any comment on the work of any of the firms who have or continue to have any involvement with the instruments in question, or continue to produce new instuments.

 

So my findings proved very interesting in one sense, and did cross over into the bounds of similar opinion voiced many times here and elsewhere. Put simply I asked each of the people which sound communicated the music - mainly a range of English & European C19th and C20th repertoire - in what they felt was the most musical way.

 

I had a resounding result for the favourite, and a near unanimous response for the second. The least favourite -God rest its soul as it no longer exists in its recorded state- was also unanimous.

 

It is possible to pick the responses to bits, and like all good research, I have attempted to address the principle points above. So which one did they think was the most communicative...

 

The Edwardian JWW, describing it as full of colour, rich and deep but without a loss of clarity. One respondent was reduced to tears at one point. It was also commented that they thought some of the performance less good, so were clearly not heavily swayed by that.

Next, the Hill, only a bit behind, but the difference was in the tonal palette.

Little to choose between the Arthur Harrison paraphrased by 'not without merit, but too dense - rather like being hit over the head with a brick even in the quieter passages', and the Fr Willis which won out overall for clarity 'but lacked weight and passion - all a bit sterile, and the responders could not believe it was a mid Victorian sound. An interesting point which could run and run in itself.

No prizes then for last place 'thin, lightweight, bland etc'.

 

I deliberately haven't named the instruments but will do so only by pm. The knowledgable could probably guess most of them as there are no surprises.

 

An interesting bit of an evening's work.

 

AJS

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Congratulations to the author on a useful piece of work. Of course it is open to some criticisms, but it would probably be impossible to create a perfect research design for this project, and it would be very difficult or expensive to make any large improvements. As it is, it seems to throw some useful light on an area which should interest us all.

 

Of course, as Porthead, says, it is limited to musicians who are not organ enthusiasts. That might be an advantage, because the audience in many recitals may consist predominantly of such people. However, just as tastes change with increased exposure to particular instruments or composers, as people gain more experience of listening to organs their preferences might move on from the "easier" sounds, especially those nearer the sounds of other instruments, to other organs whose subtleties are only heard only after some practice and careful listening.

 

It might be interesting to perform a similar study on the acceptability of different style of composition for organ to non-enthusiasts. Many performers like their programmes to include pieces which are easily enjoyed by general audiences, plus the right amount of challenging material to lead them to more advanced parts of the repertoire. How much do we know about what a non-specialist audience can accept?

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You're very kind, thank you. I did toy with different aspects of the design, mainly aiming to try to factor out choice by interpretation which is why I was heartened to hear criticism of the performance on the preferred instrument. These were friends, and I know they would be honest. You have picked upon an interesting secondary research question which I had only briefly considered. I thought in this instance it would be better to address just one research question, to keep the participants' minds and ears focused as it were.

 

The rationale behind the question appears many times here, in lectures and debates when we question what organ sound communicates the music and does not override it by communicating too much of itself. we are also forever talking about a way forward, and the choice of 2 instruments was deliberate to address that aspect. In the organ world I do believe we find it difficult to see the wood for the trees because we all know so much, and we know what we like, and we know how things 'ought' to be done, and the direction in which things 'ought' to be going. My rationale was to challenge that with musicians who have none of our preconceptions. To view this from an audience perspective could be a useful adjunct.

 

AJS

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You're very kind, thank you. I did toy with different aspects of the design, mainly aiming to try to factor out choice by interpretation which is why I was heartened to hear criticism of the performance on the preferred instrument. These were friends, and I know they would be honest. You have picked upon an interesting secondary research question which I had only briefly considered. I thought in this instance it would be better to address just one research question, to keep the participants' minds and ears focused as it were.

 

The rationale behind the question appears many times here, in lectures and debates when we question what organ sound communicates the music and does not override it by communicating too much of itself. we are also forever talking about a way forward, and the choice of 2 instruments was deliberate to address that aspect. In the organ world I do believe we find it difficult to see the wood for the trees because we all know so much, and we know what we like, and we know how things 'ought' to be done, and the direction in which things 'ought' to be going. My rationale was to challenge that with musicians who have none of our preconceptions. To view this from an audience perspective could be a useful adjunct.

Is there an issue comparing pieces such as the famous Bach and Widor toccatas, where (I imagine) the organ sound is bound up with piece in non-organists' minds, and less "iconic" pieces where, in order to perceive the music the non-organist has to first comprehend the sound?

 

I'd also be interested in research that addressed how non-musicians perceive the same organ piece played on different organs and registrations compared with how the same non-musicians perceive the same solo violin piece played on different violins by different performers and with different microphone placement. Only because I imagine the sound of a solo violin "in your face" can be as much of a turn-off as any organ!

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The person creating the samples whether CD recordings or any other recording method will know which is which unless you ask someone else to change the names of the files being played and even then you might recognise differences between performances, so I'd suggest there is no way the instigator could be blinded (ie knowing which sample is which). Single blinding ie the audience doesn't know which organ is which, is perfectly possible though. The problem I can see in having different performers playing different organs is that of style and consistency - I can think of recordings on organs that I would have classed as second tier or second rate, yet the playing is breathtaking; and other organs in which the playing is mediocre yet the organ is of the highest calibre. Was your audience responding more to the performances or to the organs? How can you be sure? In medical studies one seeks to eliminate all differences other than the one under investigation when undertaking randomised clinical trials.

 

I risk exceeding the boundaries of this forum, but since we are discussing recordings of organs and Hauptwerk is essentially a pipe-for-pipe recording of an organ, another interesting approach could be to make a MIDI recording (ie just the notes) a single time, then play back through different sample sets to hear the subtle differences between organs of different builders (I presume the sets would need to have been recorded without reverberation so as to create a level playing field). That's probably the method least likely to introduce any sort of performance bias - though that approach introduces recording biases (as does the original of course) - namely that a well-recorded instrument may sound better, clearer perhaps than an instrument of inherently higher interest that has not been optimally recorded.

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I risk exceeding the boundaries of this forum, but since we are discussing recordings of organs and Hauptwerk is essentially a pipe-for-pipe recording of an organ, another interesting approach could be to make a MIDI recording (ie just the notes) a single time, then play back through different sample sets to hear the subtle differences between organs of different builders (I presume the sets would need to have been recorded without reverberation so as to create a level playing field). That's probably the method least likely to introduce any sort of performance bias - though that approach introduces recording biases (as does the original of course) - namely that a well-recorded instrument may sound better, clearer perhaps than an instrument of inherently higher interest that has not been optimally recorded.

My first thought was to use MIDI to make identical interpretations, but that's not really fair either, as I'd like to think we all, as musicians, tailor our interpretation, tempo, articulation, registration, to the instrument and building we are making music with and in.

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My first thought was to use MIDI to make identical interpretations, but that's not really fair either, as I'd like to think we all, as musicians, tailor our interpretation, tempo, articulation, registration, to the instrument and building we are making music with and in.

 

The same applies to the comparison of temperaments. It is easy enough to retune a harpsichord to different temperaments, and to play the same music repeatedly to hear how it works.

 

The same process on a pipe organ would be unthinkable. You can obtain from www.frogmusic.com a CD of the music of J S Bach, "The Temperamental Mr Bach" in which the same midi files are played through the same e********* o**** in different temperaments. Apparently a nice experiment in which all of the variables are controlled! However, a live performer playing in some temperaments will be aware that some intervals are very rough, and will instinctively change the emphasis on some of those notes, giving them more or less stress according to whether the roughness is regarded as an expressive device to be emphasised, or a defect to be minimised. Once again, the perfect controlled trial seems logical impossible.

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Was your audience responding more to the performances or to the organs?

Or the recordings, even.

 

A couple of friends of mine, when students in the 1960s, made two simultaneous stereo recordings of a concert using different microphone techniques (one single-point, the other multimiked). When they asked other students to comment on the two recordings, they always commented that they liked one better than the other. When asked why, they mostly said that they preferred the performance - partly, I suppose, because they were not conversant with the niceties of recording techniques. However, since then I have always been very wary of accepting the conclusions of any reviews of recordings!

 

Paul

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My main delight was to hear that the CD of a Walker with the indifferent performance wasn't mine!*

 

 

 

(* = The Organ of Romsey Abbey, VIF Records 2007, available from Blackwells in Oxford, many cathedral bookstalls and www.davidcoram.co.uk)

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My main delight was to hear that the CD of a Walker with the indifferent performance wasn't mine!*

 

 

 

(* = The Organ of Romsey Abbey, VIF Records 2007, available from Blackwells in Oxford, many cathedral bookstalls and www.davidcoram.co.uk)

 

....Not that you are advertising or anything, David....

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....Not that you are advertising or anything, David....

 

Heaven forfend.

 

It would be really nice if there were a CD available, perhaps called The Organ of Wimborne Minster, as an example of a 1960s Walker.

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Wasn't there a vinyl LP made of the Wimborne organ (not longer after it was rebuilt) by Michael Austin, who was a student of Douglas Hawkridge? I bet nobody has a copy of that these days! At the time it was regarded as a very good recording and he was regarded as a very good player. I knew (the late) Michael James, who was sub-organist there, very slightly - mainly through Canford Summer School connections.

 

Malcolm

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Porthead has deliberately not named the instruments and there are good reasons for not doing so, yet it seems to me that such an exercise is only valid for the particular instruments tested. But the results are presented not by instrument, but in terms of sound styles, thus implying that any Edwardian JWW is going to be preferred to a Hill and that any eclectic H&H is going to come bottom of the pile. If you repeated the test with recordings of a completely different set of instruments in the same styles, would the results necessarily be the same? I don't know, but I very much doubt it.

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Wasn't there a vinyl LP made of the Wimborne organ (not longer after it was rebuilt) by Michael Austin, who was a student of Douglas Hawkridge? I bet nobody has a copy of that these days! At the time it was regarded as a very good recording and he was regarded as a very good player. I knew (the late) Michael James, who was sub-organist there, very slightly - mainly through Canford Summer School connections.

 

Malcolm

 

Yes, I recall there was an LP recorded and marketed by Guild records with Barry Rose as one of the Directors I think. I also remember buying the history booklet of the organ there by Betty Matthews.

PJW

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I bet nobody has a copy of that these days! At the time it was regarded as a very good recording and he was regarded as a very good player. Malcolm

I have it! Couperin, Bach, Hindemith and Reger put out by Gemini Recordings

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Heaven forfend.

 

It would be really nice if there were a CD available, perhaps called The Organ of Wimborne Minster, as an example of a 1960s Walker.

 

 

Well, indeed. However, I shall refrain from advertising my own CD here....

 

Oh.

 

Rats.

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Heaven forfend.

 

It would be really nice if there were a CD available, perhaps called The Organ of Wimborne Minster, as an example of a 1960s Walker.

 

Walkers issued in 1965 as a Christmas offering a LP side1 featuring Wimborne Minster played by David Blott.

Recorded by Michael Smythe it covers Lidon Sonata De Primo Tono showcasing the en chamade reed, JSB Toccata in F and Pachelbel Aria Prima from Hexachordum Apollinis

 

The effect of the reed in the Lidon on this LP is still memorable after 47 years

 

Perhaps the master copy's whereabouts may be known to a distinguished member of this forum.

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Walkers issued in 1965 as a Christmas offering a LP side1 featuring Wimborne Minster played by David Blott.

Recorded by Michael Smythe it covers Lidon Sonata De Primo Tono showcasing the en chamade reed, JSB Toccata in F and Pachelbel Aria Prima from Hexachordum Apollinis

 

The effect of the reed in the Lidon on this LP is still memorable after 47 years

 

Perhaps the master copy's whereabouts may be known to a distinguished member of this forum.

Alternatively, you could purchase a copy of the somewhat more recent CD (2005) which was recorded on this instrument (VIF Records).

 

:unsure:

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I have it! Couperin, Bach, Hindemith and Reger put out by Gemini Recordings

 

Trawled through the vault and found that I too still possess this recording which can only be described as " masterful execution " despite the garish cover which adorns it.

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Heaven forfend.

 

It would be really nice if there were a CD available, perhaps called The Organ of Wimborne Minster, as an example of a 1960s Walker.

 

If readers are wanting to hear an early 1960's Walker they should look for the fine recording of it by Adrian Gunning at St John the Evangelist, Duncan Terrace, Islington. It has always been lovingly kept and gently moulded into even greater brilliance by him and his totally dedicated army of 'organ staff'. The concerts each year have brought many stellar players to the London scene and since the demise of the RFH series, this has undoubtedly filled more than a fleeting gap. It is the first (and one of only a small number still of) instruments in London with a Rück Positive. There are now some more symphonic additions to a scheme that is entirely totally cohesive and fulfilling. Much work has recently been done (by all accounts) on the console and electrics. I for one can't wait to hear it again as it is one of the most splendid instruments of an international standing that can be found in the capital. The great church has recently had a total restoration and the whole is well worth a detour of many miles. Here are moments when you can hear it live - and find Adrian's CD on Google.

May 21st Ourania Gassiou & Eleni Keventsidou

Solo & Duet recital (Athens & London)

June 25th Clive Driskill-Smith (Oxford Cathedral)

July 23rd John Kitchen (Edinburgh University)

Sept 24th Adrian Gunning (St John’s Islington)

 

Best wishes,

N

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Really? Where's it available from?

 

Oh, either from Wimborne Minster shop - or myself.

 

This is another recording of a 1960s Walker - although in an unforgiving acoustic. With 'exciting' trumpets, too....

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Oh, either from Wimborne Minster shop - or myself.

 

Darndest thing - mine too - Romsey Abbey shop - or myself - or animalsongs.co.uk if you want to hear it played with a piano! What a small world.

 

On a serious note, it would be interesting to set up an experiment like this in the way that Collins/Padgham/Parker did with temperaments a few years back - same pieces, same organist, different tunings, audience mixed of those who knew about organs and those who didn't. (Needless to say, equal temperament did quite badly - because, objectively speaking, it's a foul tuning.)

 

Happily, there is a lot more discussion on Romantic temperaments, particularly in relation to pianos, in the last year or so. There has been a recent Liszt recording in an old temperament (though they chose rather a curious one) in which a particular moment in one of the pieces (which usually sounds vile) suddenly makes total sense as if heard for the first time. A fascinating field which far too many still turn their nose up at.

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Darndest thing - mine too - Romsey Abbey shop - or myself - or animalsongs.co.uk if you want to hear it played with a piano! What a small world.

 

On a serious note, it would be interesting to set up an experiment like this in the way that Collins/Padgham/Parker did with temperaments a few years back - same pieces, same organist, different tunings, audience mixed of those who knew about organs and those who didn't. (Needless to say, equal temperament did quite badly - because, objectively speaking, it's a foul tuning.)

 

Happily, there is a lot more discussion on Romantic temperaments, particularly in relation to pianos, in the last year or so. There has been a recent Liszt recording in an old temperament (though they chose rather a curious one) in which a particular moment in one of the pieces (which usually sounds vile) suddenly makes total sense as if heard for the first time. A fascinating field which far too many still turn their nose up at.

 

I would be interested to hear the Liszt recording - do you have a link, please, David?

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