Review – Sonokinetic’s Toccata for Kontakt
When you consider that the price of a real pipe organ instrument would be prohibitive, assuming you even had a place to put it, this Kontakt incarnation has much to recommend it.
by David Baer, Jan. 2014
In a departure from what this column normally covers (interesting electronica content for Kontakt) today we’ll be looking at a library of an acoustic instrument: the grand and glorious pipe organ. These instruments have always fascinated me and I have a substantial collection of CDs containing organ music from the Baroque period through modern times. On the other hand, as a hard-core synth aficionado, it’s hard for me not to think of pipe organs as something other than massive multi-timbral acoustic poly-synths.
Pipe organs lend themselves to encapsulation into sample libraries for a number of reasons:
- They are huge and immobile; the organ doesn’t go to the gig – the gig must come to the organ. They are also hella expensive.
- Many acoustic instruments require much finesse in capturing articulations. For example, a good violin sample instrument should provide articulations like sustain, slur legato, bow-change legato, staccato, and more whose names non-violinists would not even recognize. An organ note has but one articulation: on.
- Organ pipes sound at one volume. There is no need for velocity layers nor is there a need for tricks like sympathetic string layers when the sustain pedal is down on a piano.
- Much of the grandeur of a pipe organ comes from the spacious environments they reside in, but with modern convolution reverb technology, that quality is realistically reproducible.
- Did I mention that they are hella expensive?
So creating a pipe organ sample library has much to recommend it and Sonokinetic has done a superb job of doing just that in Toccata. It’s available for the price of about $54 USD. When you consider that the price of a physical instrument would be seven figures (in most any currency), assuming, of course, you even had a place to put it in the first place, this is a terrific bargain. There are more complete sampled organ instruments out there, at a correspondingly higher price. But Toccata will deliver sufficient capability for all but the most demanding applications.
The samples were recorded at the Bartholomeus Basilika in the Netherlands. The instrument, while magnificent, is somewhat modest in comparison to some organs found in concert halls and grand cathedrals. It is nevertheless more than adequate to produce a truly full-on organ experience. The Toccata organ sports in excess of 1500 pipes (all individually sampled and beautifully tuned by Sonokinetic). By comparison, one of the organs used on a CD of Dupré compositions in my collection lists around 10,000 pipes. But trust me, 1500 pipes is plenty to work with for most purposes.
I knew embarrassingly little about pipe organs when I started this review (other than I adored the music made by them). So I undertook a little study and will present an introduction to the instrument in what follows. I owe many thanks to my friend, John Walko, for much guidance in compiling this information. John is one of the finest organists in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Pipe Organ 101
First, there is no such thing as a standard pipe organ. When it comes to the larger organs, each is unique. Physical attributes of the installation will be dictated by the structure in which they are installed. Budgetary constraints will certainly dictate the number of pipes. A composer of organ music can, at best, suggest registrations when composing, unless it’s for a specific instrument. Organists must wear an orchestrator’s hat when adopting a piece for the instrument available for the performance, making the piece work with whatever is at hand.
Nevertheless, there are many common attributes and we’ll consider those in what follows. I’m going to use the term “grand organ” here to denote a large custom instrument like those found in concert halls, cathedrals and the like, as distinct from smaller one-manual instruments with a modest collection of pipes.
Grand organs can have anywhere from two to five keyboard manuals that span four and half or five octaves (C1 to C6, C3 being middle C). There will be pedals that offer two and a half octaves (C1 thru F3 or G3). Each manual and pedal will have a number of ranks of pipes available to it. The ranks are tied to a manual, but manuals (keyboard or pedals) can be coupled in order to build up ever larger masses of sound.
Sometimes ranks are “unified” (several stops of different pitches obtained from one rank) or are “duplexed” or “borrowed” from one division to another. This is a type of permanent coupling that is done with individual stops to cut costs. However it is not always budgetary, as space constraints or simply a desire for more flexibility can also dictate when this done.
Let’s talk about the pipes. Mostly these will be metal, but some pipes can be made of wood. For a given pipe type, longer pipes produce lower tones, as would be expected. The composition of metal pipes is normally mostly tin and lead, with the proportions varied to control the brightness. Other metals can be used for both visual and audio esthetic purposes. The thickness of the metal (or wood) is also a factor in the timbre.
Pipes always have a designation of 16’, 8’, 4’ and so forth. An 8’ pipe plays at concert pitch. A 16’ pipe is an octave down, a 4’ pipe an octave up, and so forth. Some pipes, known as “mutations” provide upper harmonics of the unison pitch that are other than an octave relationship to the unison (and these have a fraction in their “length” designation).
Pipes come in several basic types. A pipe will either produce sound due to the resonance produced by air blowing past an aperture with a lip or due to a vibrating metal reed-like tongue. The former are called “labial” pipes and the latter “lingual”. If those terms have connotations that are a bit too salacious for your taste, you can also use the alternate respective terms of “flue” and “reed”.
Labial pipes can either be open at the top, covered at the top, or partially covered (with a small cylinder emerging from the top “cap”). The covered pipes are physically half the length of the uncovered variety to produce the same pitch (which incidentally makes them less expensive to build). Covered pipes have only odd overtones … square wave synth oscillators, anyone? In addition to being covered or uncovered, pipe shape governs the timbre. Most labial pipes are cylindrical, but conical shapes for all or part of the length are also possibilities. Wind pressure is also important – higher pressure usually equates to more power but it also changes the timbre of a given stop.
Labial pipes can also be twice the normal (i.e., nominal) length, with a hole pierced midway; these are overblowing “harmonic” flutes, which are very full and speak with a trace of the sub-octave harmonic.
Lingual pipes of the Trumpet/Tuba/Trombone variety are always uncovered; specialized “color reeds”, such as Oboes, French Horns and English Horns may have covered or odd-shaped resonators which color their sound to imitate the instrument that gives the rank its name. The tongue is (normally) at the bottom of a cylinder or conical or hybrid “horn”. Cylindrical configurations have the effect of covered labial pipes, with odd harmonics being emphasized (such as the Clarinet). Resonators may be full-length, partial-length (which reduces both cost and fundamental pitch and power), or – as with labial stops – harmonic, or double length.
The illustration below (courtesy of organ web site http://www.die-orgelseite.de/pfeifenarten_e.htm) shows the considerable variety of shapes in a dozen labial pipe types and a dozen more ligual types.
When you see pictures of grand organs, you usually see a number of impressive ranks of uncovered labial pipes. These are called “principals” (or sometimes “diapasons”). But there are far more pipes that you normally do not see hiding behind the façade.
A façade is often made up Principals, but often has other types of pipes as well. Principals/Diapasons are used throughout an organ – their chief characteristic is that they provide an entire chorus of “normal” organ tone at every pitch (the backbone of the organ’s sound).
The organist combines pipe ranks to create the sound they are after. Dynamics are accomplished either by adding more ranks to the registration, or using an “expression shoe”. Most organs after the baroque era have at least one “expressive” division – the pipes are situated inside a box or room; the volume is modulated by venetian-blind-like shutters that the organist controls with a foot pedal.
The knowledge of how to effectively select what ranks to include in a registration is an essential skill for the organist. You can equate it to the painter’s palette – there is a vast variety of possibilities. How the organist chooses registrations will depend upon the type of material being played. A “plenum” registration is used when all voices in a piece are of equal importance. Plenum registration is appropriate to both hymn accompaniment and the fugal masterpieces of Bach.
Another common scenario is where a lead line (melody or whatever) is played on one manual while another manual and pedals provide accompaniment. Now we start to need differentiated dynamics or timbres. The organist has two alternatives: play the lead line more loudly or more brightly than the accompaniment. One way is to add more stops (a stop being a rank of pipes) at the same pitch. But adding higher pitched stops will provide additional brightness. Lingual pipes are more “cutting” (in a good way, be assured) and will usually easily be heard over a thick accompaniment of labial stops.
Do not assume that the pedals are just there to provide a bass foundation. There is much in the organ literature in which the pedals supply the lead line, often a languid melody accompanied by “busy” accompaniment supplied by the organist’s hands. This is why pedal stops will include not only 16’ and 8’ stops, but 4’ and 2’ stops as well. One of the most glorious aspects of a large pipe organ are the sub-octave pedal stops of 32’ pitch, which can be felt through the foundations of the floor. These can purr seductively (soft flue stops) or can rattle the windows (full-length reed stops).
Finally, there is the trio sonata form (made immortal by Bach) in which three independent voices are participating. This is another case where the pedal rank is hardly playing a secondary role, doing a necessary but boring job.
We’ve only scratched the surface here. For those wishing to learn more I recommend a modest (and inexpensive), but fact-rich, booklet called An Introduction to Organ Registration by James Engel. Wikipedia is well worth a look as well.
OK, now that we’ve laid some groundwork, let’s examine the library at hand. Toccata supplies an interface that includes two keyboard manuals and a pedal. The keyboard range is C1 to G5, and the pedals range is C1 to F3. There are twenty stops: six for the lower manual, five for the upper, and eight for the pedals (see, no second class citizenship for pedals on organ!). One of the upper manual stops combines an 8’ and 4’ rank. All other stops are individual ranks. Finally there is the “tutti” setting where all guns are blazing. This is done with the organ sampled as such as opposed to enabling all the individual sample layers.
Each manual can be controlled by a separate MIDI channel and there is a “Link to Lower” switch that couples the pedals to the lower manual. Each of the stops can be selected with buttons on the interface or with key switches (using notes outside the keyboard/pedal range). All in all it’s a very flexible and convenient interface. Tutti can be controlled several ways, the easiest being the sustain pedal, which on an authentic organ recreation is obviously of no use for its normal purpose (however, Toccata has an alternate configuration where the sustain control does what it normally would do).
I have put together audio clips of each of the stops below. For the lower and upper manuals, there is a simple four-octave pattern that covers most of the range; for the pedals, the range is two octaves. The purpose of the clips is illustrative, not artistic – so, no complaints about them being boring, if you please. The tutti clip is my humble attempt at recreating some Bach magnificence.
Tutti (as in ala-root-tee … baby!)
Toccata makes use of Kontakt’s excellent convolution reverb technology, user controlled reverb in a straightforward window. Hall sizes can be selected from four choices, such as Basilica as shown. Then the user can dial in a dry/wet ratio and room size. The mp3 examples in the previous section use the default reverb setting on all but the tutti, for which I cranked up the room size quite a bit.
Is Toccata for You?
When I downloaded Toccata, I was quite curious and was interested in exploring what it had to offer. It wasn’t until I started playing around with it that I started to get more than a little excited. And what excitement there is to have an instrument like this at one’s beck and call! This thing is a blast – both figuratively and literally.
Whether your goals are to do some Rick Wakeman covers, add a perfectly realistic pipe organ to a sound track, recreate the awesomeness of a Bach fugue, or just conjure up some Olde Time Religion, Toccata can deliver, and in spades. Highly recommended.
But just be careful. Once you get the grand pipe organ bug, you may well start fantasizing about owning an even more extensive organ sample library that could cost you eight or ten times the price of Toccata. Who knows … after that you may be trying to figure out where to put a three manual plus full pedal MIDI organ controller that will cost 50 times the price of Toccata. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Toccata can be purchased and downloaded at:
It requires the full version of Kontakt 4.1.1 or higher.