Although the Fact Finder (and indeed the Cinema Organ Society) is primarily concerned with cinema pipe organs, electronic means of tone production have never been far from providing organ music as entertainment since John Compton’s Melotone and Laurens Hammond’s ‘pipeless organ’ came on the scene in the 1930’s.
Since then, countless electronic organs have been sold and in more recent times been the beginnings of people’s love affair with the pipe organ itself. The biggest revolution in electronic organs themselves was the introduction of affordable digital technology, which rode on the back of the development of the micro-computer in the 1960’s and 70’s. This depended on the available computing power and memory, and as this increased so did the realism of the imitation. Instead of analogue circuitry providing approximations to the waveform of organ pipes, computing power was used to analyse and reproduce the sounds of actual pipes through digital sampling technology. Companies including Allen, Rodgers and Walkers utilise this approach to provide instruments which in many cases provide a startlingly realistic simulation of the experience of listening to or playing a pipe organ, a result assisted by the quality of the consoles, some being direct replicas of the original thing.
In the early 2000’s, technology got to the point where affordable computing power made it possible to perform all the functions of a digital instrument on a home PC. The Virtual Theatre Organ was born. Samples of pipework provided the sounds, and the layout of stopkeys (based on classic Wurlitzer pipe organ console layouts) represented on the computer screen, to be controlled by computer mouse click. The only additional necessary hardware was one (or more) musical keyboards linked by MIDI to the computer. MIDI pedal boards and swell pedals could also be added.
More ambitious projects involve ever more detailed and realistic samples, and improved consoles either converted from obsolete electronic organs or, in not a few instances, actual theatre pipe organ consoles. As ever, the only limits are the imagination, time and money of the virtual theatre organ builder.
The most important revolution presented by the Virtual Theatre Organ is to bring a digital instrument within reach of anyone with a home PC (including you, dear reader!). They are based on real theatre organs, unlike many electronic organs which in the past were based on electronic engineer’s ideas of what a theatre organ should be like, and are expandable in line with the pocket and the interest.