Organ Day, 2019

The non-profit organization, Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, have done a really incredible job on a physical & visual restoration of the planet’s largest musical instrument... and today, they had a huge unveiling ceremony, with a bunch of concerts & events. 

Jim Stemke, of Chicago’s DSP Recordings has spent years working on the musical restoration of the Wanamaker organ, and he’s set up a dedicated studio about 800’ from the Grand Court of the Macy’s department store which houses this sonic behemoth.

When Jim and I met, just a few months ago, after a brief online conversation, he’d invited me back for this big milestone event: Organ Day, 2019 — in which they’d have a series of concerts & a dramatic reveal of the newly gilded gold pipes and wooden facade. The show didn’t disappoint — and the newly restored look is truly impressive.

What’s really impressive to me is the lengths that Jim and the organization went to in implementing a permanently-installed archival recording system for this piece of American & Musical history. Unsurprisingly, a ~300 Ton instrument with 28,000+ pipes is capable producing incredible sound levels and wide ranging frequencies… so choosing a recording system that can accurately capture the dynamic range and frequency content was essential. To make sure they weren’t compromising in quality, they went with Merging Technologies Pyramix, which allows them to record multiple mic-inputs from the organ at the highest resolutions available today… both hi-res PCM formats, and (the niche format that got me interested in Jim’s work) DSD audio.

To record this, massive, 7-story-high pipe organ… they’ve flown a series of high-end Sennheiser mics on retractable sleds, as well as mounting some on far walls & ceilings. All of those mic lines are brought back through a 800+ foot-long fiber-optical cable, to the studio where the signals are brought into the computer workstation. Because working on this type of recording means you’re “doing as little to the signal as possible”, Jim works to ensure that the microphones are placed perfectly, and that there’s nothing going on that would alter the sound in any unintended ways.

During the Organ-Day weekend festival there were a number of additional events, and even a few additional input sources for the system to record… I was very happy to have been there when I was, as I was able to help Jim solve a small technical issue (software-wise) that was, temporarily halting progress on recording the additional inputs.

We had lunch in the Organ-Shop — which is a massive area, with wood-shops & tool-benches, at which the machinery of the organ is repaired / improved / maintained… it was a truly fascinating place… with organ parts strewn about, and more egg-salad sandwiches than I’ve seen in a long time. After lunch, we recorded a performance on the Wulrlitzer organ that’s installed (on a small elevated platform that can mechanically rise up several feet in the air) in Greek Hall, which is a gorgeous wood-paneled room, also located in this gigantic department store.

All told, it was a fascinating day — sitting with a group of volunteers that have devoted decades of their lives to the preservation and promotion of these massive & delicate musical instruments. Hearing them talk-shop about different organs, across the United States & Europe… they are truly as geeky about organs, as I am about recording technology and the systems & people working in the field.