altivo: Running Clydesdale (running clyde)
[personal profile] altivo
Note to myself perhaps more than anything.

Over the last week or so I've been playing with Miditzer, a software music synthesizer that recreates the sound of a Wurlitzer theatre organ and duplicates the console controls of same. It comes configured to reproduce several models of the classic instruments, including the 150 (for small theatres, 2 manuals and 5 ranks of pipes) and the 216 (larger, with 2 manuals and 10 ranks.) Other models exist in either production mode or as beta tests, but the 150 and 216 are available for free download and use.

The sound, based on audio samples of actual Wurlitzer pipe organs, is fantastic and true to the real thing as only the most expensive electronic organ consoles (Allen, Rodgers) have been. Of course, a good sound card and good speakers are helpful in getting the feel. By attaching one or more MIDI keyboards to the computer, you can actually play the Wurlitzer. Some users are going to greater depth by building actual organ consoles, complete with stop tabs, combination pistons, and swell pedals.

I've been playing, with great interest and pleasure, using MIDI devices I already had on hand as well as a recently acquired Alesis keytar. Listening to the diversity of sound from just the smallest model 150, with 5 ranks of emulated pipes (Flute, Tibia Clausa, Salicional, Vox Humana, and Trumpet) I quickly realized that it has the same addictive character to the sound that the surviving giant Wurlitzers have. Though I've been an aficionado of this sound for at least half a century, it only just now has dawned on me what it is that makes it work.

This is a theory, of course, and I've not seen anyone write about it in just this way. The two sounds most readily identified with the theatre organ are those of the Vox Humana and the Tibia Clausa.

The Vox is, in its figurative name at least, an imitation of the human voice. In practice, it takes some imagination to hear it as a chorus of nasal voices singing "AAAAhh" or "OOOOhh" but it almost achieves that. Alone, it has a thin, reedy quality that is quite mechanical, though. In combination with the Tibia, and in the hands of a good musician, it becomes an instrument capable of making you feel as if you've drowned in your own tears and had your heart ripped from your chest, but are still alive. Why?

The human voice is produced by short but thick vocal cords that resonate through a cavity much too small to amplify the fundamental pitch. It consists of a weak base pitch, with strong fourth or fifth harmonics and higher, and almost no audible sound in the middle. The pipes of a Vox Humana attempt to duplicate this by using a reed to produce the fundamental pitch, and a resonator that is cut short and usually conical to simulate the mouth and nose which are wider inside than at the openings. Made of metal, it sounds buzzy and a bit metallic, more like a computer trying to sing than a real human.

The Tibia Clausa is a flue (or flute) style pipe, made of wood which gives it a softer, warmer character than metal would have. It has an open throat and mouth, like a giant baroque recorder. The difference is that the pipe is cut to half the resonant length of the fundamental pitch, and stopped with a plug covered with felt or a similar damper. The lips of the pipe's mouth are often lined with leather as well, to give it a "breathy" character. Like the Vox Humana, and especially when a tremolo is introduced, it has a vague resemblance to a chorus of human voices. Acoustic examination of the sound shows something similar to the Vox, though with a stronger fundamental, a gap of missing harmonics, and a sudden peak at the fourth or fifth (which sound more than 3 octaves above the base pitch.)

This "hole in the middle" or "hollow" sound that the theatre organ shares with the human voice must surely have something to do with the emotional impact of the instrument, which can strike fear or pathos into the audience just as effectively today as it did during the silent film era. The effect is further amplified by the style of performance, which often uses registrations that are sometimes called "16-4" because the featured or solo stops are at 16 foot and 4 foot pitches, or an octave below and an octave above the pitch of the written note, omitting that actual written pitch. This is another "hollow" in the sound that contributes to the overall effect.

Experimenting with the virtual stop tablets and playing various combinations on the Miditzer 150 confirms that, at least for myself, the spell-binding sound of the Wurlitzer that can raise the hair on the back of one's neck or evoke tears for no apparent reason comes primarily from these tonal qualities.

Of course, there are other effects, including the Trumpet and related stops that can come close enough to the strains of a military band to make your memory synapses light up. Larger instruments have realistic sounds of a chorus of orchestral strings, or a solo clarinet or oboe, that can also stir the imagination and paint imagery as bright and detailed as any full orchestral performance; but I think the great emotional power of the theatre organ comes primarily from the hollow voices of the massive Tibia and the relatively small Vox pipes.

Date: 2014-08-16 08:28 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Allo horso :3
Have you listened to the goon show comedy "The Mighty Wurlitzer"?

It's the episode where Neddie Seagoon tries to break the land speed record for pipe organs. :3

Date: 2014-08-17 05:17 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] dogteam
Hey. 'Tivo. Long time.

Date: 2014-08-22 01:38 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] chibiabos
<accustatory tone=on>Did you purposefully choose and order your title to form the acronym P.O.N.I.?</accusatory> :P

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