I will readily admit that for years I was a purist when it came to organs – only pipe organs were the real thing, everything else is really nothing more than an appliance! However, over the years, with the phenomenal advancement in digital sound production, a quiet revolution has been taking place challenging this purist position of mine.
It has taken decades in the maturing technical sophistication in both digital retrieval or “sampling” and reproduction of sound that has brought us to the point now where digital instruments mirror ‘the real thing’ in an astounding way. While the classic pipe organ is virtually made by hand with rows of pipes, arranged in varying ranks of sounds, together with wind chests to enable these pipes to ‘speak,’ digitization of pipe organs begins with ‘capturing’ as precisely and accurately as possible, that original sound of a given pipe. The incremental increase in memory retention from kilobytes to megabytes and now to terabytes and beyond, enables the digital sampling of the most nuanced sounds produced by an individual pipe when it speaks.
During my pastorate at Mission San Juan Capistrano, it had always been my dream to eventually install a worthy pipe organ befitting the dignity and grandeur of the present Basilica. Reality, however, set in when one was looking at nearly Two Million dollars or more to make this dream a reality! As the years went on, I came to the realization that given the incredible acoustical environment of the Basilica – over a 5 second reverberation – a new digital instrument might be the most realistic and practical solution. Thanks to a wonderful gift by the Tracy Foundation, a new four manual Rodger’s digital organ was installed in the Basilica to the delight of all. It continues to serve our needs in an exceptional way.
Knowing that my time as pastor was nearing its conclusion, it had always remained my fondest hope to install a worthy instrument in the venerable Serra Chapel that dates to 1780. A very inadequate pipe organ had been installed in the 1970’s. Aware of the space constraints of the choir loft, the possibility of a customized digital instrument was seriously considered. Eventually, the contract was given to the Walker Technical Co. from Zionsville, PA. Walker instruments are carefully crafted with proprietary advances in digital sampling and sound reproduction. Mr. Robert Walker worked closely with us here at the Mission to craft an instrument that would both visually and tonally reflect a Tracker instrument of the mid-18th century. Special care was taken in the crafting of the case work that would be in artistic continuity with the Mission colonial ambiance of the Chapel. Mr. Walker was kind enough to provide the following description of this fine instrument:
The Gallery Organ recently installed in the Serra Chapel was inspired by the Pastor Emeritus, Rev. Msgr. Arthur Holquin during the final year of his pastorate in 2015. Msgr. Art is an organ aficionado and lover of organ literature. Designed and built by William Zeiler, formerly of Orange County, CA., for the Walker Technical Company of Zionsville, PA, the organ features Msgr. Holquin’s vision of an instrument built to accommodate modern American Guild of Organists’ specifications while visually offering an architectural image that reflects the craftsmanship and detail typical of the 18th century time period of the Chapel’s construction. Architectural elements in the organ case emulate the beautiful “Golden Retablo” (Reredos) located on the opposite wall of the chapel. The organ case features 24 carat gold leaf to complement the approximately 300-year-old “Retablo” and is deliberately finished and represented to the viewer in a manner that suggests that the organ has been a fixture original to the chapel, circa 1783.
Walker Technical Company, builder of the finest digital/pipe organs, was chosen to provide the heart of the sound of the instrument since the loft has limited space to place an adequate amount of actual organ pipes. The Walker Organ Company has done extremely high definition recordings of pipes with over 4 times the resolution of compact discs. These sounds replicate pipes that were typical of organs in the mid 1700’s throughout the world. High speed computers control the sounds as well as provide modeling of the interaction of the way pipes affect each other. This interaction causes a chorus effect that is constantly changing, making the sound of the organ always enjoyable to hear and never tiring.