THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST. MARY THE VIRGIN. BRUTON, SOMERSET, ENGLAND.
The very beautiful church of St. Mary the Virgin at Bruton has several features that distinguish it from most others in the country. Apart from a rather unique architecture and a world ranking set of bells it also possesses a very fine historical organ from about 1820. There is nothing wrong with the current organ apart from the fact that it is very heavy to play, has a 54 / 56 note compass (the Great has only 54 whereas the Swell has 56) and is lacking in many desirable stops that are essential for the performance of the mainstream organ repertoire. However, the main problem is that regardless of any inherent / historical design problems, its current position prevents it from filling the church and accompanying a full congregation satisfactorily. Partly because of its historical value as it stands and partly because of finance, a new pipe organ or re-ordering of the existing organ was not an option and certainly the organ adviser and other authorities had raised considerable objections to any suggestion of altering the status quo of the pipe organ as it stands in any way. So the church found itself in an impossible situation: On the one hand they had something that was not really capable of doing the current job required of it but on the other they aren't allowed to do anything about it regardless of any possibility of available funds.
Our proposal was to re-order and rebuild the organ using Hauptwerk.
The new HW instrument would intend to duplicate the best parts of the existing historical instrument terms of the current specification whilst adding additional new stops to make up the gaps, enlarge the pedal department and provide a new Choir division. It would be controlled by a new drawstop console of the highest quality and the speakers would be installed in the same chamber as the existing organ but speaking into the church as opposed to only the choir area.
We took samples of all of the existing organ stops and processed them roughly for HW including all but a few faulty notes which were replaced. The initial results proved to be astonishing for the most part. Having had an initial meeting to discuss all possibilities including those pertaining to the existing pipe organ, our second meeting was to take down a computer and keyboard to the church plus a set of speakers to see what the results might be like. In some cases the stops were improved slightly on the originals because their tone had been allowed to develop more fully (whereas previously they had been buried in the organ itself) but overall, the sound was unbelievably faithful to the original. As proof of this, a direct stop by stop comparison and combinations of stops playing the same phrases and notes were played by one organist on the pipe organ and another using the HW connected keyboard in immediate succession. The various listening positions of those present were fairly equidistant for both instruments. The opinion of those present was that the results were uncanny, even spooky since in many cases even the organists believed that the sounds emanated from the same pipe source but for the fact that they weren't actually playing them physically. The only thing that was different was that with eyes open the listeners could see who was playing what at any particular time. With eyes shut it was pretty much impossible to tell. Not only did this speak highly for the abilities and undoubted realism of HW but it was undoubtedly an unique experiment in the annals of digital organ sound reproduction. It is one thing to combine an additional stop or stops with existing pipes where the stop doesn't exist in the first place because there is no direct reality to compare it to. It is quite another to compare identical stops on an instantaneous basis. I challenge any other digital organ manufacturer to dare to do this and even I didn't know just how successful the experiment was going to turn out. It could have been a complete failure. As it turns out, it wasn't.
The final unique aspect of the project was that when finished, it would be possibly the only installation in the world where the existing pipe organ has been exactly duplicated by a counterfeit digital clone and can be compared on the spot at will. If nothing else, it may finally prove to the most diehard of the anti electronic brigade that some digital organs (namely some of those from HW) have indeed reached a stage where they can truly be classed as equal and indeed indistinguishable from the real thing. It may also encourage other forward looking sample producers to follow the same route.
These initial writings above were made many months ago and things have changed in the interim period sometimes rapidly at other times with frustrating slowness.
Photos showing the original pipe organ. (Please click on the photos for a larger image).
Enquiries were made with various bodies as to the costs of providing a quality drawstop console and as was to be expected, costs would be high. the alternative would be to find a suitable second hand console and convert it for use with Hauptwerk. Eventually a fairly suitable electronic instrument was found on E-bay and whilst rather over sized, was likely to be a bargain that could not be overlooked. I bid personally for the console since just the cost of a few of the components on their own was worth it. Although the electronics were from a past age, the physical components were of the best quality such as a Kimber Allen pedalboard, drawstops, pistons and so forth. With something like 90 drawstops, it would provide sufficient components plus spares for use in a future instrument. I was successful in winning the auction for a more than reasonable price and expected to have to arrange to pick the console up. During this time I was in communication with Harry Mills at Bruton who reckoned that the whole project at Bruton could go forward if they had the console. In due course Harry arranged for the auction price to be paid and arranged for the collection of the instrument.
As expected, the basic components were of the expected quality and since the instrument had been in private use throughout its life, they were also in very good condition. In addition, there were several cabinets with quality speakers included as part of the package. Harry ordered the MIDI conversion circuits from Eastern Europe and proceeded to wire up the console once they arrived.. Sadly, the manual keyboards proved to be very cheap ones with the most awful feel and after a few decades of use, very much past it and thus a new set of better quality Fatar keyboards were ordered and mounted on bespoke oak frames. I had already ordered several sets of speakers to experiment with and a mish-mash of stops were trialled through the system.
Our next problem was exactly how to position the speakers and it was quite obvious that without a considerable set-up of platforms this was going to be a problem. What was absolutely essential was that the existing instrument should not be compromised or affected in any way - not only from an ethical / moral point of view but also to comply with the permissions given by the diocese. The answer was a comprehensive scaffolding system mounted in the organ chamber to the rear where there was sufficient space and well above the existing pipe work, No part of the scaffolding was to be attached to the pipe organ in any way. This was brilliantly arranged and accomplished once more by the redoubtable Harry Mills. The scaffolding was sourced second hand in good and clean condition and additional fittings were ordered new.
So now we had pretty much all we needed in place and some sort of instrument could be played. It sounded fairly spectacular in comparison to the run of the mill digital instrument but it was nothing that couldn't be achieved relatively easily in half a dozen different environments. some organs sounded good, others less so.
Having sampled the existing pipe organ, it was quite evident that many more stops would be required and whilst my own considerable collection of HW stops could be adjusted and matched to blend in with what had been previously prepared, it was evident that a much larger choice of material would be needed to produce a really top class result.
Whilst all of the other preparations were going on, I was taking the opportunity to sample as many instruments as possible regardless of size and builder. In addition to gaining access to a small untouched Father Willis in a private chapel, I was also able to source samples from a number of other disparate instruments of modest size including a Walker, a Bevington and a Prosser. Regardless of their build or size every instrument had something to offer to go into the melting pot so to speak. In some cases it was only the bass octave of a Flute or Diapason, in other cases it was only one or two octaves out of the stop.
By chance, a Hauptwerk user in Devon had followed the sort of work that I was doing and intimated that there was an instrument where he lived that needed the sort of sample sets that I was producing. As a result of e-mails back and forth, it transpired that the instrument he was talking about was in a very similar situation to Bruton - namely an historic instrument that needed to be allowed to remain as it was but would benefit from being reproduced using the HW system and samples from the existing instrument plus a few additions. Access was arranged to check out the instrument for appraisal and some trial samples were taken. As a result of these initial trials, full access was granted to sample internally for a better result and thus, a further selection of stops joined the others. (A dedicated facsimile sampling will be undertaken in due course). The instrument in question provided some exceptional stops of great quality which could be added to Bruton. Subsequently, some of the stops from Bruton could be used to fill in the gaps on this instrument as and when they decide to go ahead with a similar project. the instrument in question possesses some of the oldest pipework in any organ in the UK. The oldest dates back to 1696 and was made by Christian Smith. other pipework was made by Snetzler in about 1760 and later additions were made by other renowned builders including Bishop and Father Willis. One thing that was missing from all of my samples was a proper Trompette en Chamade and through the efforts of Justin Bailey the vicar at Bruton and John Dean the organist, I was able to gain access to a suitable rank at Crewkerne. This is an original Harrison and Harrison stop with copper resonators remodelled by Rogers of Leeds. Finally, the only thing missing was a selection of very gentle small scaled stops for use in the Choir organ and these were obtained from Shepton Montague church which has a charming single manual chamber organ built by Johnson of Cambridge. (similar / identical instruments can be found in several universities including King's College, Cambridge).
Many months were spent preparing the stops for inclusion in the Bruton instrument and occasional visits were made to test the results out both individually or as choruses in the church.
Having cobbled together a sizeable instrument of something like 64 main stops plus 10 ancillary ones for temporary use until a West End section can be provided, the next stage was to start voicing and balancing the stops in Bruton itself. What sounds good or bad over headphones or household installed speakers does NOT sound the same as it does in the church and whilst a rough result can be achieved in my own office, it is imperative to do the final setting-up in the church itself. this is no different to any pipe organ. Of course, it is quite possible that stop A or B may sound perfectly fine without further (or too much) alteration when played in the building where it is to be used but this is very much the exception rather than the rule. It amuses me that so many "installers" of HW systems believe that they can get valid results from sample sets which are either wet or completely unchangeable apart from in the most basic manner. Of course the results that they do get may be very acceptable and will most certainly be vastly superior to the majority of "toasters" but they could go so much further with both a library and a speaker system specifically designed for the building and more importantly, set up correctly for it.
Having achieved a pretty satisfactory result at Bruton, I knew that I needed other input and opinions - I'm pretty good but I don't always get it right.
To this end, I had Graham Harrison visit and pass his opinions as well as doing some basic balancing and voicing. His visit was of great assistance since it became evident that there were one or two aspects that needed addressing. Firstly the organ tended to sound a little harsh and strident and this was partly addressed by repositioning the speakers and reducing the treble boost. Secondly, the ranks definitely needed some detuning. In due course this was carried out and there was a marked improvement in some areas. I then asked Dr Richard Stephens to come down for a couple of days. Richard is not only a top class recitalist but also has a complete knowledge of pipe and digital organs. Like Graham above, he plays a hybrid pipe / digital instrument in his church. However, Richard has also been a pipe organ builder and spent time in many countries including the USA and France (where he was a pupil of Marie Claire Alain). His input is invaluable and we went through the organ with a fine tooth comb note by note and stop by stop adjusting everything as needed.
The only remaining task to be undertaken was an adjustment to the Swell box operation which required attention.
So the organ was now basically complete and sounding really quite special. There will obviously need to be the odd adjustments as it is played and many of these will only become apparent after a few weeks or months of regular usage. The console has been partly rebuilt and will be finished or possibly replaced completely in due course as funds become available. Sadly the old piston action eventually failed after three decades and this will also be replaced in due course. It has been a lot of work. Harry Mills has been fantastic and his wiring skills along with scaffold building and logistics not to mention smoothing the way with the odd gainsayer and member of the "anti" brigade have been indispensable. What is truly phenomenal is the fact that the whole project has been achieved for no more than the cost of a general clean and minor overhaul of the existing pipe organ. The existing organ remains fully playable for comparison and the new instrument provides a solution to the existing problems and shortcomings of it as well as providing a true musical instrument.
With a lot of support and development from Roman Sowa, we finally received the circuitry that would enable us to replace the defunct combination action with something that worked and would continue working. Harry has spent the last few weeks sorting this out so that the instrument can be played in a conventional manner using the existing controls. For my part, my work is now complete although it will be necessary for me to go over from time to time and make the odd adjustment or alteration in terms of individual stop balancing or presentation. I am currently working on a load of pieces ready for recording live in the church which will then be presented on this site and possibly also the "Contre Bombarde" website. We are planning to have an open day at some point and we hope to have an official opening recital in the next few months. In the interim, anyone wishing to visit the organ to play it is more than welcome to do so but please remember that this is a working church for both the Catholics and the Anglicans in the community as well as being in regular use by the local schools etc. therefore we must request that those wishing to visit please contact us first to ensure that the church is not being used for another purpose.
The specification of the instrument is as follows:-
The organ consists of 3 x 61 note manuals and 32 note pedalboard. The Auxilliary organ is currently a floating String organ and En Chamade division playing from the organ chamber but as funds become available, an alternative West end section with a small Great chorus plus the existing En chamade reeds will be available for weddings and large congregational attendances.
Currently, there are 30 channels of amplification running through 34 cabinets and 64 drive units. There is existing provision for a further 18 channels of amplification and additional cabinets.
The current amplification power is approximately 6000 watts RMS.
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