Restoring a Historic Pipe Organ on a Budget

Restoring a Historic Pipe Organ on a Budget

Written by John Seetoo

[John Seetoo‘s interview with Kamel Boutros appeared in Copper #60. This article goes into the details of some of Boutros’ work at the historic Calvary Episcopal Church in New York–-Ed.]

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 over 170 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 Roosevelt organ originally built in 1886. The Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ retained 15 stops from the original Roosevelt and are still functional today. The revised stop list may be seen here.

Throughout the next 80 years, the Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ served the congregation of Calvary Church and had to undergo numerous repairs and one upgrade, which was the installation of an early version Peterson MIDI resource system interface –  specifically designed to allow organists to send MIDI data from their organ keyboards to other MIDI equipped devices.

In the 21st Century, the number of skilled traditional pipe organ repair and maintenance personnel has been rapidly dwindling and the price of replacement parts skyrocketing out of the reach of even well endowed churches.  Enfant terrible organ star Cameron Carpenter has even announced that he would be performing on electric organs in the future because the costs for venues to maintain their pipe organs at concert level has become untenable.  When the price of restoring an organ can easily run between $3-10 million, there is a real possibility that pipe organs may eventually go the way of the buggy whip.

Kamel Boutros at the console of Calvary Episcopal Church’s organ.

The current music director, organist and choirmaster of Calvary St.-George’s is the internationally acclaimed baritone and pianist Kamel Boutros, who has brought an impressively eclectic range of music and musicians into Calvary for its various church services and music programs. The performing artists have ranged from world renowned piano virtuoso Martha Argerich to Contemporary Christian folk rock band High Street Hymns, and with Alex Nguyen, associate music director, bringing an  extensive roster of internationally acclaimed jazz luminaries at its St. George’s Jazz in the Cave program and Jazz Vespers services.

As a classically trained musician who truly loves the pipe organ, its power, and the range of sounds it can command, Kamel Boutros created an innovative work around to keep Calvary’s organ functioning for performance using digital technology when budgets were prohibitive for actual parts replacement.

Calvary Church’s Aeolian-Skinner organ has seen its share of maintenance challenges.  Among some of the issues: The organ’s blowers in the gallery that houses the 32’ wooden pipes caught fire during a service. “At the least the fire department got to listen to part of a sermon!” remarked Kamel. The cost to replace the blower alone was quoted as $50,000-$60,000.  The entire gallery division, except for the 32’ wooden pipes, was supposed to be housed in a chamber with volume control doors. The Skinner console has a pedal specifically for the gallery, but Kamel has not been able to find who made the decision to keep the gallery divisions open. In the few years Kamel was able to use it, one Sunday he played the trumpets in the gallery and a child began to cry hysterically in the congregation. Soon afterward, the fire in the blower happened.

The keyboard manuals all have varying milliseconds of latency, making the playing of staccato passages a nightmare. Age had also taken a toll on the metal pipes and the pitch fluctuations from weather change can inflict inside a 2 century old stone and wood church building make it a tuning headache at times from week to week. One Sunday, Kamel recalls, the pitch was at 427; the following Sunday it went up to 440.

Kamel’s most significant problem was the latency issue.  In the past he had implemented a Rube Goldberg-esque setup to trigger one of the organ’s four manuals via MIDI from his Korg synthesizer, but the severe sonic limitations of being only able to use 20% of the organ’s capabilities at a given time was deemed unacceptable.

Short of paying tens of thousands of dollars to possibly restore the keyboard manual contacts for their triggering mechanisms to the pipes, Kamel realized that the latency would not be noticeable if the sound was augmented with another organ sound that could then be fleshed out to greater sonority with the actual Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ sounds.

After looking at several software plug ins, including those from Spitfire, Kamel selected the Hauptwerk Virtual Pipe Organ program’s Notre Dame de Metz organ sample, as it fit in the church’s budget.  There were a number of features that ultimately earned Hauptwerk’s software the green light, such as:

1) The ability to program registrations and stop combinations in the software to automatically. Only way Kamel was able to do that is by using a small 2 octave keyboard and registering each to function as a midi trigger for a stop or combination. The current Peterson midi system in the Skinner organ can only be used with Hauptwerk if it’s only on one setting. Any changes to the main organ while Kamel is playing results in the midi signal (mapping) being lost.

2) As Hauptwerk has the potential to drive actual pipe organ pipes via MIDI if a church or venue has such wiring, it can also accommodate pitch changes to compensate for temperature changes as well as for accompanying other instruments that may be tuned differently for historical accuracy when performing period compositions.

3) The ability to playback and record both Audio and MIDI performances.

While the Notre Dame sample can deliver an authentic recreation of the famous Parisian Cathedral’s famous pipe organ, a sample is only as good and realistic as the sound system upon which it is being heard.  Unlike Hammond organs, which use Leslie Speakers and are pumped through sounds systems in clubs, theaters and stadiums throughout the world in rock, jazz and other music genres, the pipe organ has other requirements for its sound to be experienced properly.

Calvary Church is a 180 year old Episcopal church very much in the Western European architectural tradition.  The stone, wood and glass church has a 40 foot high steeple and the pipes are mounted about 20 feet from the floor to the left, right and rear of the church’s entrance. Assembling a sound system to faithfully reproduce the virtual Hauptwerk samples while simultaneously blending unobtrusively with the genuine pipe organ sounds on a tight budget posed challenges that prompted some innovative and, in some cases, serendipitous solutions.

Kamel Boutros maintains that a hi -fi speaker setup with matching speaker arrays for stereo would actually sound too pristine and not realistic. A true church pipe organ, in his estimation, reverberates throughout the entire church, which often was intended to 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.”

A small section of the array of pipes at Calvary Church.

While most churches with pipe organs may have 16’ pipes to deliver the low end from the pedals, older churches may possess 32’ or even 64’ pipes that have to be heard and felt to be described accurately. Some churches historically required those pipes to be embedded in the ground in cement and even in those cases, the vibrations have been known to crack the concrete. Given that the 32’ wooden pipes at Calvary cannot be used due to the potential fire hazard, a pair of Mackie Subwoofers (salvaged from a past discontinued music program) and a 1000 watt Mackie power amp are the first stage of the signal chain for recreating the Hauptwerk Notre Dame sample.

Due to pipe construction differentials, there is a real life lack of unity inherent in many pipe organs relative to the venue.  Due to a lucky combination of need, donations and foraging, a mismatched mix of different speakers delivers the rest of the Hauptwerk pipe organ sounds with surprising realism.  For his own monitoring purposes, Kamel uses a small Samson 6” monitor speaker originally designed for home studios.  Mounted next to one set of pipes is a 3 way Thiel CS2 home stereo speaker from the 1980’s with 8” port loaded woofer and weighing in at over 60 lbs.  Another Thiel CS2 is slated for the rear of the church.  The Thiels were being thrown out from an office in the building. Kamel grabbed them and with some cleanup, repurposed them for a more important role.

For the other side of pipes, a combination of a very used Peavey P.A. speaker/wedge monitor combined with a smaller Behringer powered speaker for the chancellery below cover the other side.  This unorthodox mismatch of speakers actually interacts favorably with the pipes and the stone surfaces of the church to effectively mask the differences between the actual and virtual pipe organ sounds to all but the most discriminating listeners, with the lack of directionality actually achieving a simulated “sound cloud” of pipe organ sonority.

The Hauptwerk software truly resolves the latency problem, as it seamlessly and organically  meshes with Calvary’s Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ so that any delays on notes coming from the organ are effectively masked by the notes triggered to Hauptwerk.

The Hauptwerk touchscreen.

One of the additional features of the Hauptwerk software is the ability to detune incrementally from A440 in order to match other instruments or the pipes themselves, which often change with weather conditions.  The Notre Dame sample actually was recorded at a high oversampling rate at A426.8 and supports 32 bit/96kHz max bit/sample rate with the ability to support 64 bit. This precision detuning flexibility is invaluable for maintaining the blur between virtual and actual organ sounds.

The MIDI recording and playback capability has also come in handy for logistics management. Calvary Church and St. George’s Church are part of the same parish, but are physically separate church buildings, approximately 8 blocks away from each other, or about a 10-15 minute walking distance. Kamel, being the music director for the whole Parish manages musicians for all the services. Hauptwerk’s recording capability comes in very handy in instances that Kamel has to play a service at St. George’s, then rushing over to play the Calvary service. Kamel pre-records the accompaniment of the first 2 or 3 hymns with the Hauptwerk software, and a choir member just pressed play, just enough time for Kamel to get to the service. “If you use a metronome, you’re in serious trouble,” Kamel says. As he believes it is impossible for the spirit of singing to be on a clocked timing. So when he pre-records the midi-hymns on Hauptwerk, he sings them along while recording. “Easiest way for an organist to kill a hymn is ‘tempo anger’” Kamel adds, and that there is text in the hymns that he almost wishes one could just pause and breathe in that meaning for a second.

Although he has not been trained an organist, Kamel Boutros has had to educate himself on the mechanics of pipe organs out of necessity.  With the current costs of organ maintenance beyond the budgets of most churches, other organists face similar challenges.  Kamel is firmly convinced that organ mechanics education is vitally essential for the next generation of organists, and hopes that a series of get-togethers of all organists, conservatories that have organ departments can kickstart an implementation of organ building/maintenance courses in all these programs. Organ students that spend so much on education only to end up with a frustrated career playing on broken instruments. If more and more organ builders come into the scene, the prices have to go down due to competition.

Kamel was recently at Content Organs in the Netherlands where he was invited to see their custom built instruments. They brought in a 4 manual, 32 pedal fully MIDI organ console with selections of different speakers to a cathedral in Amsterdam for him to check it out for a potential purchase for the Parish. Kamel says he was floored. Total cost below $110,000 for everything. The Calvary organ’s full restoration price quote was given to Kamel at $3,000,000. Not possible and Kamel says it would be almost a sin to spend that kind of money when you know some of your congregants are not sure how they will pay their New York rent this or next month.

A natural starting place would be in New York City, home to an impressive number of older pipe organs among its historic landmark churches, such as St. John The Divine, Grace Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, just to name a few.  He is open to ideas and suggestions from organists and churches from across the US and welcomes additions to the ongoing dialogue.  He can be reached at

[You may also be interested in the journey a Copper reader undertook, building a pipe organ in his home, also incorporating Hauptwerk. You can read about it in Copper #40Ed.]

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