Looking Back, Looking Forward

Posted 18 October 2011 by

Since my last post, I have added to my “virtual organ” two new instruments, plus a harpsichord! I have also upgraded to HauptWerk vs. 4. All these things have greatly increased the fun and joy of my system.

The two new organs are 1) the 1928 E.M. Skinner organ of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Chicago, Illinois, available from Hauiptwerk; and 2) the 1966 Schantz with extended and added samples from Evensong Music (also available from Hauptwerk). The Harpsichord I added is the 2005 Mietke instrument from Sonus Paradisi (again available from Hauptwerk). But first, some comments about the new version of Hauptwerk.

Version 4.0 of the Hauptwerk Virtual Organ software is a major upgrade. It’s many increased features are well worth the cost of upgrading, as is the Advanced Version of the package. I’ll describe my favorite features of the “new and improved” program. First, are the new configuration methods. One can almost forget that they are using MIDI. Once your hardware and computer are wired-up and talking to one another, the adding of a new instrument is a joy. By simply mousing over a stop, button or swell shoe on the console display and right clicking, a dialog appears which lets you set it up on your keyboard as you please. One never sees MIDI code or esoteric menus with many unexplained settings and entries. It’s done with a few clicks. Wonderful! This does not describe it very well, but it is for me a vast improvement over the prevous version’s method of setting up a new instrument.

The new version also provides a registration “stepper”, which is completely separate from the normal general pistons. On it, one may have up to 1000 combinations in sequence, saved and stored separately from the generals and divisionals of the console. An additional feature adds many general combinations beyond what the virtual console offers, so one is no longer limited to the original instrument’s console deficiencies. There’s much more.

About the organs I have added, the “Mt. Carmel Skinner” is a fascinating and lovely instrument. I purchased the “wet” version, which offers around three seconds natural reverberation from the building. This is an older recording, so the quality of sound is not as high as that of instruments recorded with later technology. But, it is still a delightful, convincing sound. The “wet” version gives the player a sense of being in the room with the organ–especially if listening through head-phones.

The organ itself is an interesting historical example of the symphonic style instruments of the period. There is only one true mixture–in the swell. The Great has a stop called “harmonics” which does not function like a typical Great Mixture. The Choir division is really a very large solo division with lovely solo reeds plus a string chorus at 16′, 8′ and 4′. The only foundations are an 8′ and 4′ flute! The instrument boasts both a Tuba Mirabilis AND a Trumpet Chamade. It has both an “Orchestral Oboe” and an “Oboe D’Amore”. It has a very nice French Horn. 

And here is where the Hauptwerk Software plays a huge role for me. With the capacity to adjust volumes of every single note of each stop, I have fiddled with this organ to make it more to my liking. The “harmonics” was much too soft, so I boosted it so it works a bit more like a Great Mixture. Not really needing two huge solo reed stops, I softened the Trumpet Chamade to make it more like a big chorus reed–which helps top out the upper dynamics of an organ that has only one real mixture. Some of the pedal stops were uneven, especially the lower octave of the 32′ reed. I tinkered with it to even it out and boost it a bit. This stop sounded like Skinner’s first attempt at a 32′ reed, and it is pretty awful, but I succeeded in regulating it, making it more successful. Much more of that level of “playing” with the instrument has made it more usable with modern literature.

The Schantz instrument is only available in a “dry” recording. I miss the reverberant space of the other organ, but for serious practice, the clean, clear sound won’t let me get by with sloppy playing–and that’s a very good thing. The stop list is much more contemporary in design and quite consistent with American Classic design philosophy. The three divisions and pedal all have mixtures and reeds. It is a very good instrument for planning registration for a “real” instrument, and for learning new pieces. In a room of some reverberation, it probably would sound much better. As I hear it–either through the sound system or head-phones–it sounds a little wooden, not colorful and vibrant. I don’t know if it was the recording technique or the instrument itself that caused that.

The harpsichord is a delight. Quite wonderful. The sound is very authentic, recreating all the wonderful clanks and vibrations and mechanical noises of a the original instrument. And, one never needs to tune it! Such a benefit over an actual harpsichord. Of course, one can use a variety of historical tunings, which is another great benefit of the Hauptwerk software. Try changing tunings in the middle of a concert? Actual instruments are very high maintenance, even aside from tuning. Humidity and temperature changes affect them dramatically. Their playing mechanisms requires constant attention. Strings break, etc. etc. etc. And!! If this instrument is too loud or too soft, that can be adjusted in the Hauptwerk software! This is often an issue when using an actual harpsichord in ensembles with modern instruments. What a benefit there is to a Hauptwerk based harpsichord!

I’ll wrap this up for now. I’m still looking for that “perfect” organ! But, that has been a life-time pursuit, and I’m not likely to find it in a virtual instrument any sooner than in an actual pipe organ. Maybe some day…!?

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