The Story of the Organ in the New Palace Theatre Organ Heritage Centre

Our Unique HiLSDON Unit Orchestral Pipe Organ

The background to the design of our new console


During 2002 and 2003, the STOPS Trustees and Organ Committee discussed the future of the instrument in detail, consulted various outside parties, and eventually came up with a finite design for the ‘final target’ both in terms of what ranks of pipes should be used, how the organ should be laid out in the building, and what was required of the console to control the pipes.

The existing console was examined in detail, and the design discussed, with drawings being made to see how the proposed ‘final result’ could be made to fit in the existing shell.  It had been realised as soon as the Playhouse organ was donated to the Society, that the main organ chamber would have to be enlarged at some time in the future to house the entire instrument, so that was taken into consideration for the design of the organ and new console also.

Eventually, and with some regret, the conclusion was reached, that new parts could not be fitted into the existing console and have the structural integrity of the finished console guaranteed, so a giant leap of faith was taken, and the Society decided and agreed to build a new console from scratch.

A specification was drawn up for the new console, which was originally to be of 4 manuals, like the present one, and extensive discussions were held between the Society and Emutek Pipe Organ Control Systems, with their designer even visiting us for a meeting in Edinburgh, to ensure that a control system was either available, or would be made available in the very near future, to control the organ we were designing.  One thing which the designers were agreed upon, having been playing the existing console for some time, was that within the 'normal' divisions, we should continue with the principle of having no ‘compound’ stops, where more than one rank of pipes, or more than one pitch, would be controlled by a stop tab, but that all tones should be individually controlled, unless it was a designed ‘mixture’ on classical lines, where the stops appear in the primary divisions of the organ.  A minor deviation from this was accepted in the specifying of the floating String Divisions.  The second major factor, was that all sections of the organ should be able to be played in a manner which would allow them to play a solo line against an accompaniment, from within that division.  There are some beautiful soft tonalities amongst the stops of the organ which will benefit from this treatment.

And this is where the difficulties of design began – we now had the 'remains' of three Hilsdon theatre organs, one small, one not so small, and one very large.  We had already been playing the instrument, with in some cases, a very limited amount of stop control, so we knew from the outset that to have the necessary number of stops for each division, would mean having quite a large total number of stops, but we didn't want to have some sort of eight manual 'House On The Rock' monster!

But, to build the instrument as a tribute to the work of Hilsdon, and to incorporate as many of the Hilsdon pipe ranks which we now had as was sensible, meant a radical approach.  It was agreed to keep to the basic concept which we had already been using, in that there would essentially be three organs in one, comprising firstly, the Main Organ in two chambers, which is primarily most of the Playhouse organ as it was in 1985 with what are seen as being some essential enhancements; the second would be ‘Palace Organ’, comprising mainly of the ex Picture House, Paisley organ with additions from both the original Palace Picture House and Playhouse organs; and thirdly, the ‘Echo Organ’ formed from the softest ranks of the three instruments, augmented with some other exquisite quiet ranks from the long defunct, but equally historic, Jardine Orchestral Organ of the Stoll Cinema, Kingsway, London.

In addition, some ranks from the Playhouse were just too loud and too 'classical' to fit well into what was conceived as being an orchestral tonal scheme, so the ‘Fanfare’ division was created, and to complement that, the East Section was formed from selected ranks of the Hilsdon organ from the Glasgow church.  Having arrived at this basic concept, meant we had both a full blooded theatre organ spread over three distinct divisions and sections of the auditorium, plus classical ‘Great’ and ‘Fanfare’ divisions.  It was a natural progression to include a much quieter unenclosed division, so the 'Positif' section was conceived, again using primarily Hilsdon pipework, to complete the tonal scheme of the classical side of the instrument.

One set of pipework remained which was, or would be, duplicated in other chambers, so it was decided to recreate the ‘Orchestral’ chamber of the Playhouse organ, pretty much as it was in 1982 but with added 'celeste' ranks and with the same proviso of being able to accompany itself from within its own tonal resources.  The tonal percussion also had to be distributed between the chambers, and we hope we have achieved a good balance in the final design.  Having multiple sets of ‘traps’ and ‘tonal percussions’ means we have been able to have one set ‘exposed’ – not necessarily particularly musical, but very eye catching for the audiences, and the remaining sets are enclosed under expression.  It does mean though, that some very musical effects should be able to be achieved, for example, of a marching band approaching or departing.

We drew up a complete stop, coupler and control list and sent it off to Emutek who studied it and tried it on their test bed.   We hit a hiccup here, because due to some limitations in the Control System, we had too many 'floating' divisions for it to handle.   As a result, we had to revise the overall design of the scheme from four manuals to five manuals, to allow some of the groups of stops, ‘stop divisions’, which were originally conceived as being ‘floating’, that is, not belonging to any particular keyboard but able to be transferred to any relevant keyboard, to be 'fixed to' and controlled by their own keyboard.  And so the five manual console design was created.

While we redesigned the centre section of the console to accommodate five manuals instead of four, the sides of the console also went through a minor change on paper, in that the ‘keybench’ was altered from being horizontal and flat, as they usually are, to being angled at the sides of the keyboards, following the angle of the stops in the ‘bolsters’ at the side of the console.   This allowed some additional stops to be fitted, which had originally had to be omitted from the scheme, due to limitations of space for stop tabs, and means each division of the organ is now tonally complete.  We know that we have some minor excesses within the overall scheme, but only in a very few divisions where we were able to add stops because we now had the space to do so.   Annoyingly, the engraved stop tabs had already been ordered by this time, so we had to issue a second order, and the engraving style hasn't quite completely matched that of the first order.  But it has to be said, it takes an 'eagle eye' to spot the difference.

However, during all stages of the design process, scale drawings were made both of the structure and of cross sections through the console.   We also did scale drawings of the stop layouts, and then we actually did 'full size' drawings, both of every stop rail in plan, and in sections through the console, to make sure that everything would fit, and to ensure that the design was practical to build.

One major factor which we had to take into consideration when designing the console, was to ensure that when it was moved to the side fore-stage area, it would both fit under the overhang of the East Great without the rear of the cabinet fouling the exposed Cathedral Chimes which are mounted beneath the East Great, and that it would fit into the width of the recess under the East Great.  The existing console fits into this space like a hand into a glove, so we designed the new console to be a little under an inch narrower than the existing one.  The rear of the console is a bit of an odd shape, so that when it is pushed back into the recess, it clears the hammers and action for the Cathedral Chimes.  Additionally, as the new console is considerably heavier than the existing four manual one, we wanted to make it a little easier to move it in and out of the side stage 'parking' recesses, there also being a large recess at the side of the main stage, so that the entire stage area can be cleared for other types of performances.

Whilst all of this was being done, the angles which the stop tabs are mounted onto the stop tab control units were checked, and quantities for three different angled stop tab mechanisms were put together.  We have to admit that we misunderstood one detail from the catalogue of parts, and wish we had a different angle for the bottom three rows of stop tabs.   But, there's no point in crying over spilt milk as they say, they are fitted, and although not ideal, will have to do!

Another detail that had to be ironed out in the layout of the stops in the bolsters, was to ensure that if the stops of a department, for example the Main Great, Orchestral or Solo departments, were to be so numerous that they would occupy two rows on the stop bolsters, then we made sure that the 'break' at the end of the first row would be at a sensible and logical point within the stop list for that division.  In all cases the upper row begins with stops of 4' pitch.

Another tedious list that had to be checked, was the engraving details for each and every stop tab, along with the colour of the tab and colour of engraving.  These were more than triple checked, and orders were eventually placed with Syndyne Corporation in the United States for all the new stop tab mechanisms and engraved stop tabs.

Part of our detailed design has included deciding on the actual colours needed for the stop tabs.  The original HiLSDON colour scheme was esoteric, even by some theatre organ standards, but we have tried to hold true to the original scheme, if not exactly, then at least in spirit.  One colour we have been unable to replicate however, is the ‘deep pink’ originally used for reed stops like the Vox Humana and Clarinet.  For this reason, and because of the close links between HiLSDON and Hill, Norman & Beard, the latter company having been the manufacturers of Christie theatre organs, we have substituted Red for the ‘light’ reeds instead of Hilsdon's Deep Pink, and have used Black for the ‘heavy’chorus reeds, instead of the red used by HiLSDON.  Robin’s Egg Blue has been used for the string tones, just as HiLSDON did, with ‘Moddled Yellow’ being for tonal and non tonal percussions, again as HiLSDON did.

Additionally, the new Midi stops, and those controlling the Electrophone, are coloured Green, which, although not a colour used by Hilsdon, was used by other Scottish theatre organ builders (like Ingram of Edinburgh) so is neither out of character nor historically 'wrong'.  The only real departure from Hilsdon colouring, is the use of grey stop tabs for the Tibia stops, which makes it very easy to find them on the stop bolsters.  We have also grouped the stops by pitch, in the same sort of order that one finds on Christie, Compton or Wurlitzer theatre organs, rather than having all the 'flues', then the strings, then all the reeds; but this is a minor change from the way that Hilsdon would have done it and helps to make the console a little more user friendly.

From the following it will be seen that anything that switches something off is red, whether a cancel piston, a coupler, or a 'mute' of some type.  Celeste stops, which are next to their unison stop, are also engraved red to distinguish them from their 'in tune' partner.

The final colour coding for the stop tabs is -

TonalityTab ColourEngraving colour
DiapasonOff WhiteBlack
Diapason CelesteOff WhiteRed
Open FluteIvoryBlack
Stopped FluteIvoryBrown
Flute CelesteIvoryRed
String CelesteBlueRed
Chorus ReedsBlackWhite
Orchestral ReedsRedWhite
Tonal Percussion'Moddled' YellowBlack
Atonal Traps'Moddled YellowRed (originally White)
Midi & ElectrophoneGreenWhite

The illuminated 'Touch Stops' are colour coded as follows -
FunctionStop ColourEngraving colour
Octave & Sub-octave CouplersBlueWhite
Unison CouplerWhiteBlack
Unison OffRedWhite
Pizzicato CouplerYellowBlack
Harmonic CouplerYellowBlack
Division TransferGreenWhite

Although not standard by any means, the thumb pistons are also coloured, as follows -
Cancel pistons are Red
Reversible pistons are Green
Divisional and General pistons are Yellow
The Memory Set piston is White

At the end of December 2003, raw timber was delivered to the Centre for the new console to begin being made, with a mixture of straight grained redwood, oak, and marine grade plywood being purchased.

The basic frame commences

The basic frame continues

The keyboard supports added

The shell and basic structure of the new console went together remarkably quickly, and by the end of March 2004, the basic shell was completed, ready for stop tabs, keyboards, pedal board, the thumb and toe pistons, and the various other items of hardware to be fitted.  The first setback to hit us during assembly, was that new keycheeks were made from oak for the original keyboards, which themselves have ivory covered naturals and ebony sharps, but unfortunately, the oak frames were damaged during the fitting of the keyboards into them, necessitating remaking them.  The replacement oak plank was almost three times the cost of the original! Fortunately, we had retained the original softwood 'templates' we had made to get the angles of the inclination of the manuals correct, and we had used these templates extensively whilst building the console, as can be seen in the following photographs.

One of the time consuming tasks was ensuring that all the different timber types which would be 'in view' were stained to a matching colour, before multiple coats of hard glaze varnish was applied, with ever finer grades of sandpaper being used between coats, the final one being 2000 grade 'wet and dry' polishing sandpaper, to achieve a smooth, high gloss finish.  This task alone took almost ten weeks.

The front corbelled supports

The framework taking shape

Templates for the stop bolsters
By the end of July 2004, most of the stop mechanisms had been fitted, and the really big job, of wiring the console, began towards the end of of that year.  By early 2005, it was obvious that the control system manufacturer was going through a rough patch, with the loss of their manufacturing plant and subsequent relocation.  Their revised ‘Series 3’ processor had been delivered to us towards the end of  2004 for evaluation, and it was found to ‘not work’ in some fairly major ways.

Staining and varnishing

SAM stop tabs being fitted

The stop bolsters almost full
This was a major blow, and ongoing discussions with them were held via email and telephone.  A further ‘Series 3’ processor was delivered to us in June 2005 when the Society’s Technical Adviser installed an Emutek Control System onto a church organ in Kirkcaldy, but, despite promises from Emutek that all the software and firmware issues had been resolved, the new processor suffered exactly the same issues as the sample sent to us over a year before, and that organ now runs on the original Series 1 processor which had been delivered to us in 1997.

In April 2005, STOPS bought the New Palace Centre from its private owner with the aid of a Heritage Lottery Grant and the Society went though some internal turmoil in the latter half of that year, resulting in work on the new console stopping for almost a year.

Almost everything in

Piston rails fitted

A few wires added
When work recommenced in the middle of 2006, some minor damage caused during the latter half of 2005 had to be repaired before work could continue.  The new oak keycheeks were made at this time, and the keyboards fitted into them, but during the summer of 2005 the building had been flooded, and unknown to anyone, water had gathered under the hardwood floor of the auditorium, which evaporated during the winter months when the heating was running, causing not only the individual planks of the studio maple floor of the auditorium to warp, but also caused the remade, but yet unvarnished keycheeks to warp!

It was around this time that contact from Emutek finally ceased altogether, and it became obvious that we were going to have what looked like an insurmountable problem with the control system.

Work on the wiring of the console continued sporadically in between events in the auditorium, and plans were being made to try to guarantee the future of both the Society and the Centre.  It has to be said that very little work was done on or to the new console during the latter half of 2006, firstly, because we had had no word from Emutek about the control system for the organ, and secondly, because plans to convert the Interval Tea Room into the ‘Green Room Coffee Bar’ and marketing of the Society and Centre were being put into place.

Wires everywhere

A little tidier

And all neatly loomed

From December to April 2007, all of our efforts were concentrated on creating the Green Room Coffee Bar, and then on opening it at Easter that year.  Much time was devoted to running the Coffee Bar, getting advertising done for events, and establishing the Centre as a venue for other types of events.  Other maintenance work had to be carried out, both on the building itself and to the existing console, to keep it in some sort of playing condition, and we only have a small group of volunteers to do all the work required.

But back to the console.  Having had no contact whatsoever from Emutek since Christmas 2006, it was agreed during the Society’s AGM in February 2008, that we approach another company to supply the control system required.  This meant that we had to spend time looking at and evaluating other pipe organ control systems.  We got quotes for systems from several manufacturers who said they could make a system to do what we needed of it, and eventually it seemed that the Uniflex 3000 control system would be the most suitable.  Originally marketed as the 'Devtronix' system by Tim Rickman, the design has been upgraded over the years, and is now handled by Dick Wilcox and his company, so prices were obtained for its component parts in order to obtain a Budget Figure for a new control system.  This meant that we could then forge ahead with the completion of the console.

It has to be said though, that when Tenders are eventually issued for a new control system, then the most competitively priced system which meets all the requirement of the new console will be the one which is eventually chosen.

The 'East Great' facade

The 'dummy' facade above the stage

The new console hiding on stage

The new console is now basically complete, and the various sections of the organ will be made playable as quickly as possible.   Already in position in the West Attic of the auditorium are nine ranks of pipes, the Celesta percussion unit and the swell shutter assembly, all of which forms the Echo Organ; the 6 ranks forming the ‘East Great’ are playable, albeit from a separate keyboard at the moment, and the Echo just needs its wiring and wind system to be completed.

The original 10 ranks of the ‘Palace Organ’, mainly the original Playhouse Solo division, are still in position and could be made to play with a minimum of work, prior to the organ chamber at that side of the auditorium being altered to allow all of the ‘Palace Organ’ to be created in its redesigned and enhanced form.  This will comprise 21 ranks of pipes, 3 sets of tonal percussions and a complete set of traps.

The ‘exposed’ Glockenspiel, Xylophone and traps unit have been refurbished and are installed in position above the half landing of the balcony stairs and the exposed crash and roll cymbals are mounted on the wall at the other side of the stage.  The 'phantom' upright grand piano has been refurbished, with the cabinet having to be finished in Ivory and Gold, and the action is almost fully restored, with new felts everywhere.  The magnets and tubing for the vacuum action have also had extensive work done on them, so this unit is almost ready to connect to the instrument.  We have been cheating, by using a MIDI controlled piano 'box' to get the piano sounds so look forward to seeing and hearing the real piano working from the console.

A Grant Application to the Heritage Lottery Fund is in the process of being finalised.  We are confident that the new console will be controlling the
'Unique HiLSDON Unit Orchestral Pipe Organ' in the near future, and the proposed ‘final target’ rank list of the organ will be achieved not long thereafter.

Once the installation of pipes and parts is finally completed, all known remaining HiLSDON ‘orchestral’ theatre organ and ‘unit’ cinema organ pipework, will be controlled from one console under one roof, standing as a unique and lasting tribute to the work of this famous Scottish organbuilding firm, in this area of organ history.

We have ‘Sponsor A Stop’, 'Sponsor a Pipe', and 'Sponsor a Rank' fund-raising campaigns now running, whereby YOU can sponsor a stop on the new console for £10, or a pipe for between £20.00 and £100, or even sponsor a complete rank for between £150 and £500.  In all cases, a sponsor would receive a Certificate recording their donation, with their name also being noted in the record of donors, and those who sponsor ranks will have their name engraved on a plaque to be affixed to the finished console.

The full Specification of the new five manual console is here.

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