I've seen church setups (choir loft in back) where the organ console is 30 Meters or more away from the pipes. That implies that there would be a minimum of 100 milliseconds from pipe sounds back to the organist's ears. That would introduce around a 16th note or more late delay, depending on the tempo. Also, an ensemble, choir or conductor may be near the organist, and thus far from the pipes.

So how does the organist play in time with the nearby conductor, choir or ensemble with that much delay from keyboard to sound? (and unlike a piano, when the sound source is just a meter or few away from all the musicians).

If this is a learned performance skill, I'm wondering whether a similar skill is what allows keyboardist to perform using iPad apps (where delays can range from 50 to 100 mS between touch and audio).

One do any (newer?) church organists use headsets or monitor speakers to relay sound near instantaneously from the pipes to help play in time?

  • 2
    Here's an analogy: I'm a big pinball fan. Pin sims on a computer w/ a keyboard have near-instant response to keyboard inputs (for flippers, e.g.). Pin sims on a touch screen have noticeable lag. After a few hours' practice, I learned to flip early to get the proper in-game action. Mar 4, 2015 at 16:50
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    Microphones and headsets are actually quite common, although not all organists like them. In some churches the Choir organ (located at the front) can be played from the console of the Main organ (at the back) which would be close to impossible without a monitoring system.
    – Johannes
    May 27, 2021 at 23:52

3 Answers 3


Your suspicion that this is a learned skill is correct -- and this even applies when performing as a soloist! The organist must learn to disregard the timing information coming to their ears, and execute playing technique all relative to what their internalized musical image (and fingers and feet) are telling them.

Also consider that (especially with antique organs), there may be quite a lot of places where latency is introduced even before the sound is actually produced. Mechanical linkages, pneumatics, all the size of a building instead of the size of a desk, like the mechanics of a piano. Modern organs do away with much of this through the use of digital technology and electric linkages where they can, but of course the speed of sound is still more or less significant depending on the size of the room.

When performing in an ensemble, problems are solved in rehearsal and by the organist's familiarity with the instrument, room, and conductor. Generally the organ pipes and choir are situated at the same end of the room, so as long as the organ and choir are playing in time, the music will be correct for all of the listeners. This may be accomplished by the conductor simply following the timing of the organ accompaniment, rather than the organist following the conductor in some cases; in others the organist may have to "guess" where to place the next note based on what happened in rehearsal.

I have never heard of an acoustic organist using a monitoring system -- keep in mind this would probably require a full organ synthesizer be involved to actually generate the monitored sound if it were happening synchronously with the keys and asynchronously from the pipes. And any pickup-based monitoring would either be late, coming from a centrally-located room mic, or completely impractical due to the sheer number of close-mic pickups you would need to effectively monitor an instrument consisting of up to tens of thousands of pipes.

The iPad item is kind of a different question, but I would consider this kind of latency to be unacceptable in digital audio for most applications. Professional audio iPad (and other computer) applications should not have noticeable latency.

  • A quick comment about iPads, this is assuming of course that every touch of the iPad is a perfect touch and there is nothing inhibiting the screen. It also depends a bit on the quality of the coding. Mar 4, 2015 at 2:56
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    Not sure about the latest iPads. But with previous iOS models, the electronics seemed to take about 1 video frame time (16.7mS) to verify and locate the touch, and the OS took about 1 frame time to deliver a touch event to the app's run loop. That's 33 mS. Then there's another app-to-audio-DAC buffering latency of (2 or 3) * 5.8 mS added to the response. So, on the order of 50 mS for any app, given the hardware available, even for Pro apps and perfect touch.
    – hotpaw2
    Mar 4, 2015 at 18:43
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    As my teacher explained: you just play, the choir and congregation follow. The worse I have experienced is having one particular note with an extra lag. Trying to play that one note 'early' was... challenging :)
    – Benjol
    Sep 7, 2016 at 6:59
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    Actually, organs with mechanical action have the lowest delay. Key motion translates directly to valve motion (where else would the movement be "stored" on the way?). (Electro-)Pneumatic organs are notoriously slow because air is compressible and "buffers" energy inserted into the system. Electric action can be fast, but I have played several instruments that weren't. Mostly due to aging of components, or due to a time-consuming digital encoding-decoding process.
    – Johannes
    May 27, 2021 at 23:49

Large pipe organs with pneumatic action can take half a second until the air pressure gets to the pipe valves through bundles of lead pipelets. Current-day organs tend to use mechanical action for the main console, but large organs with electromechnical action also introduced significant delay even if not as much as their pneumatic cousins.

Organists learn to compensate. It's an acquired skill that the "house organist" of a particularly laggy organ might master better than visitors, and often it's the house organist's task to introduce instrument and player.

Note that there are also conductors who have mastered the skill of conducting a whole measure in advance, in order for the orchestra to properly anticipate. It's a somewhat related skill.


Another interesting point to consider, is that some instruments of several manuals, have different actions (especially where refurbishments have been done at different times, where finances allow). For example, I recently played a Victorian 3-manual with the console some 50m from the pipes. The Choir organ had electric action, the Great organ Electropneumatic, the Swell organ Electric action, the Pedal organ had Electropneumatic action and the Swell Pedals were both poorly-balanced Machanical action, with the linkages beneath the floor, all the way to the swell boxes some 30ft up the wall in addition to the 50ft from the console. The micro-differences in latency from console to pipe was incredibly confusing and took me over half an hour to 're-tune' my latency responses! Having everything coupled to the Great and Pedals was an interesting symphonic experience though! I also adored the chiffing and creaking you only get with the character of pipes and action. I'm going back next week just for the sake of it!

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