Small Organs : A Perspective – Part One (2024)

Quick! Think of an organ. What do you think of?

Brisbane City Hall? Sydney Town Hall? Westminster Abbey?

Generally, we tend to associate the pipe organ with large instruments. The Dutch built their large organs in the Seventeenth Century as a matter of civic pride, some even celebrating successful naval battles. The English Victorian organ reached its peak in large cathedrals and town halls. I have just mentioned some large town hall organs here in Australia. Town hall organs always seem to link size and civic pride. Even the machinery and new mechanisms developed to work these monsters were part of the mystique of the large organ. The large organ was a symbol of industrial progress and might, just as much as any dreadnought or steam locomotive.

This infatuation with size even extends to music. When you think of, say, the French Romantic repertoire, a vision of a large Caville-Coll in St-Sulpice or Notre-Dame springs to mind, thundering down a Gothic interior bathed in the light of stained glass.

I am often asked about adding stops to an organ. “How can I make it louder or bigger?” the parish council ask. Only later, if at all, does the consideration of musicality and the integrity of the instrument come into consideration. (This brings to mind the old riddle: Why is an organist like an old cab-horse? Because they both always looking for the next stop.)

These perceptions are also based in the organist psyche as well. It needs a certain amount of egotism to play an instrument that bends mere congregations to an organist’s will or to perform in front of audiences and give two-hour solo recitals. (Careful here, Mr Pierce…) It is said the church organ is to accompany liturgy but lead singing. This part of the organist’s personality is almost grounded from the start in the choice of the organ as an instrument. It is the King of Instruments! It is larger and, of course, louder than any other instrument. Who wants to play a single flute when you can have whole ranks of them at your very command? Better still when a battery of trumpets is also at hand.

But musicality is not confined to size or engineering progress. Of course, there are some perfectly hideous large organs. I have merely outlined these ideas to draw out some hidden assumptions when the word ‘organ’ is mentioned and expose our prejudices.

I want to examine small pipe organs. They are a totally different concept and instrument to their bigger brothers.

It is better to think of organs as wine. I have used the analogy before but I think it rather pertinent. Even though grapes are fermented to make an alcoholic drink, different wines are achieved by various grape varieties, different fermenting methods and are drunk in different situations. On a hot summer’s day before lunch try serving up a vintage port instead of a Chardonnay or, even better, a glass of Sparkling Burgundy! You will fail in the hospitality stakes and probably become a social outcast. So, too, with the organ varieties.

It is important to remove any preconceptions and examine the small organ as an entity in itself. Small organs are used in three main areas:

  • The chamber organ, used to accompany other instruments and small choirs. It is normally portable, single manual and without pedals.
  • The practice organ, which has two manuals and pedals so most repertoire can be practised on it but only a few stops and of small dimensions to fit in a house. With more stops it becomes a house organ.
  • The small church organ, which is designed for small buildings or churches of limited budget.

Before examining these organs in detail, I would like to make some comments about their general philosophy.


One of the greatest advantages and beauties of a small organ is intimacy. The small organ should offer the organist (or would ‘player’ be a better word here?) an experience similar to playing other musical instruments. It should offer the feeling of the finger on the string or lips on the mouthpiece. The closeness of the pipes and, hopefully, sensitivity of the action should offer an intimacy not available on larger organs.


The action should be sensitive. It should truly be an extension of the fingers. The action should allow the player to open and close the pallet at any speed the player desires. This control should be the same as the hands and fingers on a violin or the lips of a flautist. If the instrument is properly voiced, the pipes will react differently to the speed of the pallet opening and thus give another very important means of expression. Of course, the action must have some crust to give definition to the action, but not enough to affect the control. Ideally, playing a good action should become a sensuous experience (musically speaking, naturally…)

By action I have assumed mechanical action. Whilst I would not wish to rule out electric action per se, it cannot compare in reliability or sensitivity. Yes, I know there are touch sensitive electric actions being developed. A good suspended action, however, where the pallet directly holds the key up with only perhaps a roller board intervening is the best and most reliable type of action you could want. The more action parts between the key and pallet, the more the player is distanced from the sound. The simpler and shorter the action, the lesser it is affected by weather changes.


Good action demands a good pallet. For small organs the pallets are the same width as the keys, making the soundboard the same width as the keyboard, with the pipes laid out chromatically. This arrangement is fine but this limits the width of the bars. In the lower notes this can be a problem. If the bottom pipes are going to need a good wind supply, it is better to use a rollerboard and plant some notes on the other side of the soundboard. The pallets need only open as little as 5 mm (as recommended by Schnitger) provided they are long enough. In general, it is the bars that restrict the wind not the pallets.

Now I know you are probably starting to complain. Yes, of course! Larger organs are affected by the same things, all this bloke is doing (you say) is regurgitating organ theory and not talking about small organs. He is waffling more than a Vox Billy Goat on a cold day. What is important here (I say) is to focus on the elements. The tolerances for small organ are far less. Moreover, I want you to become aware of how all these mechanical elements can be made to become a truly intimate musical instrument capable of minute expression. The pallets do affect the break-out or crust of the action. The older, smaller Victorian organs use a backfall action with wide pallets. This gives an initial resistance as the action takes up the slack against the wind pressure holding the large pallet against the soundboard. This gives the ‘clunkiness’ typical of these organs. Modern organs using backfalls but with thin pallets they do not have the same crust.

I have found the use of aluminium pallets to be very successful in eliminating cyphers due to pallet warpage. Whilst the use of well seasoned timber helps, a small portable organ will encounter vast changes in environment especially here in tropical Queensland. My small chamber organ has travelled over 6,000 kms without any pallet problems. I like the use of natural materials in small organs, it gives them a very warm and solid feel. Sold timber helps project and resonate the sound. For the pallets, however, my experience dictates the use of a very stable material such as aluminium. The use of pertinax or laminex for slides also keeps the weight down and minimises any warpage.


Now, in mentioning pallets, I must proceed to talk about voicing. It is all very well to have a really superb and wonderful action, but it is wasted when the pipe voicing does not discriminate between key attack and key release. This is a question of voicing rather than scaling. Scaling is the diameter or width of a pipe, mouth width and general cut-up for a given note. Voicing is the art of making the pipe speak. It is combination of final cut-up, flue width, nicking and languid height. The pipes of a small organ should be voiced in the organ and not on a voicing machine. The environment and action of a pipe affect its tone and attack enormously. Voicing it on the soundboard together with the action gives you the perfect match.

As a general rule, the chiff (or overtone) should be heard on the sharp attack of the note whilst only a blossoming of the fundamental should be heard when the key is stroked (or opened slowly). A graduation between these two should be possible depending on key touch. This is important in 8′ ranks, more in Flutes than Principals. It should be less in the 4′ ranks and almost inaudible in the 2′ ranks. I say ‘almost’, but if there are only Flutes underneath the 2′, then a little bit of chiff is a marvellous thing. Of course this all relates to the combination of stops in the specification. Nicking and chiffs are interrelated. I believe slight nicking is essential in most stops except perhaps wooden flutes. It is a matter of controlling the attack of the pipe.

I also believe people were a little confused in the sixties. Firstly, I think they confused the joy of hearing the attack of the note with the general tone of the pipe. In other words, a lot of organs had plenty of chiff (which was considered a new thing) whilst often the tone or gravitas of the pipe was lacking. Even Victorian organs had chiff, but many had not been cleaned or restored properly at this time and the attack of the pipes had been muted. Part of this confusion is the belief that nicking removes the chiff. It does not. Light nicking is essential to control the chiff so that some of the sizzle in the flue is removed. This then allows the voicer to focus the sheet of air from the flue onto the upper lip to let the tone of the whole pipe develop. The key phrase here is enough nicking. Too much and the tone itself will become dull.

There is a simple test for this. Some organs sound aggressive and loud close up but fade away as you walk away from them. They die very quickly in the building even when it has a good acoustic. Here the supposed pipe tone has been the actual sizzle and wind noise of the top lip. Yes, I even saw nicking and foot-hole control being used on modern organs in Germany, although I am sure this will send some of you into fits of philosophical indignation. The object of voicing is to be able to control the speech of the pipes. The more methods available to the voicer, the better the control. Even the combination of foot-hole and flue voicing helps achieve a controlled result. In a small organ this is critical. This is the reason for voicing the pipes of a small organ in the organ itself. You can then test the nicking, flue width and cut-up with the action. Stroking the keys should remove the attack whilst tapping the key should allow attack and definition according to the rank.


Thus the music played on the organ can be phrased not only using articulation (i.e. silences between the notes, or the release of notes, perhaps?) but by the amount of attack per note. Obviously more attack or chiff is needed at the beginning of phrases and on the beat of the music. The layout of the small organ soundboard then becomes important. It is tempting to squeeze the pipes into a small soundboard layout for the sake of size. This is, I believe, false economy. It is better to allow sufficient room for the pipes not only to speak but also to bloom. In my two chamber organs I have placed the lowest pipes of the 8′ Stopt Diapason outside the case. This allows plenty of room to position the larger pipes of the other ranks on the soundboard. I also think it advisable to leave a small space around the pipes and the casework. This lessens the effect of the case interfering with speech of the pipes but the case can still be used as a soundboard to project the tone. Ideally, large pipes should be positioned furthermost from the pallet, although on small soundboards this is not quite as critical.


Casework should be used as a device to project the sound as well as being beautiful. Small chamber organs usually have doors to protect the pipes when not in use. These doors can also be used to quieten the sound when, say, accompanying a single instrument or voice. I have also found it very useful to have part of the roof hinged so the sound can float up to the ceiling of the room. This will not give any additional volume but helps with projection. Sound coming through the doors may be lost if the people or objects are positioned around the organ (especially if people stand up to sing) but the hinged roof will help project the sound over these obstacles. For small church organs, I prefer the roof of the organ not to be totally enclosed. The sound can then travel up to and along the ceiling of the building. Position here is critical. A small organ in the right location using the building as the soundboard has better projection, clearer tone and (sorry to use the term but…) a louder sound. Chamber organs, on the other hand, must help create their own acoustic as they are used in different environments.

Wind Supply

The wind supply is part of the technique of creating organ tone. Sufficient wind is important from a quiet blower. It must be regulated well enough to remove any differences in pressure from small wind usage to large. In other words, the organ should not change pitch or tone depending on the number of pipes being used. Schwimmers are very compact and ideal for chamber organs. Schwimmers are wind regulators fitted in the soundboard. Bellows are equally as good in church organs where space is not such a premium. However, the wind supply should not be dead. I favour a very slight shake in the wind, which is noticeable in light usage. This should give the vibrato used by all good string players or singers. It adds interest to the sound without detracting from it. It should also be undetectable when the total chorus is used. This gives a special tone to the flutes, that lovely silvery quality which distinguishes a truly beautiful stop.

Wind Pressure

Wind pressure should not be too low. We should not confuse light and pleasant tone with low wind pressure. I find it better to have a slightly higher wind pressure and then to regulate at the foot. This ensures the bass pipes will have enough power to bloom. It also ensures the 8′ tone of the organ is sufficient to carry the voices of the upper ranks, providing a good foundation for them. This is part of the idea of the organ creating its own acoustic. A gentle singing quality also needs tone behind it, so that it projects. 3″ of wind pressure can achieve this often better than 2 1/8″. Just bear in mind I am talking about ‘blooming’ and not ‘booming’. To create beautiful stops you need the right scaling. If the scaling is too small the pipes become squeaky and shrill. The ultimate put-down of an organ is to call it squeaky or a box of whistles.


The small organ offers the opportunity of intimate beauty to the player and the listener. Powerful upperwork will not blend with the rest of the chorus in a small organ (and often in large organs). A 1 1/3′ stop should be able to blend with 8′ on its own. This is intrinsic in a small organ where all parts must blend to offer as many musical combinations as possible. The upperwork should reinforce the harmonics of the lower parts. I favour reasonable scaling in the bottom octaves for the 8′ ranks. Often a Gedact sounds emasculated because it does not have enough tone in the lower pipes to counter the cheerfulness of the upper ranks. I also prefer larger scaling in the upper end of the higher ranks to give them a gentle singing quality rather than shrillness. Shrillness is only pleasant on train whistles and Australian bird calls. Scaling should also be progressive. As the player runs up the stop, the quality of the stop should change and offer the listener a different perspective of the same character. In other words, the tone or colour should change in different octaves whilst still being related. This is perhaps a difficult concept and a question of taste. Basically, all musical instruments change in tone depending on the range in which you are playing.


The particular beauty of the organ is that the addition of two stops should give a different character to the sum of the two individual stops. This is blending. It is a combination of scaling and voicing. Take for example the 2′ Principal stop. In the lower octaves it should be gentle yet full of overtones. It should be capable of being played by itself in this area and give a warm, rich and full sound. This will also help give definition to the 8′ and 4′ which may have plenty of tone but less definition. As the 2′ progresses up the keyboard, the overtones should become less, so the stop can hide in the overtones of the fundamental ranks. In this area, the 2′ should add quality rather than power. Taste and the particular usage of the organ will dictate how far the change in tone will occur. A chamber organ accompanying other instruments will want less 2′ tone over the 8′, whereas a church organ will want more in order to ensure that the pitch and harmonics lead the singing.

This then leads me into the second part of my consideration of small organs – the specifications. So far I have looked at the mechanism of the instrument and how to design them to give the player as much control over speech, phrasing and tone as possible. The irony of all of this is that the more this is achieved, the less the player is aware of it. Just like the glass of Shiraz sitting on the table; its taste and aroma should give no hint of the effort that has brought it to fruition, its final judgement should be the drinking itself.

Small Organs : A Perspective – Part Two

Small Organs : A Perspective – Part One (2024)
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