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?

  • 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. – Carl Witthoft Mar 4 '15 at 16:50

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. – jjmusicnotes Mar 4 '15 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 '15 at 18:43
  • 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 '16 at 6:59

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