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The Sound of Pipes - Why is it Better?

The digital electronic organ has improved tremendously in recent decades and continues to improve.  Digital organs employ sophisticated recording and sampling technology to make high-tech recordings of organ pipes.  The waveforms of the sound produced by digital organs are made to look exactly like those of real organ pipes.  So why do pipes sound better?  And do only trained ears and professional musicians notice the difference?

Clearly, a pipe organ has many tangible advantages over digital and electronic organs.  These include visual beauty, longevity, and the quality of materials and craftsmanship employed.  Modern solid-state pipe organ products offer every conceivable feature and convenience for pipe organs.  Whereas in the past the Transposer was available only on electronic organs and multi-memory preset pistons were only a dream, any pipe organ – old or new – can now be fitted with these accessories.  The MIDI system, which can also be incorporated into any pipe organ, enables endless tonal additions and recording possibilities.  The present day solid-state pipe organ systems also provide the flexibility for future expansion and modification.  A pipe organ is, of course, a permanent, high-quality investment in value, rather than a device that will be replaced in a decade or two.

But over and above all these advantages is the very important matter of the “sound”.   The answer as to why pipes generally sound better lies in the “interaction” of sounds that one hears when many notes on multiple stops of the organ are played together simultaneously.

One note of a nice stop on a good digital organ played through a speaker may sound identical to the actual pipe that was recorded.  Indeed, the authenticity of digital organs can be very impressive if one stop is played at a time.  However, if a given hymn or recital piece is played first on a digital organ and then on an adequate pipe organ, most listeners in a typical audience will notice a substantial difference.  In general, they will say that the pipe organ performance is “more thrilling” or has “more fullness of sound”.  (These are genuine concerns and are not to be confused with simple volume or loudness.  A digital organ with enough amplifiers and speakers could, of course, have more loudness than a pipe organ.  Conversely, a very huge pipe organ could be louder than a given digital organ.  The concern is sound quality, not volume.)

Any musical sound that we hear is a collection of many separate vibrations that are called “partials”.  Some sounds such as an orchestral flute or an organ pipe that produces a flute tone contain just a few partials.  Other, more complex sounds, such as a violin string or a Trumpet organ pipe contain a very large number of partials.  The partials of a given sound are related to each other mathematically.  In a digital organ, this scientific and mathematical data of real pipe sounds can be carefully duplicated.  But the difference is recognized when the sounds are “sent out” from the instrument.  Here, the pipe organ has the profound advantage.

When several musical notes are produced by several organ pipes, every partial of every note creates its own sound waves in the air.  Each individual wave does it’s own thing as far as being reflected from the walls and ceiling, and becoming absorbed by couch or chairs or curtains.  Each wave takes its own amount of time to reach the ears of the listener.  The human brain is extraordinarily capable of detecting these differences in wave arrival times, and consequently the brain receives the message that the sound is “complex”.  The brain even detects the difference in wave arrival time between the one ear and the other.  And this desirable effect is drastically compounded when a large number of pipes are played, as when many stops are on and large chords are played!

In contrast, electronic and digital organs contain speakers that send the sounds to the listeners.  Each speaker sends only a single sound wave.  And that wave is the electrically combined total of ALL of the partials of ALL of the notes being played!  The complexity of the wave reflections and the resulting fullness and beauty is therefore significantly reduced.

In other words, a pipe organ contains a sound-producing item (a pipe) for each and every element of sound (all of the notes), but a digital organ contains a small number of speakers that must send out the sound (all of the notes) to the listeners.  Thus, hundreds or even thousands of notes must be sent through the same few speakers.  The result is that the quality of sound decreases as the number of notes and stops played increases.

A pipe organ contains anywhere from about seventy to five thousand or more pipes.  (On average, a pipe organ contains a minimum of about three hundred The and fifty pipes.)  A digital organ, on average, contains a maximum of about only eight speakers.  (On pipe organs that have decorative “façade” pipes, there are actually hundreds or thousands of more pipes hidden behind the façade.)

Also, the sound from speakers is always significantly “directional”.  It is often easy to determine where the speakers are, even though they are not visible. 
In a pipe organ, however, the sound seems to simply fill the whole room without being directional.

Still another complication exists when many notes are played on the digital organ and the mathematical combining of waves and partials becomes very complex.  Here, some components of the resulting sound become distorted.  Distortion, of course, means less beautiful and less fulfilling sound.

The room-filling, supportive, thrilling sound of an actual pipe organ is appreciated by casual listeners as well as by professional musicians.  This tonal advantage of pipes over a small number of speakers is based on scientific and mathematical principles.

The difference in sound quality between a pipe organ and a digital or electronic organ becomes even more noticeable when the instrument accompanies singing performed by a medium or large group of vocalists or when other instruments play in addition to the organ.  When only one or a few vocalists sing and only a few stops are used on the digital organ, the sound quality of the digital organ is good.  But when a digital organ is used to accompany a medium or large group of singers, it’s sound becomes degraded, because in the midst of so many partials and so many waves from the voices of the vocalists and other instruments, the relatively simple wave that comes from the few speakers of the digital organ (as contrasted to the very many and complex waves sent out by a pipe organ) loses its distinction.  The result is a loss of identity and clarity.

Listening to a pipe organ can be compared to listening to a live orchestra.
Listening to a digital or electronic organ can be compared to listening to a CD.

Organs can contain a mixture of pipes and digital voices.  In such an instrument, the pipes, as opposed to the digital voices, should be the primary sound source.  The digital voices should be secondary voices that complement the pipes.

If a church has a pipe organ, it is generally better to repair or renovate it, as necessary, and preserve it, as opposed to replacing it with an electronic or digital organ.

If a church has organ pipes in its possession (with or without other pipe organ parts and equipment), it has the potential of having the real thing.  This potential should not be discarded. 

Peterson Electro-Musical Products, Inc.                      
Used with permission.