How to Choose a Used Pipe Organ for your Church
We’ve put together a Concise Guide to Choosing a Used Pipe Organ to help you start off in the best direction for your situation. Selecting a Pre-Owned Pipe Organ involves many choices, as there is a lot to pick from (the options are nearly endless). The price may range from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands.
More keyboards (or manuals) allow for more variation in sounds within a piece and added complexity and fullness to the overall experience. Each keyboard is called a “division” and will play the “voices” you set it to play. Thus, the Great keyboard will have one set of “voices” playing, while the Swell will have a different sound. Most pipe organs will have Great, Swell, and pedal, while some will also include Choir and/or Positiv (resulting in a 3 or 4-manual organ).
Classical literature and some hymns require all 32 pedals, so with fewer you would have to compromise or skip those pieces. The pedals are another “division” of the pipe organ.
Each stop supplies its own sound or “voice”, so the more you have the more sounds you can combine.
Pistons and Toe Studs
General pistons each pull up pre-specified groups of stops for each division. Divisional pistons do the same for that division only. For example, you can change what the swell keyboard sounds like without impacting the other divisions by using a swell piston. Toe studs are pistons for the pedals that can be activated by your toe. With some pipe organs you can choose to make a divisional piston perform as a general piston if you wish.
Expression and Crescendo Pedals
Expression pedals adjust the volume of one or more divisions (by changing how much air flows through the pipes), while crescendo pedals add stops to all divisions, increasing the volume of the whole organ.
Pipe Organs by different builders sound different. Ranging from German to French, some of the main brands are Flentrop, Art Scnitger, Schlicker, Moller, Wicks, Skinner, Austin, Gabriel-Kney, Cavaille-Coll.
Pipe vs. Electronic
Generally, actual pipe organs are far more expensive to buy, install and maintain and offer less flexibility. New Pipe organs can be over a million dollars, but many used pipe organs have become available for much lower cost. Since pipe organs require maintenance, many of the available used pipe organs are in need of substantial, costly repair. Moving an organ to a different building involves planning where to put the divisional pipes as well as the console - which often involves remodeling the building. Not planning this properly can be disastrous. Thus, getting a used pipe organ is quite often much more involved than initially expected.
Electronic organs vary dramatically, but the newer ones offer stunning realism that matches or even outdoes pipes, in part because they can add acoustics that your building does not have. Additionally, it is far more likely that you’ll be able to achieve balanced sound between the organ’s divisions (keyboards) than with a pipe organ that is moved into your building. Generally voicing will be much easier with electronics. Today’s Electronic Pipe Organs accurately reflect specific organ builder’s pipe organ sounds.
Electronics also offer a variety of other benefits.
Electronic Organ History
Hammond Organ started making theatre organs, working with popular music rather than classical. They were able to add electronic sounds that traditional theatre organs did not have. Reproducing the sound of pipes, however, was a challenge, so the early electronic organs did not sound like real pipes.
By the early 1990’s electronic organ builders produced “sampled” organs. They recorded samples of a real pipe organ playing a specific stop, and made their organs play back these samples. This greatly increased the realism, to the point that even experts seldom could correctly identify the pipe vs the electronic just by hearing it. As technology marches on they keep improving on this.
Electronics also open up various other possibilities that empower the organist. Electronic organs are built on MIDI, which represent as electronic signals the actual keystrokes, piston and stop changes, and expression pedal changes.
Electronic Features you may want
Easily transposes what you are playing to a different key.
Allows you to practice in private, usually cutting off sound to the speakers.
Remember your piston capture settings, so that you can recall the setup you had for a particular musical piece (or set of pieces). By recalling a specific memory, you’re all set to play those pieces. When you use your pistons, they produce the results you want for that set of pieces (see “Pistons and Toe Studs” above).
These devices make it possible to add more voices without modifying your organ console. This “expands” your organ into a larger instrument at a relatively low cost. In addition to more organ stops, these often include orchestral instrument and other sounds.
Midi Recording Devices
Allow you to record your performance and play it back at will. Be aware that recording devices may not be able to remember what capture memory you were using or what expander voices you were using. Some devices can remember your capture memories and load them back to your organ.
Channels, Amplifiers, Speakers
Electronic organs with more channels allow for placement of the sound from different organ divisions in different parts of your church. For example, a 5-channel organ will normally allow placement of Great speakers in one place and Swell speakers in another. Amplifier and speaker quality will impact sound volume and quality.
Reverb can be added to your organ, making it sound like your building is more “live”. This feature is being refined, to the point that on a new Allen you can pick what kind of room’s acoustics you may want, from a dead small room to a large cathedral – with amazing realism.
Delivery, Installation, Voicing
If you are on a tight budget, you may be able to buy an electronic organ and install it yourself with reasonable success. In many cases, professional delivery, installation, and voicing are indispensable. They will nearly always make things easier and may cause your organ to sound better (especially for electronic organs from the early 2000’s on, which have more substantial voicing capabilities).
Electronic Organ Brands
Allen has been the leader in sound and construction quality, as well as repairability of older organs. Buying another brand of used electronic organ increases your risks.
If budget is an issue and you want a realistic-sounding organ, a used electronic organ from the 1990’s or later will be sure to please you – especially if it is an Allen. Just look for the features that matter to you, and you can’t hardly go wrong.
For a great example of a Pre-Owned 2-Manual Allen, plese check out our founder's Used Allen MDS-26