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Less than ideal organ installations -- problems and solutions

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  • Less than ideal organ installations -- problems and solutions

    We have probably all seen an organ in a setting that is far from ideal. In my line of work, I see this all the time, sad to say. Even hundreds of years ago organs were sometimes placed in unsuitable locations or were configured to the detriment of the organist's ability to hear and control the instrument. Back in the mid 20th century, in the USA at least, the trend was to build fairly rectangular churches with layouts and design features that were fairly organ friendly, but these days many new churches are taking the form of a circle or a fan or a stadium or theater, all of which can be and usually are ruinous for the propagation of organ sound.

    Sometimes it's acoustics -- a church built by folks without the foggiest idea that lively acoustics are essential to the proper enjoyment of organ, choir, hymns, and other conventional music, thus creating a room that may be warm, cozy, comfy, plush, and luxurious, but absolutely dead to music. Thick carpet, cushy seats, richly textured draperies and such hanging everywhere, a ceiling of soft and beautifully patterned material that nothing can bounce off.

    Sometimes the acoustic conditions are not just abominable, but the ceiling is too low for organ sound produced at one end of the room to carry well to the other end. Sometimes there is simply no good place to install speakers (or even pipes) without offending the eyes or ruining the decor.

    Sometimes the place provided for the organ console is outrageous -- putting the console into what amounts to another room, under a balcony or overhang, crammed into a far corner, or perhaps jamming the console right up against the opening of the chamber where the organist gets an earful of the sound to the extent that he cannot hear anything else going on in the room.

    I could almost write a book about this. And I may offer a few examples if this thread gets any interest. But I'm interested in both examples of bad organ setups and some suggestions for making them better. Any takers?
    *** Please post your questions about technical service or repair matters ON THE FORUM. Do not send your questions to me or another member by private message. Information shared is for the benefit of the entire organ community, but other folks will not be helped by information we exchange in private messages!


  • #2
    I'll bait the hook with an example from recent experience. A very nice little church with some sweet sweet people, and a gracious little older chap who plays the organ have engaged my services over the years caring for the organ. They recently replaced the old MOS with a nice new Genesys model, and I had the pleasure of being in on the final voicing session with the local rep and Allen specialist. The new organ of course is a million miles ahead of the old MOS in tone generation and voicing control, but the same old acoustic bugaboos that have plagued the little church still haunt the installation. To the credit of the Allen specialists, they wound up with a very pleasant sound and a useful instrument adaptable to the wide range of music the genteel organist likes to play.

    This situation is beset with many of the qualities that make an organ setup difficult. The room is quite small, seating perhaps a hundred or so, if tightly packed. It is fortunately a standard rectangular shape, but the ceiling isn't very high, maybe 15 feet at the peak. Carpet on the floor throughout, cushions on the pews. Redeeming qualities include a very smooth ceiling finish (probably sheetrock, but floated smooth, not a hint of texture) and brick walls, no curtains hanging anywhere. So acoustically it's a mixed bag -- I've seen much worse, but still there is almost no natural sustain or reflection to be heard.

    And the location of the organ console is pretty unfortunate. A small side room of sorts is where the console sits, not totally partitioned off from the main church, but open only through a cased opening about 6' x 8' or so. So the organist hears the organ primarily via the internal speakers, and the folks in the pews hear it via a full set of tone cabinets up in the provided chambers, which are just barely big enough to hold the five full-size Allen cabinets, the openings facing directly out into the nave behind the pulpit, and about 8' off the floor. It would be wrong to say the organist hears nothing at all from the external cabinets, but he is certainly not in the direct field of their sound.

    You get the picture. A situation designed with something in mind besides the presentation of organ music in the usual manner. I've seen another building of the same denomination in which the organ console was LITERALLY and completely in another room -- a closed-off room with no acoustic connection whatsoever to the nave, a large glass window lets the organist see what's happening in there. There the organist hears the internal speakers only, and the folks in the pews supposedly hear organ music through some tone cabinets. The organist in that case can have no idea whatsoever how the organ is interacting with the singing or with the acoustics of the church. This one is not nearly that bad, but still far from ideal for the organist.

    After I left the voicing session, I pondered what I'd just heard, and thought to myself that any meaningful improvement would require quite a bit of alteration to the building. If feasible, it would be great to have the walls between the little organ room and the sanctuary removed. Then the organist would not be nearly as isolated from the room, possibly wouldn't even need the internal speakers to hear the organ. While the console position would still be way off center and not in the direct radiation field of the speakers, at least the player could get a sense of how the organ is interacting with the room.

    It would also be great to see them remove the carpeting. A runner down each aisle would be ok, but the rest of the floor could be smooth hard concrete or tile, and that would surely provide a bit more life to the room.

    A radical idea that occurred to me as I was driving along -- the speakers might work better if they were somewhere besides up in those chambers. The chamber openings being as small as they are (barely as big as the fronts of the cabinets), and placed right in the wall, the sound is highly directional coming out the openings, and there isn't any way to make the sound bounce off something. If the speakers were out in the open somewhere, perhaps they could be aimed right at that smooth hard ceiling so the sound would at least have some spread, some dimension, some blend, rather than being blasted directly at the ears in the pews.

    So, this is a tough one for sure, and not likely to get a creative solution. The folks there are likely not interested in removing any walls or bringing the console out into the open, and they would probably not be interested in re-doing the floors just to obtain better acoustics. And any placement of speakers outside those tiny chambers is likely to create visual problems. Maybe, just maybe, some small cabinets, such as Allen PP's, might be placed in light trays or somewhere so the sound could be reflected off the ceiling. The room is so small that having five full-size cabinets is probably overkill anyway, but it would require some "custom" speaker design at the very least.

    In spite of the undesirable room, at least this organ manages to sound quite respectable, and the gentleman who plays it brings musical joy to the small group of worshipers there each week.

    *** Please post your questions about technical service or repair matters ON THE FORUM. Do not send your questions to me or another member by private message. Information shared is for the benefit of the entire organ community, but other folks will not be helped by information we exchange in private messages!



    • #3

      A horrible small pipe organ installation is still at Waite Funeral Home in Medina Ohio. The few ranks of pipes are concealed above the flat ceiling behind a large grill work that is open to the viewing area below. However, the organ console is in a small room off to itself with an opening covered with heavy curtains near the left end of the casket location. One can only faintly hear the pipes and the organist has to “play by faith” that the sound is okay in the viewing area and/or for the funeral service itself. And of course, there are no good acoustics in any funeral home: carpet throughout, drapes, stuffed chairs and padded folding chairs. And I think this installation is one of a kind.

      I’ve helped organists set up stops listening from the viewing area and the last time I played the organ I was on my own. But I pretty much knew what stops to pull and from experience did okay, but it was very frustrating not to be able to hear what the organ was really sounding like and to know if the sound was well balanced and pleasing. The very last time I played there for a service, the family wanted the piano instead of the organ. The small piano was located inside the viewing area and that experience was much better. The solution would be to take the organ console out of the small room and place it near the pipe opening. After all these years, I don't think it will ever happen.

      Happily retired organist/pianist from the Church of the Brethren...Allen ADC-4300-DK.
      Home...Wurlitzer (ES) Orgatron Series 20 Serial #11608 (retrofitted with MIDI and VPO-Hauptwerk) with Leslie 44W (shorty).
      Hammond BC Serial #5070 with Leslie 31A (tallboy) tone cabinet
      A.L. Swan antique pump organ (C.1852) Cherry Valley NY
      Member of the Lutheran Church (LCMS): traditional worship. Cleveland Clinic Spiritual Care volunteer with the chaplain's office.


      • jbird604
        jbird604 commented
        Editing a comment
        You have to wonder what pipe organ builder in his right mind allowed that kind of setup? And you're surely right -- they will never correct this. Funeral homes tend to have little or no understanding or concern about the quality of music for services, and they are rarely inclined to spend money to elevate the quality of music. Besides, when families are in shock and grieving and in need of their services, they aren't always concerned about the music either. So there is no motivation for the funeral home to worry about something as peripheral in their minds as the organ!

        Sadly, there are actual churches, where worship services are held week after week, with acoustics as dead as the typical funeral home. Some little old churches I know of, especially those where the music leans toward those sad old songs in paperback songbooks, have gathered up their funds and built comfy little sanctuaries for their services where the old folks can be surrounded by thick carpet, soft pews, velour draperies, and low ceilings (to keep the heating bill down). These rooms are as dead as anything can be acoustically, and the people then wonder why their music sounds so lousy in there. SMH

    • #4
      Originally posted by lcid View Post

      And of course, there are no good acoustics in any funeral home: carpet throughout, drapes, stuffed chairs and padded folding chairs.
      Yes, funeral homes tend to have very dead accoustics.

      My home organ: Content M5800 as a midi controller for Hauptwerk