Why a Pipe Organ?

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There are endless debates over pipe vs. electronic superiority for organs.

While many question the cost of a real pipe organ, when some electronic organs are far cheaper in initial cost, the fact is that a pipe organ is often cheaper in the long run.

Electronic organs (at least the better digitally sampled ones) are usually of proprietary design, meaning that upgrades and servicing are at the mercy of the manufacturer or its authorized service companies.  And despite some having an excellent reputation for reliability, replacement parts may not be readily available "off the shelf".

Some claim that pipe organs are maintenance-intensive, and to a degree that is true --- more so in colder climates where heating/cooling seasons may make seasonal tuning required than here in Florida.  Many claims abound that expensive re-leathering will frequently eat up the church's budget.  The truth is that while re-leathering is not cheap, if properly done it will last 30, 40 or more years. Contrast that with electronic organs, which may be obsolete in a decade or two, perhaps less.  We all see how computer technology changes so fast. Today's screaming speed machine on your desktop is tomorrow's useless antique that won't run the new software.

But the real reason for having a pipe organ is the sound.  Do not ever believe that a "digitally sampled" electronic organ is equal to or superior to a real pipe organ. It is physically impossible!

Why? Because regardless of how the sound is produced (and the newer digital organ manufacturers take great pains to accurately sample the sounds of real pipe ranks), the output mechanism is never the same.  No matter how many separate channels of amplification are used, nor how many speakers are installed, the sound of multiple pipes is produced from limited quantized discreet locations. This means that unless there were a separate speaker for each and every "pipe" (ridiculously impracticable and prohibitively expensive), more than one note must be produced from each speaker location, whereas in a real pipe organ every single pipe has a spatial location separate from every other one. This causes subtle additions and subtractions to the note and its chord from phase-shifted heterodyning.  While many attempts have been made to synthesize this effect through sophisticated software, the result is always only a weak approximation of the real thing.

Of course, some people still claim that they "can't hear the difference" or that "only snobs and old-fashioned highbrows" need a pipe organ.  I respectfully beg to differ. In my opinion once you have listened, I mean really listened with an open mind to both, there can be no comparison, and the sound of a true pipe organ praises God in a way no other instrument can match. The differences may be subtle, but they are there.

Nevertheless, you may have heard of some tests where even experienced musicians have occasionally mistaken pipe for electronic organs, or vice versa.  But these have always been limited tests for a short period. The fact is that if you listen to a particular instrument for an extended period, while a variety of literature is played, you will invariably come to recognize the subtle differences. And since an organ is a long-term investment, doesn't it make sense to not take the convenient, initially cheap route, but rather to provide your congregation with a magnificent adjunct that will glorify God and enhance services in the best way possible?

As Pope Benedict XVI recently said, "Music and song are more than an embellishment of worship, They are themselves part of the liturgical action."

Continuing, he added that the organ, "transcending the merely human sphere, as all music of quality does, evokes the divine. ... It is capable of echoing and expressing all the experiences of human life. The manifold possibilities of the organ in some way remind us of the immensity and the magnificence of God."

This is not meant to be a harsh criticism of either digital or analog faux organs.  For some congregations, especially those with a limited liturgy who seldom sponsor recitals and may often use simplistic "praise band" type music, electronic organs may meet their needs quite well.  But St. Benedict's decided that their needs were best served by an instrument that could enhance worship for decades to come --- a pipe organ, the true King of Instruments.  

Background of the Organ Project


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This page was last updated on 11/10/08.
All content copyright 2006 Brian F. Bailey, W4OLF