Science and art are, most of the time, unlikely bedfellows. When they do cooperate, however, they work in perfect harmony — literally.
Sophomores Quinn Reichard and Jonathan Peters bring technology and music together with a new digital organ in the practice rooms of the Howard Music Hall, to offer an alternative to the unreliable organ for students looking to practice and perform.
“Digital organs are kind of pre-built conglomerations of recordings from lots of different pipe organs around the world,” Reichard said. “This is a real instrument that’s been exactly duplicated pipe by pipe.”
Reichard, a music major and organ student himself, was frustrated by the aging instrument in McNamara Rehearsal Hall, a 1922 Aeolian pipe organ donated in 2003 when Howard Music Hall was built. With more than 4,000 pipes and a long history, it requires constant upkeep.
“This is an old, historic instrument that’s had some issues,” music department chair James Holleman said. “We’ve been trying to get it worked on for several years now. It’s kind of like the roads in Michigan — always under construction.”
Eventually, Reichard heard from his grandmother, Ann Dreher, who had seen the organ when she toured the music building.
“I got a letter in the mail that said, ‘So, the organ looks pretty crappy. Would you like a new one?’” Reichard said.
Purchasing a new pipe organ could have cost at least $100,000. Reichard enlisted Peters to help him build the next best thing — a digital organ.
“You can go to a digital organ company,” Reichard said. “They put together these nice-looking consoles for about $40,000 that don’t sound half as good because the technology is just not as advanced.”
The price of their organ was just $25,000, donated to Hillsdale by Dreher.
Peters, a double major in math and economics, was eager to join Reichard in his project.
“I just love the technology,” Peters said. “When Quinn said he was going to put this together, [that he needed] a computer, I was like, ‘Sign me up.’ I love building computers.”
Equipped with multiple keyboards and a wooden console, the digital organ mimics a pipe organ in nearly every way. Differences, such as touch screens found where the physical knobs are normally located, are simply improvements.
Instead of pipes, the digital organ uses a computer to play recordings of an organ with each recording corresponding to a particular key. Because an organist may need instant access to hundreds of audio files at one time, the organ console required a high-functioning computer.
Peters built the computer from scratch, ordering each part separately and then assembling it.
The digital organ will not break as often as a traditional pipe organ, and if it does, the part can be replaced or upgraded.
“There’s really no disadvantage, other than it’s synthetically emulated,” Peters said. “I suppose it might not be exactly the right sound, but they can get it pretty close.”
A musician can also upload recordings from other organs, making it possible to play organs from around the world.
“It tries to imitate everything,” Reichard said. “You can change the tuning of it, or you can put it in a different temperament. It’s so wonderful for historical work.”
The digital organ allows students to practice and perform while the new organs are installed in the coming chapel.
“This instrument is small enough to go in a practice room downstairs, so the students who practice on it and take lessons on it aren’t having to navigate the schedule in a larger room, where [ensembles] rehearse,” Holleman said. “That room is accessible to the organ students seven days a week.”
Potential performances are coming down the pipe. Although students will mainly perform in the coming chapel, Holleman said the digital organ will be used for upcoming performances.
“I believe the wind symphony concert is going to use it for their December performance in Markel Auditorium,” Holleman said. “The speakers that go with it are adequate to fill most halls in this area with the proper amount of sound. So I think we will be able to find performance opportunities for it.”
Reichard said he wants the organ program to expand, and having a working instrument helps facilitate that growth.
“I’m very excited that this is here. I think there’s a lot of talent here at the school that’s undeveloped,” Reichard said. “I think that this instrument provides a great new way for people to get excited about the organ and the technology, too.”