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Get Organised!

Readers of this new magazine are bound to be constructors by nature. The field of electronics is vast and there are myriads of ideas to whet the appetite in its application. Where music is concerned, more than the usual care is demanded if the result is to be acceptable, even to the layman. Electro-music has to be very much more than a simple go/no-go situation and a great deal of thought should go into the planning of major projects such as synthesiser or organ.

The idea of building a musical instrument will stem either from an interest in electronics or because the potential constructor already has good musical knowledge and wishes to have his own instrument. Both categories will have a lot to learn in the process as very few people possess both high musical and electronic abilities. Possibly learning to play well is more difficult than putting the components together correctly!

The first essential part of the planning is to know exactly what is required, and this is not as simple as it may sound. Many gadgets that can produce music are loosely called 'organs' - indeed, you can buy one in Woolworths these days. Commercial organs often bristle with so many facilities and frills that it is difficult to know whether they are orchestras, synthesisers or organs. The use to which the completed instrument will be put will shape the plan to a large degree, taking into account the amount of cash the constructor is prepared to spend.

Unless well endowed musically, it is a good idea to enlist the help of a friend experienced in music and together look at and listen to commercial instruments that appear to fill the bill. There are excellent organ kits on the market today - Maplin, Wersi and several others - where a number of the basic decisions have already been made by the designers but the customer still has options as to the scale and cost of the instrument. With both these and commercial instruments generally, it is a little difficult to know exactly what you do require until experienced in playing that particular model.


Whether the organ is to be built from a kit or self designed, one of the first decisions to be made will involve the size of the instrument.

The single manual version can hardly be termed an organ as, although the keyboard may be 'split' to allow playing of both solo and accompaniment simultaneously, the arrangement has many limitations. The players usually appear to prefer to stand (at least saving the cost of a bench!) as part of a group of instrumentalists and are mainly involved in providing harmonic and rhythmic backing to the lead instruments. If 'pop group' orientated, the single manual instrument is probably sufficient and does at least have the advantage of portability. The output may well be pre-amplified only, with its signal feeding one of the channels of a common amplifier system.

The 'spinet' organ is in the midway category and is possibly the most popular size of organ for use at home. This type of small entertainment organ will have two keyboards and probably 13 stub pedals. Contrasting tone-colours can be used between the solo (upper manual) and accompaniment (lower) and all of the normal organ departments are represented. The staggered keyboards are shorter than usual - about 3½ octaves - but this limitation can be overcome to some extent by careful choice of pitches.

If classical music is the aim, the short keyboards of the 'spinet' are a serious disadvantage, as is also the short compass of the pedal clavier. Those aspiring to serious organ music must settle for no less than two full 5-octave manuals and a 25 or 32 note pedal clavier as otherwise it will be impossible to play works scored for the King of Instruments. It is perfectly feasible to design a light music organ on this scale but naturally the larger manuals and pedalboard will influence the size of the console in the home.


Organ kits take the console into account but if the instrument is to be self-designed and used in the home, remember to consult the Household Management! The organ will be a piece of furniture - possibly the centrepiece - and should be built accordingly. Take a tape measure when visiting an organ studio or church. There is no real standard for console measurements but it is worth remembering that one of the joys of having completed an instrument is to hear it played skilfully by someone else.

If you wish to retain that friendship, make sure that the controls are recognisable and accessible. Touch switches and postage stamp sized buttons may look smart but are not easy to cope with when concentrating on music at speed. A reasonable sized tab or rocker is a much better proposition. Study the tab layout of several organs, noting any colour coding used. The final plan can then incorporate the best of, these, though I would advise against a rainbow display of tabs if possible. Normal practice is to use white for flutes, red for reeds, yellow for strings and black for non-speaking controls.

Some standardisation is necessary if you expect anyone to sit down and play the beast! Imagine getting into a car where the brake and clutch pedals had been transposed. While in this vein, the relative positions of manuals and pedals are important: the top C of a 13 note pedalboard is usually below middle E on the bottom manual. The height of the bench above the pedals should be some 21" for comfortable playing.

PITCH: Middle 'C' keyed at various pitches.


In this particular article we are, ignoring the electronic aspects as the general plan must first be laid. Another consideration, which may depend on the method of tone generation in mind, is the number of pitches to employ.

The electronic organ still copies its pipe counterpart in many ways, including the matter of pitch. The ability to bring in a number of these together has always given the organ that full and regal sound. Although a rank of 61 organ pipes (covering one stop over the 5-octave manual) may be displayed out of chromatic order for decorative purposes above the console, the longest pipe produces the lowest note and the shortest the highest. If the longest pipe is 8' long, that particular stop is known as 8' pitch (the exception being closed pipes, such as Tibia Clausa and Stopped Diapason). A 4' pipe will produce a note one octave above an 8' pipe and a 16' pipe will be one octave lower.

'Footage' is an organ term that has crept into our terminology but pitch is the better word. The pipeless organ we are considering will be capable of producing various pitches, including mutation stops: these are dissonant tones based on odd harmonics of the fundamental or 8' pitch and are extremely useful in building up brassy tones. The original Hammond system employed nine pitches (and is still used by Hammond and imitators of its drawbar system) and all of these are useful though the limitation in building is often financial.

The upper (solo) manual should be provided with as many pitches as the pocket will stand. The table shows nine pitches and the notes that would be heard on playing middle 'C' with given pitches switched in.

In all probability, the number will be much less than this. A suitable but comprehensive set of pitches would be 16', 8', 4', 22/3' and 2' for the upper manual. The lower (accompaniment) manual will not require 16' pitch and probably 8' and 4' stops will be quite sufficient. At the same time, the self-designed instrument should be capable of expansion and modification at a later date in this respect. The pedal section is normally equipped with 16' and 8' pitches.

I should perhaps emphasise that pitch only refers to the frequency of the note heard and has nothing to do with tone-colour. An organ may well have several 8' or 16' stops, for example, but each will sound different because the tabs control filters that impart tonal variation. Mixing different voices at various pitches is, of course, one of the pleasures of playing organ.

Summarising our prior thoughts on the instrument in mind, the musical destination will predetermine both size and compass of the instrument. The console must accord with the room concerned and its controls be instantly recognisable. The choice of the number of pitches envisaged can only be verified by experimenting with instruments in the organ showroom. Commercial organ kits will cater for a number of options and will no doubt include the suggestions made here.

Building an instrument is a fairly long process, so there is no point in rushing these important preliminaries. Take plenty of time and make plenty of notes before laying down the keel. It is only too easy to find that you have ended up with something not ideal!

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Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Mar 1981

Feature by Ken Lenton-Smith

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