In My Room

The Pipe Organ in my Living Room :
A Lifelong Journey

[This issue’s In My Room is a little different from our usual offerings: Joseph Grogan tells the tale of building a pipe organ in his living room, combining seriously high-quality audio equipment with cutting-edge digital sampling and—pipes. I think you’ll find it an amazing story, eloquently told. —Ed.]

When I tell a stranger that I have a pipe organ in my living room they usually look at me funny and politely respond, “Oh really? Cool.” Then the conversation typically pivots to another subject. Not many people are as fascinated by pipe organs as I am, and very few have gone to the trouble and expense of actually acquiring or building one.

From an early age I have been fascinated by the sound of pipe organs in churches, cathedrals and concert halls.  My admiration of The King of Instruments, and of those who play and build them, led me long ago to a goal of having one in my home. After all, if John D. Rockefeller, William Vanderbilt, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie and George Eastman could have one in their homes, why couldn’t I? Why couldn’t anyone?

My first organ was not a pipe organ, but an antique reed organ that I bought for fifty dollars at a flea market and lovingly restored to near perfection. It had a beautiful tone, rich in harmonics and color, but no pedalboard. It did have two pedals, pumped by the player’s feet to expand the bellows and draw air through the reeds. Although lacking in tonal variety and versatility, some stops actually did a good job of mimicking the quieter reed and celeste stops of a pipe organ. It whetted my appetite for the real thing.

My second organ was an offset stack of two Casio keyboards housed in a homemade plywood console with a concave radiating pedalboard that I built myself using wood from Lowes, micro-switches and a MIDI module. I merged the MIDI-out signals from the keyboards and pedalboard and connected to my most expensive component: an Akai S1000 stereo digital sampler. I used the sampler to record, trim, loop, modulate, voice, assign and store digital recordings of individual organ pipes that I collected from an old dismantled theater pipe organ. I also grabbed samples from pipe organ CDs wherever I heard a single pipe playing long enough to capture a decent loop-able sample. The amplification system was an inexpensive low-power solid state stereo amplifier connected to a pair of bookshelf speakers that could render bass no lower than 45Hz, not good enough for an organ. To my ears my virtual pipe organ, even with all its limitations, sounded glorious. Through headphones, even more so. It made me happy.

Fast forward 10 years. After moving across the country and leaving my little two-manual organ behind,  I started attending some local pipe organ recitals and developed a renewed hunger for my own pipe organ, only this time it had to be bigger and better than before. By now the science of digital sampling had matured along with the availability of faster computer processors and cheaper RAM. Realistic sounding digital virtual musical instruments of all kinds were widely available. I started researching the then state-of-the-art digital organs on the market and decided to drain my bank account to buy a new Johannus Rembrandt three-manual digital pipe organ with seven channels of amplification and seven corresponding external speakers. I remember how big that crate from the Netherlands looked at the loading dock of my apartment building and how even bigger the console and speakers looked in my small, 8-foot ceiling apartment. The organ bass speaker was 9 feet long, so it had to lie horizontally on the floor.

The Johannus Rembrandt console, with a view of some of the pipes.

I initially thought I was in Bach Heaven but soon realized I was still in Purgatory. Despite the Johannus’ size and majestic look, it just did not sound real enough. I replaced the stock loudspeakers with higher quality three-way speakers and added a bigger subwoofer driver. Much better. A few months later I moved into my current house which has a high-ceiling and large living room and–Bingo!–the organ now sounded more like a real pipe organ. The added room volume allowed the pipe sound waves to bloom and interact with each other and with the room, enhancing and enriching the tone.  The room response made a huge difference, but it still lacked the impact of a real pipe organ in a hall, church or cathedral. That was expecting too much.

Then I got the idea I needed to add real organ pipes. That would surely make the organ sound fuller and grander. I researched all I could about organ pipes including how they are made, voiced and tuned. Then I selected and purchased on Ebay two ranks of used pipes (128 pipes total) along with two pipe windchests with MIDI-controlled pallets so I could play the pipes with my organ console. I also imported a super-quiet combination blower and reservoir from Laukhuff in Germany to supply the necessary regulated wind. One rank was a set of wooden Claribel flute pipes that came from a dismantled organ in England and were constructed in 1819 according to pencil markings on the middle-C pipe. The second rank was a set of practically brand new metal diapason pipes. Some chirped like birds, so I had to even out the tones by gently nicking the languids. I voiced and tuned the pipes to blend better with the digital stops of the Johannus. The result both surprised and disappointed me. The real pipes sounded exactly like the digital pipes when played at the same volume. In blind tests friends tried to guess whether the pipe I was playing was real or digital. Their guesses were correct only 50% of the time, which means they could not tell the difference. I could not tell the difference either, and I voiced them. Combining the real pipes with the digital versions had little audible effect on the composite sound, not even on the overall volume.

A closer view of the now-nonfunctional pipes.

There were issues with the real pipes. When I wanted to play soft, there was no way to modulate the volume of the real pipes. When the stops were activated they always played the same – loud. Even at very low wind pressure, these particular pipes were obviously not suitable for home organs where the player sits 8 feet in front of them. It was like sitting in front of a calliope. Keeping the real pipes in tune was also a challenge, due to daily temperature swings in my living room. For these reasons I discontinued regular use of the real pipes and just left them in place for show. They do look cool.

After all that effort I had failed to advance the sound of the organ. I still wanted that big hall acoustic that gives additional strength, vitality and fullness to the otherwise sterile, harsh sounding digital pipes. My next project became a priority: to build an external reverb system for the Johannus — one that betters the useless internal reverb that came with the organ. The system I configured, and still use today, consists of a Bricasti M7 stereo reverb processor, a Balanced Audio Technology VK-60 stereo tube amplifier (circa 1998 with new caps and tubes) and a pair of Harbeth M40.1 loudspeakers. An auxiliary stereo-out signal from the Johannus console is processed by the Bricasti M7, then sent to the VK-60 amplifier which drives the Harbeths.  Once the system was installed and calibrated I finally had a sense of “wow”.

The reverb system.

The reverb system made the organ for the first time sound convincingly in a hall environment. It should – the total cost of the reverb system components including cabling when new exceeded the cost of the Johannus organ. I fortunately had these components on hand from a previous audio system that I no longer used.

The Bricasti M7 is one of the best sounding external stereo reverb processors available and offers almost unlimited options for defining the character of the acoustical space. Depending on which preset I select, the organ can sound like it is in a small or large studio, hall, church, cathedral or any number of alternative environments. Each setting’s parameters can be adjusted to refine the space to taste, and also alter the location of the listener relative to the sound source.

The VK-60 tube amplifier and Harbeth M40.1s were perfect for rendering the reverberation smoothly with clarity, body, transparency and a touch of warmth. I did some tube rolling with the VK-60 in search of the best tubes for the sound I wanted. In this case 1952 Sylvania 6SN6 “Bad Boys” fit the bill. The Harbeths are raised on stands positioned behind the organ console and below the organ speakers which sit on a ledge I built high above. The reverb sound blends seamlessly with the organ’s speakers and carries well throughout the living room.

Enthralled with the refined sound, I didn’t rest on my laurels. I wasn’t done yet. I learned about an amazing virtual pipe organ computer program called Hauptwerk, which led me down another adventurous path involving yet another audio system.

The Hauptwerk touchscreen.

With Hauptwerk the tonal variety and number of stops the organ can play is virtually unlimited. Instead of just 64 stops in the Johannus specification, Hauptwerk opened the door to hundreds of additional available stops from organs around the world.

Hauptwerk organ sample sets are produced and made available by several dedicated vendors to be played back real time by anyone with a compatible computer, Hauptwerk software, MIDI keyboard and amplification system. These organ sets are organized collections of individual recordings referred to as “samples” because they are recordings of only a few seconds of play that are then digitally looped so the sounds can be sustained indefinitely. The recordings are meticulously made in the field over the course of several days at the site of each organ. In the production of the best Hauptwerk sample sets, each and every pipe of the organ is recorded in stereo from different locations and sometimes more than once to capture the initial attack and reverb decay for different note durations, such as staccato and legato. After the samples are recorded, they are then processed with sophisticated equipment to optimize their quality and efficiency and remove unwanted noise. The technology is a quantum leap from what was possible with my Akai S1000 decades ago.

Over two hundred Hauptwerk organ sample sets are available, and the number is growing. They can typically be auditioned, at least in part, before purchase. My Hauptwerk organ sample set collection includes over a dozen European and U.S. pipe organs, large and small, from different periods: Baroque, Romantic, Symphonic, American Classic, and Modern. If Wurlitzer theater organs are your thing, some Hauptwerk vendors offer those too. With the Hauptwerk software each pipe of each organ can be individually voiced and tuned by the user, just as a real pipe organ is custom voiced and tuned in the space it occupies for the most compatible room response.

My Johannus organ console controls via MIDI the virtual organ’s keys, pedals, expression (swell) pedals, and couplers. Stops, presets, combinations, tremolos and other functions of the virtual organs are controlled using a touch screen that graphically displays the virtual organ console. Using the touch screen can be tedious at first, but over time becomes second nature. Some Hauptwerk players use multiple screens that allow the stops and other controls to be displayed on the left and right sides more like they appear on the actual organ.

To use Hauptwerk I needed a high-power computer with lots of RAM (at least 20GB) and the right interface cards to communicate with the organ console and with the audio amplification system. The computer interface with the organ console is a single MIDI cable, connected from the console’s MIDI-out to a MIDI-in on the computer sound card. The computer interface with the audio amplification system is a Pink Faun I2S Bridge card that has an I2S HDMI-out, from which I run a HDMI cable to the I2S HDMI-in on the PS Audio DS DAC. For cleanest sound, I followed Pink Faun’s recommendation to power the Pink Faun I2S Bridge with an external 12vDC linear power supply rather than running the card off the computer’s internal power. Although the Pink Faun card requires very little current, isolating it from the computer’s power supply that is shared with fans and hard drives is a good idea.

I also needed the best audio amplification system I could afford. The better the system, the more realistic the sound. Hauptwerk organ sample sets have thousands of different pipe samples playable at the same time, each pipe having its own attack, loop and reverb tail. This cumulative amount of audio information combined with the required dynamic range to handle the extreme frequencies of a pipe organ at full volume is a daunting test of any audio system. My amplification system is very capable and up to the task. It currently consists of a PS Audio DirectStream DAC, PS Audio BHK Signature Preamplifier, Pass Labs xa100.5 monoblocks and Von Schweikert custom-designed full-range floor speakers. This is the same system I use with the PS Audio DirectStream Memory Player to listen to CDs. In this way the audio amplification system serves double duty. If I wanted to play the Hauptwerk organ loudly without disturbing family members or neighbors I could listen through headphones connected to the headphone out of the BHK Preamp, but be careful with Hauptwerk. Whether listening through loudspeakers or through headphones the audio output strength must be adjusted in the Hauptwerk program for each organ. Once set, the program remembers the output levels you selected the next time you load the program.

The main audio rack, in the living room.

The DirectStream DAC is one of several DACs available on the market that accommodate I2S signal input and works with the Pink Faun I2S Bridge output. By not having the audio signal go through SPDIF or AES/EBU translation, distortion and jitter is minimized for the best sound possible. The DS DAC paired with the BHK Signature Preamp is the best combination of DAC and preamp I have owned or heard. Prior to the DAC and Preamp in my system, I ran the Hauptwerk audio from my computer analog soundcard directly to my amplifiers which was very good, but not the best sound. The signal via I2S to the DAC and then analog through the Preamp is cleaner, fuller-bodied and better resolved.

I have not taken advantage of all the options Hauptwerk has to offer, such as 4- and 6-channel surround sound and up to 32 separate audio channels. That would require many more audio components and a lot more time, space, energy and money than I want to expend. Combining Hauptwerk with my Johannus organ system gives me 12 discrete channels of amplification and a total of 34 distributed speaker drivers for a very realistic and satisfying pipe organ surround sound experience. I don’t feel an immediate need to venture further at this time. It’s time to relax and just enjoy it.

I have accomplished my longtime goal of having a pipe organ in my home. The journey has been fun, educational and rewarding. My experiments have shown that for homes with listening rooms of modest size, a digital organ with Hauptwerk and a high quality audio system is more practical and just as satisfying as a real pipe organ. The realism is there, plus you can better control its volume, adjust its tone easier, and not worry about tuning. You can also simulate large spaces well beyond the confines of your room. With Hauptwerk and a good audio system you can change your organ and room in seconds and be playing an historical organ in a concert hall or cathedral across the globe.