Breathing Restored Life Into a Classic Pipe Organ, Round Two

Breathing Restored Life Into a Classic Pipe Organ, Round Two

Written by John Seetoo

Calvary Episcopal Church was founded in 1836 and is part of the Parish of Calvary – St. George’s in New York City. A fixture in the Gramercy Park area for nearly 185 years, it is not only a landmark historic site of New York City but is also the acknowledged birthplace and American headquarters for the Oxford Group, which would later evolve into Alcoholics Anonymous.

In 1936, Calvary Church ordered a new pipe organ from the Aeolian-Skinner Company of Boston to replace their 1907 Skinner pipe organ, itself a rebuild of an earlier version of the Roosevelt organ originally built in 1886. The Aeolian-Skinner Opus 945 pipe organ retained 15 stops from the original Roosevelt model, which are still functional today. However, the organ itself has been deteriorating over the last 84 years, the result of age, neglect, poorly-executed repairs bordering on incompetence, fires, and damage from construction workers doing restoration work on the church building.

Here is a profile of the Calvary Church Aeolian-Skinner Opus 945:

Since that time, Calvary-St.-George’s music director, choirmaster and organist, the internationally acclaimed baritone Kamel Boutros, has been on a quest to update the organ to become functional in the 21st century. However, the challenge has been to do the work on a shoestring budget, given that the estimate to restore the organ currently stands in excess of 3 million dollars.

Kamel Boutros.

Copper Issue 61 covered the innovative workarounds devised by Kamel, which included solutions for mechanical keyboard latencies, damaged pipes, non-working stops, and temperature sensitive pipe tuning fluctuations.

Never satisfied in his quest, Kamel has continued refining the process, with the ultimate goal being able to have a full orchestra in combination with the ancient pipe organ at his fingertip command. The changes he has made since Copper Issue 61 cover both digital and analog modifications and improvements.

Creating an Actual/Virtual Cyborg Hybrid Organ:

The three most glaring playing challenges with Calvary’s Aeolian-Skinner organ are:

  • Latency of varying milliseconds across all four of the keyboard manuals, making any kind of staccato playing virtually impossible;
  • Temperature sensitivity of the metal pipes within the 200-year-old stone and wood church. The pipes can vary individually from A440 standard concert pitch anywhere from A427 to A442.
  • Access to stops that were inoperable to blend with the ones that were still in use.

Taking advantage of the inherent natural acoustic delay and reverberation from Calvary’s 40-foot-high steeple and with the organ pipes mounted 20 feet above the pews along the altar perimeter and in the church’s rear near the entrance, Kamel had previously solved the problem by using the organ’s circa 1980s Peterson MIDI interface, which is limited solely to MIDI out on Channel 1 and only transmits note on/off data.

The deployment of the Hauptwerk Virtual Pipe Organ and its Notre Dame de Metz sample was Kamel’s initial solution, as the virtual organ had no latency and could thus provide the attack for the notes as the Skinner organ’s tones fleshed out the body of the notes. The Hauptwerk software also resolved the tuning fluctuation problems as the precise digital tuning could adjust to match the pipes for any particular climate condition. The software’s high cost (about $1,000) also is due to its unique capability to drive the actual organ pipes via MIDI. Finally, the software provided the missing Gallery, Great and Choir manuals/stop colors that the Skinner organ could not produce in its current state of disrepair.

Hauptwerk controls.

While Kamel had solved the most pressing mechanical issues, the Notre Dame sample was recorded in a space considerably larger than that of Calvary Church. Additionally, Notre Dame’s organ is a much more elaborately-featured instrument than the Aeolian-Skinner. Choosing uniformity and authenticity of sound over a more luxurious, albeit less than ideal accommodation, Kamel has since opted to switch the Hauptwerk software license to the CCARB, which is a sample of the pristine Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1141 pipe organ recorded at Christ Church Cathedral Arboretum in Garden Grove, CA.

Better matching between the virtual and actual Aeolian-Skinner organ sounds and controls was the first goal in Kamel’s plan to bring the Calvary organ back to fully functional status. Even if it was a “cyborg” hybrid, Kamel’s desire was to next incorporate the bass pedal sounds and other stops, along with other MIDI controlled sounds.

Kamel’s four-keyboard manual signal chain first runs from the Calvary Skinner organ, locked to a MIDI clock while the MIDI out is split between a Hewlett-Packard 2420 PC running Hauptwerk’s CCARB, and a MacBook running Spitfire Audio Eric Whitacre choir, Symphonic Strings, Hans Zimmer percussion and Logic Pro X software. His display monitors are all touch sensitive.

Where it all comes together.

These MIDI signals are connected through a Korg Nanocontrol Studio MIDI controller and an Akai APC40 Ableton controller.

As Calvary’s Skinner organ bass pedal foot pistons were never retrofitted with MIDI capability, he has added a Behringer FCB 1010 MIDI controller (with custom mounting frame designed by church elder Jeremy Coleman) and a Studiologic MP113 velocity-sensitive bass pedal unit. The Behringer controller’s MIDI signal is separately fed to a Focusrite Scarlett interface and then to the CCARB software.

With Calvary’s Swell manual only 25% functional and the Gallery, Great and Choir manuals even less so, the CCARB software is crucial at the note origination level for fleshing out the missing overtones and recreating vital fundamental tones in the organ music repertoire.

Additionally, while all the basic Skinner stops in Calvary’s organ still function, Kamel cannot add any additional colors to the sound due to the pipe disrepair, so the CCARB is crucial for supplying 32-foot, 16-foot, 8-foot and 4-foot octave tones as needed.

Some of the original pipes.

To quickly switch between Logic commands and the variety of presets that may be utilized between the various Spitfire orchestral and choir sounds, Kamel has a pair of mini keyboards mounted above the organ manuals: an Akai LPK 25 and an iRig keys. A 61 full-sized-key Korg synthesizer sits next to Kamel’s personal Yamaha concert grand piano, which acts as a backup MIDI controller in the event that the Calvary organ suffers a mechanical or electronic mishap.

The Yamaha concert grand piano.

Expanding the Sound Cloud:

Kamel Boutros has said that a true church pipe organ, in his estimation, reverberates throughout the entire church, and should take advantage of the echoes and reverberations inherent in stone and wood structures. Its power should range from the low notes shaking the floor to the higher registers surrounding congregants in a cloud of sound. Ideally, the sound should be “rounder and bigger” rather than “louder.”

Somewhat counterintuitively, sets of matching speaker arrays and similar platforms often sound too directional and pristine, thus bestowing an artificiality to virtual instruments in a church space, especially with virtual organs playing with actual ones. This is also a major point of difference between re-creating the sound of a Hammond Organ’s Leslie rotating speaker vs. a pipe organ. The church pipes are designed to resonate and project within a particular church space, thus dictating their elevated placement within the church structure. The Leslie speaker, while possessing a rotating horn driver, is still focused from a specific sound source and is designed for projecting that sound regardless of the surrounding space. The Hammond’s relative portability compared with the fixed installation of a pipe organ in a traditional stone and wood church was a key selling point in its marketing to houses of worship located in non-traditional structures, such as auditoriums, gymnasiums, warehouses, etc.

In order to mesh the virtual sounds with Calvary’s organ pipes, an assortment of both PA and hi-fi speakers have been strategically placed throughout the nearly 200-year-old church, which is roughly 90 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 40 feet high at the steeple.

As Calvary’s wooden 32-foot pipes are still in disuse due to fire damage, Kamel has a pair of Mackie subwoofers – one placed in front of the organ near the altar for the low end and subsonic frequencies, and the other near the side pews under the choir loft.

A small powered 8-inch Behringer PA speaker, discreetly hidden behind the pipes mounted 20 feet directly above the organ, provides high frequencies to the congregation’s right.

Directly opposite is the elevated choir loft, where two additional small Behringer speakers and a Peavey 12-inch wedge monitor resonate behind another array of pipes.

A pair of large JBL EON Series PA speakers are in the gallery, mounted about 25 feet high and situated over the entrance. A pair of 60 lb. 3-way Thiel CS2 home audio speakers from the 1980s are currently augmenting the JBLs, but may be relocated in the near future for better sound dispersion.

About 10 feet from the entrance is the FOH (front of house) Behringer X-32 mixing console and a rack for power amps, supplemental outboard gear, and a PC computer running Audacity software, which is used to record services.

The Behringer X-32 front of house mixing console.

The unorthodox placement and choice of loudspeakers effectively blend with the metal pipes in a seamless cloud of sound that challenges a listener to differentiate between the actual and the virtual.

Taking the model a step further, Kamel can now augment the live church choir with the Spitfire Whitacre choir software and also add an orchestral range of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion instruments to the organ, creating a sound that would have been just as captivating over a century ago as it is today.


With the rapidly diminishing number of organ parts manufacturers and qualified technicians, the costs to maintain or refurbish pipe organs have climbed astronomically. The 3 million dollar estimate to restore Calvary’s Aeolian-Skinner organ is on the low end compared to the average rate churches are facing globally.

While not a trained technician, Kamel Boutros’ love for the organ, a sound which held him spellbound as a child growing up in Cairo, Egypt, has out of necessity spurred him to educate himself in organ construction and design. This knowledge, combined with his studies in computer DAW and other music production technologies and an inventor’s imagination, has enabled him to keep his cherished organ sound relevant and expandable on a more humble church budget –  a point of which other churches striving to keep their pipe organs in their music programs should take note.

Back to Copper home page

1 of 2