Saturday, November 17, 2018

Northrop Organ

Organists for Northrop Open House including Dean Billmeyer (standing far right) with Michael Barone (third from right).

By pure luck more than good planning, I happened to be in Minneapolis for the opening weekend of the Northrop Auditorium Pipe Organ at the University of Minnesota.  Friday and Saturday night inaugural performances featured Paul Jacobs and included a Harbison world premiere as well as Saint-Saëns - Symphony No. 3 "Organ symphony" for which the organ part of the latter was played by Dean Billmeyer.

Sandwiched in between was a Saturday organ open house hosted by none other than American Public Radio's own Michael Barone, who proved to be both humorous and as engaging in real life as he is on his long running radio program PipeDreams.

The newly refurbished Northrop Auditorium organ is exquisite in clarity and the registrations sounded very well balanced.   Besides the excellent original organ design and voicing that had over the years fortunately been left largely in its original state (partly thru past lack of funding), there were two additional reasons the organ sounds so good:  Arup SoundLabs Acoustic 3D modeling and organ voicing by Jack Bethards.   More info on Arup SoundLabs here.  Foley-Baker and Associates in Connecticut fully restored the pipes and mechanicals.

Dean Billmeyer, organ professor at University of Minnesota and Northrop organ advocate, demonstrated the various organs and stop families composing the newly renovated organ.  Several other organists followed with an equally enjoyable morning concert.  In the afternoon, the console was also opened to the public, with somewhat less spectacular results to my ear at least, though no fault of the organ.  For example, some of the would-be organists mistook speed and volume for artistry.  I wished for something more suitable for this organ like Elgar's Nimrod (from Enigma variations) but other than the sublime beauty of the piece itself, what additional value would it have provided?  The morning concert organists had already ably demonstrated many of the organ's capabilities.

By the way, I have it on good authority that the organ in Royce Hall, UCLA is a close cousin if not near twin of this Northrop Auditorium organ, although in my humble opinion unless things have changed in the last two decades, the Royce Hall acoustics do not hold a candle to the newly rebuilt Northrop Hall acoustics and I suspect and hope the Northrop organ will see a lot more love than the Royce organ gets.

Read more about the Northrop organ on Minnesota Public Radio website.

Friday, November 16, 2018


So often I focus on the technical aspects of music, the rhythm, harmony, and melody (if any!).  With recorded music it is even more complicated, especially with pipe organ recordings, because there are so many things that can go wrong.   Audio clipping, over-compression, unintentional rumble, lack of clarity, or on the other hand, sterile harshness.  Sometimes the issue is simply a less-than-ideal instrument or room.

Sometimes I forget that music is really about communication.  Sharing musical ideas, emotions, feelings and aesthetic beauty,  passed over centuries.  This happens most effectively when the performer is able to channel the composer's intent clearly.  It takes incredible skill to make the difficult seem easy.

Someone once said, all history is biography.  Everything that happens in human history is because someone similar to you or I made choices and affected the course of history. 

So it is with music.   The human beings behind the music make it come alive.  Our lives would be so much poorer without the rich mix of composers and musicians who have enriched and continue to enrich our lives with music.

So it was a bit of a chagrin that I realized I had not shared with you my friend and concert organist and composer Dr. Angela Kraft Cross, AAGO, who recently recorded Widor's Symphonies 4 - 7.   She is so passionate about French organ music that she has traveled to France over the past two decades primarily for organ lessons.  She was recently featured on PipeDreams - twice.

Her Widor album is recorded on the 1880 Cavaillé-Coll organ in St. François-de-Sales, Lyon France, installed by Widor's own father and inaugurated by Widor himself with the premiere of Widor's ever popular 5th Symphony.   You simply can't get more authentic!   Even St. Sulpice can't claim that.

The artistic director is Louis Robilliard, the organist titulaire at St. François-de-Sales for over 40 years and with whom Dr. Kraft Cross has studied for 20 years.

Lastly, I am happy to report that the recording quality is superb, the registration is perfect, no doubt in no small part from knowledge of this particular instrument that comes only from years of exploration.  In the quiet sections you can even hear the tracker action making it feel very personal.   In the towering finales the ensemble is glorious.  Everyone enjoys the famous Toccata.   But in fact my favorite parts still remain the tender quiet sections in the first two movements of Widor's 5th symphony.

The 2-CD set is now available on her website:  I know you will like it.

WIDOR chez Widor album cover image

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!