Is A Hybrid Right For Me??
By: Robert Faucher
Written for the UCC National Newsletter 2013
Your first thought upon reading the title of this article might have been of a hybrid vehicle, one that runs on a combination of a traditional gasoline engine as well as the more “modern” electric motors. However, in this case I am referring to a hybrid organ, one that plays on a combination of traditional pipe stops as well as the more “modern” digital stops.
Up until a dozen or so years ago, I would have never considered incorporating “electronic” (analog or digital) sounds when building our new pipe organs. The quality of the electronic sounds was noticeably and distractingly different from true pipe sounds. It was easy to hear the lack of proper musical blend between the two. Their “marriage” was rarely artistically successful. In spite of this apparent disparity in musical quality, a few electronic organ manufacturers, from decades back, did occasionally incorporate some pipe ranks. Oftentimes, this was simply done as a sales gimmick, or to just have some “show pipes”. They typically were not designed to be a fixed integral part of the organ’s ensemble, but could be put into play by means of a toggle switch or “Add Pipes” tablet.
Within the past 10 years, tremendous improvement has been made in the fidelity of digital sound production. Technology has advanced to the degree that digital sound samples (recordings of actual pipes) can be further customized or “voiced” on site by manipulating many dozens of parameters via a laptop. Computer processing speeds, as well as inexpensive memory, has allowed much richer and more realistic sound samples.
As a pipe organ builder and physicist, I understand and appreciate the difference between digital sound production and actual pipe sound production. Digital sounds are produced and shared through a limited number of speakers, as well as a limited number of amplifiers and channels. It is very common for a speaker to produce many different sounds and notes at the same time, causing some harmonic distortion, especially during fuller registrations. In a pipe organ, each and every pipe acts like its own dedicated amplifier and dedicated UNLIMITED number of speakers, producing 360 degree sound in EVERY direction. It is this ability to have efficient room-filling sound with no distortion whatsoever that allows true pipe sounds to remain king over digital sound production.
Here in New England, churches tend to be much smaller than in the South. It is not uncommon for membership size to be under 100. Many are struggling financially. They certainly wouldn’t have a half million dollars to spend on a modest pipe organ, let alone several times that for some of the larger pipe instruments being built now. There are also churches experimenting with other types of music ministries, such as praise bands. This type music typically utilizes electric keyboards, guitars, and percussion among others.
The church may think that it has only two choices: either sticking with the pipe organ for traditional musical services, or replacing it with electric keyboards and guitars for contemporary praise band music. It no longer has to be that way. The computerized organ consoles that we now provide for pipe organs have just about all the features and conveniences that a musician would ever need. They are also all equipped with MIDI interfaces, and even include velocity-sensitive keyboards. MIDI capability allows it to control other sound modules and percussion. Velocity-sensitive keys allow proper expression when playing piano and other percussive stops through MIDI sound modules. The new pipe organ console now has the ability to serve as the “hub” or control center for all kinds of music. If a laptop computer is connected to the console, it can control the pipe organ as well as the other MIDI equipment. There is no limit to the creative potential of its musician.
We have built over two dozen new hybrid instruments in the recent years and have certainly figured out what it takes to make them successful. The most important and key concept is that the hybrid organ must be designed around a strong foundational core of organ pipe ranks. The pipes serve as the workhorse stops of the organ, and define its power and tone. They typically comprise complete Principal and Flute choruses made up of 8’, 4’, and 2’ stops. These alone would be sufficient to provide proper congregational support for hymn singing. Once this foundational core is established, tonal variety, color, and dynamic range is greatly enhanced by the cost-effective addition of digital stops providing the lush strings, celestes, reeds, and other solo stops.
Because of the much smaller number of pipe ranks needed in a hybrid instrument, the cost is greatly reduced. The space that it takes is also only a small fraction of what it would otherwise be if it were strictly a pipe organ. Maintenance cost is reduced to a minimum, since the core pipe ranks utilized tend to be the most stable for tuning. An average-sized new hybrid instrument might contain only 5 to 8 ranks of pipes, but they are used most of the time and define the overall sound of the organ. Another two dozen or so digital stops augment and round out the tonal specification.
I spend much time on site to custom-voice the digital stops so that they properly and seamlessly blend with the pipe stops after the pipes have themselves been voiced (tonally finished) to the church’s unique acoustical setting. The pipes need to define the musical core and character of the hybrid organ, not the other way around!
Oftentimes a church already has an existing pipe organ which is not satisfactory due to problems with its mechanical, electrical, leather, tonal, or other issues. An older console is typically its weakest link due to its fatigued mechanical combination action and failing electrical relay system. A new custom console with solid-state controls is substituted to control the existing pipe organ. It can be provided with a whole package of digital stops from which we can pick and choose, for expanding or improving the tonal resources of the organ at not much extra cost. Likewise, selected stops from the old organ can be recycled and revoiced. They can then be incorporated into a completely new hybrid instrument.
In an ideal world, we as pipe organ builders would prefer building strictly all-pipe instruments for their superior longevity and tonal attributes. However, in the real world, churches often have very limited financial and/or space resources. In these situations, a hybrid instrument may provide the best of both worlds: the benefits of a high-quality pipe organ base with the cost-effective and space-saving addition of all the other “goodies” via digital stops!
About the Author
Robert Faucher is President and Artistic Director of Faucher Organ Company, Inc. in Biddeford, ME. Faucher Organ Company is a regional partner for many Allen Organ Dealers throughout the Northeast and has built many pipe/digital hybrid instruments with Allen Organ Company. He holds a Bachelors degree in Physics from St. Michael’s College in VT. He has been building pipe organs since 1975 and has been a church organist most of his life. His firm builds and services pipe organs all over the Greater Northeast.