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MMD > Archives > May 1999 > 1999.05.08 > 07Prev  Next

Orchestrion Pipes
By Art Reblitz

The Weber Unika, Philipps Paganini and certain other European
instruments play violin solos with great realism. Seeburg G  and H
orchestrions also have great sounding pipes, but the music was never
intended to imitate a human violinist. Rather, these orchestrions have
always been at the top of many collectors' want lists for doing what
they're best at - taking the listener back to the glorious eras of
ragtime and "Roaring Twenties" jazz!

In general, substituting European pipes in an American orchestrion, or
vice versa, will have less effect on the overall sound than
substituting music rolls, vibrato mechanisms, swell shutters and
cabinet design.

An examination of the wood used in American and European orchestrion
cabinets, chests and pipes, clearly shows that finer quality wood was
more readily available in North America, not Europe, during the golden
age of the orchestrion. The German builders achieved their high quality
through fine workmanship, despite the relative scarcity of fine wood in
Europe compared to America during those years. Certain German pipes
even have knots in the wood, patched or sealed over to keep them
airtight, and yet these pipes have a fine tone quality.

After tuning & regulating dozens of European orchestrions and
fairground organs, and hundreds of American ones, I believe the tonal
difference is mainly due to pipe scaling, precision of voicing and
regulating, presence or absence of vibrato, and the way the music is
arranged, more than the materials that were used.

We are currently restoring a large Modell 15 Philipps Pianella
Mandoline that was made in Germany. The pipes were made by the
Schoenstein firm of Villingen, Germany (which also supplied pipes to
Hupfeld, Loesch, Pierre Eich and other orchestrion builders).

Inspecting a random violin pipe from this orchestrion (A above
middle C), the interior cross section is about 7/16" square. The right
side has about 20 grain lines per inch, and the grain is about
10 degrees from being "vertical" (quarter sawn, or perpendicular to
the outside surface).  The left side has about 15 grain lines per inch,
and the grain is about 80 degrees from vertical (nearly plain sliced,
not quartered). The back has nearly vertical grain, but with only about
8 lines per inch. The front is made of a harder wood with almost no
visible grain lines.

By comparison, a Seeburg G violin pipe of the same note has an interior
cross section of about 7/16" wide by about 1/2" deep. The sides and
back each have about 18 grain lines per inch and are within 10 degrees
of being vertical (quartered). The front is maple, with about 16 grain
lines per inch, oriented precisely vertically. All four walls are
slightly thicker than in the Philipps pipe.

Each of these two pipes has a fine, but slightly different tone. The
Philipps pipe is a bit "keener," and the Seeburg pipe is a bit more
"reedy" with a little more chiff (or percussive attack, widely
considered to be a desirable attribute for "jazzy" music). I attribute
this difference to the slightly larger scale (or interior cross section)
and slightly thicker walls of the Seeburg pipe. If the grain orientation
and coarseness were the determining factors, then the Philipps pipe
should not sound as good as the Seeburg pipe does. But each has a very
pleasant tone.

In my opinion, the reason for using vertical grain, or quartered, wood
is mainly to prevent it from warping. This is most  important for the
front of the pipe, where the slightest warping of the upper lip will
throw the speech off. Certain Weber orchestrion pipes have an unusually
thin upper lip, helping to produce an exceptionally realistic violin
tone.  Unfortunately, some of these beautiful pipes, which are very
imitative of the orchestral violin, are also very touchy because the
extra thin upper lip throws the speech off if it warps just the tiniest
amount due to humidity changes.

Regarding air pressure stability: most Seeburg Style G and H
orchestrions have a regulator valve inside the pressure reservoir, with
a spill valve on the pump. When I tune one of these, I always cross
check the tuning with two or three octaves of each note playing on both
ranks at the same time (= 4 or 6 pipes at once).  In a well-restored
and regulated instrument, the tuning is absolutely rock-solid, even
when playing two or three times as many pipes at once as the Weber
Unika or Philipps Paganini solo violin pianos typically play.

Certain very early and very late Seeburg Gs and Hs have a spill valve
on the pressure reservoir, with no regulator valve. Their pressure
stability depends upon the pump running at the correct speed. If the
pump runs faster than it should, for the purpose of supping sufficient
vacuum for a leaky player action, it can overpower the spill valve,
causing the pressure to change depending on how many notes are played.

Art Reblitz

(Message sent Sat 8 May 1999, 19:24:14 GMT, from time zone GMT-0600.)

Key Words in Subject:  Orchestrion, Pipes

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