2014 Christmas tuning on the Ruffatti in Maynooth College.

Maynooth College (12/12/2014) - what fun to be able to tune such a big organ single-handedly.......see the zapper beside the keys. Today's tuning however was probably in vain....temperature was only 12 deg C in the gallery....it'll surely be in the 20's at the carol services. I have no choice but to return after the first one (of 3) and do more tuning.......I could only guess what pitches will do today. Reeds were left 2 cents sharp to the flues, but that's really only a wild guess

This shows the Swell reeds.......the back row is very tricky to get at, with 7 rows in front (4 stops laid out in a double row, a stagger);

And this shows the big solo reed up top, horizontal.....great view from there too:

A short description of pipe organs

Organ: A Short Description of Pipe Organs

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Stephen Adams

A general perception is that pipe organs are more expensive to build and maintain than is perhaps worth while. It can sometimes seem difficult to justify expenditure, especially when compared to electronic instruments. We like to measure things in pounds and pence. Quite understandably, but go to your bank manager with a lump sum to invest and you will be asked how long you want to invest for. Investing in a good pipe organ is like this — it pays off handsomely in the long term. Many people who enquire about their pipe organs forget that the instruments may have given perhaps a century’s service already. It is on this premise that I write, in order to help qualify expenditure in the present tense. Also, it seems that there is no easily accessible information available to you, organists, clergy, etc. to help you come to an informed decision and to ensure you are getting value for money.

There are four main elements to a pipe organ, the casework, the wind system, the transmission, and the pipework.


The casework is what you see. Sometimes the casework is an integral part of the support structure, but usually not. Where this is not the situation, there will be some form of framework inside, to support internal parts of the organ. The casework displays pipes, some of which sound, others are just cosmetic (“dunmies”). Often, it is a mixture of both.

Variables with casework are many, but there’s not a lot of point in worrying about it, unless a case downright ugly. Generally, there are no moving parts in the case. Problems can include woodworm, joints coming apart, not standing plumb, damaged finish, faded pipes, etc. In the main though, it is not a troublesome area. Many people are of the impression that the visible pipes are the pipes of the organ. In reality they only constitute a small % of the total number.

Wind System

This system involves the production, storage, management and distribution of the compressed air. Nowadays most instruments use an electric blower to produce the pressure. Once the air is produced, it needs to be controlled, and this is done with robust valves which are usually trouble-free (although a fault here can render the organ entirely silent). After passing through these valves, the air is then stored in bellows (or reservoirs). There are various types and sizes of bellows. The one thing they have in common is a pliable air-tight material which is used as hinges, gussets and membranes. Usually leather is used, and this has a life span of 70 to 120 years depending on environment. Trouble is indicated when the organ starts to lose an unacceptable high and noisy amounts of air.


This deals with the release of air into whatever pipes the player chooses. It is by far the most complicated and troublesome area for the organ builder.

With this in mind, we must consider what is involved in making a pipe sound; it is choosing to deny or allow air to travel to the pipe. This is usually handled by large units called slider soundboards, which administer air to the appropriate pipes, according to what notes are being played and what stops are on.  Slider soundboards contain internal channels and other important elements to apportion or control the air. It is important that these units are in good condition. The main purpose of slider soundboards is to reduce the number of moving parts down to one set per note per division, rather than per note per stop. So a division with eight stops will require 56 moving parts (assuming a compass of 56 notes) for the key action, and 6 for the stop action with a slider soundboard.

When an organ is switched on, but not being played, no air should reach any pipes (if it is, there is a problem). As soon as an organist plays a note, a valve (called a pallet) is opened. This requires a certain amount of effort.

If you ever find yourself in the unenviable situation of being submerged under a water in your car, the advice is to open the window slightly and let the car gradually fill with water. If you attempt to open the door and are successful, you will be overcome with the rush of water. The work load of opening the car door has similarities to opening a pallet to let pressurised air travel to a pipe, as there is a sudden rush of air. This is known as “pluck” and can be felt at the keyboard if the action is a mechanical. The pluck can often be excessive in Victorian organs as they generally over-sized the pallets.

A common problem is where air leaks through uninvited; such a leak is called either a “whimper” or a “cipher”, depending on the extent of the leak. A whimper will give a distinct, quiet whistling sound whereas a cipher is where the note is being sounded with full volume. There are a variety of reasons for this, some serious and some simple to fix.

(As a side issue here, when a cipher occurs, it may only happen intermittently. For this reason, it is most helpful to the organ builder if the organist can record any details about the cipher, whimper, sticking note, slow note, etc. Details like: on what note is the problem? and on what stops? and under what conditions (e.g., were the couplers in use at the time? did it disappear when the note was played or tapped intentionally?)


The transmission is the means by which two things are controlled: (i) the stop action, which controls the sets of pipes to be used at any one time, and (ii) the key action, controlling what notes are to sound. There are three basic types of transmission (1) mechanical, (ii) pneumatic, (iii) electric.

Mechanical action

Mechanical action (also called tracker action) is both the most reliable and long lasting of all, provided it is well designed, made and set up. Nowadays organ builders have reverted to the old mechanical methods because they link the organist to the instrument in a more intimate manner. Problems can arise from excess of damp, which can make timber swell and metal rust, both effects causing friction. Excessive dryness can cause trouble too.

Pneumatic action

Pneumatic action uses air, either in “charge” or “exhaust” formats. “Charge” pneumatics is when a unit is inflated from within, while “exhaust” is when the inside of a unit is open to the atmosphere, and the space around the unit is pressurised, when it is then forced to collapse. These units (called “motors”) are connected to “pallets” or similar, which control the flow of air into the pipes. Pneumatic action became popular because it reduced the workload (the weight needed to play the notes) of the organist — it is a bit like power steering in a car. Also, it opened up new possibilities in terms of design/layout/accessories.

Problems can arise from both age and condition. Leather is the predominant medium here, and with age, it can either rot or become porous. Imagine blowing up a ten year old balloon? It will most likely burst or leak. Poor conditions include extremes of humidity, and polluted air. Low humidity will dry out leather, making it stiff at hinges and joints, and this will prejudice its operation — a bit like a book that has been closed for a considerable time and will subsequently not stay open.

“Charge” motors (see above) are usually sited out in the open. They are supplied with puffs of air carried via small-bore lead tubing. Over the years, this tubing can kink or become oval in its cross section, and this will reduce the power of the motor. Combined with porosity/leaks in the leather, this can result in slow and/or dumb notes. Everything in the chain of pneumatics needs to be in good condition.

To the uninitiated all this may seem terribly complicated. However, it’s really no different to any pressure - carrying equipment (e.g., water mains); it needs to be in good order. Generally, most pneumatics that were well designed and well laid out, are worthy of restoration.

Electric action

This took over many of the advantages of pneumatics, with the further attraction of only necessitating runs of light cable instead of cumbersome and sensitive air tubes. Older systems can be troublesome, as many (perhaps hundreds, or even thousands) mechanical sliding switches are used in the organ. These corrode, get dirty, and blacked from excessive arcing, and this can result in unreliable performance.

Electric have come a long way of course, especially when it comes to handling a large amount of information quickly. However, it is surprisingly limited in what actual pulling power can be produced economically. For this reason, electricity is often emp1oyed in the lighter-demanding but more- complicated initial link from console to organ. Thereafter it may convert to pneumatic action.

It is not unusual to find a mixture of all three types of transmission in the one organ. The difficulty arises where one type has been used extensively and/or in an inappropriate manner. Fashion is largely responsible for this.


This is the biggest subject. There are four basic families of pipe — flues, flutes, reeds and strings. The flues constitute the traditional organ sound, and are the only sound specific to the pipe organ. Materials used are timber and metal. Usually one section of pipework is housed in a box (the “swell box”), not unlike a giant dog kennel. The front of this box has shutters made of 2”- thick boards, and these pivot like Venetian blinds (at the organist’s command), and so control the amount of sound being let out. Again, the means by which this is done may be mechanical, pneumatic or electrical.

Timber pipes can suffer from woodworm, splitting (mostly at glue joints) and warping. Sometimes they have leather parts that rot. Metal parts can suffer metal fatigue.
The larger pipes can collapse on themselves due to their weight when they are not well supported. This can be hastened with higher temperatures in which we now tend to keep our buildings.

Unfortunately though, the most damaging element to pipework in people — tradesmen. Without realising, when working overhead or inside the organ, they can do untold damage. It is always wise to ask an organ builder what precautions should be taken prior to having work carried out in the general area of the organ. Having issued the relevant warning about “people”. I would at this point like to dispel the myth that visiting organists might damage the organ or whatever. This is a view taken up by some organists, who seemingly do not wish to have others use the organ, for whatever reason! Visiting organists using the instrument in a reasonable manner, will only benefit an instrument.

This brief outline of organs is intended only to act as an introduction to the subject. I am well aware that it is slightly sporadic, a necessary evil, given the many facets involved. Volumes upon volumes have been written on the subject by more learned people than I. However, this should at least encourage an appreciation for the pipe organ, and what is involved.

A good pipe organ will last indefinitely if given reasonable care. I recently inspected one dating from the 1740s, and with some work, it will play again. That puts some perspective on the subject. The 1740s of course is not typical here of course. The average pipe organ in Ireland is about 100 years old, and many of these are of very fine quality. It is important to treat them with the respect that you would give to a similarly-aged piece of furniture or whatever. Alterations, additions and changes must only be done with much thought, as the original historical value and integrity may be lost for ever. In short, just give them some respect.

What's in a pipe organ?

This is another article I came across which was published in Soundboard (the Church of Ireland Dublin Diocese Magazine):



Organ - What's Inside a Pipe Organ?

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In the first few issues of Soundboard, Stephen Adams has explained some of the issues regarding the workings of pipe organs. We had received requests for some explanation of why organs cipher. With a view to more explanations in further articles, this detailed drawing from J. W. Hintort’s book “Organ Construction” (3rd edition 1910) is reproduced. Reference will be made to it in later articles.

The cross-sectional view (from front to back) of a typical tracker organ is shown, and also the general appearance and location of the pipes belonging to the different stops.

All organists should have some knowledge of just what is behind what can be seen — which is generally only the console and the front display pipes. Referring to the diagram, the 3-manual keyboard is at the bottom left-hand corner. Directly behind this is the bellows or wind reservoir. Above the reservoir arid behind the front display pipes is the Great Organ — the various ranks of pipes standing on the Great soundboard. Behind the Great are two Passage Boards (walkways) at different heights, to provide access to the Choir Organ (at the same level as the Great) and the Swell Organ (at the higher level) — the Swell Organ being enclosed inside a box with louvred openings. Notice the bottom pipes of the 16 foot Swell stops are “doubled up” so that they will fit inside the box. At the very back, behind the Choir Organ, is the Pedal Organ.

Note that while the diagram shows the key action (how depressing a key allows wind into the pipe), it does not show the stop action, nor the trunking (how the wind is conveyed from the reservoir to the soundboards.


For the smaller number of readers who are interested in the technicalities, the letters of the sketch refer to the following:

A feeder
B backfall beam or stock
C square
D bayleaf
E boot
F conveyance
G groove board
H slots
I stickers
J backfalls
K purse board
L tracker
M pull down
N pallet
0 bellows ribs
P imposts
Q wind bar
R face board
S table
T slide
U upper or cover board
V register
W rack pillar
X rack board
Y swell louvres
Z pedal tracker
AB bellows
BC roller board
CD tuning clips
DE tuning slide

Tuning organs

The following was published in Soundboard Magazine, the Church of Ireland Dublin Diocesan Music magazine. The publication at the time contains many 'typos' - here is a corrected version.

Organ Tuning

"Just read your article on organ tuning. It certainly explains the demands and intricacies of the job very well."  Stephen Alliss, tuner for Harrison & Harrison.

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Stephen Adams & Aiden Scanton

Much of our work is spent on major work such as sorting out whole organs (action, wind system, damaged pipes etc.) or saving redundant organs and finding new homes for them. However, the main reason for our regular contact with organists is for routine tuning and / or maintenance.

This article consists of a short list of considerations with regard to tuning, which may be of interest. The intention is to highlight the various problems which we face in this respect.


Well, more often than not our hands are tied, as the approximate pitch of an organ has been chosen upon the commissioning of the organ. Typical organs in our churches (Conachers, Telfords etc.) are the guts of a semi-tone sharp, and it’s difficult to pull this down to A440 (we did so at Whitechurch and we are aware of the problems!). It is then a consideration for organists to transpose down music that involves congregational singing if this is within their ability. (This is aside from the older hymnbook which sets most tunes for SATB with the top line being too high for the average congregation.)

Quite often it is necessary to reset a pitch of one division to lessen the flattening effect of dust and dirt. And often we find ourselves tuning a division deliberately flat or sharp to another division in order to cater for temperature swings. Both of these areas differ depending on whether a division is enclosed (i.e., in a Swell or Choir box) or exposed (as would be the norm for the Great and Pedal).


Temperament need not concern most organists, nor do they have to understand it. Temperament is basically the relationship of one note to each of the others within the 12-note scale. A good example (if extreme) might be Arabic music, or more locally, bagpipes, both of which use a temperament much removed from ours. Semitones end up very wide (i.e., the distance between some of them can end up being half way between a semitone and a tone). We sometimes discreetly twist the temperament of an organ to favour the more common keys (i.e., the more sharps or flats the prevailing key signature contains, the less sweet the tuning becomes). We have successfully produced very pleasing temperaments in Christ Church Cathedral (by request), and in our recently-completed project at the Church of the Assumption, Milltown.

You might well say “let’s not mess about with this business at all”. Well, most organs are tuned to “equal temperament” which Is a temperament in itself. The problem is that there are 12 notes in the scale, and using an analogy, we nominally give each semi-tone a value of 100 cents. A scale therefore equates to 1200 cents and a pure (major) third to 386 cents. So if we take pure thirds, e.g., C to E, then E to G#, and G# to C and add up their total in cents we get 3 x 386 = 1158, noticeably less than an octave. See the problem?

So it may be seen that some form of tempering is needed in order to keep the octaves in tune. The good thing about equal temperament is that all keys are usable — the bad thing is that not one key is really pleasing. Whatever one chooses, compromises are the order of the day, unless one provides a double of some notes to lessen the problem (which has been done, but no examples in Ireland though).

Basic tuning (temperament) is usually set in the middle octave of the Great Principal (as it is central in pitch (and often in geographical placing too) to the rest of the organ. Thereafter it is copied throughout the organ via octaves for speed. This creates a problem for us, as tuning in octaves allows for a wider swing of “out-of- tuneness” before a beat arises, especially in the bass. Tuning in thirds, fourths and fifths is more accurate, but time never allows. Diapasons, principals and mixtures aren’t too bad, but when it comes to copying across to the other families (flutes, strings and reeds) the trouble starts. Most difficult perhaps are Rohr Flutes and Stopped Flutes, which have less assertive harmonic content. Quite often one has to listen for the twelfth or the seventeenth to tune these. Try that with a head cold!


When the temperature rises, everything goes sharp (sometimes to an alarming degree). However, the reeds are the least affected here and so it can appear that it is the reeds that need tuning. In reality that is often what we do — yes, but only because they constitute the smaller percentage of the whole. This is a big problem where say, heating comes on on a Sunday morning and the organ has six hours warming effect. What usually happens is that all exposed pipes heat up and sharpen, whereas those in the Swell box don’t change.

The preceding point of course has a bearing on humidity levels where inside temperature is kept stable and the outside temperature drops. Effectively the heating is turned up. We look after several organs where this is a problem. Low humidity causes timber pipes to shrink, creating at least a variation in regulation (and consequently tuning), or worse. Actions too are sensitive to humidity levels. It’s not unlike a door at your home, which jams in damp weather.

Below we see a temperature of 23.2 deg C, with a resulting humidity reading of 40.9% when it was below freezing outside. I've seen these sorts of readings quite often in a gallery situation, where the heat rises and stratifies. But this particular church......the organ is at ground level......so yes.....23.2 degrees was what the church was kept at. Any organ will balk at such extreme conditions: it is generally accepted that anything lower than 55% RH is damaging. This organ ended up with splits along the length of its bellows. Thankfully the soundboards recovered from the hit with time. 



Most organs are tightly laid out (and difierently laid out too). Our Milltown organ can only be accessed from the front (see photo immediately below). So to get at the back stop of the organ (the Swell Open Diapason) one has to get through the front pipes, four stops of the Great, the Swell shutters and the five stops of the Swell which are in front. No fun! Even where access is reasonable, the act of tuning requires one to be in a staid position for some time, usually on ones knees, or crouched or balanced somewhere. It is usually very stressful on the lower back and knees.


This is the effect when two pipes “fight” with one another. This is one of the reasons we usually avoid placing semitones next to one another. This can happen sometimes when one of the pipes isn’t even sounding! Another reason for drawing would be a less-than- satisfactory supply of air owing to action deficiencies (either inherent in the organ or due to action failures). Stop action and soundboard problems can equally apply here too.

Wind delivery

Quite often there can be a “shake” in the wind pressure on attack, which will give the sensation of things being out of tune. (Fitting a mini-bellows, called a concussion bellows, at the soundboard(s) can often reduce this.) Also, instability can sometimes be traced back to an erratic blower.

Inevitably, compromises must be made where wind delivery to the pipe(s) is poor or variable. Reasons might be that the pallet feeding same is too small or borderline (this might not be noticed until one adds more stops), or a conveyance feeding the pipe has been damaged, or is simply too small in diameter, or where a pipe serves two purposes (e.g. the bottom octave of a flute and string are often common, so the same pipe receives air from two different sources).

Faults within the pipes themselves There can be many problems here: wooden pipes can split or the stoppers may not fit well, dust and dirt can put flues off-speech, pipes can often collapse on themselves, a reed can be silenced with a speck of dirt, bad/unstable voicing (very difficult when it comes to mixtures and reeds). Shown in the photograph (above) are the main types of pipe. From top to bottom are a stopped pipe, the tongue and shallot of a reed, a pipe with slot tuning and one with slide tuning. Basically, the vibrating length is adjusted in all cases. Another type of tuning is cone tuning, where the substance of the pipe Itself is tapered in at the very top. It’s a very good form of tuning, but misunderstood by less-competent tuners, which can lead to much damage (and there are many examples of this).

Background noise

Very often a problem in cities — people talking, traffic, vacuum cleaners, etc.

Sheer quantity

One might associate getting the organ tuned as being in the same category as a piano. Don’t forget though, 10 stops each with 56 notes equals 560 pipes! And it only takes one out of tune in the correct place to mess the whole thing up!

The sound of a pipe organ is constant, whereas all other instruments are intermittent and the sound immediately starts to decay. This can be bad for the pipe organ user as It only takes one note slightly out of tune for the whole organ to sound badly, and since sometimes notes are sustained, well..........


This is another really big problem. The presence of even the tuner’s arm or body can affect the environment such that when same is removed, pitch alters. This is especially noticeable in close ciicumstances such as in a Swell box. On small organs, where opening a panel is necessary to access the pipes, one often has to guess at a tuning point, return the panel to its position and listen - repeat as often as is required - a situation that requires much patience. A common complaint we receive is that the Celeste is out of tune. Many people (including some tuners believe it or not!) do not realise that the Celeste is deliberately tuned out of tune with the Salicional or Dulciana on the same division. It produces an undulating effect, which, if pipes are properly on speech, is gorgeous. The Vox Celeste is usually tuned sharp, but at Milltown we opted to go flat (as would be the norm with an Unda Maris); it’s more relaxing. We really need to sit back and realise really how beautiful some of these lovely old string stops are. The strings at Milltown really are very pretty now.

Next time you ask for your organ to be tuned, the above may help in appreciating what can be involved, and we will always deal with specific complaints on a prioritised basis. But to be absolute, it could take weeks not hours — something your treasurer may not appreciate!

Speaking of Maynooth College......

......while the 3-manual/pedal installation there is technically on hire, it will actually be for sale in Sept 2013. Basically, we fitted it to the existing console, so for all intents and purposes it is a permanent installation. It can therefore be fitted to any console in any organ, and the spec/voicing can be edited to suit any stoplist and the new environment. I can arrange a demo in Maynooth for anyone who's interested.

July 2014 - organ is now available for hire or demo purposes.....