A statement often made by knowledgeable organists and pipe organ builders is: "The acoustic is the number one stop". Simply put, this means that no matter how good an organ may be, it's success depends very much on the acoustic of the room in which it is installed. All too often churches purchase expensive, well-made organs (both pipe and electronic) only to be disappointed after installation due to an acoustic that fails to enhance church music. When the room acoustic is right an organ of inferior tone quality can even sound acceptable while an organ of outstanding tonal quality will sound absolutely thrilling.
Churches are often presented with totally opposing views on what is considered 'good acoustics' by church music experts and P.A. experts. It is sometimes confusing for committees who are given the important task of making a set of decisions that will influence the success of music in the church for decades to come. The advice of those with knowledge and experience in the traditional church music field should always be taken seriously. While a 'good' acoustic in a theatre is one thing, it is an entirely different matter in a church. The former is usually 'dry' due to a great deal of sound absorbent material on all surfaces within the room (no reverberation), while the latter will be a 'live' room with more than 2 seconds of reverberation. A church with a high ceiling and all surfaces sound reflective is by far the best for organ and choral music. Time and time again it has been proven that both organ and choir sound better in the right acoustic as it carries and blends the tone, making it more musical. Wall-to-wall carpet is one of the worst enemies of church music. It is not even necessary to carpet aisles with the aim of deadening the sounds of footsteps as there is now available a great variety of excellent types of tile and other types of flooring that are not slippery when wet and are easy to keep clean. If there must be carpeting in a church, make it hard short twisted pile, with no underlay and restrict the area where it will be installed as much as possible. Never put carpet in the organ or choir area as this absorbs a large percentage of the sound before it gets a chance to travel anywhere. Without a reverberant acoustic it is like trying to play a piano without any sustain pedal! It is dry and dull. A good architect, who is sensitive to providing a good acoustic for organ and choral music, can design a room that works well for both music and speech. In our experience P.A. technicians will most often say that any 'echo' needs to be removed with the addition of as much soun absorbent material as possible. In this case, spending a lot of money to purchase a top-notch organ or piano, or putting a lot of effort into building a good choir will always result in second rate music. The shape of the room is best if it is rectangular and the ceiling should be high. It is generally easier to project sound into a room with a high ceiling than in one which is low. Materials covering walls, ceiling and floor should be reflective, but limiting the numbers of flags and banners also helps. The frequencies of organ stops cover the widest spectrum of any musical instrument: from 16 to 20,000 cycles, and the materials used on these surfaces play a very important role in governing the amount and rate of sound reflection or absorption.
While many electronic organ companies rely heavily on digital reverberation systems to mask the actual tone quality of their instruments, there is no need for electronic reverberation in an organ that is placed in a good church acoustic. Phoenix Organs use Lexicon Reverb systems to help poor acoustic situations such as in small churches and homes. Lexicon is one of the few electronic reverbs that closely simulates a church acoustic without the objectionable 'ping-pong' effect so often heard. A sound field may be created that may be quite satisfying to the organist himself - he may think he is playing in Westminster Abbey at times - but what about when there is a choir and congregation? They are left singing in whatever acoustic that the room has with no benefit from the artificial reverb. As good as electronic reverberation systems have become, they are usually of little use in church and attempts to create artificial sound fields are almost never successful from the viewpoints of choir and congregation. When an organ is used for practice at home, a good reverb system can enhance the sound to the point of making it a pleasure to play. This, again, is due to the usual dry acoustics of small carpeted rooms.
The room in which an organ is placed becomes an integral part of its sound system, much as the sound board of a piano is an integral part of that instrument. The organ builder is, in a way, only adding the strings and mechanism to the sound board. It is extremely important that not only the best possible acoustic environment be attained for the organ, but that the best possible placement of the organ's speaker system be found. So, in addition to choosing a suitable organ specification, no matter what size the instrument is, two further elements must be placed high on the list of prerequisites: the room must carry the sound of the organ well and the placement of the organ speakers must be favorable. All too often, electronic organ installers are not aware of the importance of this factor or they don't care. Getting the organ 'in' and the cheque in hand is all that too many organ sales people care about and the resulting complaints from organists, clergy, congregation and choir then fall on deaf ears. The organ should ideally speak directly down the main axis of the building and the speakers should be situated close to the singers, preferably behind and above their heads. Because most organs are installed in existing buildings, there are normally limitations placed on the ideal situations described above. For this reason we recommend a serious consultation with an acoustician or at least an organist or organ builder with good knowledge and recognizable success in church work. This is a complex but important matter that with the correct decisions will be appreciated for generations to come.
by Don Anderson
Phoenix Organs America
"Phoenix Organs are a dream-come-true". I wonder how often we have heard this? As a teenaged organist in the 1960s I knew that electronic church organs did not sound as good as a pipe organ and I decided that the only way to reproduce the exact sound of a pipe organ was to record individual organ pipes and play back each recording instantly whenever a note is pressed. It was almost impossble back then but the closest thing available at that time would have been a series of tape loops. We needed something that would last much longer than recording tape because that is what is required of a church organ. By 1980 the new idea of storing very high quality music on a spinning plastic disk (CD) was a dream-come-true for music lovers who were tired of noisy LP records. My hopes were getting higher for electronic church organs and digital sampling technology made it possible to get the sound I was looking for. A Phoenix Organ stores recordings of organ pipes permanently on computer memory chips and each time a note is pressed at the keyboard the Phoenix computer instantly plays back the appropriate recording of the organ stop selected. Most electronic organ companies now use digital sampling. It is possible to record all of the pipes of a complete organ and have a computer play back those sounds. The Phoenix System is a computer dedicated to operating pipe organs as well as reproducing pipe organ and orchestral sounds. It does not rely on PCs, hard drives, nor RAM memory chips which are often not very dependable.
Phoenix engineers have spent many years making digital recordings of thousands of organ pipes. Individual pipes samples are separated and edited to remove unwanted background noise. Many older pipe organs have been recorded and some quite famous ones but we have found that many of the pipes are not perfect. They may all sound fine in a large church but using any defective pipe sounds in a small church or home is often considered unacceptable due to the close proximity of speakers. We use only the best pipe samples and the computer can fill in any gaps. Editing all of the recordings is a very time-consuming job, but after all of the samples are edited and assembled they are stored in the memory chips of the organ. Beyond this, the selected stops must blend together to build a fine cohesive instrument that suits a particular church and organist. This is all very painstaking work involving much skill that is reminiscent of the work of great pipe organ builders. It is no wonder that so many noted organists, even pipe organ purists, continue to be impressed with Phoenix organs. Most have certainly done their shopping and their homework. While the sound sources of all Phoenix organ stops originate from organ pipes, final voicing (tonal finishing) must be done in the room where the organ will be played. This tailors the sound to a new environment and a skilled voicer makes atremendous difference to the end result. While Phoenix normally records pipe samples in stereo, we have found advantages toward creating the broad ensemble and dimension of a pipe organ while using a limited number of loudspeakers by assigning mono samples to C-C# speaker sides. Each pipe sample can be assigned to any one of up to 8 audio channels. The Phoenix sample assignment feature also allows the voicer to select from a number of 'Virtual Pipe Chest Layouts'. Many hours of first-hand experience with our combination pipe/electronic organs have lead to Phoenix producing sampled stops that cannot be distinguished from their pipe counterparts in side-by-side comparisons. Listen to a Phoenix organ and compare the sound and quality to the other organs available. You will hear for yourself.
In North America, Phoenix uses our trademark Acousticube speakers. These are speakers designed solely for use in the production of church organ sound. They fill a room with sound and support congregational singing without being over-bearing or "getting on your nerves". Most people comment that Phoenix organs sound like actual pipe organs while our competitors' products sound like recordings of pipe organs.
The Phoenix organ computer was designed from the beginning to either control a pipe organ and/or produce sampled pipe sounds. Whether we combine pipes with sampled stops or not, you will be hearing pipes. Hearing is believing. Contact a Phoenix representative to receive a demonstration CD or, better still, play a Phoenix as soon as you can to see for yourself. The quality is obvious and we welcome side-by-side comparisons.
Determining whether or not it is worthwhile to recycle a console demands some serious thought. The following questions need to be asked:
What is the condition of the cabinetry? Does it only need refinishing or more than that? What will it take to restore it to 'like new' condition?
Is the pedalboard in good condition or do the white keys need recapping together with a new set of sharps?
Is the original quality and style of the console acceptable by today's standards?
What is the condition of the keyboards and stops? Will it need new keyboards and drawstops and/or tabs?
Is the console too large? Many older consoles housed large mechanical combination actions even when the organs had few stops. Older electronic organ consoles were often large because they had to house a lot of old electronics unlike the Phoenix system which is very compact.
Will major alterations be require to make the console a more suitable size?
Refinishing a console is hard work. There are a lot of square inches to strip, clean, stain and finish. If you must hire an individual or company to do this work, the cost could be prohibitive. You can expect to pay several thousand dollars for a good professional job and this is normally much more than the cost of finishing a brand new console! If there is any damage to the cabinetry, i.e. chips, gouges, etc., it may be almost impossible to repair properly at a reasonable cost. What makes the extra expense worthwhile is the value of the original materials and workmanship of older consoles. If the style of a console is still considered attractive and it is possible to attain a 'just like new' appearance, then it is probably well worthwhile rebuilding for use as either a pipe or electronic organ.
A quality pedalboard is a major expense in the construction of any organ. Not only are most of the components made of solid hardwoods, but the structure must be strong enough to maintain tension of the pedal key springs. Felts and leathers may need replacing. Key contact switches must be in good shape and of high quality or else they will need replacing. Most Phoenix organs use chips called Hall Sensors for pedal switching as these have no moving parts and are sealed from air and dirt. A well used organ will show signs of wear on the pedal keys. White keys, particularly in the middle of the pedalboard, will be worn down so that they are no longer level with neighboring keys and flat on the playing surface instead of curved. These can be re-capped with new wood. Black keys are usually made of either plastic or hardwood but either can be quite badly worn down on the playing surface. They can be replaced quite easily, but all of these additional costs must be taken into consideration.
High quality wood-core keyboards are usually used on pipe organ consoles and some older electronic organs. They are often worth keeping especially if they have ivory, bone, or hardwood keytops. Even moulded plastic keytops on wooden keys may be of good durable quality. Check to be sure that the felt key bushings at both the center pin and front rail pin (underneath) are not worn as this will allow too much side-play in each key. The holes at the fulcrum point should also be checked for wear so as to avoid any 'rickety' feeling or rattles in old keyboards. Rebuilding keyboards can be expensive but a good job can make older keyboards feel like new and the original high quality key coverings may be a preferred material that may now be scarce. Ivory, for example, may be the choice of organists but this material is now illegal to import into most countries. Keyboard contacts are very important.Wire contacts, which are most often used in the pipe organ industry, are probably not going to be good enough to use with the new digital system. They are often somewhat burnt or pitted after years of use at higher current demands of the pipe magnets and they will no longer be dependable for the new electronic system. The voltage and current demands on key contacts used with the Phoenix system are minute compared to those of older pipe organs so a more delicate contact is required. We normally use enclosed contacts which are not affected by dirt or air polution. Standard Phoenix keyboards are metal-framed with plastic keytops and bubble contacts which operate trouble-free indefinitely. These keyboards are relatively inexpensive and the great advantage is that they can be hooked up instantly to the Phoenix system. The usual time consuming task of soldering hundreds of wires is eliminated. New wood-core keyboards with more exotic materials on the playing surfaces are available but costs are much higher than our standard ones.
By today's standards, most older consoles had small numbers of pistons. Organists now usually expect many more than was once considered sufficient and this means that you will likely need to replace the thumb piston rails and possibly even the woodwork on which the toe pistons are mounted. The Phoenix system is prepared for handling more pistons than most consoles would ever be able to house and there are multiple combination memories. Sixteen is standard but more can be added.
The Phoenix system was designed from the ground up for easily retrofitting an existing console. Most connections are made by plugging in ribbon cable connectors but assembling such a complicated set of high-tech components may not be suitable for a non-organbuilder to undertake. By far, the easiest to build is a lighted tab console using the Phoenix lighted tab assemblies. Drawknobs involve hand wiring and this is not a quick and simple job. Moving tabs also involve extra effort. If a used console already has electro-magnetic drawknobs or tabs that are in good shape, then this could save a lot of time and money. Check to make sure that they all operate quietly with the combination action before deciding not to replace them. A separate power supply is needed to operate the solenoids and this should be checked.
Many church organists prefer organs with three keyboards instead of two. To the non-organist it may seem like an extravagance, after all, no one has more than two hands, so how could you ever play any more than 2 keyboards at a time? There are many churches with 2 manual organs, and they seem to do the job adequately. Why do so many churches choose to purchase a three manual organ?
On a two manual organ, the lower manual is called the Great and the upper manual is the Swell. The Great is characterized by its full and pure sound due to the fact that, on a pipe organ, the Great pipes are usually placed in front of the other pipes to give the best sound in the church. The Great is very well suited to accompanying hymn singing.
The Swell pipes are enclosed in a large wooden box with shutters somewhat like venetian blinds, which, when opened and closed by the organist, change the volume of sound gradually. Hence the name "Swell" - the sound can start softly and swell up to full volume. The stops of a good Swell will usually have the widest range of volume and tone colour. It can be used to play music from the quietest accompaniment to a loud, brash roar.
On a three manual organ, the Choir manual is added on at the bottom, and it normally plays a variety of delicate stops that are most suitable for accompaniment - hence the name "Choir". As well as the quiet, delicate stops, the Choir usually has one or more solo stops such as Clarinet or Krummhorn, as well as the loudest stop of the organ, the Tuba, or Solo Trumpet. A three manual organ can be thought of as a complete two manual organ with the addition of the Choir division.
1. Ease of Playing. It often proves to be easier for an organist to play with three manuals as opposed to two. It may take a short time to get used to having an extra keyboard to play on, but, even for the inexperienced, the advantages are quickly realized, especially when playing for worship services. Each manual can be set for its own tone and volume before starting to play the notes, and then, by simply changing keyboards, more variety of expression can be given to the different verses of hymns, or to each section of an organ piece. That means that the organist can concentrate more on playing the right notes, instead of trying to change stops in the middle of a piece.
2. Organ Music. Much of the organ music available was written with a three manual organ in mind. If an organist plays proper organ repertoire Sunday by Sunday, compromises will have to be made continuously in order to play on a two manual organ. For many it is no great chore to make do with 2 manuals, but it can be a source of frustration. For example, the famous Trumpet Voluntary by Jeremiah Clarke, often played at weddings, normally begins with the left hand accompaniment on the Swell and the right hand playing the Trumpet solo on the Choir. But the Trumpet solo parts alternate with sections requiring a full, louder sound without Trumpet that should be played on the Great. With a three manual organ, you only need to set the stops for each section at the beginning and simply change keyboards. No stop changes are required once you start playing. On a two manual organ, you need to frequently change stops back and forth throughout the piece to get close to the desired effect. You can, of course, play it without any stop changes, but that makes the piece far less exciting.
3. More Dimension to the Sound. Traditionally, each keyboard on a pipe organ represents a whole different section of pipes. On a digital organ these divisions can be represented by sets of loudspeakers. Each division can be positioned apart either horizontally or vertically to vary the points of the sound sources. Having Great, Swell and Choir can create very interesting aural effects in both hymns and organ pieces. This is also enhanced by the variety of character of the stops of each. Couple all the divisions together and you broaden the sound of the organ ensemble so that it can fill the church with sound in a full and natural way.
4. MIDI. Most church organs built today have MIDI connections that can expand the musical resources, allowing, among other features, orchestral sounds to be played from the organ keyboards. If Violins, for example, are selected to play on one keyboard of a 2 manual organ, the organist is left with just one other manual to play on, while on a three manual organ, you have the resources of two other keyboards to draw from. For example, if a Midi instrument is assigned to the Choir manual, a complete two manual organ can be played on the Swell and Great. An alternative is to select different orchestral instruments for all of the manuals. These instruments can be coupled together (the same as with regular organ stops) to form an orchestral ensemble or they can provide a wider variety of instrumental sounds for the organist to play by simply choosing a different keyboard to play on. This can make it easier than having to worry about adjusting complicated MIDI equipment while playing. That is not what most organists want to have to deal with during a church service.
5. Attractive to Organists. If your church is ever in the position of having to find a new organist, the attraction of a three manual organ could be a great advantage. As mentioned earlier, most organists, especially the accomplished ones, prefer a 3 manual organ over a 2 manual any day.
Building a fine church organ involves the blending of both ancient traditions and modern technology. Phoenix not only blends the two successfully but does it with the high standards that are usually associated with fine pipe organs. You will find that our prices are surprisingly reasonable for this standard of quality.
Unlike most other electronic organ companies, we refuse to lower our standards to using MDF (Medium Density Fibreboard) in place of wood. We consider it to be a second-class material that is not good enough for a first-class product - a church organ. MDF is also a heavy material that lacks the strength of regular wood. Phoenix uses a combination of hardwood and hardwood plywood. This ensures strong structural components, a lighter material for moveable consoles, dependable consistency to resist warping. Some of our competitors' instruments have beautiful wood finishes like ours but these are facades covering up what is a cheap organ console. With Phoenix you will find high quality inside and out that will last.
Phoenix rebuilds pipe organ consoles so we use high quality console harware that out-classes that of many electronic organ comapnies. Many organs are built with cheap pistons, expression pedals, thumb-pistons, etc. An organist may be the only one that touches these components but it makes a big difference as to how long an organ lasts if the console hardware is of high quality. Take a look!
A common problem with many electronic organs is poor electrical contacts on the hundreds of electronic switches. Deterioration of these results in an organ becoming unplayable. A switch is needed for each note of each keyboard, each key of the pedalboard, each stop, as well as relays for amplifiers and other power equipment. In order to achieve good service capability with organs that are installed thousands of miles away, Phoenix uses high quality switches throughout.
Most electronic organs have good pipe sound reproduction but most of our customers hear a clearer, cleaner sound with Phoenix. Listen for yourself. Phoenix does not use any borrowed stops unlike our competitors. They use exactly the same sound for more than one stop. The ideal is to have a totally separate sound for each and every stop. It is not necessary to use this cost-saving practice on a sampled electronic organ and it is not desirable on a good pipe organ either.
If you have no need for custom features or a special finish to match other furniture then all you may need is an off-the-shelf organ. Phoenix builds no organs on an assembly line so it costs much less for us to do custom work and that may be a great advantage for you. Every organ is hand made with great attention to detail and your design can be unique. In situations where an organ is needed in short order, a standard design may be used to some advantage. Oak is our standard wood finish but we have built consoles with cherry, walnut, mahogany, and wood combinations.