The Elderly Novice Organist

What is a Virtual Organ?

This page describes what a virtual organ is, and how to buy one.

1 Why a Virtual Organ?

If you want an instrument that serves as a pipe organ, you have three choices:

  1. A Real Pipe Organ
  2. An Electronic (Digital) Organ
  3. A Virtual Organ

1.1 Real Pipe Organs

These are mainly very large and very expensive; only a very simple instrument with just two or three small ranks (often called a Positive) could be accommodated in a normal room. They are thus not usually found in the home, and are often being replaced by electronic organs in buildings such as churches. An understanding of the Pipe Organ is important for using a virtual organ, which mimics a real pipe organ.

1.2 Electronic (Digital) Organs

These have been around for many years; they were formerly analog, now digital. Most, such as the majority of Hammond organs, are suitable only for popular music. However, others are aimed at replacing a traditional pipe organ in buildings such as churches. Digital organs are becoming increasingly common in this role, due to their considerably lesser cost and size, while giving adequate sound for accompanying congregational singing. Digital organs are also often used to emulate a pipe organ in the home.

They are normally sold as complete self-contained systems, including consoles and audio components. This eases purchase and maintenance, thus making them attractive to institutions such as churches. When installed in buildings, they may be "voiced" in location just as would be the case with a pipe organ, and use custom-designed audio systems. In most cases, the sounds are synthesized from recorded pipe samples, but they may also be modeled by additive synthesis.

Although one might expect that with developments in digital signal processing, a highly realistic and natural sound could be achieved, this is clearly not the case. Unlike the piano, the changes and irregularities that make pipe organs sound natural are subtle; nonetheless (and perhaps even because of this), they seem to be difficult to model. It is my view (clearly shared by many others) that the sounds from an electronic organ (digital or analog) vary from (at best) bland to (at worst) ghastly.

1.3 Virtual Organs

More recently, the computing power and storage capacity of home PCs has made it feasible to combine recorded pipe sound samples in real time, in response to one or more MIDI controllers. This can provide extremely realistic modeling of a real instrument, with many instruments to choose from.

1.3.1 Components

MIDI devices include a pedalboard, manuals, pistons, toe studs, and expression pedals. Other components are a PC with a good-quality sound card, one or more touch screens to provide stop and other controls, and an amplifier/speaker system including a sub-woofer (although for individual use, headphones are a good alternative).

Such systems can be built by the consumer at a much lower cost than the price of a high-quality digital organ, with the many hardware options available giving great flexibility. Although most such systems are assembled by the purchaser, there are also companies offering turnkey products.

The predominant software is Hauptwerk, for which several hundred sample sets are available, from positives to large cathedral and concert organs, plus theatre organs, harpsichords, and others. There is also a shareware application GrandOrgue, which uses the same data file formats as the first version of Hauptwerk, but cannot use more recent Hauptwerk sample sets. Other applications include jOrgan, Aeolus, and Miditzer, but these are limited in scope.

Available RAM requirements vary considerably depending on the size of the organ, the quality of the sample set, and the number of channels. A small positive may require only a few hundred MB, while a full load of a large organ with multiple channels can easily require more than 64GB. CPU demands can also be high, and the more processor cores (threads), the better.

1.3.2 Sampling

Each pipe is recorded individually, and there should be several recordings (samples) of each pipe. This is to accurately model the three phases of each note played:

The initial transient (including the chiff).
The sustained section of the note, which in principle is uniform, but in practice contains irregularities that give the sound naturalness.
The end of the note, including reverberation from the building that may last several seconds.

The fact that a virtual organ uses recordings of a real instrument eliminates the issues with artificiality that affect electronic organs. However, each recording of the sustained section is only a sample of a few seconds; if the note is longer than this (as many notes on the organ are), the sample must be repeated for as long as necessary. This can result in repetition apparent to the listener.

To prevent this artefact, good-quality sample sets feature multiple (perhaps 10-12) recordings of the sustained sound of each pipe (these are known as loop samples). With longer notes, different loop samples of the pipe are used in a random sequence, thus removing any apparent repetition. Good sample sets also include multiple release samples, as the sound varies with the length of time the note has been sustained. There are typically three release samples for short, long, and medium length notes.

In some sample sets, some notes or stops are synthesized from other notes or stops, rather than recorded. Tremulant samples are sometimes also synthesized, as an alternative to using the tremulant providfed in Hauptwerk. Many sample sets include the ability to model the wind supply and recreate action noises, to further enhance the realism.

Most sample sets are "wet" (recorded at some distance from the pipes to include the acoustic of the building). "Dry" sample sets recorded near the pipes are also available for use where there is already a lively acoustic, or with separate reverb (which is available in Hauptwerk). Some sample sets offer flexible surround sound with both wet and dry samples. Newer sample sets commonly feature three stereo pairs (six channels) recorded at different (close, middle, and far) positions; if all are loaded into memory, they can be mixed as required.

Most sample sets feature only a single instrument; however, some are composite, meaning that they include samples taken from several instruments (typically free demos). These tend to be less satisfactory, as the samples will be from different acoustic environments. However, it may be an economical way to get a larger instrument.

1.3.3 Advantages

In my view, the main advantage of an electronic organ over a virtual one is the convenience of buying and maintaining a single package. However, this also means much more limited choice, both in the hardware components, and the available organ sounds (the quality of which is likely to be disappointing).

With a component-based virtual organ, one has many different components to choose from, and the system can easily be changed and upgraded to accommodate future requirements. Furthermore, with selection from hundreds of sample sets, a huge range of real organ sounds is available, which may be loaded as required. The sound quality from a decent sample set is the next best thing to the real pipe organ.

But putting together a virtual organ for the first time can be intimidating to the uninitiated (it was for me).

2 Buying a Virtual Organ

This section is based on my own purchase of a system, as it is all the experience I have. However, I hope it will give the prospective purchaser some ideas.

2.0 Basic Components

I put the components required for a virtual organ into four basic categories:

Pedalboard + Bench
30 or 32 notes, to AGO or BDO standard. Optional: Expression pedals.
Manuals + Table
A stack of from one to five keyboards, with pistons. Optional: Toe studs.
Computer box, center monitor, touchscreens, audio interface, headphones, etc.
Virtual organ system software (Hauptwerk), and sample sets.

The bench should be chosen/designed in conjunction with the pedalboard, to conform to the standard specifications; for example, the required height is relative to the top of the middle pedal. Likewise, the table should be chosen/designed in consideration of the manuals, and there are critical measurement criteria dependent on the pedalboard and bench. Greater attention needs to be paid to measurements if there are to be more than three manuals.

2.0.0 My Hauptwerk System

Everything was bought new, and my system is economical for a ready-made one. But many people have been able to save a good deal of money by re-purposing a pedalboard, or even an entire organ console.

The main components in my setup are as follows:

PedaMidiKit AGO 32, finished by local carpenters
Based on a design by Laukhuff, built by local carpenters
PedaMidiKit K3 61 W customized with 16 buttons, finished by local carpenters
Made to my own design by local carpenters
Computer Box
Minisforum HX90 / 32 GB RAM / 512MB SSD (for Windows and apps only)
External SSD
WD Blue 1TB USB (for installed sample sets only)
External HDD
Seagate 3TB USB (for original sample sets and general use)
Jelly Comb 2.4G Wireless (red wine color)
Center Monitor
AOC 27" UHD IPS, wall mounted (for display of music and general purposes)
2 x ViewSonic 22" HD, on Vivo stands (for Hauptwerk and video capture windows)
Auto Interface
Beyerdynamic DT 990 PE 250
B&W 801 series 2, with Rotel amplification

Of course, the system is protected by a UPS (APC). I also bought a pedalboard light with motion sensor (even now, I sometimes need to look at the pedals😆).

The total cost (excluding the vintage loudspeakers and amplification) was very close to US$10,000. This includes all shipping, taxes, duties, customs handling fees, and other charges. Note that this is considerably greater than the sum of the purchase prices of the components, despite the relatively modest shipping charges; one needs to budget for these overheads.

2.1 Pedalboard and Bench

This was the first component I wanted to buy, especially as I had never even seen a pedalboard, and was anxious to try playing one. There are three ways to go:

It was soon clear that this was far too difficult for me to attempt. Apart from a suitable design, it requires metalworking together with woodworking skills, as well as electronics, and a well-equipped workshop.
Buy Used
In many places, perfectly good used pedalboards are for sale (for example, from church and electronic organs), which can be retrofitted with MIDI. But I saw little prospect of finding such a pedalboard here in Mexico.
Buy New
In my case, this was clearly the only reasonable option.

After looking at some options in the range US$1800 to US$2500 plus high shipping costs, and others that were cheaper but plain and flat, I decided to go with a one-man business in Italy named PedaMidiKit (Alessandro Alfieri). He offered several different pedalboards, and you can also have a design customized to your requirements, as each piece is built to order. I decided to buy an AGO 32 pedalboard (32 notes, concave, radial) at €970, plus the option of a fast reed switch replacement system.

On 29 November 2021, I received an invoice for €1052, but unfortunately due to government anti-money laundering measures, I was unable to make payment until 5 January 2022. On 20 January, I received an email (including photos and a video showing the completed product) stating that the pedalboard was ready.

To get the item shipped, I sent a payment of €240 to the shipping agent (this transparent separate payment probably explains why the shipping cost is much lower than elsewhere). I finally received the pedalboard (in three packages) on 2 March 2022.

While waiting, I draw the plans for the bench (based on a Laukhuff model). Subsequently these plans were given to the carpenters, together with parts of the pedalboard for finishing. There is no provision for adjusting the height of the bench, but only I will play it; and being of plain average height, the standard measurements should work fine for me.

On 8 April 2022, the carpenters delivered the pedalboard and bench, so I was able to try playing the pedalboard. However, without any sound, this proved to be of limited benefit, and possibly even counterproductive in inducing bad habits. It did at least confirm that the height of the bench was just right, and all the pedals were easy to reach. It was also reassuringly stable and solid.

Using a powered USB hub, I subsequently did some tests with the pedalboard, as a result of which I adjusted all the speech points to the midpoint of the range of travel. On 22 June 2022, I was finally able to get some sound from the pedalboard; the consequences of practicing without sound then became clear.

I am very pleased with the construction quality of the pedalboard. The frame is reassuringly sturdy, and made of white oak. The pedal upper parts are of (I think) maple with pine underneath. The fact that it was supplied unassembled and unfinished enabled me to get the finish I want. It was shipped in three packages, which would make it more robust to any bad handling by the shipping company.

As I have never played any other pedalboards, I am not best qualified to comment on its playing qualities; however, suffice it to say that any errors are due to me, not the pedalboard!

The electronics are based on an Arduino Leonardo controller with built-in USB, and the connection to the computer is USB-A via a very short wired-in cable (so you will probably need an extension). There is also a MIDI connector (5-pin), but I did not test this.

I did not buy any expression pedals, as I will not need these for the short to medium term. I will have plenty of time to consider suitable options during that period.

2.2 Manuals and Table

Given my experience with PedaMidiKit in offering no-frills but well-built products at a low price with honest shipping costs, on 21 April 2022 I transferred €2325 for a 3-manual keyboard stack with 16 pistons (buttons) in a substantial shipping crate (extra). This unit came assembled, but in bare wood. Other low-cost keyboards are mass-produced in factories, and contain internal parts of plastic and rubber. These are made by hand using traditional methods, and should last decades rather than a small number of years.

I was rather surprised to be told (before purchase) that he used silent Red Cherry computer gaming keyboard switches (his website indicated that he used reed switches). However, reed switches work less well in manuals than in pedalboards, due to the shorter distance between the keys, and consequently greater risk of problems from stray magnetic fields. As these mechanical switches are rated at 5 million keypresses, and should be easy to find and replace, they seem like a good idea.

Another advantage of buying from PedaMidKit is that he will build a unit customized to your specification. I had 16 pistons (well, buttons) added. With a ready-made product, you will either be stuck with a fixed arrangement, or with difficulties in fitting these yourself.

While waiting for the keyboard stack, I designed the table using AutoCAD (this was not worth using for the bench). This required a considerable amount of care and attention, to ensure that all measurements met the standards. It was also important that it was very stable and sturdy; I have seen a number of tables wobble when the manuals are played. The link is to the table that I designed (in Spanish).

On arrival of the keyboard stack, I disassembled it so the carpenters could finish it. This involved removal of the base, and was a very worrying task, as the two lower manuals were connected by ribbon cable and could not be separated. These parts (the two connected manuals taped together as best as I could), together with the plans for the table were given to the carpenters.

On 5 July 2022, the carpenters delivered the table and finished keyboard stack parts. I was relieved to see (that after an error that was noted and fixed during construction) all the measurements were accurate. Moreover, it was very difficult to move.

Like the pedalboard, the keyboard stack is not super de luxe, but it is well built. The side cheeks are of white oak, and made to a good standard with some detailing. It was well worth getting the unit finished by the carpenters, as it vastly improved the appearance.

I judge the playing qualities to be good, except that some of the speech points were not very well adjusted (there are instructions on how to change them, and I will get round to doing this sometime). With the exception of one problem shallow speech point combined with my short fingers, I have no reason to blame the keyboard for any shortcomings in my playing.

Like the pedalboard, the electronics are based on the Arduino Leonardo, and there is a fixed short USB cable to connect to the computer (again, you will probably need an extension cable). Both this MIDI controller and that of the pedalboard identify themselves in the Hauptwerk MIDI devices window as a single "Arduino Leonardo", and thus appear to conflict. This caused me a lot of confusion and worry; however, the two MIDI devices coexist just fine.

2.3 Electronics

These were mainly purchased from Amazon USA, with some from Amazon Mexico. The basic components were purchased by 18 June 2022, and set up in another location (with an internet connection). I will not bore you with the subsequent problems* I had getting the system to work with both pedalboard and keyboard stack, but it was finally up and running on 15 July 2022. No separate MIDI support was required; both keyboard stack and pedalboard connect via USB (MIDI over USB). It is as well to have at least one powered USB hub.

2.3.1 Preparing the Computer for Hauptwerk

This section assumes that you will be using Windows (as I am). The Mac platform is recommended by Milan Digital Audio for Hauptwerk, but unless you are OK with a laptop or an all-in-one, the only option now appears to be the Mac Pro (which starts at over US$6,000🙄). A PC offers a much greater choice of hardware at much more reasonable prices (good for the consumer, not so good for MDA customer support). The bad news is that it will come pre-installed with Windows...

You are forced to setup Windows 11 with a Microsoft Account, and this requires you to connect to the internet👿. However, you can run Windows indefinitely without an internet connection, and I recommend that you do so. Apart from avoiding Windows Updates and the likelihood of spying, you can safely remove all anti-virus and other stuff that Microsoft puts on your machine without your knowledge or consent. This will greatly improve system performance and reliability. I cannot offer a comprehensive guide here on just what it is appropriate to disable/remove; for that check sources on the internet.

Although you can use your Microsoft account without connecting to the internet, it will probably better to restore the Administrator account. This has long since been hidden from you, but as a member of the Administrators group will give you full control of your computer (this is what you want, isn't it?). And there is no requirement to key in a PIN or other password. This can be done by keying the following at a command prompt:

net user administrator /active:yes

On restarting the computer, the default account is Administrator with no password required.

The good thing about real pianos (and, I am sure) real pipe organs, is that they do not have a habit of crashing or falling over. Unfortunately virtual organs with Windows do. On a number of occasions I have had to restart; often just the MIDI support has failed (this might possibly be an issue with Hauptwerk), but more than once I have had to do a complete system restart. Ignore the advice given in the Hauptwerk documentation that there is no need to save registrations and other data associated with the organ; I have lost registrations due to crashes, so I recommend manual saving whenever any significant changes are made.

2.3.2 Memory (RAM)

You may be asking "What, only 32GB?". Well, this is insufficient for other than a small organ if you want to load 6 channels (perhaps with the idea of mixing them down to stereo). However, a good-sized instrument can be loaded without compromises if you only want (or have) 2 channels. For example, the 85-stop Laurenskerk Rotterdam organ by Sonus Paradisi occupies 26GB with only the two "wet" channels loaded (20-bit, all stops). Dry sample sets occupy much less memory.

My current sample sets either only have 2 channels, or else give a satisfying sound from the two channels recorded in a central position. In these cases, I see no need for more than 2 channels. I personally see mixing channels as a remedy; as it does not represent a single listening position, it could be considered artificial.

Nonetheless, I do see myself upgrading to 128 GB in the mid to long term, to be able to load large instruments to handle a wider range of styles (although the instrument mentioned above would serve well). But as I intend to concentrate on Bach for say 1-2 years, there is no hurry. And the memory should be cheaper by then.😁

2.3.3 Processor

* And what about that puny AMD Ryzen processor? Well, the least of my worries with Hauptwerk is running out of processor power; the CPU load so far has been very light indeed (and I have tried drawing lots of stops and playing fat chords). Although it is in a small box without a fan, it has 8 cores with 16 threads, and runs at a base 3.6 GHz (clockable up to 4.7 GHz). Notwithstanding the fact that it is hardly puny, it produces a barely discernable amount of heat and thus clearly uses little electricity.

This enables me to leave the system actively running 24/7, so I can use it at the drop of a hat (I often practice while making a coffee). I would not want to do this with a less economical machine in this warm climate with electricity whose cost per kWh rises considerably with increasing consumption. Hibernation or a normal (fast) shutdown would write a considerable amount of data to the SSD on a frequent basis, thus severely reducing its lifespan. And as Hauptwerk executes continuously, Sleep mode is unlikely to be helpful.

2.3.4 Central Monitor and Touchscreens

As all my organ music is in PDF format (I have no legacy of paper, as I have for the piano), I got a center monitor to display it. This offers a good display size with excellent resolution, but without any elegant way to turn pages (I use the mouse wheel).

I decided that it would be good to have two touchscreens; these could be used for the two jambs for sample sets that provide them, but I also like to have a number of the Hauptwerk Control Panels open at all times. Unlike with the center monitor, there was a disappointingly-limited selection of touchscreens at fairly high prices; many small and low-resolution. There seemed to be no point in having less than HD resolution, especially as they would display content other than the jambs.

2.3.5 Audio Interface and Headphones

A high-grade audio interface with ASIO driver is essential for low latency and high sound quality. However, if you only want 2 channels (normal stereo), a good option should be available for around US$200. For me, the MOTU M2 is an excellent choice; unlike most audio interfaces, it has good level meters (which I think are essential). It also offers phono output for my legacy hi-fi system. Performance and sound quality are also top-drawer.

I think headphones will be rather more appropriate for personal use than loudspeakers. A basic choice is whether to go for open-backed or close-backed. Mine are open-backed, which gives rather better transparency than close-backed ones. The downside is that they offer very little sound isolation from external noise, and also the sound can easily be heard by people around. These are not issues in my situation, but if they are, close-backed headphones may be more appropriate.

One must check whether the output from the audio interface is sufficient to drive the headphones, or whether a headphone amplifier is required. In my case, the output level is sufficient for a decent volume level. High-impedance headphones tend to be better quality, but also require a greater input level.

2.4 Software

2.4.1 Virtual Organ System

The Hauptwerk software was actually my first purchase. I was worried that (following Adobe, Microsoft, and others), the next release of Hauptwerk would be available only on subscription pricing (this already applied to the Basic version of Hauptwerk). It does not take Einstein to discern that, as only 30 months subscription would cost the same as a perpetual license, the total cost on a subscription basis would vastly uneconomical* (for me, Hauptwerk would not be an option without a perpetual license).

Although the subscription would include updates, Hauptwerk is now a mature product, with recent releases featuring only very superficial enhancements. And there is always the option to pay for an update. I purchased Hauptwerk 6, but Hauptwerk 7 was available only a few weeks later at the same price. Nonetheless, this is of no concern to me as there is absolutely nothing in Hauptwerk 7 that I would find useful.

Another option, of course, would be to try the free GrandOrgue software. I have no experience of this, but it is clear that a big limitation would be in the availabilty of sample sets. Nonetheless, the earlier sample sets by Piotr Grabowski are available for GrandOrgue as well as Hauptwerk (and are free!). But (bearing in mind that even US$599 is likely to be much less than the hardware cost), I think most people will want to go with Hauptwerk.

2.4.2 Sample Sets

The other side of software is sample sets, of which there are hundreds available, including a number of free ones. I am presently using only free ones, but will buy a few sample sets if and when I receive the pension I am due.

One thing that should be considered is that Hauptwerk expects all sample sets to be installed to the same location. Therefore, plenty of spare space should be available on the device that will hold installed sample sets. Performance is critical here, so an SSD is strongly recommended.

Often virtual organ sample sets provide function that is not available in the real organ. For example, tremulants in the real organ apply to a wind chest; in some cases, these are shared between two divisions, and then any tremulant applies to both divisions. As sample sets are simply sets of samples, with or without tremulant, there is no reason why the virtual organ should not provide separate tremulants. Hauptwerk, in turn, provides function not present in the sample sets (for example, a comprehensive set of Master Couplers).