If you are thinking of buying a street organ, what follows is a useful guide to help you decide what sort to buy. We hope that this will answer many of the questions that you may have. Where any organ builders and music suppliers mentioned in the article have their own website, you will find a link to those sites on our Links page
Present Day Organs
Interest in street organs began to develop in the 1970s, paralleling an increased national interest in mechanical music in general. Because there were very few original instruments available, a few organ enthusiasts started to think about producing new copies of those old organs, using new materials and new methods of producing the music. Some of them went on to build organs themselves, whilst others persuaded existing mechanical organ builders to build street organs.

You need to be able to lift and manoeuvre your organ easily and because of this any street organ needs to be compact. This is achieved by limiting the amount of notes that the organ will play to, generally, between 14 and 45. Depending on the makeup of the organ, each note could play one or more ranks of pipes, so the pipe count could be anything from 14 to, perhaps, around 150. To accommodate the longer pipes playing the lower notes, the pipes are bent round and tightly packed to fit into the case. This is called mitreing.

A popular choice for a starter street organ is one of 20 notes, made up generally of 11 melody notes, 3 bass notes and 6 for accompaniment, which are pitched between the melody and bass notes. The most basic 20 note organ will have 20 pipes but could have ranks of pipes, especially the melody pipes, doubled up to give more power and a more pleasing sound. Where melody pipes are doubled up, one rank is tuned slightly sharp to the other, producing a wavering effect. This is known as celeste tuning. The more pipes you have, obviously, increases the weight of the organ and more pipes may often mean that the organ needs bigger lungs with which to play them. This, again, may add to the weight.

If you do not fancy a pipe organ, you could try a reed organ. Victorian buskers used to use these a lot as they are light and portable but very musical. They use brass reeds and sound like a small accordion but, helpfully, Raffin Orgelbau in Berlin still make them.

Registers And Ranks
A street organ, like a church or cinema organ, may well have different sounding sets of pipes and a method of bringing them into play. These different sounding pipes are held in ranks. You bring them into play by using register stops. So, for example, if you have a double melody rank, you would have a register stop fitted to each one, enabling you to have either or both ranks playing at a time. You pull the stop out to enable the pipes to play and push it back when you have finished with them. If your organ has flute pipes, violin pipes and piccolo pipes, they will all be fitted with register stops to enable you to vary the sound that the organ produces to how you want it. Do not forget, though, that the more stops you pull out, the more air will be required to play them.
Choosing The Right Model For You
   Buying One

You now have to make several informed decisions. Do you buy new, buy second-hand (or pre-owned as we now poshly call it) or build your own? The cost of a new organ will range from around £1,500, for a small basic model, to around £20,000, or more, for the larger, more sophisticated models. Street organs tend to hold their price and second-hand organs can cost around the same as new ones, although there are sometimes bargains to be had.

If you decide to purchase an organ, you should give a great deal of thought as to how much you want to pay. You may fall into the trap of buying an organ, becoming aware of its limitations and then trading it up for a better one, or one more to your taste. To avoid this, it would be wiser to listen to as many organs as possible and setting your budget accordingly, perhaps paying a little more at the outset.

What it is not wise to do is to get carried away and buy the first organ you hear. Do not forget that you will be living with it for a long time and if you find that you do not like the quality of music that it produces, you will have wasted your money and be stuck with it. It is best to go to organ events, listen to organs and ask the owners for as much information as possible. We are a friendly bunch and we all started organ owning this way.

   Building One Yourself
If you have some practical skills, it is possible to build your own street organ. You can achieve this either from a set of plans or from a kit of parts. There are many street organs in existence that have been constructed in this way. The most popular self-build organs have been built from plans devised by John Smith and these are available through his website. His Busker organ of 20 notes was the first model and is still popular. Plans now available will enable you to build an organ of anything up to 98 notes, the only limit is your own imagination. His website also has many videos and helpful information to help your build project.

A kit organ of 20 notes is available from the Australian Castlewood organ company. The organ builds to a size that you can quite easily hang around your neck on a strap and wander around events busking. Rob Barker Organs is continuing the Alan Pell Music availability of organ parts that you can purchase and put together into an organ of your own design. Again, plenty of help and advice is available to help you with your project. Teanola also produce a kit, enabling you to build a 14 note book playing organ.
How Do You Want Your Organ To Produce The Music?
Mixed in with your decision on whether you are going to buy or self-build and how much you want to spend, is the question of how you want your organ to produce the music to enchant the public and yourself. You have a choice of producing the music - by paper roll, cardboard book or by various computer devices. Each of these has its advantages and disadvantages.

Cardboard books are very hard wearing and tune changing is quick and easy. However, they are larger, heavier and more expensive than their counterparts and in a strong wind books can blow all over the place, if you are not careful. You may also struggle to find an organ builder to build you a book playing street organ these days, so you may have to source a second-hand instrument if this is your preferred method of music playing.

Paper roll music (normally a hard wearing plastic paper, these days) beats cardboard books on cost, weight and size. A roll of music will play for about eight minutes, so you may have 3 or 4 tunes on a roll. If you can imagine a cassette tape player with no fast forward or rewind buttons, this is what paper roll music is like. If you get a request for a tune that is the fourth on a roll, you have to manually spool the roll until you get there and when you have played a complete roll of music, you have to manually rewind the whole thing before putting on another roll.

Both of these methods have the advantage of showing the public how the music is produced and there is a genuine fascination about the ability to convert holes in paper or card into excellent music. The same cannot be said about the third method of producing music – by computer. Over the years different IT methods have been employed to produce music on street organs – floppy disks, microchips and SD cards to name but a few. The current preference is for a MIDI player playing MIDI files.

MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, files of music are much the cheapest option. There is also no storage problem and with the right software you can create your own MIDI files of your own music, or even alter files bought from music suppliers. If you are playing a tune, you can change the tune being played just by tapping in another number on the keypad. A MIDI file will cost about half the price of a tune on paper roll and about a third of the cost of a  cardboard book.

Don’t forget that whatever method of playing you choose, the organ will be the same, it is just the method of producing the music that is different.

Organ Builders - New Build
We do not intend to list every organ builder in the world here, but list a few of the better known ones. Some popular organ builders have now retired, so some names to look out for in the second-hand market follow in the section devoted to them later.

   Dean Organ Builders
Dean Organs from Bristol have been manufacturing and repairing hand-turned street and busker organs for more than 45 years. They also act as agents for European organ builders selling their street and busker organs from their retail shop The Music Box Shop in  Whitchurch, near Bristol. Dean Organs can build you an organ from 14 notes upwards and can supply any of the playing methods mentioned above.

   Paul McCarthy
Hailing from Basingstoke, Paul McCarthy was one of the first builders of reasonably priced 20 note book playing organs and was responsible for introducing many people to this fascinating hobby in the 1980s. Paul has gone on to produce larger hand-turned organs with anything up to 4 registers and a smaller 14 note book playing organ, the Babe.

   Rob Barker Organs
Rob Barker trained as a Church Organ builder, becoming a self-employed organ builder in 1989, sub-contracting at Alan Pell Music for many years before concentrating full time on his own projects on Alan’s retirement. Rob builds busker, street and fairground organs, and has one of the largest ranges . His small organ range includes 20, 31, and 42 note models but he will make you a bespoke instrument created for any budget, large or small. Rob builds paper roll, cardboard book or SD MIDI controlled organs and also Dual Format which combines MIDI and paper roll, thus giving you the best of both worlds. Advice may be given to amateur organ builders with practical help and parts supplied, as required.

   Meayers Organs
Kevin Meayers started his business in 1984 in South London but the company are now based in Chesham, Buckinghamshire. Although the company mainly look after larger fairground and dance organs, they have produced a MIDI file playing street organ on a special request.

   Raffin Orgelbau
Raffin Organs was established in 1960 and is situated in Überlingen, a German town on the shores of Lake Constance. Their organ workshop has been making street organs and music rolls for more than 35 years and pride themselves on their high quality workmanship. They concentrate on organs of 20 and 31 notes but have many pipe rank combinations to choose from. One of the larger 31 note models has 6 register stops, including a trumpet rank. You can view the range on line and they also have a catalogue that you can request.

   Orgelbau Meister Hofbauer
Hofbauer organs, based in Göttingen in the Lower Saxony region of Germany describe themselves as No 1 in the matter of innovation, choice of melodies and range of models. Hofbauer have been in the organ business since 1923. Their street organs are in the Harmonipan style, which is essentially more akin to a Victorian barrel organ with a rank of metal pipes visible up front. Scale sizes range from 20 to 54 notes, with all models having music produced by Mikrobox 2000, their in-house MIDI system. You can also bolt on percussion and a glokenspiel to various models. A catalogue is available to download.

   Orgelbau Stüber Berlin
There is no place for the modern at Stüber organs. Stüber street organs continue the tradition of the old Berlin instruments, tonally, mechanically and in the highest standards of craftsmanship. They are proud of their attention to detail.
The instruments play by paper roll operating on the pneumatic system, i.e. no battery powered blower. Modern electronic gadgetry has no place in these Harmonipan organs, which are built to preserve the historical character of these instruments.

Now based in Dinkelsbuehl, Germany, Deleika have been manufacturing traditional hand made street organs since 1981. They build organs that can play rolls, MIDI or both.

Retired Organ Builders Whose Instruments You May Find Second-Hand
   Alan Pell Music
Alan Pell has now retired from the organ business. By way of a change, he purchased extended Routemaster bus RML 2672 and converted it into a mobile fish and chip restaurant. He made organs from 1976 in Lincolnshire with his most popular range of street organs being 20, 25, 31 and 45 note. You may find earlier models with different scales. The most popular model was the 20 note Harmonette, a very sweet sounding, MIDI playing organ.

   Peter Trueman
From Chaddesden in Derbyshire, Peter built affordable, well built and sweet sounding 21 note book playing organs at an affordable price. He also built roll playing organs with 20 and 26 notes and super reed organs, the type of which we mentioned early in this guide. Peter took great pride in his organs. His mechanisms and valve actions are sensitive and responsive and both he and his organs, especially the 21 note book player, are still held in high regard by the organ grinding fraternity.

   Alderman & Davis
Ian Alderman and Roy Davis from Poole in Dorset produced various models that played on their own 26 note scale. This scale was a beefing-up of the 20 note scale to overcome some of its musical limitations. The 26 note organs will play 20 note music as well, however.

   Fussell Brothers
The Fussell brothers, Fred and Richard’s, most popular model was the 20 note street organ. Built slightly bigger than other 20 note models, these organs, and others made by this company, still attract fans due to their highest quality workmanship.

The Music Itself
We have seen that organ music comes in three quite different forms, cardboard book, paper roll and computer generated. The arguments about the relative merits and moral position of the different systems have been going on for years and will continue to rumble on for many more to come. You must make up your own mind, having weighed up all the relevant factors, which is the right format for your organ and for you.

Cardboard book music is the most expensive. It is normally produced on a one-tune-per-book system, unless it is a medley of tunes, of course. The price of the tune is the price per metre of the cardboard used and it is normally manually punched.

Paper roll music is less expensive and is nowadays punched by a computer operated machine. A roll of music will play for about 8 minutes, which is about 40 metres of paper. Some providers allow you to pick your own tunes and arrange them on rolls as you see fit, while others produce set rolls where you are stuck with the order of tunes that is produced. It all boils down, however, to charging per metre of paper, so the longer the tune, the more expensive it is.

Computer generated music files, be they MIDI or an equivalent system and played via SD card, microchip or whatever are much the cheapest means of music production. All you pay for is the computer file. If you have the skill and the right MIDI software, you can also make changes to arrangements to suit your own tastes.
Music  Suppliers
What follows is a list, in no particular order, of suppliers of music for street organs and in what forms they supply it. The contents are correct at the time of research and writing.

   Rob Barker Organs (Gedney Hill, Lincolnshire)
Can supply music in any of the three forms and have over 500 tunes available, which you can mix and match.

   Raffin Orgelbau (Überlingen, Germany)
Use a tear-proof PVC material for their rolls, which come in a nice decorative box. Hundreds of MIDI files are available for 20 and 31 note scales. The paper rolls have set tunes and can be up to €86 for 20 notes and €125 for 31 notes.

   Dean Organs (Bristol)
Supply cardboard book music for most scales up to 36 note, for the 36-keyless street organs produced by the Verbeeck organ company. Paper roll music is limited to 20 and 25 note, but other scales can be catered for on request. Tune and roll prices are also on request.

   Thomas Sterk (Zaltbommel, Netherlands)
Has hundreds of MIDI files for 20, 26 and 31 note scales and has the same tunes for paper rolls with the addition of some in a 33 note scale. Cardboard books are also available for some scales. 20 note rolls are around €70, while 31 notes are around €100, whereas the MIDI equivalents are about 25% less than that.

  Meayers Organs (Chesham, Buckinghamshire)
Now produce MIDI files and paper roll music for hand turned street organs of popular scales. They will attempt to produce any tune of your choice, within sensible reason, of course, to their normal high standard.

  Jeremy Brice (Chesham, Buckinghamshire)
Still produces cardboard books of music, mainly for 30 note, but other scales considered.

   Orgelbau Meister Hofbauer (Göttingen, Germany)
Have thousands of tunes for their own organs using their in-house Mikrobox 2000 technology. Older 20 note organs of theirs play standard 20 note organ rolls.

   Paul McCarthy (Basingstoke)
Supplies cardboard book arrangements of his own and also supplies those of Kevin Byrne. Books are available in a variety of scales and new arrangements are undertaken, upon request.

   Melvyn Wright (Busker Organs) (Melton Mowbray)
Is another who can supply music in all three forms. Most makes and scales are catered for all at a reasonable price. There is a list of tunes on the website but not all those tunes are available in all formats. Separate tune/price lists are available upon request.

   Happy Cow Music (Online)
Originally the website of the late Stephen Simpson. Happy Cow Music is now run by Chris Doe with the aim of making Stephen's music available again in all music formats. (Online)
Specialists in 20 note MIDI arrangements with over 340 songs available from top arrangers such as: Hiddo Van Os, Stephen Simpson, Amanda Liberty, O Carioca and Ian Dickinson. All songs have a preview so you can listen to them prior to purchase and are available for immediate download after payment. The MIDI files can be used to get a roll punched in standard 110mm Raffin or 140mm John Smith busker formats.

   Merry-Go-Round Music (Great Yarmouth)
MIDI and book music from Kevin Byrne, Paul McCarthy, Alan Pell, Bill Everett, Hiddo Van Os (early works) and now the great arrangements of Mikey Mills from America, including his historical collection. 

So, there you have it. We hope that our guide will help you in your quest. You have the information, so what are you waiting for?