Sesquialtera  by Colin Jilks

There is something magical about modern technology, we know that it works, even if we know not how, or why. Television in the 1930s was a new technology that captured the imagination. Although the wireless was commonplace, the magic of pictures through the aether had to be seen to be believed and, even then, remained totally incomprehensible to all but the technically gifted. In 1937 Logie Baird and Marconi EMI were locked in technical combat, with Baird’s Electro-mechanical 30-line system up against EMI’s fully electronic 405 line scanning system and, of course, we all know who won. Some of us were to see the Alexandra Palace test transmissions of dance bands fronted by charming young ladies singing of “the mystic magic rays that bring television to you”, all in perfect BBC English.

But things have moved on a little since then. In our organ world “Hammonds” with their tone generators and glowing valves have given way to the digital chip and other technological wonders. However, the advertising gurus’ beguiling patter of the digital electronic organ that is now “indistinguishable from the real thing” has to be treated with caution. Technology may be a wonderful thing, and the fact that it works at all may provide its own fascination — as early television demonstrated — but we should hesitate before accepting an imitation as the real thing.

Our recent visit to Mayfield and its St. Leonards School chapel was of particular interest because of the comparison we were able to make between a modern pipe organ and a digital electronic instrument. As mentioned in our Meetings Reports, the electronic instrument may have been initially entertaining for the listener, but it was still a long way from creating a living and breathing pipe organ sound.

Some members may, indeed, have been critical of the new Walker pipe organ, but in truth it produced a quality of sound which would always engage the ear. The electronically produced organ, played through the indispensable loud speaker, has a sameness and simplicity of sound which becomes tedious, if not objectionable, in a comparatively short time, as proved the case at St. Leonards School.

Obviously, the comparison of cost does enter the equation when a church or other institution considers the purchase of a new instrument. Churches, who may opt for an electronic organ, usually do so because they say that it is cheaper. However, the figures below, published recently by the Institute of British Organ Building, suggest that the opposite is true.

The average life-span of an electronic organ is 17 years — a figure revealed by the annual surveys in The Organbuilder and Organ Building, and confirmed by analysis of electronic organs in crematorium chapels. The example used for this illustration is an electronic instrument which is being widely advertised at present, and is to be found in a variety of churches. Maintenance of electronic organs is not required for the first few years, but becomes progressively more expensive as time passes. Also parts may be difficult to replace, as they become obsolete. Pipe organs have different life-styles, but 100 years is about average for a tracker-action organ in a country parish before major restoration is required, with one lesser cleaning & overhaul during that time. The figures quoted assume one tuning visit a year.


Comparison of a two-manual tracker-action organ with

10-12 stops, and “three manuals for price of two” digital instrument.


Cost of pipe organ 2003:                            £100,000

Clean and overhaul after 50 years, at

Current cost of £15,000                             *£64,000

Annual maintenance: 100 years @ £100   *£61,000

Total cost of pipe organ:                          £225,000                    



Cost of digital organ 2003:                                £15,000

Average life 17 years

Replacement cost after 17 years           *£24,071

                                                34 years           *£39,785

                                                51 years           *£65,759

                                                68 years           *£108,689

                                                85 years           *£179,646

  Maintenance                                                   *£17,000

 (based on £100 p.a. for latter half of life)

 Total cost of digital organ     £449,949


  * Allows for inflation @ 3% p.a.


It is obvious that the electronic approach is not, long term, the cheapest option. Space for a pipe organ may prove difficult in small churches or in the home, but given a suitable location a pipe organ will undoubtedly be the best option.

When space is at a premium, electronics can, however, prove useful. There are many pipe organs, some in quite prestigious locations, which have used electronics in adding that elusive 32ft pedal tone. This apparent heresy can be introduced into a pipe organ only if the lowest 32ft pitch is strictly used, allowing the real pedal 16ft, 8ft, and 4ft pipes to provide the full harmonic sequence and tonal colour helping to mask the electronic’s deficiencies.

Beyond this limited deep-pedal use electronics become obvious, as was demonstrated this year by the collaboration between the pipe organ builder Peter Collins and Allen electronics. Peter Collins provided some six or seven ranks of real pipes to supplement an electronic organ installed in the Parish Church of Trönö, in central Sweden. The Carlo Curley CD recorded to demonstrate the instrument, although dashingly played, was most unconvincing and, in truth, it was just the well-known “Allen electronic” in sound and colour. Carlo Curley is well known for his promotion of Allen electronics, but then, perhaps, the true costs of providing and maintaining pipe organs should be more widely published and considered.

The “man on the Clapham omnibus” may not be aware of the electronic organ’s shortcomings as is often painfully illustrated by any film or television programme which depicts an organist, whether it be at a small village church pipe organ or playing something larger; the organ we hear is always an electronic, usually of cathedral proportions.  But those of us who are charged with the responsibilities of organ installation or maintenance should be fully aware and act accordingly. We live in changing and sometimes difficult times for our pipe organs and raised awareness of what the “real thing” has to offer can only be to everyones advantage.


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