The organ “battle” is a classic format for an exciting concert, often involving a substantial digital instrument pitted against the venue’s venerable pipe organ.
If you can get yourself to Selby in Yorkshire on Friday 3rd September at 7.30 pm, there’ll be a chance to hear internationally renowned organists Martin Baker and John Scott Whiteley duel it out, as described in more detail in Battle of the Organs – Selby Abbey. The “battle” is between the abbey’s recently restored Hill pipe organ, and a top-end Regent Classic digital installation, involving its beautifully crafted Skinner-style console.
In a bid to give the Regent Classic organ its best preparation for playing against the Hill, I spent an intense couple of days up in Selby last week with my laptop and a pair of ears. The aim—to voice the digital instrument as well as possible for an audience in the nave, considering that the pipe organ speaks primarily into the choir area.
The Hill is a remarkably powerful beast, especially the reeds, but sounds much more reverberant in the nave than the digital instrument, whose loudspeakers are mounted in the first five or six arches of the triforium. There’s also an important question of balance between the two instruments, as the pipe organ has lost a certain amount of loudness by the time one is halfway down the nave, whereas the digital organ hasn’t.
The first job, then, having wheeled the Skinner console into something resembling a performance position, was to play and listen to the Hill from its nave console.
The Hill has two consoles, one fixed in the choir, the other moveable on a platform in the nave. I needed to get a sense of what I was aiming at in terms of loudness, overall timbre in various combinations, power of reeds, balance of top and bottom ends, and the like.
While I wasn’t aiming to make the Regent Classic sound exactly like the Hill, I didn’t want it to sound so dramatically different that the duel sounded like “chalk and cheese”. For a listener in the middle-front of the nave I wanted the two to be reasonably balanced.
Having got a sense of the Hill, it was time for an extended session with the laptop voicing the Regent Classic.
The Physis system has a vast amount of flexibility for the voicer, with numerous different basic voice models, and a large number of parameters that can be varied. With 12 audio channels to play with, plus a sub-bass unit installed under the pulpit, there were also numerous options for routing of stops, including two channels going to loudspeakers mounted at the west end. As one might expect, these were ideal candidates for a thrilling fanfare trumpet, and not much else.
With most loudspeakers up in the triforium, it turned out to be well-nigh impossible to distinguish clearly between individual loudspeakers (an excellent demonstration of the blending effect of reverberation.) I even managed to enlist the help of a few musical tourists to play some things while I wandered around the building.
The digital organ also has a useful recording sequencer option that allowed me to record an extended improvisation over various tone colours and registrations, once I had a voicing I felt reasonably happy with, playing back the performance while I walked the length of the nave.
Once all the visitors had gone for the afternoon, I had the privilege of a key to the Abbey, and a lock-in for a few hours in the evening until my ears had lost their objectivity. A return to the Hill’s console for another comparison between the two instruments was a useful final step before heading off to the pub.
Thankfully, I was able to return to the Abbey early in the morning to do some more work before another booking was due to throw me out. With fresh ears, and another listen to the Hill, I found myself pleased with the previous day’s efforts, almost more pleased than the day before, which was good.
A few minor tweaks to the voicing were made (there’s always something you can decide you need to modify!), then careful saving of all the settings, and making sure I left some instructions for the organists who were starting to rehearse on Monday.
Get there if you can, and let me know what you thought!
I’m a consultant for Viscount & Regent Classic Organs, with a background in music and audio engineering. I’m consultant technical writer and editor for the AES Journal, as well as being organist/choirmaster at St Mary’s, Witney. I sing with Oxford Pro Musica Singers and the Cathedral Singers of Christ Church, Oxford.