Manuals and Couplers on a Theatre Pipe Organ

Experience the sound of the Theatre Pipe Organ


First, we should define the nomenclature of Theatre Organ manuals.

Console Diagram of the Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre 4/23 Bob Balfour Memorial Wonder Morton Organ, courtesy of Paul Jacyk

The lowest manual on a Theatre Pipe Organ is the “Accompaniment” manual. The second manual up from the bottom is the “Great” manual. The third manual on a 3 manual instrument is the “Solo” manual. “Solo” is almost always the name of the topmost manual on any large TPO.

If the instrument has 4 manuals, they would be named “Accompaniment”, “Great”, “Orchestral”, and “Solo”.

On a rare 5 manual instrument, they would be named “Accompaniment”, “Great”, “Orchestral”, “Bombarde”, and “Solo”

There are several exceptions to the above, however.

Some two manual instruments name the top manual, “Great”, instead of “Solo”

Some 3 manual Kimballs were built with the topmost manual serving as a “Percussion” manual with a minimal number of pipe stops assigned to it, but all of the tuned percussions available. Many of these Kimball instruments have had their stop availabilities re-specified over the years to have them more in keeping with the standard setup of Wurlitzers and other brands featuring a far more useful 3rd manual. An example of a respecified Kimball is at John Dickinson High School in Delaware.


The couplers on a Theatre Pipe Organ (TPO) do exactly what the name implies.  They “couple” one thing to another.

Classical or church organs need couplers to overcome their lack of unification, and thus enable the playing of ranks of pipes on additional manuals. Couplers on much more unified Theatre Organs increase the flexibility of the instrument.
So, just what do Couplers do on a TPO and how are they used?

Intra-Manual Couplers

First we will examine Intra-Manual Couplers. As the name implies, this is coupling of sounds within a particular manual.

Let’s say, for instance, that you sit down at a console and you see 3 (usually black colored) coupler tabs for the Great manual. They would typically be labeled “Sub Octave”, “Unison Off”, and “Octave”.

As was previously discussed, 8’ stops sound at the same pitch as an acoustic piano. Middle “C” on the piano is the same as 8’ middle “C” on the organ. This is called “Unison” pitch.

If you select an 8’ stop, depress the Sub Octave coupler, and play Middle “C” you will find that you now have the Middle “C” and the “C” an octave below (hence the term  “Sub Octave”) playing simultaneously.

If you then press the “Octave” coupler, you will find that you now have added the “C” an octave above Middle “C” (hence the term “Octave”).  So in effect, you are playing 3 notes with one finger.  (You could accomplish the same thing without coupling, by registering the same stop at 16’, 8’ and 4’ pitches, provided that they were all available on the manual you are playing, but the organ specification may not offer all three, hence the advantage of having couplers).

If you then press the “Unison Off” tab, you no longer have the Unison 8’ stop playing but are left with the 16’ and 4’ playing.

Intra-manual couplers are of particular importance on instruments that do not have every stop available at every pitch on every manual (16’, 8’, 4’ etc), which is true of most TPO’s. The exception to that would be the Page brand of Theatre Organs which have rather extensive stop availability at all pitches.

While the above describes the effect on one 8’ stop, coupling applies to all stops in all registers on the manual. For example the Octave coupler applied to a 4’ stop adds the 2’.  Applied to a 16’ stop it adds the 8’ and so on. Conversely, adding a Sub Octave coupler to a 4’ stop adds the 8’ and so on down.

So how does the artist use this? Let’s say you wish to play a deep and throaty registration for a particular tune and there isn’t a 16’ String available on the stop rail for the manual you are playing. You would merely depress the Sub Octave coupler for that manual, and it would bring in the 8’ string and any other 8’ stops registered, also at 16’ giving you the effect that you desire. To further enhance the deep throaty sound, you would depress the Unison Off and it would eliminate the 8’ stops altogether leaving you playing only at 16’.

One thing that must be remembered, when using the Sub Octave coupler, however, is that it will bring in ALL stops in the registration down one octave so care must be taken that there are no 16’ stops registered on the stop rail. A 16’ stop affected by the Sub Octave coupler will bring the 16’ down to 32’ which is useless in the middle octave on the organ where we frequently play. (You rarely want to play below middle “C” when using 16’ stops as the sound lacks definition and becomes muddy and heavy, not a pleasing sound for sure!)

The following is an example of the effect Intra-Manual couplers will have on the registration.

Suppose you register a manual with:

Flute 16’, String 16’, Tibia 16’, Oboe 8’ and Flute 4’.

Depressing the Octave coupler for that manual, you will now have:

Flute 16’ & 8’, String 16’ & 8’, Tibia 16’ & 8’, Oboe 8’ & 4’ and Flute 4’ & 2’.

Here, you have effectively “doubled” your registration with one coupler marked “Octave”!

If you now select “Unison Off” for that manual, you will eliminate your original registration and have only the higher registration left:

Flute 8’, String 8’. Tibia 8’, Oboe 4’ and Flute 2’.

Conversely, if you select a registration such as:

Tibia 8’, String 8’, Diapason 8’ and Flute 4’

Depressing the “Sub Octave” coupler, you will now have

Tibia 16’ & 8’, String 16’ & 8’, Diapason 16’ & 8’ and Flute 8’ & 4’.

Again, you have effectively “doubled your registration!

If you now select “Unison Off” you will eliminate your original registration and have only the lower registration left:

Tibia 16’, String 16’, Diapason 16’ and Flute 8’.

The three Intra-Manual couplers described above are usually found on ALL BUT the Accompaniment manual and Pedal of TPOs. It is not uncommon, however, to have one coupler on the Accompaniment manual which would be typically an Octave coupler with no Unison Off available.

A final word about intra-manual coupler nomenclature: Not all TPO brands use the terminology “Sub Octave” and “Octave” on their stop tabs. Robert Morton organs, for instance, name the manual and use “16” instead of Sub Octave, and “4” instead of Octave. For example “Great to Great 16” is a Sub Octave coupler on the great manual of a Morton instrument.  Similarly, “Acc to Acc 4” is an Octave Coupler on the Accompaniment manual of a Robert Morton organ.

Inter-Manual Couplers

Now let’s examine Inter-manual couplers.  As the name implies, this is coupling sounds between manuals. And this is the type of coupling that nonunified church and classical pipe organs must rely upon to make sounds available at more than one keyboard.

On some TPO instruments you will find a coupler tab that is labeled. “Solo to Great”  Depressing this tab causes all of the stops which have been registered on the Solo manual to play on the Great as well.

Other instruments will have a coupler tab that indicates “Solo Octave to Great”

This coupler transfers only the 8’ stops to the Great and ignores anything else registered on the Solo. (The Robert Morton organ company terminology for the same thing is “Solo to Great 8”)

Some instruments have a coupler tab labeled “Solo to Great Pizzicato”

This coupler transfers the solo registration to the Great but the transferred ranks only play on a momentary basis as each key is struck. An example of this would be to register the Post Horn on the Solo and activate the “Solo to Great Pizzicato” coupler which would provide a momentary “jab” of the Post Horn to anything you are playing on the Great Manual. This can be quite a useful tool in some arrangements. Try it on the “Third Man Theme”. It works very nicely.

Typically, there is an “Accompaniment to Pedal” coupler that allows the Pedal to also play all the stops registered on the Accompaniment.  Some instruments also have a “Great to Pedal” coupler which can be quite useful.

Can the effect of Intra-Manual and Inter-Manual Couplers be combined?

Interestingly, if you employ the Accompaniment Octave coupler (an Intra-Manual coupler) and the Accompaniment to Pedal Coupler (an Inter-Manual coupler), only the original registration of the Accompaniment is transferred to the Pedal not the effect of the Octave Coupler.