The enchanting sound of the pipe organ has resonated through the centuries, captivating listeners’ imaginations with its grandeur and mystery. Different from the development of most other musical instruments, the pipe organ has tracked both cultural and technological developments across history. As such, it is a fascinating mirror of the time period in which it is created. In this blog post, Meta Organworks CEO and Artistic Director, Dan Lemieux, gives a brief introductory glimpse into the world of virtual pipe organs (VPO), unraveling their intricate workings, capabilities, and their transformative impact on the long and rich pipe organ tradition.
What is a VPO anyway? Demystifying the Virtual Pipe Organ
A virtual pipe organ is a playable, digital replica of an actual acoustic pipe organ made through sophisticated recording techniques. At the heart of a Meta Virtual Pipe Organ is the groundbreaking sound engine, Hauptwerk. For over 20 years, Hauptwerk software has allowed organists to experience iconic pipe organs from across history and around the world. Hauptwerk has the incredible ability to replicate famous historic organs, right down to visuals of the stop jambs, with great precision.
Hauptwerk utilizes “sample sets” which are virtual replicas of complete acoustic pipe organs built by master organ builders. These sample sets are constructed by audio experts who “loop” meticulously recorded, pipe-by-pipe samples of real, world class pipe organs. Each pipe’s attack, sustain, and release are recorded as WAV files by multiple microphones and combined in the programming of the sample set. The multiple microphone technique allows the sample set producer to realistically recreate both the sound of the pipe (including any “flaws” that contribute to a pipe organ’s rich sound) and the original room’s acoustic. All these WAV files are combined by Hauptwerk software, in real time, when you pull a stop and press a key. Let’s use the Cavaille-Coll (St. Etienne, Caen, France) sample set as an example. When you pull the Grand Orgue 8’ Montre on the virtual stop jamb, and press middle C on the Grand Orgue manual of the VPO console, what you hear coming from your speakers (or headphones) is an actual recording of this real pipe organ’s 8’ Montre middle C pipe. Every single pipe is meticulously recorded and programmed.
There are no pipes in this pipe organ! Addressing the Elephant in the Room
Let’s get this out in the open: In Virtual Pipe Organs, there are no pipes! Some of you reading this may find this problematic, troublesome, or off-putting. As an acoustic pipe organ technician, I understand and used to relate to those sentiments.
For much of my 25-year career as a traditional pipe organ builder, I have largely ignored digital pipe organs. I dismissed any digital organ as a pale imitation of the “real deal” and rejected the idea that they could convincingly emulate the sounds of a traditional pipe organ. In 2015, when I was introduced to Hauptwerk, I experienced a metanoia (a complete, personal change of heart). It wasn’t long after this introduction that I realized if you surround Hauptwerk with the right console hardware, computing technology, and sound system, you can develop a truly musical instrument, worthy of both practice and performance. It excels at the faithful recreation of the pipe organ’s tonal qualities and characteristics, and far surpasses its earlier digital predecessors. So, I set out to build the best hardware platform to surround Hauptwerk.
By combining all Hauptwerk’s innovations with my skills from two plus decades of maintaining, tuning, and voicing acoustic pipe organs, we’re able to produce an instrument that comes closer to digitally replicating the sounds of a traditional pipe organ than ever before. While I largely leave the sample sets alone to preserve the original vision of the master organ builder, Hauptwerk does allow for tweaks to the voicing of each individual pipe sample. Occasionally, I will dial back a note with a frequency that stands out in the room or smooth out some of the egregious irregularities but I more or less “leave it alone.” I am a firm believer in respecting the original organ builder’s vision. What I do change is the speaker placement to ensure the Meta Organ’s optimal speech into the room. I also trim the reverb so each organ sample set makes psychoacoustic sense in the room. By trimming the reverb, it allows for the reverberation of the organ, singers, and other instruments to be similar. It can be psychologically jarring when the reverberation of the organ artificially rings on past the choir or other instruments. The modifications I do add to the realism of the instrument. When I’m making these adjustments (and selecting sample sets), I really listen for what comes out of the speaker to be like what I hear in the chamber as I tune all these hours. Yes, it is true there are no pipes in a Meta Organ but by applying the same principles I do in my traditional pipe organ work, I find the end result to be just as musical and captivating as an acoustic pipe organ.
Please do not confuse my enthusiasm for Virtual Pipe Organs as an indication that I’ve left the world of traditional pipe organs behind! While I’ve had a change of heart and stopped dismissing digital as an artistic medium, I’m not making wild claims that virtual pipe organs categorically “beat” acoustic pipe organs. Quite the contrary. In my humble opinion, nothing can beat a well-maintained high-quality acoustic pipe organ, especially in a fantastic room. But the truth of the matter is, not all acoustic pipe organs are great and about half of the churches have already gone with older style digital organs. Quite a few of the remaining churches who utilize acoustic pipe organs in their worship financially struggle with their upkeep. That’s why I made Meta Organworks’ mission two-fold:
Provide an egalitarian option for churches and individuals that disseminates great pipe organs from around the world thereby enhancing the pipe organ tradition with the tech tools of our day and age.
Build the best hardware and audio system that lets Hauptwerk’s audio engine capabilities shine. To bring the virtual pipe organ to life, powerful and high-quality hardware components are essential. A carefully selected audio interface, state-of-the-art speakers, and a high-performance computer groomed to uni-task as a live performance instrument, all combine in a Meta Organ to best express the pipe samples.
Integrating VPOs with traditional pipe organs. The Hauptwerk Hybrid solution
Hauptwerk and Meta Organ consoles can fully integrate with traditional acoustic pipe organs. A Meta Organ can act as a switching system, add additional voices to an existing acoustic organ, and even augment existing ranks that have several dead notes that can’t be repaired without extensive and costly restoration work. A church who needs to raise funds for restorations can install a VPO and when funds become available, hybridize their Meta VPO into their renovated pipe organ.
Exploring the benefits of VPOs to organists and the pipe organ tradition
The rise of virtual pipe organs has brought numerous advantages to musicians, organists, and music enthusiasts. The benefits of virtual instruments, such as the unparalleled flexibility to access various organ sounds and styles, the portability that allows musicians to perform in a variety of locations, and the affordability compared to traditional pipe organs, all secure the Virtual Pipe Organ’s place as one of the most important organ technology innovations.
One of the major benefits of VPOs is that by virtually replicating an entire instrument, Hauptwerk allows organists, myself included, to have an immersive experience and study the sounds and playing techniques of various organs that may be otherwise inaccessible to us. I’ll admit that Hauptwerk has even filled gaps in my knowledge of all the ins and outs of the different styles of organ building. Gaps I didn’t even know I had. But playing all these different styles of organs didn’t just fill in knowledge gaps for me. What VPOs really did for me was renew my passion for the pipe organ.
Interacting with VPO technology also prompted me to travel to acoustic pipe organs around the world (some sampled for use in Hauptwerk). I’m not alone in this, as VPOs have sparked an uptick in pipe organ tourism. By drawing attention to these masterpiece organs, VPOs are lending a hand in strengthening the pipe organ tradition, as well as the churches that allow their pipe organ’s to be sampled.
With the “many-organs-in-one” approach, more diverse music can be played “successfully.” Pieces can be played on instruments they were composed for, as well as their school of organ building. For example, Baroque compositions, such as the works of Bach and Buxtehude, can be played on Baroque instruments, and French composers, like Franck and Messiaen, can be registered and played more successfully on a French Romantic Organ. Because of the wide variety of organs available, an organist does not have to “settle” and register pieces around the limitations of the instrument.
Last but certainly not least, virtual pipe organ technology is more affordable and therefore more egalitarian. With VPOs, churches and other institutions (such as the Groton Hill Music Center) have access to the tonal resources of many organs that would cost millions of dollars to build as acoustic organs. VPOs are less expensive, do not go out of tune, and consume less physical space in the venue, making them a financially viable solution for individuals, churches and other institutions that want a wide variety of tonal resources but have constraints that make an acoustic pipe organ impossible.