Behind the Scenes

Creating Crucible—How our free church organ was captured

Nils Neumann discusses recording the free pipe organ collection, and how to make use of it in your own work

How do you sample a church organ? Most instruments can be spot-mic’d, most instruments can be moved around to the perfect position, and most instruments fit neatly into a recording studio. The Mühleisen organ in Owen’s Marienkirche is not most instruments.

An immense Baroque-style pipe organ with thirty registers, two manuals, and a history going back to 1685, the Marienkirche’s organ was a towering challenge for anyone brave enough to try harnessing its power in digital form. Fortunately, Nils Neumann wasn’t daunted.

“I started sampling this organ three years ago. My plan was to learn through doing each part of the task, whether it was programming patches, scripting, or just the recording in general. It was really helpful for me to understand these technical processes in detail.”

Neumann is a self-effacing type, but his determination and his willingness to receive hard lessons from the pulpit of self-improvement have resulted in Crucible, a sampled church organ with a powerful, majestic spirit. With three different mic positions (close, gallery, room), and multiple articulations for maximum expression at your fingertips, you can play anything from soothing, resonant hums to blazing, triumphant swells. We spoke to Nils to find out a little more about his experience recording the organ.

Orchestral Tools: Firstly, can you tell us a little about Crucible and how an organ actually works?

Nils Neumann: Basically, organs have these things called ‘stops’ that you use to color the sound. Pulling out stops adds characterful elements to the organ, hence the saying “Pull out all the stops”. Sampling the organ involved capturing a few combinations of these stops. Basically, you have two sets of piano keys and one pedalboard to be played with the feet. You can use your two hands across the keys, similar to a piano, but you can also access two other octaves using your two feet below, which is pretty cool.

Crucible is really bombastic and loud because that’s what I wanted to capture when I started the project three years ago. The organ is situated in this beautiful church in a small town in southern Germany, which has a really big space, and that makes for something quite special. Added to that the fact that Crucible is free in SINEfactory—when you consider that there aren’t a lot of free organs out there, especially none that were recorded with three microphone positions—it’s an incredible instrument to add to your collection.

What was the process of recording the organ like?

Recording an organ is a really unique experience, because from a purely practical perspective, it’s a little awkward. This particular organ is on the second floor of the church, and there’s a gallery in front and a small space behind where we could place mics, but it was impossible to place any AB or XY microphone positions at the correct distance from it.

We ended up placing two microphones as spot-mics, but in stereo, three metres apart. We captured the stereo field in quite an unconventional way, by placing two microphones on either side of the gallery, maybe ten metres apart. If you know anything about first reflections and stereo imaging, then you’ll know that’s not really the correct setup, but it worked! The third microphone position was around thirty or forty metres away from the organ, on the altar.

Did you experiment with different types of microphones, or did you just use what you had?

I have a friend who owns a studio and he helped out by providing some really high-quality mics. Funnily enough, we actually found two Neumann mics in the church, mounted randomly. I’m not sure what they were meant to capture, but we ended up using them as a stereo pair for the gallery mics, which are my favorite mics in the collection! All in all we had three positions: close, gallery and room. You can really put the organ in any space with that combination.

"I use the pedal notes of the organ for a lot of my arrangements, because they fill out the low end and add a lot of punch to your mixes."

What’s different about the sound with each mic position?

The close mic positions give you a crisper, more direct sound, whereas the mics that were positioned further away add more room. The far mics were actually better at capturing low end, too. I use the pedal notes of the organ for a lot of my arrangements, because they fill out the low end and add a lot of punch to your mixes.

In general, I would recommend starting off with the gallery mics, as they offer you a bit of everything. If you want to place the organ in a large space or put it in the background of your mix, go with the room mics. It really is up to you and what kind of sound you prefer!

What was your plan when it came to capturing the various ways a church organ can be played?

I recorded long samples of each note; because of the way that the organ works, the sound evolves over time. The more seconds you sample, the more little variations you pick up in the sound. I initially had the intention of the notes playing for a duration of around eight seconds, but in the end they’re looped and you can play indefinitely, which is in line with what you’d expect from an actual organ.

We also sampled all the articulations with staccato notes, because the organ sounds so unique when played that way. If you were to sample a sustained organ note and then try to play it staccato afterwards, it would give you a totally different sound to what you would get from sampling actual short notes. Those low pipes take a second or two to really get moving. The reverb tails of the sustained and staccato samples are different, too..

Crucible is intended to be used through the SINEplayer. What can you say about the experience of using it within the software?

With SINEplayer the whole experience of using this instrument is fabulous. SINE is so reliable, and has all these useful features—for example you can save your mixdown including the three microphone positions; you don't have to recall them every time. You use way less RAM this way! Downloading and storing instruments on SINE is so quick and easy as well, so all in all, there’s a very professional feel to everything.

After sampling the organ, how do you feel about sampling other instruments in the future?

To be honest I’m a little intimidated by sampling really dynamic, round-robin instruments like violin sections or piano now because my experience of sampling this organ was that it was so time consuming! Pressing one note for eight seconds, waiting until the release had completely cleared off, and then pressing it again three or four times—it was quite horrible to sample!

The thing that interests me the most currently is sampling unique combinations of instruments. At the moment there are so many collections of instruments that have been sampled before, for example, percussion sets with snares, bass drums and all the rest. Something I’ve been doing recently is combining basic percussion instruments with interesting handheld percussion—putting combinations of these types of instruments together creates something very unique.

For audio examples, download links and more exclusive content available through SINEfactory, our free instrument subscription service, click here.

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