The "virtual pipe organ" (VPO) is a breed of electronic instrument incorporating technology which first appeared around the turn of the millennium along with sufficiently powerful personal computers for the first time; it employs computer hardware, proprietary software, sample sets, keyboards which transmit musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) information, touch screens and other control surface equipment, an audio interface/sound card, and amplifiers and speakers to reproduce authentic pipe organ sounds.
While the VPO still accounts for part of the digital organ scene, the uncanny realism of its sound has led to its growing popularity and an increasing number of VPO console builders dotted around the world who specialize not only in manufacturing VPO components but entire consoles from scratch, depending upon the buyer's wishes.
Sadly for many organ enthusiasts, most manufacturers ceased production of organ MIDI expander modules around 2007 due to the sudden and rapidly growing interest in and popularity of the VPO and, more recently, physical modeling technology.
A so-called turnkey supplier is a firm which offers complete "ready-to-go" VPOs, and these ready-made instruments, as one might expect, wil have a cost which exceeds that of the individual components of the system if purchased separately.
The "sound engine" of a VPO, rather than being special-purpose hardware and software built for the job as in a regular digital organ, is a personal computer (PC); thus the full resources of a dedicated PC of some sort is always necessary to run a VPO.
The computer chosen for a VPO, unlike the one which typically runs the ordinary digital organ, should be as modern as one can afford, having blistering speed and enormous memory and storage capacity.
The choices of MIDI keyboards/consoles, computers, audio systems consisting of amps and loudspeakers, and how many simulated organs are envisaged in the various sample sets desired are therefore vast for some VPOs, though a few can only accept a single sample set.
Most VPO users opt for the use of either launchpads or touch screens for the control of stops supplied by the various sample sets; with touch screens the names of the stops are written by the computer onto the display for each sample set, which gets around the problem of labeling traditional stop controls such as drawknobs, rocking tablets, or tongue tablets when more than one sample set is used.
Besides the obvious costs expected in assembling the hardware needed for such a project, the computer used for the VPO needs time, several minutes in some cases, to "boot up" and for the sample set to load, which means that a VPO cannot be played during this interval; this is unlike a pipe organ or conventional digital organ; some computers also make a little bit of noise when running which, with the "boot-time" issue, can annoy some users and can become a disincentive over time to using a VPO.
Still, it's plain to see ... and hear ... that this technology enables the serious organist to have in the home the next best thing to a real pipe organ for practice or recording purposes ... and ... it also can be employed as a project to retrofit an existing analog console, digi console, or even a pipe organ console with MIDI and all other features needed to run the computer software.
Most digi organ consoles built since 1980 are already factory-MIDIfied, thus, the VPO represents a top-end step-up instrument which, while it does involve an outlay of cash to set it up, when the components are assembled by the user this has proven itself more cost-effective than investing in a new digi organ or VPO made by a turnkey supplier [See blog, Step-Up Instruments Parts I-V].
The software for various VPOs can be located on the internet by surfing the names Hauptwerk, Grand Orgue, jOrgan, Great Organ, OrganTech, Sweelinq, and possibly others; whether the market will support all these options remains to be seen -- licensing terms, copy protection, price, and sample set availability are among those factors which will determine the winners.
Generally speaking the minimum requirements to operate this type of software is an Intel i5 series processor, 16 GB of RAM, and 64 GB of hard disk space.
As an example, Hauptwerk software is available from and licensed for use by Milan Digital Audio and comes in a variety of sample sets; these have been obtained from recordings of organ pipes from many different types and styles of organs in their individual acoustical settings from around the world; this means this type of VPO is not just one organ, but many organs.
More detailed information about VPO's, hardware and software suitable for adding to existing organs, completely renovating old organs, or building an organ from the ground up may be found on various corporate web sites such as Artisan Instruments, Inc. and individual web site such as Colin Pykett's; there are also several online forums which offer helpful VPO information, notably Hauptwerk which publishes a Users Guide; Kenneth Spencer has also written a book called, "All About Hauptwerk: the virtual pipe organ" which may be recommended to help guide those who are contemplating setting out on a project to build a VPO using Hauptwerk or similar software; for those who are contemplating building a VPO organ from scratch, Timothy Master's book "Building A Hauptwerk Organ, Step By Step" will be found a helpful resource.
Several videos and tutorials about VPOs also may be found on YouTube and can be located with a bit of targeted surfing.
Every VPO, unfortunately, has a downside in that it runs on a computer, and the PC is probably the most ephemeral and short-lived consumer item known to modern man; obsolescence is built-in by design into the hardware and software of all computers and their peripherals, and they're simply not meant to last 10 years; one is fortunate in fact to get half that many years of service life from them, which is not the timescale one would expect for a musical instrument; keeping a VPO up to date therefore involves a substantial investment every few years.
The upshot is, much enjoyment. growth, and development can be obtained from VPOs, and accepting the consequences of maintenance and upkeep simply goes with the territory.
It's important to be aware that the operation of a certain sample set is usually subject to licensing which limits very tightly what one can do; many times the license only permits personal use of the product in one's own home with no public performances in churches, theatres, and other public venues permitted, including on YouTube; the fine print on such licensing needs to be read before purchasing any edition or sample set.
The licensing fee one pays for the privilege of using the software for a specified time period is thus separate from the charge being paid to be able to download the sample set to the computer; depending upon the sample set desired, the edition of software needed to run it, and whether the license fee is paid monthly, annually, or is perpetual, one should know that these two charges all by themselves could run from a few hundred dollars up to a thousand dollars or more.
It's natural for one who already owns one of the larger digi organs of three manuals or more and a sufficient variety of stops for practice purposes to contemplate converting it into a VPO to upgrade its sound quality even more; such a project will entail disconnecting the instrument's internal speaker system and either relabeing its controls or adding launchpads or touchscreens to effect full control of the sample set; further alterations from factory design made in the console to fully operate a certain sample set also could be required, all of which will affect the instrument's resale value.
The more a digi instrument is altered from factory design, the less it will be worth on resale.
In such a case, if the thought of an outlay of cash for non-ownership of a sample set product is an issue for the organist, not to mention the ongoing license fee for the privilege of using it and risking a "Tesla" appearance with the console's final configuration, then a VPO conversion of a larger digi console is probably not for them.
On the other hand, the DIY (do-it-yourself) route for building a VPO from scratch is not as daunting as it might seem at first sight, but, for those so inclined, the target audience for this type of digital organ would do well to first become thoroughly familiar with the terminology and technical requirements related to VPOs, the details of how they work, and the various choices in sampled sets so that they will be making informed choices, settling in their minds exactly what purposes this project will serve and which sample set(s) will be get them there, and to be ready to start it with confidence, proceed in earnest, and to see it working fully when completed.
(con't in Part II)