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What I'm trying to get a feeling for is how well an electronic organ can mimic the sound of a pipe organ. I know there are very advanced electronic organs where every single note for every stop is recorded by playing each note on a real organ. Even fluctuations in wind pressure and other effects can be simulated. Can a general listener hear the difference between the two? I'm interested in modern electronic organs.

For some background, I'm asking this because in my church we need to decide between investing in replacing major parts of our small pipe organ (only one manual, 10 stops) or investing in a new electronic organ with speakers and a subwoofer.

The benefit of the electronic solution would be lower periodic maintenance costs and more options (manuals, stops, swell pedal, etc.), but the key question is: Can it sound the same as a pipe organ?

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  • Listen yourself e. g. here. Note, that additionally to software, you will need manual(s), pedal, some sort of desk to puth them to. a computer, an amplifier which is able to fill the church, and not too small speakers.
    – guidot
    Apr 24 '19 at 13:09
  • Here is a collection of demos from the same brand
    – guidot
    Apr 24 '19 at 13:17
  • Accidentally, the company we might contact for a demo of their electronic organs is also using Hauptwerk software, but from what I read so far, included in a full instrument. Their website is mixtuur.com/en/hauptwerk I'll give the audio demo's a go later.
    – MeanGreen
    Apr 24 '19 at 13:28
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    @AlbrechtHügli There are many digital reproductions of the Hammond tonewheel organ, and these reproduce the mechanical sounds and imperfections of the original instrument in the most minute detail (because there are a lot of Hammond purists out there who will complain about the slightest difference). So the technology to imitate every detail of an instrument is definitely there. Apr 24 '19 at 16:53
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    I was listening to the organ in York Minster a few weeks ago - which is an electronic substitute for the real one, which is being refurbished. I was told that the electronic one sounded much better than the real one in its "unserviced" state, though I imagine the hope is that the real one will sound even better once it's back! In the meantime the electronic one sounded pretty good. yorkminster.org/discover/conservation/organ-refurbishment
    – topo morto
    Apr 24 '19 at 17:48
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The problem is that demo recordings are mostly useless for that kind of decision. All you get to figure out is whether a recording of a pipe organ sounds like a recording of an electronic organ, not whether a pipe organ sounds like an electronic organ. Since these days electronic organs are digitized pipe organs, the interaction of the individual pipes with the actual congregation room is not there. Things get more misleading if you record the electronic organ directly since then only the original room acoustics from the digitization (and you cannot just drag a pipe organ into an acoustically dead recording chamber) remain with none of the congregation room acoustics. Such a recording of an electronic organ will be mostly indistinguishable from recordings of the originally used organ in its original setting, but if you think that a good speaker system replaying a recording will be indistinguishable from actually playing the pipe organ is sort of optimistic.

Now the kind of organ you are replacing is rather small. If you hope to budget commensurate with what its repairs would cost, the electronic organ will not be of the overly impressive kind either. That's sort of the size factor the original Hammond organs (before getting abducted into Jazz, Rock, and whatnot) tried competing with.

I'd be pretty suspicious expecting large organ performance from something on that budget so you really should listen to (and play) the intended instrument live in some venue of similar size to that of your congregation. Recordings will not tell the real story. So budget some travelling costs into your decision-making process.

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To make an electronic organ sound like a conventional pipe organ, the most important component is the sound reproduction itself. Even on your tiny one-manual ten-stop instrument, a full 8-note chord can sound 80 pipes simultaneously. On a larger instrument, there may be several hundred individual pipes sounding together.

In contrast to this, an electronic instrument only has a very small number of loudspeakers. That has two consequences.

The first is that there are only a small number of physical locations where the sound is produced. In a pipe organ, very pipe is at a different location, and the sound creates a slightly different reverberation pattern both within the instrument itself (e.g. the location of the different pipes in a swell box) and within the whole building. The complete ears-and brain system of human hearing has remarkably accurate direction-finding capabilities, and though the difference in position of every pipe isn't consciously heard, it is certainly affecting the overall hearing process. Because of the effects of the building acoustics, often a single sustained note on an organ can sound quite different if the listener moves only a few inches. Since humans subconsciously make continuous small head movements as part of the direction-locating function of hearing, these effects are significant.

On the other hand, an inexpensive electronic instrument will have a small number of loudspeaker cabinets, each reproducing the sound of many (or all) the pipes, and this detailed spatial differentiation is lost.

The second problem with a small number of loudspeakers is the distortion produced when one speaker reproduces two simultaneous notes. It is impossible to devise a reproduction system that is completely linear, and therefore when a single loudspeaker reproduces pure tones with frequencies f1 and f2, it inevitably also produces frequencies like f1-f2 and f1+f2 which were not present in the original.

This "intermodulation distortion" doesn't show up in demos which reproduce single tones, because in that situation it doesn't exist. Even reproducing a the complex tone of a single organ pipe (e.g. a solo reed stop) the issue doesn't have much effect, since all the distorted "intermodulation tones" are actually at the same frequencies as the harmonics of the undistorted tone. But for the very complex tonal structure of real organ music, the cumulative effect of these small unintended sounds is to "blur" or "deaden" the overall effect.

So the bottom line of all this is not to buy the instrument with the biggest selection of nice-sounding stops you can find in your price range, but the instrument with the most sophisticated loudspeaker system you can afford. You might consider that the "advanced" edition of Hauptwerk, which is one of the "standard" software packages for playing pipe organ samples, can produce up to 512 independent channels of audio output. It's unlikely that you need as many independent amplifiers and speakers as that (you would be getting close to the "ideal" situation of one loudspeaker replacing each pipe of your current organ!) but as rule of thumb, more audio channels is better. High quality digital organs in large buildings will often have 40 or 50 independent audio amplifier and speaker channels, not four or five.

There is another consideration here: the "best" design of the physical layout of your audio system is critically dependent on the layout and acoustics of your building. If your proposed organ supplier isn't going to visit your building, measure its acoustic properties, and then recommend one of their standard designs - or better, produce a customized design - consider buying from someone else!

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    A good modern speaker, if not driven to the limit, should have low enough THD that intermodulation is not an issue, even when half of all pipes go through the same speaker. (I'd suspect you'd actually get more intermodulation through the acoustic coupling in a physical pipe organ!) Having many speakers is certainly still nice for a wide 3D sensation, but 512 seems pretty excessive... with that many, you could as well go full in for wave field synthesis. But then it would be boring to use this only for organ sounds... Apr 24 '19 at 22:18
  • In other words, at least 40-50 independent audio amplifier and speaker channels will exactly replicate a purely mechanical pipe organ with no electrical or electronic inputs whatsoever? May 6 at 22:52
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From experience, bass pedal notes must be relayed via a separate channel via woofer speakers that are not required to handle higher frequencies of manual stops. If a broad spectrum of sound is conveyed via a single speaker per channel, the bass pedal notes make the high frequencies "tizzy" due to intermodulation effects. In a pipe organ, pipes of the pipe organ generate their tones mutually independently, hence there are no intermodulation effects whatsoever, resulting in a much clearer and detailed sound. As a result, a pipe organ generates a much clearer sound in general than a digital organ. However, a digital organ used at modest volume in a domestic environment will not suffer any noticeable intermodulation effects and s great for practice purposes.

In a recent high-power installation that I have made in church, there are stereo channels and I have used 1kW 15 inch speakers & tweeters per channel. When pedal notes are played, especially lower notes of the pedalboard with 16ft Bourdon selected, the tizzy effects at full organ are noticeable. When the pedal notes are played, cone movement is in the order of 8 mm, and the assumption is that the speaker operates in a linear manner for such large excursions of the speaker cone; in practice, such a speaker is not entirely linear in converting electrical signal to cone movement, resulting in intermodulation effects. There are also Doppler shift effects also to consider that contribute to intermodulation effects. The power amplifier employed can be of high quality, but it is the speaker that is the problem and is an issue absolutely fundamental to digital organs. Digital organs are best heard using earphones where no such intermodulation effects occur due to miniscule movement of headphone diaphragms.

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You are not the first church to be thinking about this. But experience shows several things:

  • Electronic organs age quickly. Be prepared to buy a completely new system every twenty to thirty years at the same high price. This eats up the desired cost savings! Be prepared to play outdated instruments over and over again. Mechanical organs, if well made and maintained, are timeless.

  • Be prepared for electronic failures. From dirty switches to leaking capacitors to loose contacts, many problems are possible that are costly to fix and require a professional. Problems on mechanical organs can often be fixed quickly with simple tools.

  • Congregations like to identify with their (mechanical) organs and are proud of them. Fundraising for new organs (or repairs) is often very successful. Electronic organs, on the other hand, are about as sexy as a cash register.

  • Finally, it is also a theological question. Psalm 150 is quite clear on this point:

(3) Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! (4) Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! (5) Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! (6) Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!

It says nothing about "praise him with loudspeakers" or "praise him with cheap copies of instruments".

I don't know a single congregation that has been permanently happy with its electronic organ. But I know very, very many who have taken the money in hand and bought or restored a pipe organ and are now very proud of it.

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  • I'm not sure what Psalm 150 is "quite clear" about here, but it's probably not relevant anyway. The question was about the sound quality of electronic instruments, not God's opinion on them.
    – Edward
    Jun 2 at 3:11

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