View Full Version : Tracker action vs Pneumatic action

Jul-10-2004, 17:41
Hi there,I come from South Africa.I would be intrigued know what your opinions are about the pros and cons/advantages/disadvantages between two types of organs.Is there a real difference in the timing of stops/playing notes,some organists I've spoken to are of the opinion that pnuematic organs have a slower reaction than the tracker type.

Jul-10-2004, 20:03
Hi Caddis! Well, my personal experience with playing a pneumatic organ is, that the sound comes with a slight delay. It's quite confusing, because part of the musical experience is listening to your playing. But if you do that, you'll play slower and slower! So one really has to switch off the ear and only play on what the "inner ear" wants to hear. Still, if I try playing fast toccatas, I'm completely lost.... https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/shake.gif
By the way, I'm from Holland, so maybe we can write afrikaans!! https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/wink.gif (Just joking)

Cyril Walker
Jul-25-2004, 23:18
Hi, I'm new to this forum but I have played tracker organs for many years(old and heavy). I find them much better for articulation, particularly in fast soft music such as early English music for manuals. Less important in French Toccatas!

Jul-26-2004, 12:54
Hi Cyril! The pneumatic organ that I sometimes play has a magnificent sound. But personally I find that the articulation can be a little unprecise for the untrained player, because one can't control 100% the magic moment of precisely when the ventile has to open - because there is no direct mechanic connection. But maybe I should try some english music, as you suggest!

Cyril Walker
Jul-26-2004, 20:27
Hi mirjam, I now play a 15 speaking stop 100yrs old tracker organ. It is very precise and a fair sound for a villege organ. Early English organ music was for manuals only and the instruments were lightly voiced. I have been to France, Paris and have heard and played some of the well known instruments there. The famous "Cavaille-Col" instruments used a version of the "Barker lever pneumatic which was good, but not as direct as tracker. The acoustics of the Parisien churches is so resonant as to tend to blur the sound. This is the effect I beleive the Widor, Vierne etc aimed for.

Frederik Magle
Oct-01-2004, 14:20
The Barker pneumatic lever was a requisite for both the french and german "mammuth" romantic organs. These (for the time) very large instruments would have been practically unplayable if not for Barker's invention.

Personally I think the whole issue boils down to the size and, especially, character of the organ. A small or medium sized "classical" or "baroque" organ would definately be best with tracker action for playing baroque and classical works of Bach, Buxtehude, Mendelssohn (I do not consider Mendelssohns organ works "romantic") etc. and also a lot contemporary music.

However, a large french symphonic organ would need the Barker machine, so would a german romantic instrument, and an "English" type romantic cathedral/concert organ is only possible with electric, electro-pneumatic or pneumatic action (with it's high pressure coices), so it's not as we have a choice most of the time https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/smile.gif

Persoanlly I prefer tracker action, but of course only when possible.

Oct-02-2004, 16:52
I tend to agree, Tracker action is more suited to earlier works (and Mendelssohn!!) although you really need to take care not to "spit", especially on smaller organs. A lot of people over-do articulation in Baroque music, playing very staccato, which is harsh on the ears. I try to think of the notes I play as bow strokes on a baroque stringed intrument, and the gaps between as the gaps when the bow changes direction. I also think that Tracker action encourages good technique, as you need to use the weight of your arm to make the notes bite. Pneumatic action however is a lot easier if you are used to playing electronic instruments, at least in my experience. The last pneumatic I played was made by Binns and had quite a quick speech. Intriguing

Feb-10-2005, 14:39
Hi there,thancks for the responces and viewpoints.Although I'm a dedicated tracker fan,I'll listen to a good pneumatic organ anyday,however some pneumatic organs in my view are not as lively as tracker organs.I favour the tubular pneumatic action over barker/elctropneumatic type.Hi mirjam,may be we can write in Frisian(only joking)

May-24-2005, 12:08
Hello to the Forum !

I think you have to mention an important point here: A mechanic tracker action is much more reliable! Two main facts:
*The tracker action construction does not require so many pallets like a pneumatic system.
*The pneumatic system is much more affected by the climate (temperature, humidity ...)

But in fact a precisely - with utmost care (very time consuming!) - regulated pneumatic system should not have a too disturbing delay and the develloping tone has its charm - no doubt! We restored many pneumatic systems (f.e. Pneumatische Kegellade) and even built in new ones as extensions of existing historic organs like here in Burglauer (Schlimmbach II/21):
But in my opinion, too, the tracker action is more reliable, precise and you are able to articulate the tone by having the possibility to feel the "opening point" of the pallet. Besides this there are huge differences in the construction of mechanic tracker actions between each organ building company...

Many greetings

Jul-27-2005, 21:50
Hi! I´m a organist - beginner https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/smile.gif I played only on five organs. First was digital one in music school. I played only one on mechanical organ. It was very good experience. But mostly I have played on pneumatic organs. It is on organ-builder, what quality instrument has. If the church has a good accoustic, you can play on pneumatic quite well. Every pneumatic organ has dellay. It depends on organ, because every organ has different dellay, and the mostly is different dellay beetwen manuals of one organ! If you want to play fast toccattas, you should to learn hear "clicking" in machine. Use only quiet stops and play slowly at the first. Then you can accelerate a tempo, but you allways must to hear "working" in organ. Then you can play quite well on pneumatic organs. Pneumatic organs ussually have more breakdowns and if they aren´t repared and tuned, it is very bad experience, when you can´t turn on, or turn of a stop. You must "know" organ https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/blush.gif. I really played Toccatta and Fuga BWV565 on it in tempo https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/blush.gif.
I´m sorry, my English is horrible https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/frown.gif

Jul-27-2005, 21:56

Doug Campbell
Feb-22-2006, 00:49
In the US, pneumatic action organs have reached a very high point, with very virtually NO delay. Wether it's a pitman type chest, an electric "pull-down" slider chest or the Austin Universal Chest action, they are all quite quick. It should be noted that in the US, the average organ is usually much bigger than European instruments. Another major difference is the size and shape of the churches (and their acoustics). Our churches tend to have less responsive acoustics that European churches with the result that American organs usually have a substantially higher wind pressure to "drive" the sound around the room. This higher pressure makes mechanical action instruments more problematic to build and play.

Another common feature in American pneumatic instruments is that the "keydesk" (we call it the console) is usualy NOT connected to the organ case, since it doesn't need to be. Many instruments have "floating consoles" that can be rolled around within the space for optimum placement for their specific use. One position to conduct a worship service, then move it for a recital. This, of course, would not be possible with a tracker. Although many organists will tell you that they can "feel" the pallets opening on a tracker, in truth, unless you are only playing on a single stop (or two) that "feeling" is lost. With an electropneumatic instrument, no matter how many stops are engaged, the touch on the keyboards remains constant. This allows for organs of many, many ranks to be easily contolled. As for reliability, I'm currently involved in some maintenance work on Austin Opus 690 which was built in 1916 and is still on original leather!

Feb-22-2006, 11:50
Wow, a bunch of good posts within 24 hours and on mechanical vs. pneumatic action to boot! Cool https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/grin.gif

In my humble opinion a well built and maintained Barker lever, tracker or pneumatic or electric action is good and well. Yes, there are different repertoires for different instruments but a good organist can make Bach sound heavenly on a Cavaille-Coll or Messiaen sound delectable on a Beckerath or Tournemire sublime on a Tannenberg.

Giovanni https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/tiphat.gif

Feb-22-2006, 12:40
Hey, I just saw the word South Africa, well now I can say that this forum has 2 members from South Africa...where do you come from in S.A?

Feb-22-2006, 15:43
Persoanlly I prefer tracker action, but of course only when possible.

It may actually be possible more often than you think. I've recently had the opportunity to play on the new Grenzing organ of Brussels Cathedral (specification here (http://home.tiscali.be/semorgelweek/images/neworgg.htm)). I don't particularly like this organ as far as its sound is concerned, but just for the fun of it, I coupled everything to the Great, disengaging the optional electrical Swell/Great coupler, and busted away in Widor's Toccata: despite the purely mechanical action on 63 stops and four manuals coupled together (mechanically as well), the lightness and playability of the instrument was amazing!

So yes, there is a limit to what a tracker action can offer, but surely this limit is farther now than it was 50 or 100 years ago.

(Of course, you might point out that we'll have to wait another 50 or 100 years to see how actions like the one in Brussels stand the test of time.)

Thomas Dressler
Feb-22-2006, 16:58
I kind of hesitated to respond to this one because I don't want to seem as if I'm imposing my opinion. But since by now my preferences are probably no secret, I just want to mention a few things, with the understanding that differences of opinion are good and they make for interesting discussions!

I generally prefer tracker action, and I do have to disagree about feeling pallets open. As a performer who has played lots of tracker action organs, I'd say that the character of the pluck changes as you add more and more stops, but a sensitive player who has really spent a lot of time with trackers can feel the pluck no matter how many stops are on (that is if it's a well built tracker.) Indeed, the changing character of the pluck is one of the appealing things about tracker action--there is a different kind of touch for different stop combinations.

This is not to say that pneumatic actions are bad. I won't comment on that except to say that I've played on some that I don't mind, and I do hold a good tracker action in my mind as the ideal.

I believe it might give the wrong impression to make generalizations about American churches which imply that trackers don't work here. I'd point out that I think one of the most successful builders of organs for American churches has been the E&GG Hook, and Hook and Hastings company. These instruments are sometimes stunning in their ability to sound good in often dry acoustics. And they are for the most part, with a few exceptions, purely tracker instruments. Substantially higher wind pressure and/or floating consoles are not necessarily needed. Presently I conduct a choir from a tracker organ console that's been in the same spot for 109 years.

I certainly understand being enthusiastic about one kind of instrument or another, as well all tend to do this. However, I would not imply that one particular solution to designing instruments for American churches is the only one.

Feb-22-2006, 19:27
Hi Tom,

An excellent posting on the Tracker vs. Pneumatic debate - As always, you make eminent sense. https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/smile.gif

Giovanni https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/tiphat.gif

Feb-23-2006, 00:30
Tom, you're of course right in saying that a tracker action allows for certain subtelties in touch that another action cannot give you. For example, there is no question in my mind that a tracker action should be the standard for the performance of the baroque repertoire.

I do have questions though about one kind of non-tracker instrument, namely the German romantic tradition of cone chest instruments. When you build cone chests, rather than slider chests, your whole concept of tonal design and voicing will of course be completely different, and this is in my opinion an essential ingredient in an authentic performance of late romantic German composers such as Max Reger or Sigfrid Karg-Elert.

As you can see, I'm not questioning the tracker action per se in this context, but the question is: can current techniques build a playable tracker action on a 70+ stop cone chest design?

Thomas Dressler
Feb-23-2006, 09:15
I don't have any direct experience with cone chests, and this whole area is one of the fuzzier spots in my mind.

While I like trackers the best, this is influenced by the kind of repertoire I usually play. I would not go so far as to say that trackers are the best solution in every circumstance. There are also large instruments such as Doug was referring to that just would not work well with tracker action. The point I was trying to make is that I feel you cannot generalize that trackers are not suited for American churches.

I'd say that there are certain kinds of instruments that just should not be trackers, partly because of size and wind pressure, and also because of the need for registration aids. (You can make pneumatic stop action and pistons on trackers, but my experience with them has not been the best.)

In most cases, when considering performing an organ piece, it is very useful to consider the kind of instrument the composer had in mind and adapt where necessary.

If you have had direct experience with cone chest organs, it would be very interesting if you would write about your experience!

Feb-24-2006, 22:50
I don't have any personal playing experience with cone chests.

What I do know is that such a chest has one groove per stop (instead of one groove per note). Therefore, you've got a certain amount of blending between different notes of one stop, rather than between different stops for the same note. One consequence is that by putting lots and lots of 8' stops of different intensities into each division, the (relative) lack of per-note-blending allows to achieve a crescendo through progressive addition of these stops. Division II will be significantly less intense than manual I, and division III still less than II (compare this to a Cavaillé-Coll, where division III (récit) is usually quite strong, and crescendo is obtained via the swell box precisely thanks to this strength).

In particular, replacing pallets by cones is not a goal in it self, but merely a technical necessity resulting from the different kind of grooves.

These cones do, however, have an influence on the attack of the sound (and on the touch, if it's a tracker action, since there will be much less pluck). Afficionados usually consider this influence to be positive on overblowing stops, strings, and free reeds, which are precisely very typical for this kind of instruments.

If you can get hold of Ludger Lohmann's CD at Schramberg (Ritter's four sonatas) or of Gerd Zacher's CD at Essen-Werden (Reger opp.73 and 127), you'll get a pretty good idea of what I'm saying.

Needless to say, don't try to play Bach on these instruments! https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/devil.gif

Dec-10-2006, 15:48
Hi there,so far I know cone chests are normally asocciated with tubular pneumatics.While cone chests are not recommended for Bach,Im sure these types of organs are quite suitable for music like ,Prelude en Fugue BACH Liszt,Saint-Saens,a.o.It would be interesting to know wether french organ builders(such as Caville-Coll,Callinet,Riepp,)employed cone chests in their organ building.Thancks for the replies.Trying to enjoy SA summer.:rolleyes:

Dec-12-2006, 23:00
Hi From a listening point of veiw,I sometimes cannot understand the hype people make about organ actions being audible in recordings(trackers and pneumatics).This happened recently when an aquaintence of mine heard the latest addition to my CD collection,Dialogue for two organs,Naxos.Organ builders Gaetano Callido 1785,Pietro Nacchini 1757.Yet he did not have one complaint about W.J.Westbrook's transcription of Widor's Allegro Cantabile played by Herman van Vliet on the C.C. organ at St Ouen,Rouen(Widoriade,Festivo).Granted the C.C. action was less audible than that of the two organs played in the Naxos recording,but still all that fuss? I'm going on holiday tommorow. Seasonal greetings and happy new year Thomas and co. will be back in January.

Thomas Dressler
Dec-13-2006, 06:05
I don't understand the fuss, either, unless it's really, really noisy.

When I recorded at Round Lake, NY, it was impossible to capture the kind of sound I wanted without getting action noise. The action has not been restored in over 100 years so it's nearly impossible to play it quietly--and when you hear it in real life, that's how it sounds! I also kept all the "nature sounds," such as crickets and locusts on the recording. Some people really liked that approach and a few really don't like it.

When I played at the Organ Historical Society convention last summer, one of the recitals was recorded live for the CD. During that recording, a bird came and sat on a tree right outside the window and sang its little heart out while I was playing. I hope they keep that on the recording, as I enjoyed that immensely! But I know some people would complain, and I just don't understand that.

Jan-17-2007, 15:27
Hi there,so far I know cone chests are normally asocciated with tubular pneumatics.

Hi Caddis,

The association of cone chests with tubular pneumatics is not as systematic as one might think: E.F. Walcker, for instance, almost always used cone chests, but he tended to build tracker actions whenever the size of the instrument was not too big. He also used Barker machines (rather than tubular) in some of his bigger instuments.

Mar-11-2007, 03:47
acc - your link to the Brussels Cathedral organ is not working (at least for me).

Mar-11-2007, 08:17
Indeed, it no longer does - here's another one (http://www.uquebec.ca/musique/orgues/benelux/bruxellessmsg.html).

Mar-16-2007, 18:25
I find there is a slight delay for the note to form with pneumatic organs. Just a different style of instrument.

Mar-16-2007, 19:26
Having played only one tracker organ in my life, that being in Austria , is the touch/feel universal to all instruments across the board in Europe and the US?
The one I played, especially when the manual/pedal coupler was engaged, was quite stiff and took a fair amount of extra finger pressure. It was a 2/18 with a flat pedalboard.

Mar-16-2007, 20:02
Ahh parallel pedalboards. The real deal :)
Btw tracker organs do take a fair amount of finger pressure unless of course they are electronically operated. I'm still not too sure on the inner workings and the different kinds of organs. The organ at my church is pneumatic but actually has a pretty quick response for an organ of this kind. Also depends on the registers you are using etc but that might just be particular to the organ I use.

Mar-29-2007, 17:15
My personal experiences with tubular pneumatic action have all been equally awful. On a couple of them, the delay was dreadful and made coherent playing almost impossible.

For me, there is little that can match the responsiveness of a well maintained tracker action. Yes, they can get heavy, but by well maintained, I mean the sort that is only a little heavier than a good piano with only a minor change noticeable when you start coupling.

One of the many reasons I was stunned when I played the St Sulpice organ was the action. With the Barker lever in effect, even having four manuals coupled down to the fifth was a breeze to play.

Just my $0.02.


Mar-29-2007, 19:32
I for one love organs with tracker action because you really get the feel of great power when you use many stops together. To me the feeling of same touch wether you are just playing one stop or 70+ stops are quite strange. I want the feeling of great power not only through my ears but also through my fingers and body.

Maybe I'm just old school. :)

Mar-30-2007, 00:51
That's actually a very good point. In all the years I've been playing, I don't think I'd ever looked at it that way before.

May-11-2007, 00:35
It's funny that the topic of noise only came up once ... as I often hear complaints about noisy actions of organs. From my personal point of view, I think that just adds to the charm of the instrument and is characteristic. The Fagius recordings of the "complete Bach" uses a couple of very noisy Swedish organs ... I love the clicks and thwacks ... adds to the experience for me.

May-11-2007, 04:05
I agree - one of my favourite recordings of a moderately well-known (sic!) last movement from Symphony no.5 by C.M Widor, is Marie-Claire Alain. I've forgotten which instrument, but in the quieter, middle section, you can hear the clacking of the trackers and it actually adds to the percussiveness of the staccato. It's also worth remebering that if Widor actually wrote that at the console of St Sulpice, the clattering of the action would have been very prominent and it's quite plausible that some composers may have originally worked this in as a feature in some of their works.

Jun-18-2007, 08:39
Was it Widor or Vierne who dropped dead at the console of a Paris organ ... apt really?

Jun-18-2007, 10:22
I don't know, but having not played it for 15 years or so I've got an order in to play it for a wedding, so I'm having to do a good deal of practice to bring it back up to scratch. And BOY! do my hands hurt after an hour or so of working on it!

(I've managed to avoid it for ages mainly because I'm fairly ambivalent towards it, and in any case IMO it's been done to death and then some, but needs must... :rolleyes: ) - (Same goes for BWV 565 IMO)

Jun-18-2007, 14:04
Hi to the forum
It was Vierne,I can't remember the exact details,but I know that Maurice Durufle was present when the tragic event occured.

Jun-18-2007, 14:20
I have recordings of Marie Clair Alain (Cathedal of Dijon,Riepp Organ) and Ben van Oosten (C.C. Organ at St. Ouen),both playing the 5th Symph toccata and it's amazing how people complain about the clatter of the C.C. organ,but give the Riepp organ 10/10 for action noise level.:confused:

Jun-18-2007, 17:05
Was it Widor or Vierne who dropped dead at the console of a Paris organ ... apt really?

Caddis is correct :cheers:. Vierne died from a sudden massive stroke at the console between pieces at a recital at Notre Dame on June 2, 1937. Maurice Duruflé, his friend and closest pupil was at his side when he collapsed. In the late 1920's, Vierne had suffered a minor heart attack at the climax of a North American concert tour. From that point on, he became more concerned about his health, and taught privately and composed for the rest of his years.

Vierne is still one of my most favorite organ composers.