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Sample Organ Project

What It’s Like To Do An Organ Project

Planning an Organ

When planning an organ, the organbuilder first looks at and thinks about:

  • the hopes and dreams of the client;
  • what the organ will be used for;
  • the acoustics of the room;
  • the location of the pipes;
  • the size of the organ.

If this were a meal instead of an organ, the cook would start to have ideas about what foods to serve. Similarly, the organbuilder starts to have ideas about the sounds which will be appropriate.

Loudness and tone color for the softest voice and for the loudest voice

A voice is the sound produced by a rank of pipes.

A rank is a set of pipes, one pipe for each note on the keyboard, each pipe producing the same tone color. An individual pipe can produce only one note, one tone color, and one loudness. Variety is achieved by having different types of pipes.

Loudness and tone color for sounds which are needed in this specific place

Next the organbuilder composes a list of voices, a stoplist. The organist and the consultant, if there is one, often have suggestions about which voices to include.

Then comes the exciting part, the heart of the matter: the organbuilder plans the sound of each pipe by choosing:

Diameter of each pipe

Diameter determines the capabilities of a pipe. A pipe of large diameter can be blown harder and will produce more tone than a pipe of small diameter. The organbuilder may also use a large diameter to obtain a more flute-like tone, a small diameter for a brighter tone.

Length determines the pitch of a pipe. That is, low C is produced by a pipe which is 8′ long. Low C# is produced by a pipe which is a few inches shorter, and so forth. Length has no effect on loudness.

Width of the mouth

A pipe with a wide mouth produces a rich, assertive tone. A pipe with a narrow mouth produces a mild tone.

Height of the upper lip
Type of metal and many other details.

The organbuilder sends these specifications to the pipe maker, who makes each pipe according to the dimensions specified by the organbuilder.

While the pipes are being made, the organbuilder works with the client, architect, and contractor to be sure that:

  • the organ has what it needs in an absolute sense—enough space, proper temperature, etc.;
  • the organ has the best possible relationship to the congregation and choir;
  • the congregation and choir have the kind of setting which encourages and supports singing.

While the pipe maker is at work, the organbuilder builds chests and other mechanism to fit the pipes.

Chests are wind-tight boxes on which the pipes sit. The chests have valves inside which admit wind to each pipe.

The organbuilder sets up the chests, keyboards, and other mechanism in his shop, fits the pipes to the chests, and tests the workings of the organ before installing it in the client’s building, but he does not voice the pipes until they are in the Client’s building.

Voicing is the process of adjusting the loudness, tone color, and attack — that is, the initial speech consonant — of each pipe in relation to other pipes in the rank, to other ranks, and to the acoustics of the room.

Voicing pipes is like directing a choir. A choir director works with people; an organbuilder works with tools and metal. The musical goals are the same.

Some pipes are made from wood, which gives a mellow tone. Most pipes are made of the tin/lead alloy which has been used in organs for centuries. It is soft enough to manipulate easily by hand, yet it retains its shape and tone quality for decades (centuries?); it is inexpensive; it does not tarnish, rust, deform, or deteriorate; it produces magnificent sounds.

To make a pipe louder, one simply cuts open the hole in the foot of the pipe so that more wind comes in. To make it softer, one taps the hole closed. To make a pipe speak with fewer consonants (lisps), you press little nicks into the mouth (nicks are to a pipe what teeth are to a child). And so forth. The work goes quickly and is rewarding.

Large pipes are made from zinc, copper, wood, or aluminum. Aluminum stands up well in the Southwest heat. Also, it is light in weight, looks and sounds good, keeps its polish, and does not require a lacquer finish.


Questions & Answers

The following answers have in mind the typical church organ of 12 to 50 ranks of pipes.

Does an organ use much electricity?
No. The ordinary church organ uses less electricity than does a vacuum cleaner.
How is wind for the organ generated?
The organ has a centrifugal blower powered by an electric motor, usually 1/3 to 1 horsepower. Modern blowers are quiet enough to be placed near the pipes.
How often should an organ be tuned?
An organ should have one or two thorough goings-over annually. Churches with large organs or many programs usually request more frequent tunings.
What is the cost of upkeep?
Most churches spend an amount annually equal to from 0.15% to 0.5% of the replacement value of the organ. ($100,000 organ gets attention costing $150 to $500 annually.)
Organs with electro-pneumatic action, which employs a considerable amount of leather, may need re-leathering every 40 to 70 years. Cost of releathering is something like 10% of the replacement value of the organ. Since electro-pneumatic action was so widely used between 1910 and 1960, many organs built during that time now need considerable work. The expense of that work is sometimes exaggerated by persons who want a new organ or those who do not like electro-pneumatic action for other reasons.
What is the difference between an electronic organ and a pipe organ with electric action?
An electronic organ generates tone electronically and produces the tone through loud speakers.
A pipe organ generates tone by blowing wind through pipes.
Wind is admitted to the pipes by valves which are controlled by the keys. If the keys are connected directly to the valves via mechanical linkage, it is called a "tracker-action organ". If, however, the keys send electric signals to magnets which open the valves, the organ is said to have "electric action."
There are 2 categories of electric action: all electric and electro-pneumatic. In the all electric type, magnets open valves under the pipes directly. In the electro-pneumatic type, magnets open valves which send wind to leather covered bellows which operate valves under the pipes.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of action. The type of action should be chosen after considering other factors affecting the organ, such as placement of the pipes, placement of the keyboards, relation of the organ to the choir, size of the organ, etc.
What special air-conditioning is necessary?
Nothing special is needed other than good air flow. The organ does not need to be heated or cooled except for public events. (Organs were in churches hundreds of years before churches were air-conditioned.) However, it is important that all parts of an organ receive tempered air equally and promptly after the cooling or heating is turned on. A return-air register or a quiet ventilation blower should be installed inside the organ if there is a possibility of temperature stratification.
Policies of The Ross King Company
Our firm does not use any stock pipes. That is, we have each rank of pipes custom-made for the particular organ.
I got most of my voicing ideas from my training (Bachelors with majors in math and in music; Master of Sacred Music, Union Theological Seminary, NYC, 1964) and work as a choir director and organist (Texas, New Jersey, New York).
We like for an organ to be useful, to retain its value for a long time, to be inspiring, and to have a great deal of color and variety. You can probably tell that we love the work and that we enjoy the people we work with, both employees and clients. We consider ourselves to be Church Musicians who are "making music" with pipes (and talented associates and employees) rather than with choirs.
Implications for the Client
The process described above has implications for the Client. For one thing, we expect to be in the Client’s building for several weeks doing installation and voicing. For another, the proportion of time and resources that our firm spends on custom design and voicing on location is high, and the proportion of resources spent on advertising and promotion is low. Our skills are in design, construction, and voicing, not in salesmanship.
Choosing an Organbuilder

We recommend that an Organ Committee do the following:

  • Talk to knowledgeable, sensitive church musicians who understand the church’s situation;
  • Listen to the organs those musicians suggest;
  • Meet the organbuilders recommended by those musicians if the Committee likes their organs;
  • Choose a builder with whom the Committee thinks it would enjoy working over the several months involved in obtaining an organ and in whom the Committee has confidence regarding music, finances, competence, integrity, and production capability.

The organ builder will affect the Client’s future. He or she should be someone the Client trusts financially and musically.

We have several handbooks available for purchase. Introduction to Church Organs includes most of the posted reference material.  This is a handbook we offer to students, committee members, musicians, and architects as well as anyone with a general interest in organs.  Also available are Manual for Organists Volume I and Manual for Organists Volume II.  Please e-mail for prices.