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Are digital organs ready for mass usage?

Are digital organs ready for mass usage?

Still from Boston Globe video

One year in the making, a new digital organ that some claim rivals the greatest pipe organs in the world has debuted at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Wheeling, West Virginia.

This isn’t the first time that the creators, Doug Marshall and David Ogletree, have caused disagreements in the world of organ music; the duo from Needham, MA, have built several digital organs for churches, including New York City’s Trinity Wall Street, which had to replace their pipe organ after the terrorist attack on September 11th.

The Boston Globe has written a beautifully photographed feature, complete with audio of the organ being played as part of installation and testing. What do you think? Will digital organs replace pipe organs? Are we ready for that?


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Br. Gregory Shy, CoS

As an organist/choir director I have some thoughts, particularly as our church had a fire a year ago and had to decide to restore our pipe organ or replace it with a digital.

(1) Digital organs tend to be what you pay for them. The cheaper it is, the lower the sound quality. There are a lot of technical reasons / acoustic reasons that a digital instrument is, at present, “not quite” as realistic as real pipes, but suffice it to say, they’re not. Even a basic digital organ will run you $50-100, so “cheap” is not really an appropriate adjective.

(2) It is a myth that digital organs are “forever.” How many of you are still using a stereo/radio/CD player, etc from 20 or 30 years ago? Maintenance is low in the short term. At the end, however, there is no residual value. It all goes into the trash bin for a new one. A pipe organ in need of restoration and/or rebuild still has value (cultural and monetary).

(3) Pipe organs cost more for new construction, but churches should consider giving a home to and rebuilding/restoring/expanding existing instruments. Sometimes these can be had for nearly”nothing” but a take-away fee from short-sighted or defunct churches. The end product can be a lovely real instrument and one that will have a lasting monetary and cultural value.

(4) Organists, myself included, sometimes fall into the “more is more” idea when “dreaming” about an organ. We decided to work with an in-state local builder who also has and will do our ongoing maintenance. We rebuilt and expanded our old instrument to a modest size and good quality. We did not want or need a “monster” of an instrument with huge numbers of stops. For congregational/liturgical use, a modest size church does not need an enormous organ. Many larger churches have “more organ” than they need. A cathedral/performance instrument is another animal entirely.

(5) Although the “big names” like “Fisk” and others are undoubtedly very good at what they do, they are also more expensive than more local/less-well-known names that may be just as skilled and also “closer to home.” Choosing a “more local” builder will often be lower in cost and may also get one more personalized follow up as they have a “local reputation” to maintain. If they build/restore an instrument and it sounds bad, their name/business suffers.

Clearly, digital organs are better than in the past. But they are still not ever the equal of the “real thing” for many reasons.

Paul Woodrum

Maybe Apple will give us the I-Organ that can be played from the musicians I-desktop, I-laptop, I-tablet, I-phone or I-watch. It will come from China in multiple colors and be updated by annual replacement. I I I can’t wait.

Christopher Stephen Jenks, BSG

In my younger days in the 1970s I worked for two pipe organ builders, both of whom built mechanical-action instruments. In those days I could honestly say that even a relatively ordinary pipe organ surpassed an electronic instrument in every way. Nowadays I can’t say that. I know of one parish that replaced its rather ordinary c1930 Odell organ with an off-the-shelf digital organ, and the digital organ is much better than the Odell ever was. Similarly, the church that I grew up in had both an 1838 Erben organ and an 1892 Roosevelt organ. The Erben, had it been preserved, would have been an historic organ of major importance, but it was already unplayable by 1924. The Roosevelt organ is a fine off-the-shelf Roosevelt of the late 19th century, intended only to be used for the choir. It used an experimental key and stop action combining mechanical and pneumatic technologies, and that had caused problems ever since its installation. It was still playable when I was a kid in the 1960s, but with lots of problems; it is now unplayable. The church now uses an off-the-shelf digital instrument, and the music is much the better for it, even with two derelict pipe organs in the church.

However, I don’t think digital organs will ever measure up to pipe organs as recital instruments or as instruments for churches with highly sophisticated traditional music programs. Also, unlike a pipe organ, which can last hundreds of years with proper maintenance (something which rarely happens) digital technology changes so quickly that current digital organs will be practically un-repairable within 20 or 30 years.

Eric Bonetti

I haven’t heard the new electronic organs, but the one in the parish near me sounds dreadful.

Still, for Anglo-Catholic parishes, electronic organs avoid the problem of debris from incense forming in the pipes. Fate being what it is, those usually fall down the pipe at Christmas or Easter, where they make a sound like a million cats being simultaneously tortured.

Anne Bay

I too have visited more churches than I can count and the picture of the UCC church is a common look of that denomination. Every denomination has a similar look for that denomination. I have always enjoyed being able to identify what denomination a church is by the picture. I’m a senior citizen and I don’t see any end of trying to get quality organs in churches-so I must say I don’t see the churches becoming museums anytime soon.

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