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David Drinkell

Progress at Atlantic City

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Progress on the restoration of the largest organ in the world, at the Boardwalk​ Hall, Atlantic City, New Jersey, reached a new target with the re-inauguration yesterday of the sections in the Left Stage Chamber, which have not been functioning for several decades. The Pedal in this section is of 61 voices, including 50" wind Diaphone, 50'' Bombard and 20" Fagotto units from 32', mutations at 10 2/3' (three of them!), 6 2/5', 5 1/3', 4 4/7, 3 1/5', 2 2/7', and mixtures of VII and VI ranks. There is also a small "Unenclosed Choir" of Quintaton 16, Diapason 8, Holz Flute 8, Octave 4, Fifteenth 2, Quint Rausch 12.5, Scharf Mixture 19.22 on 3 1/2"; the main Swell Organ (40 voices on 15", including 20 ranks of mixture and major reeds on 30"); the "Swell-Choir" of 64 voices, largely extended, the flue-work consisting mostly of gemshorns and flutes, including mutations at 6 2/5', 5 1/3', 4 4/7, 3 5/9', 3 1/5', 2 10/11', 2 2/3', 2 2/7', 1 7/9', 1 3/5', 1 5/11', 1 1/3', 1 1/7', 8/9', 4/5', 8/11', 2/3' ,1/2', 1/3', 1/4', and a 32' Fagotto; and "String I" of twelve voices, including multi-rank celestes.

 

www.facebook.com/BoardwalkOrgans/

 

The Facebook recording, although not of top quality, shows a much brighter and less ponderous aspect of the organ than that which has been available hitherto and bears out the contention of those who knew the organ before it fell into near-dereliction that its chorus-work was something stupendous. The reeds now available have more of a French voice than those which were already working. The Vierne Final (Symphony 1) sounds very convincing to me (not just because the tuning is way out in a few places).

 

I feel that this latest work goes further to prove that this instrument is not merely a huge noise machine, or an inflated theatre organ, or a monument to bad taste, but a superb and unique achievement. I look forward to the next stage coming on stream.

 

 

 

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Thanks for the update. A year ago I had the privilege of hearing, and touring the innards of both this leviathon and its not-quite sister instrument at Macy's in Philadelphia, the Wanamaker organ. I was surprised by just how different both organs were tonally given that they each had prety much the kitchen sink thrown at them during development. Whilst the Wanamaker is famed for its delicious, lush strings in abundance, the Boardwalk organ has well developed choruses galore and if anything is the more "classical" or at least the more eclectic of the two. Admittedly the Boardwalk organ was about as out of tune as is possible for an organ to be, and was ciphering during the lunchtime concert, but it was clear that beneath the hugeness lay a quite special design. It was interesting to see so many organ enthusiasts attend what is a weekly tour of the organ chambers and recital. Quite why was it felt necessary to have so many stops and such colossal wind pressures - the building is colossal but has less than have the cubic metres of Liverpool Cathedral for instance.

 

One thing that struck me as I'd never felt it before, was that the wind was under such huge pressure (the Great diapason choruses are on 30 inches wind!) that when I placed my hand on a trunk it was very warm to touch. Wouldn't that have a detrimental effect on tuning?

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This organ was built just at the time when an alternative technology was emerging which could be harnessed to fill large spaces with sound. This technology was electronic amplifiers and loudspeakers. Until then only the pipe organ could do the job for centuries past. So it could be argued that it was unfortunate that this was perhaps not fully appreciated before the contract for the pipe organ was signed.

 

However, electronic PA systems in those early days were truly awful. Intermodulation and harmonic distortion was insufferably high, and the 'tinny' frequency response of the horn loudspeakers often used resulted in the system sounding little different to those used in railway stations. On the other hand, an acoustic instrument such as the pipe organ does not suffer from either defect - it produces zero distortion and the frequency response can be matched to the building by proper design of stop list and pipe scales.

 

So the decision taken at the time was the correct one in these respects at least.

 

Having said that, one wonders whether Emerson Richards (the instrument's designer) might have had second thoughts about its concept and musicality. He seemed humbled when he first encountered a Schnitger organ in the 1940's, writing of this epiphany:

 

"Full organ fills the rather large church with a flood of pure tone - no rumble or muddiness. Bach ... came out with an entirely new meaning. A precise, bell-like tone, rich in harmonics, but characterized by a lightness and transparency, gave an interest to the music never achieved by the romantic organ to which we are accustomed. There is plenty of power; the Mixtures are responsible for that; but it is a different kind of power. After becoming accustomed to it one never has the same interest in chorus reeds as instruments of power"

 

As for wind temperature effects on tuning (post #2), yes there is a major effect of 3 cents per degree Celsius for flue pipes. Therefore a temperature change of 33 degrees results in a whole semitone pitch shift.

 

CEP

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Thanks Colin, interesting points. The building is comparable in volume to the largest cathedrals in the world, and I'm not aware of any cathedral organ anywhere in the world that's even half the size and on anywhere nearly as much wind pressure as Atlantic City. With a seating capacity of 20,000 you need a pretty powerful set of lungs to fill the hall but do you really need such high wind pressures?

 

The history of the organ is well documented, and though designed in the 1920s, its designer Emerson Richards was well aware of the tonal designs of baroque organs and sought to introduce these into Atlantic City. It would be a stretch to say that the Boardwalk organ is an early example of the Organ Reform movement but Emerson was nothing if not far sighted. His preferred builders either declined to tender at all or tendered such a high cost (fearing that to be associated with such a behemoth would be detrimental to their reputation) that the bid fell to a lesser regarded firm. He even tried without success to invite Willis III to bid, but apparently had regular correspondence with Willis during its construction, and at least one of Willis' workers helped on the Boardwalk organ (as indeed did builders from many firms - the contract was placed just before the Wall Street Crash and many organ builders were only too glad to have some work subcontracted to them),

 

You mentioned electronic amplification. As an aside, the organ is distributed around the building with two main cases at the front either side of the stage, but several more cases speaking through grilles in the side walls and ceiling. As each is under expression, with the appropriate registration and careful use of expresion pedals it is possible to "move" sound around the building just as though you were panning sound through stereo speakers from side to side with quite amazing effects.

 

On the temperature issue, how much wind goes up the pipe and how much exits the mouth? If the air being blown into flue pipes is much hotter than the surrounding atmosphere but it exits the mouth, wouldn't the temperature of the air in the resonating body of the pipe be the determinant of pitch, and wouldn't that be much closer to room temperature? If wind pressure is so high that the wind is hot to touch, either it can't affect tuning as much or it would need some sort of refrigeration to cool it down before arriving in the windchests. Remember that several ranks (not just the famous tuba) are on 100 inches!

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In reply to Contrabombarde, greater loudness in a given pipe is achieved by higher wind pressures, though it is also a function of other parameters such as mouth width in a flue pipe. A wider mouth consumes more wind, so you would need a greater flow rate in this case as well. I can't answer your question as to why the wind pressures were chosen as they were.

 

I can't see that the temperature of the wind which caught your attention was produced by the compression necessary to achieve the said pressure. Compressing a gas does raise its temperature, but even 30 inches water gauge is only a tad over one pound per square inch, which is pretty low compared to the sorts of pressures involved when we sense that compressed air gets hot in everyday life (such as when blowing up a bicycle tyre). So I'm wondering why the wind trunk you mentioned in post #2 got so hot. I suspect it might have been because the air flow was either static or so low (was the organ being played at the time?) that it was only passing through the blower slowly, and blower casings can get pretty hot of course because of the heat transferred from the motor when air flow is low. It is not unusual for motors to get so hot that you can't touch them, and some of this gets transferred to the wind.

 

But if the air temperature applied to all the pipes is the same, the fluework will not go out of tune with itself. However reeds react differently to temperature changes, and that is where the problems arise in organs of course.

 

I can't really comment further on your final paragraph because there are so many imponderables, other than to say that the tuning drift figure of 3 cents per degree refers to air temperature inside the pipe resonator itself. As it gets hotter the speed of sound increases and the pipe goes sharp (the expansion of the pipe material compensates by making the pipe go flat, but this effect is negligible in comparison). And vice versa.

 

As you said, all interesting stuff.

 

CEP

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