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Electronic substitute in a Cathedral ?


Dr Nigel H Day

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Thus pipe versus electronic price comparisons cannot be done on the bare figures alone. Deeper investigation of the options is required if an optimum outcome is to be achieved. The essential breakthrough comes when one embraces a mindset which does not insist that the pipe organ must have a stop list comparable in size (and irrelevance) to that of the digital competition. A further factor which often comes into the equation is that there are few significant pipe organ rebuilds in which tonal changes do not play a role - pruning the price down to the minimum by just getting the thing working properly again seems to be rare! Also it is necessary to bear in mind that the prices of digital organs escalate as soon as one wants to customise a standard product.

 

Thus the question of whether to go for pipes or electronics is not just a question of the relative costs.

 

CEP

 

I completely agree, and what has not really been addressed yet when considering this pipes v. electronics debate is the fact that the pipe organ is a real and historic musical instrument, whereas the electronic organ is really just an attempt to copy the sound of the pipe organ at lower cost!

 

To put it another way, would anyone dare to offer an eminent violinist the use of a synthesiser? :o

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Are there any opinions on whether the RoHS regulations are likely to affect the reliability or longevity of electronic components? There was a lot of speculation that removing lead from solder would make it more brittle and lead to a shorter life, but has this been proven in practice or are we still waiting to find out?

 

There are some interesting examples in Buckinghamshire:

 

Aylesbury Methodist Church: 3 manual Bradford electronic organ, recently completely "rebuilt" recently which involved replacing the electronics but keeping the console and speakers. It can sound nice when played softly but anything loud sounds pretty synthetic.

 

Chesham Parish Church: 3 manual hybrid, with the main Great and Swell choruses from pipes but electronic reeds, upperwork, Choir and most of the Pedal. I hate to say it but it can sound quite good. The drawback was that when it got to about 15 years old it started to cut out intermittently but completely and it took the builders over 3 months to track down the fault.

 

Quainton Church: 2 manual extension organ: the electronics developed a "system fault" in October which means some notes on the Swell don't work. Although it's still under guarantee (it's about 8 years old) the builders have not yet been able to repair it.

 

A fully mechanical action must be the best for a small instrument (the H&H at Hakadal in interesting in this respect) but any large one is a complex machine and surely regardless of what action is used, is bound to need more maintenance and more frequent overhauls.

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Electronic components found in consumer equipment (termed, unsurprisingly, 'consumer electronics') are not intended to have lifetimes comparable to that of the pipes and action work of a mechanical action organ, in which lifetimes of at least several decades are usual and expected. Electronic components used in safety-critical equipment, aerospace or military systems have longer lifetimes, but they are much more expensive. So are the modules constructed from them, which have to be assembled in clean rooms and minutely tested to the most exacting standards. Therefore digital organs, and the electronic modules used in some pipe organs, are built to consumer electronics standards for obvious reasons. If this were not so, digital organs would be more expensive than pipe organs!

 

RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) is an EU directive which took effect in 2006 covering things like safety and disposal issues, though there was also some study of its effect on life-cycle. Undoubtedly it has affected reliability and thus life-cycle, though whether for better or worse depends partly on whom you speak to and what their vested interests are. Like most (all?) EU legislation, it groans under its burden of bureaucracy. In this respect it is similar to the ISO 9000 quality management system, which has been described as one which produces absolute rubbish to a uniformly high standard. (I speak with some experience, as I was responsible for implementing this system - successfully I might add - for my former hi-tech electronics and software employer and I still bear the scars). But RoHS is actually irrelevant here, because the long-term effects of a system only implemented 9 years ago cannot, by definition, be assessed for organ applications until several more decades have passed.

 

bam in #52 has given some examples where failures have occurred in both digital and electronically-controlled pipe organs, and the longevity figures he gave are entirely compatible with what one would expect. It is not realistic to expect consumer electronics to last beyond 15 - 20 years, and even this is often not achieved (see bam's Quainton church example). I can't understand why traditional electromechanical components such as ladder switches (used for couplers and deriving stops from unit chests) are not used more widely, especially in small organs such as this one. They too go wrong of course, but the point is that almost anyone (and often the organist) can solve the problem by cleaning the offending relay contact(s) with a squirt of IPA (isopropyl alcohol, not beer) or similar contact cleaner. In view of this, and the potential damage to the organ builder's reputation, why use electronics as the default option? Ladder switches and other electromechanical components are still widely available, and they certainly were when this instrument was last updated.

 

In a previous post some while ago I gave a link to an article on my website in which I described the failure modes of electronic components in detail, but I'll not repeat it here. Otherwise forum members will get fed up with constantly being directed to my reams of purple prose (and I wouldn't blame them ... ). But as I said above, it was written from a standpoint of professional involvement with the subject over many years.

 

CEP

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Certainly in the early days of lead-free solder usage in computer-related equipment I saw a lot of failures which were attributed to it. However, these were mainly concentrated in just a handful of devices, suggesting that some fabrication facilities needed more adaptation to cope with the stuff. In two particular cases (both HP printers), the boards demonstrating faults as a result could be restored to operation by placing in a preheated oven at 180 degrees C for eight minutes - I did this on multiple occasions for devices of both types, and usually the "repair" was permanent. Since that temperature is below the melting point of the solder, I am not clear what the mechanism for the repair was.

 

Paul

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A fully mechanical action must be the best for a small instrument (the H&H at Hakadal in interesting in this respect) but any large one is a complex machine and surely regardless of what action is used, is bound to need more maintenance and more frequent overhauls.

If an organ is entirely mechanical apart from an electric blower, I’d have thought that size would make little difference to its need for maintenance and overhauls if well and simply designed; a four-manual and pedal instrument being essentially 5 relatively small organs operated from one console. Whether most organists are willing to sacrifice combination actions and couplers for the sake of their instrument’s longevity is a question to which I don’t know the answer but I could guess.

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I wouldn't want to insist that electronics must never be used in pipe organ control systems. That would be to adopt a head-in-the-clouds and unworldly position. As innate implied above, electronics can do things which can't be done in any other way. But one then has to accept that the electronics will need replacing in a timescale shorter than that of the more traditional parts of the instrument. And when it does need replacing, the costs are significant. As long ago as 2000, the cost of the electronics for the rebuild at All Saints, Margaret Street ran to c. £20K. So this needs to be factored into the medium to long term cost forecasts of keeping an electronically-controlled pipe organ running. Failure to do this can lead to some very nasty surprises for churches or other owners - and they occur catastrophically and unpredictably, as happened at St Peter's, Nottingham when their electronic transmission failed during an important service, rendering the organ silent for a long time while they were deciding what to do.

 

For an up-to-date and expert view of the issues, see John Norman's piece about the new organ in the Elgar Concert Hall at Birmingham University in the June 2015 issue of Organists' Review. He pulled no punches about its stop control and combination system (or lack of it - it only has a forwards and backwards stepper). That organ does have electronic stop control despite the baroque-ised appearance of its stop jambs, yet the capability of electronics to provide the full and flexible combination system which most players expect has not been provided. It's a bit like having a TV with an inbuilt remote control capability sold without a remote control.

 

So the moral is, use electronic control in pipe organs if you wish, but make sure you are educated about its shortcomings as well as its benefits, particularly as regards lifetime and replacement costs.

 

CEP

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innate makes the good point that "a four-manual and pedal instrument (is) essentially 5 relatively small organs operated from one console", but how many large "mechanical action" organs are really like this? A lot seem to have sections on electric or EP action, pneumatic assistance for some basses, electric couplers et al. In the Nov/Dec Choir and Organ, there's piece on the new instrument at Maynooth with a high tech electro-optical coupler system. The reaction (for example, at Llandaff, Worcester and Bury St E) is that there's little point in having mechanical action for a large instrument, but the above discussion implies that the EP parts of these instruments should last 50 years or so but the electronics may last for half that, if the owners are lucky.

 

Returning to the original topic of this thread, I don't think Sheffield Anglican Cathedral was mentioned (although it has been on this Forum before) but I guess they are now through 2/3 of the probable life of their electronic, which was apparently rebuilt in 2006 after taking over from our host's organ in 1998.

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I visited Newcastle earlier in the year and there was a true stop-gap electronic, with a functional tab-stop console right at the east end by the high altar, and an obviously temporary pile of loudspeakers in the loft where the pipe organ console is.

 

On May Day I happened to be there in time for evensong and this instrument had disappeared. But, unknowingly, I had taken a seat in the choir right next to a new electronic choir organ, the speakers being contained behind a rather pleasant and discrete screen, to the east of the current choir organ. Mooching around later revealed a similar but much larger arrangement on the west side of the main organ. The 4 manual electronic console controlling it all is in the loft right next to the old one, and it looks very impressive. This is stopping a very large gap. The organist said that while the long-term plan is to replace the pipe organ, the cathedral is at the start of a major restoration and it could be a good few years before a new instrument arrives, which must of course be pretty much the last phase of the restoration.

 

Incidentally, I commented that it sounded surprisingly rough compared with the couple of electronics I have owned, He said that it had only just been installed and needed voicing, which is fair enough. A large acoustic helps hide the evidence as well. However, the difference at point blank range is clear. In mitigation m'lud, my home toaster was replaced by a real pipe organ, but much though I love it, my ego and I do occasionally yearn for something with headphones, 50 stops, 32' reeds and an electronic reverberation with a "big cathedral" setting - although I think the family would settle for the headphones.

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Newcastle Cathedral is using a Phoenix:

 

http://www.newcastlegateshead.com/whats-on/st-nicholas-cathedrals-lunchtime-recital-series-p761261

 

 

I can't see mention of this on the Forum, but apologies in advance if it has already been covered.

 

Is this the pipe organ? Is it just me or is that a most curious choice of stops for the fugue?

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Is this the pipe organ? Is it just me or is that a most curious choice of stops for the fugue?

 

It is indeed the Nicholson rebuild of the T.C. Lewis / H&H pipe organ. It is clear from this that all is not well with this instrument.

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I used to go to many of the Bank Holiday recital at Newcastle, when Tim Hone was DOM, it was in fine voice then, I think

 

My first organ teacher, Russell Missin, preceded Timothy Hone at Newcastle and he always sung its praises. I only knew him personally prior to his Newcastle appointment at St Mary's, Nottingham, and I was probably among the last few who played the 4 manual Walker there before its terminal collapse and its replacement with a rather different instrument (which has, I gather, now been augmented with a digital, a situation which some might think tells its own story). He was apparently well liked at Newcastle:

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell_Arthur_Missin

 

So, although St Mary's is not a cathedral, there is nonetheless some congruence with the topic here.

 

CEP

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