A simple console for a virtual pipe organ
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  A simple console for a virtual pipe organ  


by Colin Pykett


Posted: 28 September 2013

Last revised: 7 May 2019

Copyright C E Pykett 2013-2019



This article has been written to satisfy requests for information about the transportable console built for the Prog Organ virtual pipe organ.  It describes a simple, lightweight, low cost keydesk which can be dismantled readily and stored as a collection of flat panels when not in use.


DIY electronic organ construction was popular a generation ago but it has since declined into insignificance.  Until fairly recently, that is.  Over the last decade there has been a modest resurgence of interest driven by the appearance of the virtual pipe organ (VPO), an instrument which uses a personal computer to generate the sounds.  But one of the problems is deciding what to do about the console or keydesk, assuming you want to play the VPO yourself rather than just fire MIDI files into it.  Although there are several options, two major difficulties apply to most of them - size and cost.  Any console built to standard pipe organ dimensions using conventional constructional methods is going to be a substantial piece of furniture in terms of the size, weight and appearance of the thing.  Many cannot be dismantled because the parts are rigidly glued together, so often they will not go through doors and getting them up or down flights of stairs can be next to impossible. Also the other occupants of the household might object to a conventional organ console in their living space, and even an organ nut like me does not like an array of stops, keyboards and a pedalboard in my face all the time.  As to cost, buying a ready-made console can set you back thousands of pounds if you order one built to pipe organ standards from a trade supplier.  And that is just for an empty shell, unpopulated with keyboards, stops, etc.  Even some of the stripped-down designs intended for VPOs can still cost more than a complete low-end commercial digital organ of the sort offered by a number of firms.  Costs are of course much lower if you buy a console second hand, but the size and weight problems remain.

Sometimes against my better judgement, I have accommodated a large, heavy, conventional three manual draw stop console in various homes over the last few decades - see the picture below.



This is definitely not a SIMPLE console!


So when I started to develop my Prog Organ VPO system a few years ago the problem came to a head. There just was not enough room for another 'proper' console, but I did not want to get rid of the old one. Consequently I designed a much simpler collapsible console which can be assembled or taken apart within an hour. This can occupy space which is temporarily unused, yet when dismantled it can be stored simply as a collection of flat panels. However, without going well beyond the boundaries of a white lie it cannot be called handsome and in fact it is solely functional in purpose. Nonetheless, this should not discourage anyone wanting to improve its appearance as it would be straightforward for one with the necessary skills.  For example, the panels could be cut from veneered rather than plain MDF.  But because it is lightweight as well as collapsible, it can be transported readily to other venues for demonstrations etc. These attributes mean that the entire Prog Organ system - console, bench, pedalboard, speakers, etc - will fit into a small van or towed trailer.  It is pictured below being demonstrated in a church only a couple of hours after it arrived in pieces. 




But this one is!


This article describes how to make such a console.  It also includes the standard (so-called!) dimensions used in the UK by pipe organ builders as these seem not to be widely available elsewhere in the literature.  But note that the article does not cover the additional furniture required in a console such as keyboards, pedalboards and swell pedals except insofar as these dictate particular measurements.  However these matters are discussed in another article elsewhere on the site [2].

General Arrangement


The Prog Organ collapsible console in my studio



Another view of the same console reposing in a corner of my studio is shown above, and in fact it doesn't look too bad despite the previous remarks.  Figure 1 should convey the essentials of its construction.




Figure 1.  General arrangement of the console shell


Basically it consists of a skeleton shell comprising two rectangular sides cut from 12 mm thick MDF, held together by 6 horizontal struts or battens of 45 mm by 15 mm planed pine or deal. The struts are joined to the side panels by those commercial furniture joints which are variously called knock-down joints, screw-lock joints or snap-lock joints. Whatever their name, they consist of two plastic or nylon components which are united by a steel machine screw and captive nut. This means you can separate and remake them as often as you like without worrying whether the screws will eventually lose their bite, which would happen with wood screws of course. You can buy these joints cheaply in packs of a dozen or more from high street chains such as Wickes or B&Q.  An example is shown in Figure 2.




Figure 2.  Knock-down furniture joints

The keyboards are mounted on top of struts D, E and F and the stop panel sits on top of them, attached to their side cheeks in some convenient manner. The front of the pedalboard slides under strut B. The top surfaces of the lower struts A and B are boarded over using MDF to form a removable shelf, and the swell pedal(s) sit centrally on this. In my console this shelf also holds electronic modules such as the power amplifiers, the combination action power supply, etc.  The VPO computer might also sit here.

On its own this structure is too flimsy because it rocks from side to side. To prevent this, the whole thing is stiffened up with a large panel of 3 or 4 mm plywood or MDF screwed to the rear surfaces of struts A and C (or an even larger one attached to A, C and D) with a good number of wood screws. It is remarkable how rigid it then becomes, a good example of the whole being more than the sum of its parts.  You could also fit a front kneeboard if you wish.  Besides improving the cosmetic aspects, another advantage of doing so is that the rigidity would be further increased, though it is not necessary from a structural point of view.

A small MDF panel is attached to the front faces of struts C and D - this is actually recessed well beneath the keyboards once everything has been assembled. As well as providing extra rigidity, I use this panel to hold a mains socket strip for supplying the various electrical units used in the console, an extremely convenient feature. I also attached a strip-light fitting to the front face of strut E to act as a pedal light.

A point worth bearing in mind is that the bottom edges of the two side panels will start to disintegrate if not protected in some way, because MDF is little more than thick cardboard. Therefore I screwed horizontal pieces of U-shaped aluminium channel with an internal dimension of 12 mm along the bottom of the panels. These act as a pair of extended feet for the console. However the total surface area at these points is still fairly small to take the weight of the whole console, and the pressure exerted on carpets or flooring could cause damage. Therefore I stand the aluminium runners on thin wood strips to spread the load once the console has been assembled. These could be attached permanently if desired.


It is not possible to give more than the most basic guidance on absolute dimensions because it is a curious fact that minimum console size is dictated mainly by the measurements of just two components - the pedalboard and the swell pedal(s).  This might seem strange to those who have not made a console before, but it is because the pedalboard determines the width and height, and virtually all pedalboards are different.  The swell pedals likewise determine the depth (front to back).  Therefore you must have your pedalboard and the swell pedals available, as well as the keyboards, before you start to cut wood.  

A point I want to make here is that the datum height from which everything else is measured is the top surface of the middle D pedal key. I cannot emphasise too strongly how important it is to get the measurements correct relative to this datum, otherwise your console will be perennially uncomfortable to play and it will tire you rapidly. It is equally essential to ensure that the following measurements are also correct:

1. The amount by which the pedals are recessed under the manual keys.  This varies depending on whether you have two or more manuals as discussed later, and it can be adjusted to taste to a limited extent.

2. The horizontal alignment of the pedal keys and the manuals. Middle D of the manuals should be vertically above middle D on the pedals. This will usually mean that the manual keyboards are slightly off-centre relative to the pedals, at least for 30 note pedalboards.

As mentioned already it is the pedalboard which sets the minimum console width, which will typically be around 1320 mm / 52 inches.  This assumes you will be using stop keys mounted above the keyboards, but if draw stops or touch screens are to be used they might require additional width to be allocated on each side of the keyboards. The minimum depth of the console from front to back is dominated by the swell pedal measurements as well as by the recessed position of the pedalboard itself. You cannot have the swell pedals too far forward otherwise they interfere with your feet when playing the pedal keys. (I once played an organ in which the swell pedal actually depressed a pedal key if you closed it fully! How stupid was that?). However depth is a good thing, because if the console is not deep enough the weight of the overhanging keyboards can cause it to topple forwards too easily.

So all the measurements in Figure 1 depend on the pedalboard and swell pedals rather than being absolute, which is why I could not include any in the diagram.  However, as a rough guide for a two manual console, the side panels in the one illustrated above measured 435 mm deep by 790 mm high. Although the term "standard RCO measurements" is often bandied about, I do not think it can have any real meaning when people themselves vary so much. If these measurements still exist and have a formal status, they are more often ignored than observed on the basis of the wide variations seen in recent organs (see note [1]). I have included the most important measurements used today by a respected organ builder at Figure 3, and you can see the amount of leeway which he allows himself.  Although you can also access the AGO measurements from their website in the USA, the last time I looked there seemed to be errors in the data so it would be worth checking them independently if you want to use these.



Figure 3.  'Standard' UK console measurements

Apart from the height of the bench, another critical measurement where you might want to introduce variations is that which determines the amount by which the pedals are recessed under the manual keys. This strongly influences playing comfort. In the diagram it is shown as 200 - 230 mm for a 2 manual organ and 240 - 270 mm for 3 manuals or more. You should certainly use the larger figures if you have more than 2 manuals, or you will have difficulties pedalling without tipping forward when playing on the top keyboard. These are important ergonomic aspects which, apart from being merely uncomfortable, can cause chronic back problems if you do not get them right.


Another view of the assembled console, fully populated with keyboards etc, is shown in Figure 4.



Figure 4.  The assembled and fully populated console


As mentioned previously, its cosmetic aspects are plainly much improved by the addition of a kneeboard made from 9 mm plywood screwed to fillets attached to the sides of the console.  Note the use of oak-faced ply to improve the appearance.  The keyboards are mounted on a 19mm panel which sits on top of the console shell, and rectangular deal end pieces fill in the gaps at each side.  These three panels are all attached to struts D and F (see Figure 1) using knock-down joints.  The keyboards and end pieces all overhang the console by the amount specified in Figure 3 relative to the pedalboard.  There is not much inside the console - the power amplifiers are in the box to the left of the swell pedal assembly, and the combination action power supply is on the right.  Just to the right of the swell pedals is a small black foot switch which can barely be discerned - this is used (for example) as a Hope-Jones type 'sforzando' pedal or as a sustain pedal for a simulated piano when a virtual theatre organ is in use.  The VPO computer is on the floor outside and to the right of the console.  The stop panel sits on top of the keyboards, and it is attached to the keycheeks rather than to the console itself.

The Bench

Instructions for making benches are rarely found, and my efforts over the years have convinced me that it is impractical to make a knock-down bench, unlike the console itself. This is because the bench must be so rigid that it has to be screwed and glued up as an indivisible entity.  My home-made bench can be seen in the photograph above and its construction was fairly straightforward. I made it from planed pine boards about 19 mm thick which can be bought in various sizes. These are generally fabricated from adjacent narrow strips in which the grain runs in opposite directions, and this makes them warp-resistant. Yet because they are of natural wood, they can take a variety of attractive finishes.

In the same picture you can see a substantial stretcher bar just above the pedals. However what you cannot see is an identical one placed centrally under the seat to take the weight of the player. Both bars were of planed deal or pine about 30 mm by 65 mm in cross section. The stretchers were attached to the side panels using flanges cut from the same boards used to construct the sides and the seat, as illustrated in Figure 5.



Figure 5.  Wood flanges used for the bench stretchers (two required of each)


The closed flange on the left of this diagram is used at each end of the lower stretcher, and the open U-shaped one shown on the right is for the upper stretcher underneath the seat. The apertures should be made carefully to give a snug fit on the stretchers, otherwise the glue will not form a strong bond. The flanges are first pinned and glued to their mating surfaces on the side panels of the bench and the stretchers are then glued into them. While the glue is still wet, the whole lot is pulled together with substantial wood screws (e.g. 2 1/2 inch by no. 12 - forgive the Imperial units) inserted from the outside of the panels into the stretchers. If you are fussy about finish, you can use brass screws with screw cups. Many professionally-made benches use a similar technique, as the posher cabinet maker's wedged mortise and tenon joints tend to work loose over time even though they look nicer. Screws enable you to re-glue and then tighten things up more easily if these problems arise.

PVA (white) glue should be applied to all mating surfaces besides the flanges and stretchers. The finished item can be given a couple of coats of polyurethane varnish - I prefer a matt or silk finish as, paradoxically, it seems to present less friction to a player's backside when sliding along it than a gloss finish does. Once it has set, I always rub polyurethane down slightly with very fine wire wool and then apply beeswax, as I find it dries to a hard and unpleasant pimply surface otherwise.

As with the console, I used U-shaped channelling on the bottom surfaces of the side panels to prevent them becoming chipped and to spread the load better on the carpet or flooring. I found some tough plastic channelling intended for edging shelves which did the job.


A shot of the underside of the bench is at Figure 6 which might help to better understand how it is constructed.



Figure 6.  Underside of the bench showing the stretchers and their flanges, and the plastic channelling screwed to the side panels


So that's it - a collapsible console which is not only lightweight but which can be made very cheaply.  It can also be stored unobtrusively when required.  Yet it is of standard dimensions, and apparently mine has not (so far) intruded into the consciousness of the many players who have sat at it.  Either they have been very polite or they did not notice its simplicity.  If the latter, I take it as a compliment.




1.  I do not think there ever was such a thing as the 'RCO standard console'.  There has never been any mention of it on their website whenever I have looked, and it is more likely that the term arose in the mid-twentieth century when the now-defunct firm of Hill, Norman and Beard built an organ in their former premises in Kensington Gore.  It seems the dimensions of the detached console of this instrument might have set some sort of de facto standard which attracted a more formal status with time.


2. "Console-building hints and tips", an article on this website, C E Pykett 2019.