Thoughts on composing, teaching and performing music, by Fergus Black


Buying a Home Practice Organ

You are learning the pipe organ, and need one to practise on. Assuming you do not have access to a church with an appropriate instrument, you will need one at home.

The chances are that you will not buy an actual pipe organ, but a digital organ with on-board sounds. Most likely you will look for a second-hand instrument, which may also be programmed to run a “virtual organ” on a computer through a MIDI connection. (MIDI = Musical Instrument Digital Interface). ONLY if the console has a MIDI-out socket will it be possible to play a virtual organ. The MIDI connection allows the console to send information to a computer, in a format the computer understands, in order to control organ software, such as Hauptwerk or Organteq.

Should your console have a MIDI-in socket as well, that would be an advantage, since it would allow two-way communication between the console and the computer.


There is a free version of Hauptwerk which is good enough for most purposes: the professional version is a good deal more expensive that Organteq. You can buy different instruments for Hauptwerk, but Organteq comes with one standard instrument and there are (currently) no others. In order to hear the virtual organ, you would need to connect the computer to speakers. Most likely, this will require a digital-to-analogue converter (DAC), unless the speakers are bluetooth.

My Set Up

This is exactly the set up I have at home: an old Johannus console with a Midi to USB cable to connect it to a Mac mini, running both Hauptwerk and Organteq. The computer is connected to a DAC which sends the sound to studio speakers and sub-woofer. I only have two (stereo) speakers, but surround-sound is possible. You could use headphones.

Build your own

This organ looks home-made

Image credit: Wyvern Organs (Despite appearances to the contrary, the organ pictured above is not actually home-made, it is the Content Compact Organ from Wyvern Organs.)

Alternatively, it is possible to build your own: here is a series of videos from the UK that documents in detail the whole process using an old electronic organ as a shell:

and another somewhat more technical one almost from scratch:

How to choose an instrument

In choosing an instrument, there are a number of things to be aware of, or else you might make an expensive mistake. In order to discuss these, we need some vocabulary.


The whole shebang of the keyboards, pedals etc, is called the console: it is likely to be VERY heavy and bulky. Please don’t think you can load it into the back of a car by yourself. It will need at least two strong people to carry it, and a van to move it.

Removal men with an organ console

Image Credit: St Asaph’s Pennsylvania


Keyboards are called manuals. There should be at least 2 manuals. The manuals MUST be one above the other, and not offset.

This image shows the correct alignment of the manuals:

Organ keyboards aligned one above the other as on a pipe organ

Image Credit Reddit post

This image shows the manuals offset. You don’t want this:

Removal men with an organ console

Image credit: Ebay listing


The notes you play with your feet are called pedals, and they sit on a pedal board. In the UK, the pedal board should be radiating and concave (continental organs have flat, non-radiating pedal boards); it should have 30 or 32 notes. It is VERY IMPORTANT the pedal notes need to be full length from front to back! The central black large foot pedal is called a shoe. There should be at least one shoe, which controls the volume of the upper manual gradually, independently of the other manuals.

This image shows full-length pedals (front to back)

pipe organ pedals

Image credit The Lady Organist

This image shows an octave of short pedals only. You don't want these.

Removal men with an organ console

Image credit: Photo from Ebay listing


Combination Pistons control groups of stops (see below), and look like buttons - there should be buttons centrally under each keyboard, and some to the left as well. The buttons underneath the keyboards are called Thumb Pistons.

Thumb pistons on an organ

Image credit Regent Classic Organs

Large metal buttons, either side of the Swell shoe, above the pedal board would be a bonus. They are called Toe Studs:

Toe studs on an organ

Image credit Hauptwerk Tampa


The seat is called a bench. You will need one. Adjustable benches are rare; so it helps to be handy with a saw (to reduce the height) and blocks of wood (to build height).

Organ bench

Image credit: Antique shop listing


The white switches with names and numbers on them are called tabs. Tabs are above the manuals. On ‘proper’ organs they are replaced with drawstops on either side of the console. Drawstops are usually just referred to as stops. Tabs and drawstops control the different timbres of the instrument. The word stops also refers to the timbres themselves, as well as to the physical switch. On UK organs, if there are drawstops, they are on sited on jambs, which are angled towards the player. Continental organs have stop jambs that are not angled to the player.

Removal men with an organ console

Image Credit: Tabs at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Aberdeen

Removal men with an organ console

Image Credit Harrisons Organs - Drawstops at Exeter Cathedral


You could try “Classical Organ”, “Virtual Organ”, "Hauptwerk" or even "Pipe Organ". Ebay has a category for organs, but it includes everything from harmoniums to spare parts and organ-themed key-rings:


Picture Credits

Main image



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