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Let Fifteen Organs Bloom


Groton Hill Music Center’s astonishing facility [see my accounts HERE and HERE] includes a fascinating Meta Organworks “organ of organs, “a collection of 15 significant historical instruments sampled to a fare-the-well by Hauptwerk. Last Thursday titulaire organist Randy Steere led us through the power and charms of the virtual St. Etienne Cavaille-Coll, French romantic organ (and four other) teleported to Groton through digital magic and the brute force of 48 massive loudspeakers transmitting nearly 50,000 watts of undistorted power last Thursday. We lard this interview with video snippets from that encounter. In the fullness of time Steere promises to reveal the charms of the other 14 examples the four-manual console comprises in its memory banks. A review of the instrument’s debut with the Vista Philharmonic Orchestra is HERE. An executive slide show is HERE

FLE: So I am standing before an organ of organs.

The builder took the name Meta Organworks partly because it can encompass an almost limitless number of complete sampled instruments. So among our 15 instruments we have all of the major organ styles: Italian Renaissance; German, French and Spanish Baroque; French, English, American Romantic/Cathedral/Symphonic. We have a theater organ here.  We have American eclectic, Rosales, Casavant, Æolian-Skinner, and an E.M. Skinner. So a wide variety to play all kinds of music.

RS: And what you said that interests me is that you can only use stops that belong to a particular organ at any one time.

The whole point of this, which is what makes it a virtual pipe organ, is when you load the organ you are loading just that entire instrument. I can’t take a stop from the French organ and mix it with the German organ. Because the whole design is for you to play it authentically as the organ builder intended. It is possible to have a consultant (only those that Hauptwerk has licensed) “extend” an organ.  Much like we do all the time with electronic extensions to pipe organs, a consultant could take a 16’ stop and create a 32’ stop from it.  They could take a trumpet, copy it and voice it into an en Chamade or Tuba.  They might take the clarinet from the swell and “borrow” it to the choir.  But this is still using the original sounds with the original ambiance.  Some sample sets allow that, others are encrypted and locked down so that is not possible. With electronic organs it’s not that way. I could pick the French version of this flute with the German version of this reed or even pick from a generic laundry list of stops. It’s not a specific instrument, so there’s no integrity.

With Hauptwerk, if you want to download new sampled instruments, that’s something you can do at any time?

Typically you purchase and download them over the internet. They are gigabytes in size, but if you have high speed internet it doesn’t take long at all and you just put it on a thumb drive or flash drive and put it in the USB port. There’s an install in Hauptwerk and in about 20 – 30 minutes you can have it up and running.

And the individual sample sets?

Typically they cost less than a thousand dollars each. So once you buy the Hauptwerk software, computer, audio hardware, the keyboards and console, adding an organ is minuscule. Think about a church that puts in a Hauptwerk and a new organist prefers a different style of organ (a very common occurrence with pipe organs).  Rather than play an organ the organist doesn’t like for years, the church can easily and inexpensively add another organ!

So you don’t do any specific voicing to stops within each organ the way some electronic organ builders do?

Minimally. Most sample sets come with a mixer page and all of the samples are in six or eight channel stereo. Two stereo channels are as close to the pipes as one can get in the original church called Direct or Dry. And what we call the Diffuse comes from the middle of the building and two in the back are called the Rear. Six channels are typical, and then nowadays, they’ve gotten to eight channels so they put two others, depending on the room, where they think they would best be situated and usually call them Distant. And then I have direct access to these channels through the mixer. This organ we’re looking at is an eight-channel stereo so here’s Direct, Diffuse, Distant and Rear. You see I have Distant and Rear turned off because that’s basically giving me ambiance. And in the concert hall, I want to be Direct and use the hall’s ambiance. So I’ve got Direct turned on and I put the Diffuse up to get the volume I need and adjust the sweetness of the sound. Setting the overall volume level and then optimizing the mixer for the room are the two most important things to do for voicing and part of the artistry.  There can be “bad” installations of Hauptwerk where people messed this all up – usually home installations!  But that’s also how we learn.

All organs have that essential Sfz button, but does this instrument include a button to revert to default settings if you mess up?

Yes, there is. Everything has a reset, which is good.

But this is for a whole sampled organ, you’re not looking at individual stops with this?

This is doing the whole organ. However, I can go stop by stop. Note by note. Channel by channel.  And I can adjust volume, brightness, reverberation and many other settings, like tremulant speed and depth.  However, I want to minimize this as I would end up with a Randy Steere mongrel organ, not a Cavaille-Coll!  I want to be as authentic and faithful to the organ builder as possible.

Groton Hill has excellent acoustics, it’s even across the tonal spectrum. You might get a sample set that was sampled in a building that didn’t have equal acoustics and it could be that the organ is putting out a louder “A”, because that’s a dead note in that building. So occasionally you have to adjust it up or down to make it equal again in this building.

In other buildings there might well be issues with poor response that you would need to adjust for.  All of this is where the artistry of a Meta Organworks comes in.

But one would think when they are building the electronic version of the organ that they would even things out to some extent?

It depends on the sample set maker. Some sample set makers are purist and you’re going to get whatever was recorded in the building. Various other sample set makers are more practical and say, well it doesn’t make sense to have an “A” loud because that’s probably not what you want anywhere else.

So, it depends on the sample set maker. There are various individuals who go around sampling organs and submitting these samples?

That’s right. The one we like the most is Sonus Paradisi. They’re out of Europe and they do excellent quality. You can get some very poor quality sample sets, you know. I could just go buy a recorder and microphone and do a sample set, but it wouldn’t sound very good.  You have to record it when there’s no traffic noise or trains, subways, ambulances, etc. going by.  You have to de-noise it after the fact for ambient noise as well, like the blower, heating system, lights, etc.

You have to check each note when creating a sample set?

Oh yes. Note by note, wav file by wav file really.  Every note is actually sampled three or four ways so that we get the speech of the attack and the decay of the pipe. It’s sampled staccato, then marcato and finally elongated. It’s sampled with tremolo on and with tremolo off. It’s sampled with the swell box open and swell box closed, depending on the instrument, to feed the swell box modelling algorithm. All of those are different wav files and Hauptwerk knows which of those samples to take based upon my playing. So that’s why it’s far more complex and that’s why it’s so realistic.

Any particular stop or full instrument you’d love to have sampled someday?

Oh, an English Cathedral organ. We have the Hereford Cathedral, which is a great organ but the sample set is mediocre. And Sonus Paradisi has yet to sample a really nice Father Willis English Cathedral organ. I’ve asked them three or four times. So that’s one that, while we have it here, we would take a better one if it came out.

So what about Wannamaker’s Department Store or the Convention Hall in Atlantic City? That would be a humongous sample set, right? That would be more of a novelty, right?

It’s not something you would teach on a lot. It’s mainly for a novelty thing. We do have a few of those. We tried the Budapest Palace des Artes which is huge. We bought it because it has 64’ stops (another novelty which Atlantic City has as well). It’s like 60 gigabytes or something. But the quality was not good and we didn’t use it.

Can you play with various tunings and temperaments?

One can use the original temperament of the organ or instantly change to any of the many temperaments that are built into Hauptwerk, including equal.  One can also purchase additional temperaments if desired. In addition, one can select the original pitch of the organ, go to A440 or any other pitch as desired, adjusting by cents.  Then one can transpose up or down by half tones as desired. I think the orchestra is very pleased they don’t have to worry about the organ tuning as the hall heats up or cools down!

So tell me a little bit about the Meta Organworks Company. They make the console. They load the software but they don’t create any samples themselves.

That’s correct, they don’t create sample sets.  They determine the computer and scale of the audio components and match all the components for the building.  It’s very important to get the correct hardware so that it all works together well.  It’s important to select appropriate sample sets for the size of the organ (2, 3 or 4 manuals) and the intent of the building.  Meta Organworks has very nice looking consoles as well.  They really provide the expertise and advice for a professional turnkey installation.  They were indispensible to the Groton Hill project and I consider them to be the best in the country!

Before I even knew a firm like Meta Organworks existed, I went to the Boston AGO convention where I first heard a Hauptwerk in the vendor hall with headphones on, and that sold me. So I just went home and bought all of the pieces and put it together myself.  That’s what many individuals do in their home.

On some sort of a sampling keyboard or on what?

No, I actually bought from a firm in Canada, an inexpensive console, midi organ keyboards with key cheeks, and pedalboard. I wired it up – it’s fairly easy to put it all together if you’re at all comfortable with computers and audio.  And it sounded pretty good. But it’s not a professional installation. I didn’t scale the sound system for the room and I didn’t balance anything. I didn’t know about all that back then. I just got something experimental going, but I got excited about playing the organ again – it allowed the music to come alive!

But that’s still what you’re using at home when you’re practicing?

Well, I’ve since upgraded, okay, from talking with Meta. So, I’ve replaced my speakers with better speakers. I put Dante in. I’ve still got the basic console, keyboards and all of that.

Dante is an operating system that’s the ethernet connection, right?

Right. That allows me to take my organ to churches to give concerts. I can just turn the audio up because I’ve scaled it now.  I can fill a 250-seat church with my instrument.

So Meta analyzed the Groton space and figured out what speakers and how many speakers we needed, how the channels were going to divide up. How many subwoofers, what kind of amplifiers we needed. This is a much more professional console. So they put that all together, which makes it really a much more professional grade installation.

They’re getting parts from organ supply companies?

Well, you mentioned OSI – Organ Supply Inc. This console is actually from them; we custom designed it. Meta made the monitor podiums because OSI didn’t know anything about putting monitors on the sides.

So when you say “we,” does that mean you’re involved with the company?

Well yes, I’m the consultant, let’s say, from Groton Hill. So they ask my opinion a lot, but I’m not employed by them or anything like that.

But you’re also the donor of this instrument.

I am, and that gives me a little extra weight on the consulting side. But we actually see eye-to-eye on everything.  It’s very interesting because we’ve gone back and forth. I’ll have an idea and I’ll throw it out to the company’s president Daniel Lemieux and, you know, Dan will come back with his thoughts on it and then we’ll both go and try each other’s ideas.

Often I would come back and say, “Oh, I see what you’re saying, we could do that”. He’ll come back and say. “Oh, I see what you’re saying and that would be fine as well”.  So we sort of work it out.   He does research at his place and I do research on my organ as well.  We’ve both tested every single sample set we considered.  We have great respect for each other and compliment each other well.

So, it was a good collaboration?

A very good collaboration, and he’s originally a pipe organ guy. So that was another thing. I talked to several people about doing this project but they didn’t know pipe organs from beans and it’s kind of hard to do a virtual pipe organ if you don’t even know what the original’s supposed to be. They’re just audiophiles or engineers. So, I really wanted someone who knew the pipe organ which he does. Dan still does pipe organ maintenance.

Well, I’ll have to say this is the most pipish-sounding electronic organ I’ve heard.

We don’t want to call it an electronic organ but rather a virtual organ. So-called electronic organ makers say they start with a sample, but they really just synthesize. They don’t actually go and do all of the sampling for the attack and the decay of the pipes and all of that stuff.

I had a Rodgers three manual at home before I bought the Hauptwerk and I had them both side by side for a while. And there’s night and day difference!

What about the instrument which many of us heard at Sanders theater, the Marshall and Ogletree fantasy touring organ for Cameron Carpenter? It was unbearable sounding.

Yeah too loud, right?

Too loud. And of course some of it was taste in the playing. Maybe. There were a number of serious organ builders in the room that night and almost everybody left at intermission. Virgil Fox toured with a Rodgers fantasy instrument decades earlier even before that. He tried to bring classical music and Jesus to rock venues; he did really well at spreading the music of Bach and the Word.

Well and that’s exactly my point. We couldn’t have a pipe organ here at Groton Hill. We didn’t have room for a pipe organ or the money for one. Architecturally, they didn’t want all of the wind noise and everything else that goes with a pipe organ. I tried you know. I looked at it with an organ builder and even considered used pipe organs. So the question was, do you want nothing at all or do you want something that sounds this good that will excite people about the pipe organ again?  The technology has finally arrived to make this happen!

And the thing I say about Hauptwerk – “You have to have a pipe organ to use Hauptwerk. Without a pipe organ Hauptwerk wouldn’t exist because it samples pipe organs. So it’s whole reason is to glorify the pipe organ and be egalitarian about who has access to one!  A lot more people and institutions can own a Hauptwerk now that would never be able to play or own a pipe organ!

Of that quality, right?

And this is about people in churches, as well as individuals. This is a way to get people excited about the pipe organ again. And forget all of this, “it’s got to be a $15 million pipe organ or it’s no good” elitism. The people in the audience could care less about that, they just want to hear all this exciting music.

There are not many places, good auditoriums with good organs. Jordan Hall’s organ doesn’t work, so that just leaves the celebrated organ in Symphony Hall where organ and orchestra can get together.

Then there’s my other point, when you put in a single organ and, unless you’re like Harvard’s Memorial Church and you can afford two multi-million dollar pipe organs in the same room, you are limited by the sounds of that organ.

And why do they have two?

Because they want to play Bach and Baroque on the back organ. And they want to play romantic on the front organ. Here at Groton Hill we have 15 organs — you just choose whatever organ sounds best for the music and it’s going to make the music that much more exciting.

I’d like to hear a Hammond B3. Has that been sampled?

Possibly, I haven’t actually looked for one, but you’d be amazed at what’s out there. We do have a sampled mighty Wurlitzer with throbbing tibia clausa stops, and a 32ft and 16ft diaphone that makes quite a racket.

Well, I saw a button marked “Calcant” I believe the German for blower or organ pumper. Can you tell the Baroque organ to have unsteady wind?

Um, yes and no. Hauptwerk has a wind supply setting that models unsteady wind. But for whatever reason, I don’t know the details, you can’t use it in the United States.

There’s a licensing issue?

Yes, there’s something. So you can go to Europe and you can turn it on but we cannot turn it on here.

But we do have some capability, I haven’t done it here because it’s in a concert hall. But you can load all of the blower noise, the keyboard noise, the stop action noise, so that when I turn this on, you would actually hear the exact sound of pulling stops out. You would actually hear the keyboard clatter.

Can you simulate the effect of turning the blower off and having the pitch gradually drop? Because there are a couple of modern compositions that call for that.

Yeah, it’s not every sample set. It depends on who put it together and what they did. I haven’t tried it on this instrument. … [pushed a button] … Should have died by now if it was going to. So I don’t think it is. But the Hereford organ, I believe, does that. There are a few.

Looking ahead?

We’re taking baby steps as we get going. So this Saturday we had the orchestra and organ, and on April 14th comes the organ solo. I’m hoping to attract enough people back from Saturday to come to the organ solo concert. And then I have yet to talk to them about next year.

Meanwhile, I gather you can play this organ…these organs… at home … that you have exactly the same thing at your disposal?

Certainly without 49,000 watts of power but the same instruments and the same manuals with the same sample sets. At home, I can turn on more reverb to improve my dry living room. And feel like I’m still practicing very well by the way. I just add a second and a half reverb to match this hall, or just let it go to the whole five or six seconds of the sample’s original hall. I still need to get used to the console in the hall as every console is a little different, but I love practicing at home now.  It served me well through the pandemic.  And it allows one to record, both midi and audio, very easily.  If I had been playing at a church, I could easily have recorded music through the pandemic.

More Details According to Randy Steere

Groton Hill Music Center is now home to one of the largest Hauptwerk installations in the world.

Built by Meta Organworks of upstate New York, this instrument is not an “electronic” or “digital” organ, but rather a “Virtual Pipe Organ” (VPO) driven by the Hauptwerk software. Hauptwerk is the German term for the “Great,” or primary keyboard of an organ. Click HERE for an executive PowerPoint slide show.

While an electronic instrument derives sounds artificially or electronically, a Virtual Pipe Organ allows one to purchase specific instruments or “sample sets.” Each sample set contains thousands of audio samples or .WAV (wave) files, all of which came from that specific instrument. Each of those samples is typically taken in stereo from 3 different locations within the original room housing the organ in order to capture the ambiance and audio characteristics of each sound.

When the organ is played, the software grabs all of the samples for each note being played, processes them and sends them out to the speakers in real time! This “polyphony” can be as many as 5,000 – 6,000 samples at the same time – a truly impressive feat of technology [creating] the realism of reproducing the actual pipe organ sound.

When an organist goes to play a program, the first decision is which sample set to load. Groton Hill has about 15 different sample sets or organs to choose from representing the wide range of organ building styles through the years from various geographic areas. For the March concert, I used the French Romantic instrument by Cavaille-Coll, as that is exactly what Saint-Saens would have composed for.

We’ll use the same sample set for the Barber, which makes the point that Hauptwerk isn’t about “purist” and “authentic” performance practices only. It’s about selecting an instrument that has all the sounds the performer is trying to achieve without the many compromises that most organists constantly have to make when one only has the pipe organ at hand in the room.

Acclaimed for his solo appearances throughout New England, Randy Steere has served as Assistant Organist at Old South Church. A New England native, he received his B.M. degree from Barrington College (student of Alan Brown), an M.M. from Yale School of Music and Institute of Sacred Music (student of Dr. Baker), an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School, and a Master’s of Computer Science from RPI. After graduating from Yale, he became the full-time Minister of Music at the First Church of Christ, Congregational, Glastonbury (CT) for 9 years where he developed an expansive ministry, including two large adult choirs, two handbell choirs, a children’s choir, two concert series, young singles ministry, and weekly commercial TV and radio broadcasts. Under Randy’s initiative, the church hosted the East Branch of the Hartford Camerata School of Music, where he also taught organ and choral conducting. Additionally, he taught organ performance, handbells, and church music classes at Barrington College (now Gordon College). Following his career in music, Randy switched to computers and became an IT Director at a mid-sized law firm for 7 years before running his own consulting and software company for 20 years. In 2020, he fully retired to become more actively involved in the music world once again, taking several study trips to Europe, working for a pipe organ builder, and concertizing widely on the East Coast. Randy has served on the Board of the Hartford Chapter AGO and was on the Board of Trustees for Arioso, a string ensemble of Hartford Symphony players where he was responsible for grant applications. He is currently Treasurer of the Merrimack AGO Chapter and a Trustee of the Methuen Memorial Music Hall.

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