I have decided to design something I've always wanted. I know this will take me many years to finish, mainly due to needing the funding and time, but, like my transition and home ownership, will be a HUGE dream of mine.
About 12-13 years ago, I purchased plans for an organ console. This was before I had even found and decided to buy the 3 manual theater organ I have now. The plans only cost me about $25 but I felt it was well worth every penny. They got rolled up and put away as one of those "would be nice someday" projects. I moved from place to place, experienced life in all of it's glory, and continued on. Now that I have the house that I will probably keep for most of the rest of my life, I have the music room of my dreams. Time to add the finishing tough to it all.
The plans that I bought were for a 3 manual draw knob organ console. Originally, I had thought it would be very expensive to build this, but through recent discoveries, it would not be as expensive as I thought. I am not currently skilled enough to build the console itself, although I could help. A little bit of pride goes into shaping and finishing the wood for something that will create beautiful music. Music that will stir the hearts and souls of all who listen. Music that will impact lives. I believe very strongly in this.
When I first bought the plans, I had figured my little adventure would cost about $10,000-15,000. Now, I believe it will cost MUCH less. As I'm not looking to make it into a full working instrument capable of making music on it's own, this would in turn be, in theory, the equivalent of a normal keyboard, just on a massive scale. The drawings specify 3 keyboards (manuals) with full pedal board of 32 notes. Instead of a self containing sound system and computer to run it all, which would get very expensive, all this will have is keyboards and pedals connected to a desktop computer via a very sophisticated control system. Nowadays the control system has gotten very simple and very inexpensive.
There will still be a good amount of buttons below each keyboard that control what are called combination action. What that means is that when the button or "piston" is pressed, a preset selection of knobs "stops" are activated. They can be programmed in the software very easily. This allows the organist to bring up totally different registrations in an instant.
Say for instance that I'm playing a piece of music, say Feed The Birds from Mary Poppins. Most of the song is fairly quiet and very few stops are needed to create the lush sound needed for the piece, even when accompanying a singer. After one of the verses, a more full and rich sound is needed to really enhance the feelings and emotions of a repeat of the chorus where the soloist is not singing. This would be very tough to do if I had to look up and draw every stop that I needed to create the sound desired. With the push of a combination action piston, the result is instant. No fiddling around. When a less full sound is desired, just push another piston and the sound totally changes. On some larger instruments with 4-5 manuals and over 100-150 stops, combination action pistons are crucial, due to the massive size and tonal resources on the organ. They can be preset to whatever the organist desires and reset or recalled at any given time.
This organ will also include "swell" shoes, which are the volume control of the organ. Since actual wind blown pipes only speak at one volume, many times they are placed in a box or chamber. On the front of the chamber or box are very large vertical or horizontal Venetian blinds that open and close. Think of it this way. Say you go to a store and you hear somebody in the parking lot with more sound system in their car than brains. Somebody gets out of the car and the door opens with the radio on. You immediately hear a loud volume of sound, due to the door being open. This is the same thing as having the blinds or "swell shades" open on the pipe chamber. The person gets out and closes the door and the sound is muffled again and the volume goes down, in your perception. Now the swell shades are closed again. Since the actual volume of the radio never changed in this experiment, the box containing the sound was opened and closed, thus resulting in the perceived volume change. Your ear was, in theory, tricked. Opening the swell shades lets the sound out of the box and, to your ear, increases the volume. Closing the shades results in what your ear thinks is a decrease in volume, when in all actuality the volume level of the pipes themselves has never changed. Pretty cool trick, huh? All of this happens without anybody ever knowing and it creates very good expression in music, just as a symphony orchestra would get louder and softer. The particular swell shoes that will be in my instrument will control virtual swell shoes. The same thing will happen, just on a computer instead of the real thing.
What does all of this mean? Well, it simply means that, through the use of a computer and advanced equipment, I'll be able to play virtually any instrument I can think of. Special software on the computer connected to the organ will allow any virtual organ or virtual instrument to be played from any key or pedal on the console. Small chamber organs dating back to the time of Bach and Mozart, large organs that are in some churches and cathedrals today, to something as simple as a flute or saxophone or even a simulated guitar or piano. If you can dream of it, it's capable of being played through this setup. Prerecorded sound effects are also possible. Not only will this be an organ console, but it's a musical keyboard, just like you could go and get from the music store.
Why build something like this? Realism. An organist who studies, like I do, and one who is really proficient at playing, can't play well or very effectively with many generic keyboards randomly attached to a computer. Besides, the cost per keyboard could push past the limits of the budget, not to mention how do you go to stack them all. Them you still have to deal with the matter of the pedals and swell shoes and combination action pistons. Well, I think you get the idea. True realism and ease of play-ability is only achieved through a console like in the designs I purchased all those years ago.
How will all of this make sound? The organ and computer will be connected to the sound system in the music room. This consists of a mixing board and multiple amps and speakers. The computer will also have many sound cards, to be able to direct to different speakers where the sound actually comes from. Thus simulating different pipe chambers in a room. When you really think about it, older pipe organs with chambers spread all over a room is true surround sound, a lifetime before digital surround sound was ever invented. The setup I'm designing will be very loud at times, along with so quiet you can barely hear anything at all. Also recreating the true realism found in the real thing.
I've decided to do this project because I feel I'm at a good point in my life to do so. From the very first day I learned how to play the organ, almost 18 years ago, I have wanted and needed something I could play on at home that was as close to the real deal as I could possibly get. This most definitely fulfills that. Through that, my skills and value as a musician would get better. I also plan on keeping the existing theater organ I have. Originally I wanted to add these capabilities to that instrument, but I'm realizing that what needs to be done digitally is not easily possible with that organ without major modification and that could also risk the original sound of that organ that is so revered by many people. Conn had a special thing when that organ was built in 1979. The tonal choices, warmth of sound and all of it's qualities is hard to come by these days. I don't want to harm that. It still needs to have the electrical issues fixed to the original playable state, but that will happen over time also.
I'm very excited about this project and I can't wait to get started on it. Good things come to those who wait. I've been very patient all these years and it's finally time to start living my dreams. As I sit here and type this, on the day that I went to get my new driver's license reflecting my new life, I'm reminded that another dream of mine has come true today. I'm so very proud of the life I have now and the people who are in it. So glad to be alive. Things are only getting better. When this project is complete, another dream will come true and I'll be much more effective in what I'm able to do as a musician. I could even do organ duets with my mom and that in itself will be amazing. Dream on, and never sell yourself short. Live life as full as you can. :)