What it is, and what it can do for you as an organist  

 Inspired Acoustics' 85 stop Rieger-Kloss "Matyas" sample set

Several years ago, when researching home digital organs, I came across a reference to Hauptwerk. I remembered reading an article about its humble beginnings in the July 2004 issue of TAO (page 81). While searching for current information on the internet, I Googled the name, and so began my immersion into what has just recently become a viable alternative for a home practice organ; I say recently, because of the falling prices of computers in general and the availability of very powerful home computers in particular.

What is Hauptwerk? It is a software program that runs on Windows and Macintosh computer systems. This program allows an organist to play organs - each stop recorded note for note - from around the world, complete with the organ?s room ambiance, stop, key and blower noises. And since these are computer files, you can have as many as your hard drive will accommodate. There are currently over 100 of these organs: early Spanish, Italian, and German (featuring several Schnitgers, including the four manual Zwolle instrument; several Silbermanns, the 1730 Trost three manual from Stadtkirche, Waltershausen/Th?ringen, and a 1904 Wilhelm Sauer Romantic Organ). From France there are four Cavaillé-Colls, and the four manual french classic organ at St. Maximin's in Provence. Other countries are well represented: the four manual, 1741 Hinsz organ in Bovenkerk, Holland, an E. M. Skinner from Chicago, Casavants in Illinois and Canada, a three manual Marcussen in Moerdijk (Netherlands), a four manual Marcussen in Rotterdam, and a Schantz from California and three Wurlitzers. There are currently three five manual instruments from Hungary: the 134 rank, modern symphonic organ from the Palace of Arts in Budapest, the five manual, 85 stop, Rieger-Kloss "Matyas" organ in Budapest, and the Esztergom Basilica organ of 90 stops with a 9 second reverberation time. The four manual Father Willis organs from Salisbury and Hereford Cathedrals are among those representing England. From a tiny one manual to large five manual organs, these instruments can be played on any type of MIDI keyboard(s), but keyboards from multiple vendors have been developed specifically for Hauptwerk which feature tracker touch and include multiple pistons which can be assigned to any function that can be controlled by MIDI ? virtually any control found on a modern pipe organ console.

You access the stops of the organ by touching their stopknob (stopkey) representations on a computer touch screen. Hauptwerk allows the organist to use multiple touch screens for controlling stops. Therefore one screen can be used for the left stop jamb and one for the right. The multiple screen setup is given as an alternative to the standard all stop-one screen display. (Hauptwerk also has the capability of controlling actual stop controls on a console, if they can understand MIDI messages.)

The recordings made by performers on these "organs", called "sample sets" (a "sample" being a recording of one note), are very difficult to distinguish from recordings of the actual instruments. Words cannot adequately describe playing a French toccata on the sample set of the Ducroquet/Cavaille-Coll from St. Sauveur Cathedral in Aix-en-Provence , France in its 7 second acoustic and releasing the notes on a final tutti chord. Likewise, the simple beauty of playing individual stops or small combinations and hearing the associated tracker action sounds of the 1686/1720 Bosch/Schnitger from Vollenhove, Holland, can almost make you forget that you are playing a MIDI keyboard.  

What is also amazing is that a Hauptwerk system can fit in the corner of a small room and be easily disassembled with the largest component being the pedalboard. It can also be extended and upgraded as funds become available.

So what are the basic requirements to make this a reality?  


A computer savvy organist or an organist with a computer savvy partner or friend,


one, two or three MIDI tracker touch keyboards with 20 pistons (currently $900.15 for one), without pistons (currently $540.09 for one),


a MIDI pedalboard (currently $1774.57), and swell shoes to attach to the pedalboard (currently $257.18 for one),


a professional sound card for your computer ($150- $500),


a recent pentium II or Mac computer with at least 2 gigabytes of ram,


a 17? or 19? touchscreen monitor (starting around $550) or an add-on touchscreen panel for an existing monitor (starting around $250),


an organ bench (perhaps you could get a used one from your organ technician),


an Ikea Galant 63? table ($180) (with telescoping, widely spaced legs for proper AGO height and to accommodate a 32 note AGO standard pedalboard),


professional quality headphones ($150-$500), (Although Hauptwerk sounds its best on high end headphones, you can also enjoy your playing through a simple stereo or very elaborate multi-channel speaker system.)


and most importantly, the Hauptwerk program (basic: $249; advanced: $599) together with the organ sample sets that you want to play which currently range in price from free to $1200. As part of the package, Hauptwerk includes a two manual, 30 stop, 1907 English village organ by Brindley and Foster, rebuilt by Nicholson in 1985.

You can assemble a very basic Hauptwerk setup for an investment of a few thousand dollars, if you already own the computer. You can even assign pistons to your computer keyboard keys if you decide to start with an old MIDI keyboard.

The setup can be ultimately upgraded with multiple tracker touch keyboards and a computer dedicated solely to Hauptwerk. To play small organs (including at least one current three manual) in dry rooms, a computer with 2 gigabytes of ram may suffice. If you want to play large organs in reverberant rooms you will need a computer with at least 4 processor cores and preferably 8; and at least 16 gigabytes of ram.

Since Hauptwerk and the sample sets are software, they are constantly being upgraded in quality and features. Hauptwerk is currently at Version 4.0. Many of the sample set creators listen to their customers? suggestions and improve their "organs" by re-recording, if necessary, to make them as realistic as possible. They may also consider adding pistons and other console aids which don?t exist on the original instruments. Several years ago, one of the sample set creators discovered that recording multiple releases for every note, some for staccato and portamento playing, some for legato, greatly improved the realism in organs residing in very live rooms. Many others have followed suit and have gone back to the instruments to re-record all of those thousands of notes to get the detached releases. This is a labor of love and the end result is a very convincing hands-on documentary of how an instrument sounds at a particular point in history.

The Hauptwerk sample sets can be an exceptional tool for exposing organ students to the sounds of historic organs, and more recent ones, from many countries they may not be able to visit. Unlike listening to a professionally made organ recording, Hauptwerk allows the performer to try out all of the individual stops, see how they work in combination, and create music of their own in the process.

Of course, this is not a true substitute for playing the actual instrument, but it gives one a great appreciation for those instruments and an incentive to consider a pilgrimage to visit them.  

With Hauptwerk, any organ division can be assigned easily to any midi keyboard. More than one division can also be assigned to one keyboard, which is helpful if you want to play a three manual organ and only have two MIDI keyboards. Since the combinations files are just additional computer files, you have unlimited memory banks. There are easy to use, slider-looking, voicing controls which can affect each note, each octave, or an entire rank at a time.  Built into the program is also a 32-bit or 16-bit WAV file recorder and a MIDI file recorder, which will record and play back performances on a computer running Hauptwerk. The WAV recordings can also be burned onto a CD to be heard through any stereo system. 

With the ability to play very realistic sounding representations of many historic instruments with their original temperament and pitch (or choose from many alternative temperaments), unlimited combination action settings, quick manual swaps, easy and very accessible voicing controls, the built in WAV and MIDI recorders, and all of these features built into a very portable and updatable platform, perhaps you can begin to see the incredible flexibility Hauptwerk affords the organist.

If you would like to know more about Hauptwerk, you can view pictures of my four manual Hauptwerk setup or read my tutorial which contains step by step instructions on how to assemble these instruments along with a listing of current vendor information. http://www.randallmullin.com/hauptwerk_page.htm     

To hear demonstrations of these instruments, hook up good headphones to your computer and go to the Products/Instruments link found on Hauptwerk?s home page http://www.hauptwerk.com

The Hauptwerk Virtual Pipe Organ is the creation of Martin Dyde of Crumhorn Labs, which is a subsidiary of Milan Digital Audio LLC. It is one of the organ world?s best kept secrets; one that deserves the exposure it will surely receive in the future.

Randall Mullin is a freelance musician working in southern Maine.

(This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in the July, 2009 issue of The American Organist magazine.)

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 My Hauptwerk setup in Old Orchard Beach, Maine

Randall Mullin's Hauptwerk Page

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