Here’s a post that would start a war if a bunch of organists were to read it! The “Purists” out there would say, “PIPE!” Those who embrace modern technology and what it has to offer would counter that cry with, “Why NOT digital?” I myself can often times find myself on the fence between the two parties, watching the cannon balls fly by my head and wishing the two could live in peace…

What is the controversy about anyway?

Pipe organ – Do I really need to explain this one?

Digital “pipe” organs – This is an organ where the sound is not produced by actual physical pipes. Rather through speakers using sound from a computer. What’s better is that even in the digital realm there’s a mini-war over the two ways in which sound is produced. One is actually recording a live pipe organ pipe by pipe and having that recording played back when a key is pressed. The other is through a computer generated tone that plays when a key is pressed. I’m not going to get into that little war here. We’ll save that for later, if I feel like it.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both sides this little war.

-Pipe organ

The sound is absolutely 100% real. You get the nuance of how pipes interact with one another (they do!) and with the space they’re in. When you start combining stops you are sending multiple sound waves of intensity and frequency into the air that are generated by air movement and resonance in a pipe. These sound waves do interact with one another. In fact in a pipe organ, you never place two pipes next to each other that are only a half a step in pitch from each other (example:middle C’ and then a middle C sharp) because the two sound waves that are produced with actually “pull” together into a pitch that is in between. So the pipes are separated by a distance to prevent that… Also there is a natural “de-tuning” of a pipe that happens depending on the wind supply in the organ, how many pipes are playing at a given time, and even how fast a note is being repeated. Studies have shown that the pitch varies ever so slightly in these instances. It’s natural to the instrument.

However, pipe organs are VERY expensive. They’re expensive to purchase and then to maintain! Your paying for all the materials it takes to build not only a console, but the pipes, the case, the mechanism that operates, the blowers for wind, etc. Then once you have the organ, you must have it tuned every now and then, there’s also chances of parts wearing down and breaking. You are limited too by space. If you have all the money and space in the world than you can dream away as to what type of pipe organ you can build. But you are also limited in the sense that it is nearly impossible to build a pipe organ that can authentically play the whole organ literature that is out there. Face it, Bach sounds best on a German baroque organ, whereas Franck sounds best on a French romantic organ. Now you can “combine” styles into one instrument, but there’s give and take. And in the end what is built is what you get. There’s no changing it. At lease not without lots of money.

-Digital organ

There as been a marked improvement in Digital organs of late. The sound can be much more “authentic” as it can be, coming from a speaker instead of a live pipe. Technology has progressed in such a way that even that natural “de-tuning” of a pipe can be replicated digitally. Digital organs are significantly cheaper than a pipe organ, but just like anything else you get what you pay for. Besides being cheaper, there is also the issue of space. A digital organ takes less physical space than a Pipe organ. Instead of ranks upon ranks of pipes, you have speakers instead. You can get a lot of organ for your money, and fit and contain it all (computer, keyboards/pedal, speakers) in the console. Hey, great for a living room!

Also there is the advantage of “authentic” performance. A lot of digital organs contain multiple tones for one stop. So at the press of a button you could go from playing a Baroque instrument to a Romantic instrument! You can change the pitch of an organ (tune the whole instrument sharp or flat), you can even change temperaments!

Now the downside is you are limited to the technology. You are limited to how many notes the computer can process, you are limited by how many speakers/channels you have. (In general the more you can spread the pipe sounds across multiple channels/speakers the better it’s going to sound.) Not to mention the way a speaker projects sound into its environment and the way a pipe speaks into its environment are totally different. My opinion is that no matter what, it just does not sound the same as a real pipe organ. You can get VERY close though, but just not the same.

I think in the end it all comes down to personal preference. Me? I prefer pipe – no question about that. But then again, I’m also the one who has a Johannus digital organ sitting in my living room. But then again, there’s no way I could build a 63 rank pipe organ in my house without gutting the whole thing… and still have space left over to live in. Nor could I afford something like that!

and the war continues…