The Face of Johannus, ep. 9: Bertus: guardian of the high-quality Johannus sound

Published on 22 December 2021

The Face of Johannus, ep. 9: Bertus: guardian of the high-quality Johannus sound

The Johannus sound is world-famous. How is it actually created? And what makes that sound so special? Bertus Lap gives a peek behind the musical scenes at the Global Organ Group. “Often people get emotional when they hear their new organ playing for the first time. At that moment you realize that you really add something to their musical experience.”

It’s been said many times before, but Bertus Lap, Sound Manager at the Global Organ Group, can’t emphasize it enough: while the digital organ sound is the most faithful reproduction possible of the pipe organ sound, playing an authentic pipe organ is and always will be a unique experience. With this in mind, Bertus and his sound team make every effort to provide living room and church organists with a top quality sound experience.

And as Bertus explains, that process starts in a church. The church is rented for several nights to enable on-site recording.

More than forty organs around the world

The recordings take place in a wide variety of churches with just as many different organs, says Bertus. “We’ve added around forty organs to our library in recent years, including styles ranging from French-Symphonic to German-Baroque, and from romantic to historic. We use live recordings from complete organs in our LiVE series, and combinations of stops from a variety of organs in our other models, sometimes based on the customer’s specific wishes.

While there are many organs from Dutch churches among the recordings, Bertus and his team have also already traveled halfway around the world. In particular, he has recorded organs in America and in many European countries. “Every time we record a magnificent historical pipe organ, it’s a very special experience. To be able to work with organs built by Cavaillé-Coll, Silbermann and Vater-Müller is a boyhood dream come true.”

A robot at the manuals

How do these recordings get made, anyway? "We use high-quality recording equipment that we generally set up in the church in the evening,” explains Bertus. “We place a total of eight microphones in various positions in the church, with a few of them as close as possible to the front of the organ, so we capture the information in great detail. By recording at multiple locations within the church, we make sure that we can use the recordings for all applications, and that we are prepared for the future. That's how we record the original sound as meticulously as possible.”

The recording team starts registering the first stops around nine o’clock in the evening. “We used to have to press the keys one by one ourselves, but we have a robot for that now. Each stop is recorded key by key, for ten seconds per pipe.”

Background noise and passing scooters

Why make the recordings at night? "We start with the loudest stops, because even halfway through the evening, you can still be troubled by the sound of a scooter passing by or the murmur of people in a city square. As the night progresses, the church grows quieter and quieter, making it possible to record the softer flutes and principals. We generally do about thirty stops a night on average.”

It’s worth mentioning, says Bertus, that sound and reverb are recorded separately. “Since we record each key separately, we can decouple all the keys from the reverb individually later. This is a complicated process, but it has considerable advantages. The most important of these is that we retain the sharpness and purity of the original pipe organ sound. We can then use the authentic reverb to mimic the desired acoustic effect.

Thanks to this recording technique, organists can even determine their preferred ‘reverb position’ in the church from behind their digital organ, whether they prefer to hear the organ the way it would sound from their position on the bench, as it would sound from the front-row seats, from the middle of the church, or from a location beyond the scope of the reverb. “We record the reverb at four positions, and by thoroughly analyzing the differences in these recordings, we can get a very accurate idea of the effect of the reverb on the original sound. This information enables us to reproduce the sound as faithfully as possible.”

Crate full of authentic organ sounds

When they're done with a hard night's work, the Johannus recording team heads home with a whole crate full of authentic organ sounds. Then comes the biggest part of the job: editing and “cleaning” the recorded samples, for example by removing background noise. Finally, the tones are enriched with natural additions from the pipe organ, such as the phenomenon that occurs when too many keys are pressed at once. This creates a temporary shortage in wind pressure, causing the tones to be lowered slightly. “We make the sound truly authentic by adding elements like this.”

The next step is the compilation and selection of stops, and combining them with the corresponding reverb. After this, the stops are added to the voice cards. This essentially involves conversion from computer language to machine language so that the organ motherboard can access the stops. Once this has been completed, the intonation and audio tuning process starts: “By using our in-house developed intonation and audio software, for example, we bring the loudspeakers into the right balance, one by one”.

Finally, the sound is enriched with natural effects from the pipe organ, such as the phenomenon that occurs when too many keys are pressed at once. This creates a temporary shortage in wind pressure, causing the tones to be lowered slightly. “We make the sound truly life-like by adding elements like this.”

Voicing on site

One of the aspects of the job is to voice organs on site. “These trips are, of course, the icing on the cake,” says Bertus. Together with colleague Vincent van Os, he travels all over the world to install and voice organs. “Besides the adventure that travel brings, it is fantastic to see how people are impressed by the overwhelming sound of a well-voiced organ. Often people get emotional when they hear their new organ playing for the first time. At that moment you realize that you really add something to their musical experience.”

Extremely keen audio awareness

Bertus acts as the guardian of both incoming and outgoing sound quality. “That requires extremely keen audio perception,” he says. “When I played an organ this morning, all of a sudden I heard something that was a little off. I didn’t know what it was right away, but I’ve learnt to take my hearing very seriously and get to the bottom of the problem. Doing this enables us to remove any unevenness in the sound, making it better every day. As it turned out, the organ I was playing had the wrong reverb card in it, which caused an imbalanced sound. To hear something like that, you have to listen very precisely.”

This continuing process of perfecting the sound has elevated the quality to great heights. “We can definitely continue for a while at this level. However, that doesn’t mean that we’re resting on our laurels. We still have many ideas for improvements and refinements.”