How To Guides

Choosing a New Organ

December 08, 2008

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St. Paul's Converted OrganMusic, like almost anything, can be either a wonderfully unifying gift to the church or it can be an emotionally and politically charged source of division.

Below are some questions for parishes and committees to consider when on the threshold of commissioning a new organ for an existing, soon-to-be-built, or renovated worship space.

These questions can be used in a variety of ways beyond “choosing an organ.”  They will help you clarify your vision so that you can communicate it effectively to the parish, diocesan staff, architects, budget committees, musicians and anyone else your community of believers touches. Ultimately, they will help you choose an instrument that best suits your needs and maintain a healthy unity.

Pray as a Group

This instrument is to be used for the glory of God and the edification of God's people, as well as to minister to the community at large. There will be multiple egos, agendas, artistic differences, and financial concerns ripe for collision. You want everyone’s focus to be on accomplishing the greater mission in a mutually edifying manner.

Decide on the Types of Music You Will be Supporting

What combination of concerts, recitals, liturgy, worship styles, weddings, and choirs etc. do you wish to incorporate as part of your vision? What genres do they represent? Each option you add will affect your choice of instrument.

For example, to host recitals and concerts, your organ is going to need to be versatile in the kinds of stops (sizes and types of pipes) it has. It is very hard to play convincing French romantic literature on an instrument constructed solely for Baroque music.

To accommodate large choirs, you will need an appropriate sized instrument. On the other hand, if your services are quite small or simple, you will not need the same type of instrument.

Clarify the types and genres of music first. Set that decision in stone and remain flexible with regards to what technologies you are going to use to accomplish that goal.

Handling this point properly will keep everyone focused on the bigger picture.

Find Out What Resources You Have Available to You

Take an inventory of what you have that can be used or re-used on this project. This could include existing pipes, consoles, and audio systems. However, it can also include endowments, skilled workers, fundraising talent, music patrons (many organs are funded by a single donor).

Assess if the organ is going to be used to generate new revenues that you had to turn away before (i.e weddings, concerts). If so, how much? Will that ongoing revenue be available to finance your organ purchase?

St. George

Do Spatial Assessments

Determine if your sanctuary has the size and acoustics to accommodate a pipe organ designed to play the repertoire you wish to play. A pipe organ benefits from a room with 2+ seconds of echo. If it can, then see if you can afford the pipe organ. If you cannot accommodate the organ or the cost, then you will need to look at one of the other technologies or a hybrid.

Pipe vs. Digital vs. Virtual

If you have the money and the space, nothing replaces a great pipe organ tailored to your repertoire and the room. However, it is better to get a great virtual or digital organ than a mediocre pipe organ.

Moving a pipe organ from one sanctuary to another is approximately 75% of the cost of purchasing a brand new instrument.

There are good and bad digital organs. Listen to each stop individually when testing. More importantly, listen to the organ with many stops pulled. Well-implemented digitals will maintain the clarity of each stop when many stops are combined. The sound should get richer as you add more stops. Poorly implemented digital sampling will turn into a giant mush in the upper frequencies as you add more and more stops.

A Virtual Pipe Organ (VPO) can use a traditional or modern console. The main advantage to a VPO is that it provides an expandable sound platform for your organ. As new samples emerge, and as software improves, upgrading is very inexpensive. This is the kind of technology used for the Pope’s Satellite Mass at the 49th Eucharistic Congress.

The final possibility is a mix of these technologies into a hybrid. If you already have good sounding pipes, you may be able to add the other technologies as well.

Regardless of the type of instrument you want, find one in your area that can do what you would like yours to do. If there is not one in your area then find one as close as possible and visit it. Then get a quote on reproducing that organ. This way you know exactly what it is going to sound like before you buy it and how much it will cost.

Plan for Flexible Upgrade Paths

Making sure you get a suitable control system can give you better reliability, extra memory levels, pistons, couplers, crescendos, auto-pedal, auto-solo, record/playback functions, and more.

It could also allow you to have MIDI in and out to control sound generators can add extra organ stops, orchestral samples, or contemporary instruments. MIDI inputs will also allow the organ to be controlled by external instruments. If you have a contemporary worship team, this may provide another way to work together.

Before you purchase an organ or a new control system, find out about the reliability of different control systems from the organists who play on those systems. If possible, test out their MIDI implementation to see if it is reliable.

Photos provided by Darryl Wood.

Darryl Wood is the Marketing Manager for Classic Organ Works, Markham, Ontario, Canada, which specializes in designing pipe organ control system and other MIDI technologies.

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