Frequently Asked Questions

Some suggestions to the pipe organ committee: It would be in your best interest to make every effort to learn as much as you can about pipe organs before making a decision to commission, de-commission or restore an organ. A committee should not limit its technical knowledge only to members of the institution. Arrange a visit to a local builders shop and invite the builder to do a presentation at your church. Take your organist on a tour to various organs and have them play the same work on each instrument to hear the differences. Test out the instrument and see what functions are most useful. All of the above will increase the knowledge and awareness of the issues involved while helping you make well informed and wise decisions regarding your instrument.
It is wise to work out the arrangements for such an agreement as they clearly lay out financial and performance expectations from both parties. This ensures continued and regular care of the instrument. The agreement makes the organ builder/technician accountable for ongoing issues. He or she may be more inclined to go the extra mile and offer the highest level of service in tonal beauty and mechanical dependability.
An instrument where the console can be placed at considerable distance from the pipes and uses electrical cable, magnets that open valves rather than mechanical linkages to play the notes.
A tracker organ is an instrument that is played with mechanical action. The keyboards and the pedal board are directly linked to the wooden linkages or trackers that connect to wind-chests which play the notes.
A unit organ is a small instrument with a few ranks of pipes. Through the use of switches it is able to gain the greatest possible number of stops through various pitch level combinations.
When depressing a key of a tracker or mechanical action instrument, a definite point i.e. the tracker touch of resistance must be overcome. The organist can feel the sudden change of resistance at the instant the pallet in the chest is opened. This action is very precise.
A note is considered dead when it is silent or does not speak upon playing.
A cipher is a note that plays continuously without the control or intervention of the organist.
Temperature changes affect the density of the air within a pipe just as it does everywhere else. This then raises or lowers the pitch and can put a pipe out of tune. The metal may also expand or contract affecting the sound quality produced by a pipe.
An Organ should be cleaned once every eight years depending the geographic location and condition of the pipe organ. If a church is located near an industrial area the fumes and dust from the industries may make it necessary to have it cleaned sooner. The same would be necessary at a location where the external environment generates more dust. Such a cleaning should include a thorough cleaning of all pipes, chests, floors, walk-boards and casework.
Dust can be more damaging than one can imagine. An organ chamber should be kept clean of dust and debris. Since cleaning an organ chamber requires professional expertise it must be performed by a qualified organ technician. Dust usually accumulates on the casing, the floors, walk boards and wind chests. Dust may settle in the wind ways of the pipes impairing the speech. To a large extent dust is the leading cause of ciphers. The final result would be the congregation listening to the organ that is out of tune, one that ciphers and fails mechanically.
The optimal relative humidity for a pipe organ is 40% at a temperature of 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This level of relative humidity is comfortable to the congregation as well.
These environmental conditions can damage leather and wooden parts resulting in various wind leakages, valve failures and pipes that continue to play without the note being actually played. Moisture will result in metal parts rusting. This is noticeable on pipe tuning sleeves, screws etc. Excessive dryness in a church is caused by a modern fast acting heating system that dries out the air. Direct sunlight upon the organ will warp and crack and even fade the finish on the case work.
The pipe organ blower motor must be placed in a location where it can have access to the same air temperature as the sanctuary. The blower will need to collect air that is neither colder nor warmer than the air within the sanctuary/church. Otherwise the organ will too easily sound out of tune. Locations such as inside of the organ in sound proof box, an adjacent room.
Solid state is electronic technology used to enhance the functionality and reliability of a traditional pipe organ. It differs from technology used in electronic pipe organs in that the pipe sounds created using Solid State are not digital but rather pure and organic sounds created by traditional pipes. This technology complements and enhances dated and aging mechanical actions used in older pipe organs without compromising the quality of the sounds of the pipes. Also see combination action above.
A service/tuning agreement with a reputable maintenance or building firm is highly advisable. This company should not only tune the instrument on a regular basis but be responsible to keep all other components of the organ in top condition. Pipes should not be bent during the tuning process. Contract an AIO certified and experienced organ builder or technician to serve as the curator of your valuable instrument.
The best location to place an organ and console in a church or concert hall depends on the type of instrument i.e. tracker, electro-mechanical etc., the acoustics of the space, other furnishings i.e. carpeting and seating that sometimes absorb the sounds, liturgical needs and stipulations, the frequency of its use., the facade design etc. In some cases the magnificence of the facade may be used as a centerpiece and in others it may be placed to complement the rest of the aesthetics of the worship or performance space. As Frank Lloyd Wright said "In art the subject of concern must grow out of its environment and be an integral part of it" In other words the organ placement may be determined by balancing the need to blend it aesthetically and functionally into its surroundings while also giving it its own distinctive place.
A tremolo is a unit that provides vibrato which is a method to give expression to the tone of the organ. It is a device that provides a reciprocating concussion to the bellows which affect the wind movement to the pipe.
An expression box is an enclosed Division of the pipe organ that gives expression to the tone of the pipes by opening or closing shutter doors. This operation is controlled by the organist with an expression pedal.
Pipe Organ builders choose leathers that are known for their longevity. Typically leathers used in pipe organs can last thirty to thirty five years. When leather is showing visible signs of age it is due for re-leathering. Aged leather crumbles easily when touched or scratched against a hard surface indicating the need for replacement. When there are noticeable signs of dead notes or ciphers, these may be caused by aging leather. The bellows begin to leak air and the leather begins to flake off. Leather deterioration may also be caused by excessive dryness in the church or pipe organ chambers.
Key contacts should be replaced when a key creates intermittent sounds or does not play at all and is unreliable. An inspection by an organ builder can best determine the condition of the contacts. If they are oxidized and burnt in along the contact plates it is best to replace the contacts.
The draw knob or stop key is the labeled control mechanism that turns on or off the various voices or orchestral instrumental sounds like vox humana, celeste, trumpet, crumhorn etc.
Manual is another term for the pipe organ keyboard. On a two manual instrument the upper keyboard is called the Swell and the lower is called the Great. Pipe organs have had up to seven manuals such as the Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
A combination action is a piece of equipment that allows the push buttons or pistons located under the keyboard or in close proximity to the pedal keys to move stop registers promptly in predetermined arrangement made possible by a set piston. Modern combination actions use solid state technology and have multiple memory levels. A modern solid state system permits the organist to concentrate on interpretation with quick stop changes unhampered by mechanical interference.
A wind chest is a wind box for the purpose of supporting and supplying wind to the pipes in a pipe organ. The control mechanisms are contained in the chest.
Diapasons or Principal — the most important voice in the organ — its firm and supporting qualities form the backbone in the tonal structure of the organ. Pipes are usually made out of metal. Flutes — this family of pipes can be made out of metal or wood and make flute sounds Strings — this family of pipes mimic the sounds of stringed instruments like violins and cellos etc. without using strings. Reeds — this family of pipes mimic the sounds of mainly the wood wind and brass sections of an orchestra like trumpets, crumhorns, clarinet, oboe etc. A reed is a thin strip of material which vibrates to produce a sound on a musical instrument.
Absolute pitch, or perfect pitch, is the ability to name or reproduce a tone without reference to an external standard. The naming/labeling of notes need not be verbal. AP can also be demonstrated by other codes such as auditory imagery or sensorimotor responses, for example, reproducing a tone on an instrument. Therefore a musician from an aural tradition, with no musical notation, can still exhibit AP if allowed to reproduce a sounded note.
Voicing is a process of bringing speech to a lifeless pipe and giving it a tonal character. The tone depends on the musical taste of the builder. The voices are blended together, establishing the character of the ensemble.
An Organ is out of tune when noticeable sounds of beats are heard when two pipes are played. This can be heard when as a note from a particular stop is played with the corresponding pipe of the Octave 4' rank. The faster the beats are the farther the notes are out of tune. With correct tuning the beats grow slower and the beats will finally cease as the pipe is brought to the correct tune.
Tuning should take place at a temperature of 68 or 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature must be distributed evenly throughout the pipe chamber. At times during the winter, cold air within the organ not only develops an out of tune condition for the pipes but discomfort for choir members who feel the cold draft floating between the front pipes.
An organ is usually tuned prior to Christmas and Easter. Also a good practice would be to tune the organ when the sanctuary temperature is 70 degrees such as in the Spring when the heat is no longer running or early Fall after the heat of the Summer months has passed. A tuning when the heat is turned on such as late November or Early December is recommended. Pipe Organs being used by concert organists for recordings or other special events also usually can benefit from a pre-recording or pre-event tuning.