The Spreckels Organ: A Historic Musical Treasure, Part Two

The Spreckels Organ: A Historic Musical Treasure, Part Two

Written by Frank Doris

In Part One (Issue 154) we looked at the history and the technology behind the remarkable Spreckels Organ, the world’s largest pipe organ in an outdoor venue. It was built in 1914 in Balboa Park, San Diego, California, and commissioned by John D. Spreckels and his brother Adolph B. Spreckels. It is still in use today, carrying on a long-time tradition of performers on the organ providing free concerts to the public. This installment continues our conversation with Gordon Stanley, who has been involved with the care, curation and recording of the Spreckels Organ the past four years. Here, we discuss what’s involved in recording the organ, what the future holds for concerts and events, and other topics.

FD: You’ve done a number of recordings. Can you mention how they’re done...what kind of microphones and how they’re arranged, what kind of recording equipment you use and so on. How do you capture the full range of sound, especially the bass? How are the pipes arranged in terms of left to right and so on? Do you get a stereo sound field?

GS: From day one, we have been focused on quality recordings. Raúl Prieto Ramírez, our civic organist, is also a bit of an audiophile and really wants the organ to shine in anything that is committed to our archives or future public consumption. I got the audiophile bug at age 11, living on Okinawa and burying myself in my dad’s music collection. We were a musical household. Most of my family played piano, and I tell everyone while I tried, in reality, I play the tape recorder.


Organist Raúl Prieto Ramírez. Organist Raúl Prieto Ramírez.
Three years ago, I started working with Raúl, Lyle Blackinton and Dale Sorenson, all with good ears and a passion for excellence. We set objectives of locating the most natural positions for microphones, selecting great equipment, and adjusting everything until we captured the true sound signature and stereo image of the organ, which is quite different from a typical church organ. Let’s start with a summary of the sound and then progress into some of the equipment, techniques and trials we endured before we reached success. The sound of the organ is relatively dry with little reverb and the sound varies greatly depending on where you sit in the pavilion. Sit on the stage and you hear the pipes, miss the sounds the park. Move to the stage edge and the pipes blend better but the park noises intrude, so this is a better spot for late-night recordings. Move out to the bench rows of the public seating and you land in a bass node and the 32-foot Bombardier pipe hits you in the chest like a fastball. It is fun , but overwhelms when recording. And finally, move to the edges of the stage or pavilion and the sound becomes unbalanced and you lose the high frequencies. Early on, we tested the height of the microphone array and moved it about on a 1-meter square grid testing 32 locations until we settled on two optimal locations, one for day/evening recordings of live events, and one for 2:00 am recordings when we wanted work for future publication with the best blend and most quiet background. The early-morning time slot takes advantage of the moratorium on flights at the San Diego International Airport, legal action by affected residents.



The windchest of the Spreckels Organ is so large that people can stand inside it.
The windchest of the Spreckels Organ is so large that people can stand inside it.
While testing locations, we also reviewed the response of the microphones. We tried DPA, Schoeps and Earthworks in both omni and cardioid configurations. Our preference was for the DPA and Schoeps. but we have currently settled on Earthworks because of a great relationship with the company and the need to balance our budgets. Even , we have about $7,000 tied up in mics, and given the chance, the number would rise to $15,000 as we worked to acquire a multi-channel setup. The mics are in a semi-permanent array on a giant 8-meter Manfrotto camera stand, and the entire stand is weighted with 150 pounds of sandbags for safety when the wind picks up. Generally, we don’t try recording if the wind exceeds 5 to 6 miles per hour because of the rumble, and we don’t want a surprise gust to kill our mics – or patrons! Today the mic array is as follows: two Earthworks QTC-40 omnis spaced about 14 inches apart and separated by a Jecklin disk to create stereo separation in frequencies above 400 Hz. This pair of mics flat ranging from 6 Hz to 40,000 Hz, with a small 3 -5 dB rise in the mid-high frequencies. This is typical of most omnis designed for distant pickup of classical music. The sensitivity at 6 Hz really shines in picking up every nuance of the big pipes. This is mostly felt , but we know it’s captured, and want to keep it in our archives for when we have opportunities for excellent audio playback quality. Below the omnis, we have a pair of Earthworks SR40 cardioid mics, spaced 14 inches apart with nothing between them. They are great at giving us a little more delineation in the highs and enhancing the stereo separation. They are flat plus or minus 2 – 3db from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. Typically, we use about 70 to 80 percent omni and 20 to 30 percent cardioid, just enough to give us the extra separation. Finally, we have a Schoeps MSTC 64 ORTF mic pair in a permanent setup with spacing of 7 inches and the heads angled to 95 degrees, a wide ORTF . This pair is faced to the audience for recording the audience, applause and park ambience on the occasions where it belongs. This pair is used less than 5 percent of the time, but when used, is a lifesaver at bringing some of the live audience feel back into a program. This was particularly helpful all of 2020 and early 2021 when we were videotaping and premiering tape-delayed of the concerts.



Setting up mics for recording. Setting up mics for recording.

While we were perfecting our mic techniques and systems, we faced two other issues. What would we use to capture the recordings, and how would we monitor and play back? Let’s begin with monitoring and playback. Being an audiophile, I have a collection of systems in my house specifically for monitoring. My office has a nearfield system, tube amp, DAC, and Boston Acoustics CR7 loudspeakers, a nice, fairly flat, slightly “slow” speaker good for classical music. I have about 20 of them spread around the house, including a bunch in a 9.2.2 surround system. I have used them for over 15 years and they make a decent monitor for classical music. I assembled a line mixer, a 200 watt-per-channel SAE amp and a pair of the CR7 speakers to take out to the pavilion for on-site monitoring found them to be inadequate in level, even behind two solid doors in the green room of the pavilion. The result was a couple of blown woofers, and now I am looking for something more robust to handle the bass levels for monitoring on-site. For now, I rely on Sennheiser HD 280 Pro closed-back headphones. In addition, I use the playback system in my master bedroom, a Yamaha receiver and Boston Acoustics CR7 and CR85 I consider this a midrange- home system and use it to check mixes to see how the typical listener might experience the recordings. I also have a range of headphones including Shure in-ear monitors, Sennheiser HD 280 Pro closed-back headphones (used on site), and finally a pair of Koss ESP-950 electrostatic open back headphones. Each of these are familiar old friends and help me judge the mixes. In the end, I have two high-end systems that are the final arbiters, especially for listening to overall balance and depth, placement of instruments, delay, and so on. The first of these systems is in my mix room, modified Carver M-1.5t amps, and a pair of Dynaco Mark VI tube amps biased for Class A. These drive a pair of Dynaudio Focus 340s and a pair of REL Strata III subwoofers in a sound-treated mixing room. The preamp a Trident 78 mixing board or a modified Carver C-1 preamp in a room custom-treated by GIK Acoustics. Much of this equipment is classic, 15 – 20 years old or older. Some is updated, and all is lovingly cared for. For the final system, in the living room as a break from the mixing room, audio is fed via the Trident 78 mixer or via computer files managed by Roon, sent to a Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ wired directly to a Krell FPB 600 amp, which coasts while it provides 1,200 watts per channel of Class A goodness at 4 ohms to my speakers. As an aside, it makes a great heater in the winter and punishes me during the San Diego summers, but it’s worth it for the sound. The speakers are custom-modified Phase Linear (Bob Carver-designed) Andromeda III speakers. These are bipolar panel speakers with a subwoofer, and are flat more or less from 22 to 22,000 Hz. I have found when I get the mix right, it sounds good no matter which system , just better, more dynamic and more real as I move to the higher-end systems. Both rooms have over 100 amps of dedicated power circuits to give me top-notch sound. And next on the wish list is a plan to further clean up the power with PS Audio PowerPlants. So that was a deep breath and long story about monitoring. You might ask, what am I doing to capture and archive these marvelous recordings? I begin with the wire to get from mic to preamp and throughout the mixing room. I have settled on two brands. I use KOPUL Premier Quad 5000 Series cables for mic cables that get beat up. In my book they are just as good as Canare and Mogami and quite a bargain. In the mixing room, everything is Mogami Gold for one consistent sound. The recording chain begins with all the mics feeding into a mic splitter. The pass-through goes directly into a Millennia HV-3D/8 8-channel preamp. The balanced transformer splits go to front of house sound when needed. These pass into a group of four synchronized Tascam DA-3000 recorders, and tracks are usually laid down in double-DSD at 5.6 MHz. For the highest quality, I can play the eight tracks back into the Trident 78/16, touch up with a series of analog effects including a Dangerous Music BAX EQ, Dangerous compressor, Lexicon PCM 92 (reverb and effects processor), and Bricasti Design Model 7 reverb processor. The finished mix is then fed to a fifth Tascam DA-3000. For critical measurement, I recently acquired a Dorrough meter so I can keep a super-close eye on levels. All of this equipment is in ATA road racks so they can easily go to the pavilion or other venues for recording, and back to the mix room for playback and mixing. Recently we took the system on the road to record Raúl Prieto Ramirez and Jaebon Hwang, both organists featured in the 2021 American Guild of Organists virtual convention.

The mixing studio with GIK acoustic treatment and the effects rack (left), and the recording rack in place (lower right corner). The mixing console is a Trident-78-16. The monitor speakers are Boston Acoustics CR7 and Dynaudio Focus 340, powered by a pair of modified Carver M1.5t amps. REL Stratus III subwoofers are hidden behind the panels.
The mixing studio with GIK acoustic treatment and the effects rack (left), and the recording rack in place (lower right corner). The mixing console is a Trident-78-16. The monitor speakers are Boston Acoustics CR7 and Dynaudio Focus 340, powered by a pair of modified Carver M1.5t amps. REL Stratus III subwoofers are hidden behind the panels.
FD: So where do you go from here?

GS: As a show of support this past winter, the Trustees of the Spreckels Organ Society donated a nice sum that is allowing us to fully implement a Merging Technologies 24-track DSD Pyramix/Horus recording system. Granted, 24 tracks are generally overkill, but we have done several 16-track recordings and look forward to being able to record our annual concert, where we combine a rock and roll band with the organ. I am working with two dedicated volunteers, Elaine Conway and Dennis Fox, who have spent the year doing all the typical audio apprentice tasks and will soon be running the system themselves. because we are big believers in having succession plans.

The recording system with the latest modifications, including a computer and Merging Technologies Pyramix/Horus interface that will allow up to 24 tracks of quad-DSD recording.
The recording system with the latest modifications, including a computer and Merging Technologies Pyramix/Horus interface that will allow up to 24 tracks of quad-DSD recording.
FD: What recordings are currently available and what’s planned for the future?

GS: We have some exciting plans for the next couple of years. We are quietly working with a well-known DSD label with the goal of publishing more of our recordings and offering them as high-quality downloads in DSD and PCM. We have found that some organists are focused mainly on the music, but a large portion of them, given the opportunity to hear FD: In a previous conversation you had mentioned that there are a number of international organ societies and organizations. Can you tell us what some of them are?

GS: The one I know the most is the American Guild of Organists, which has chapters in almost every major US city. This past year they held a virtual convention with concerts recorded at some of the top organs in the country. Raúl was the featured organist of the convention and played the Spreckels Organ. I had the honor of producing Raúl’s recording and that of Jaebon Hwang, the organist at San Diego’s First United Methodist Church. {She> played the Sanctuary Pipe Organ, built by Lyle Blackinton, the largest in San Diego with 6,042 pipes. Another important organization is the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America, a group that focuses on supporting the art and upcoming generations of builders. There’s the American Organ Academy, and the American Theatre Organ Society has an active chapter in San Diego, with their own Wurlitzer that they share with a church in the area. The Balboa Performing Arts Theatre Foundation maintains the Wonder Morton organ in the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego.

FD: How has COVID-19 affected your operations?

GS: We were exceptionally fortunate to have seen COVID coming. We started live premiere concerts the week before the city shut down Balboa Park by assembling a small group of volunteers and maintaining our own social bubble. We had to shut down the Society’s International Organ Festival, normally held each summer. But we were able to relaunch this program on a limited scale last fall. And we had to stop the fifth-grade student program and contest we hold with the American Guild of Organists rising stars. I miss the student programs the most and am excited about the possibilities of reinventing the programs in 2022. Our loyal members stayed with us and actually increased their giving by 30 percent. The past 12 months have been amazing in terms of large gifts, bequests, and a matching challenge grant that will allow us to do much more outreach in the near future. I like to think of Spreckels as the seed that planted the desire for culture and live music in San Diego, for in this past year, the Rady Shell was completed, the San Diego Symphony Orchestra pops program received an $85 million enhancement, and the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center was launched, a $42 million new live music venue in La Jolla focused on chamber and small-format classical music. Additionally, the symphony, opera, and theater are all in strong positions, and the pop, rock, jazz and blues scenes are making slow but creative comebacks. So, as you can see, I feel that COVID, while it has been temporarily devastating, has also seeded an environment of creativity and steadfastness where those of us who love live music refuse to be held back.

The crowd at a concert at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

FD: What do you foresee happening in the future?

GS: This is my favorite question. Throughout San Diego’s history, we have been blessed by men and women of immense foresight. People like John D. Spreckels, Malin Burnham, Bob Beyster, William Kettner, Alonzo Horton, Audrey Geisel, Joan Kroc, Irwin Jacobs, Jonas Salk, Ernest Rady, and Conrad Prebys. These people and others succeeded because their vision for the city extended decades beyond the latest quarterly earnings, and after earning their fortunes, they gifted it back to the citizens in ways that improved our lives through innovations in medicine, air transportation, electronics and biomedical science. Additionally, they made space for education and the arts, helping start and fund the major cultural institutions that define a world-class city. Today the city is beginning to emerge from the COVID pandemic. We have seen similar events with the Spanish flu in 1918 and the polio outbreaks in the 1950s. In each case we survived a little wiser. This time we are truly experiencing the impact of a planet so well-connected that national borders no longer offer protection. I foresee that we will continue to stumble and hopefully learn some valuable lessons so that next time, and there will be a next time, we are better prepared to cooperate and help one another. Two bright spots I see are the wondrous new medical opportunities that will likely arise from , and the absolutely creative brilliance I have seen in the entertainment and music industries, have begun a long recovery from near-devastation to new ideas on how to present their arts and resume their roles in making society habitable. I hope when we look back five to 10 years from now, we can say while we stumbled quite dramatically in the beginning, in the end, our reaction to and growth as a species that resulted from the pandemic was quite remarkable. Regarding the Spreckels Organ and the Society, I see bright days ahead. Here are just a few of the ideas being discussed among the trustees, with an eye toward the second hundred years of the Spreckels Organ.
  • An expanded audience and Society membership, and more volunteers who are energized and looking forward to helping with outreach projects.
  • A multi-year endowment campaign to set aside funds for the full and permanent protection of professional positions, the maintenance of the organ, and the continued expansion of programs.
  • An enhanced collaboration with the Balboa Park leadership and other cultural organizations whereby we offer more collaborative performances and events.
  • An expanded giving program that makes it easier for donors to direct funds and bequests to specific projects.
  • An expanded schedule of performances, a time when we have the resources to manage both live and high-quality pre-recorded concerts, to aid fans around the world and those unable to physically attend.
  • A greatly expanded series of educational programs for young people and rising stars. This may include an academy where the best and brightest are invited for intense workshops on organ performance, design, and building.
  • A transition from CDs and DVD media to downloadable high-resolution music in DSD and PCM formats.
Two years ago, before the pandemic , up-and-coming members and officers of the Society’s Board of Trustees met for a solid day of brainstorming and planning. Shortly, we expect to repeat this event and put steps in place to further expand our reach and the way we address our mission to preserve, protect and promote the Spreckels Organ and all it means, in terms of continuing to offer quality live music to the citizens of San Diego and the world at no charge.

Wide angle view of the Spreckels Organ. Wide angle view of the Spreckels Organ.
FD: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us that would be of interest?

GS: If you ever have a chance to closely study an organist in the midst of a performance, you will see a true athlete in both the mental and physical sense of the word. To play the more complex pieces, the organist must have the ability to disconnect normal brain activity that synchronizes the hands and feet. This is the ultimate form of walking and chewing gum at the same time! Each foot plays bass notes in different rhythms and the two hands go off on their own, tickling the keys of two or more keyboards, again in different rhythms. And then, in between notes, the organist adjusts stops to change instrumentation and on occasion turns the pages of the music. On complex performances, the organist often has an assistant to turn pages and adjust stops. Practicing the necessary 5 to 6 hours a day to stay in performance shape takes a toll on the organist’s physique, straining the back, core muscles, wrist, and tendons up and down the arm and in the ankles. Most organists I know have a strict physical conditioning program with swimming, yoga, stretching and so on to prevent permanent damage to their bodies, and the top performing organists train similar to an Olympic athlete. I would like to close by noting that the Spreckels Organ has been in continuous use for 107 years, and the Society came into being in 1988 when the very existence of the organ was threatened. John D. Spreckels and his brother were true visionaries when they established the gift of offering live music at no charge to the citizens of San Diego and the world. Music truly is a universal language that can help heal the world, but we have to start with young people, get them involved, and let them see the power of good live music. Without these seeds, all the other cultural events that charge admission will wither because there will be no audiences. I would like to dedicate this article to the 1,000-plus Society members from all over the country and world, the trustees, and the officers and the professional staff that make this gift keep giving.

President Herbert Hoover speaks at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in 1935.
President Herbert Hoover speaks at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in 1935.
Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Jean Samuels, 2019 – 2021 Society president; Dale Sorenson, curator; Mitch Beauchamp, trustee; and Robert E. Lang, photographer, who were instrumental in making this article and interview happen. Color photos courtesy of Robert E. Lang, USN (Ret.), Spreckels Organ Society, and Gordon Stanley. Black and white photo courtesy of the San Diego History Center.


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