November 28, 2005
Vol. V, No. 24
"The Demise of the Digital Organ"
Let's say you've always wanted to visit Paris. Let's say someone invented an IMAX-type booth that you could walk into and close the door. Inside you would be seeing 360 degrees of Paris, hearing Paris, smelling Paris.
Now, let's say they could construct this booth in such a way as to give the illusion that you could walk around in Paris. Let's say they could make it real-time and interactive so you could even say Bonjour! to people you pass on the street and they could say Bonjour! back to you. What if you could shake hands with those people. That might be a bit of a technological challenge but what if they could shove electrodes into your brain that could make you think you're shaking hands with someone in Paris?
Tell me, if you have a choice between having electrodes shoved into your brain and going to Paris, wouldn't it be a lot easier to just go to Paris? Sure, the salesman will try to convince you that using his machine is more practical than making the actual trip to Paris, quicker and even cheaper. Go ahead, listen to him and use the machine but remember that, at the end of the day, you still haven't actually been to Paris.
That's the way I feel about digital organs. What's the point of all this effort to simulate and replicate pipe organs when they already exist? I mean, it's not like digital organs are cheaper. And then customers have to be tricked into buying them. If you think I'm being elitist or unnecessarily divisive or even inflammatory, then take a gander at this nice little article from the Princeton Packet:
The article starts out all warm and fuzzy, talking about how the nice folks at Christ Congregation Church in Princeton, New Jersey, bought a new organ from the prestigious Juilliard School, reluctantly replacing their old pipe organ after 18 years of service. 18 years didn't seem very old to me for a pipe organ but I kept reading because these folks seemed right up my alley. For instance, 1) their "old" organ had been purchased used, 2) it was rebuilt and installed by church members to reduce cost, and 3) thousands of man-hours were volunteered by members in maintaining the instrument. I would have inducted Christ Congregation Church into the BACHorgan.com Pipes Hall of Fame right then and there except for one small problem: the new organ they purchased was a Rodgers digital!
Turns out, Juilliard gets a free "state-of-the-art" digital practice organ from Rodgers every year and then turns around and sells it to some unsuspecting innocent. Nice little racket Juilliard's got going there -- who knew they were hurting for money? Rodgers, though it claims to be in the pipe organ business, doesn't appear too interested in donating a "state-of-the-art" PIPE organ to the Juilliard school for the students to practice on. I guess the tax write-offs are more valuable to Rodgers than having the company name on a bronze plaque for a hundred years. Digital organs make for some strange bedfellows, eh?
So, back to the church, which spent $41,000, not on a new instrument as indicated at the beginning of the article but on a used instrument. Not to worry, Rodgers gave the church a ten-year guarantee on the organ and that should just about cover its lifetime.
Christ Congregation Church is not a big church. Judging by the pictures on their website, it wouldn't take a very big pipe organ to fill that space. I don't know the size of their "old" organ but the one they had before that had 27 stops. It sounds to me like the church really didn't have the strength for dealing with yet another used pipe organ. But what about fixing up the instrument they had? They were told that the costs for repairing the "old" organ were prohibitive. I wonder who told them that, the Rodgers salesman? I suppose the "old" organ was in bad shape but it's hard to imagine that $41,000 wouldn't have a made a dent in the organ maintenance budget over the years for some real professional help.
The article goes on to say that although the new organ is digital, "it can also be adapted to use the preserved pipes from the old organ -- a possibility that pleases most parishioners." What a selling point: It's not a pipe organ but it could be! For the mere cost of a pipe organ you can add the pipes from your old organ onto your new digital organ!
Now, does it seem like that church got a good deal? After reading the Princeton article, read the articles at the Pipes Hall of Fame link below and then tell me who got the better deal, and I don't just mean financially.
Without a doubt, there is no substitute for a pipe organ when it comes to providing a cultural and financial rallying point in a church community. Churches that experiment with digitals soon find that these instruments are not a long-term solution. Honestly, from everything I see, I'd like to go on the record predicting the demise of the digital organ. Digitals will never touch pipe organs in terms of quality, longevity, and cost per usage. I suspect that the digital companies are taking a big financial hit on many of their installations in order to gain market share and that's not a business practice that can be sustained indefinitely. The actions of certain organizations and individuals may prolong the inevitable but it's only a matter of time.
So, so long, digital organs -- nice fad. RIP.
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Pipes Hall of Fame:
Inducted are the following:
--Saltsburg Presbyterian Church - Saltsburg, Pennsylvania
"A pipe organ is like a piece of real estate. You can improve it, you can add to it. And that's just what the Saltsburg Presbyterian Church did. Work began on the renovations in January and was finished within a month. The pipe chambers were refurbished and an upgrade with computer equipment completed, for a cost of $28,000." - Inducted: 11/4/05
--Fly Creek United Methodist Church - Cooperstown, New York
"Built in 1835, the church had its first organ installed around 1866. This pipe organ served the Fly Creek Church for nearly a century. By the 1950s, however, it needed repairs, and by the end of the decade, the congregation decided to replace it with an electric organ. The replacement lasted years and was replaced with another electric organ. Then last year, the second electric organ gave up the ghost in the middle of a church service. Although the church has a piano, members of the congregation missed the sounds of an organ accompanying their voices. 'We looked for an electric one, but they can be very expensive.' The congregation voted to buy and restore the half-century-old organ from St. George's Episcopal Church. The project will cost about $18,000, and the church is having fund-raisers to defray expenses." - Inducted: 5/13/05
--St. Francis Xavier Church - Missoula, Montana
"One hundred years ago this month, the massive instrument survived its westward journey and was installed on the church's second-story balcony. With its robin-egg blue pipes and layered keyboard, the historic organ is a commanding presence, which fills up about 225 square feet of the choir loft. Despite the decades, it continues to kick out a stunning range of notes with nearly infinite combinations of sounds. To restore the organ to its full glory will cost $104,000 the church doesn't have. So a campaign is under way to restore, protect and preserve the historic piece for future generations." - Inducted: 11/2/05
--Unitarian Universalist Society - Burlington, Vermont
"Congregation officials are banking on a one-day passing of the hat to cover a big chunk of the $400,000 expense to rebuild the historic organ. The Rev. Gary Kowalski said about half the expense is already covered by large gifts quietly promised and a fund established a decade ago to rebuild the organ. Still, raising $200,000 in a day is a big deal -- especially for a congregation of 600 people. Big enough for the congregation to dub Nov. 13 'Miracle Sunday.'" - Inducted: 10/30/05
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