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Mander Organs
Geoff McMahon

Blind Listening Experiment

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I hope our contributors will forgive me for introducing something which mentions electronic organs, but I think a number of you will be amused (bemused?) by this video clip on YouTube. However, I implore you to limit any comments strictly to this video and not to stray into a larger discussion about the relative merits of pipe versus electronic organs (or the other way around). You will be moderated if you do!

John

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_CwUxp7cvA&feature=youtu.be

 

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Interesting that the comparison sems to be a like v like test as far as style and size go. Many comparisons seem to be a modest 2M + P v a 3M, 50 stop, multiple specification/temperament/style which appeals to the closet megalomaniac in all of us, but is if course unfair.

I once went to a pipe v electronic demo, during which the company involved had recorded a few stops from the small Willis IV in the church, and played them back along with the Willis, which had nothing wrong with it apart from never having been completed. I have to say that it served more to demonstrate just how many more stops could be had electronically, rather than help any objective quality assessment, so wasn't really much help. That was 20+ years ago, so I have no idea of the present state of affairs there. But I'm on my third toaster since then!

But the point about cost and congregations is well made, and unavoidable. A CofE booklet on selecting organs rightly points out that few churches need monster specifications, they just need something supportive and musical. Whether that can be achieved by modest new organs, resurrecting Compton-style designs, proposing good quality second hand pipe instruments, or going electronic is the gamut of considerations which we'd probably all like to be considered more evenly.

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I've been organist of a small parish church for 30 years and it is currently debatable whether me or the organ will fall apart first.

15 years ago, our then organ tuner said to me 'This is the last pipe organ you'll have here' and I suspect he's right. There's no doubt that 99% of our congregation would be unable to tell the difference. Particularly as ours is already a hybrid 13 (excellent) digital stops added in 2002 to the original 16 pipe stops.

I think it is right that much will come down to finance. It's much easier to find the capital cost of an electronic than of a pipe organ - even if it comes up more often. We all know that a pipe organ will last much longer but, given the way our congregation is shrinking, whose to say that the church will even be there in 30 years time?

It will be different in churches with a higher level of musical tradition, or historic organs, (or more money!) but for the small parish church I think it will become ever more difficult to justify a pipe organ.

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A couple of issues spring to mind here.

It is certainly true that a pipe organ can last 100 years.  There are one or two Hele organs I know that, for all their artistic shortcomings, were built like tanks (as was the norm with Hele's) and are still just about managing to function despite having had no serious investment since they were originally built. Amazing, really. However, if a pipe organ is to last 100 years it needs building/renovating and maintaining by a top quality firm with all the investment that this implies. Entrusting instruments to what I will politely call jobbing locals who tailor the work to the budget available seems mostly to be a false economy - or even no economy at all.  A church local to me (who were soundly advised, but who chose a different route because they "knew best") recently spent £20k having their organ restored. The work was botched and, quite seriously, the organ emerged in no better musical condition than it was before, although the Swell is now electrified and has octave and sub-octave couplers. Well, whoopee. 100 years?  It didn't even manage two months!  It is far from the only local church in this position and I have no doubt at all that this scenario has been repeated up and down the country.

And what if a church does invest £100k plus in restoring their organ properly?  The restored instrument may last 100 years, but will the church?  At the current rate of decline in church attendance, I would be surprised if any church is viable a century from now, except for the Oxbridge colleges, most cathedrals and maybe a few major city-centre churches.  All the churches and Christians I know are committed to being optimistic about the future, but I would be very surprised if concerns about long-term continuity do not influence the thinking of those who hold the purse strings when it comes to financing organs.  Short-termism is bound to favour the cheaper option. I actually suspect that this is the root of the problem.

And, let's face it, when it comes to sound quality, even many discriminating musicians are now happy to put up with the convenience of recorded music in mp3 format rather than the superior CD quality - let alone vinyl.


 

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Not all congregations are as unaware as we might think. I recently transported my 1 rank 85 note continuo organ to our local catholic church which has never had an organ. It's a small building perhaps seating 120. There have been numerous electronic organ simulations there over the years but each person that spoke to me commented how different a real organ sounded and how much they preferred it, including one Polish lady, a trained pianist who believed she had an almost pathological hatred of the organ. She admitted that she would now have to re-appraise her position.

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Over the last 20 years or so I have done quite a bit of advising on organs, both pipe and digital, and some issues brought to mind by the video are:

1. The "pipe-organ-is-cheaper-over-the-long-run" type of argument does not cut the mustard at all with those who have to find a lot of money in the here and now.

2. Most PCC or organ committee members can't really tell the difference between pipe and digital sound as the video showed, and some don't care.  This does not mean they are stupid, unmusical or cloth-eared.  On the contrary, some committees include musically qualified members.   Most I have met are nice people who just want to do their best for their church and neighbourhood community.  They are on the whole enthusiastic, outward-looking and are fully aware that many well known professional organists (such as Professor Tracey - c.f. the video) have no problem identifying themselves with both types of organ.

3. Regardless of the type of organ they end up with, many churches today will only use it for a minority of services, perhaps four or five times a month plus weddings etc.  The rest of the time they use worship bands, or even CDs played through the PA system.  When there are one or two reasonable singers in the congregation, this can apparently work to the satisfaction of all.

4.  Spending a lot of money on either type of organ is thought to be improper by some churches, especially inner city ones, who see the need to help the homeless and otherwise needy people who come to them.

5. The bureaucracy of the Faculty system (in the CofE) puts some PCCs off even embarking on the issue in the first place.  They just let the old pipe organ sit there and rot.  At the same time it is possible for them to import a digital on a "temporary" basis without having to seek any permissions provided the fabric of the building or the existing pipe organ is not modified.  Presumably this is why the two instruments were able to sit side by side, figuratively speaking, in the church in the video.

CEP

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I am slightly troubled by this demonstration in that there is not a fair comparison between the two really quite different organs.  The excellent Mander has no 16' reeds, the digital does, so perhaps it might have been better to try and compare them more closely by using similar combinations.  Simply playing the same pieces does not make it a balanced demonstration.

I agree with ajsphead  regarding a congregation noticing the difference between a digital organ and pipe.  I also used my single rank Walker (now sold) with a sole 8' Flute to accompany mass for a few months  at church following the demise of an electronic instrument before a replacement (pipe) organ was installed from a redundant church in Winchester.  The result was a revelation to the congregation and priest who were spurred into action in funding the replacement instrument. 

While it is interesting to see such a comparison, I cannot take the result seriously on the basis of this particular demonstration.   Congregations should work together with their diocesan organ advisor whatever their views on digital instruments not base their decisions on market research.. If in doubt consult, consult, consult.  

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It is true: most people can't tell the difference, certainly on a brief encounter.  It was brought home to me a few months ago after evensong at Winslow.  Their rather nice 3m Bevington finally died quite spectacularly during the first hymn of special service about two years ago when Bishop Steven Croft was preaching and since then they have been using a temporary electronic.  A couple who both used to sing with the Bach Choir could not tell it was not the pipe organ.  I found the temporary electronic in use at Buckfast quite convincing while played quietly.  What really gave it away (as also at Winslow) was the use of the Crescendo pedal as a volume control, which is a most un-pipe organ like effect - but most will not notice.  With time, a lot of people continue to not notice, but the more discerning start to find the electronic sound does begin to jar.

I was curious at the statement in the blind listening test that a pipe organ will last 100 years.  A robustly built, fully mechanical instrument should surely have a much longer working life than that, if it is saved from poor quality interventions and the whims of fashion. 

There was also no mention of the possibility of obtaining a suitable redundant organ rather than a new electronic.

 

 

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The crescendo pedal effect is an interesting point.  Over here, most organs have them and some organists seem to use them as a matter of course rather than registering by hand.  By extension of this practice,  I've noticed that the same players tend to draw more stops than I would think advisable (all the 8' flues, for example) rather than being selective.  A further point, especially with Allen organs, is that the rather smooth and silky sound would seem to be conceived with the dead acoustic of many cushioned and carpeted North American churches in mind.

With regard to the Winslow instrument, its electrification in the sixties might in retrospect seem to have been unfortunate.  Looking it up, I see that it has a nice case, which I have added to the Beautiful English Organs thread.

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Dear Friends,

Some interesting comments, some of which are beginning to head into forbidden territory. Never mind. What interests me is that, with all respect, I think most comments have missed the point.

The aim of the exercise was to establish if an average person could identify which was the pipe organ and which was the electronic. The split between those who identified correctly and those who didn't, was pretty even. Are you surprised? I am certainly not, no more than I would be surprised if a group of average people were asked to identify in a blind wine tasting which was a Waitrose own Claret and which was a Premier Grand Cru Classe.

It might have been more interesting and informative if the group had been asked which they thought sounded better. Who knows, the electronic with its 20 stops and 16ft Pedal reed against the 13(!) stop St Giles organ without the 16ft reed might have been preferred. We will never know.

The bottom line is that a brief blind listening test like this is pretty pointless. It doesn't tell us which organ is better. It only tells us that the average person can't tell the difference in a short blind hearing, which we probably knew anyway. It is the equivalent of the Sunday Times engaging a Joe Bloggs as its wine correspondent. If our choirs all over the country started demanding large electronic organs for their churches, that would be the time to start being concerned.

Another point we can be smug about is that before I posted this, the number of people who had watched the clip had hovered around the mid 70s for days. Having posted it, it has gone to over 230. I think that speaks for the purpose of this discussion board.

John

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7 hours ago, David Drinkell said:

The crescendo pedal effect is an interesting point.  Over here, most organs have them and some organists seem to use them as a matter of course rather than registering by hand.  By extension of this practice,  I've noticed that the same players tend to draw more stops than I would think advisable (all the 8' flues, for example) rather than being selective.

An interesting point, I agree.  Also, what interests me is the comparison of a pipe organ crescendo pedal with the crescendo pedal of an electronic organ.

I know that the former (like a 'walze') brings on - or off - stops individually or perhaps in groups.  I know little of electronic organs, but is it not the case that a crescendo pedal on that sort of instrument would simply act like a volume control knob?  Of course, I realise I may be completely wrong, but I suspect that was the case with early electronics, like Hammonds for example.  If so, the sound variation would be not the same.

Just another observation, if I may.  I haven't had time to listen to the comparison video as yet, but am sure I wouldn't be able to differentiate.  However, I think that would be an unfair test!  My laptop's speakers would be unable to reproduce every small nuance and, even with a top line computer and speakers, I suspect the same would be true.  After all, if we are listening to speakers, we are listening to an electronic reproduction anyway!

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16 minutes ago, John Robinson said:

After all, if we are listening to speakers, we are listening to an electronic reproduction anyway!

This is very true. The best electronic organs should be indistinguishable from a recording of a pipe organ. There are various reasons why this is not quite true in practice, but some electronics do come very close. With YouTube videos, you have the added factor of compression to take into account, which makes it harder still to distinguish. It is a very different matter to compare the two in the flesh, as it were, and I have yet to come across an electronic that convinced me after prolonged listening.

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4 hours ago, John Robinson said:

An interesting point, I agree.  Also, what interests me is the comparison of a pipe organ crescendo pedal with the crescendo pedal of an electronic organ.

I know that the former (like a 'walze') brings on - or off - stops individually or perhaps in groups.  I know little of electronic organs, but is it not the case that a crescendo pedal on that sort of instrument would simply act like a volume control knob?  Of course, I realise I may be completely wrong, but I suspect that was the case with early electronics, like Hammonds for example.  If so, the sound variation would be not the same.

Just another observation, if I may.  I haven't had time to listen to the comparison video as yet, but am sure I wouldn't be able to differentiate.  However, I think that would be an unfair test!  My laptop's speakers would be unable to reproduce every small nuance and, even with a top line computer and speakers, I suspect the same would be true.  After all, if we are listening to speakers, we are listening to an electronic reproduction anyway!

On a "respectable" (for want of a better word) electronic, the general crescendo pedal would work in the same way as on a pipe organ - after all, such instruments are designed to imitate pipe organs in every respect.  In other words, it would add stops one by one. Where the general crescendo is, in my opinion, unsatisfactory, is that it starts with the softest stops and adds others gradually, but without taking off those stops which may be superfluous at a given level of volume. For example, if you have Great to Fifteenth and make a crescendo via the general crescendo pedal, you will get all the unison flutes, strings, etc, which are on the earlier stages, thus cloying the texture and wasting wind.  Some modern instruments may have a means of programming the general crescendo, but most don't.  For that reason, I very rarely use the device - I reckon I can count on the fingers of one hand the pieces where I find it useful.  The effect is probably better on North American romantic organs (Skinners, for example) where there are more ways to build up and reduce than is usually the case on British instruments, but I still don't like to be bound by what has been set up on the pedal, and I think that they have had an adverse effect on many organists over here, making them lazy in registration.

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@ Martin Cooke, re high end electronic organs.

You are, of course, correct. There is an element of "You pays your money and you takes your choice" with many things, and certainly once you get to 4 manual electronic instruments a high degree of customisation, high quality and adaptability are expected. It is also true that many electronic instruments do have great flexibility in voicing, even the small ones, and that installers really do need to know what they are doing in order to get each installation right. There are a couple of such installers in the UK who, I think quite rightly, take great care and professional pride in doing just that. The overlap, and increasing difficulty to distinguish with pipe organs is probably considerable here. But like you I have also heard good electronics (a big acoustic helps) and poor pipe organs - and I recently heard a large electronic, not long installed, which sounds remarkably flat, in the sense of being 2-dimensional and, as more stops are added, indistinct. But that's just me - and that church's pipe organ doesn't work, so can't be switched on for the inevitably revealing comparison.

Going back to the purpose of the post, which is whether average, interested and normally musical people can distinguish pipe and electronic, the real problem is the opportunity for objective comparison. Often, such tests are quite short, in my limited experience. This is why I made the point about finding a stop on an organ that you can play for hours.

I am fortunate in having a small Dutch neo-baroque-ish pipe organ at home, and can compare it with a very new, also Dutch, electronic organ (no names, not fair) for as long as I wish. With the electronic, I can select more or less the same stops as the pipe organ and compare them directly. Initially, it's actually very good. But for some reason this does wane over a relatively short time. I really don't know why - I can guess that, as brains are adapted to seek out patterns, the lack of random variation, or the presence of predictable, periodic variation, in synthesised or long-loop electronic organs might betray them, perhaps the poor spatial definition of the individual notes at close quarters. But my living room is not the ideal listening space.

At the press of a button, I can now go from a Dutch organ to a French romantic one, with a specification sampled from a Cavaillé-Coll organ in France somewhere, but which is sufficiently close to the genuine Cavaillé-Coll in the Waalse Kerk (French Protestant Church) here in The Hague. Spec here https://www.haagsorgelkontakt.nl/waalse-kerk/, a superb organ. Whilst my electronic sounds great with headphones on and the reverberation knob turned all the way up to 11, there's no mistaking it for the real thing here, and certainly not if the interested listener could hear them together, and could spend time with them.

Of course, features like the number of audio channels matter - a "simple" spatial effect of stereo is not enough, I feel. But some manufacturers have gone as far as to produce loudspeaker arrangements with many speakers speaking into resonant tubes, which then goes quite a way to simulating the three-dimensional vibrations of pipes, rather than just a big echo chamber. Then, of course, things get expensive even for electronic organs, and you may well approach the cost of the real thing. This principle might have some application for hybrid organs. A friend of mine is a flautist, and always finds playing his flute while standing next to my house organ funny, because he can feel and hear sympathetic resonances from different pipes in the organ and he says he finds himself adapting his tuning to the response from the otherwise silent pipes. I wonder whether hybrid organs might sound better than they really are because of this effect, even if this is just a compromise to get loud and/or big stops into a specification. It could even save some temporarily out of action organs, if electronic installations retained them rather than chucking out the pipes for more speakers to be dumped onto the soundboards.

Given this, my very limited personal experience, I think that the average interested person, given a fair opportunity and time, would be able to tell the difference and fairly appreciate that difference. What they then do with that deeper insight, and awareness that the choice need not be just pipe v electronic, is of course subject to other considerations.

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Some discussion above mentions the 'aim' of the video.  I think the problem here is that there wasn't one - by its own admission in the opening credit it consists merely of someone famous playing two instruments, and then it concludes with a lecture on 'economics' by someone rich.  Er - so what?  Where is the 'aim' in that?  Therefore I think we may be crediting it with more meaning and importance than it deserves and therefore wasting our time.  I shouldn't be surprised if at least some parties involved in making the thing are having a good laugh at our expense and wondering why we haven't got anything better to do.  So maybe the whole thread ought to be deleted now that we've got it out of our systems?  That's not my decision, though this is after all a pipes-only forum and one reason why at least some of us are members.  Those with the inclination can sound off about electronics some place else.

However, since the thread hasn't been deleted, it does lead onto another matter.  The whole issue of pipes versus electronics is not really whether one is better than the other because in many respects it's a question scarcely worth the asking - the answer is obvious and the differences can be demonstrated to doubters objectively.  What matters more is whether the cheaper digital option is good enough, and therefore by implication, more cost-effective.  It is obvious that many purchasers think that digitals are good enough.  As with John's wine analogy, it is why those who can't afford the Premier Grand Cru nevertheless get quite a lot of satisfaction from Waitrose own brand.  If I were a pipe organ builder, I think it is this aspect which would cause me the most concern.

CEP

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12 hours ago, Damian Beasley-Suffolk said:

A friend of mine is a flautist, and always finds playing his flute while standing next to my house organ funny, because he can feel and hear sympathetic resonances from different pipes in the organ 

It is not for nothing that the woodwind were omitted from Poulenc's Organ Concerto.

Modern orchestral instruments almost always sound ‘off’ in such a context: rarely sounding ‘comfortable’ in combination with both their earlier (‘authentic’) incarnations and/or an organ.

Flutes would probably ‘blend in’ the most successfully.    

 

 

  

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The point made about long-term aural dissatisfaction with digitals (as opposed to the short demonstration in the video) is interesting.  If it were a significant factor then we might expect there to be a long-term trend of lots of electronics being replaced with pipe organs about twenty years after their installation (sufficient time for everyone to be fed up with the flat 'plastic', mushy sound, and for the people whose decision it was to install the digital to have moved on).  Is this observable on more than an anecdotal level?

The lecture in the video takes a purely economic perspective in discussing pipe vs electronic; this fails to take into account of the knock-on effects of installing an electronic - most significantly that many organists would rather not play them and so won't apply for the organist's job at that church when a vacancy arises.  Thus the music programme of the church is endangered in the long term; the electronic implies (to some highly relevant people at least) that the church doesn't really care about music very much.

(The video doesn't seem to contain the whole lecture so maybe other points were originally addressed but edited out?)

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41 minutes ago, SomeChap said:

...the electronic implies (to some highly relevant people at least) that the church doesn't really care about music very much.

...

I really don't think that's true.
As has been discussed above, there is much, much more to the choice than just 'caring about music'.

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7 hours ago, Steve Goodwin said:

I really don't think that's true.
As has been discussed above, there is much, much more to the choice than just 'caring about music'.

 

Actually I agree with that! I don't want to get into a 'pipe v electronic' debate but it could very well be that, buying an electronic, shows that the church cares very much about its programme of music. Every circumstance is different and a blanket judgement isn't particularly helpful!

Well, that's what I think anyway!!

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We always have to remember that the pipe organ is very much a niche market within a niche market (classical music). Even many church goers who regularly hear the organ played have never seen it close up, have no idea how it works or know that organists play with their feet. Members of the clergy are not necessarily interested in organs and organ music - why should they be? Pipe organs have suffered over the centuries from being smashed up by religious fanatics, atheists (French Revolution), anarchists (Spanish Civil War), or their activity has been restricted when the theology of church music changed (Tra Le Sollicitudini) and alternatim masses were banned. The Orthodox Church does not allow musical instruments at all.

Perhaps the best way to view pipe organ building (if you want to remain positive) is like the bespoke, handmade shoe or suit industries. You can always get them but they’ll cost you many hundreds or thousands of pounds. They’ll always be a demand, but only a limited one. I am constantly surprised at just how many new organs are still commissioned and installed in churches and elsewhere, here and abroad. Somehow, in spite of the sheer incompetence of many churches in managing and investing their funds, huge sums are stll found for new organs or to rebuild existing ones. Probably the greatest threat to pipe organs is fashion. The argument about pipe organs lasting 100 years is almost beside the point, since many new today will probably fail to impress in 30 years time and be subject to all kinds of alteration. It is impossible to predict where churches and organs will be in 100 years time - if the world hasn’t been blown to smithereens! 

The latest sampling techniques make it possible to have a range of highly realistic recordings of organs installed in your computer and play them back in your home. This is great for practising, (or even making your own digital recordings), but we should never forget that these are samples of real pipe organs and would not be possible without them. The human brain needs constant stimulation and change, and these factors, together with fashion, will ensure that digital organs will never replace good, well maintained pipe organs. On the contrary, the availability of relatively cheap digital organs for practice has at last made it possible for new students to learn and practise the organ in their own homes. Nothing, but nothing in the world of music however, can compare with the experience of playing, say Widor or Vierne, on great Cavaillé Coll organs in Paris as I did on an organ course earlier this summer. Can anyone really imagine that a digital organ could be built that could ever come anywhere near the glorious sound of the organ in Saint Sulpice?

 

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On 12/09/2018 at 03:53, David Drinkell said:

On a "respectable" (for want of a better word) electronic, the general crescendo pedal would work in the same way as on a pipe organ - after all, such instruments are designed to imitate pipe organs in every respect.  In other words, it would add stops one by one. Where the general crescendo is, in my opinion, unsatisfactory, is that it starts with the softest stops and adds others gradually, but without taking off those stops which may be superfluous at a given level of volume. For example, if you have Great to Fifteenth and make a crescendo via the general crescendo pedal, you will get all the unison flutes, strings, etc, which are on the earlier stages, thus cloying the texture and wasting wind.  Some modern instruments may have a means of programming the general crescendo, but most don't.  For that reason, I very rarely use the device - I reckon I can count on the fingers of one hand the pieces where I find it useful.  The effect is probably better on North American romantic organs (Skinners, for example) where there are more ways to build up and reduce than is usually the case on British instruments, but I still don't like to be bound by what has been set up on the pedal, and I think that they have had an adverse effect on many organists over here, making them lazy in registration.

I played a new organ with fully electric action in Witheridge, North Devon, a couple of years ago. This had four different settings available for the general crescendo pedal and they all were set to do exactly what most GCPs don't in that the superfluous quieter ranks were taken off as the louder stops came on. In this case it was clearly up to the player to choose the sound required in each of the settings. The level of playing aids was almost overwhelming to me; used to playing instruments with none! I do appreciate that older organs don't have the flexibility that a new state-of-the-art electric action can provide. Here is a rather blurred picture that Mrs H took on a very basic digital camera as i was playing. The GC pedal is the the right-hand (foot!) of the two.

This is the specification although the GCP isn't shown in the leaflet from which it was taken.

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