Studying Pipe Organs and Multi-Channel Audio Systems
In our high tech age we often get smug about our sound systems. There are high end stereo systems, digital 5.1 surround, up to 7.1 and beyond. They can produce deafening rumbles and delicate highs placed anywhere within 360° of your seat. Pretty darn cool and lifelike sounds come out of these systems.
What if I told you that guys like Robert Hope-Jones and E.M. Skinner were purveyors of 10,000-channel surround sound systems as early as the 1920s and 1930s? They built some of the most complex sound equipment and instrument emulators ever devised. Much of this technology was never duplicated until the emergence of the modern synthesizer module. Hope-Jones and Skinner built pipe organs.
Each pipe in a pipe organ is, in effect, a “speaker” or a “channel” which produces one unique sound. Each pipe has its own tone, harmonics, pitch and spatial placement within the room the pipe organ inhabits. Combinations of pipes result in multiple sound sources speaking simultaneously and a complex interplay begins as these sound waves interact in three-dimensional space.
For example, if you played a five note chord on the Great manual with 10 Great stops pulled, you could have anywhere from 5 to 50 plus pipes sounding. Pretend that it is only 20 pipes even though there would probably be more than 20. That would mean that you have 20 sound sources, each with their own location, tone, harmonics, and pitch sounding simultaneously. The mix would be a three-dimensional, dynamic wave of sounds, textures and sonic colours, larger than the sum of its parts. Each pipe interacts with the room as well as the other pipes.
Now let’s take that same five note chord with ten stops pulled example to your average electronic or digital organ installation. Your average digital installation will have either one stereo channel per manual or four channels to service the entire organ. So in comparison, where there is one stereo channel per manual, the digital organ condenses what would be 20 sound sources down to two sound sources.
Here are some mental pictures to illustrate my point without going into the physics of additive waveforms and complicated interaction calculations in real space. It is the difference in sound between a 20 piece violin section and one violin amplified and played really loud. It is the difference between a Godiva chocolate Easter bunny and the “chocolate candy” one you get at the drug store. Think of the surface of a pond. What is the difference between 20 different people each tossing a pebble in the water at the same time and those same 20 pebbles being put in a bag and then thrown in as one object?
I’m sure the solo violin sounds good, the “chocolate candy” will be sweet, and the surface of the pond will be disturbed either way. What would be missing in all cases would be the richness, subtlety and complex textures of their respective alternatives. This is the essence of the argument for insisting on using multi-channel audio routing when installing a digital or electronic organ in a house of worship.
In the beginning (somewhere around the ninth day) there were pipe organs. People heard them and saw that it was good. Everyone lived and worshiped pretty happily building bigger and more beautiful organs. The music got richer and more colourful. People aspired and trained to lift and embolden the spirits of their brothers and sisters using this wonderful instrument.
Then one day the tempter came and spoke to one of the people (probably someone on the budget committee). The tempter said “why would you spend so much money on an ‘organ’ when I can get you an ‘organ’ for 1/10 of the cost? All you do is plug it in. Of course it’s an organ- it says so on the box doesn’t it?”
This opportunity was excitedly presented to the people (probably by the budget committee, certainly not by the musician). There was much debate and some of it rather unpleasant. But in the end, a cheque was written for 1/10 the amount of the other organ.
The day of delivery arrived. It was so exciting. They took it out of the box. They hooked up all two of the speakers. They invited people from the community; all their friends and family. They plugged it in and turned on the organ.
Then the eyes and ears of the people were opened and they suddenly knew good from bad. Really bad.
Suddenly the music was not quite as rich and powerful as it used to be. In fact it wasn’t very inspiring at all. Fewer and fewer people aspired to play the new ‘organ’ because it didn’t inspire them. And if it didn’t inspire them, how were they going to be able to lift and inspire others?
So, some of the people started to look for new music and new instruments to inspire themselves and others. Others became adamant that everyone needed to go back to using the “true organ”. With fewer good organs to inspire, fewer and fewer people were learning how to play organs well. So congregations questioned the need and expenses needed to have an organ at all.
Some congregations divided their members into different worship services. Some congregations split altogether and became two different churches. Music, instruments and style became more important than unity. Music became a reason to divide instead of unite. People, firmly entrenched in their own traditions, didn’t understand or respect the value of the other.
More than Multi-Channeling
The existence of pipe, electronic and digital organs has been a contentious, and sometimes divisive, issue in congregations. As congregations age, change and struggle with new worship styles, often the question of the relevance of the pipe or digital organ comes up in relation to contemporary instruments. The common ground between old and new will be found in multi-channel audio.
First Things First
There are three parts that make up a good pipe or digital organ. All three need to be included in order to have a good instrument. They are: a good console, good tone generation, and a good audio system. Funnily enough, these criteria apply to both pipe and digital organs.
Consoles are your interface with the instrument. If it breaks down, the instrument is useless. So make sure you have reliable electronics controlling your instrument and robust workmanship in the materials that house the electronics. A good console should actually be a physical and financial asset to your church. Good ones are even saleable should you need to upgrade. For reasons I will discuss later, both pipe and digital consoles should have reliable MIDI capabilities. Lots of consoles have MIDI capabilities but not all are reliable. Make sure yours is.
A quick aside here for the purists: MIDI is not audio. MIDI is simply an electronic way to turn pipes or digital samples on and off. It allows organ builders to control complex organs with a relatively small amount of wiring compared to old point-to-point wiring (which has its own issues).
Good Multi-Channel Tone Generation
For pipe organs, this amounts to having a good quality range and selection of pipe ranks. If you have a patchwork of ranks that do not work well together, or are not tuned properly, they are not an asset. Pipe organs are the only instrument designed to be used in a specific room. Pipe-voicers take weeks to tune pipes so that they all work together properly.
For digital organs, you should (ideally) have samples with good resolution and the ability to configure each virtual pipe individually. However, the ability to voice each pipe and route each pipe (i.e. multi-channel) effectively is much more important than the quality of the sample.
Mediocre quality samples divided up and spread over 16 audio channels will give you a better end result than high quality samples playing though a good two channel stereo sound system. The reason is the same as what I illustrated earlier. The more unique sound sources you have, the more rich and lifelike the sonic fabric will be.
If you do not have control over the voicing and audio routing your overall quality of sound will not be good. The reason is the same as it is with pipes. All the sounds should work well together and in the context of the room the instrument inhabits.
If you have the luxury of starting over again, then find good tone generation, with minimal stretching, high sample resolution, EQ and tone voicing and extremely flexible channeling capabilities.
If you want to improve your sound, but do not have the luxury of starting over again, find out what capacity your console has in terms of voicing and multi-channeling. Once you know what you have, you can start to determine how you can maximize what you have. Also remember, multi-channeling does not mean simply adding more speakers that send the same sound. Multi-channeling means more channels and speakers that each send a different sound.
We have an installation in St. George’s Anglican Church in Ajax, Ontario (see picture) where we used our Classic control system and tone generation from Walker Technical Company to create an incredibly lifelike experience. This instrument has 18 audio channels, with each channel bi-amped for a total of 36 sound sources, including two subwoofers. The frequency range of these samples range from 16Hz to 30Khz.
The bi-amping of the channel allows the high frequencies to emanate from the tweeters and the low frequencies from the woofers. This technique doubles the amount of sound sources coming from the organ.
In this case, each rank of virtual pipes is assigned four channels. The notes from each rank cycles through those four channels to maximize the number of channels being used at all times. Again the principle is that you want to use as many independent sound sources as possible.
The result is exceptional clarity of sound. As each new stop is pulled, the overall clarity remains and the new sound is distinct within the whole of the sound. You can still distinguish between the different virtual pipes that are making up the overall sound. The sound still has texture to it. What tends to happen with many systems, is that the more stops (i.e. sounds) you add, the more it turns into an indistinct “mush” of sounds. Essentially, it becomes one sound instead of a collection of sounds that work together to create a harmonic fabric.
Marshall & Ogletree use 70 audio channels on their Opus 1 instrument in New York’s Trinity Wall Street. And there are software packages on the horizon for institutional use that will enable users to route high quality pipe samples thru 500 + audio channels.
A Good Multi-Channel Sound System
The third important component of a great organ is a good multi-channel sound system.
In the pipe world, this means good quality pipes with reliable pipe chests and wind pressures appropriate for the pipes and room.
In the digital world this means multiple reliable amps and speakers with good frequency ranges that recreate the visceral experience of a true pipe organ. Many an electronic organ has been ruined by the use of an inappropriate sound system. Neglecting to support good tone generation with the proper sound system is like putting four-inch tires on a Ferrari.
For example, 32 foot pipes are not heard as much as they are felt. They do provide upper harmonics that blend with other pipes but their fundamental frequency is 16 Hz (Hertz) or 16 cycles per second. Human hearing hovers around 20 cycles per second. So you don’t hear the 16 Hz but you sure feel 16 Hz. And that visceral quality to the sound is part of the wonder and majesty of a pipe organ. It is the difference between going to see a band perform live and listening to the band’s mp3 on in-ear headphones. The physicality of the experience is lost with the headphones.
Human hearing generally tops out at around 20KHz (Kilohertz) or 20, 000 cycles per second. However, having speakers that handle frequencies above 20KHz allows inaudible frequencies to influence the audible frequencies. This process happens naturally with wind blown pipes, which also produce inaudible frequencies, and is a key factor in producing an authentic sounding instrument. High definition in the upper frequencies is often a key factor in what determines the quality (and cost) of the tone generation. The same factors often determine the quality and cost of your audio system.
Good Multi-Channeling is good for all
Multi-Channeling is good for the organ for sure but there are plenty of other serendipitous benefits to making your organ sound better with multi-channeling.
With many congregations split over music styles, the addition of technology to the organ can be a great unifying experience for a congregation. Many churches are also heavily using multimedia in their worship services. Multi-media applications love multi-channeling too. Why not share the cost load if you have both types of services? What about the potential revenues or added community outreach that would be possible by using your facility out as a multi-media ready venue?
Blended worship styles like those proposed by Robert Webber are also prime excuses for integrating the old and new.
What bunch of teenagers in a contemporary or urban worship band wouldn’t find a use for a nice 2200-watt subwoofer? If you couple a great organ sound and sound system with reliable MIDI functionality, the organ can be a great tool for bringing the old and new together. With a little creativity, the organ and technology can be an excuse to work together instead of an excuse to divide.