When Jerome Markowitz was a student at Muhlenberg College, he listened to how the grand pipe organ echoed throughout Egner Memorial Chapel every week.
At the same time, he heard the emerging Hammond Organ, an electromechanical organ that came to market in the 1930s and eventually influenced just about every genre of music, including liturgical, but found its most popular application in blues, funk, jazz and rock throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
“While he was enthused by the relatively small size of the Hammond Organ as compared to a pipe organ, it did not sound like a pipe organ, but instead was more appropriate for jazz and popular music,” said Jerome Markowitz’s son, Steven Markowitz, president of Allen Organ Co. in Macungie. “At that point, Jerome decided to dedicate his life to creating pipe organ sounds through electronic means.”
A technologist, the elder Markowitz started Allen Organ shortly after World War II to begin manufacturing and offering electronic organs to churches. The first manufacturing facility was near the Eighth Street Bridge in Allentown, which inspired the company name.
His first patent, issued in the late 1930s, was for the stable audio oscillator, which produces a sound wave electronically. It became the heart of analog organs for decades and the predecessor technology to Allen’s digital organs, which emerged in the early 1970s.
Allen introduced the world’s first digital musical instrument in 1971, now on display in the Smithsonian.
Today, Allen Organ employs about 200 people at its headquarters on Locust Street and produces an average of 500 organs a year for homes, cathedrals and churches, theaters and educational institutions.
In the Greater Lehigh Valley, you can find Allen organs in hundreds of locations, most of them in churches. Globally, Allen has about 70,000 installations.
There are about 20 models available; a basic home organ starts at about $15,000, while a large, multimanual church organ could cost up to $400,000.
“Production times range from six to 30 weeks, depending on the project’s complexities,” said Markowitz, who took over the company in 1990, the year before his father’s death.
While supported by its international reputation, Allen markets its instruments in trade publications and on digital media, while sales representatives promote the organs in their local regions in the United States and abroad. Allen’s Octave Hall showcases its historic organs and its newest innovations.
Age-old organ technology, where mechanical action drives pressurized air through wood or metal pipes and controls delicate linkages, is still preferred by some musicians.
It can be a difficult decision between choosing the purist route with a pipe organ and an Allen, but Allen organs have lower purchase and maintenance costs, high reliability and more tonal versatility, Markowitz noted.
“Most people find it nearly impossible to determine the difference between the Allen digital sound and that of windblown pipes,” he said. “Allen is the most popular church organ worldwide.
“This success has been obtained by supplying organs with the most realistic pipe organ sounds and of the highest quality.”
‘THERE’S NO DIFFERENCE’
Ken Schneider has played Allen organs his entire professional career, encountering one of the company’s first digital instruments as a student at William Allen High School in the early 1970s.
“They do a demonstration at the factory to see if you can tell the difference between a pipe organ and an Allen digital organ,” Schneider said. “There’s no difference. The sound and flexibility, it’s just amazing.”
Playing Allen instruments as senior staff organist at Asbury United Methodist Church in South Whitehall Township and organist at the Scottish Rite Cathedral in Allentown, Schneider said the decision to buy Allen organs over the years has meant fewer maintenance calls and more reliability compared to what have been required for a pipe organ.
“There’s a tremendous amount of upkeep for a pipe organ,” Schneider said. “With a pipe organ, you should keep the building at a constant temperature and humidity level so the pipes and reeds don’t expand and contract at different rates. The worst thing is to play solo on large trumpet stop at the first hot summer service. It’s terribly out of tune and you have to beat on it with a screwdriver.”
In the 10 years since Asbury installed an Allen Renaissance organ, a four-manual, 87-stop instrument, repair work has been required only twice, Schneider said.
And the Allen three-manual GW-319 theater organ at the Scottish Rite Cathedral hasn’t needed repairs since 2000.
“You don’t have to worry about anything,” Schneider said. “There’s virtually no maintenance required, and if there is a problem, you call a technician who can come out and fix it in a matter of moments.”
For those on the musical fence between pipe and digital, Allen offers the best of both worlds.
“We have made many installations in which some of a church’s pipes are being saved and used in combination organs that include a new Allen organ console, as well as digital voices,” Markowitz said.
The integration of windblown pipes and Allen digital voices is accomplished both on artistic and technical levels, he said.
On a technical level, Allen’s computer control system in its instruments has the ability to fully control and integrate the pipe sounds and Allen digital voices.
In addition, Markowitz explained there is an automatic system to change the tuning of the digital voices in real time to match the pipes as their tuning changes over time and temperature variances within a building.
“Finally, the artistic integration is just as important as the technical integration,” he said. “Since the pipes are typically already installed in the church, Allen creates custom digital sounds and voices them to appropriately match with the pipe sounds to create cohesive ensembles.”
Allen Organ’s latest innovation is GeniSys Voices, with special stops that are variable and can be modified quickly by the organist to greatly expand the organ’s tonal flexibility, Markowitz said.
Many organists in every corner of the world are well-acquainted with Allen organs installed in well-known cathedrals and concert halls – Valladolid Cathedral in Spain, Brigham Young University’s Franklin S. Harris Fine Arts Center, Jack Singer Hall in Calgary, Cincinnati Music Hall and the Stockholm Opera House, to name a few.
One of the most challenging installations occurred in 1989 at the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Côte d’Ivoire.
Because of the height of the building, hundreds of feet of scaffolding were required just to install the organ’s speaker cabinets.
Among its most famous customers was Leonard Bernstein, who ordered Allen organs for the premiere performance of his Mass in 1971. Lincoln Center also called Allen Organ when its pipe organ was not ready for its opening in 1964.
In addition to its organ business, Allen has a subcontract manufacturing unit, AIA (Allen Integrated Assemblies), which supplies printed circuit board assembly and other assembly services to other companies.
The production of an Allen digital organ requires significant advanced assembly equipment and related skills, Markowitz said, noting that these capabilities are supplied to third-party companies that require electronic and electromechanical assemblies through AIA.
Asked if he plays what he makes, Markowitz demurred.
“No, I do not play the organ,” he said. “My specialties are in the area of business and organ building.”