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Organ Talk

The Changing Scene

The superb Godwin SC600 with built-in synthesiser.

Strange things can happen to an organ installation that has operated without trouble for a long period. This example may be taken as a warning — if the cap fits!

A reader bought an organ some years ago and, pleased with his progress, wired in a separate tone cabinet. Not satisfied with the electronic vibrato, he decided that a Leslie speaker be added to the installation. The sound was now magnificent but it really needed an additional rhythm unit — so that was also wired in.

Recently, the Chorale/Fast switching started to become somewhat noisy and eventually the organ 'died' completely while he was playing. A post mortem revealed that the main switch was being used to operate four mains transformers simultaneously and — yes, you can guess! — the contacts became so badly burned that they went open circuit by degrees.

Though it is easy to fit control boxes and borrow power from internal points in an organ it should not be forgotten that the rating of components takes into account the design of the original instrument. Adding mercilessly to the burden of the main switch can cause the dying organ syndrome. The remedy, of course, is to replace the main switch with something that can handle the surge involved: the original switch is often barely adequate in the first place. The single-switch-for-everything is not a bad idea on those occasions when making music happens to be more interesting than technical considerations.


The home organ was not all that common two decades ago but, thanks to solid-state circuitry, its rise in popularity has been enormous. Much of the credit is also due to competition between manufacturers to give good value, new tonal effects and facilities and instruments which were attractive pieces of furniture in the home.

The electronic organ started it's life imitating the conventional cinema or classical organ. A trumpet stop was a reasonable copy of its pipe-organ counterpart, for example, and the orchestral stops generally were those of the pipe organ. It has always been a type of 'Synthesiser' in its attempt to duplicate the sounds of its acoustic brother. Indeed, drawbar organs use harmonic synthesis, allowing the performer to mix sine waves of fundamental and overtones as he thinks fit.

Certain drawbar organists such as Lenny Dee used to manage to 'pump' a handful of drawbars whilst holding a chord with the other hand — so giving an effect that was the forerunner of the programmed VCF.

Brass had hitherto been an organ, rather than orchestral, timbre. The synthesiser brought with it pitch-bending and the ability to alter the harmonic content for the duration of the note. Once the Moog had accustomed us to sounds which were imitative of orchestral instruments — and surprisingly realistic — the eventual development of electronic organs was bound to acquire new dimensions.

Current production models are likely to feature both organ tone generators and a synthesiser section for presets or user setting. It would seem that the organ is progressively becoming a polyphonic synthesiser — with organ tones and pedals.


One's own musical background will colour one's view of this progression: organists are likely to spring from three separate sources.

The classical organist, who may well be a church organist in his spare time, will have purchased an instrument for practice at home. Johannus, Conn, Viscount or similar classical organs are voiced to give results similar to a church organ and on the whole this player will not be interested in synthesised sounds unless they can be applied to pipe organ registrations, which is perhaps unlikely. He will shun the many 'extras' and spend his money on a straight organ.

The second category is those who as children were fascinated by the organ in the local cinema. The average age of members of organ clubs indicates that a fair number of enthusiasts first became interested through this medium. The cinema organ was the perfect example of a one-man-band: percussion sections could be coupled to manual or pedal (rather than being operated through a ROM), complete pianos occupied the pipe chamber and the voices were rather more orchestral than those of classical instruments. The entertainment organist finds that biting brass, synthesised string choruses and lush trombones are ideal for his type of music and will appreciate and find many uses for the more recent circuitry in getting his message over.

A large proportion of E&MM readers will be in the third category — those who have grown up with the synthesiser. They will be conversant with voltage-controlled modules, sequencers and their manipulation so this method of sound generation will have great appeal — quite as much as pure organ sound. The recorded music they buy will be dominated by modern, polyphonic keyboard instruments and their own keyboard technique will be influenced accordingly.


Naturally, manufacturers are very alert to this last category as, counting aside equipment bought by groups, it accounts for a fair proportion of sales of keyboard instruments. Particularly at a time when industry is under pressure worldwide, there could be a tendency to reduce the number of models available.

For example, Thomas Musical Instruments is closing down many of its operations and ending distribution of instruments in the U.K. This is sad news for Thomas enthusiasts but I gather that spares and servicing will still be available for the time being.

Organ manufacture is a very competitive business and the many companies in this field look closely at their sales figures to see which are the least profitable lines. The entertainment organ is still the best seller but even so it is to be hoped that manufacturers realise that tastes vary. My own interests are strictly rhythmic but not everyone appreciates a rhythm unit, one finger chords, synthesiser facilities etc. The present choice of instruments is perhaps too wide but if there is any contraction in the market I hope that the baroque organists will not suffer.

It seems that the trend in recent years has been to turn the organ into a polyphonic synthesiser increasingly. It may still be an organ (definition: an instrument by means of which anything is done) but organ tones are slowly taking second place to voltage-controlled waveforms.

End Product

In most forms of art, the means are less important than the end. Multi-tracking has been around for a long time and has been used to produce some of the best organ recordings. The build-up so achieved is impressive and only the occasional small timing error gives the game away.

The musical abilities of recording groups varies enormously, which is painfully evident if listening frequently to Radio 2. Given a group of musicians who really know their music and can utilise studio facilities to the full, their disc can be both interesting and enjoyable. The same group playing 'live' may not sound quite the same.

The rising popularity of keyboard instruments with sequencing (so that the player can play along with a pre-recorded passage at any speed) and multi-voice memory recall owes much to the need for special effects in concert.

For those not adept at the keyboard but with knowledge of music, a computer can be used to play written scores. The Apple does this admirably, with full control over envelope and harmonic synthesis: each part may be entered one note at a time and, though somewhat laborious, the end product is intriguing. To an organist, the most interesting feature of the Apple system is ability to see both waveform and harmonic content on the screen. The mixing of sine waves is similar to that on a drawbar organ though in this case they extend up to the 24th harmonic. I have not had the privilege of being let loose on this equipment for any length of time but I have a feeling that the fascination would slowly wane and I would turn back to organ keyboards with some relief.

Will today's technology alter the face of conventional music by the end of the century? Solid-state circuitry has revolutionised keyboard instruments and costs have, if anything, come down in real terms. Acoustic musical instruments are becoming very expensive indeed because they are largely hand-made: a tenor sax costs more than many organs these days.

The education system, pressed financially, could have difficulty in teaching conventional musical instruments to future pupils of brass, strings and woodwind. However exciting an overture may sound played on a synthesiser, a concert orchestra takes a lot of beating! It would be a pity if the invention of the transistor signalled the death-knell of music as we know it today.

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


Electronics & Music Maker - May 1982

Feature by Ken Lenton-Smith

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