By Frank Pugno
Jerome Markowitz was awarded a patent in 1938 for his Oscillatone, which in 1939, was released to the public as the Allen Organ. Just a note of trivia – this was in Allentown, Pennsylvania, so he named it Allen, after the city. Being the first electronic organ, as opposed to electric, this caused quite a stir. Mr. Markowitz dreamed of designing an electronic organ using vacuum tubes to recreate the sound of a pipe organ with all its various nuances. Thousands of them went into churches, homes and institutions attesting to the quality that these instruments possessed. Allen has produced and still produces classical, church and theatre organs of incomparable quality, but now with digital technology, which we will discuss later in this writing.
The original Allen organs used individual oscillators, that is, one generator for each note, just as there is a pipe for every note on a pipe organ. These instruments were unified, duplexed, and the stops utilized borrowing. Though these may sound critical, in reality, they operated exactly like a three rank pipe organ, even feeling like it to the organist’s touch. In addition to the excellent voicing with proper attack and decay characteristics, Random-Motion and Electronic Whind added further dimension to the pipe organ-like sound. The Gyrophonic Projector, a rotating speaker unlike the Leslie, added still further dimension in Tremolo or Celeste mode. Sustain was also included on many models.
Several models had tone modifiers that were controllable by the organist. Because of the limited number of ranks, a series of stops was included in the General division that would actually change the timbre of selected ranks. Examples of these are Flutes Become Tibias, Flutes Become Softer, Diapason Becomes Viole and Diapason Becomes Dulciana. This was a unique Allen feature and increased the versatility of the organ greatly. An interesting quirk of Allen was that they included a blank stop usually on the Great. I never quite understood the point of this, except maybe to add real chimes at a later date.
To attest to the greatness of these organs, in 1962, the Lincoln Center in New York City used an Allen TC-4 in place of their pipe organ, which was not completed in time for this performance. The performer that evening was the renowned virtuoso, E. Power Biggs. One critic praised Mr. Biggs’ performance on the “Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ”.
There were smaller models of Allen as well. Most of these were one-rank organs generating flute sounds, deriving other voices using harmonic synthesis. The S-12S was a lower priced model with two 61-note manuals and 25 pedals. The S-125 was the same, but included sustain stops on the Swell manual. The Sheraton 12 and Sheraton 15 were home models of this type. In 1962, Gulbransen developed the first electronic theatre organ and Allen wasted no time in producing the same. The spinet Theatre Compact and the consoles Theatre 12 and Theatre 15 were formidable instruments sounding exactly like full-throated theatre pipe organs.
In the late 1960s, a new feature was the Flying Hammers, which produced the “hammer-strike” of the xylophone and marimba. They also included small speakers above the stops of theatre organs so the organist could clearly hear the sound being made.
As noted previously, Jerome Markowitz wanted to produce the sound of a pipe organ electronically. Even though Allen had transistorized many years before, the company felt that no further progress in pipe tone could be achieved electronically unless another system was devised. This led to the introduction of the digital organ, an Allen invention utilizing computer technology. The prototype digital organ is now in the Smithsonian Institution. In the late 1970s, Virgil Fox had a custom-built Allen touring organ made for his many concerts. I would like to clarify something at this point. Organs built before this time are called analog, which term does not apply because they do not utilize computers. Analog in organs simply means electronic but not digital. Allen manufactures strictly digital and digital/pipe organs in conjunction with the Moller Pipe Organ Company. The other companies followed many years later because Allen held a patent on digital design.
The most important feature on the digital Allen was the Card Reader. You purchase I.B.M.-type punch cards, which can be inserted into a slot on the console and you select a stop marked Alterable Voice 1, Alterable Voice 2, etc. The card contains all the information needed to produce tones that are not included in the regular stop list of the organ. Hundreds of different sounds are available. This led to Second Voice, found on Allen theatre organs, which modified certain stops from theatre to classical voicing. This is just like the modifier stops mentioned above, but works on individual stops rather than the whole tone family.
The modern Allen digital organs are works of art. The Protégé Series are lower cost instruments but fully capable of authentic organ sound. The modern Theatre Compact is a spinet. George Wright, Diane Bish and Lyn Larsen supervised the Renaissance organs. The George Wright Signature 4-Manual Renaissance is the equivalent of a thirty-three rank Mighty Wurlitzer, and is also now made in a 5-manual version, in addition to the 3-manual Model GW-319. The Quantum Series lets you adjust room acoustics to any desired setting, much different than the old reverberation units. This also allows four stop-lists per organ representing all the schools of pipe organ sound, and some models include Second Voice for all stops. The Heritage Series are custom manufactured to individual customer requirements.
Allen has the longest history of any electronic organ manufacturer. They specialize in institutional instruments, but many of these organs can be found in homes, including several professional theatre organists who perform for the American Theatre Organ Society. The Allen name is a stronghold in the organ world.
Special thanks to Lee Maloney of The Beautiful Sound, Inc. (Allen organ dealer) in Countryside, Illinois for his valuable assistance in this article.