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Mark Goes To Church! (to Record The Organ, Silly!)

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Jul 15 2005, 02:26 AM

I just got back from the Cathedral in Hartford, CT where I heard the Austin organ demonstrated for me by the assistant music director. This is one of the larger cathedrals in the eastern US.

We talked about numerous recording possibilities, including orchestrating unconventional renditions and adapting them to the organ (ie, a piece normally played by an orchestra, adapted to organ).

I also spoke to the organist, who lit up when I mentioned the great Bavo Organ in the Netherlands, and my experience with it by proxy of having bought the Post Organ Toolkit samples for my Kurzweil. The organist at this church has played the Bavo organ! He's been around the world and all over Europe, performing.

He gave me a copy of a recording that someone had made for the fortieth year dedication of the church (it was built in 1962) and I am listening to Widor's Symphonie V. He is darned good! He's got the sense of passion in his performance, so I have no issues with the performance or the cathedral acoustics.

The issues that the assistant music director raised were that, depending on the season, the stained glass windows rattle when the 32' stops are played. I noted this too during the demonstration. His solution to mask this was to add some 16' and 8' mix to enrich the harmonic overtones and cover some of the rattling. It was not too bad, actually.

My overall impression is that the organ wasn't as loud as I had expected. The 32' pedals, even full out, didn't cause my heart to stop, or cause difficulty breathing, the way I would listen to organ on my own custom sound system. So I have some rethinking to do about how I adjust my playback system for organ music. Perhaps fourteen 18" woofers is way overkill for reproducing 16Hz.

At any rate, the assistant music director explained to me that this organ is not so much suited to Baroque as to modern and French impressionist music, because of the way the voicing works. He explained that in contrast to a mechanical organ of Bach's era, this Austin, built in 1962, uses electro magnetic switching (solenoids) to actuate the valves that let air into the pipes. The mechanical organs could actually, through the way the organist presses the keys, vary the flow of air and affect the way each pipe 'speaks'. The more modern electro-actuated organs have no such controlability, and are more like a MIDI keyboard that has no velocity sensing.

The tone of the organ is quite nice though a bit darker than most that I've heard. I think it's possibly due to the immense size of this cathedral (108' ceiling, 298' length of the gallery) that the higher frequencies are being absorbed.

After the demo, we talked about the prospect of a commercial release. He liked the idea. And he invited me to come again when they have a full symphony orchestra and a 300-person choir performing. The Altar is large enough to encompass a full symphonic orchestra. And we talked about the prospect of expanding beyond just making organ recordings, to doing other types of music involving orchestral performances.

The possibilities make me feel giddy!

Everyone was friendly and seemed delighted that someone was taking an interest in making a serious recording.

I did have my expectations rather high, especially after he told me that the 32' pedal is loud enough to overload the Neumann U-87s that they have flown from the gallery. My experience with it was that at floor level the 32' stops were quite tame. Perhaps I have to get my mics way up there to get the sound.

Working a venue this size with 8 mics is going to involve a mammoth amount of cable! Especially if I get fancy and decide to mount some extra mics up in the catwalk at the 108' level! Just getting around this cathedral requires a degree of physical agility--many flights of stairs just to get to the choir loft where the organ controls are.

They asked to see examples of my work, and fortunately, I have just completed a symphony concert 3 weeks ago, and pressed the rough evaluation DVD for the client. With the client's permission, I will forward a copy to the Church for review.

This is looking very promising. Great cathedral, great organist, and a top-notch organ to record. It sounds rather like the one in Toulouse, France, but darker in tone. If I can figure out where the 32' tones reinforce, I'll have a winning combination. The recording they made 3 years ago seems to dominate around 60hz and there is barely any 16hz fundamental to be found on it. I hope that I can do better. Perhaps I'll bring an oscilloscope and attach it to the output of my MotU 896 and have the organist play the lowest of the 32' pedals while I move a mic around and look for the highest ratio of fundamental. I know that all acoustic spaces have areas where they reinforce the lowest notes.

What remains to be done is to prepare a repetoire and contracts and decide what the object of the recording session is to be. One thing is evident: this is going to be exciting and enjoyable!

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