Salford Cathedral's Makin Organ finds its New Voice

A little over 12 years ago, Salford Cathedral had its brand new, state of the art digital organ installed following removal of the pipe organ some months previously. The organ speakers were the first part of the organ to be fitted, in their permanent places under the clerestory windows, in the central crossing, above the entrance porch and at ground level behind the choir. All that remained was for the actual organ console to arrive from Johannus' factory in the Netherlands. So when the small truck emblazoned with the Johannus logo finally pulled up outside the cathedral one fine autumn morning therefore, it was quite an exciting moment, especially for the organist. When the organ was delivered to the cathedral, it came with the default factory settings. This included the voicing of the stops. So in order for the organ to sound more like a typical English cathedral, the organ was fine-tuned by voicing expert, Jeremy Meager, who did a fine job with the sampling technology available at that time.

Fast forward over a decade, and organ digital sampling technology has made great advancements. However  since our organ had not been revoiced since its installation, that is not something we would have necessarily been aware of, not having heard first hand the latest innovations available. The impressively realistic digital rendering of entire ranks of pipes, that had so enthralled us at the turn of the millennium, had somewhat stagnated and become lacklustre. It gradually became much easier to notice our organ's shortcomings as opposed to an actual pipe organ with all its characteristic flaws and imbalances.

After a series of major faults developed in the organ last year, precipitated by the overheating of several power supply units, the organ was out of action for a while, and a replacement console was loaned to us, directly from its previous residency at Ripon Cathedral.

During this time, we were approached by Makin with a suggestion to have our organ revoiced with the latest samplings from their voice library, once our organ was back up and running. I thought this would be a splendid opportunity to breath life back into our instrument, and so in December 2013 a date was arranged in February of the new year, for the revoicing to take place.

The revoicing took just over six hours, and was carried out by Professor Ian Tracey, the organist of the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool. His fine ear and many years of experience with the large Willis instrument there, made him an excellent choice. Assisting at his side, was Keith Harrington, the M.D. of Makin Organs.

As is the usual protocol when tuning or regulating an organ, Ian Tracey started with the Great Diapason chorus, then moved onto the flutes and reeds, repeating the process for the Swell, Choir, Solo and finally the pedal division. Never have I seen such attention to detail and balance before. After replacing the stop samples in our organ with more up-to-date samplings, Ian would test the notes chromatically one by one, and give Keith instructions to have note volumes lowered or increased. What was most impressive however was watching Ian balance each individual rank of every mixture stop. For those not familiar with organ terminology, a mixture stop has several ranks of pipes per note, usually 2-4 but sometimes more. These notes are virtually undetectable by the ear as being at multiple pitches except when played at the bottom end of the keyboard, and they have the effect of accentuating the organ's natural harmonics in the upper registers. Ian Tracey balanced each individual rank of every mixture so that all the pitches blended harmoniously together and that no one pitch dominated the others. That's quite an impressive feat.

Once Ian had finished, we just didn't have the same organ anymore. The change was remarkable. The main differences observed are the following: the Great reeds have been rendered a lot more powerful and prominent which means the 8' Great Trumpet can now be used as a solo stop against the Swell organ, whereas before it was just not loud enough to be anything but a bland chorus reed; the diapasons on the Great have been brightened in tone, and the 2' fifteenth in particular given a lot more prominence and clarity; the Great Mixture has been fortified; the Great Claribella has been given greater scale, making a richer and thicker timbre suitable for French Romantic music. On the Swell, similar changes have occurred. The Swell Oboe and Cornopean have been made louder as have the Swell diapasons. The Swell overall has now been properly balanced with the Great and is more "antiphonal", complementing the Great division. On the Choir, the 8' and 4' flutes have been replaced with brighter and chirpier flutes (I always hated the choir flutes for being woolly and bland but I certainly cannot say that now). The strings have been given a more luscious tone, and the 8' Cremona has been cranked up in volume. On the Solo, the reeds have been given new voices as well, but ones that remain in keeping with their name and status, such as the aptly named 8' Pontifical Trumpet. The Solo Clarinet now sings out with new boldness. Best of all however, is the new style Vox Humana which boldly screams 'French' and replaces the previous Vox Humana which by comparison, mewled like a discouraged goat. The Solo strings are now so tangy and biting, you can almost feel their after taste on your tongue like strong acid!

The pedal section was the last division to be completed, and also the easiest one to regulate. This was probably the least changed department of the organ. The main focus here was ensuring that the pedal stops balanced properly to their corresponding counterparts on the Great division.

Once the organ had been finished, I was rushed for time so couldn't try out the new organ that day, but after giving it a trial play a couple of days later, I couldn't get over the difference. It's a completely new organ now. And although some of the new voices make their presence keenly felt, they blend in flawlessly with each other in perfect balance. The main problem now is just having to reprogramme the piston settings on the organ. During its first use with the choir, I was told to tone down the organ as some of the previous combinations used, particularly on the choir division (which has its own speaker cabinet situated just behind the choir) were now just too much for quiet accompaniment. Given time, of course, I'll get used to the balance. But for now comes a brief period of readjustment.

My thanks go to Professor Ian Tracey on a splendid job and to Keith whose effort and patience on the laptop made this revoicing possible. Above all, the true versatility of the digital organ has been demonstrated. Such work undertaken on a pipe organ of this size would have taken weeks, if not months of hard labour, with an formidable price tag to match.

(Anthony Hunt)

Professor Ian Tracey and Keith Harrington

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