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Thread: Mechanical vs Electro-neumatic actions - a double edged sword?

  1. #1
    Rear Admiral Appassionata
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    Mechanical vs Electro-neumatic actions - a double edged sword?

    Hi,

    This is a topic very much in my mind right now since I'm trying to put together a case for my church to have an overhaul of the organ and potentially expand it (which would be nice indeed).

    It's a smallish organ of about 16 stops over 2 manuals and completely mechanical. It has some of the most beautiful sounds I've seen on any organ, which considering it was probably built to a fairly tight budget in the first place is a testimony to the skill of the original builders.

    All that said, IMO the Mechanical action is wearing out. For example, Coupling the swell onto the great, the swell organ doesn't speak properly at all and only physically opens the inidividual pipe's air flow when the key is about 1mm above fully depressed, and seems to never comletely open the air flow for the pipe(s) in question (whichever that may be).

    IMO the action is as a consequence much heavier than it would otherwise be as well (I'm sure someone will correct me here on the mechanical details of how this all works - I have a passing but not detailed knowledge).

    Coupling into the pedals presents even more of a challenege requiring a 'stamping' of the pedal to make the Swell reeds speak on the coupled pedals.

    OK. These are drawbacks as I see them or more likely inconveneinces that you overcome as you play, and I'm sure this is not always the case on tracker action instruments especially those in good condition.

    But - surely rebuilding using an electro-neumatic type cosole will remove a certain amount of the feel and directness involved in playing while it would open up all sorts of possibilities in terms of couplers, selectors, revoicings etc simply by using the electronics intelligently.

    Then there's the issue of to make the console remote or keep it directly attached. Going remote adds a time delay while keeping it attached doesn't necessarily place the console in the most ideal position.

    From time to time I do get the opportunty to play a very very much larger instrument which has such a remote console, and while the intrument is truly thrilling and glorious as only a cathedral type organ can be, it is a bit of a handful on the time delay and takes some getting used to...

    I suspect this is a debate that organists have been having since systems other than pure mechanical came into force and the purists would say Tracker while other would vote for as much electronic assistance in the console as possible. Who's to say who is right, but I'd love to hear some opinions about this.

    Kind regards

    NEB

  2. #2
    Midshipman, Forte
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    I am no expert dude but it sounds like more than anything else the organ needs adjustments in the mechanical action. This can be a tedious work from what I've heard, it is not a quick job. Either that or of course you are not fully used to the mechanical action (which I am definitely not). With some warming up I guess you can even become good with the however bad or good mechanical action you have. However suggesting a complete revamp to an electronic system is definitely not something of good taste. Sounds like what your organ needs is some work on the action of the mechanics, plain and simple. Maybe it's simply the style of the organ. I don't know. I would suggest you at least have a good organ technicican have a look at it. There is definitely the sense of touch you will be missing altogether if you move to electronics. I dn't know but I play so much on electronic organs (which are adjusted to pianistic "touch" no less, ARGH!!!). I don't know if I can offer any help to you, but this suggestion to an electronic console is a big no no. Have a proper organ tech look at it.

  3. #3
    Commodore con Forza
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    I agree with P&F: the first thing to look at is adjustment. An organ has many moving parts, and also parts under strain (from wind pressure). Some of these need regular adjustment/repair/replacement: this is a normal process in the life of an organ that is intended to last for centuries.

    In other words, don't be too eager to change the car just because the oil level and the tire pressure aren't right.

    Of course, it might be that an expert organ builder examines your organ and tells you that the action is in bad shape and does need major overhaul. But even in that extreme case, there is no need to jump to the conclusion that electric action is the way to go, especially for an organ of that size.

    Electrical action (and, before that, the Barker lever) have not been invented for reasons of taste, but for a practical reason: as a means to render playable an organ that is too large for a tracker action. Even Cavaillé-Coll wouldn't have put a Barker lever in a 16-stop instrument!

    Moreover, a lot of progress has been made during the last 30-40 years towards lighter and more efficient tracker actions, so that the limit of what is "too large" is now a good deal farther away than it was when electrical actions began to appear a century ago.

  4. #4
    Rear Admiral Appassionata
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    Thanks for the input guys, and I can't disagree with anything you say.

    I use the tracker organ virtually every day and am very well used to it and do enjoy the feel, but from time to time do also get to play a (Very) large Cathedral-type organ with some 140 stops no less! While it is awsome, it presents a whole different set of problems from the time delay at the console to controlling the sheer extreme of possibilities in registrations and so forth. In fast passages it can be somewhat disturbing to hear the notes you played maybe 2 ago only just sounding, but that is a function of the sheer size of the organ and the distance the console is from the pipes (and it's positioned just across the sanctuary from the pipes so hardly at the other end of the church).

    That said, I've taken a look at the action with my tuner and we both came to the conclusion that it was worn (as opposed to completely worn out), but in playing I can feel almost weekly now some kind of deterioration in the action.

    Seems that there are so many variables involved in decisions that will need to be made in due course though, not least that with some clever extensions of some of the ranks (subject to the vagaries of tone matching etc - which is an entirely different subject) it may be possible to 'artificially' increase the apparent size/effectiveness of the organ without necessarily increasing the numbers of ranks significantly.

    For example, 12 extra pipes on the top of the 2' Fifteenth would enable an III or mixture to be added for sparkle.

    The Horn could be carried over into the Pedals as an 8' and with 12 extra pipes (voiced to match in) could also create a decent 16' version in the pedals as well. The same applies to the 8' Diapason creating a 16' principal...

    Consideration is also being given to the addition of a smallish Choir division of maybe 6-8 ranks, although that is almost certainly beyond likely budgets nearer term but something in the planning that might be a possible developement in due course.

    So while I have to agree with all that is said about good tracker actions (which happen to be my firm favourite of all actions because of the feel) the clever use of electronics could open up all sorts of voicing possibilities that atm don't exist but could so easily.

    I'm wondering how this additional information fits with the comments you guys have so kindly put forth.???????

    I really would like to hear more (as many as possible) opinions from both yourselves and others.

  5. #5
    Captain of Water Music Thomas Dressler's Avatar
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    I know this is an old thread, but I feel I have to put in a couple words on this. A well regulated and maintained tracker action will last indefinately! To be sure, they do need to be regulated and sometimes little things need to be replaced, but they last A LONG TIME! The Round Lake organ near Saratoga Springs, NY, has pretty much the same tracker action its had for over 100 years. It's a bit noisy and sometimes clunky, but works fine. It would be quieter and easier to play if it were restored, but the point is that I can't imagine a well built tracker that has been maintained being worn out!

  6. #6
    Rear Admiral Appassionata
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    Quote Originally Posted by Thomas Dressler View Post
    but the point is that I can't imagine a well built tracker that has been maintained being worn out!
    Neither can I, but I have to say the Organ in question is about 90 years old, and the lack of proper mainenance really shows to the point at which some of it no longer functions!

  7. #7
    Midshipman, Forte
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    "I know this is an old thread, but I feel I have to put in a couple words on this. A well regulated and maintained tracker action will last indefinately! To be sure, they do need to be regulated and sometimes little things need to be replaced, but they last A LONG TIME!"

    I think longevity and repair cost are very valid things to talk about in any "tracker vs other" discussion. Mechanical action has proven a long life span. And when it does need repairing, the parts are simple, and available.

    Also a note about the weight of the keys: mechanical action can have a very, very light touch. I have played trackers that were actually too light for my taste. So whatever you are finding with that particulary instrument is not a factor of what's possible, but a factor of what was designed or has declined over time.

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