Hints & Tips
Starting Out - What you might consider:
Think, consider, mull it around, discuss and then think again, before you rush headlong into something you can't achieve!
The Simple Route
Firstly, try something that's free and easy to install, such as Miditzer to get the initial feel for the subject. Read the instructions and get your head round how control signals are generated and distributed. You don't need a degree in MIDI to work it all out, but you might want to try to gain a rudimentary understanding of the subject. Remember, this is not a chauffeur driven limo that you're into. It can be the 'limo' part, but you'll need to know which buttons to press for yourself.
Your Dreams & The Budget
Having taken the plunge and got something working (however small) now is the time to sit back and do some real soul searching.
What do I really want?
Can I really achieve my desires - in my lifetime!!?
Can I afford it?
If the truthful answer to any of these questions in 'No' then perhaps you should consider being content to admire other folks' installations, going to concerts and buying CDs. If the answer is 'Maybe' to any of the questions, then read on to help you decide on positive answers. You're maybe in for a bumpy ride, but the euphoria when you play your first chord on you own instrument will be well worth aiming for.
Plans; Use a Spreadsheet
OK, so you now have a dream. Get it written down. If you're going to get anywhere with it, you need a specification for your instrument. That doesn't mean that you have to build it all in one go. As with all life, you can have an end result in mind (and on paper) and build towards it in stages, as your wallet, understanding and capabilities allow.
So, where do I start?
Try looking round at other peoples' Theatre Organs whether they are real or virtual. Perhaps you can find one that you'd like to copy. Most owners like to show off (wouldn't you?) so although they may not afford you 'clambering facilities' they will usually tell you a bit about their instrument and will often have published a full specification. You could also try looking at current commercial offerings. Not just complete instruments, but sample sets (virtual instruments in their own right - minus the hardware) such as the Artisan Sound Engine and digital samples, or Paramount or Masterworks and Connoisseur series that run on the Hauptwerk system. If you really can't find a specification that you like then you will need the services of someone who is well versed in specifying Theatre Organs. Don't ever kid yourself into thinking you can 'go it alone' or you WILL come unstuck for all but the smallest of instruments!
OK, so you've heeded the advice and you now have an achievable specification.
One thing's for certain, you should not feel smug and order lots of hardware and software, until you've decided that either there are samples available to cover your needs, or you know how to record your own and have the equipment and permission to do so. Fortunately, there are a lot of samples available and not just the commercial ones, so you shouldn't have too many problems in drawing up a list. Which is where your first dilemma starts.
A sample's a sample, right? Wrong!
There are various formats and not all samples will play with all sample playing software, so do read all you can and ask questions on the various forums that have been set up to help you decide. The old saying is very true - "The only stupid question is the one that is not asked"!
There's one good thing about the current VTPO world - it's never stagnant. Development is constantly being undertaken, both commercially and non-commercially, so the chances are good that if your requirement is not being met today, it likely will be tomorrow. However, you don't want to wait until tomorrow, you want yours yesterday, don't you? Well, best advice is to decide on whether you want to stick with the free offerings (and maybe in time to contribute to them) or 'go commercial' and perhaps have the freebies tagging along besides. If the latter is your choice, then do look carefully at what you're about to purchase. Some of it is not cheap and of course you'd prefer that it will continue to run and be supported for the lifetime of your proposed instrument. For example, it's been announced that one company wishes to discontinue support for their product, despite recently bringing out a new version. Now this not so much a problem if you already have it running, but if you buy it after the support has been withdrawn, you could be in for a big headache in getting it to run due to its copy protection scheme and the need to register it by phone. However, you could just find a copy at a bargain price and if you're quick, you'll be able to register it. Fortunately, there have been no other recent similar announcements and software produced by smaller companies such as Crumhorn Labs (Hauptwerk) stands a far better chance of survival due to the dedication being shown by its authors and where their product seems to be more important than simply making money.
There are obviously pitfalls where non-commercial software is concerned and in obtaining all the right samples, but the commercial world can be a lot more restrictive, although this need not put you off. There are several good programs/sample sets available, but you need to consider the restrictions so that you can make informed decisions. Fortunately, most of the sample sets will govern which software you run them on, especially in the case of sample copy protection, where the sample sets are strictly tied to the software that they run under. Look at what's for sale, and in particular the specification of the sample set/organ definition that's available.
Does it match your own requirement closely enough?
Are you happy to use the 'organ' that's been defined for you, or do you need more facilities?
If the definition includes all of the virtual ranks that you want and at the pitches you need and on the particular division (manual/pedalboard) you have in mind, then you're away and probably won't need to do any extra work.
However, the real world's often not that convenient. Some commercial definitions are restricted to WYSIWYG, meaning that if you want an extra manual with all of its associated stops, another expression pedal, a different crescendo arrangement or maybe some extra ranks/'traps' or any combination and number of those - tough!!! Those definitions are fixed unless you pay extra for upgrades and even then they may not be offering exactly what you want. Unfortunately, some suppliers claim to have no spare time for extra support for your 'exclusive' definition, so you're now on your own. Well almost - read on.
The Bright Side
It's not all gloom and doom. At least one commercial supplier will give you all of the tools that you need to make your own definition and add samples and facilities and in a simple to understand manner and one (Artisan) offer to write a one-off special definition for you. No, not for free, but then they have to eat as well! Others provide the means to 'write your own' but are not always too easy to understand and you may find that you are also restricted in what you can achieve and a need to move to more advanced techniques to complete your project. Whatever method you choose, you are going to make mistakes, have issues and scratch your head for days, but fortunately there are many forums where you can discuss your problems and obtain help and advice. If all else fails, you can look for someone else who is well versed in writing in your chosen format and (usually) pay them to do it for you.
For computing requirements see our specialist Computers pages. For control and transmission see our Control pages. For some help with consoles see our Consoles and Constructors pages, but before you wander off, there are some other things you may wish to consider.
Whether to throw up a cheap and easy stand and mount a keyboard or two on it, or to acquire a vintage electronic organ console, or whether to try to acquire an original pipe organ console, to have a console purpose built for you, or finally whether to build your own from scratch? The $64000 question!
Whatever you decide will be your ultimate VTPO, it is worth considering starting off 'small'. Possibly acquire a single commercially made 'blind' keyboard, such as the Roland PC-180 or similar, which can usually be found on Ebay for less than the cost of a good MIDI interface. Although only a single 'manual' these keyboards can be easily changed to output on different MIDI channels so they can be used to test 'manual' definitions and stops. Even the pedalboard can be emulated and there's no reason why you can't have several of these mounted on a custom made stand, giving you all of the manuals for a complete organ. Warning: Always make sure that a manual or online instructions are included - there's nothing worse than floundering around in the dark, trying to get some esoteric function to work and not have a clue how to do it! There is however one drawback against using single keyboards for a complete organ - most of them are only 4 octaves (49 notes) instead of the standard 5 octaves (61 notes). If you acquire a keyboard that has a fixed output on one MIDI channel only (often channel 1), you can still use MIDI-OX to re-map it and kid the sampler software that it's actually on a different channel. Of course if you happen to have one or more of the more advanced keyboards or electric pianos which also contains samples of its own, provided that it is capable of transmitting MIDI signals to the outside world, there's no reason why you can't use that.
Well, that's covered connecting a few bits together which can be more than adequate for many, and copes with 'shoestring' budgets. However, some folks want a 'real' console and may wish to buy a vintage 'toaster' because much of the hard work of building the 'lower work' is already done, the keyboards will be in place, and it will usually come with a pedalboard and bench and be relatively cheap. You may even be lucky and find one that has all of the stop tabs on it that you need, but remember that most electronic organs of that era only have 'blind' pistons so the stop tabs will only move when you physically apply pressure to them. In other words they don't have SAMs (Stop Action Magnets). If that's the case and you do want realism, then you will have to replace all of the stop action with real SAMs. It's 99% certain that if you try to buy extra SAMs to match the existing ones, they will not physically line up properly, and your console will look a mess! Consider whether there is actually sufficient space to fit all of your proposed stops and how much alteration will be necessary. Don't buy 'blind'. Go and inspect your prospective purchase. Many older instruments are sold on behalf of someone who can no longer use them, by well-intended people who have no idea of what they're really selling, and you can unwittingly be totally misled and end up paying out far more for replacement/additional parts than is economically sensible! If attempting purchase via Ebay, insist that the seller will allow you to pay cash on collection and is willing for you not to purchase if your exact needs are not met. Be prepared to walk away. Like buses, there will be another one along before too long! Also be prepared to discard most of the innards of your purchase. You are certainly only likely to need one contact per key for each manual, so all of the fancy keying mechanisms, resistive bars, and keying circuitry will be totally redundant. Likewise, audio systems are by and large redundant in older instruments, due to modern loudspeaker development using rare earth metals and their relatively cheap availability, they are far more efficient and realistic than a lot of the older stuff, and devices like Leslie speaker systems are useless for realistic tremulation.
If you are going to have a console purpose built, do go to a builder who is well known and has a reputation for good quality and timely work. Know what you want and don't be browbeaten into accepting something you don't want, because it's easier for the builder that way. On the other hand, respect the builder's opinion. Most of them have vast experience in their field and can save you a lot of trouble by heeding their advice. Some console builders (like most professions) act like prima donnas and are rightly proud of their work, so they may be a bit pernickety and insist that something is carried out 'their way'. Be prepared for this. Agree with the builder before they start work, your over all goal and try not to change it, but do be prepared for minor deviation from your plan, due to the inevitable snags that will turn up 'out of the blue'. Remember that having a console purpose built for you is going to cost a great deal of money, and unless you don't really care about that, ensure that what you wish to have built, will actually work and especially if it's just a 'shell' that you've ordered, that it will accept your hardware, when it's completed.
Attempting to buy a genuine '1927' Theatre Organ console is likely to be fraught with minor problems, the first being just finding one! Then you need to know if it's of the pneumatic or electromagnetic variety. If it's the former, you will have to replace all of the combination action (stop motors and pistons} and it might be better left to someone to acquire that actually wants a pneumatic console for a real pipe organ. If it's electromagnetic then as with any console that's been pre-built, you need to be sure that there's sufficient space to accommodate any changes you want to make, or be prepared for a lot of extra work, where you might be better off building from scratch. Give a little thought to the fact that you might be taking away a small piece of history that would be better suited on real sets of pipes of similar vintage. Also beware that there are one or two unscrupulous people out there and the console you just bought from the 'New York Paramount' may have also been sold to someone else the previous week as the genuine article, but isn't now and wasn't then! Whatever you buy, don't forget to factor transportation costs into your budget, as it's unlikely you will get anyone to shift your very heavy console for free.
So after reading the above, you've decided that you'd prefer to build your own console. It doesn't matter how good your relationship is with your wife, partner or housemate, if you try to build it on the kitchen table, you are headed for big trouble, much hassle and heartache, and a likely permanent separation or divorce!!! Despite the fact that you may have already decided on a place to park the finished article, knowing that it will be a talking piece, positively 'glow' and enhance its surroundings, it will not be like that until it's completed. Until then, it's a mucky project that's ugly and having too much attention paid to it. You need an area, garage, shed, separate room, den or whatever to be able to work on it and make a mess which you can walk away from and return to whenever you have the time. Also, buy a doormat. You do not want to be treading dust and mess out of that area! Don't forget to plan for moving the finished article from where it's being built to where it will finally be used. It's no good making the greatest job in the world, only to find that you can't get it out of the door and in through another one. If it's likely to be impossible to move it in one go, design it carefully so it can be dismantled into 'door-sized' pieces, without the use of a saw or hammer.
If you're already good at building stuff, then you may be able to make your own drawings, failing that, there are plans of consoles available and some can be reached by links from our Consoles and Constructors pages. Whatever you choose, for a project of this complexity, it would be very foolhardy not to have a full set of drawings available and don't forget to make copies, just in case the originals mysteriously disappear, or a friend asks for a set. If you're not sure how to go about console building or a particular part of your project, then there are links on this website to other constructors' websites and to forums where there is a wealth of online information. Standard carpentry, joinery, electrical and mechanical engineering and finishing techniques are normality.
As with everything there are always a few pitfalls, other than the obvious ones. For instance, ensure that any keyboards that you acquire for manuals having Second Touch, are either already set up with 2nd Touch contacts and springs, or have sufficient travel in each key, to allow fitting of rods and springs to operate at the (approximately) halfway point and that they have sufficient space for you to fit an extra contact. This also applies to pedalboards. Another pitfall is that you should not attempt to mix the use of SAMs from different manufacturers. The fulcrum point will be in a different position so that you may be able to line the tabs up in either the up or the down position, but never both and your project will look very strange, badly designed and will likely attract unwanted mirth. Remember too that some SAMs are polarity sensitive. Syndyne SAMs in particular will work OK and not self destruct if you connect them with the wrong polarity, but when they are electrically driven, the polarity of the magnetic field produced can adversely affect adjacent SAMs, causing them to 'false trigger'. It's been tradition for SAMs to be wired as Common Positive on pipe organs, but some electronic interfaces won't allow for that, so you will either have to fit inverters or preferably order the correct polarity SAMs in the first place!
Further hints as experience is gained...........
Some problems in building VTPOs:
- Bad wiring; broken wires, dry solder joints.
- Incorrect assignments in the definition files; e.g. the system is expecting stop information on port one channel 5 note 20 and instead it receives something else from that particular stop.
- Airport scanners; since 9/11. All sorts of problems with imported computer/organ/midi boards; main problem partially erased EEPROMS. Luckily some can be reprogrammed on the CPU board. However, in some cases another board may have to be ordered, hoping the scanners don't get that one as well.
- Broken reed switches.
- Oxide buildup on key switches - causing intermittent notes.
- In one project, because the owner used older and newer boards, to get around that problem, the starting byte had to be increased from 1 to 1024 (that one was a head scratcher).
- MIDI encoders may not have the capacity for more than the number of stops in use. although this is highly unlikely.
- CA problems; one builder was off byte by just 1 and he was playing around with it for over three months.
- Another builder had every problem that you could throw at somebody, it is a wonder he didn't tear his hair out. From corrupt data and definition files to erased eeproms, it can take some time to solve all of that.
- Software and computer problems from just lack of knowledge on the owners part and PCs clogging up.