A few years ago I found myself in some woods having a picnic with a Vicar, a Churchwarden and an Organist. This was the highlight of the day in question, mostly because it involved food. Earlier that day we had visited another organist who lived in a shed, somewhere far removed from the normal civilised world. Also residing in this shed were a number of digital church organs.
When I was 13, I was inspired to take up studies on the Organ because there was a rather fine instrument located in the School Chapel. Complete with lots of pipes, it was a proper 2 manual tracker action pipe organ which stood proud on a stage at the West end of the Chapel. Aside of being the furthest point from the Rugby pitch, my organ studies opened up a whole new world of opportunity. I discovered that outside the confines of the school grounds, there were many fine organs in churches and cathedrals across the land. Moreover, if you plied the resident organist with enough beer then usually they were quite happy to let even the likes of me have a go.
As a result, last weekend I found myself in charge of the mighty Harrison Organ located in Coventry Cathedral. Complete with 88 stops and an array of pipes reaching from floor to ceiling either side of the Altar, this is everything a cathedral organ should be. Compared to many it is a relatively new instrument, despite getting on for 60 years old. When the Cathedral was reduced to ruins in an air raid in November 1940, the fine ‘Father’ Willis organ of 1886 (identical to that in Truro Cathedral) was totally destroyed. The building of the new Cathedral presented the opportunity for a brand new organ to match it. Harrison & Harrison were appointed in 1952 and a provisional specification was drawn up which resulted in the instrument being completed some ten years later.
Whilst I was away in Coventry, a brand new organ was installed at the Church of St Thomas a Becket where I am ‘Organist in Residence’. This instrument was the eventual result of that picnic back in 2013 and is a Wyvern Digital Organ. Electronic organs always present a dilemma for me. Like most organists, I believe that pipe organs are far superior to their digital counterpart. But this comes at a price. In 2010, Harrison & Harrison installed a new organ at Bury St Edmunds and the cost was well over £1 million. Most Parish Churches do not have access to such funds. Even a modest pipe organ will cost upwards of £50,000 not to mention the ongoing cost of maintenance and tuning.
For St Thomas, a digital organ was the only sensible option. Even ignoring the costs of a pipe organ, there was nowhere sensible to locate it. At the end of the day our choice of instrument came down to two contrasting Digital organs. One by Viscount and one from Wyvern.
Personally I favoured the Viscount option as their organs, despite being digital make use of the very latest technology to produce a sound as close as possible to a Pipe Organ. Viscount call this technology Physis.
Physis is a computer generated physical model of an organ pipe. The model can be manipulated in just the same way as a pipe voicer would approach an organ pipe. The model defines the pipe bore mouth size and position material of manufacture etc and by manipulation of upwards of 20 parameters the sound is defined. The same model runs across the entire keyboard compass so there is a smooth transition of sound without any noticeable break points that can sometimes be heard in sampled sound instruments.
One of the best things about Viscount organs is they remain upgradable. So when new software comes out which benefits the instrument, Viscount will make this available free of charge to their customers.
Wyvern, by contrast, just went out with a fairly cheap microphone, recorded the organ of Chichester Cathedral and uploaded this to their instrument. As a result all you end up with is a reproduction of an instrument which was designed for a completely different space. It’s a bit like playing a CD through a low quality hi fi.
After many meetings and a few more trips out to listen to a variety of organs, the PCC at St Thomas decided to ignore my advice and purchase a Wyvern instrument solely because they had heard a very nice example in Devizes. What they failed to consider was that the Wyvern instrument in Devizes was a custom build and had a wide array of different stops which were connected to superior speakers and located in a much bigger space.
This of course, is the danger of decision by committee – particularly as the final decision was made by people who never even went to listen to any of the instruments! As a result the new organ that was chosen has a virtually identical specification to the old one and offers nothing new. It is certainly nothing like the instrument in Devizes which everyone raved about!
Furthermore, the installation has been compromised by having cheaper speakers located in the wrong part of the church. It turns out the Managing Director of Wyvern Organs isn’t that good at doing site surveys and the speaker location he proposed, following a visit to the church, was impossible to achieve!
Having since played the new organ at St Thomas, to be fair it isn’t too bad. Some of the quieter flute stops are rather nice. But the louder mixtures and reeds (those stops which produce the ‘full’ organ sound) are, for my liking, particularly unpleasant on the ear. Unlike the Viscount, you cannot upgrade or change a Wyvern organ so let’s hope the congregation get used to this new sound.
Jules Addison is Organist in Residence at St Thomas a Becket and also plays the organ for Quorum at various Cathedrals throughout the UK