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Digitals really are good enough already.

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  • Digitals really are good enough already.

    The idea that digital organs are good enough already, and that the process of sampling is a mature technology have been mentioned here in the past. I had an experience tonight that drives that home for me.

    I went to a concert at a local church, the one where my business partner is the organist, where we have installed an Allen MOS2 model 1105 and painstakingly restored it, continually revising the installation to improve the sound and performance when we can. The organ was played by a guest organist, a man of considerable talent and obvious training who really knew how to use the instrument and played quite a variety of interesting pieces. (The organ was not the main part of the program, which was a men's chorus, but there was a lengthy organ pre-show performance.)

    The 1105 is a four-computer model with two computers providing the basic doubled-up great and swell and some of the pedal, a third computer that generates the mixtures, and a fourth one that provides the choir stops along with some of the pedal stops. We've done some customizing -- added MIDI with the Zuma Group converter and an Allen module in a drawer. We've also added stops to access the deep theatrical tremulants and different levels of celeste tuning.

    This one has 8 discrete audio channels plus two crossover-derived channels for the subwoofers. Each channel plays through an Allen S-100 amp (except the two mixture channels, which use an ADC dual amp), so there is plentiful audio power for the church that seats around 400 to 500 people. Acoustically, the church is moderately live -- high vaulted ceiling, smooth walls, very thin carpet on the floor and minimal cushions on the pews, enough reverb for the sound to roll around but not a lengthy sustain.

    Each amp drives at least one high quality speaker cabinet -- some use Allen HC-12 or HC-15 cabinets, some use other similar quality speakers, some have a second smaller cabinet in parallel, and the subwoofers are pairs of 15" drivers mounted on infinite baffles near the peak of the ceiling with their backs in the attic space. There are small antiphonal speakers that serve only the choir division, and also a horn-type speaker that can be switched into the circuit for en chamade effects.

    All in all, a better than average setting for the organ, and a very well-done installation that doesn't skimp on amps or speakers. My partner has spent untold hours tweaking the controls and experimenting with speaker orientation and tried out numerous subwoofer arrangements before settling on one. So, it ought to be good.

    What I heard tonight was quite astounding though. I am not easily fooled (though I have been before) and am often aware of a digital organ's shortcomings, but in the hands of this expert player tonight, this thing sounded as much like a pipe organ as any digital I have ever heard anywhere. And this is 30+ year-old technology, not the latest whiz-bang model with stereo multi-microphone sampling or any such enhancements. Just MOS -- a single sample, 1/2 cycle long, for each stop and just one DAC per audio channel with nothing more than bass and treble controls for voicing. Allen's "random motion" and "speech articulation" serve to jitter the tone and give it some of the randomness of long samples, but it really is quite primitive technology.

    You know how the 32' flue stops in a pipe organ literally shake a building, producing a palpable wave that almost takes your breath away -- this organ does that, no doubt aided by the extra amps and by the simple but highly effective infinite baffle mounting of the subs.

    But more than that, the sounds of individual stops and divisions were distinct and separate, crisp and clear, and everything just sounded like pipes, but better than the typical pipe organ because there were no sour notes or badly scaled stops.

    Anyway, long story, but I was blown away by this organ in a way that almost never happens to me. If an organ over 30 years old can do this, we surely should be able to get some exciting sounds from newer ones! I am glad that the builders continue to come out with new models that have interesting and useful add-ons and features, but the basics of good organ sound have been around already for a long time.
    *** 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
    Thanks for this interesting assessment .... once again, further proof that the technology is a tool and not the limiting factor .... it's the sensitive, learned and patient implementation of technology that will make or break the success of the installation .... it really is all about the sound!


    • #3
      Actually, your assessment is not surprising. The success of any installation, whether pipe or electronic, depends so much upon the care taken in installing and maintaining the instrument, that it is a make or break situation.

      Some years ago, I played for a while upon a small three manual Moller which had been installed without much care and in a rush. The church did not had the money to do what needed to be done to the organ to bring it up to par, and I hated playing it, because it was of such poor quality. Several years after that, the church received a very large gift from an estate and wisely put some money into the organ, hiring an excellent tonal finisher to do the job that had not been done originally. I was invited back to play there some time after that, and was amazed at the difference in the sound.

      Most of my experience before the church job that I have now has been with electronics. I once had a Baldwin Model 5A as a home organ. This organ had one audio output for the pedals and one for the manuals. By the simple changing of one resistor, I put the Great and Pedal through one speaker, and the Swell through the other. That one change made quite a difference in the sound, especially when the manuals were coupled. I have done a lot of that sort of thing through the years to make electronic organs sound better.

      Any organ that is not already first class can sound better with the right person(s) taking care of it.

      My home organ is a Theatre III with an MDS II MIDI Expander.


      • #4

        As you and I and others have mentioned, a proper install in a decent room, really does make the difference between a success story or a mediocre or lousy installation.

        I don't think I would ever wax as eloquent as you about MOS 2 technology or instruments, one the size you speak of, certainly could be impressive. Having separate computer and audio for Mixtures made a noticeable difference on those organs. Having the Choir on a separate computer with it's own audio would make a difference as well. One thing that always impressed me about the MOS 1 and MOS 2 instruments, was that the factory set balances between the stops was generally very good. Seems to me, that over the years I've heard more screw-ups relating to this on ADC and MDS models, likely due to the fact that whoever was setting these organs up didn't know what they were doing.

        Sometimes, I too am rather pleasantly surprised about how good a certain install sounds. Just about always it is a combination of things, not the least of which is good and sufficient audio. No matter what one tries, 2 channels of audio never seems to quite do the trick. It is not loudness, so much as spread of sound. Even on a small organ, I think 4 channels makes a difference for the better, all things being equal.

        Also, some of the larger, more comprehensive analog organs with sufficient audio can still sound impressive.

        As to pipe-likeness however, I think the newer organs from just about any manufacturer are superior, and also have the potential to be superior, all things being equal.

        Anyways, a good story, John.