Choosing a Busker Organ

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So you want to buy a Busker Organ?
Street organs and busker organs are classified by the number of notes that they are able to play. The smallest organs only have around 16 notes, whilst the largest can have 45 notes or more. The first decision you need to make is the method by which you want to carry the organ around. The smallest organs can be carried on a strap around the shoulder, but most models will need to be mounted on some form of wheeled cart or trolley. The largest models are so heavy that they cannot be lifted or handled by a single person. These are outside the scope of this web site.

Notes and Pipes
Generally speaking, the more notes an organ has, the larger the organ and the bulkier the music will be to carry around. The sound of the busker organ is usually produced by organ pipes. However there may be more than one pipe for each note on the organ, so the number of pipes inside the organ can range from 16 to well in excees of a hundred. Extra pipes are used to build up the volume and tone of the organ. Sometimes, these extra ranks of pipes can be switched in and out by the organ grinder to vary the sound produced. These ranks are called 'Registers' or 'Stops', and they are usually selected by pulling out knobs (also known as sliders) on the side of the organ during play.

20-Note Organs
The most popular size of organ by far is the 20-note organ. The musical capabilities of organs with less than 20 notes is seriously compromised, usually with a loss of bass foundation tone. However, the 20-note organ can successfully tackle a surprising amount of music, even though many notes are missing from the scale. 20-note organs are produced in a vast range of models and sizes. They are available with anything from 20 to 78 pipes. Many organ builders produce only 20-note organs.

31-Note Organs
After the 20-note organ, the next most popular size is the 31-note model. These can play a considerable range of music, but they are significantly bigger and bulkier than the smallest 20-note models. 31-note organs can have as many as 6 registers and 120 pipes, so the range of tone and volume produced can be very impressive indeed.

Other Sizes
Most street organs fall into the range between 20 notes and 31 notes. The 31-note scale is so versatile that the provision of extra notes is often not worthwhile on an organ that is meant to be easily transportable on the street. A good compromise between 20 and 31 notes is the 26-note paper roll scale, which can play standard 20-note rolls, but which also has much of the capabilities of the 31-note scale when the 6 extra notes are brought into play.

Music Storage
An important decision to be considered when buying a busker organ is the method of music storage used. There are three methods in common use: Cardboard books; paper rolls; and microchips. Cardboard book music consists of a long strip of card folded in a zig-zag fashion. The music is stored in the form of holes perforated in the cardboard. Paper roll music works on the same principle, using a long strip of paper (usually paper-thin plastic) wound onto a spool. Microchip music is usually provided in the form of a memory card or cartridge which plugs into the organ.

Cardboard Books
Of the three types of storage, cardboard books are by far the most bulky, heavy, and expensive. They are affected by the wind, and they are not suitable for organs which are carried around on a strap. One advantage of cardboard music (and possibly the only one) is that it can be readily seen by the public, and can provide the onlooker with a fascinating insight as to how the organ works.

Paper Rolls
Paper rolls are cheaper, lighter and far less bulky than cardboard book music. Modern rolls made from plastic are also more durable than cardboard, and are unaffected by water or damp. Paper rolls are so long that they usually contain multiple tunes. The main problem with paper rolls is that they have to be rewound after play (which can lead to a several-minute break in performance) and it is difficult to locate and play a single tune in the middle of a roll. Several paper roll organs are available which can be carried around on a strap, but it would not be possible to carry many paper rolls around with you as well as the organ.

Microchip music is the cheapest, lightest, and by far the most compact method of music storage. It does not suffer from any of the disadvantages of cardboard or paper music, and is so compact that many hours of music could be stored on a small memory card. The only real disadvantage of microchip music is that it is 'invisible' both to the grinder and the onlooker. There is no way of watching the music as it goes through the organ. Consequently, many members of the public will just walk past the organ, thinking it is a glorified CD or MP3 player.  It is important to realise that microchip organs are not 'Electronic' organs. The sound is still produced by real organ pipes in the traditional way. The microchip is only used as a method of music storage.

Music availability
Before buying an organ, you should always check the availability of music for it. An organ with no music is as much use as a record player with no records. Even if the organ comes with a good supply of music; sooner or later you will get fed up with playing the same tunes over and over, and will want to obtain some more music for it. It's too late to then discover that you can't get any.

You should also think very carefully before buying an organ if the music is only available from the organ builder. If the organ builder goes out of business, or decides to stop selling it, or if he increases the price dramatically, you are stuck. You will also find the organ difficult to sell if you want to get rid of it. If a new design of organ does not sell successfully, the organ builder often abandons it and moves on to something else, usually leaving those customers who have bought organs high and dry when it comes to new music. As an independent music supplier, I get to hear many many sob-stories from desperate owners who have bought organs with non-standard scales, but I am usually unable to help.

Unless the circumstances are exceptional, you should always buy an organ that is supported by at least two separate music suppliers. Not only will this give you security of music supply, but the range of music will be greater and competition will help to keep the music prices down.

The decision of which organ to buy can be a complex one, involving price, size, weight, number of notes, number of pipes, number of registers, appearance, and the beauty of the tone produced. The easiest way to come to a decision is simply to go to an organ festival, and listen to as many organs as possible. You may be lucky enough to fall in love with the sound of a particular organ which is exactly what you are looking for, and fits into your price range. More probably your decision will be a compromise between many of the above factors, but you should never forget that the organ is meant to be a musical instrument, and the quality of the tone should rank high on your list of requirements.

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