Theater Organ TechTalk -

A Series of Articles on Theater Organ technology - how things were (and are) done - and why.


TechTalk is intended to cover technical issues and projects on the subject of Theater Organs. There are many good references available for construction, repair, conversion, etc. - and it's not our intention to re-invent the wheel - so where resources already exist - we'll point those out with links on our links page. Here we hope to cover topics that get little coverage among articles on more popular subjects. There is a lot of information available about installing solid-state systems, converting consoles for use as VTPO consoles and so on. However - finding information about the original electro-mechanical relay systems used through most of the 20th century can be more of a challenge. We also hope that by documenting our technical projects and share techniques, solutions and headaches - it will inspire others to join our efforts - or get involved with projects in their local communities.

There are many differences between a Theater Organ and a Classical Organ - and unfortunately some of the references available on the subject leave a lot to be desired. An example is the Wiki - where the list of "differences" is incomplete and misleading. While we certainly don't consider ourselves authorities on these matters - we hope that these entries will become a focal point for gathering wisdom and knowledge that is accurate, complete and easy to understand.

So -just what do we think the significant differences are between a Theater Organ - and it Classical Cousin? While there are many cosmetic and even technical differences that come to mind - often those could be used "interchangeably" between the two instruments without significantly changing the one truly significant difference - the sound. The list, then from most important to least: Voicing, Extension and Unification, and the inclusion of both tuned and non-tuned percussion. While it could be argued that the last item wouldn't effect the overall sound of a Classical instrument - their inclusion in the performance of a Classical Instrument would be so out of character - that it would likely offend many purists.

Voicing is the primary difference - unfortunately - it is a very complex and highly subjective subject in which an in-depth article is beyond both the scope of TechTalks - and the skill and experience of most in the Chapter. We'll include an overview of what Voicing is - and some explanation of how it's accomplished below - but as many consider voicing as much an art as a technical skill - that is as far as we'll pursue that subject here.

The next significant difference - Extension and Unification - the technologies behind them - how they work and why - will be covered in other TechTalks. In addition - as the chapter undertakes various projects - they too will be documented and presented as future TechTalks.

TechTalk 1: Extension and Unification

TechTalk 2: The Relay (specifically Robert Morton Relays)

TechTalk 3: Robert Morton Connector System

Pipe Organ Voicing

Voicing is the process of giving the instrument it's voice - or more specifically it's unique voice. Voicing exists for all types of pipe organs - and even for the more complex electronic organs of modern technology. The fact that Theater Organs are voiced, then - is not what makes them unique - it's how they are voiced which gives them that unique sound.

One thing that needs to be made clear hear is that Voicing not be confused with Tuning. Anyone with some skill, patience and the proper equipment can tune an organ. Getting the pipes on pitch is not that difficult - though in some installations - it can have unique challenges. Unlike tuning - in Voicing - how the pipes and ranks sound in the chamber is near irrelevant - Voicing must be done with an ear to how the instrument sounds overall in the listening space.

Voicing then - has to do with all of the other aspects of the sound of the pipes OTHER than tuning. How loud the pipes speak - in relation to other pipes in the same rank- and how loud the ranks are in relation to each other. How the pipes mix and modulate each other when various ranks are used together is every bit as important as how well the ranks sound as solo. How the pipes speak - how they sound is subject to Voicing. Flutes can be Voiced to be soft and pure - or windy and coarse. Strings can be lilting or biting. Reeds can be warm and sensual or bright and firery

Think of a large orchestra under the leadership of the conductor. The individual instruments are tuned by the musicians long before the conductor steps to his place before the orchestra. Once performing, the individuals follow the conductor's directions - each instrument playing louder and softer as directed. Sometimes the musicians modified how their instrument sounds by changing technique - such as plucking a string instead of bowing; using a mute on a trumpet; over-blowing a reed rather than blowing clean, etc. There are many, many things a musician can do to subtly (and sometime not so subtly) modify the sound of their instrument. When the conductor directs these actions in context of how the entire orchestra sounds together - that is what a Voicer does with a pipe organ. He may make the strings more bright or lush; the reeds anywhere from fiery, gritty - to downright raucous.

And again - all of these interactions, blends, modulations, and prominence must be done with the ear of the listening space - not the chamber - which means the Voicer must have a unique talent for tone and textural memory - or be very athletic to facilitate many, many trips between the listening space and the chambers.

The Voicer may set one rank to be a foundation level - as base for other ranks to build on. He may set other ranks to be solo - to stand out proud. When you hear an especially fine sounding organ - remember - it's not just the product of the musician at the console - but also much of the skill and talent of the Voicer.

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Next page: TechTalk 1: Extension and Unification

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