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How to Tune an Organ

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How to Tune an Organ

The organ is a keyboard instrument that can be traced back to the eighth century. Many types ranging from vintage reed organs to some electronic versions require tuning. Owners can choose to tune their own instruments or find expert assistance. With either option, understanding organ tuning enhances maintenance practices and appreciation for this unique instrument.
 

About Tuning Organs

Every instrument is tuned to a temperament and a concert pitch. Most organs are tuned to equal temperament, which is a common tuning system using an octave divided into 12 equal semitones. In general, temperament is part of an organ’s design and is not altered. Organs are usually tuned to the modern standard concert pitch in which the A note is equal to 440 hertz.
Tuning can be aided with an electronic tuning meter or with tuning software. Electronic tuning meters range from simple models that reference one pitch to chromatic versions for all scale notes. Another option is software that runs on a computer or smartphone. If considering software, make sure it includes the functionality desired.

Tuning Electronic Organs

Electronic organs use analog or digital technology. Although many versions never require tuning, some do. The type of design determines whether or not the organ needs tuning. Electronic models span many decades and range from early analog styles using vacuum tubes to digital masterpieces capable of emulating large pipe organs and having many additional features. Some are simple home keyboard instruments, and others are found in churches or even concert halls. To ensure proper care, consult the manufacturer regarding tuning requirements.
 

Tone Generation Tone Wheel

The Hammond organ is the most famous representative of mechanical tone wheel technology. This design utilizes electromagnetic wheels and never needs tuning.

Tone Generation Oscillators

Many oscillator organs require tuning every one to 10 years. The frequency of the oscillating parts determines pitch, and frequency changes over time. Organs over 30 years old may have degraded capacitors that prevent the oscillator from being tuned. At this point, consider replacing all capacitors and then doing a complete tuning. Contact the organ manufacturer to determine whether the model in question requires tuning.

Hybrid Pipe

Hybrid organs consist of pipes augmented by electronic stops or other components. When the pipes need retuning, the electronic side must be retuned to match. Many models have an easy manual adjustment for the electronics, and newer digital models may automatically maintain electronic tuning. Consult manufacturer information to learn requirements for particular models.


Tuning Pipe Organs

Pipe organs are the largest type and span the widest musical range. Some models have over 10,000 pipes, which are arranged in sets called ranks. Each pipe sounds one note at one pitch and is tuned against the modern concert pitch standard. Changing the concert pitch involves shortening or lengthening the pipes and is rarely done.
Pipe organs are very sensitive to temperature changes and humidity. An extremely dry or humid room can damage wooden pipes. Many instruments need to be tuned several times per year because they are kept in a fluctuating environment. To reduce the number of tunings, keep temperature and humidity levels as constant as possible. This also preserves the pipes and may help minimize other maintenance.
The first step in the tuning process is to maintain a constant room temperature. Pipe pitch varies with temperature, and each pipe responds a little differently. For best results, tune the organ at the temperature in which it is played most often. Allow the room to stabilize at this temperature for at least several hours before beginning work.
The next step is to adjust the tuning stop, which is the master stop to which other stops are tuned. Beginning with the middle octave, it is usually tuned to the foundation sound called the principal. The rest of the tuning stop is tuned to itself in octaves. The other stops are then tuned to the tuning stop.

Tuning Flue Pipes

Flue pipes have no moving parts and rely solely on air movement for sound. They come in several types, and each has a different tuning mechanism. All versions are tuned with a tool called a tuning knife, which is a piece of metal used to adjust a pipe’s tuning mechanism. If a person directly touches the mechanism, body temperature could adversely affect pitch.
 

Slotted Wooden Pipe

These pipes have a wooden slider that adjusts to change the length of the slot.

Slotted Metal Pipe

These pipes have a metal slot cut directly into the pipe. The excess metal is rolled up and can be adjusted to change the open slot length and hence pitch.

Open Wooden Pipe

Open wooden pipes often have a pliable metal flap partially covering the top opening. The flap is moved to adjust pitch.

Open Metal Pipe

Most open metal pipes have a sliding ring called a tuning collar located at the top. Each pipe is tuned by adjusting the collar position to change pitch.

Conical Metal Pipe

These pipes usually have flaps called ears that can be adjusted for tuning. Some conical metal pipes have tuning slides.

Small Metal Pipe

These pipes are often cone tuned. Cone tuning involves placing a heavy metal cone over the top of the pipe and slightly reshaping it.

Stopped Pipe

Stopped pipes can be made from either metal or wood. They have stoppers than can be adjusted up or down to change pitch.

Capped Pipe

Capped pipes have a cap that can be moved up or down to adjust pitch.

 

Tuning Reed Pipes

Reed pipes produce notes by means of air passing over a thin brass strip called a reed. A tuning wire holds the reed in place against a vertical tube called a shallot. The free portion of the reed, known as a tongue, vibrates at a specific pitch in response to air movement. A resonator rising from the shallot directs and modulates sound. Pitch is adjusted by moving the tuning wire up or down to change the length of the tongue. A reed knife is used to reposition the wire.
Reed pipe tuning affects tone as well as pitch. This makes tuning a more delicate process than tuning flue pipes.
 

Pitch

The tuning wire is moved up or down to shorten or lengthen the amount of reed tongue allowed to vibrate. Altering length changes pitch. Some pipes have an adjustable cap at the top.

Tone

Resonator speaking length can be adjusted to alter tone. Resonators may have an adjustable metal flap on the side.

 

Tuning Vintage Reed Organs

Reed organs, also called pump organs, create sound using bellows action and free metal reeds that vibrate in air current. Reed organs were popular in the late nineteenth century but were eclipsed by modern pianos. Many vintage organs are reed organs that have become badly out of tune. Over time, reeds weaken from constant vibration and cannot be tuned effectively. Such reeds need to be replaced.
The rate at which a reed vibrates determines its pitch. A reed is tuned by shaving off a small amount of metal at specific locations toward the base or tip. Reeds are usually removed from the organ for tuning ease although work can also be done in place.
Before tuning, position the reed so that it is firmly supported. They are brittle and should be handled carefully. Use a tool such as a jeweler’s file that is capable of very fine metal removal. Other tools to consider are metal emery files and handheld rotary grinders. Avoid angled or deep cuts as they can change the note’s tonal character.
 

Raising Pitch

Remove metal from the reed tip. This reduces the amount of vibrating metal and lightens the pitch.

Lowering Pitch

Remove metal from along the sides near the reed base. This slows the vibration and lowers the pitch.


Finding Organ Tuning Tools on eBay

To buy tuning tools or parts on eBay, begin from the eBay homepage and choose the Entertainment category. Select Musical Instruments & Gear followed by Piano & Organ and then Parts & Accessories. To find electronic tuners, head to the Equipment section under Musical Instruments & Gear and then choose Tuners. Alternately, enter the description of the desired item in the search bar located at the top of any eBay page. For example, to see listings for a chromatic tuner, type "chromatic electronic tuner" in the search field.
 

Conclusion

While tuning an organ can be challenging, it can also be cost-effective and educational. Owners benefit from understanding the instrument’s maintenance requirements. As tuning practices vary widely among different types of organs, consult manufacturer guidelines on tuning intervals and procedures. Also keep in mind that other factors such as moisture affect pitch and parts wear. With proper tuning, an organ’s unique sound can be enjoyed for many years.

 
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