Planet Earth’s largest and loudest musical instrument

Baji J. Ram Rao
20:30 +0530 Sat. 21-Jun-2014


My first excursion out of India was to Silicon valley, California, USA for seven months, January 1985-July 1985. I lived in the city of Campbell, CA and worked in Los Gatos, CA.

Among the various sights and sounds new to me was the concept of a Pizza restaurant that screened black and white films, with the background music by a live pipe organ.
The restaurant was called, “Pizza and Pipes” in Santa Clara. We friends would order a bunch of two foot diameter pizzas and a tankard of beer.

The organ player would sit with his back to the screen and watch the movie in a mirror.
The organ integrated a lot of gadgets scattered around the restaurant -- gadgets such as, toy roosters, a toy steam engine, a toy robin, that would actually be operated by keys about the organ and would make a sound, perfectly timed to the black and white movie playing. This retro gadgetry belonged to the 1920s -- the days before talkie films.
And the musician provided a background score to the movie.


Here is the world’s largest pipe organ -- the 1932 Midmer-Losh organ, recently restored and being played by Dr. Steven Ball (Ph.D. in organ music).
Dr. Steven Ball is a Fulbright Scholar with a Ph.D. in organ performance.
He began playing the organ at a very young age. At the age of 6, he was already studying piano as well as building his own single stop pipe organ.

The pipe organ is located in the Boardwalk Hall Auditorium, next to the now defunct Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, NJ, USA.
Its console has 7 keyboards called “manuals”.

The organ weighs 150-tons and was literally built into Boardwalk Hall, concealed behind gilded grills to create the original version of surround-sound.
Built by the Midmer-Losh organ co. of Merrick, NY, this is planet Earth’s largest and loudest musical instrument.
The organ has over 33,112 pipes in 8 rooms (organ chambers) around the main arena.

Last played in Sep. 1944, it was damaged in the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 9th Sep 1944 to 15th Sep 1944 and partially restored at great cost, in time for the Miss America 2005 Pageant.
Of the 449 ranks and 314 registers, a total of 131 ranks and 96 registers were restored and are playable.

It’s a complex maze of air-pressure pipes, relays, switching contacts, control cables, magnets and organ pipes -- a far cry from a digital synthesizer where embedded software simplifies a lot of functionality.
Full restoration of the organ may cost up to $13,000,000.

1932 Midmer-Losh Organ

1932 Midmer-Losh Organ

In the upper image, you can see five keyboards called “manuals”. The lower image shows the “sixth manual” also.
The Bombard -- the 7th and uppermost manual is hidden by the moveable “sheet music” wooden board,
which has three rows and eight columns of oblong holes.
Don’t miss the pedals and the additional keyboard which Dr. Steve Ball plays with his feet.

1932 Midmer-Losh manuals

19:07 +0530 Sun. 22-Jun-2014

From the beginning, music was recognized as essential for silent films. It lent atmosphere and gave the audience vital emotional cues.
Beginning in the mid-1910s, large US city theatres tended to employ organists or ensembles of musicians.
The organist used sheet music, but still added improvisational flourishes to heighten the drama on screen.
The theatre organ was capable of drum rolls and unusual sound effects: “galloping horses” used for dramatic horseback chases.

At the height of the silent film era, movies were the single largest employer for instrumental musicians.
The coming of the talkies, along with the Great Depression, devastated many musicians.

11:43 +0530 Mon. 23-Jun-2014

Pertaining to the theatre pipe organs, from ninety years ago, here is page 6 of a 1926 book called,
“Theatre Organists Secrets -- a collection of successful imitations, tricks and effects for motion picture accompaniment on the pipe organ”
by C. Roy Carter, Los Angeles, California, 1926.

Theater Organists Secrets

For Thunder and Rain Storm effects, it recommends the organist to select the “8-foot Strings” and “4-foot Strings” for the manual, and the “Open Diapason 16-foot” or “Open Diaphone 16-foot” for the pedalboard. Then the rain effect is produced by holding down as many keys in the bass register as can be covered by the flat of the hand held lengthwise.

Rain Effect

The musical notation shown, for those, who don’t read sheet music, is “bass clef”.
Hit fifteen notes together: D2, D♯2, E2, F2, F♯2, G2, G♯2, A2, A♯2, B2, C3, C♯3, D3, D♯3, E3 for the duration of a semibreve. i.e. length equal to four beats in 4/4 time.

23:02 +0530 Mon. 23-Jun-2014

The Atlanta Boardwalk Pipe Organ is a pneumatic pipe blower organ with 33,114 pipes organized into “divisions” of 449 “ranks” of pipes varying in size from 4 feet length to to 64 feet length, distributed in 8 rooms all over the building feeding off air-pressure hoses controlled by valves and slides.
Makes it one of humankind’s most complex pieces of equipment.

The organ’s main console (the only one in the world with 7 manuals [keyboards]) has 1,235 stop tabs controlling 587 flue stops, 265 reed stops, 35 melodic percussions, 46 non-melodic percussions, 164 couplers, 18 tremolos, 120 swell pedal selectors for the 6 swell pedals controlling 15 swell boxes, and a stop crescendo pedal.

The 64-foot Grand Ophicleide pipe uses air-pressure of 100 inches of water to produce up to 130 db of sound at a distance of 1 meter. 130 db is the loudness, 50 ft. away, of a military jet aircraft take-off from aircraft carrier with full afterburner. 120 db is painful, 150 db causes eardrum rupture.
The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes the Atlanta Boardwalk organ as the world’s largest and loudest musical instrument, and the largest pipe organ ever constructed.