1. What defines a good digital organ?
Tonal clarity and audio quality are the most essential and distinguishing determinants. The tone of a good digital organ closely approximates that of the pipe organ with which it aligns in terms of tonal tradition. Such an organ, which will be void of audio clippings, must be reliable and durable, requiring minimum maintenance.
2. Are digital organs off-the- shelf products?
Music and worship differ from church to church; no two organists have the same taste nor share the same organ repertoire; no two buildings are acoustically and architecturally the same. For these reasons, excellent twenty-first century digital organs, like pipe organs, are designed from scratch to meet the specific requirements of the end-users. Therefore, modern digital organs, unlike keyboards and the electronic organs of old are not off-the-shelf products.
3. What is required to purchase an appropriate digital instrument?
The acquisition process starts with proposals from an organ consultant (or vendor) for a series of tonal designs, specifications and audio system designs based on the requirements of the end-user. Such requirements will include the music program for which the organ will be used as well as the acoustical properties of the space where the digital organ will be installed. The proposed organ designs will differ in terms of features, technical specifications and price. After a choice is made, the organ is produced, delivered and installed. The final step is the crucial installation aspect of on-site voicing (or fine-tuning as the case may be) – an art in itself!
4. How crucial is the voicing aspect of an organ installation?
It is the voicing of an organ relative to its immediate environment that ultimately defines and articulates its tonal character. Without proper voicing, a top-notch organ designed and built with the best technology will be undesirable in terms of sound.
5. Can anyone voice a digital organ?
No! A good sounding digital organ approximates pipe organ sounds. Thus, a voicing (or fine-tuning) expert should have a pipe organ experience, preferably as an organist, and possess a clear concept of what timbres to aim for when voicing. Furthermore, a competent voicing technician should be conversant with the different organ tonal traditions and the voicing software/technology specific to the organ to be voiced.
6. Do all digital organ brands have the facility for voicing similar to the pipe organ voicing culture?
Voicing on the pipe organ is actually “tonal finishing.” This is the process of regulating the tonal characteristic of each rank, pipe by pipe (note by note). From this angle, all organs based on real-time tone generation systems have voicing capabilities similar to pipe organs. These organs have the facility for stop sound creation and timbral editing while also controlling the sound attack and decay time parameters. On the other hand, with the underlying technology for sampled-sound organs (the playback of recorded sounds), it is impossible to voice in a manner akin to the pipe organ tradition. The so called “voicing” software available for most (if not all) sampled-sound organs typically have controls for Volume, Chorus, Tremulant speed, Tremulant depth, Wind pressure, Bass and Treble equalization. There is no facility to edit the timbre of recorded sounds. It is therefore only a semblance of voicing activity that is possible with these instruments, “fine-tuning” at best!
7. Which brand names are based on real-time and sampling technologies?
Copeman Hart, Eminent, Sanus and Walker use real-time tone generation systems. Similarly, the Viscount Physis - Unico Series is based on physical modeling technology. Brand names that use sampling technology include Ahlborn Galanti, Allen, Content, Domus Viscount, Gem Prelude, Johannus, Makin, Phoenix, Rodgers, Wyvern etc.
8. Which technology type offers the best alternative to pipe organ sounds?
Among organ builders, organists and enthusiasts, there is a fierce debate vis-a-vis the technology type (sound sampling, real-time tone generation, or virtual organ technology), which facilitates the best approximation of the pipe organ sound. It is impossible to arrive at a consensus on the subject since the evaluation of tonal success is based on individual subjective judgment – it all depends on the taste and preference of the end-user. However, these competing technologies have been used by various manufacturers to build outstanding digital organs.
9. More digital organ makers favor sampling technology over real-time sound synthesis technologies. Why is this so?
There are perhaps two major sides to the digital organ industry – the musical creativity and the business sides. Sampled-sound organs, which are comparatively easy to handle in terms of technology application and on-site finishing, prove a ready and remarkable organ solution. They are also cheaper to mass produce as standard products. As a result, digital solutions based on sampling technology present a fine and balanced line between musical and business considerations. On the contrary, real-time tone organs are far more complex in terms of technology application, installation, voicing and generally more expensive to produce. Furthermore, the makers of this organ type share the same organ building philosophy as pipe organ makers, which is building each organ as a bespoke instrument on its unique tonal merits - the priority is essentially musically oriented, not business centered.
10. What makes real-time tone generation system complex?
For each stop sound, there is the main sound with 64 harmonics and the attack sound with 64 harmonics as well. The component sounds have attack and decay time parameters. Each stop sound (main and attack) is built from its constituent parts – the individual fundamental and partial harmonics. This is done at every voice point (a group of 4 notes for manual voices and 2 notes for pedal voices recurring throughout the manual and pedal compasses respectively). Furthermore, the reeds have editable parameters that control the ‘rattle’ sound. Consequently, the process of voicing real-time tone instruments is considerably more complicated and time consuming compared to sampled-sound instruments.
11. Is it correct to say real-time tone organs have their individual tonal merits while sampling technology organs are actually many organ tonal philosophies in one?
Yes, this assertion is true! With the facility to create stop sounds from the scratch, each real-time tone organ stands on its own unique tonal merits just like pipe organs. Contrarily, sampled-sound organs are copies of bits and pieces from different pipe organs. The copied pipe organ does stand on its own tonal integrity but its constituent stops are taken out of context and merged with others to build sampling technology organs.
12. Why is it that in real life some digital organ brands sound differently or inferior in comparison to what obtains on promotional materials (CDs, DVDs, and website)?
Digital organs are shipped with factory default voices. It is the final on-site finishing, carried out to match the prevailing acoustical condition that determines the final tonal character of the digital organ. Achieving a desirable tone is dependent on the skills and experience of the on-site voicing personnel. With this and the fact that no two voicing personnel share exactly the same tonal aesthetics, no two similar digital organ brands will sound alike. More importantly, the overall tone of an organ will be undesirable if the on-site technician is not well equipped in terms of the skills required for excellent voicing.
13. What factors affect the sound of a digital organ in a room or space?
Factors such as size and shape of the room; ceiling height; flooring (carpet, terrazzo, ceramic tile, or concrete); the furnishings (hard or padded); speaker placement (on the floor, in cabinets, or hung on the wall) contribute to how organ sounds travel in a space. Also, the acoustics of the room play a role in the equation. The degree of echo varies from room to room. Some spaces are treble or bass heavy while others are not.
14. Is there a relationship between the number of speaking stops and the audio configuration of a digital organ regarding sound quality?
Yes! The more the number of speaking stops, the more the number of audio channels and speakers required to ensure a good sound quality. In principle an organ with 20 stops and 9 audio channels is better in terms of audio quality than another with 50 stops and 9 audio channels.
15. Which is preferable, moving draw knob, lighted draw stop or tablet stop?
This is purely dependent on the end-user’s preference. The mechanism for operating organ ranks has nothing to do with sound functionality. However, consoles with draw knobs are more aesthetically pleasing and easy to handle, but expensive.
16. No regular organist: Can a midi resource be of help?
Many churches find it difficult to secure the services of an organist. Midi sequencers/recorders often help solve this problem where an organist can record a number of pieces for playback at a later date.