One of the wonderful things about control data is that there’s no saying you only have to interface with software and digital worlds: you can connect directly to the real world, too. Digitally-sequenced music can use acoustically-generated sound. 20th Century technology, meet 19th Century technology. CDM reader Gareth Edwards writes to let us know about his current project:

Just wanted to let you know about a wee toy we’ve just finished building here in Edinburgh. We are a group that is part of the dorkbot movement ( and have just finished hacking a robotic MIDI retrofit onto a 1890s Gray and Davison 16′ pipe organ using mainly surplus components.

Video here:

Main page here:

Now, I got this while I was traveling in Berlin and my connection was so slow, I couldn’t even watch the video, so if you’ve seen this item elsewhere, no complaints please, okay? I haven’t dug out of RSS feeds yet. (Hey, the organ is from 1890 — I’m not that late.)

It’s quite brilliant work. We’ve seen organs before — anyone else care to comment on other examples of MIDI-powered organs?

Another video — with a Dueling Banjos cover, no less:

  • Melbourne Town Hall (Melbourne, Australia) has MIDI on their pipe organ too, which was refurbished around 2001. I'm pretty sure it goes down to a 32' pipe. The main reason for the MIDI (I think) is so they can use the remote console that wheels out to the middle of the room – it looks the real deal with four manuals and pedals and drawbars and can do everything the organ's console can do – but via MIDI. The latency gets pretty insane though, not just from the distance the sound travels to get to you, but also the 50+ foot MIDI lead in between.
    The console has a MIDI IN too…hmm…Bach on keytar anyone?

  • flubt

    saw this the other day, check out his final countdown video, amazing stuff.

  • cancurry

    The Grand Organ of the Sydney Opera House has always had remote recording and playback since it was installed in 1979, but the electronics were upgraded in 2002 to include MIDI.

    Specs pdf

  • Marc

    I don't get why they went through the trouble of having mechanical "fingers" to press the keys. Why don't they just trigger the note directly with a servo or solenoid?
    It would at least get rid of that annoying clicking noise every time a key gets pressed.

  • Good questions, Marc.

    The solenoids we had available (surplus units) have a limited travel, the "finger" provides a lever to allow the white keys to sound properly. The black keys require less travel – these are pushed directly by a pin on the solenoid core – but they still click as the solenoid core bottoms out in the coil.

    Also, you have to remember you are only hearing the clicking because the video is being shot right next to the keyboard, but this is on a balcony at the back of the meeting hall and the best listening position for the organ is down in the hall, and the solenoid noise is much attenuated down there.

  • Paul

    this was covered earlier but
    i know it isn't quite midi but at least some kind of control method from an organ rather than to it though

    i have always wanted to make a physical interface though pure data and an (or a set of) arduino(s) for a guitar
    that is not only effected by sound
    but also by a monome controlling arduinos controlling motors automating the tuning of the guitar

  • The Curtis Organ at the University of Pennsylvania is something like the 11th largest pipe organ in the world, and it was wired for MIDI around 1990 — as, if I remember correctly, an EE undergraduate's thesis project! For a while, at least, it was by far the biggest MIDI instrument in the world; I wonder if there are any new contenders?

    The Curtis Organ was built in 1926 with electromechanical controls, so adding MIDI control was a matter of tapping into the existing cabling rather than having to press the keys mechanically like in Edinburgh. We ran an early version of MAX on a little Mac SE-30 to do MIDI experiments. I once wrote a little MAX patch which would take MIDI channel pressure and use it to activate more and more ranks of pipes and open the baffles (basically giant acoustic venetian blinds the size of a van!) as pressure increased. Then I went down to the stage with a toy-like Casio MIDI saxophone to play the building-sized organ. Yowza!

  • Johan Liljencrants, a former professor at KTH Dept. of speech, music and hearing, has built a very cool organ. Every piece of the organ, including every pipe in it is beautifully crafted by Johan, and much is constructed by him.

    This organ is entirely controlled by midi.

  • I love it! Congratulations Gareth!