Rodgers Instrument blends tradition, artistry into a big sounding business

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Rodgers Instruments Corporation CEO Duane Kuhn demonstrates a new technology called 'pipe-dimensional audio' on the new Infinity Series 361 organ. In an unassuming corporate building on Northeast 25th Avenue, musician Don Lewis sits down to compose a soundtrack honoring “Amazing Grace” and its origins.

His desk is an Infinity Series 361, a compact classical pipe organ. His office for the day is a showroom that resembles the majestic interior of a church, complete with dark wood paneling and stained glass. A full set of organ pipes is suspended overhead, but the voluminous sounds of organ keys and vibrating reed tones are booming from a set of speakers, not the pipes.

The instrument Lewis works from is familiar to most churchgoers: Three terraced manuals, or keyboards, allow him to play liturgical classics. Less familiar are the tones Lewis manages to elicit with a single keystroke. To tell Capt. John Newton’s story of redemption, Lewis draws out sounds that invoke tribal West African landscapes, the din of war and human cries of pain.

It’s easy to mistake the Rodgers Instrument Corp. building for one of the many high-tech firms nearby. Inside, Lewis is experimenting with a pipe organ whose specs read like those of a top-of-the-line sound-mixing console. There are nearly 100 internal memory levels, as well as a full MIDI system, a USB drive and an LCD screen.

Lewis, who has worked as a Rodgers affiliated artist since 1991, has never been more impressed with an instrument. Although he often visits schools in the Pacific Northwest to introduce students to the pipe organ, on a Monday in mid-October, he was the one experiencing childlike wonder: It was his first time sitting down with the newest incarnation of Rodgers’ Infinity series organ, introduced last June.

“The technology has just taken off,” he said, demonstrating the wireless capabilities that allow him to give the organ commands from his iPad. “I’m just happy to still be alive to witness all this.”

The instrument has proven ideal for his newest project.

“The story behind ‘Amazing Grace’ is transformative,” says Lewis. “What we want to be able to do with this instrument is transform people’s thoughts not only about the instrument but about the music this instrument can play. And it can tell stories out of the realm that you would normally not think an instrument like this would.”

By using a vocal processor, Lewis is even able to imitate the sound of a choir, which he does by speaking lyrics as the organ’s voice module puts him in pitch with the music and keeps him in tune.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Affiliated artist and Roland and Rodgers consultant Don Lewis works on a new arrangement in the show room at Rodgers Instruments Corporation.

A Hillsboro legacy

Rodgers Instrument has been manufacturing and distributing electronic classical pipe organs here since 1960, when Rodgers Jenkins and Fred Tinker, former Tektronix employees, collaborated and built the first pipe organ to be based completely on transistor-based oscillator circuits. Rodgers instruments would later be installed in Carnegie Hall and played at presidential inaugurations.

The Rodgers Instrument Corp. would merge with Steinway Musical Properties, and when Japanese electronics manufacturer Roland Corp. purchased Rodgers in 1988, the small organ company suddenly had access to an entirely new realm of technology. Developments include Rodgers’ pioneering use of organ memory cards and its decision to make MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) a baseline feature in its instruments.

And then there is “pipe-dimensional audio,” where more diminutive speakers take the place of traditional pipes. by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - A close-up look at the Masterpiece Signature Series 480 organ, manufactured by Rodgers Instruments Corporation in Hillsboro.

“When you look at a typical pipe arrangement, you’re looking at about 12 feet of width of the pipes, about 10 to 16 foot-high pipe, and then you’re looking at depth as well,” says Rodgers Chief Executive Officer Duane “Dewey” Kuhn. “So we’ve done experimenting over the last year and a half, adding more speaker cabinets to recreate this height, width and depth of the organ. So when you apply this (arrangement) it gives you that perception of having that dimension of sound.”

Though Rodgers organs are pipeless, they can be “combinational” — easily integrated with old church pipes.

“Most congregations today use some form of what typically is called blended worship: contemporary sounds, orchestral sounds,” Kuhn says. “Our instrument has all of these things built into it. A church can take this traditional pipe instrument, interface it with our digital organ and get all of these new sounds — all of a sudden they have a much more flexible instrument and a much more usable instrument.”

Now, about 400 electronic classical organs are produced each year by a manufacturing team of about 26 people. Richard Cardwell, vice president of manufacturing, notes that 11 members of their manufacturing staff have been with the company for more than 35 years. It’s a team that Caldwell describes as “an organization of craftspeople.”

“It’s unusual to have a high-end electronics facility in the same area where you do high-end furniture manufacturing,” says Cardwell, who has been with Rodgers since 1987. He explains that every step of the pipe organ-making process, from the most technical electronics assembly to the wood-finishing, happens on premises.

A changing market

There is still healthy competition in the industry: Rodgers’ main rival is the Allen Organ Company in Macungie, TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Dave ViZant shapes wood that will be used for an organ bench. ViZant has worked for Rodgers Instruments Corporation for more than 20 years.

Although there are two other prominent pipe organ manufacturers in Europe — Johannus Organs in the Netherlands and Viscount in Italy — Allen is the only outfit that offers “upper end, premier products” of comparable quality to Rodgers’, Kuhn says.

The classical organ business is not what it once was, Kuhn admits.

“If we look at the church organ business over the last 10 years in the United States, the industry figures show a 70 percent decline,” he says, attributing the drop to a shift in worship style and what he sees as the diminishing role of organized religion in general.

The home organ market suffered a decline of about 75 percent during a 15-year period, he said, largely due to the increasing popularity of portable electronic keyboards.

“It’s vitally important for us to change our business model,” Kuhn said. “Up until five years ago, 90 percent of our business was the church market. Today, it’s probably 48 or 50 percent.”

To adapt, his company is reaching out to new segments of the market, organizations like the Portland Chamber Orchestra. But colleges, too, have proven a promising customer base.

“It’s an ideal practice instrument,” Kuhn said. “We can record performances (from the organ). Immediately upon performance, we can analyze them. It’s just a magnificent teaching tool.”

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