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Jon Ortloff and John Panning voicing the pipe organ at saint thomas

Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue Organ update with John Panning

With organ builder John Panning at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue PIpe Organ Installation update. November 2, 2017 

The installation of the pipe organ at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue has moved into the voicing and regulation stage. The scaffolding has been taken down. The new facade pipes have been installed. The new case on the gospel side (liturgical north) of the nave is setup and looks magnificent.

Arriving at the church John Panning, (co-owner of Dobson Pipe Organ Builders) and Jon Ortloff (independent organ builder who’s been assisting the Dobson team with voicing) were up in the organ regulating and voicing the instrument. Yelling up to them, they said come on up.

A non-organist might ask what is voicing and regulating a pipe organ? When an organ pipe is formed the only noise it might make is rushing air with no musical tone. Voicing it the process of making the pipes speak. Regulation is largely adjusting the volume of tone a pipe produces.

After a pipe organ is installed the loudness of each pipe has to be checked that it is in a proper relationship to the other pipes on that organ stop. Much of the regulation occurs in a voicing room at the organ builder’s shop before the pipe organ is delivered to the church. Further fine adjustments are made in the room that the organ will live in. These relationships are critical for a pipe organ’s success.

Each pipe’s speech is also checked for uniformity. Any speech impediments are corrected. Great experience and skill is required to manipulate the pipe to speak correctly. As with regulation much of this work occurs before the organ arrives at the church. But each pipe’s loudness (regulation) and speech (voicing) must be reviewed and adjusted in its new home. After everything is perfect the organ will be fine tuned.

After the Dobson crew setup the Saint Thomas Organ they made the decision to raise the wind pressure from 3 inches to 3 1/2 inches. John Panning said that the Great Division didn’t engage the room in the way it needed to. This increased wind pressure meant that a few hundred small changes had to be carefully made by the expert hands of Mr. Panning and Mr. Ortloff. The wind pressure was raised, the Great foundations now fill the nave as they need to.

After working in the organ for several hours John Panning and Jon Ortloff then took the Wifi keyboard out into the nave of the church to check their work. Jon played up and down the scales on the stops they worked on that day while John Panning made careful written notes on each pipe’s loudness in the room to guide them in their work.

Technical advancements are making the installation of the Saint Thomas Church organ more efficient. Instead of having a key holder down at the console the SSLL relay system permits a Wifi keyboard to be put anywhere in the organ or church nave. Every aspect of the organ can be controlled from a MIDI keyboard and laptop. Oh if Bart Simpson ever got the password to the organ’s MIDI, things could get very interesting.

John Panning proudly showed us the almost completely piped Swell division. The layout changed from the prior Aeolian-Skinner layout. Instead of the pipes being on 2 levels of wind chests the pipework is all on one level. This reduces tuning problems related to the stratification of the air at different temperatures.

Dobson Pipe Organ Builders designed the Swell division to project forward of its chamber arch so that it will be more present in the quire. Saint Thomas Church installed new ceilings of heavy plaster in the Swell that cut off the dead space above the arched openings into the chambers. The swell shades are fitted more tightly than the old Aeolian-Skinner shades, so they’re more effective.

It was wonderful visiting this pipe organ a second time and to see all of the progress being made. Can not wait to hear the final results.

Pipe Organ Terminology for the non-organist:
An organ stop usually is made up of 61 pipes. Each of the 61 pipes is one note on a keyboard. This set of organ pipes is often called a rank. The 61 pipes usually correspondes 1 stop on a pipe organ. Each stop on a pipe organ will have a unique sound quality and loudness.


8 responses to “Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue Organ update with John Panning

  1. I know of no other new organ that will be judged as carefully and maybe severely as this one at St. Thomas. I loved the A-S, and grew to love the Adams as well. As Dickens would say: “Great Expectations” for this instrument!

    I sincerely hope to feel the same about the Dobson. It is one of the best organ companies in the world at the moment. Sad that John Scott won’t be able to hear and play it, or will he??

    Wishing Panning the very best in his work.

    1. I have great expectations. I am certain Mr. Scott is hearing one of the best pipe organ in the Kingdom of Heaven, I hope that he and Mr. Gerre Hancock are together playing a Cavaille-Coll/Skinner/Willis Organ and maybe poor Louis Vierne can now turn their pages.

  2. Thank you, Joe, for publishing this extensive update, links and photos about the St. Thomas organ. I have several recordings of the previous Aeolean-Skinner et al. instrument and thought that it was quite impressive. It will be very interesting to hear the new Dobson organ when it is complete. I had some reservations when it had been revealed that the size of the new organ is somewhat reduced from that of the prior organ, but the stop list and specs. of the new organ are impressive. Will JAV be recording it?

    1. I appreciate your kind words. I am confident the organ will be excellent. I have not been asked to make any recordings of the organ, but it would be a great honor.

  3. I can think of no new organ in recent memory more anticipated than the St. Thomas Dobson. Can’t wait to hear it.

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