About a year ago, I, an organist who is semi-retired due to an injury, came across a piece of software called Hauptwerk.  You can read more about the details if you want, but in summary, what they’ve done is gone out and digitally sampled real pipe organs, taking exquisite care and quality on the job of doing so, and compiled them together in such a way that you can play it via computer or by a digital console.  I was so intrigued by this idea that, being a tinkerer, I set out to see if I could rig something up myself, just to noodle around on it.

My initial setup looked something like this:Image

Just a couple of keyboards hooked up to my MacBook via USB-Midi connections.  It worked, sure, but it was definitely lacking from a true organ console.  Being who I am, that was unsatisfactory, so I set out to add pedals.

In my quest for a proper pedalboard, I came to acquire the original pedals from the 1927 Barton organ at the Chicago Stadium.  You can read about its fascinating history if you wish.  Suffice to say, it being old and in need of restoration, it would take a significant amount of work to make this function.

My initial idea was to create a simple (and very primitive and untechnical) tracker system, consisting of pegs and fishing line, which would connect the pedal keys to the keys on a normal keyboard, and hook that in to the computer.  I did this with screws drilled in to the keys on a scrap keyboard, and it worked (to a point):


But with all these bits hooked in, the realization was rapidly hitting me that my little notebook would not be anywhere near sufficient to make this instrument sound correctly.  Thankfully, EZPC Recycle in Santa Ana came to the rescue.  Having explained my project to the owner, he gracefully allowed me to take my pick of electronic parts and components in his warehouse, which allowed me to build an appropriate computer system (including the necessary processor and memory to support the software, a good quality audio card, a touchscreen monitor, and a 5.1 speaker surround audio system).  This, coupled with the addition of another keyboard, resulted in a console that looked like this:


The pedal tracker system was proving unsatisfactory, so I recomposed my design and purchased a custom board from Jordan Petkov in Bulgaria, consisting of magnets and reed contacts, and wired it up to the pedalboard to encode the magnetic pedals into MIDI messages as you can see below:


In addition to this, I purchased a Behringer FCB1010 foot controller to give me “toe pistons” as there would be on a proper console, plus two expression pedals for my swell shades / crescendo.

Having now built a functional, albeit hideous console, I decided that the time for tinkering was over, and it was time to get real and make decisions.  I concluded that the final product would have four manuals, pedals, and the controllers.  In time, I may add thumb pistons.  Now came the time to tie it all together into a more cogent piece of furniture.  Or, at least one that wouldn’t fall apart during an earthquake.

The first part of this was to build a keyboard stack to house the four manuals.  Using design principles I found scattered across the internet, in addition to my gypsy “just build the damn thing!” mentality, I produced the stack you’ll see below.  The photo documents the assembly process.


With this all wired up into the computer, my pedals connected, the touchscreen up and running, and the audio blaring away, this is the product of my handicraft:


This unassuming although huge instrument produces a sound that literally shakes my home.  What’s truly remarkable, however, is that it gives me an opportunity to practice and relearn and rehabilitate my injury in the comfort of my own home, all the while enjoying the sonorous harmonies of world-class pipe organs.  This innovation has rejuvenated my passion for music, my ability to play, and all-in-all, my outlook in general.

…..but what organ would be complete without pipes?

…You may ask.

Or maybe that’s just me.  But since it is me, and it’s my project, I wanted pipes.  Thankfully, I know lots of organ builders, and collected some pipes over many months.  Most of them are dummies or house speakers, however the metal 8′ Rohrflote will, in time, sit on about 4″ of wind on a chest I will construct and add to the instrument with more electronics.  My pipework is all over the house, as you can see below:


The best part about this project? It cost me less than $1,500.00 to create an instrument which, if purchased new and made with new electronics would have cost well more than $25,000.00.  Using recycled electronics allowed me to fulfill a lifelong dream without putting me in the poorhouse.

Upon completion, I named this instrument “Rick,” in loving homage to Rick Wakeman, who inspires me to keep playing.  And his nifty capes, too.  You can listen for yourselves to what it sounds like, if you’re curious.

If you have a project you made with recycled electronics, I want to hear about it!  Drop me a comment.

+N. Jacobs