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Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

Posted February 06, 2017 12:00 AM by Hannes
Pathfinder Tags: DIY matthias wandel pipe organ raphi giangiulio
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About a year and a half ago I started working as a professional organist on the weekends. In the course of that work I’ve met people who work a day job and play on the side, and many people who don’t play any instrument at all but are fascinated by pipe organs. I’ve found that a disproportionately large number of these people are professional engineers.

Pipe organs sort of scream “engineering” more so than any other musical instrument. They’re fantastically complex, often with thousands of moving parts, but also extremely simple in that they’re basically just a mammoth set of scaled flutes controlled by valves operated by a piano keyboard. A typical instrument, with its own unique tone and personality, is individually designed and built to diverse yet precise specs. Compared to a piano they’re musically clunky and incapable of on-the-fly volume changes, but a large organ can produce tones ranging from a whisper to a deafening roar.

It’s probably no surprise, then, that many engineers attempt to build their own organs. One of the first home-built organs to surface online was Matthias Wandel’s. Wandel had next to no musical knowhow but decided to attempt his own organ in 1992 while still in college. Using the resources available in his father’s extensive woodworking shop, he managed to build a pretty impressive working organ. Wandel fashioned his pipes from wood, which is a common organ pipe material anyway, and first provided wind using a vacuum cleaner motor and hose, later upgrading to a small motor and precision blower. Wandel shared his plans on his website, showing that aside from the blower motor his instrument is completely mechanical, much like all pipe organs were until about 1880.

In 2002 a relatively non-musical mechanical engineer named Raphi Giangiulio found Wandel’s plans and was inspired to go a bit further. He quit his job in 2003 and ended up taking almost five years to build an actual room-sized organ with two separate windchests, complete with five sets of pipes and a foot pedal keyboard, completely out of wood. Giangiulio’s website has an extensive set of plans, audio and video samples, and the mathematical formulas he used to design his pipes and tunings. Like Wandel, Giangiulio benefitted from his father’s large woodworking shop. Perusing the site makes it pretty obvious that this was a “quit your job and get it done” kind of project. Giangiulio has become an amateur organbuilder in his own right and has finished three small organs, two of which he's sold, since he completed the big one.

As a former longtime brass player I’m probably more inclined to construct a much-simpler hosaphone. Easier to build, but not even close to the sound of a homebrew organ.

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#1

Re: Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

02/06/2017 8:19 AM

Interesting video on the hosaphone. I too am a former brass player (tuba). I got to thinking how to implement valves so that other notes could be played. The standard three valves, 1, 2, and 3, lengthen the tube by about 12%, 6%, and 18% to lower the pitch by 2, 1, and 3 half steps. Maybe electrically operated valves could be used, activated by switches, to switch in extra lengths of hose. Just a thought.

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#2
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Re: Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

02/06/2017 8:57 AM

I thought about building a hosaphone a few years ago and was thinking along the same lines. I came to the conclusion that nodal venting might be a possibility for briefly changing the harmonic series and accessing more pitches. I guess it'd function like the "trigger" on a trombone or horn.

http://www.seraphinoff.com/printVersion.php?p=bf9e6fd4-be82-47b8-a5b2-fddc3354f6a0

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baroque_trumpet#One_vent

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#3
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Re: Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

02/06/2017 9:56 AM

Nodal venting (like a recorder) sounds like a better idea and is in harmony with the simplistic design of a hosaphone.

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#4
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Re: Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

02/06/2017 1:32 PM

Is this principal a 1/4 wave resonator?

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#5
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Re: Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

02/06/2017 8:43 PM

I'm not sure if this will answer your question...

Sound can be described as two complementary waveforms (like sine and cosine, 90 degrees out of phase): pressure and movement. So where the movement of molecules is greatest, pressure is zero, and where the pressure is zero, movement of molecules is greatest. So there are two ways to describe sound waves, in terms of pressure or movement.

The ratio of pressure to movement is the acoustic impedance, just as the ratio of voltage to current flow is electrical impedance.

Air in the tube of a musical instrument set to vibrating will reflect sound because of the acoustic impedance discontinuity at the ends, just as an electrical signal in a transmission line will reflect from its ends.

An open pipe has a low acoustic impedance at the end. The air movement is maximum and the pressure variation is zero. So if you consider pressure, a recorder is (as are brass instruments) open at both ends, so there is a pressure node at both ends.

The fundamental mode has a wavelength twice the length of the pipe, with a pressure node at each end. The second harmonic has 3 nodes, one at each end and one in the center. The third harmonic has four nodes, and so on.

http://www.angelfire.com/nc3/pweb/lessons/soustair.htm

The harmonics for a fundamental C1 are:

1 C1, 2 C2, 3 G2, 4 C3, 5 E3, 6 G3, 7 Bb3, 8 C4, ...

The harmonic that is excited in the recorder is determined by how hard the player blows air into the mouthpiece. A brass instrument player selects the desired harmonic by tightening the lips.

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#13
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Re: Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

02/07/2017 9:56 PM

Anybody interested in the physics of musical instruments might be interested in a simple tutorial:

http://kellerphysics.com/acoustics/Lapp.pdf

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#14
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Re: Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

02/08/2017 11:11 AM

I am familiar with these actions i designed back loaded single driver horns in the past.

Google ron clarke horns. My question is are the pipes based on 1/4 wave resonators.

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Re: Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

02/08/2017 5:31 PM

Ron, I see where you're coming from, speaker enclosure design. A quarter wave resonator would be closed at one end and open on the other (the driven end with the speaker cone). So yes, it's the same principle. Your speaker enclosure designs are a lot like musical instruments.

Some musical instruments are closed-open pipes (eg. panpipes) and some are open-open pipes. The resonant frequencies of open-open pipes are 1/2λ, 2/2λ, 3/2λ, ... N/2λ and the resonant frequencies of closed-open pipes are 1/2λ, 3/2λ, 5/2λ, ... (2N-1)/2λ. My experience with brass instruments is that they must be open-open. A C instrument played with no valves depressed plays the notes C2*, G2, C3, E3, G3, C4,... corresponding to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th harmonic of the fundamental resonant frequency.

*C2 means 2nd octave C, etc.

Ratio of frequencies of notes (frequency doubles for each octave):

C-1, D-9/8, E-5/4, F-4/3, G-3/2, A-5/3, B-15/8, C-2, D-9/4, E-5/2, ...

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#16
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Re: Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

02/09/2017 11:04 AM

Your speaker enclosure designs are a lot like musical instruments

Yes, borrowed some of the math from musical instruments. The action i designed for was the lowest frequencies are 1/4 wave and matched the 1/4 wave action drop off frequency to the square area of the mouth which is a horn action. So the steps are:

1. 1/4 wave

2. horn(at the hand off of the 1/4 wave)

3. baffle area( baffle step at the hand off frequency)

4. driver

A straight horn action would require a mouth the size of a small car.

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#6

Re: Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

02/07/2017 5:49 AM

The pipe organ goes back a long way, one of the earliest being the water-pressure driven hydraulis devised by Ctesibius of Alexandria (3rd century BC). Air bladders came in around 200 AD, and bellows some 500 years after that. The first great organ in Winchester Cathedral had keys that were played with the fist.

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#7
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Re: Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

02/07/2017 10:29 AM

"The pipe organ goes back a long way" ... and the astonishing variances between the multitudes built throughout the centuries are too vast to even begin to address in a thread such as this!

My mother and sister both impressed me through the years with their skills at the console... (mom having had to retire just last year, due to eye and back problems).

Though the reverberations from the great cathedral-housed organs are breathtaking ... there remains one "outcast", that truly stands out(!)

On December 31, 1914, in Balboa Park (San Diego, CA), John D. Spreckels (one of the wealthiest residents the county), and his brother Adolph B. Spreckels gave {as a gift to "the people of San Diego" and "the people of all the world"} the world's largest outdoor organ and the extravagant pavilion to house it.

Originally having 48 ranks (3,400 pipes, from 32-ft down to the size of a pencil), it was upgraded to 4,518 pipes in 2002, and in 2015, 5,017 pipes.

My one-and-only visit to the park was on one of the rare occasions of having a "visiting artist" to perform a concert on the "Great Austin". I am uncertain as to whether the most recent upgrades (pipe-wise) included an upgrade to the 20hp blower that it had back then... but, even back THEN, it had no problem whatsoever "winning" (competition-for-the-ears of the concert attendees), over the jets coming-in to land at SDIA...(!)

"Small World" ... later, when I showed the concert bulletin to my sister, she looked at the back (artist photo/bio), and exclaimed: "Oh my gosh! That was my teacher at Westminster!"

Can't help but wonder what the hands-&-feet of Bach might have elicited from such a "beast" as this, were it added to those on which he had delighted so many...!

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#9
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Re: Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

02/07/2017 2:35 PM

I've never heard of that one, but the specs are pretty impressive. It has one of the rare Austin "Magnaton" stops.

http://www.balboapark.org/in-the-park/spreckels-organ-pavilion/specs

You're right about the variances...there have been countless "schools" of organbuilding throughout the years. I have the good fortune to live very close to this instrument, which was the first organ designated a US national landmark just last month. I was shocked when I first heard/played it, and found the tone was totally unlike any Baroque organ I'd ever heard. Totally unique to the builder and era.

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#10
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Re: Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

02/07/2017 3:56 PM

"wOw"...(())... truly a "landmark", with some history, it IS...(!)

".... before electricity had reached the village and the organ was powered by a Ross Water Engine beneath the stage to operate the blower...

... In the early 1900s, the organ was played often for services, hymns, music festivals, oratorios and even silent movies..."

["PS"--- 3 free / downloadable sample-mp3's ... played, by Dressler, on the Ferris.]

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#11
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Re: Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

02/07/2017 4:16 PM

It's still played for silent movies every summer--our town's pretty unique and takes history VERY seriously. The console still has a crank handle for (I assume) starting the water engine.

The truly unique part about it is that the building's not heated or cooled, so being completely mechanical with a lot of moving wood parts playing it becomes pretty challenging with moisture, humidity, animals, etc. One summer a cat chased a mouse through the instrument and stomped on a number of tracker arms.

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#8

Re: Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

02/07/2017 11:40 AM

Terrific blog! An interesting, but not all that useful, research project would be to assemble the engineers who built organs and figure out what they have in common (type of engineering they do, woodworking hobbies, that kind of thing).

Jonathan's too modest to do this so I'll do it for him: a great story of another engineer building an organ, this one the first electronic organ.

And because I'm not modest, a link to a blog I wrote about an extremely complex pipe-less pipe organ/

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#12
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Re: Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

02/07/2017 5:02 PM

re: "a link to a blog I wrote about an extremely complex pipe-less pipe organ"...

Pretty cool --- one could certainly "line-up-a-bunch-of-gigs" with such a marvel; especially if it was played to an enormous 'BackDrop' of HD eye-candy {moving "in-sync", in a sort of "Blue Man Group" extravaganza...}

? Feeel the Luv...?

[ 'ok' ... OT ... but whut-the-heck! ]

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#17

Re: Engineers Are Building DIY Pipe Organs, And They're Fabulous

02/10/2017 4:04 PM

For those still following this thread I just learned today that some 15th century Italian and German organs used paper and cardboard as a pipe material. As you might guess this practice was abandoned because they didn't hold up very well.

This 1494 example is in the Correr Museum, Venice:

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