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petergunstone

Sheldonian Theatre

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Why can't these loudspeaker-organ firms design a SINGLE organ for the room it is ACTUALLY IN, like pipe organ builders do? Does the existence of several 'organs' mean they don't know how to do it, or are they are possibly overawed in a somewhat juvenile manner by the capabilities of the technology they employ? The Sheldonian Theatre is surely a bit different to shoving loudspeakers and a tatty console into one's living room, where such excesses are purely a matter for oneself and it doesn't matter a fig what anyone else thinks. The Sheldonian should have been graced by something which respected its traditions, culture and history, guided above all by TASTE. On the basis of what is currently there, it is obvious that only a top pipe organ builder could have brought this degree of focus to bear.

 

CEP

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I can see the attraction from an academic, didactic point of view of having a number of historical instruments at your fingertips, so to speak. But as soon as the sound is generated (or re-generated) electronically and heard via loudspeakers or headphones the essence of a pipe organ is lost.

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As to Colin Pykett's interesting question, I think the nature of the beast enables an experimental, rather than experience-based approach to "voicing" or "room integration". With a pipe organ, fundamental decisions which have to be made early in the design process cannot be easily (or economically) undone; parameters such as layout, pipe scaling, windchest planting. Later, in the voicing process, one can always shave a sliver from the lips, but not put it back. With a few exceptions, mostly at the smaller end of the spectrum, a pipe organ builder is forced to build a specific organ for a specific space.

 

In contrast, electronic organs (even with different badges adorning the console) tend to be based around a much more generic set of building blocks which can be adjusted endlessly at little marginal cost; so, is it not more optimal to defer those adjustments until the final installation where the room parameters can be known without estimation or supposition? Or, as is possibly the case sometimes, does the fact that these crucial decisions can be deferred endlessly simply lead to them never being made properly?

 

So my view is the necessary focus is brought to bear in a fine pipe organ installation because the medium itself demands it.

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On the other hand, comparing Oxford with Cambridge, I should imagine that the latter has more Olde Englishe inspired schemes, while Oxford has a more distinguished collection of Victoriana, like the Father Willises at the Town Hall and at Wadham. Neither has a Wurlitzer though....

 

Oh dear, sorry but the penny has dropped rather belatedly. Wurlitzer - Theatre Organ - Sheldonian Theatre ....

 

Nice one David!

 

CEP

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Hi

 

Whilst I agree that a pipe organ would have been a far better option in the Sheldonian, the Bradford system was probably the best option at the time, as it uses real-time synthesis and is capable of fine detail in the voicing (given a good voicer!). The technology allows a variety of organ styles, which can be selected to suit the repertoire - so why not take advantage of the facility?

 

The bottom line is though that this, and other digital organs of similar vintage are highlighting the life span issue that is typical of electronic equipment, where 15 -20 years is good. Investment in a pipe organ - preferably tracker - should last for 100 years before any major work is needed (assuming a quality instrument by an experienced builder).

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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The orchestras that play in the Sheldonian are either smaller or less noted.

I have heard the Philharmonia and the CBSO several times in the Sheldonian in the last couple of years. Both might have had slightly reduced strings, but I hope that no-one would describe either as 'less noted'.

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The bottom line is though that this, and other digital organs of similar vintage are highlighting the life span issue that is typical of electronic equipment, where 15 -20 years is good. Investment in a pipe organ - preferably tracker - should last for 100 years before any major work is needed (assuming a quality instrument by an experienced builder).

 

It is somewhat disappointing (though good news for pipe organ manufacturers) that electronic organs are so short lived (after yet another blown fuse silenced the 20 year old digital electronic at my church recently the customer services person told me, "well you can't expect these to go on forever, sooner or later parts won't be available any more so why not get a new one." I can't imagine such a response from any pipe organ builder, yet a large pipe organ will have way more sophisticated circuitry than the average toaster. Anyway.

 

What options are there for keeping organs in good tune and maintenance in buildings that have extremes of temperature? I wonder if cinema/theater organs were susceptible to climatic changes as much as church organs. And I seem to recall reading recently about a new organ somewhere that, even when switched off, had the blower very gently blow continuous air around the organ to ensure good air circulation. Short of enclosing the entire organ in a heated swell box, how can organs be kept in decent tune and mechanical wellbeing in buildings with inclement climates?

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Hi

 

The only electronics in pipe organs will be the relay system in those with solid state electric action - a tracker organ has zero electronics (and the only electrics will be the blower starter wiring, etc.) Current digital organs utilise a computer of some sort for tone generation as well as the relay, and will be somewhat more complex than the real thing.

 

As to tuning, in the day, some theatre organs were installed in thermostatically controlled heated chambers to maintain the pitch - otherwise they are just as susceptible to temperature changes as any pipe organ. being totally enclosed, heating the chambers works well - it's more of an issue with unenclosed pipework! The main factor in pitch is temperature, reedwork generally being less affected by changes than the flues. However, in general, the fluework will move in pitch as a body with temp. variations, staying in tune within itself. I know of an organ with cone-tuned fluework that never needed the metal pipes tuned from year to year.

 

I leave those with more exxperience to comment on the problems caused by humidity variations.

 

Every Blessing

 

Tony

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It is somewhat disappointing (though good news for pipe organ manufacturers) that electronic organs are so short lived (after yet another blown fuse silenced the 20 year old digital electronic at my church recently the customer services person told me, "well you can't expect these to go on forever, sooner or later parts won't be available any more so why not get a new one." I can't imagine such a response from any pipe organ builder, yet a large pipe organ will have way more sophisticated circuitry than the average toaster.

 

I'm afraid electronics is electronics, and its failure modes are identical in both types of instrument. An otherwise fine pipe organ can be rendered silent if ('when' might be the better word) its electronic control system fails. I could quote many examples but will not do so here. Replacement is usually the only option, because obsolescence over a typical lifespan will render repair impossible or uneconomic. The bill will be typically in the region of GBP 20K for a medium to large sized instrument. Again, these assertions could be backed up with examples.

 

I discussed the issues in detail in an article at:

 

http://www.pykett.org.uk/reliability.htm

 

So, as far as as the Sheldonian is concerned, Tony's preference for tracker action in a putative new pipe organ there (post #30) is therefore well based!

 

The bottom line is that electronics is not a long-lived nor easily-repairable technology over a timescale relative to that of other elements of the pipe organ. I am not criticising the manufacturers of these systems nor the organ builders who employ them, after all they have little option nowadays, but it is not unreasonable for customers to be aware of the facts of the matter.

 

CEP

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Many years ago the UK Ministry of Defence was faced with problems of obsolescence when trying to maintain systems that might be in excess of 30 years old. They came up with a Defence Standard for Obsolescence Management (Def Stan 00-70?) now cancelled in favour of a European Standard (implemented by a British Standard) and there may now be an International Standard. At the time it was interesting to see how a topic which started out addressing electronic components soon moved to incorporating a wider text in order to encompass other areas like plastics materials, glues, chemicals etc all of which could have obsolescence problems. I recall thinking at the time that it was very applicable to pipe organ building but of course developing an obsolescence management plan is not a cost free exercise and the customer would have to pay in the end.

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Since 2006 RoHS legislation in the EU has mandated lead-free electronics with the effect that operational lifetimes are greatly reduced. Over the next few years we will likely see the impact of this in organs, both electronic and electronic-actioned, and it may well be that pre-2006 will start to be seen as a lost "golden age" where electronics service lifetimes were able to exceed 10, 15 or even 20 years.

 

As has been pointed out, a single decade is really nothing in the context of a pipe organ - little more than the "settling-down" period, and indeed is also nothing in the context of similarly-affected satellite or military equipment.

 

So, if reliability is important, then the future is, clearly, simple mechanical-actioned instruments, or provision for the regular replacement of electronic modules much more often than the historic rebuild interval.

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Thanks to Colin for pointing to such a stimulating and fascinating article. Solid state electronics in smaller organs may be limited if present at all, but as soon as you get into adjustable combination mechanisms, let alone larger organs with MIDI connections to the pipework one is asking for potential trouble. I am left wondering if the best option for large organs would be an attached console with Barker action and adjustable mechanical combinations - the four manual Binns in Shrewbury with pneumatic adjustable combinations was working almost fine when I last played it despite being 100 years old and having almost no maintainance done on it!

 

Many moons ago I went on a local organists' association visit to two organs. Quite apart from beig a miserable day weather-wise, the first organ had only recently been rebuilt with electropneumatic action. After playing a few notes the first person to play was greeted with silence - a fuse had gone somewhere in the console silencing the organ. So we traipsed across to the other church on the agenda. Miserably, it had an old tracker organ not in the best of condition and starting the blower we were greeted with a cipher. I crawled inside the case, spotted the offending tracker had become dislodged, reattached it and we spent the rest of the afternoon happily playing away. I guess there is a cautionary tale there somewhere.

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the four manual Binns in Shrewbury with pneumatic adjustable combinations was working almost fine when I last played it despite being 100 years old and having almost no maintainance done on it!

 

 

The same at the Nottingham Albert Hall, also a 4 manual pneumatic Binns. IIRC it was only the pneumatic capture system which did not need overhauling when the rest of it was done by H&H in the 1990s. Whether this was so or not, it confirms exactly what Contrabombarde said about the durability and repairability of organ mechanisms other than the electronic aspects. When this organ was built c. 1909, Marconi had not long before succeeded in transmitting across the Atlantic using only sparks and induction coils! Electronics came later. But no electronic system has the longevity (deriving partly because of repairability and negligible obsolescence) of examples of non-electronic organ building such as these we are speaking of here. Therefore the point is that, apart from the electronics, all other traditional organ mechanisms can be repaired almost indefinitely as these pneumatic examples show, provided the will and the money is there. But if electronics is incorporated, one has to factor in periodic replacement costs for the electronics if the associated organ is intended to have a long life. (Just as one has to factor in periodic replacement costs of a digital organ and for the same reasons).

 

CEP

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I remember the Shrewsbury Binns well - a very fine beast which is not as well-known as it should be. Perhaps more impressive to play than to listen to in the church, owing to its rather lofty chamber (probably the highest Renatus Harris case front in existence!). The church is redundant but cared-for. At least the organ did not suffer the fate of that at St. Julian - the church is now a craft centre and the organ case is a shop-front. St. Alkmund's on the other hand, has the amazing little Arthur Harrison organ from the RSCM, installed with TLC by Trevor Tipple and looking much happier than it did when erected unrestored at Cleveland Lodge.

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Why can't these loudspeaker-organ firms design a SINGLE organ for the room it is ACTUALLY IN, like pipe organ builders do? Does the existence of several 'organs' mean they don't know how to do it, or are they are possibly overawed in a somewhat juvenile manner by the capabilities of the technology they employ

Perhaps things have changed, or perhaps, like any other organ builder, the electronic organ builder is either restricted, or encouraged to excess, by the expectations and financial resources of the commissioning client.

 

We have a superb 3 manual custom built digital organ in my church. It was expertly voiced in the building. It has a single specification/set of voices, despite the fact that the sound cards have the capacity for several alternative voices per stop. This is normal for its manufacturer, there is no expectation or pressure on the client to expect a multi-personality organ. Indeed, although they would have no technical challenge in achieving this, it would be against the whole ethos of the company which, in its custom instruments, is to design a "traditional" English organ for the building it will live in.

 

I made it plain that I did not want any features that would not be found on a similar pipe organ. Two exceptions were allowed, only because they were standard, zero cost, options, namely a "Melodic Bass" and alternative temperaments, neither of which are ever used.

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Two exceptions were allowed, only because they were standard, zero cost, options, namely a "Melodic Bass" and alternative temperaments, neither of which are ever used.

How sad. Sad if no early music is ever played, and sad if it is played without the use of appropriate temperaments. While we are not supposed to discuss electronic instruments on this forum, and many people would not wish for anything other than a pipe organ, this option provides one of the rare opportunities to hear the beauty of these temperaments in the UK.

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we are not supposed to discuss electronic instruments on this forum

 

No, we are not, and that is one of this forum's refreshing characteristics. There are lots of other places for airing such matters.

 

Therefore I will say this. The previous two posts come somewhat close to promoting not only loudspeaker organs, but a particular brand of loudspeaker organ. Therefore, do either of the anonymous authors have an interest in promoting them, I wonder? Do tell, please.

 

CEP

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The previous two posts come somewhat close to promoting not only loudspeaker organs, but a particular brand of loudspeaker organ. Therefore, do either of the anonymous authors have an interest in promoting them, I wonder? Do tell, please.

 

CEP

Goodness me, how cynical. Absolutely not and that was not my intention. I've edited to my post to remove the name of the supplier.

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