I was in the Minster twice last year. First in May for a delightful hour or so locked in alone with the Minster pipe organ and then in October to join a group celebrating the 100th birthday of former Minster organist Francis Jackson. Had I known at the time that we would be providing 2 instruments for the pipe organ ‘interregnum’ I would have paid more attention to the building and tried to work out the special challenges providing temporary digital instruments present.
Many of you will know that in April this year we installed a Regent Classic instrument to cover the organ rebuild in Canterbury. If I might paraphrase Lady Bracknell ‘to be asked to supply one great place of worship with a temporary instrument is an honour, to be asked to supply two at almost the same time seems to be a dream’.
Two organs installed at York Minster
Be that as it may, it was with great pleasure I left York on the afternoon of September 19th with both our organs playing albeit not yet ‘joined’ by midi link so they could be played in tandem.
I hope you will find the account that follows of general interest as I share with you what we provided and how it all works. There is no library book to go to for guidance of how best to install a digital organ in a big space. Perhaps we can now begin to write it?
Each location has its own particular protocol and at York much of the hard work, installing speakers and cables was relatively easy. There are 2 totally separate instruments. 3 manuals and 56 stops in the nave with 18 speakers on a large scaffold tower. In the choir 3 manuals and 50 speaking stops on 12 speakers set in what is known as the ladies chamber. You can see the location of the consoles and speakers on the marked up floor plan.
York Minster – ladies chamber
The ladies chamber is a very small gallery space set above the north side choir stalls long since fallen out of use. In Victorian times, when the choir was all male, it seems women were not allowed entry into the choir and so this gallery was created to allow lady guests sight of the choir without actually setting foot there! Today it is clearly a little used storage space which has now provided a wonderful invisible location for the speakers for the choir console.
Most of the service work will be played on this instrument allowing the organist a direct view of both singers and conductor. I wonder how the organists will adapt to this new location ,which in many respects may actually be an easier place than the loft to keep in pace with the other musicians.
York Minster – the nave
The nave organ will be used for larger, more formal services needing the additional space that nave seating affords. Here a purpose-built scaffold has been constructed on the north side facing south west across the nave and providing 3 levels high above the nave floor on which our 18 speaker cabinets are set up. Speakers always work best set high above floor level though in spaces this large and reverberant the actual speaker location very quickly becomes almost impossible to identify as numerous reflections of the sound rumble round the building.
The sub bass being on the nave floor inside the tower footprint. In a few weeks time the tower will be wrapped in cloth of almost identical colour to the stonework behind and so it is hoped it will almost blend in. In the nave the amplifier racks are close to the console at the base of the speaker tower. 3 amplifiers give 20 independent channels so providing for 2 spares if a channel should fail.
The amplifiers that can draw substantial current at the moment of start up have a staggered switch on. This avoids any current overload. In the choir the amplifiers are a 30 metre cable run from the console and also provided with a time delayed start up.
A large building like this poses a challenge
In York we could work on through the evensong service that started at 5.15. In Canterbury working through a service was most definitely not allowed even though the building is larger and our distance from the seat of the service far greater.
There are occasions when the Minster is full to bursting with both nave and choir seating fully occupied and for these occasions we have made a plan for both instruments to play from the nave console by use of midi connection. At the moment the consoles are too far apart for this to be tested but shortly the pipe organs mobile console will be moved out so allowing our console to move close to the choir screen and the second console. We will then be able to test the final part of the jigsaw and listen to the 2 instruments speaking into the 2 different spaces simultaneously but with one set of speakers in the nave and the other about 30 metres to the north I have no doubt the organist will be presented with a challenge of which sound if any to take his cue from.
In Canterbury the problem is even bigger where the nave speaker bank is about 70 meters from the console. The console sits directly below the triforium speakers and the nave sound is a full half second distant, a playing experience I found truly unworkable!
Please let us know if you visit York Minster
The pipe organ continues to be in use until October 9th (2018) which will be the first time the Minster will be relying on our 2 instruments. If you are there and hear them in use please do tell us what you think of the sound and the effectiveness of digital technology in the context of this great building.
And just in case you are curious, Minster is an honorific title given to particular churches in England. The term minster is first found in royal foundation charters of the 7th century. Although it corresponds to the Latin monasterium or monastery it then designated any settlement of clergy living a communal life and endowed by charter with the obligation of maintaining the daily office of prayer.
I have had a passion for church organs since the tender age of 12. I own and run Viscount Organs with a close attention to the detail that musicians appreciate; and a clear understanding of the benefits of digital technology and keeping to the traditional and emotional elements of organ playing.
john sireshuk says
i am sure they will sound fab is such a building
Brian Holt says
Amazing sound at the Advent Carol Service yesterday, no problem leading a capacity congregation of 1800 singing the hymns, very impressive.
David Mason says
Hi, Were you actually there or listening on their facebook post? Regards David
Alastair Hume says
Interesting to read your comments. Your name came up as having advised on the pipe organ at St James in Islington. I would be interested to know what advice you gave – I’m it would have been wise.
Alan Mellor says
I was at the Advent Procession Service yesterday, 2nd December. What an incredible sound from the hired organ. It was a pleasure to sing the congregational hymns, to fantastic accompaniment on this or these instruments. Google says 2 organs have been installed, playable together through midi. Interesting to know how yesterday’s service was set up.
David Mason says
Hello, The nave organ plays through 16 speakers on a scaffold tower near the crossing and the choir organ plays through 12 speakers above the north side choir stalls. The choir organ can be a slave to to the nave console when what is played there is duplicated on the choir instrument. I am so pleased you enjoyed it. Regards David
Heather Fish says
I was in the Minster last evening for the St Michael le Belfrey carol service and was truly mystified as to how there was an organ being played as I knew that the Grand Organ was being rebuilt. Having now read the above article I now know the answers, although I cannot really understand the technicalities. The digital organs sounded magnificent. Thank you.
Beverley Osborne says
Absolutely incredible sound at the Minster. Amazing.
John Birdsong says
Looking forward to hearing these Viscount organs in July when we will visit York. We have worshiped at the Minster many times over the years and the massive sound of the pipe organ in that amazing acoustic setting is one of my most thrilling memories of Anglican worship. Trusting that the Viscount will live up to its reputation as a fine pipe organ substitute. I have been involved with organs as both organist and as a tech and installer for various digital builders for over 40 years, and play a large Allen at my church in the US. I’ve heard many excellent Viscount organs, but not in a place as challenging as the York Minster! I’ll be sure to report on our experience this summer.
David Mason says
Hope you enjoy your visit to the UK and look forward to your thoughts on the installation in York
John Birdsong says
Well, I finally got to hear the Viscount organs at the Minster, as we are now vacationing in England. I think you did a fine job, and the organs are both quite adequate for the task.
The choir organ wasn’t used much the evening we attended, but on Sunday morning the nave organ got a real workout, and was quite impressive.
I’m an organ salesman/servicer/installer with over 40 years experience, and I am aware of the challenges of a large install such as this one, and most especially when the install is a temporary one! So, considering the constraints within which you had to work — the speaker tower as opposed to more favorable speaker placements had this been a permanent setup — it is quite amazing.
I was never aware of any straining by the speakers, and the sounds were always lovely and pleasant in every way. There was plenty of bass energy, enough to “shake” the air in the room and make us feel it in our chests!
My feeling is that the real pipe organ will have a hard time distinguishing itself when it is brought back, as most people will not be aware of any great difference in the sound of the Viscount and the pipes. This certainly shows Viscount’s technology to be up to the task of re-creating pipe sound in any environment. Good job!
David Mason says
Thank you so much for a very kind review of the set up. I am so proud to represent Viscount. Their wonderful engineering and our skill in set up and voicing give us a winning edge. While I have no doubt that pipes will continue to have an ‘edge’ for the remainder of my working life it is really good to know that the ‘alternative’ solution is a worthy temporary substitute for a great place like York Minster and a permanent option for those churches that will never be able to afford the repairs their pipe organs need. I hope you enjoy the rest of your vacation in the UK and have a safe trip home. Regards David
I came across this post yesterday and I have to say I had no idea the organ was digital! We moved to York in Feb this year and have been going to services ever since and have often commented that the sound is remarkable assuming it was pipework
Robin Dillon says
Having been an organ lover most of my life, which came about through being a member of the University Church choir in Oxford in the 1950s to 1970s, I was keen to visit the Minster and hear the organ during 3 services last weekend. I was unaware that the pipe organ had been removed for major overhaul until I saw the scaffolding.
What might have been a disaster became a rewarding experience. I attended 3 services in the choir, and the organist James Lonsdale was clearly at home with the instrument. Apart from the accompaniment of choral works, he played 2 demanding works by Messiaen and Flor Peeters as voluntaries. The effect was astonishing.
You are to be congratulated on what you have achieved. I shall return to the Minster when the organ has been re-installed, and hope to hear the Tuba Mirabilis.
Despite what you have achieved, I imagine that stop is beyond your speaker system.
I would like to know.
David Mason says
Robin, Thank you for the really positive feedback on your York visit. I expect you were listening to the smaller fo our 2 organs in the Minster. The speakers for that are above the north side choir stalls. The nave instrument has its own 16 speakers on a scaffold tower. Of course, as with any instrument, the building is a very important contributor to the final outcome but I do believe that Viscount, in particular, have taken digital organ quality and authenticity to a new level. Can we match the tuba mirabilis when it returns? Perhaps that would be a final bit of fun to try when we could allocate all 16 speaker cabinets to just that one stop! I think then we would give it a good run for the money.
Robert Bruce says
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Pierre Dosogne says
I visited Your for about a week last October. My friend and I – both RSCM American courses. We went to Evensong every evening and all the Sunday stuff
The first night there I could see the scaffolding and knew the pipes were out – but the organ sound was brilliant. Had to go to the organist and ask ” What am I hearing ” and he spoke – glowingly of your instrument. Having had to endure various electronic/digital appliances – I have to say I am impressed.