Thursday, June 1, 2017

All Love

Pulled out my personal copy of Paul Ayres' Toccata on "All You Need Is Love" this morning and tried to sight read it.  No can do!  Still can't sight read it after all these years of letting it sit on my music bookshelf.  Very surprising how that works!

So I went to YouTube to see if anyone had recorded a good rendition and remind myself how it is supposed to sound, and sure enough, Randall Mullins has a recording of him playing it on his Hauptwerk Milan Digital Father Willis organ.   It brings chills and is well worth a listen if you haven't heard it and a re-listen if you have.

I find it fascinating how pop music of one age becomes the 'serious' music of another, with occasionally detours thru Muzak.  This has happened since before the time of Mozart I suspect.  What do you think of this trend?

As a side note, I'm impressed that he went to the trouble and was able to get permission from both Paul and Sony to record this.  That's the way it is supposed to work.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Swell Pedal Potentiometer

OrganQuest is alive!   Been a bit quiet for what, a few years?  What happened?  Well life happened and continues to happen, but that's no excuse so here we are again.

The two analog organs are still in the garage.  Well one is.  The other is now mostly MIDI-fied. As I think I wrote earlier, I ran into a few tricky spots, the last of which was my attempt to install the oh so important swell controlling variable resistor.  

Most electronic organs use a rotary resistor, but the range of motion is not really compatible with most commercially available rotary resistors.  And if you choose to use a linear resistor as I did, things get even more interesting.

I tend to obsess about details, so it was easy to get bogged down in prototype building.  The ideal solution will probably eventually turn out to be use of a 3D printer to create the desired support for the linear 10k potentiometer, but that means money and/or time.  In the meantime, there are some more straightforward solutions. Here's one way to do it:

or even simpler:

You will note that some of these contraptions tend to require a bit of 'elbow room', which I am trying to minimize.  I also am trying to recycle the original Rodgers Swell pedal mechanisms, so obviously things got complicated fast.  Stay tuned for progress and feel free to post your suggestions.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Digital Analog

Progress update: The Rodger 32C console has all keys midified. Now I only need to midify the expression and crescendo pedals, presets, stops, and possibly a sforzando button, along with finding a dedicated computer, amp, and speaker system. Some contacts need cleaning, and some minor ribbon cable shortening is in order, but I ran out of IDC-16 cable end connectors so the photo-op will have to wait for now.

 As some of you may recall, I used the MidiBoutique HWCE2x Bundle #3 along with 5 Keymux 64's and 20 BO-16 breakout boards to eliminate the need for using diodes or solder. Probably next time I'll save money and do my own scanmatrix, but putting together an organ like this for the first time was daunting enough without that challenge.

 Of course, there were a couple of wait-a-minute moments. I had changed out all the reed switches in the pedalboard. One word: Don't! (if you don't have to). But I did. And of course, there were a couple of pedals that insisted on continuing to sound after depressed. Moving the reed switch further from the pedal magnets ever so slightly took care of that easily.

Then there was the section of missing notes on the swell keyboard. All the notes played until about 16 notes up from the left, then stopped for 16 notes, then resumed. Light bulb moment. 16 is a special number with computers, and also happens to be the number of wires in the ribbon cables. Solution: It always helps if you plug ALL of the cables in.

Lastly, a little peculiarity of the Keymux64 system (which allows me to keep the busbar under the keyboards intact and just attach one wire per note to the BO-16 breakout boards). Turns out these Keymux64 boards have two power supply terminal connector screws each, and each of them needs to be connected to a corresponding terminal on the HWCE2x motherboard. I have no idea why, but perhaps there are two different voltages or one is used for switching, or perhaps it is just extra current capacity.  But the two screw terminals do not appear to be electrically connected at least when the system is unplugged.  Solution: Two parallel wiring systems.

Next step? Replacing the swell expression pedal potentiometers. My 32C had the retro-fit modification that uses a light bulb and photoresistor system to smooth out the inevitable glitches that develop in an often used pot, but I'm not sure I will be using that here. Might put it on the 32B instead.

Until next time, enjoy organ music!

PS - here's a quick snapshot of the mounted PC boards before adding ribbon cables and modifying the power supply wiring slightly.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

MIDI pedalboard

So the Christmas rush is over, and on your New Year's resolution list is a project to finish your Hauptwerk setup by building a MIDI-pedalboard to go with those MIDI keyboards you have, plan to build, or plan to buy.

Basically you have two major options: Money or time? If you have too much money, and not enough time, your problems are over. Just head over to Classic MIDI Works and for only (!) $1725 you can have a brand new pedalboard that produces excellent MIDI signals for your Hauptwerk, GrandOrgue, MIDItzer, or jOrgan setup.

Or if you have tons of time and amazing craftsmanship skills, you could build your pedalboard like this:

But if you are somewhere in between, like me you will probably find it easier to start with an AGO pedalboard from an old analog or pipe organ and convert it to MIDI. That's what this blog post is about.

In theory, it's simple: A pedalboard is basically 32 switches which are activated by pressing the pedals. You convert those switch open and closings to MIDI signals which are then fed to your computer for use with virtual pipe organ software. Some systems go one step further and send the MIDI signals on to the computer via a USB connection. Historically, however, you would use a sound card or other type of adapter to accept the MIDI signals using a 5 pin DIN MIDI cable. I will assume for this discussion that you want to output via a generic MIDI connector rather than a USB cable. MIDI output from the pedals will allow you to connect to a MIDI merge device (with the keyboards and pistons) and from there to the sound card MIDI input or perhaps a MIDI-2-USB converter. When you do so, just remember to watch for latency (lag). Each conversion can introduce just enough lag that it might become difficult to play. This is because MIDI itself is not a very fast protocol and merging and converting it can be slower than we might like, especially for continuous output signals from the swell expression pedal if they are too verbose. One way to minimize this lag when converting multiple keyboards from analog to MIDI is to use the same manufacturer's conversion system for all manuals and pedalboards. Doing so usually allows all the merging and mixing to happen BEFORE conversion to MIDI, and you only get one final MIDI output signal which has minimal lag.

If you are an electronics engineer, you could even build all this circuitry from scratch. If you are really ambitious and have time on your hands, you might even like to check out the Highly Liquid forum:

I am not an electronics engineer. Wish I were, but not even close. Fortunately there are several commercial circuit board kits available that have worked out all the details for me. Almost all of them directly output MIDI on/off signals. But because there are minor differences between the conversion kits, you do have to make a few choices however.

The first choice you must make is how to connect the pedalboard switches to the circuit boards. You'd think it would be simple: Just connect wire 1 from note 1 on the pedalboard to input 1 on the MIDI converter. Well, yes it is, but only for SCANROW style systems. There are two major categories of connections: SCANROW vs. MATRIX input. You don't need to understand these fully, but here's the bottom line: SCANROW simply connects one pedal switch to one input on the converter in a one-to-one ratio. It is the simplest system to visualize. MATRIX input is a bit more complicated, because it uses a kind of indexing to reduce the number of wires needed. Rather than 32 wires connecting to the MIDI converter as with a SCANROW system, you might have only 8-16 MATRIXed wires. The MATRIX is cleverly designed so that you have one wire for each note in a short sequence, say 8 notes, and another index wire for each sequence. Each played note (closed pedal switch) activates two wires, which combine together (MATRIXed) give your MIDI converter all the information it needs to know which note was pressed. MATRIX wiring is basically dividing the pedalboard up into several sections, each a sequence of notes. You are telling the converter something to the effect "The organist is pressing the 3rd note of the 2nd sequence of notes". These might be 8 note sequences (for digital computer reasons, not musical reasons), but a musician might wish to think of the MATRIX system as analogous to the way keyboards are full of sequences of notes that we call 'octaves' and each octave (of 12 notes) is designated differently. There would be one wire for each note in an octave (C,C#,D, etc.) and one wire for each octave (CCC, CC, C, etc.). Each time the organist plays a note, one wire from each group is activated, and the MIDI converter is smart enough to figure out what note it should play by combining the note wire and octave wire together. Same logic with MATRIX keying, except shorter (8 note) intervals are usually used to keep down the number of wires. Here's a nice little graphical illustration:

The advantage is we can get by with using fewer wires. Perhaps a ribbon cable with only 8-16 wires in it to connect the pedalboard switches to the circuit board. MATRIX has a downside that you have to use diodes, one for each note, to make sure currents always flow one direction and don't allow the sequence wire to activate wrong notes by allowing current to flow backwards. Fortunately, diodes are cheap (less than a dollar) but have to be soldered one by one.

For me, SCANROW is just plain simpler. No diodes to solder, just 32 wires to connect. That narrows the list slightly, but we still have quite a few circuit board kits to consider. Since we do have 32 wires though, it probably will be best to mount the circuit board close to the pedals, even inside the switch end of the pedalboard. This will keep the wire rats nest to a minimum.

Now we need to decide if we want the circuit board to be capable of handling toe studs (mushroom presets) and swell expression pedals. Most of us do, so we will have to look at the capabilities of the MIDI circuit board kits carefully. Basically swell expression pedals are connected to variable resisters (potentiometers) and that variable resistance is converted to a MIDI signal number of 1-128. In other words, swell expression input is analog, not digital on-off like the pedal note switches. So we look at how many analog inputs the circuit board has. Lastly, we look for whether the circuit board can handle toe stud inputs. Toe stud piston inputs are very similar to pedal not switches, except they must be programmed slightly different -- when we press a toe stud, we expect it to latch, not momentarily turn on, then off, as it would if it were a keyboard note. It is my understanding (I may be wrong) that the switch itself is usually not different, only the way the circuit board handles the signal, so we have to inquire or check into how many such notes it can handle.

Lastly, and perhaps least important, is the type of switches in the pedalboard. Most reasonably modern analog organs use a system of reed switches activated by magnets on the tips of the pedals. This is a nice system because the reed switches are enclosed in glass like a light bulb and are less vulnerable to arcing oxidation and 'bouncing' that can happen when a circuit is closed. There are other ways to make or break a circuit. Some, like the home made pedalboard linked to above, use photo cells to optically open and close the circuit. This is probably the most elegant and trouble free, but it might cost a little more to use. It's completely up to you however, all we need for the input to the MIDI circuit board is some kind of switch. Most circuit boards have a 'debounce' circuit to minimize the number of MIDI on-off signals sent with a single not depression, but again optical might be the gold standard in clean switching.

Assuming you want to MIDIfy a standard AGO pedalboard using SCANROW wiring, I've done the hard work for you and posted a summary spread sheet of various vendors and their relevant products as of December 2013. You may still have further questions after studying it, but it is at least a good start to your project.

By the way, if you don't have Excel, I recommend Libre Office (Calc) or perhaps Gnumeric. Both are open source and free spread sheet viewing tools. You will need to unzip the file first using your operating system or a tool like 7-zip. Compare and contrast!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Movie Magic

In my next blogpost I plan to get back to writing about midification of an electronic organ, but first I just have to share a holiday movie with you.

By way of background, yes, it's that time of year in the U.S., the Thanksgiving-Hanukkah-Kwanzaa-Christmas season. For those of you outside the U.S., all you need to know is that Thanksgiving still has some solid remnants of good, honest, family togetherness left to it. The Christmas holidays have been hijacked by corporations (and some churches) wringing the last drop of humanity out of any well-meaning soul that falls into their marketing territory. But Thanksgiving is arguably still mainly about being with family and gratefully sharing a nice meal together. I was fortunate to be able to simply visit with my family rather than worry about shopping and gifts and all the scheduling anxieties that come with the X-mas season. But the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday for reasons best left to the imagination, and that day is probably better spent at home if you dislike competing with crowds of greedy consumers as much as I do.

So instead, we watched a jewel of a movie called "A Christmas Without Snow", and although it is set in San Francisco, a city not far from where I write this, it was the first time I watched this film. The main story is about a demanding choirmaster preparing a small amateur choir to sing Handel's Messiah but there are multiple personal stories interwoven around this unifying theme. Whoever wrote the script knew a thing or two about the craft of making music, because the dialogue is spot on. It's one of those classic movies with lines that any music lover can and will appreciate. The writer also knew something about organs, there are a few priceless scenes comparing a pipe organ with an electronic imitation to quite humorous effect.

There's a free download (public domain) at:

I found both DivX and Mp4 versions playable. If you don't have a player, VLC player will play almost anything:

but you can probably use whatever player you have, perhaps even Windows Media Player!

If you like music and films that appeal to both mind and heart, I hope you have a chance to watch this movie before the holidays are over.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Disney's Pipe Organ

Sorry. No photo today. I wanted to post a photo of the Disney Concert Hall Pipe Organ but you will have to settle for enjoying the officially approved Disney Hall virtual tours instead.

Here is a YouTube clip from Carol Williams' DVD:

From there, find links to a plethora of virtual short tour videos, more than you ever wanted to know about Disney Concert Hall and organ, including a time lapse video of the hall's construction.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Sublime Symphony

I moved away from Los Angeles before the Walt Disney Concert Hall was built. Two years ago I toured the exterior of this iconic building, but was not allowed inside the auditorium proper. This weekend I finally had the opportunity to attend a concert there. It was one of this season's 10th anniversary opening concerts. Disney Concert Hall is everything they say and more. If you ever have the opportunity to attend a concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall, don't think twice. Just do it, you will not regret it. The acoustics are exquisite. This concert happened to be the LA Philharmonic, not the breathtaking "French Fries" pipe organ unfortunately, but the organ was on full display. Huge curved wood pedal pipes up to 32 feet long were arrayed in a near random explosive array. Obviously a controversial design, but equally obviously the best design for LA, this is not your grandmother's concert hall or organ. Our seatmates were 10 year symphony season subscribers. Their first words when we arrived were "If you ever get a chance, you must come to hear the organ". They had no idea how much I would have loved to hear the Gehry/Rosales/Glatter-Götz organ had a concert been available. Toyota's organ gift made me proud to own one of their cars. It is unfortunate that we missed Hector Olivera's organ recital by just over a week (coming up Sunday October 13, 2013). As with the San Francisco Davies Symphony Hall Ruffati, there are only four major organ recitals per year. In addition to Hector Olivera, only Ullrich Böhme, Ann Elise Smoot, and Paul Jacobs will be giving recitals at Disney Hall. However, I did hear from a staff member that the organ will be used in Phantom of the Opera around Halloween time.

I can't comment on the sound of the organ obviously, but I can tell you that from our balcony seats we could hear the instruments in brilliant clarity seldom heard elsewhere. The program was a combination of percussion concerto (world premiere of Lieberson's Shing Kham featuring a marimba, drums and other percussion), Salieri's composition student Franz Schubert's "Tragic" Symphony No. 4, and Tchaikovsky's crowd pleasing Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, featuring virtuoso pianist Yefim Bronfman who receive a standing ovation and graciously played an encore ignoring the inevitable exhaustion induced by the 'unplayable' Tchaikovsky concerto.

We don't hear the word 'sublime' bandied about too much these days. Perhaps it is because it is so hard to imagine what the word means in our hectic, horrific, often fear driven lives. But perhaps one could do worse than put on some comfortable clothes, dim the lights, or just close your eyes as I did while listening to the second movement of Schubert's 4th:


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Grey Cells

Since you last read a new post here things have not been idle on the west coast. Davies Symphony Hall has had multiple organ concerts, among them Paul Jacobs and Isabelle Demers.

Fascinating to me are the prodigious feats of memory that concert organists exhibit. One of the first things to be whisked away when one of these prodigies takes over the console is the music desk. Yes, it is difficult for all musicians to memorize entire concerts, but it is incredible to imagine the unseen difficulties involved when performing by memory while visiting an organ say at most three times a year. Like a football team playing on unfamiliar turf, possibly a bit jet lagged, the musician must not only play his repertoire to perfection, he must also remember where all the little buttons are on the organ console he is at here and now. In an age when politicians and rock stars can barely remember the name of the current city, organists must remember scores of memory piston presets and stop locations, not to mention which keyboard to play on at any particular time. And this is no small matter, because many organ pieces have huge contrasts between quiet and massive sounds. Playing the wrong one at the wrong time might just spoil the effect a little. But never mind, away with that music desk. No need for paper when you have grey cells to memorize everything. Astounding.

I have weighed the pros and cons of giving note by note comments on the performances during the most recent organ concerts, but decided against it. I will save you the time and trouble by summarizing: I have particularly enjoyed what seems to be a new trend towards playing transcriptions of orchestral pieces. Isabelle's transcription of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" comes to mind as a beautiful example. Paul Jacob's Elgar Organ Sonata No. 1 in G major, Opus 28, while not really a transcription, is not played often enough, so Elgar is not really thought of as a composer for organ. This piece was written for organ and gave me chills. It is perhaps one of the best arguments for becoming an Elgar fan that I have heard recently. And yes, Paul Jacobs also played Elgar's familiar graduation march tune Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in its entirety. As well as Demessieux's Transcendental Études. A piece I could have lived without hearing, but it was impressive to hear them played.

But one concert I missed was this weekend's Christopher Houlihan concert. Just found out about it after the fact, and that even though I'm subscribed to Christopher's YouTube channel! In case you missed it, I've included a link to some video of him in rehearsal. Again, a transcription, perhaps his Ravel? Or is this Widor? Hopefully it will give you an idea of what the SF Symphony organ sounds like. Enjoy!

Monday, September 26, 2011

10,000 Hours

Surprising as it may seem, simply owning a fine AGO organ console does not a good organist make, all claims by the manufacturers aside. No matter how many beautiful stop keys, switches, and pistons, little musical sound will spontaneously erupt without some human intervention (MIDI recordings aside). To be fair, this is not a fact that organ manufacturers usually hide, but neither do they go out of their way to advertise it.

I do admit that I feel like a better organist seated at a better organ. And I enjoy practicing longer when there are inspiring stop sounds to select. Different registrations can make the same piece of music sound ghastly or sublime. My recent favorite is the Burea Church extended AGO sample set which I use with the free Grand Orgue software. But just having this organ setup sitting in my living room does nothing to improve my playing, especially if I am traveling and away from said living room as I was recently. My last organ lesson clearly demonstrated that.

Tempting as it is to spend my free time tweaking virtual organ configurations or converting analog organs to MIDI, the only thing I would have to show for that time would be a mechanical tool, an instrument capable of producing music, but only by someone who knew how to play it. Time spent practicing gives me something that cannot be taken away, something less susceptible to obsolescence and decay. The gift of music.

Malcom Gladwell in his best selling book "Outliers" describes some of the ingredients which produce truly exceptionally competent people. Be they musicians, airline pilots, or physicians, he asserts that an investment of at least 10,000 hours is necessary to truly excel at anything. And thinking about it, this number seems about right. That's about 3 hours a day for 9 years. A doctor does not graduate from university and start practicing immediately. A tennis star does not pick up a racket and win at Wimbledon the first year. The Beatles didn't start a band and instantly rise to stardom by performing to stadiums full of adoring fans. No, they spent years playing in small clubs in Berlin honing their skills before they were 'discovered'. I'm not sure they would have called their club playing 'practicing'. If you had asked, they probably would have told you 'trying to survive'.

But I thought it would be interesting to estimate how many hours I've spent practicing the organ, omitting past musical interests like piano, band, and choir participation. I started playing the organ about as soon as my feet could reach the pedals. I didn't care so much for the piano. Maybe it was just the loud piano we had a home, but I did not like sound of hammers banging on strings. It was a Baldwin Acrosonic. It probably should have been called a 'forte' rather than piano. Assuming that organ lessons started around age 13 and stopped when I graduated from high school at age 18, that's about 6 years. Assuming I practiced about 45 minutes every school day each of those years, by a very rough estimate I have put in about 832 hours of organ practice. That does not seem like very much, but it might even be a slightly high estimate. Of course it omits any time spent playing in church on the weekend, but that could probably be considered a negligible rounding error due to the fact that the majority of time in church services was spent with other people talking or simple hymn playing, not performing serious organ music. I was a bit surprised at how little cumulative time I had invested.

But the good news here is that there is hope! Maybe all that is needed is more practice time, as Bach said something to the effect that organ playing is easy if you work as hard at it as he did! If I can play as well as I can now with that little practice, just think what could happen if I spent 3 hours a day for 9 years? In fact, using Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 number, I only have an estimated 9168 hours to go, less whatever practice time I already put in over the last year and a half since purchasing this organ. That's just a bit over 8 years more to go!

I am reminded of something Nadia Boulanger once wistfully wrote regarding her failure to learn Russian: "Would it have really killed me to learn one word a day?"

Time for me to get serious about practicing! Maybe you too!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Transcription Prescription

I was listening today and heard Thomas Murray's performance of Dvorak's Carnival Overture on the Yale Woolsey Hall Organ (Newberry Memorial Organ) which was just terrific enough for me to go to and buy the single MP3 for 99 cents. While you may or may not be a Dvorak fan, this hauntingly beautiful piece has a special place in my memories from high school days when I listened to an orchestral version over and over. Thomas Murray's registration on the Yale Skinner organ is really quite amazing. It has rather positively changed my opinion of the role of the organ in a convincing orchestral symphonic transcription for organ and has helped me understand the enthusiasm for such instruments which existed near the turn of the last century (1900's). Spec sheet for this organ here.

Speaking of transcriptions for organ, having recently watched the duly troubling DVD Troubled Water, complete with a prominent role for a pipe organist, I am convinced that there is a wide-open opportunity for contemporary pipe organ music that is neither stodgy nor dissonant. Music that, dare it be said, is serious yet modern without being stuffy. Perhaps even based on popular music.

Even if you aren't a friend of Dorothy or the Wizard of Oz, you'll probably like this version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow The subtle buildup towards the end is magical. Just goes to prove that one does not need a theater organ to play accessible music or a lot of pipes to make wonderful sounds (organ has just 8 ranks, 550 pipes only).

A recent pipe organ list mentioned Paul Ayre's Toccata on All You Need is Love (aka Toccata on Amor Satis Est) for organ. I couldn't find any YouTube performances of Ayre's Toccata online but I did find several interesting organ renditions of All You Need is Love. Here are a couple:
All You Need is Love (skip ahead to 01:00 on the time line where the music starts).
or an interesting home version:
All You Need is Love (probably a closer transcription to the original).

My interest picqued, I had to have Ayer's Toccata on All You Need Is Love and have now sight read it through twice. Or should I say stumblingly attempted to sight read it! Great fun and someday I will no doubt make it sound good enough to play in public! Not a transcription really, it can be said to be more or less loosely based on the original Beatles tune. Paul Ayer's Toccata feels a bit more difficult to play than In Dir Ist Freud (my previous major challenge, which by the way, I am relearning nearly from scratch now that I have a teacher to inform me that it is not cool to mix Bach and legato!) Registration looks like it will be key and it definitely needs a good pedal support. Get your own copy

If you happen to be in Tennessee for the American Guild of Organists' National Convention Friday July 6, 2012, check out Jane Parker-Smith's two performances of Paul's Toccata (the Fab Four meet the symphonic French organ tradition). I heard her play at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco last year and she is terrific, although I got the distinct impression either she or the Ruffati (probably the latter) were having a bad day. Her performance of Paul's Toccata will be at the Brentwood United Methodist Church, Tennessee (presumably in Brentwood).