Visit to Dumfries Area
9th September 2000

Review by "Open Wood"

Around a dozen members and friends gathered in Dumfries for another varied day looking at four contrasting organs. Our first port of call was the large Greyfriars Church in the town centre, a venue previously visited by our members. The organ was installed about 7 years ago, and is a Wyvern Bradford Computer instrument of 3 manuals. The console had been originally placed in the gallery, but this position was ultimately felt to be too remote from the congregation, and it has subsequently been brought down to the main floor level. The old pipe organ by Ingram of Edinburgh was retained so the structure of case fronts could be used to hide the speakers. The console is also still in place. Some recent re-voicing has been carried out; the organ has a Willis-style specification.

Opinions on this organ from those present tended to agree that although most of the stops produced quite pleasing effects, when adding more and more registers the sound was not so satisfactory, and on the whole fuller registrations lacked authenticity. It may be of interest to members to discuss the reasons why this can happen, and so the following is intended to clarify some central points raised by such instruments.

Since the arrival in 1971 of the first Digital organs by Allen, the generation of tone by any means other than by computer has been made totally obsolete. It is quite extraordinary that just 3 years before the Allen appeared, Comptons were still making organs with motors and belt-drive! The transistor helped things on a little, but you still couldn't get true pipe tone. Over the past 30 years, two distinct methods of pipe-tone reproduction have appeared, and all pipeless organs available today use these two systems; as in all things, the results are directly proportionate to cost, and you very much get what you pay for. However, even the cheaper instruments will satisfy all but the purist.

A simple analogy in beginning to understand how computers have been used to produce organ tones would be to think of a cake. It will have ingredients, mixed in defined amounts to produce the desired flavour and texture. The recipe will have to be followed carefully to ensure success. If we compare the various elements of sound that go together to make pipe organs distinguishable from other instruments, and think of these as the ingredients of the cake, the quality and blend of, these elements will produce the sound we expect. As not all organ builders or their instruments please every ear (or wallet), so we will find that in the world of digital organs, some will be better than others.

The two systems that are used today are "Digital Sampling" and "Additive Synthesis". They are distinctly different in nature and function. Sampling, as introduced by Allen Organs in the USA uses the storage capabilities of a computer to hold complete organ stops, note by note in a fixed state that can be called up on pressing a manual key. The constituents of the pitch, tone, and characteristics of every note of every stop are stored as complete "samples", taken from either selected organs, or from pipes made for the purpose. There is literally no limit to what can be stored, whether it be Shultz Diapasons at Armley, or Skinner strings!

The other system used is that devised by Dr. Peter Comerford of Bradford University in the mid-70's, hence the generic term "Bradford". This works in a quite different way, and while the Allen "samples" can individually be compared with pipes, the Bradford organ uses the computer to store all the constituent parts of organ tone separately. The internal design and programming of the computer "assembles" each note as the keys are played, the Intention in this method being that there is far greater flexibility in producing exactly what a customer might require tonally, and for greater accuracy in voicing to the building, as is normal in pipe organ finishing. Unfortunately there has to be a catch somewhere, and the Bradford has an intrinsic limitation in that it only has enough memory capacity to create "passable", not perfect sound. As we could not mix a large cake in a small bowl, so it is that with the organ being played with progressively more stops in use, the computer has to start averaging out Its data so that it doesn't overload. It actually begins to miss out tonal information that can be considered less important; the result will not be heard by the majority, but really keen ears can tell the difference. These limitations are rarely a problem with sampled organs, and certainly not evident in an Allen.

Having pondered and given this organ our individual playing times, it was soon time to go on to our next visit, the Crighton Church. This huge building boasts a superb acoustic, and T.C.Lewis must have revelled in it when he provided his organ of 1903. We all found this a most pleasant and satisfying instrument to play, the blend of tone being particularly good. The church also has a small organ built for Tom Carrick, which is used for small services. Tom met us with his customary warm hospitality, and trips to the top of the tower were an attraction for those feeling suitably fit! After a generous playing session, we were able to attend to our "inner needs" in the hospital cafeteria nearby.

Our next port of call was in Dalbeattie, where we were welcomed to the Parish Church. The organ here is a fine 2-manual Forster & Andrews of 1897. It has been thoroughly restored by a local organ builder/organist, who apparently carried out the work for no other reward than seeing it completed! Once again, and typically of the makers, this organ pleased us all with its rich and clear tones, all stops being of value, and of great quality.

Finally, and for those not pressed to return southwards, there were welcome refreshments laid on at the home of Donald Ross, where Chris Price rounded off the day with some items of a "lighter" nature on Donald's Allen Theatre Organ. The combination of fine organs and hospitality had again provided us with a most enjoyable day. It was particularly good to see a new young player (Grant) who made a most creditable effort using single-stave music with chord -symbols.


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