Truesound: Trying to Recreate the Original Baroque Organ Sound

Europe has some 10,000 medieval and baroque organs. These monuments to the organ-makers’ art reflect the liturgical needs that gave rise to the organ. In order to be worthy for use in the liturgy, an instrument needed to be created which would use pipes and reeds to accompany and mimic the human voice. They’re also monuments to a land where the purpose of those organs–to glorify God–has been lost, and these majestic instruments have fallen into disrepair.

Restoring the original sound of this organs is no simple matter. Decay has robbed them of their full functionality, and we’re not sure just how that sound was achieved. The European Union launched the Truesound project to determine the best way to restore those and recapture that lost sound:

The EU project Truesound tackled a major challenge in materials sciences to recapture the purity of organ music. The project aimed at developing copper-based alloys for organ pipes and refining technology to recreate true organ sound. It also wanted to empower small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that build organs to become more competitive in restoring the 10 000 organs scattered across the continent.

Truesound’s work centred on identifying historically accurate alloy compositions and articulating processes to manufacture the most ideal alloys. The next step was to create organ tongues to replace historic reed pipes or to represent new reed pipe components that are capable of producing the desired sound. A research team hailing from various countries successfully produced the most accurate alloys for reed pipe tongues.

In particular, it created two new alloys, with and without lead, that were tested by organ builders tied to the project. Moreover, the project designed special software to digitize the sound spectrum related to organ pipes. The combined software and hardware advances, which include sophisticated equipment for sound acquisition, have produced a rich sound that is the closest yet to the organ music of yesteryear. This will support organ-building SMEs in unprecedented ways and help revive an important and beautiful tradition across Europe.

It’s a wonderful meeting of history, technology, art, and restoration. You can watch a video about the project here.

They’re focusing on baroque organs, so if an organ is not baroque, they won’t fix it.

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  • victor


    That last line makes the whole story worthwhile. Actually, this is a pretty cool project but of course the electronic music guy in me is wondering why they just don’t start with a decent set of pipe organ samples (like Garritan’s Classic Pipe Organs) and then use a combination of physical modeling and impulse responses to simulate whatever secret sauce they think is in the olde tyme alloyes.

    But then, I’m probably not the right guy to ask as my primitive intellect doesn’t understand alloys and compositions and things with molecular structures.

  • Becky D.

    I was talking recently with a music historian. Before the invention of electric motors, organs required large numbers of hard working slaves to pump the air through those enormous pipes. I got to wondering if there is any history of Catholic musicians rfusing to use an organ because of the slave labor?

  • Frank La Rocca

    Dear Becky,
    Your music historian is in error. The large organs were operated with windmills, water-powered mill wheels and bicycle-like wheel mechanisms, the latter usually by sons of the organist or other boys in the church and the labor was divided among them to provide them with rest. It was no more unreasonable than the manual labor required to mill lumber, till farmland and perform other essential tasks for a community. It sounds more like your music historian may have an anti-Catholic agenda and this is just another opportunity to skewer them for “hypocrisy.”

  • victor

    That’s a really interesting question. As far as I knew, the only “slaves” associated with pipe organs were the secondary consoles! I wonder if they were really slaves, or like choir boys or unpaid interns, manning the bellows.

  • victor

    That was my first inclination as well: that the “slave” comment was some form of anti-Catholic agitprop. But then you consider that those Lutherans had some mighty impressive organs, too…

    Instruments. Mighty impressive instruments, they had. Er. I mean pipes. They had large pipes. Um…

  • KML

    Oh, darn. I was really hoping for a chance to participate in a historical performance that included the organist shouting “OPEN THE TWENTY FOOTER, SLAVE!”

  • KML

    Every time I cantor Mass at our parish and peek in that little door behind the console, I see this:

    That’s normal, right?