Major II – Northern European Cathedral Organ

Background and sonic details


NECO Organ and pipes recordings

Over the last 10 years we as a group have been acquiring recordings from several different European organs from organ builders that have been influenced by the same philosophy and with many similar tonal characteristics. Our European recordings includes German, Austrian, Swiss, Danish and Norwegian organs and maintainers/builders.

Most of our master recordings were done at 96kHz/24 bit to have enough latitude for later processing. A few were done at 48kHz/24 bit. The recordings were done using precision electret condenser microphones with an omni-directional polar pattern. The samples are later processed with Noise Reduction software, and a lot of other utilities to make them behave and appear good. Great care has been taken to keep the ”soul” of the individual pipes and ranks. We have this time selected to publish the recordings in 48kHz/24 bit since there are situations where many 16 bit samples sounding at the same time, especially at the end of their reverb tail, can have a small “swooshing” sound from many accumulated dithered samples. Loading at 24 bits puts a higher demand on the memory requirements for loading the organ, but since Hauptwerk still allows the samples to be loaded as either 16 or 24 bit versions users can select according to their preferences and/or available memory.

Some of our organs are recorded in their complete state, while on others we have recorded some ranks that we found to be of special interest for our projects. We have mostly been recording Dry, meaning that the local acoustics and reverb has not had much influence on our recordings. Compared to what some seem to advocate, we do not believe that the pipes themselves know what context they live within, so a pipe by itself without its local acoustics, surrounding pipes and voicing is not baroque or romantic, it is just a pipe. Recording Dry separates the individual pipes from their local acoustical environment and surroundings, and thus makes it possible to blend them with pipes recorded at different locations. We have concluded that recording Dry gives the best results when recorded just outside their enclosures, so ours are not extremely Dry or artificially dried out to be all flat, and often includes a little of their enclosure acoustics, meaning that they do have small natural reverb tails of ~500 ms. length. We find this to give the best results if they are later placed in an acoustically rich environment, or for adding artificial reverb to reproduce a given acoustical environment and placement. We also find that this makes all the Minor and Major series Dry organs perfectly fit for training purposes, since your playing details are not hidden in a huge reverb, and as such can more easily be heard and corrected if need be.


Building a ‘new’ organ from old  —  bringing the past to the present.

The Minor and Major I organs were among the first Hauptwerk organs of this scope that used select Dry samples from several organs, aligned their Dry reverb and then voiced, scaled and intonated their tonality to fit well together, and then for the Wet version applied a complete and homogeneous Wet reverb including multiple releases. With the Major II NECO organ we are continuing this successful approach, this time with a longer reverb for the Wet version, reflecting the somewhat larger Cathedrals that most pipes are recorded in.

With the Major II NECO we have again done something that has been possible for a long time, but has been missing among the available Hauptwerk sample sets. While we applaud and also contribute to the availability of historical documents of given organs in their complete and current state, we also think the Hauptwerk model currently by far is the best available way to model any organ, and the opportunity to build new organs should be equally attempted. Some would say that’s what several organ manufacturers outside the Hauptwerk community have been trying to do with variable success and quality for years. The big difference being that we have done this on the very best software available. So – while our model for the Major II NECO has been a 1930-1980’ -ish North European Cathedral Organ, we have used the best technology available in the 21st Century to perform our task. Compared to some of the others including complete organ manufacturers having built their organs this way, we have not gone to extremes regarding adjustments and replacement of individual pipes that sounded a bit differently than their neighbors. For us, this individuality is an important part of the “life” and “soul” of any pipe organ, and removing too much of such differences in the aim of a very clean organ can inject a synthetic feeling to an organic and very much alive instrument as the pipe organ is. Pipes that were clearly mistuned have been retuned, but again – we have not even in this area aimed for 100.0% perfection, though compared to your average physical instrument ours should appear to be tuned pretty much as if the organ tuner had just visited you.

The larger amount of work in building a complete Hauptwerk organ happens mostly after the recording of the samples. For these samples we have probably done more work than a historic document of a given organ would have needed. We have built a new organ and we have done as many organ builders have done in the past, and still do, we have selected the best ranks from different suppliers, and adjusted those to fit homogeneously within the organ model we were aiming for.


The Major II NECO  Tonal characteristics

The Major II NECO organ is designed to create a rich and filling sound, but is also designed with great care and attention for diversity and clarity. Individual pipes and ranks have been voiced to be musical on their own, and we have tried to follow the best design principles from prior and current European organ builders. The voicing, scaling and tonal finishing performed has followed historical traditions in the same way as the original builders of European Cathedral instruments did in the past, and most still do. Divisions have been voiced on their own to make them balanced, and then scaled and voiced to fit together with the other divisions, and finally as a whole. Like a physical instrument, final voicing should still be performed at the location if the Dry organ is placed in a reverberant space with its own acoustical environment, but our default balance and tonality is meant to make this task consistent and effortless using Hauptwerk’s voicing capabilities. Since the Major II organ ranks are mostly recorded from larger cathedrals their tonality and scaling is such that the Dry version is probably best suited for playing back in somewhat larger acoustic spaces, like they originally were scaled and voiced to appear in. We have tried out the Dry version in smaller spaces, and have there generally found that it sometimes can need a little extra voicing in terms of adding some High Frequency boost and/or Brightness using the Hauptwerk Voicing possibilities. (The Hauptwerk Voicing Brightness parameter essentially increases the 3rd and upper Harmonics of the samples.)

European Cathedral Organs exist in many shapes and versions and are not an exact science, so you might still find stops that you would like to voice somewhat differently. We have set the individual amplitude levels at defaults that should be close to our organ model and intentions.

We have scaled and voiced the organs to have good default behavior within the North European Organ tradition, so if you start changing the relationships too much, you might end up with isolated changes that could be more to your liking, and maybe better suited for a given style repertoire, but you should be careful of overdoing this, otherwise the tonal balance of the organ model we have aimed for could be lost or displaced, generating a harmonic appearance and balance that would be too distant from the more typical sound of North European Cathedral Organs.


Contemporary builders

European boundaries, early 19th century.

European boundaries, early 19th century.

As outlined in more detail on our pages about the history of the  North European Organs, two of the most important North European historical builders were Arp Schnitger and  E. F. Walcker. Many respected organ builders also served apprenticeships in the Walcker factory during the 19th century, including Weigle, Steinmeyer, Laukhuff, Link, Kuhn, Sauer and Marcussen.

Looking at the list above of those who served as apprentices in the Walcker factory it is easy to recognize founders and fathers of later well-known Organ builders, many that still exist. Considering that so many of them had their foundation laid in more or less the same mindset and methods, it is not surprising to find a long chain of Northern European Cathedral organs that share many of their characteristics, both with regards to tonality, but also in terms of building techniques. Each manufacturer has obviously developed to a certain degree his own specialties, “sound” and “look”, but the amount of strict conservatism versus new ideas has shifted their priorities during the years from very popular and successful to lagging behind and losing out on contracts. New generations have entered with new ideas, sometimes with great skills and success, at other times not so.


Entering the Major II NECO

Still, many of the above historical and current Organ manufacturers either still exist or at least have supplied, rebuilt or maintained Cathedral organs in the prior century in many parts of northern Europe, including the Netherlands, Germany and the Scandinavian countries; Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Their ideas and organs have been both our inspiration and sources for the Major II NECO. We have tried to build an organ that several of these manufacturers could have made as well, both in terms of divisional spread, tonality and Stop list. We have tried to make a contemporary Cathedral Organ, even incorporating a Swell division with some French influences, and added something you seldom see in the physical world; a Solo division where each stop can also be pulled individually from all other divisions, but as a whole this is still an organ that is clearly post organ-revival with “a tonal design appropriate to the requirements of the traditional polyphonic literature, the “Werk principle” concept as developed in the North German or Schnitger school [...] as a guide. ”  It is not a strict period or literature instrument, and it does offer some flexibility in terms of being useful for different types of repertoire, hopefully without becoming too much of a compromised instrument. OTOH, most contemporary North European Cathedral Organs are built just like that, so our offering adhere well to the tradition in this respect too.

So – while our tonal model for the Major II NECO has been a 1930-1980’ -ish North European Cathedral Organ, our implementation has been different in terms of a Hauptwerk Virtual sample set. Our exact organ cannot be heard in real life, but it still represents an homage to the above mentioned builders of  Northern European Cathedral Organs, and we are excited to be able to bring you this instrument. Hopefully you will find as much pleasure in using it as we have had in making it!