Origins of the Label Name. Pro Organo is a musical term of Italian origin that is used to indicate that a musical composition is intended to by played “on the organ.” The phrase “Pro Organo Pleno” inscribed under the title of a musical work by J. S. Bach would indicate that the work was intended to be played on “full organ.” The label PRO ORGANO is the brainchild of organist Frederick Hohman. Even before establishing the label in 1984, he often adopted a hands-on approach, which, over time, led to innovations in audio engineering that were, in turn, applied directly to the label’s recordings. Prior to entering the Eastman School of Music as an organ student, where he had minor interest in composition and theory, Frederick Hohman had been active as a jazz pianist and church organist, and he acquired an unusual amount of professional film editing experience as a teenager in his native St. Louis. His film experience became useful decades later, when the scope of the Pro Organo CD label expanded to include video productions.
1977: Beginnings in radio broadcasting. While an undergraduate scholarship student in applied music (Organ) at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, every weekend, Frederick Hohman made high-fidelity audio recordings of organ literature at the First Lutheran Church of Lyons, New York, which had (and still has) a very fine pipe organ and an unusually fine acoustic. Hohman assembled the recordings into weekly half-hour radio programs of organ music. Hohman chose PRO ORGANO as the title for his 26-episode radio series, where he was both the on-air personality who introduced the music, and also the sole performer of music on the series. While still an undergraduate, from 1978 through 1979, he syndicated the PRO ORGANO series over roughly 20 FM broadcast affiliates with National Public Radio. During that period, two of Pro Organo’s biggest advocates were Michael Barone, who now has fame as the host of the nationally-heard Pipedreams broadcast from Public Radio International, and Richard Gladwell, whose program “With Heart and Voice,” originating at WXXI-FM, Rochester, New York, is now heard in about 100 U.S. radio markets.
1980: Seeking the ultimate in fidelity. Between his Master of Music studies and Doctor of Musical Arts studies at Eastman, Hohman continued to play the organ in church and in concert, but he also found work in New York in the professional recording and radio broadcasting industries. During these years, he became self-taught in many aspects of electronic circuit theory and design, and became adept at designing, implementing and occasionally manufacturing improvements to even the best professional audio equipment available at that time. He was driven to make these improvements, because he found that even the best audio recording equipment of the time often fell short of the mark when it came to capturing the full depth and aural scope of pipe organ. Hohman also worked for a brief time in St. Louis as a studio engineer and endured a brief stint as a writer of commercial “jingles.”
1984: Launching the label PRO ORGANO. After completing a residency for a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the Eastman School of Music in organ, during which time he served as a staff audio engineer for classical music concerts at the Eastman School, Hohman spent 4 years in Durham, North Carolina. There he became good friends with Lex Larson, an attorney and publisher of law-related books. They recognized that Hohman’s musical and engineering talent, when combined with Larson’s financial backing, could allow them to manufacture and distribute organ recordings of quality that competed favorably with early organ CDs appearing from major labels. It was then that Hohman decided to adopt the name of his former radio series – PRO ORGANO – as the name of the new organ music CD label. The label name was first applied to a small line of Chrome-bias, Dolby®-B analog audio cassettes, marketed commercially in October, 1985. One of the label’s early retailers was Record Bar (now defunct), a large, national record store chain headquartered in Durham. In 1986, Pro Organo entered the Compact Disc digital audio market, by re-issuing some of the label’s first recordings as audio CDs. Pro Organo became one of the first independent labels pressed in the America’s first CD plant: Sony – DADC (Digital Audio Disc Corp.) in Terre Haute, Indiana. The Hohman and Larson limited partnership lasted for three years. Hohman acquired Larson’s share of the Pro Organo label as the catalog succeeded, and as early positive reviews came from music journals and audiophile critics.
1986: Early Expansion and the Transition to Digital. As the Pro Organo label expanded, Hohman continued to develop and refine his one-of-a-kind recording apparatus for pipe organ recordings. He modified an Ampex ATR-102 recorder / reproducer, operating in analog at 30 inches per second tape speed at an operating level of 570 nWb/m, so that it outperformed the audio specifications of the industry-standard digital audio format of the day, the Sony 1610 / 1630 system. The concepts and theory applied in Hohman’s unique analog circuits have remained unchanged (and never duplicated) since the 1980s, because the designs often operate at the theoretical limitations of the components. These analog designs were retained as Hohman switched to recording with PCM (Pulse Code Modulation)- style digital audio systems. Early ultra-analog achievements served as models when Hohman later tweaked the performance of ultra-linear digital systems.
1987: Pro Organo establishes a CD distribution agent in Croydon, greater London, United Kingdom.
1988: Pro Organo begins supplying its CD products to the Organ Historical Society, a major U.S. mail-order distributor of organ recordings.
1990: The Pro Organo label, at first devoted only to pipe organ recordings, expanded into the realm of choral and instrumental music. Many of the early Pro Organo recordings were produced with very simple means, with only 2 or 4 microphones, usually mixed to stereo on location, and with minimal adjustments made during mastering. As digital technology evolved, Hohman utilized multi-channel PCM audio recorders exclusively.
1991: Pro Organo becomes a label distributed to Tower Records and Musicland Group (both now defunct), and other major chains by way of an exclusive distribution agreement with Albany Music Distributors, Inc. This warm and beneficial label-distributor relationship with Albany Music Distributors continues to this day.
1993: Pro Organo label rapidly expands, with a new release, on average, every 28 calendar days. Hohman applies a custom modification to a conventional portable DAT recorder, allowing a 96kHz, 16-bit stereo digital audio signal to be recorded to a DAT tape, with transport pulling tape at about 2 times normal speed. Pro Organo CD releases produced with this technique were considered excellent at the time, but as these earlier, unconventional DAT masters are re-mastered in 2006 and later, with advanced dithering and sample-rate conversions, the full fidelity of the early Pro Organo digital audio masters is finally revealed.
1996: Business growth / incorporation. Hohman incorporates in Indiana, USA, as Zarex Corporation, through which the Pro Organo label continues to be administered. Zarex Corporation expands into television production. As with the earlier radio series, Hohman was program host and a principal performer, and he produced 24 episodes of a weekly half-hour television series, entitled Midnight Pipes. Midnight Pipes, a series about organs, organ music and organists, airs in the USA, over roughly 20 Public Television affiiliates between 1998 and 2001. Here, Hohman’s skills at film editing, acquired as a youth, are applied to the now-fully-digital post-production process as the series is prepped for broadcast. Zarex Corporation markets VHS Hi-Fi home video tapes of the Midnight Pipes series, and also produces and distributes contemporary piano music CDs with concert pianist Jeffrey Jacob, under the New Ariel label, through 2004.
1999: Pro Organo celebrates its 100th CD release. Physical CD unit sales for the Pro Organo label, and sales of many other independent labels, would be seen to peak during 1999.
2000: Pro Organo continues to draw the best of Artists and Repertoire to its label. By 2000, the label represents over 40 organists, and becomes a leader in the area of recording important new organ and choral music by living, contemporary composers. Pro Organo secures Priory Records as a distributor in the United Kingdom.
2001: Zarex Corporation establishes a corporate branch in greater Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Zarex Australia Pty Ltd. Both the Australilan distributorship, formed primarily to assist in international distribution for Pro Organo, and the UK distributorship (with Priory), were dissolved by Zarex Corp. in 2006, when it became apparent that MP3 internet distribution and international internet sales of physical CD product will render the function of many traditional distribution methods as either redundant or obsolete.
2002: Zarex Corporation re-issues some of the earliest Pro Organo CDs under the “Pro Organo Gold“ label. Midnight Pipes issues a Special Edition DVD of the Great Organ at Methuen Memorial Music Hall. Pro Organo issues its first CD product in the CD-EXTRA format, which carries both audio program and computer-accessed non-audio files on the same disc.
2005: Studio Expansion. Zarex Corporation expands its Indiana post-production facility three-fold, to include mixing and surround-sound mastering for SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) and HDTV (High-Definition Television). The facility, known as Zarex HD, becomes one of the first U.S. authoring facilities for SACD. Zarex HD Studio is assigned all SACD re-mastering projects for Albany Records, a classical music label. Hohman, acting as chief engineer at Zarex HD, perfects a unique method, driven by a proprietary (but unpatented) phase-dependent process utilizing the power of DSD (Direct Stream Digital) processing, of up-mixing conventinal stereo recordings to 5.1 surround sound. The SACDs using this process are critically-acclaimed, with only one other competing studio (in Sweden) active with a similar process for classical music content. The American Guild of Organists chooses Pro Organo as the production company for producing CD recordings of First Prize Winners of its prestigious semi-annual music competition: NYACOP (National Young Artists Competition in Organ Performance). Pro Organo opens a CD distribution agent in Europe: Guild GmbH, Switzerland.
2006: The Pro Organo label grows to 200 titles, and issues its first Hybrid-SACD products. Zarex Corporation develops and launches a custom website, MyPipes.Org, with the purpose of offering select Pro Organo audio tracks as MP3s, in a pay-per-download internet distribution. This website was discontinued in 2008, when Pro Organo acquired worldwide MP3 distribution through major download sites. Zarex Corporation opens a music score publishing venture: Zarex Scores. Pro Organo releases are produced on location using multi-channel DSD (Direct Stream Digital) recorders, offering a format which offers a 2,822,400 1-bit sampling rate, and which exceeds the audio quality of all PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) audio formats. Hohman develops post-production techniques which retain DSD’s beneficial attributes when DSD masters are released as conventional PCM (CD) products.
2007: Pro Organo forms a marketing alliance with Loft Recordings LLC, allowing the distribution of Pro Organo recordings through the popular Gothic-Catalog website. This marketing partnership benefitted both parties, but the alliance ended when the Gothic and Loft labels came under the distribution umbrella of Naxos. Pro Organo, whose distribution since 1991 has remained with Albany Music Distributors, Inc., and Naxos, the new distributor for The Gothic Catalog, are direct competitors with overlapping territories; therefore, marketing conflicts forced an end to the Pro Organo / Gothic marketing partnership.
2008: Zarex Corporation establishes a worldwide internet content distribution agreement for Pro Organo, allowing iTunes, eMusic, Napster, Rhapsody, Amazon, and many other download sites to have equal access to the Pro Organo CD catalog.
2009: Pro Organo begins placement of its entire back catalog, including many long sold-out and out-of-print recodings, as well as its new releases, with MP3 distribution services, a process that shall take until 2011 to complete. Pro Organo produces and releases is first DVD / CD dual-disc product, “Praise the Eternal Light,“ which is a home-video version of a 75-minute HDTV production, shot and post-produced in native HD, with both native DSD 5.1 surround and DSD stereo audio.
2010: Pro Organo’s internet distributor broke its initial 5-year contract commitment to Zarex / Pro Organo, citing unanticipated distribution costs imposed arbitrarily by internet retail outlets. 65 Pro Organo titles had been placed for internet distribution by the date of the breach of contract. Rather than challenge the distributor over the breach of contract, Pro Organo drops its claim, accepts a settlement with the distributor, and elects to withdraw from the MP3 marketplace, except for six of its titles, and plans to resume internet distribution only when audio fidelity of MP3 downloads shall have advanced to the point where MP3 audio satisfies the audio expectations of the majority of its listeners.
2013: Zarex / Pro Organo elects to offer a series of free organ ringtones, drawn from existing tracks and titles in the Pro Organo CD catalog, at its retail website.
2014: Pro Organo decides to modify its retail website in order to offer highest quality MP3 audio downloads to customers through the label’s own dedicated website, with delivery of the MP3 audio directly, and without the participation of third-party internet distributors. Many titles in the Pro Organo catalog are re-mastered for MP3 and are made ready for MP3 distribution at a very high (320 kbps) audio quality. Zarex Corporation expands the scope of its HD video production services to include contemporary chamber music productions, and the Zarex studio gains full HD and 4K video capabilities.
2015: Pro Organo re-issues a Blu-ray version of its popular video production FROM ASHES TO GLORY. Pro Organo prepares to re-release productions originally acquired in HD in the Blu-ray video format. Also, selected episodes from the Midnight Pipes television series, including some “lost” episodes which were produced but which were never broadcast as a part of the Midnight Pipes series, and which were all acquired in Standard Definition video, are given HDTV up conversions and are prepared for internet distribution. The total redesign of the ProOrgano.com retail website becomes ready to launch in summer 2015, with the offering of both physical, traditional CD, DVD and Music Score products alongside with MP3 audio downloads.