I’ve written a couple of times about playing about with a MIDI-enabled pipe organ and I’ve shared some of my results on YouTube. Today I want to say a bit about my workflow because a few people have asked, and it is a somewhat complicated but hopefully interesting.
This isn’t supposed to be instructional: this is just some notes about the way I’ve found that works for me. I’ll give some examples and demonstrate progress as we go along by working on a public domain piece, Prelude and Fugue in C major (BWV 553) by Johann Sebastian Bach.
If you want to play along with this guide, you will need:
- a pipe organ with MIDI ports
- an installation of MuseScore
- an installation of OrganAssist, configured for your organ
- an installation of GrandOrgue, configured for your organ (optional)
The first thing I do when I decide I want to make the organ play something is obtain a score. I have three options:
Find and download a score on MuseScore
As well as being an notation editor app, MuseScore allows musicians to upload their own compositions to musescore.com, and it also contains various public domain works. There are also some copyrighted works with various licensing options.
When I’ve found an arrangement I like, as I’m a paid-up MuseScore Pro member, I can download the score directly in MuseScore format.
Here’s my score for BWV 553 on MuseScore, and for reference here’s the first line.
Enter a score from a physical book into MuseScore
If the work is only in physical form (a book or sheet score) then the only option is to manually enter it into MuseScore. There are various options for scanning it and getting MuseScore to “recognise” the notes, but I have found this inaccurate, and it takes as long to correct the mistakes as it does to just enter the music by hand.
I created my MuseScore version of the score by manually entering the notation from a physical book.
Import a plain old MIDI file into MuseScore
The last option is to import an ordinary MIDI file into MuseScore. The success of this method varies wildly depending on the quality and complexity of the original MIDI file, but you can often end up with an unreadable score that needs a lot of cleanup.
No matter which of the three methods for getting a score you chose, you should now have a score in MuseScore. You will likely have to do some editing and arrangement to make it suitable for pipe organ.
Organ music arranged for humans would typically be written on 2 or 3 staves – right hand, left hand and optionally feet – and it is up to the organist to interpret the score and decide which manual (keyboard) to play each section on. There are often (but not always) written notes to tell the organist what to do.
But to a computer, an organ is several instruments – each manual (keyboard) and the pedalboard is its own instrument. So we need to arrange our score in this way – one stave for each manual, and we must pre-determine which manual each section will be played back on.
The specific organ I am arranging for has a Great manual, a Swell manual and a Pedal, so I need to arrange my score for 3 parts, the Swell and Great parts having 2 staves each and the Pedal part having 1 stave. In my own lingo I refer to this as SSGGP.
Here’s my version of BWV 553 re-arranged for SSGGP, and the first line for quick reference again.
Note that I have had to take out the convenient repeat and interpret the 1st on Sw, 2nd on Gt direction as playing the entire section through twice, once on each manual.
Finally, I export the MuseScore project as a MIDI file, which can be consumed by OrganAssist.
Now I import this MIDI file into the OrganAssist library. The first thing it asks me to do is map the MIDI tracks to the organ manuals. We exported as SSGGP so that’s how we’ll set the mapping for import.
If we play this back now, the organ will make no sound, because although the keys are being pressed, no stops are drawn. We need to tell OrganAssist which stops we want it to use, which is something the human organist would decide when they played the piece on a real organ. In this case, the front of the book of Eight Short Preludes and Fugues gives this advice:
BWV 553 has a direction of mf, so let’s set those stops accordingly. Following the suggested registrations in the table, and knowing what I have available on the organ at St Mary’s, I’ve chosen these stops:
- Great: Claribel Flute 8′, Flute 4′
- Swell: Stopped Diapason 8′, Gemshorn 4′, Oboe 8′
- Pedal: Bourdon 16′, Bass Flute 8′
To add these stops, we will use the OrganAssist editor. You can see the notes in a “piano roll” style view. Right click in the upper part of the screen to add stop changes and coupler changes. This obviously depends on your specific organ.
The editor view in OrganAssist shows notes in the main part of the screen, colour coded by manual (green for Swell, blue for Great, purple for Pedal). The top area is for events such as switching on or off stops, couplers, tremulants and any other controls the organ might have. Here I’ve turned on a bunch of stops at the beginning, and about two-thirds of the way across I’ve switched off the Swell to Pedal coupler, and switched on the Great to Pedal coupler, so the pedal notes are always coupled to the manual that is being currently played with the hands.
This step can be done away from the actual organ, as OrganAssist has rudimentary sound output which is sufficient to check for wrong notes, etc.
Playback on organ
If everything so far has been done properly, I should be ready for a first listening. No doubt there will be snags that show up when I listen to it, and I’ll probably want to make some tweaks.
The organ may be MIDI-controlled, but the mechanical components are still made of wood and leather and operated by springs and solenoids and pressurised air, so a little bit of latency creeps in
This video shows the score being played back on the organ at St Mary’s Church, Fishponds.
Changes to stops and small changes to durations of notes are easy to tweak in OrganAssist. Anything more usually means going back to MuseScore, editing there, and doing the export and import process again.
Playback on GrandOrgue
As I said above, OrganAssist only offers rudimentary playback when not attached to a real organ. It’s good enough for basic testing but not much good for hearing what it might sound like. Sure, I can go into the church and play the organ sometimes, but it would be nice have an approximation of the sound at home.
This is where GrandOrgue comes in. It’s a Virtual Pipe Organ (VPO) which is a virtual recreation of a pipe organ which receives input via MIDI – just like the real thing!
GrandOrgue uses real recordings of every single pipe on a real organ. Together these are known as a sampleset. Various samplesets are available online, some free, and some commercial. I haven’t (yet) had a chance to sample the organ at St Mary’s, so for now I am using a composite sampleset with similar-sounding stops taken from two free samplesets (Friesach by Piotr Grabowski, and Skinner op. 497 by Sonus Paradisi), and a basic graphical interface created with Organ Builder.
It takes a few minutes to configure a GrandOrgue organ to map the stop on/off events etc but after this is done, OrganAssist can play back through GrandOrgue via a MIDI loopback port, and make a surprisingly realistic sound. I can now make meaningful decisions about which stops to add to my OrganAssist scores at home.
In this video, OrganAssist (in the background) is “playing” the virtual organ by sending MIDI events, which GrandOrgue (in the corner) is receiving and generating the sound, using samples of real organ pipes.
I think this is a pretty good approximation of the real organ at St Mary’s – certainly good enough for playing around with at home.