The purpose of this article is to bring to the organ public the results of a survey of American organ builders which I made in November 1975 on the subject of nicking. From the questionnaires sent to 72 American builders, 35 replies were received. (Because of the mail embargo, Canadian firms were not surveyed.)
The question of nicking is a cloudy one to most people outside of the voicing room. Few really know what it does, or does not do, to the sound of a pipe. Nicking is a powerful voicing tool, and its use and forms are as varied as a painter's brushwork. Hardly any two voicers utilize the same nicking techniques.
The history of nicking certainly predates the birth of J. S. Bach. Most readers will know that nicking became excessive in the late romantic era, and the incredibly heavy nicking of the 1900-1940 period could hardly be exceeded. The heaviest type of nicking has now practically vanished from organ building. As a reaction against excessive nicking, the organ reform movement decided that nicking per se was "unnatural," unnecessary and unhistoric. Since many of us owe our artistic well being to the wonderful awakening which the reform movement brought, it seems unjust to criticize it for not being perfect. But any fervid revolution produces some untenable dogmas, and the organ reform, for all its triumphs, could not prevent some errors from creeping in. The strict no-nicking doctrine may be one of those errors.
That nicking was an ancient art was either ignored, discounted, or undiscovered by the reform movement. Perhaps a more likely explanation is that much, but not all, of ancient nicking was fine enough to be masked by the patina and corrosion on the old pipe metal. and that much of the finest nicking was eroded away over the centuries by the incredible process of air friction in the windway, as shown by the fundamental research of Sundberg. (Johan Sundberg, The Significance of Scaling in Open Flue Pipes, Uppsala, 1966.) indeed, with time there are enough physical changes in the pipes to prevent us from ever knowing exactly how any ancient pipe really sounded when new.
But the reform movement advocated a powerful anti-nicking policy and many organ builders rejected all nicking. However, some European and American voicers remained unconvinced, and under the severe anti-nicking pressure they developed extraordinary techniques for hiding nicks, e.g., nicking on the under side of the languid, microscopic nicking invisible to the unaided eye, and other techniques to circumvent the problem of providing "unnicked" pipes for organs in small and/or dead rooms. There is no telling how many "unnicked" organs there are of this type both here and abroad.
It was not long before many excellent voicers, after some years of working in an unnicked style came to the conclusion that a total ban on nicking was neither historically correct nor practical. Some builders (Flentrop et al) used nicking so perfectly in instruments that championed all other characteristics of the reform movement that many purists never knew they were listening to nicked pipes. Many organ builders now view the total ban on nicking as a fad, and are developing very sophisticated and restrained uses of nicking.
The current developments in the art of nicking are as far removed from the atrocities of 50 years ago as are our best contemporary tonal designs. A few builders have remained true to both the spirit and the law of the total ban on nicking, but only one organ builder replied to my survey with the unqualified statement that he never nicks (van Daalen). A few replied that nicking was used only "in emergencies," and others used it so sparingly that it would constitute a rare exception to their rejection of nicking as a valid practice. The majority of organ builders, however, use a light to medium nicking in some pipes or ranks in a controlled way. Many builders considered nicking as a natural and necessary part of voicing. Many builders both openly, or by inference, expressed the desire that the unreasonable demands of the dilettante not be allowed to suppress the artistic freedom of the voicer and builder. Perhaps we are at a turning point. In the first half of the 20th century, the wind pressures, scaling, tonal desires and dead acoustics made heavy nicking necessary. The reform movement then demanded a ban on nicking. Now, with a new boldness based on the experiences of both extremes, many voicers are using nicking when needed to adjust another voicing device. Many builders expressed a freedom in being able to build some organs without nicks when the situation indicates, and yet when a small dead room is encountered there is no guilt feeling in having to use nicking to keep the sound under control. This freedom to nick or not to nick, depending on the situation, is perhaps the overriding characteristic of the majority of replies to this survey.
John Brombaugh expressed the ideas of many builders in his reply: "Nicking means so many things. To some it means what you find on late 19th-century (organs). To others it means anything other than a totally free windway, practically polished and razor sharp. To me, both seem wrong because they are unmusical. With no nicks and . . . low cutups, pipes chiff, cough, sizzle ... one seldom finds this in any historic organs. (In my work) everything that needs it gets nicked. I don't want sizzle."
Walter Holtkamp writes what seems to be the majority opinion for the survey: "We simply use nicking as a technique in voicing. We do it to the degree needed for the kind of sound we want. Certainly something like a quintadeena . . .or a gamba.. . will get a bit more nicking than a principal 8', and a 4' may get some nicking while a 2' needs none."
Charles Fisk expressed his ideas in MUSIC (December 1975), and in a letter to me he writes: "Of course nobody is supposed to admit that he uses nicking, but everybody does. We nick somewhat reluctantly, feeling that the nicks are essential but there must be a better way.
John Schantz writes: "After . . . years of experience, our voicer-finishers find that a pattern of voicing evolves that can be applied to certain instruments. The voicer might find that a flute or a principal of a certain scale will . . . require four or five nicks to produce proper speech. There will be many other instruments in our annual production which will be treated more individualistically. If the stoplist, the acoustics and the placement seem to indicate it, there may be almost no nicking done in the voicing process, with the adjustments made almost entirely during the finishing."
Other builders replied as follows: "Who can make music on 75mm in a carpeted room without nicking?" (Fritz Noack) "I think nicking is necessary except in the largest rooms." (George Bozeman) "I'm really against nicking and use it reluctantly." (Otto Hofmann) "We never nick principals or flutes . . we use a feathering file on the edge of the languid or even the edge of the lower lip . . . in removing extraneous noise. We always nick true strings." (Franz Zimmer) "Nicking is always kept to a minimum using only the amount that is felt to be necessary to get the desired speech and sound." (Austin Organ Co.) "I always utilize high cutups and do not find it necessary to nick except for strings." (David Harris) "We nick all strings and some flutes. . . some principals in mid-range." (E. H. Holloway)