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  • How acceptable are cheap MIDI keyboards for organ

    I'm a pianist and digital piano enthusiast with no organ experience. It looks like I may be called upon to accompany my church congregation on the organ (a two-register Allen Master Design Series). It's not convenient for me to practice and get familiar with the actual instrument and playing the organ on my digital pianos is nothing like the real thing because of the weighted keys. Now I am considering whether to buy a couple of cheap 61-key MIDI keyboards for use with VSTs or to try and make space in my home for a craigslist organ of some kind.

    I am attracted to building a little organ for myself and using organ VSTs like some youtubers do--I'm a DIY and techie person. But as I discussed this with my piano buddies, two potentially distressing concerns came up:

    (1) Organ keys are somewhat narrower than piano keys
    (2) Organs trigger higher in the stroke than a typical MIDI controller does

    In your experience, how problematic are these issues? Will using a super cheap controller like the M-Audio Keystation 61 or Nektar GX61 make it more difficult for me to be prepared to play on my church organ? Are some controllers considered better for simulating the behavior of an organ than others? I would be willing to pay more, of course.

    I could also imagine buying a real organ and using as is or converting it, but most organs are physically larger than I want. I already have two pianos in my living room.
    Rodgers 905

  • #2
    Actually, I wouldn't worry about the trigger point difference, if there even is one. Organs differ considerably from one to another in the exact point in key travel where the sound begins. And in fact some organ models actually use the same key actions as ordinary synth units. Common Fatar key actions are used in less expensive Allen organs (at least those built in the past 15 years or so), as well as in a lot of other organ brands. So you'd be getting the same or essentially the same keys as on an entry level classical organ. Now your MDS Allen at church DOES have premium keyboards, genuine Allen made-in-America keyboards, and they do have a super nice feel compared to the Fatar keys. But there isn't necessarily any difference in the touch or keydip or trigger point.

    Oh, and it isn't actually true that organ keys are narrower than piano keys, as both are made to the universally accepted standard of 6.5" per octave. But organ keys may appear less bulky than piano keys, since they are generally "scooped" under the front rather than being straight down. And the black keys on an organ may be a tiny bit narrower and more tapered than on typical piano keyboards. This does not affect their spacing or where they are located within the octave relative to the white keys. So there really isn't any difference in the placement of the keys that would affect your perception of the keys.

    Of course, practicing on a piano or even on a pair of 61-note keyboards stacked together still won't help you practice the pedaling. You could buy a 32-note pedalboard to put on the floor, but then you'd need a bench of exactly the right height to make your feet dangle right over the keys. And you still won't have real organ stops and sounds unless you run a Virtual Pipe Organ program on a computer attached to the keys and pedals. And there are a lot of other complications and compromises that may or may not be important to you.

    Picking up a used organ on CL or Facebook or whatever can be a good choice, but as with anything that complex you never know if you're getting something that will work or not. Of course this forum is filled with stories of folks who have done just that, and very often they find enough help here to figure out whatever technical problems may plague their organs. So you at least have a community here ready to help you get the organ fixed if possible.

    These days, sad to say, a lot of churches are discarding rather decent organs as they change musical styles and make room for the drum kit and the guitar amps on the "stage." So you might get lucky and pick up a respectable Allen or Rodgers or other premium organ no more than 25 or 30 years old for not much money. Happy hunting!
    John
    ----------
    *** 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!

    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Birds...97551893588434

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    • #3
      Another thought ... Right now (I think it's still in effect) Johannus dealers are running a $7995 special price on the Studio 170 organ. This is about as compact as anyone can possibly build a two-manual classical organ console, and the pedal board supplied with it is a 30-noter, as opposed to the standard 32-note AGO pedals. But people who've tried it say the pedals play and feel just right and that they do not notice the difference. Getting one of these would have the advantage of being extremely compact, brand new, have the stops and pistons and other stuff you need in order to properly practice classical and church music at home, and it would probably sound quite wonderful, being current technology. Just thought I'd throw that out. Not affiliated with that company in any way, but I do respect their products and dealers. Other companies, such as Viscount, also have compact organs in a similar price range.
      John
      ----------
      *** 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!

      https://www.facebook.com/pages/Birds...97551893588434

      Comment


      • myorgan
        myorgan commented
        Editing a comment
        Depending on where you are located, I did find an MDS-45 available online for $7,500 installed. Personally, I think that's too much, but if you do your own transportation and work, you could probably cut 1/2 off that price and be in the ballpark.

        Michael

    • #4
      Thank you for your great comments, jbird. I recalled that I saw that there was a size difference in this video



      around 4:12. But I just rewatched it and he said 5 octaves on a piano is 33.5 inches while it is 33.25 on the organ. A quarter of an inch over 5 octaves is not that much at all and my guess is that there's variation between manufacturers and time periods. Based on your comments here, it sounds like it's nothing to worry about. That's a relief.

      I'm also really glad to hear that the trigger point isn't a significant factor either. So it sounds like any one of these midi controllers could potentially work in a DIY setup and reasonably approximate the keybed playing experience. Yay!

      My intention is to begin with two keyboards and then to get some pedals when I see an opportunity. As I'm sure you know, you can get them already set up for MIDI but I also see folks on youtube using another keyboard and connecting strings to the keys or setting up switches and MIDI hardware. Both of those seem feasible to me.

      That Studio 170 looks delightful...essentially exactly what I would like. Even at the sale price, though, that's more than I spent on my most expensive digital piano. I see a few organs on craigslist in the 500-700 range that either work well now or could be easily modified for MIDI--I'm pretty handy both with electronics and wood. What to do...

      Does anyone here have experience or advice about a MIDI controller that is particularly suitable? Perhaps either the M-Audio or Nektar?

      This video seems like a minimal effort solution, all easily within my expertise and price range. There are much nicer examples out there.



      Thanks for your help!
      Rodgers 905

      Comment


      • #5
        Amazing project that guy did! Should be within the capabilities of most anyone, even if you don't have three cute kiddos to help. The ready-made pedalboard adapter from MIDI Boutique is just what the doctor ordered, considerably easier than wiring to an existing set of pedal switches. My project is being built inside a gutted Rodgers console though, so the switches were already mounted and easy for me to re-purpose to drive the MIDI adapter. I'm using a pair of organ keyboards salvaged from a defunct Baldwin church organ, and I had to physically solder the ribbon cables from the MIDI encoder to each individual keyswitch. That's a lot harder than just using USB to hook up a pair of inexpensive synth keyboards.

        What is astounding to me is that one can have such awesome and realistic pipe organ tones, and the ability to play historic organs without spending much money at all. Twenty or thirty years ago I desperately wanted a decent organ that sounded like real pipes, and I couldn't afford even the cheapest new organ or a decent used one. Nowadays it's within anybody's reach. Just amazing.

        If I were recommending anything at all to do differently from the video, I'd find some 61-note keyboards with OVERHANGING keys, like you see on a real organ. The keys on the units shown in the video go straight down on the front like piano keys and also have a prominent key slip in front of them. This would make it quite difficult to "thumb down" if that maneuver should be required in a piece of music you wanted to play. There are a lot of inexpensive keyboards from numerous brands that have those overhanging keys instead of piano-like keys.
        John
        ----------
        *** 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!

        https://www.facebook.com/pages/Birds...97551893588434

        Comment


        • jbird604
          jbird604 commented
          Editing a comment
          Perhaps an older or cheaper unit, such as a vintage Roland synth, would have more of a regular organ "feel" to it. But a modern keyboard with velocity sensing should be ok, since HW and other VPO programs do not recognize the velocity data at all and simply key the pitches when the contacts close. I'd just avoid "weighted" keys because they have mechanisms that simulate the let-off and other features of piano action.

        • farnsy
          farnsy commented
          Editing a comment
          I'm sorry to be so ignorant, but can I assume that the Allen keyboard I am intending to perform on will feel pretty much like a Hammond and therefore be reasonably well proxied by the M-Audio (except for the relative lack of overhang)?

        • myorgan
          myorgan commented
          Editing a comment
          Farnsy,

          The Hammond keyboard will be a much lighter touch than the Allen keyboards–at least that's been true on all the Hammonds I've ever played. I'm also not sure how adjustable the touch is on Hammond keyboards. As a weighted keyboard, the M-Audio keyboards will be a heavier touch than the Hammonds that I recall.

          Michael

      • #6
        For my secondary VPO I'm using a Behringer UMX610 controller and a Casio digital piano. The UMX610 has overhanging keys. The Casio has a weighted piano-type action and the UMX610 has an extremely light action. Neither is really suitable for me. On the UMX, if a finger just thinks about grazing a key, it activates. I suppose this is good for improving my technique, but it's also frustrating. And of course transitioning from one keyboard to the other is a challenge.
        Don't get me wrong. I'm happy to have it. But I can't wait to get my Rodgers console functioning again.

        Comment


        • farnsy
          farnsy commented
          Editing a comment
          The Behringer is one of the controllers I've been considering. Would you say it has a lighter touch than an electronic organ like an Allen? One of my main questions is whether it would be better for me to get a "synth" type action or a "semi-weighted" action.

        • tbeck
          tbeck commented
          Editing a comment
          It's been a while since I played an Allen, but the keyboards felt excellent. They felt like proper organ keyboards. I'm not sure about all the models but I would think any of them would feel better than the controller. My problem with that weighted action is that it's just too heavy. I feel if I practice for long on it that it'll worsen my tendinitis. My Rodgers has beautiful feeling solid wood core keys and is a delight to play. (When it works.)

        • myorgan
          myorgan commented
          Editing a comment
          Farnsy,

          I couldn't say because I'm not familiar with a Behringer keyboard. Sorry.

          Michael

      • #7
        I have seen some variation in octave width. Here's what Wikipedia says: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musica...ical_variation

        Over the last three hundred years, the octave span distance found on historical keyboard instruments (organs, virginals, clavichords, harpsichords, and pianos) has ranged from as little as 125 mm (4.9 in) to as much as 170 mm (6.7 in). Modern piano keyboards ordinarily have an octave span of 164–165 mm (6 7/16" – 6 1/2").
        My Rodgers 321C has an octave width of 6 3/8", which allows the "Home Theatre Organ" to be a little narrower.

        My Yamaha YPG-235 "Portable Grand Piano" keyboard has 6 5/16". It has "Graded Soft Touch" action, which has higher resistance for the lower notes than the upper notes. I realize that practicing on the YPG-235 ruins me for a real piano, but that's OK for me. Modern grand pianos were designed for pianists with huge, strong hands. 6 5/16" makes it easier to reach octaves and I like the feel of GST. It's especially nice for harpsichord and fortepiano music, which benefit from a lighter, faster touch. The YPG-235 action is velocity sensitive, so it helps me play notes evenly. A problem with an organ keyboard is that there's no keyboard expression, so if you move to a piano you may discover that it's hard to play evenly.

        JMO/YMMV

        Comment


        • #8
          Hi, Farnsy. I have a Nektar GX61. It does not have a suitable feel for what you need. In fact, it doesn't have what I'd describe as a "feel" unless it's springy mush. I have heard of folks taking the guts out of three Behringer 61s and putting them on shelves inside an existing organ case.
          -- I'm Lamar -- Allen TC-4 Classic project, 1899 Kimball project
          -- 5 melodicas, Rodgers W5000, RD300NX, Juno DS-61/88, FA-06 - Conn 643 - Hammond M3 - Hauptwerk
          -- Public domain hymn search: https://songselect.ccli.com/search/r...t=publicdomain

          Comment


          • farnsy
            farnsy commented
            Editing a comment
            Thanks, Silken Path. That was probably the one I was leaning toward so this is timely and useful information. I appreciate it.

        • #9
          I believe it is the M-Audio Keystation 61 series of MIDI controllers that are the go to VPO keystack components of note. They are 'semi-weighted' as I understand it, producing a credible 'tracker touch' for a fraction of the cost of specialist sources like Classic Keyboard Works.

          Comment


          • j reimer
            j reimer commented
            Editing a comment
            I would like to hear from someone who has played on one of these for some period of time.

        • #10
          Here's a recent set of pics posted by someone on the Facebook Hauptwerk Group (I hope this is visible to everybody... might not be if you don't do Facebook). Anyway, this guy has built a beautiful custom console, complete with some lovely decoration. His keyboards are all M-Audio. I don't know how satisfied he is with the touch and so on. But they apparently do the job.

          https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?f...type=3&theater
          John
          ----------
          *** 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!

          https://www.facebook.com/pages/Birds...97551893588434

          Comment


          • #11
            Just so you guys know, I ended up finding a really nice Baldwin organ used for $100 (the organ market is crazy..prices are all over the map). I'll play that for a while and then later I'll convert to MIDI/Hauptwerk.

            When I do the conversion I'll decide whether it's worth it to use the existing keyboards and get a MIDI interface for them or to replace them with USB midi controllers. The nerd inside me does want to have 3 registers, but realistically it's hard to believe I would need it. Either way I will already have the pedals and bench, which are easily worth $100 to me.
            Rodgers 905

            Comment


            • #12
              Originally posted by johnbeetem View Post
              Over the last three hundred years, the octave span distance found on historical keyboard instruments (organs, virginals, clavichords, harpsichords, and pianos) has ranged from as little as 125 mm (4.9 in) to as much as 170 mm (6.7 in). Modern piano keyboards ordinarily have an octave span of 164–165 mm (6 7/16" – 6 1/2").
              So THAT explains why Marcel Dupré could reach the intervals he did. I always thought he had large hands, but if the octaves were smaller, that would explain a lot! I know I have short, fat hands, and thought it was all my fault. What a relief!

              Michael
              Way too many organs to list, but I do have 5 Allens:
              • MOS-2 Model 505-B / ADC-4300-DK / ADC-5400 / ADC-6000 (Symphony) / ADC-8000DKC
              • Lowrey Heritage (DSO-1)
              • 9 Pump Organs, 1 Pipe Organ & 6 Pianos

              Comment


              • #13
                Another follow up: The feel of they keys on my Baldwin is very different from that of the Allen I play at church. Squishier and less resistance. Moreover, the feel of the swell keys is somewhat different from that of the great. I also tested where in the travel the organ sounds begin. For higher notes, if I press slowly, the voices will come in one at a time. For lower notes, that's not true. The voices do come in before I reach the bottom of travel, though.

                I'm beginning to think, based on these experiences, that there is little consistency across organs in their feel. In that case, maybe choice of keyboard is not very important when building a virtual organ.

                I still intend to convert this to a MIDI organ, but I have not decided whether to replace the registers with USB controlled keyboards or to get a MIDI converter and do the soldering necessary to use the original keyboard. Choices, choices.
                Rodgers 905

                Comment


                • jbird604
                  jbird604 commented
                  Editing a comment
                  The way you describe that Baldwin's keying it apparently is one of the older Baldwins with multiple contacts under the keys, each contact controlling a single pitch level. These contacts work on a type of partially-conductive vinyl rods, and they are not good for converting to MIDI, since they don't actually turn on the signal instantly, as a MIDI encoder requires. I'd probably recommend not using those keyboards unless you put entirely new key busses under them. It's also possible that they already have at least one solid metal buss under there, if they have some percussion stops on each manual.

                • farnsy
                  farnsy commented
                  Editing a comment
                  JBird Interesting. Good to know and thanks for your help!
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