In 1982, while at Harvard, we received one of the fastest computers for the time, a Nicolet 1280 with an 800 ns cycle time (1.25 MHz!). I wrote a program in assembly language to input the notes and to play them. Each of the 4 voices (trumpet, flute1, flute2, organ) was defined by three 256-entry tables for attack, sustain, decay. The input program was relatively easy, the playing program was more complex: it ran under interrupts at 10 kHz thus giving a bandwidth of 5 kHz (the trebles were not very good). The first piece I transcribed was JS Bach BWV-147 “Jesus, bleibet meine Freude”. Remember, that was 40 years ago: sound cards did not exist. The only way to output a sound was a single 12-bit digital-to-analog converter! Here it is:
Fast forward: December 8, 2000.
At that time, I had just acquired a kit from Castlewood Busker Organ (Western Australia) when, looking at ebay, a small pipe organ was being sold for $1,000 with 8 minutes to go in the auction. I got it and on December 25, 2000 we left for Smithfield, Virginia. The organ was located at the Church of the Good Shepherd.
With the help of the local pipe organ person, we loaded the 600 pipes, windchests and blower (minus the keyboard) in the Volkswagen.
Having never touched a pipe organ, I was a little bit worried about how to put it back together. I discovered the pipe organ people are very methodical and that everything has a specific mark, which made things easier. On December 30, the whole thing was re-assembled in our house and pipes were able to speak…
Five years later
November 2005, we moved to our new house which had a space reserved for the pipe organ. We had first to move the pipes from the old house to the new house next door: “Party of 50: your table is ready”. The pipes were moved in 2 hours, plenty of food and wine after that.
In the meantime, I was given a set of Deagan Chimes for service rendered at South Main Baptist Church. I was planning to install them at the back and had already built the support. Pascal and I were drinking some nice white wine (Chateau Carbonnieux) and one of us (?) got the idea. Install them in front of the other pipes. That’s what I did.
It was time to install a keyboard and to write some software to drive the whole thing. Windows XP was the only choice and I got some very sophisticated boards to drive the pipes. The programs are written in Visual Basic 6. I had found a dual keyboard (very bouncy !) and a pedal board. A touch screen display was used to select the stops and the score (Pdf file) appeared on the central screen. The legs of both the console and the bench came from Ikea! Only 18 stops, but that was a start.
The first concert took place on October 26, 2007 with Pierre Pincemaille at the keyboard, whom I had met through my friend Pascal Boissonnet. The first piece that was played was the famous Toccata and Fugue BWV565 by J.S. Bach. The improvisation was based on the D3-E3-C3-C4-G3 theme from “Close Encounter of the Third Kind”. When Pierre played the 5 notes to indicate the theme, the whole crowd erupted in laughter. Pierre look at me like: "Did I do something wrong?". I had to explain and everything went right. About 35 people were present. It was a success.
And here, I want to thank Pascal Boissonnet for voicing and tuning the organ in a fabulous way. Without him, the organ would have just been a bunch of pipes. He converted it into a (small?) cathedral organ. Pascal died April 23, 2012. He was the little brother I never had.
And here is a video of Pascal tuning my organ
Over the years, several ranks of pipes were added: Chamade (trumpets) from St. John the Divine and from ebay: Vox Humana, Piccolo, Salicional, Clairon (for which I had to make windchests) and, the cherry on the cake, a Toy Counter.
When silent movies were shown, it was traditional to have a pipe organ (theater pipe organ) with various percussion sounds, such as drums, castanets, whistle, triangle, etc. My toy counter, built in the 1920’s, has 15 “instruments”, playable from all keyboards and pedal board. It took me 6 years of carefully watching eBay to find one… and to buy it.
I also got a very good four-manual keyboard for … $100!
And we had more concerts with Pierre Pincemaille.
In 2012, I acquired a 1,200-pipe organ from a guy in California (near San Luis Obispo). Pascal and I flew there and drove back in a Penske Rental truck. We stored everything in the garage. The following week, the windchests were moved upstairs, thanks to Marcus and Clark. Legs were added to the three big windchests, bellows and blower installed. Only the pipes were missing and my friend Pascal died...
That's when I decided to build a lift to haul the pipes from the garage to the room. It took me three month to build the lift but It took me almost three years to complete the new organ.
The inauguration concert happened on November 14, 2015 with organist Pierre Pincemaille.
Pierre was irritated because the organ did not perform the way he wanted, but he had refused to test it until the last minute. Five hours before the concert, I was still modifying the software and two hours before I had my soldering iron working not stop to repair a connector! You cannot add 1,200 pipes and expect everything to work right! That was his last concert on this organ!
In 2016, there was no concert. I had broken my tibia and fibula, missing five steps at Dolce Vita Pizzeria on Westheimer because of slippery steps on November 3, 2016.
In 2017, when the Astros won the World Series, Crista Miller, organist at the co-cathedral of Houston, did this rendition on the organ.
The Great Organ
The great organ, the one you see when entering the living room, looks like this: it contains 1,122 pipes divided into 25 stops. These 25 stops are shared between 3 manuals.
Real moon! No Photoshop!
To finish up the organ, Pascal made a sculpted pipe. Only a few people in the world can make that. You can see it at the bottom of the photo above.
The Swell Division
In a pipe organ, the intensity of the sound cannot be changed. The way to modify it is to enclose a set of pipes in a room with louvers that can be opened and closed by a pedal action on the console: the Swell Division with 1,402 pipes. The new organ being installed in a different room, became easy to convert it into a swell. Without knocking down the walls, I used the door to the room to perform that function.
The console consists of 2 touch screen monitors on each side of the keyboard. The middle screen displays the musical score (.pdf). Thanks to a pushbutton installed on the side of the keyboard, one can advance the pages of the music sheet. 14 pushbuttons can also be assigned to various combinations.
Communication between the console and the organs proper is through a one-way RF channel (wireless). The Visual Basic code, VB6, used to control the whole instrument, is approximately 2,500 lines!!!
The left screen controls two manuals (25 stops each) and the pedal (18 stops). The three stops at the pedal are electronic and generate 3 different sounds at 32' pitch. A special amplifier/speaker combo coupled to a (capricious) Rodgers MX-200 allows reproductions of sounds down to 15 Hz, up to 300 Hz. Programming the MX-200 is done through MIDI SysEx messages.
The right screen controls the Swell (27 stops – 1,402 pipes). The swell can be coupled with the Great and/or the Pedal. The 4th manual is also controlled from this screen (25 stops).
The Crescendo Pedal
Over time, I added several features: a crescendo pedal and a swell pedal.
The first crescendo pedal mechanism was a failure I bought from Organ Supplies (left on the photo). It had bouncing contacts, and debouncing them did not work. Thanks to my 3D-printer, I was able to design a system using one IR-transmitter and 8 IR-receivers, perfectly separated from each other, which gave me a smooth crescendo.
In a standard pipe organ, the organist cannot really control what pipes are used in the crescendo. In this organ, each stage of the crescendo can be pre-defined by the organist and a different crescendo can be assigned to a different combination (matrix), giving the organist possibilities that are not achieved in standard organs.
And that’s it. No space left for more pipes!