What makes the Johannus sound so exceptional? (2)

Curious to find out where that world-famous Johannus sound is from? Take a peek behind the musical scenes at Johannus.

The Johannus sound is world-famous. All around the globe, organists are enchanted by the phenomenal pipe organ sounds of our digital organs. What makes the Johannus sound exceptional? And how is it actually created? Take a peek behind the scenes in our world of music. Today we'll feature part 2: the recording. 

In part 1, sound technician Bertus Lap explained how pipe organ sounds and reverberations are recorded. He talked about how the Johannus team spends the whole night in a church recording all the keys on the pipe organ one by one, and how the reverb is registered separately. Bertus shuts the church doors behind him at dawn, heading home with a whole crate full of authentic organ sounds. That's a wrap!

Instinct and technology

Bertus continues enthusiastically about the massive undertaking that awaits him when he gets back: processing all the samples they recorded. "When you're making a recording like this, you get a certain feel for the organ, an instinctive grasp of the church's atmosphere. The challenge for me is to incorporate that instinct into the rest of the process. And of course there's just lots and lots of technology involved in getting the samples as close as possible to the original, but then as digital stops."

It starts with a very basic step: returning all the physical pipes to their original position in the digital copy. Bertus explains, "As a general rule, we take photos of the organ case so we know exactly which pipes are where. Whether a pipe is in the front or the back makes a difference in the sound. In the final organ made by Johannus, we make sure those positions can accurately be heard."

Cleaning samples

Cleaning up the samples is the next big job. "No matter how good the recording is, there's always background noise. You might hear the sound of the blower, or noises from outside. It's never entirely quiet in a church. If you listen to just one sample, you don't hear the background noises as clearly, but we put about three thousand samples into an organ... and the background noise is intensified every time. That's just not doable. So we filter out all the environmental acoustics."

This type of cleaning requires highly advanced software, Bertus says. "Every sample consists of various harmonics, which are basically a kind of sub-tones within the overall tone that you hear. A complex harmonic consists of a fundamental, the second harmonic (one octave higher), the third harmonic (which is three times the frequency of the fundamental) and so on. The number of harmonics differs per sample; a trumpet might have a hundred. Our equipment allows us to analyze, break down and adjust each sample one harmonic at a time. We can also isolate the sound completely from the background acoustics, so all that's left is really just that original, crystal-clear tone."

Another challenge is to extend the ten-second recording taken for each sample without adding a final click. "We achieve that by making a loop. We find two points in the clip that have exactly the same frequency and match them up. That creates an even tone that you can hold down indefinitely without hearing a transition click."

Natural additions

Once these processes are completed, the tones are enriched with natural additions from the pipe organ that make the sound even more authentic. One of those elements is a phenomenon that happens in a pipe organ when too many keys are pressed at once (wind sag). This creates a temporary shortage in wind pressure, causing the tones to be lowered slightly. Another effect which is meticulously simulated is the tremulant.

Finally, the individually recorded reverb is added to the stops. A compilation and selection of stops is the next step, after which they are saved in the voice card. That essentially means converting it from computer language to machine language, so the motherboard in the Johannus organ can access the stops. Once these cleaned, fine-tuned samples are linked to the keys of the Johannus organ, the route from the cathedral organ to the digital stop has been completed.

Real-time sampling

"The best thing about our technique is that we use real-time sampling. That means nothing more or less than that a Johannus organ lets you play exactly the same sound as the pipe organ we recorded. Nothing has been generated; there's nothing synthetic about it. What you hear is exactly how the original pipes behave and sound. Another distinctive feature is the separate recording of sound and reverb, so the final result is better than simulator solutions or other organ software on the market."

Bertus quickly adds that even with the perfect samples, the Johannus sound hasn't reached peak perfection yet. "To achieve the best possible sound, you need a carefully constructed configuration of speakers. We spend a lot of time working out things like the number of channels, the type of amplifiers, audio configuration and voicing. That combination of original pipe organ sounds and exceptional technology is what ultimately gives our organs that world-famous Johannus sound."