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Tony Yearsley

Definition of a tracker action

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Only recently have I discovered this fascinating website, trawling through most of the past discussions. I have had a lifelong interest in all aspects of organs and the repertoire. Recently I had the fortune to try the Frobenius organ in Kingston Parish Church. I understood this to have tracker action and wished to experience a relatively modern instrument, as I have only played earlier organs with very heavy action, particularly when coupled.

Imagine my surprise to find that the light action on each manual when coupled did not increase so that the ability to articulate the starting tone must be lost on the manual to which coupled. Can this be described as a tracker or mechanical action when coupling is achieved by non-mechanical means?

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Hi

 

Tracker action indicates a direct mechanical link between key and pallet. Certainly, if that's the case, apart from couplers (although to be fair, the vast majority of tracker organs have mechanical couplers) it would be regarded as tracker - perhaps with the addition of a note that coupling is electric.

 

I'm not sure what type of coupling the Kingston organ has - NPOR just lists the action as Tracker, with electric stop actions.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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The coupling may have been further back in the action train, but in any case one can't possibly control the articulation on a manual which is played through a coupler (not starting another argument about whether it's a good thing on uncoupled manuals :) ). Once you put a mechanism between the player and the key, any chance of control is gone.

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Logically, I would say that there is still some cotrol via mechanical couplers - I don't currently have acces to more than a 1m trascker organ to try it out though - and of course, a lot depends too on the pipe voicing as to the difference any attempts at articulation make to the sound.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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s someone who does actually play a tracker organ with a modern suspended action, I can tell you that it is impossible to affect the speed of pipe-speech; even using a thumb and a finger on one note, and levering it down very slowly.

 

I have played organ in the Neherlands with much deeper key-travel, but even there, affecting the speed of pipe=speech is probably optimistic.

 

I wonder if it isn't more psychology than actual control, though I would be happy to be proven wrong.

 

Best,

 

MM

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The coupling may have been further back in the action train, but in any case one can't possibly control the articulation on a manual which is played through a coupler (not starting another argument about whether it's a good thing on uncoupled manuals :) ). Once you put a mechanism between the player and the key, any chance of control is gone.

 

But not every coupler does put a mechanism between the player and the key does it? What about shove couplers?

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s someone who does actually play a tracker organ with a modern suspended action, I can tell you that it is impossible to affect the speed of pipe-speech; even using a thumb and a finger on one note, and levering it down very slowly.

 

I have played organ in the Neherlands with much deeper key-travel, but even there, affecting the speed of pipe=speech is probably optimistic.

 

I wonder if it isn't more psychology than actual control, though I would be happy to be proven wrong.

 

Best,

 

MM

 

But what about release of the note? Is that more feasible?

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s someone who does actually play a tracker organ with a modern suspended action, I can tell you that it is impossible to affect the speed of pipe-speech; even using a thumb and a finger on one note, and levering it down very slowly.

 

I have played organ in the Neherlands with much deeper key-travel, but even there, affecting the speed of pipe=speech is probably optimistic.

 

I wonder if it isn't more psychology than actual control, though I would be happy to be proven wrong.

 

Best,

 

MM

 

Thank God for that! I feel less of a heretic than I have for the last forty years......

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Hi

 

As I said earlier, so one factor in controlling pipe speech is the voicing of the pipes. I have managed to alter the attack characteristics of pipes with a significant "chiff" - depressing the key slowly will modify or even remove the chiff - obviously, this only works in slow pieces! I think though that there are subtle variations on most good tracker organs with key touch - but maybe because they're subtle you tend to feel them rather than consciously hear them.

 

Certainly, a good tracker does make it possible to control the exact timing of when the pallet opens - and I think makes phrasing easier.

 

We're in danger of getting back to the old argument of tracker vs other actions, to which the only really correct answer is "it depends"!

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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But what about release of the note? Is that more feasible?

 

 

I.m mot sure if that makes much difference, but it isn't something I've specifically investigated. For me, the great advantage of tracker action is the fact that it is usually consistent from one manual to the next, when it is coupled and when played anywhere in the compass. In other words, it is the organist who controls what is going on, without having to make adjustments for action delays and problems. I know I've mentioned this previously, but the ultimate nightmare was playing a recital at St Bart's, Armley, in the days prior to the re-build of the instrument by Harrison & Harrison. All the notes worked, but all of them operated at a different speed; the feeling being that I was only marginally in control of the end result. The recording I have verifies this, because I was over compensating in places, while trills were just a blur of merged sound. Of course, the regular organist at the time (Arnold Mahon), knew the organ and its problems so well, it was not a handicap, but to a visiting organist.......horrendous!

 

I always maintain that consistency of response is far more important than delay in response, and it is for this reason that I really don't mind what kind of action I'm presented with, so long as everything works at the same time.

 

That said, relative distance can also be a problem initially, and it takes some getting used to. Believe it or not, there is a time difference between the manual divisions with a tracker-action instrument such as the Bavokerk, Haarlem, but only at the console. Go down the church, and that is not apparent. At the console, the sound from the windchest above the Hoofdwerk has to travel perhaps 20-30 feet further as direct sound, and yet most people would not think this possible. Of course, because it is consistent, the ear soon adapts to it. However, with an instrument such as that in the Royal Albert Hall, the sound at the console may come from a long way away, and that can be much the same as playing a worn and inconsistent action. Again, making sense of the sound and the acoustic is all part of the learning curve.

 

I think that on all but the most compact of instruments, tracker-action is not quite the ally that one necessarily expects, but of course, everything will work as it should and the ear will do the rest after a while.

 

It's all part of the challenge of being an organist.I suppose; especially when we often play in circumstances where a classic west gallery siting of the organ is the exception rather than the rule.

 

It always amazws me how some of our organists, (and those in America), cope with divided or scattered instruiments. St Paul's is a classic example, but perhaps the most striking is to hear the State Trumpet at St John-the-Divine, New York from the console or thereabouts. I haven't cared to measure the time differnece, but I suspect that it may be a quarter of a second, which is a long time in music. Neverttheless, when you sit in the middle of the nave, it all comes together miraculously, even though the organist is hearing something very different.

 

Best,

 

MM

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1. Re. Controlling the touch on tracker actions.

 

I agree that rather too much has been made of this over the last thirty years or so. Particularly in fast music on a large organ, conscious control of pipe-speech is largely unattainable (and, on a return-on-effort basis, probably not worth the bother if it was achievable, given how subtle the effect is).

 

On the other hand, when playing (say) a slow chorale obligato on a small tracker instrument on a single stop with the pipes physically near to the keys, I am definitely aware of the effect of touch on pipe speech; I will instictively begin and release certain notes more gently or more quickly according to the colour, attack or legato effect I feel the line needs. This is quite a specific instance though, and it's not a technique - it just happens naturally. More generally I think tracker action often does make an audible contribution to the pipe-speech, but it's not as a result of conscious control by the player, more that the motivic shapes (and technical demands) of the music cause the player to involuntarily change the way they play each note (eg. because some fingers are naturally stronger than others), thus incidentally causing variations in the way the pipes speak.

 

The reason I think this is a result of my experiments with the Hauptwerk organ software - I actually notice the absence of variation in the way the pipes speak (eg. particularly during trills and ornaments).

 

[back on subject:]

 

2 Re. Tracker + Electric couplers: I would personally regard this as a tracker organ, but with a bit of cheating going on! ;-)

 

3. Re. Tracker + Mechanical couplers. Generally this comes under point 1 - there's probably not much benefit of the varied touch on the coupled manual, though on a smaller organ you may still hear nuances coming from the pipes of the primary manual. It depends on the organ, the coupling mechanism, the pipe voicing, the music being played etc.

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I knew there was an apposite quote somewhere.....

 

"Personally, i have no objection to electric coupling for the simple reason that once one couples different soundboards together synchronisation between them is quite impossible."

 

Maurice Forsyth-Grant 1987

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Is it so wrong to want to use an instrument of a similar, albeit deftly improved, construction to the ones that the great masters of the past played and composed for, in the same manner that other musicians do?

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Is it so wrong to want to use an instrument of a similar, albeit deftly improved, construction to the ones that the great masters of the past played and composed for, in the same manner that other musicians do?

 

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

 

I'm lucky to play just such an instrument, and when it comes to technique, I can tell you that there is nowhere to hide....what you play is what you hear. I know that I'm very out of practice at the present time, and a tracker action reveals every defect; not just in technique but actual muscle-tone and finger control. Play a light electrc action, and it's amazing how this can go unobserved.

 

My hands will be fighting fit one more by Christmas.....hopefully.

 

Best,

 

MM

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I think MM's posts are spot on. As I've suggested before, how could any real musician ever want to play an instrument by remote control?

 

However, I strongly suspect that this ideal stumbles once you move outside the realm of small organs. I know that on some larger tracker organs I've played (I'm thinking particularly of New College, Oxford, and Marlborough) I have been very conscious of the remoteness of the higher-placed divisions and have ended up wondering exactly how much advantage the tracker action was conferring. In the days when I could play decently, I spent three years playing almost daily in the middle of what was then a still fairly new, four-manual, electro-pneumatic organ on a screen. The response of the action and the sound were as immediate as one could wish. One could vary one's length of détaché or staccato minutely and it would happen exactly as intended. Was it inferior to tracker? In all honesty, I'm not sure it was. It certainly had none of the remoteness of the two large trackers I mentioned. It felt very intimate. Given the choice, I'd still rather have tracker, but I'd be hard pressed to justify that on musical grounds.

 

As someone who does actually play a tracker organ with a modern suspended action, I can tell you that it is impossible to affect the speed of pipe-speech; even using a thumb and a finger on one note, and levering it down very slowly.

 

I have played organ in the Neherlands with much deeper key-travel, but even there, affecting the speed of pipe=speech is probably optimistic.

 

I wonder if it isn't more psychology than actual control, though I would be happy to be proven wrong.

 

Best,

 

MM

 

Like MM I'm happy to be convinced otherwise, but I think a lot of hoo-haa has been written about touch control. I very much doubt that it is in any way possible to effect the speech of a pipe by touch. Press a key, the pallet admits the wind, the pipe speaks - end of. What I think tracker action can do is give you a precise control over articulation, so that by controlling the degree of "connectedness" (or, alternatively, gap) between notes, you can control how audible are the starting transients of the pipes. Where the chiff is extreme there is probably not much you can control, but with more subtle voicing you should be able to reveal or mask these transients effectively at will.

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I think MM's posts are spot on. As I've suggested before, how could any real musician ever want to play an instrument by remote control?

 

However, I strongly suspect that this ideal stumbles once you move outside the realm of small organs. I know that on some larger tracker organs I've played (I'm thinking particularly of New College, Oxford, and Marlborough) I have been very conscious of the remoteness of the higher-placed divisions and have ended up wondering exactly how much advantage the tracker action was conferring. In the days when I could play decently, I spent three years playing almost daily in the middle of what was then a still fairly new, four-manual, electro-pneumatic organ on a screen. The response of the action and the sound were as immediate as one could wish. One could vary one's length of détaché or staccato minutely and it would happen exactly as intended. Was it inferior to tracker? In all honesty, I'm not sure it was. It certainly had none of the remoteness of the two large trackers I mentioned. It felt very intimate. Given the choice, I'd still rather have tracker, but I'd be hard pressed to justify that on musical grounds.

 

 

 

Like MM I'm happy to be convinced otherwise, but I think a lot of hoo-haa has been written about touch control. I very much doubt that it is in any way possible to effect the speech of a pipe by touch. Press a key, the pallet admits the wind, the pipe speaks - end of. What I think tracker action can do is give you a precise control over articulation, so that by controlling the degree of "connectedness" (or, alternatively, gap) between notes, you can control how audible are the starting transients of the pipes. Where the chiff is extreme there is probably not much you can control, but with more subtle voicing you should be able to reveal or mask these transients effectively at will.

 

 

What an absolutely fascinating observation. Thank you. I'd never have thought of that.

 

I think I could add the possibility that the more the number of registers drawn, all attempts at speech control become a nonsense in any case.

 

The spatial disposition thing is equally fascinating of course, and while I haven't sat at the console of New College, Oxford or Marlborough, I have sat at the consoles of Haarlem, Alkmaar and the big Marcussen at the Lawrencekerk, Rotterdam. As I stated previously, one is very aware of a certain remoteness from sonic reality; the pipework of the topmost tier audibly later, while behind, there's this curious "cabinet" organ effect of the Rugposotiv, which unbeknown to the player, has about the same impact down the nave when the Cornet is drawn, as does the big Tuba at York .

 

Interestingly, even with these big tracker organs, the player soon adjusts to the delays, which are really discernable time lags. Some distance away, the listener is completely unaware of it of course.

 

Much more disconcerting are those organs which are divided or which spread dramatically left and right. You tend to see eyes moving left and right among the listeners, because we tend to instinctively look in the direction from which sounds emerge....no doubt part of a basic survival instinct. What's interesting, is that no-one listening is usually aware of ups and downs but they can be distracted by lefts and rights.

 

All this actually supports the case for detached consoles, where an organist, like a conductor, controls events from a distance.

 

As for coupler action, the Rotterdam Marcussen has, I believe, an electric servo device to lighten the touch when manuals are coupled. I hated it, and fortunately, it can be switched off at the console. It just feels so unnatural and springy, but like everything else, I expect it is possible to get used to it.

 

Best,

 

MM

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What's interesting, is that no-one listening is usually aware of ups and downs but they can be distracted by lefts and rights.

 

Basic physics, MM. Directional hearing is mostly based on time differences between left and right ears, so is more sensitive in the horizontal plane. That's why, to discern vertical sound direction, people cock their head on one side.

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.............................

That's why, to discern vertical sound direction, people cock their head on one side.

 

The things you can learn on this forum. Fascinating.

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Basic physics, MM. Directional hearing is mostly based on time differences between left and right ears, so is more sensitive in the horizontal plane. That's why, to discern vertical sound direction, people cock their head on one side.

If you are deaf in one ear, like me, that's all pretty academic.

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Direction is detected using phase below about 700Hz and time difference above (hint, consider what happens when the wavelength is greater than or less than the size of the head); location is generally better for broadband sounds than pure tones. Vertical direction may be heard more precisely by tilting the head, but when not doing that can also be detected less precisely using changes in colouration of the sound caused by reflections off the pinnae (a learned response, obviously) - this effect may also feed into the horizontal location system as well. There are headphone processing systems which attempt to simulate this colouration; but they tend to do poorly because this response is individual, people's pinnae not being identical.

 

Detection of direction in a two-speaker stereo system is not as easy to explain, especially as various fundamentally different microphone techniques may be used to capture the two signals.

 

Paul

 

PS, if you are deaf in one ear, mechanisms involving head movement and pinna colouration can still have some utility, I am led to believe.

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Direction is detected using phase below about 700Hz and time difference above (hint, consider what happens when the wavelength is greater than or less than the size of the head); location is generally better for broadband sounds than pure tones. Vertical direction may be heard more precisely by tilting the head, but when not doing that can also be detected less precisely using changes in colouration of the sound caused by reflections off the pinnae (a learned response, obviously) - this effect may also feed into the horizontal location system as well. There are headphone processing systems which attempt to simulate this colouration; but they tend to do poorly because this response is individual, people's pinnae not being identical.

 

Detection of direction in a two-speaker stereo system is not as easy to explain, especially as various fundamentally different microphone techniques may be used to capture the two signals.

 

Paul

 

PS, if you are deaf in one ear, mechanisms involving head movement and pinna colouration can still have some utility, I am led to believe.

 

Undoubtedly I have consumed a disproportionate amount of a bottle of Finlaggan this evening (don't ask; I really wish I'd spent my money elsewhere), but, for the benefit of the mentally impaired like me, can someone translate, please?

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Undoubtedly I have consumed a disproportionate amount of a bottle of Finlaggan this evening (don't ask; I really wish I'd spent my money elsewhere), but, for the benefit of the mentally impaired like me, can someone translate, please?

 

 

 

Don't worry Vox, it's science-speak.....they do it al the time.

 

The pinnae is what you and me would call your lug-holes....those flappy things on which people hang rings and sometimes have pierced.

 

Seriously, it sort of makes sense to me, but I confess that I was going more by instinct and observation than by design or scientific knowledge. However, there are certain other factors which come into play for us as organists, because it is absolutely remarkable how cognitive hearing compensates for strange directions of sound and the acoustic ambience in which they are heard. It's not unlike the way we can hear a familiar voice in a crowded and noisy room, because we recognise and can make sense of familiar patterns of speech, pitch and timbre even in the midst of random background noise.

 

It;s amazing how those born blind will often "see" a room or an open space simply by listening to it, and that demonstrates how remarkable human hearing really is.

 

The things we learn on ths forum....indeed.

 

Best,

 

MM

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...location is generally better for broadband sounds than pure tones...

 

Paul

 

 

I'm sure that is quite true. There were experiments some time ago in using an alternation of white noise-type sound and deeper-toned sounds on emergency vehicles' sirens on the basis that this would assist other road users in identifying direction of location of the emergency vehicle. It was proven to work but, for some reason, you don't seem to hear them on the streets now.

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Undoubtedly I have consumed a disproportionate amount of a bottle of Finlaggan this evening (don't ask; I really wish I'd spent my money elsewhere)...

 

Try Laphroaig!

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