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Church Organ Recording

Over the years I have recorded quite a few pipe organs in different venues, some more successful than others - but yesterday doing some prep work for a project in the summer, I came across a really knowledgeable organist - who is also an old school recordist, 78 restorer and collector of old and rare BBC broadcasts of organ music from the 1930s. He has a huge collection of stuff and while the site visit was really to check the space, the facilities and the layout, we got chatting - and as he was a 'sound person' I was deemed suitable enough to help him a little in some 'tuning' work INSIDE the organ. So much of my negative experiences recording organs were brought into focus, so I thought I'd share some of what I discovered in the hope it might help a few people.

The organ is (or rather, was) a magnificent 4 manual instrument built in the 1870s. What I didn't realise was that pipe organs were built to be modular and expandable - it's not a new feature. Some of my long term knowledge was also flawed. The decorative pipes - gold in this case, are not all dummy ones, for visual purposes. Out of a rank of 20, 8 actually function. I looked quizzical - when the organ was brand new, it had 3 manuals, but only 2 were connected for economic reasons. A benefactor paid for the addition of the choir pipes, and then an entire new solo section and a new keyboard - this one using pneumatics via lead piping. Space within the organ was at a premium, so many ranks had their pipes squeezed in wherever they physic ally fitted. The upshot of this is that the Great organ has pipes in different locations - some 'aiming' down the church, shielded from the organist by the swell cases (2) inside the organ - while the Swell pipes aI'm out from over the organists head, into the area where the human choir is. The choir pipes being quieter, are also more distant, making balance next to impossible. For economic reasons, some new ranks of pipes added in the 1890s change pipe design at a certain note - so a woody tone suddenly gets brighter when the rank starts using metal pipes. Inside the organ, there's clear evidence of nearly 150 years worth of modifications and repairs - junk everywhere. Piles of unused pipes, or replaced ones. Chopped of lead piping where pneumatics have been replaced by electrics at some point. Some ranks of pipes were tiny - the shortest being perhaps 6" long and as slender as a pencil. He simply lifted one of these out, and blew it - it coughed and then produced a pure amazingly high pitch - like a whistle. Fixed - he declared. Turned out that it was simply dust - and that note was faulty when last played. Some of the pipes even had dust deflectors on the top - which also serve as directors for the sound.

The upshot of all this is that I'm having to re-evaluate how on earth I've recorded stereo. I'd assumed, for years, that there was a balanced left-to right output. So I'd often set up a stereo pair in the choir area, and blend this with another stereo microphone in the congregation area for the pipes directed at them. This in some churches was the only way to get a proper balance, but was randomly successful.

What I'm now realising is that as the organist plays a single manual on the organ with just one stop active, the pipes begin in one area of the church, then suddenly appear from a different location, AND, in some cases could change their timbre. This might explain some of the results I have had - that I assumed were caused by me. Shifting stereo images, peculiar tones and other small but annoying features.

The particular organ has actually passed on some of it's sections - ranks of trumpet pipes for example, to other instruments, and added some others from notable organs that have been dismantled, or improved. Famous organ makers of the past were expert at bodging - removing sections and selling them on to new homes, and squeezing them inside the case, making manoeuvring inside the organ very tricky. This organ needed new bellows - the leather having perished. However, to replace them would have meant dismantling the entire thing, as the bellows had been split into three separate units, and one was under the swell case - so they installed one new bigger one, and simply cut up and removed the old one. This, apparently is amazingly common as organists do more and more of their own modifications and tuning. The manuals are totally work out after 130 odd years playing and they have been donated a 4 manual much newer console - and they're going to site it somewhere else and then link it with fibre-optics to the organ case on the other side of the church. Was I seemed keen - he asked if I'd play a bit while he wandered around, as although I'm not a organist remotely, I c an noodle a bit. He identified a list of dodgy notes, high and low pressure balance problems and some we actually fixed! Some of the pipes have tuning adjustments - strange spring type devices near the reed, or adjusters on the lengths. The organ has a tuning pipe. Like a tuning fork, but specific to this organ. All the pipes are then tuned to it. Remember those topics about A=440Hz? Those sonic reasons designers apparently chose frequency standards - well, clearly the designers of this organ simply tuned each organ to these tuning pipes. The one in this organ has also been used as the tuning pipe on at least two other local churches from the documentation the organist has found. They have a piano, that annoys the tuner, because it is tuned to the organ - NOT the usual tuning fork.

I now have loads of useful information that will help me determine where to NOT put microphones in the future, but I still don't know how on earth to cope with these 'broken' ranks of pipes, where notes suddenly change tone and location. I suppose that it depends on the registrations the organist chooses. If they pick one that features these ranks of pipes - the stereo imaging will suffer, perhaps with no chance of 'fixing' it? If they don't use them, stereo is perfect. This perhaps explains the randomness of organ recordings.

From now on, I'm going to spend fare more time talking to the organists, checking if their organs are laid out bizarrely. I asked if this is a rare thing, but he told me almost every early organ was built in this way - the initial build would be laid out conventionally as more money became available, extra ranks would be added, and as organs were built into specific spaces, this meant breaking the ranks. Some ranks of pipes would be built from new and unusual alloys that sounded better, or just different, and these became sought after when a good organ was taken out of service. To record these things properly, you really need to know how they are put together before you start planning mic positions.

I learned so much from the visit that will help in the future. Do we have any organists on the forum? I'd love to hear more technical stuff on organ history.


audiokid Sun, 06/03/2018 - 15:12
If I ever get the opportunity I would start out with my Royer SF-24.

WOW, Check this recording out!

Pipe Organ – SF-12

Recorded by Dr. Fred Bashour
Recorded at The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Denver, CO

Recording chain: One SF-12, 35 feet high, 30 feet back from the pipes, to a Millennia Media HV-3C preamp/ADC, and recorded directly to a Sony TCD-D10 PRO DAT machine.

This track was Dr. Fred’s first use of an SF-12 and was made while he was reviewing the microphone for Pro Audio Review. The final take utilized over 12 mics, but Dr. Fred provided this isolated SF-12 track to Royer Labs for demonstration purposes.

Performed by Ann Labounsky & David Craighead

paulears Mon, 06/04/2018 - 01:00
If we are going to share good organ recordings - this one from 1999 has always impressed me for the combination of instruments - Paul Winter - Golden Apples of the Sun - but not the main piece, there's a longer and organ prolific reprise on the album, and it's amazing sounding. Spotify is a better quality version than those on youtube that are a bit squashed, dynamics wise. Amazing things, organs!


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