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Organ News


Aspects of console design II

By Ian Quinney

In issue 20 of Makin News “what makes a good organ console” was discussed. Those of you who play on more than one instrument will be well aware that the requirements for console layout that James mentioned still do not guarantee that all the components will be in similar positions on every organ.

An AGO style pedalboard

My wife, having practiced at home on her Makin Organ to avoid a freezing cold church, goes off on Sunday mornings to play on the church pipe organ (heating is on for Sundays). The first problem she has is that the pedals on the church organ are both lighter in touch and are slightly closer together than on the Makin. The second problem is that the stops are not in the same place and the voices are not the same. Practice sorts both these problems out fairly easily but it leads to the question of just how standard should your console be?


Up to 1904 the console layout would have been determined by the organ builder and these would have similar layouts derived from custom and practice. In 1904 the Royal College of Organists (RCO) produced a specification for a new organ for their lecture hall. It is often quoted as a standard but in fact the specification was for a single instrument built for the RCO Lecture Hall by Norman and Beard. It is notable for specifying a pedalboard concave radius of 12ft 6in and a splay radius of 8ft 6in. It also specified other key dimensions and the stop jamb layout.

The American Guild of Organists first produced a standard console specification in 1933 which was notable for specifying a concave radiating pedal board of 32 keys with both concave and splay radii being 8ft 6in. The standard was amended in 1961 and updated in 2002.

A BDO style pedalboard

‘Just how standard should your console be?’

The Bundes Deutscher Orgelbaumeister (BDO) published a standard for consoles in 1965 then again in 1972 and in 2000. This standard allows for both concave radiating and concave straight pedalboards. It is unique in specifying three radii for the pedal board, one for concavity, one for splay and one for the leading edge of the sharp pedals. The concave radius is 3680mm (12ft 1in) the splay radius is 3350mm (11ft 1in) and the sharp key radius is 2000 mm (6ft 6in).

The Incorporated Society of Organ Builders (ISOB) produced a console standard in 1967. This has a pedalboard concave radius of 103 inches and a splay radius of 103 inches but the concave radius is measured to the top of sharp keys where the other standards measure to the natural keys.

With the allowed tolerances the AGO and ISOB standards are very similar.

As a general rule organs built in mainland Europe comply with BDO and those in the UK and USA with AGO/ISOB standards.


Ergonomics is the science of designing the workplace environment to fit the user. The BDO specification refers to this being incorporated into their standard for 2000.

In reality the ergonomic design of organ consoles has been progressing for hundreds of years without the fancy name tag. One thing that ergonomics does is look at the proper posture of the person in the workplace to avoid things like long-term back injury. We humans are apparently getting taller. In the 17th century the average height for a man was 5ft 6in (1676 mm): today the average is 5ft 9in (1752 mm). Of course quite a lot of organists are not average; a 4ft 10in tall organist is going to have a different relationship with the console to say a 6ft tall organist. One may not be able to reach the toe pistons while the other is banging his knees on the underside of the console. The standards all specify a fixed height, above the pedals for benches but fortunately these days adjustable height benches are available to help with the height issue. Every organist knows that there is a point where the bench is in the ideal position for them to play their organ, hence the dire warning notices posted on organs to replace the bench where you found it, not to move it at all or to put the blocks back in when you have finished.

Keyboard Variations

The BDO and ISOB standards specify the keyboard width. The two standards differ slightly. To compound the problem keyboards are made all over the world and may not comply with either standard. This is not much of a problem when playing on the middle of the keyboard since the keyboard will be centred on a pedal and a keyboard key. On keyboards that do not meet the standard, the keys in upper and lower

ends of the span may not be where your fingers think they are. This is of course not much of a problem if you only play the one instrument. If however you are playing different instruments, variation in key position means that you have to spend more practice time familiarising yourself with the instrument. An organ builder who checked his stock of keyboards commented that there was quite a variation between keyboards imported from different manufacturers. Now of course you have just been given a fine excuse for missing the odd top or bottom note.

There are some crucial measurements for keyboards included in the standards such as the height of the lower keyboard above a specific key of the pedal board and the height of subsequent keyboards above the lower. Also the horizontal offset of each keyboard in relation to the one below it, the length of the keys in each tier and the length of the sharp keys.

What a Swell party this is

The one thing that all the standards agree on is the positioning of the swell pedal. That is that it should be near the centre of the console. AGO/ISOB align pedal centre with the E - F pedalboard gap and BDO by shifting a fixed amount to the right of the keyboard centre line. Other expression pedals are then mounted on either side of the swell pedal with crescendo to the right and choir to the left. The front to back position of the expression pedals relative to the console is defined in all the standards. ISOB define the distance from the leading top edge of the sharp pedal, AGO define the distance from the back edge of the sharp pedal and DBO define the distance from the leading edge of the lower keyboard.

Keep Pedalling on

The 20th century has seen the almost universal adoption of the 32 key concave radiating pedalboard although BDO still specify an option for a 30 key straight concave pedalboard. (I know some organists still love their straight pedalboards.) The difference in concave and splay radii in pedalboards has already been mentioned. In addition to this the BDO pedalboard terminates in a flat back plane and has sharp keys extended to the back plane. The AGO/ISOB pedalboards have a curved backplane. The Makin standard pedalboard is of the BDO style with AGO concavity; however Makin provide for a range of pedalboards to be fitted to their consoles, so the choice is yours.

Pulling out all the stops

The AGO standard specifies that tab stops should appear in two rows over the top manual with the top row from left to right Swell, Choir, Solo, Echo and bottom row Pedal, Great and Positive. For Drawstops the AGO specifies jambs either side of the keyboard as left jamb: Pedal and Swell. Right jamb: Solo, Great, Choir or Positive. ISOB make no mention of Stop disposition and BDO simply says that stops should be easily accessible with tabs over the keyboard and drawstops on jambs at the keyboard sides. The AGO specifies the order of stops within a division as starting at the bottom with the longest flues to the shortest, then the mixtures, then the reeds in order of longest to shortest with non- speaking stops such as couplers and tremulants at the top. In reality, on most British organs stop disposition is determined by ancient custom and practice (usually that of Mr Willis and/or Mr Hill).There seems to be a preference on British organs for putting non-speaking stops at the bottom of the jamb. On some organs they appear as a separate division of stops usually under the Pedal stops. This also appears to be a common practice on the continent.


In short, there is no single universal standard for layout of an organ console. Nearly everybody quotes RCO or AGO, but in my experience very few people have actually read the standard they quote. So as an organist it falls to you to make sure you get the specification you want that gives you the most comfortable playing position.

Confused: then let’s make it simple at least for Makin Customers.

• If you are buying or have bought a Westmorland Standard organ then a professional organ consultant in conjunction with the Makin

staff will have been employed to sort out all the problems of design for you.

• If you are buying a Makin Westmorland Custom organ then there are options open to you to adjust layout and voicing which Makin staff

will walk you through to ensure the finished product meets your requirements.

• In general Makin Westmorland organs follow ISOB/AGO standards with stop dispositions being more Willis than AGO.

• If you are buying a Johannus organ then this will generally follow the BDO standard, but AGO is possible.

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