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Exposing my organ in public...

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Exposing my organ in public...

Postby Logarhythm » Sun Feb 23, 2020 3:41 pm

I’ve had a bit of free time today and not felt hugely inspired musically, so thought I’d make a start on attacking the organ and share some more detail on it, following discussions in the show your studio thread. I wasn’t sure if this should live in Keyboards or DIY so mods please feel free to relocate as you see fit!
This is likely to be a drawn out process as I get to grips with it, so apologies that this is going to be very stop/start for what could be years…

Brief overview for those who haven’t read the other thread – apologies if I’m repeating myself but hopefully it saves going back to this later.
A few years ago a friend’s grandfather passed away. I was told he had an “electronic organ” he’d been making, and as they had no idea what else to do with it, I was offered it.
Several weeks later I found myself in the workshop of a nice house by a river in Surrey, in what’s unquestionably one of the coolest man-caves I’ve seen. I’d guess it was once a double garage that had been extended very significantly backwards into their garden, forming a workshop room and a studio/music room.
The workshop room had walls of hand-labelled plastic draws full of electrical gubbins, a history of computer music in living form (Ataris, BBC micros, an Acorn with what looked like a hand-made MIDI interface, a couple of older PCs) and a similar spread of samplers/ROMpler synth modules. Any of the visitors to the Keyboard or DIY forum could have vanished into there for months on end quite happily. A door led through to his music room, in which lived what was once a top-spec PC from Scan, a Korg DSS-1 (now donated to one of our synth-starved forum members ;), and the organ that is the subject of this thread. All of this was surrounded by countless feet of bookshelves, stuffed full of books on MIDI, books on programming, books on organ design, and a significant collection of scores for organ pieces.
I believe that Mr West, creator of the organ, had been a professor of linguistics at one of the London university colleges, but was an accomplished amateur organist and music was his great love. The more time I’ve spent with his work, the sadder I am that I never got to meet him – he was clearly an astonishingly bright chap who could turn his hand to pretty much whatever he fancied, to the extent that he’d taught himself enough about electronics and programming to create this thing. He was also a reasonable craftsman – whilst the organ case is functional (it was effectively a living prototype) rather than elegant, he had also built a fairly nice river cruiser that was moored at the end of his garden, apparently just because he could.

Anyway, enough of the wordy preamble – onto stage 1…
Those of you who visited after the Exeter SoSage last year will recall having seen what looked like a mostly organ-shaped thing in the corner, but it was alas all disconnected at the time.
This afternoon I’ve completed reassembly and also got a few more pictures of the brains, so:

The organ itself. Two keybeds set into a home-made case, sitting on a homemade frame that also houses the swell pedal, and straddles the pedal board – the latter is the pedals from his original organ (must have had a very understanding wife :lol: ) that have been retrofitted to send data up to the “brain”.
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And some closer details on the console:
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I don’t have a Youtube account so I’ve uploaded a short video of the lid opening etc onto Instagram if anyone is curious:
https://www.instagram.com/p/B86Z5EJnN9M/

The brain itself – pleasantly surprised to lift the lid off this and find that it’s all astonishingly tidy. He'd put some handwritten tags on and numbered the ordering for the ribbon cables which mercifully took away some guesswork. These are what link up the various parts of the organ, with the gap second to top being for the final cable from the pedal board – not connected here as I had to lift the console away from the legs to get in and have a look.
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Closer detail on the board, moving across from right to left:
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The external connection is via a single UBS lead the provides power and outputs the controller data – exactly what is being sent is a question for a subsequent instalment ;)
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The 5-pin DIN connector in the final image is the connection for the swell pedal - not yet connected:
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Final inspection by the chief engineer before lifting back into place and getting the last bits connected. He likes to be involved, but isn’t much of a musician – indeed his Bach is worse than his bite… (sorry)
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Not really relevant to functionality, but I find the integrated cable management to be a very pleasing touch :mrgreen: :
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Lifted back into place on the legs. Not fun trying to get it aligned with the mounting screws, as I’d guess the top part weighs probably 30kg or so. Nonetheless with a bit of contortion and a dose of light swearing the final cables are connected, and the “brain” is complete:
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Need a cup of tea now :crazy:
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Re: Exposing my organ in public...

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Sun Feb 23, 2020 3:56 pm

Ah... I've been looking forward to learning more about that beast. Thanks for taking the time to post about it here.

Judging by the 74 series logic and multiplexing chips on that board, I think it just scans the keys, pedals, and stop switches, and passes that data over USB.

So, a bespoke homemade version of the scanning boards I mentioned in the previous thread, although they are designed to output standard MIDI, for greater compatibility.

So... The interesting thing will be what the original builder used for sound generation, and how it is controlled from that USB data.
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Re: Exposing my organ in public...

Postby The Elf » Sun Feb 23, 2020 4:52 pm

:clap: So much thought and effort has clearly gone into that. Here's hoping one day we can hear it making sounds!
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Re: Exposing my organ in public...

Postby Logarhythm » Sun Feb 23, 2020 5:13 pm

Well I'd hoped that I might be able to put up a snippet or two of audio today, but it seems that the law of Sod had other ideas :(
Booted up the PC for the first time in a while to make a fresh backup and...

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The good news is that there is a backup of the actual organ stuff on CD and on the external HD that came with the rest of the stuff, both of which I've just confirmed are still intact and read fine. There are two HDs in the PC itself and I suspect the organ lives on the second one anyway, so that's also good news. The bad news is that this looks like it could be many hours of "fun" to resolve, as whilst I've got the disk to do a fresh install of Win ME if it comes to it, I've then got to work out what the hell else needs to be set up and installed. This has resulted in an outpouring of joyous words with which I won't defile the forum.

USB extension cable has been ordered (don't have one long enough currently) so I can hook up the controller to the main PC in the meantime and verify that it simply outputs MIDI.

I've also got multiple binders and folders of notes to make sense of. He catalogued his ideas in quite a lot of detail and all the records are wonderfully clear:

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Alas there is a lot of them and they span quite a large period and multiple iterations - folders marked from 1984 to 2006!
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Notes relating to interfacing with a BBC Micro for what must have been one of the very early iterations:
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Time for a small nervous breakdown, I think :lolno:
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Re: Exposing my organ in public...

Postby blinddrew » Sun Feb 23, 2020 5:27 pm

At least you've got an excellent set of notes, he may have been a professor but at least he didn't have doctors' handwriting. ;)
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Re: Exposing my organ in public...

Postby BJG145 » Sun Feb 23, 2020 5:31 pm

I would be ruthless here...concentrate on the carpentry and bin anything that doesn't start to make sense quite quickly. Trying to debug someone's DIY software from the '80s isn't efficient. Better to get the thing up and running by the shortest route and get on with what it was intended for...making music. (It's probably just me being old; you eventually realise there isn't time to faff around.) ;)
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Re: Exposing my organ in public...

Postby Logarhythm » Sun Feb 23, 2020 5:46 pm

I know what you mean, BJG. I've had this thing a few years already and made basically no progress with it - time is scarce and this just feels like it will eat it :shocked:

At present it's a balance of:

In favour of Hauptwerk'ing it or similar:
Playable organ thing in a sane timeframe;
Accomplishes the general goal he set out with - viable organ without the associated pipwork.
It's pretty cool controller keyboard :D

In favour of actually finishing it:
Feel a touch obligated - it's someone's legacy;
Literally the only one in existence;
So far it's been built with more love and attention than anything else I think I've ever owned, and there is an argument for doing justice to it;
If I actually finish it I can gift it back to his great-grandson, which will probably drive his grandson up the wall but at the same time is likely to make his son smile ;)
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Re: Exposing my organ in public...

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Sun Feb 23, 2020 5:51 pm

I'd agree with BJG....

Added to which the sound generating technology has moved on dramatically since the Prof stopped working on this. And if he were still around I suspect he'd have re-engineered it accordingly.

The console is a unique piece of carpentry, but the electronics in it are trivial. They are just switch scanning, plain and simple. Whether the output is coded as some bespoke parallel interface to talk with a BBC micro, or raw USB data to talk to a custom PC program, or standard MIDI isn't really that significant. I suspect it's some raw USB data format, though, rather than MIDI-over-USB. The latter would take a lot of coding and formatting that wouldn't really serve the Prof's cause... And it doesn't look to me like the electronics on that board are sufficient to do it.

What makes this project uniquely special (or not) as far as the player is concerned is what the Prof did for the sound generation -- and whether or not it is worth restoring the software depends on whether that sound generation is still credible today in the context of contemporary equivalents.

I understand the desire to honour the Prof's work, and if the organ is destined to go into his personal museum it would be worth investing the potentiallynhuge amount of time and effort involved.

But if you're looking for a playable instrument that would be easy to maintain and update, and could be passed on to the next generation without needing a permanent in-house engineer, updating the console output for MIDI and using that to drive Hauptewerk makes a lot more sense, and could it be achieved very quickly, easily and cheaply.
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Re: Exposing my organ in public...

Postby Folderol » Sun Feb 23, 2020 6:08 pm

Nope. Still disagree. At the very least I'd want to at least make an attempt.

If you can get a handle on the overall design, it's quite likely that the confusing bits will fall into place - and I say that after many years of experience of going to repair equipment I've never seen before, and with no drawings or notes at all.
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Re: Exposing my organ in public...

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Sun Feb 23, 2020 6:15 pm

Folderol wrote:Nope. Still disagree. At the very least I'd want to at least make an attempt.

Sure. I'd want to try and get the beast running as intended, too. It's disappointing that the system drive has failed... But if there's a back up that can be use fairly easily it would be worth giving it a go.

As I said earlier, I think it really comes down to what the thing sounds like once it's running...
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Re: Exposing my organ in public...

Postby Trevor Johnson » Sun Feb 23, 2020 6:34 pm

Love the picture of Studio Dog! I have given up trying to explain to the Beeb that Bach is not pronounced like the outer covering of a tree. But to no avail, sadly.
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Re: Exposing my organ in public...

Postby Logarhythm » Sun Feb 23, 2020 9:13 pm

I've ordered another HD (ye olde spinning drives don't cost much these days), as I figure that doings a completely fresh install of Windows onto that is a good idea given the age of the others, and the failure of one is probably an ominous sign for the second anyway.
If I'm lucky I might be able to access the current system drive even if I can't boot from it, and be able to have a poke around to see what's actually installed on it (optimistic, but worth a go) from there without having to wipe anything and then trying to work blind.

Trevor Johnson wrote:Love the picture of Studio Dog! I have given up trying to explain to the Beeb that Bach is not pronounced like the outer covering of a tree. But to no avail, sadly.
Sorry, idiots on forums abusing it for the sake of atrocious puns isn't helping the cause, is it? :mrgreen:

Folderol wrote:Nope. Still disagree. At the very least I'd want to at least make an attempt.
If you can get a handle on the overall design, it's quite likely that the confusing bits will fall into place - and I say that after many years of experience of going to repair equipment I've never seen before, and with no drawings or notes at all.
I like your optimism, Will, and I definitely think the hardware has a future. Particularly if I can learn to play the organ - do you realise how many buttons and pedals these things have? I swear they were designed by an octopus as a cruel joke to mock humans and their limited limb count :lol:
I'm still daunted by the software end of things though, but I'm certainly not giving up on it yet!
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Re: Exposing my organ in public...

Postby James Perrett » Sun Feb 23, 2020 10:51 pm

I must admit that I'd agree with Will - the part numbers on the BIOS screen make it look like this is some kind of embedded PC so, rather than blindly reinstalling the operating system, the first thing I would do is to see what software actually needs to run to make this thing work. Does it need a Windows 9X based system (or even DOS) or would it work in an NT based system? Do you have any source code?
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Re: Exposing my organ in public...

Postby billc2 » Sun Feb 23, 2020 11:22 pm

The fact that you saw the message 'A disk read error .... (etc)' means that you definitely did read and execute the bootsector code from sector zero of a bootable disk. That code then tries to check for a specific 2 byte pattern a little further into the disk (involving translation from cylinder/head to lba addressing) and then if that second disk read fails that is when that message is pasted on the screen from the embedded text on the bootsector . If the second read is successful but the 2 digit code does not compare it outputs 'missing operating system.. (etc). There's a third case which I cant remember atm. As far as I can remember it's from the DOS days. NT was very similar.
You definitely read and executed sector 0 from a disk. Is the BIOS battery healthy?
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Re: Exposing my organ in public...

Postby Logarhythm » Mon Feb 24, 2020 7:26 am

James Perrett wrote: Does it need a Windows 9X based system (or even DOS) or would it work in an NT based system? Do you have any source code?
It runs from within the standard Windows ME environment, or at least did. No idea if it specifically requires it or could run from DOS or NT. All the code is on the PC, so yes I do have it but it's a bit circular in that I need to get into Windows first to have a look at it, hence the plan to leave the original disks untouched and install the OS on another hard drive to have a dig around.

billc2 wrote:Is the BIOS battery healthy?
That's a very good question! I've no idea of the actual age of machine but I'd assume it's heading towards 20 years and the battery is therefore potentially not in the best health. Will swap that out before doing anything else :thumbup:
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