A pedalboard (also called a pedal keyboard, pedal clavier, or, with electronic instruments, a bass pedalboard) is a keyboard played with the feet that is usually used to produce the low-pitched bass line of a piece of music. A pedalboard has long, narrow lever-style keys laid out in the same semitone scalar pattern as a manual keyboard, with longer keys for C, D, E, F, G, A and B, and shorter, higher keys for C#, D#, F#, G# and A#. Training in pedal technique is part of standard organ pedagogy in church music and art music.
Pedalboards are found at the base of the console of most pipe organs, theatre organs, and electronic organs. Standalone pedalboards such as the 1970s-era Moog Taurus bass pedals are occasionally used in progressive rock and fusion music. In the 2000s, MIDI pedalboard controllers are used with synthesizers, electronic Hammond-style organs, and with digital pipe organs. Pedalboards are also used with pedal pianos and with some harpsichords, clavichords, and carillons (church bells).
There were two approaches used for the accidental notes (colloquially referred to as the "black" notes). The first approach can be seen in the 1361 Halberstadt organ, which uses shorter black keys which are placed above the white keys. Other organs positioned the black keys on the same level and depth as the white keys. The first pedal keyboards only had three or four notes. Eventually, organ designers augmented this range by using eight notes, an approach now called a "short octave" keyboard, because it does not include accidental notes such as C#, D#, F#, G#, and A#. The 17th-century north German organ builder Arp Schnitger used an F# and G# in the lowest octave of the manuals and pedal keyboards, but not a C# and D# .From the 16th to 18th centuries, short octave keyboards were also used in the lowest octave of upper manual keyboards.
By the fourteenth century, organ designers were building separate windchests for the pedal division, to supply the pipes with the large amount of wind that bass notes need to speak. These windchests were often built into tall structures called "organ towers." Until the fifteenth century, most pedal keyboards only triggered the existing Hauptwerk pipes already used by the upper manual keyboards. Beginning in the fifteenth century, some organ designers began giving pedal keyboards their own set of pipes and stops. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the pedal division usually consisted of a few 8' pipes and a single 16' or 32' pipe. By the early seventeenth century, pedal divisions became more complex, with a richer variety of pipes and tones. Nevertheless, the pedal division was usually inconsistent from one country to another.
Several sources, including an encyclopedia on the organ, claim that the pedalboard design improvements of the 1600s allowed the organist to actuate the pedals either with the toe of the foot or with the heel. However, organist Ton Koopman argues that "Bach's complete oeuvre [can be played] with the pedal technique of his time, in other words without the use of the heel." Koopman claims that in "Bach's day toe and heel pedalling was not yet known, as is evident from his organ works, in which all the pedal parts can be played with the toe.
In the 1600s and 1700s, pedalboards were rare in England. A critic for the New York Times in 1895 argued that this may explain why Handel's published organ works are generally lighter-sounding than those of J.S. Bach. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the pedal part of organ music was rarely given its own staff. Instead, the organ part would be put into two staves, which were mostly used for the upper and lower manual parts. When the composer wanted a part to be played with the pedal keyboard, they marked "Pedal", "Ped.", or simply "P". Often these signs were omitted entirely, and the the player would have to decide if the range of all the parts or the lowest part was appropriate for the pedal keyboard. This lack of specification is in keeping with many other aspects of Baroque musical performance practice, such as the use of improvised chords by organists and harpsichord players in the figured bass tradition and the use of improvised ornaments by solo singers and instrumentalists.
In the 19th century and early 20th century, the pedal division also underwent changes. The pedal divisions from the Baroque era had tended to include a small number of upper pedal stops, which allowed performers to perform higher-range melodies with the pedalboard. In the 19th century and early 20th century, organ designers removed most of the upper pedal stops, and used pedal divisions which were dominated by 8' and 16' stops. This design change, which coincided with the musical trend for music with a deep, rich bass part, meant that pedalboard was used mainly for the performance of bass parts. By the mid-19th century, the pedal part of organ music was increasingly given its own staff, which meant that organ music began being printed in three-stave systems (upper manual, lower manual, and pedal keyboard). Whereas early organ composers left the way that pedal keyboard lines were played to the discretion of the player, in the later 19th century, composers began indicating suggested foot usage. In addition to indicating whether the left or right foot should be used, symbols would indicate whether the toe or heel of the foot should be used. The left toe was often indicated with a "^" symbol, and the right toe with a "v" symbol. The left heel was indicated with a "u" or "o" symbol below the stave, and the right heel was marked with a "u" or "o" symbol above the stave.
These MIDI systems can be much less expensive than metal or wooden bass pipes, which are very costly to purchase and install, due to their heavy weight (up to one ton per pipe), large size, and need for large amounts of wind. Another rationale for using MIDI systems is that it may be easier to get a focused sound with a MIDI system, because all of the bass tone emanates from a single speaker or set of speakers. With traditional pipes, it can be difficult to give the pedal division a focused sound, because the large pipes tend to be spread out over the entire organ pipe chest.
This cost-saving measure has been the subject of controversy in the organ scene. Advocates of the use of MIDI pedal divisions argue that a good quality MIDI system will produce a better tone than an inexpensive set of bass pipes with money-saving "shortcuts" such as using stopped pipes and resultant tones to reduce the number of pipes that are needed. However, critics dislike the way that the use of MIDI pedal divisions blends electronically-amplified lower voices with the natural, wind-driven upper ranks. Willi Apel and Peter Williams argue that by definition, an organ must make its sound by air flowing through pipes. Some critics argue that the bass tone from a MIDI pedal division, which comes from an amplified 12" subwoofer, is not as "natural" and "open-sounding" as the vibrations from a massive, wind-driven 32-foot pipe.
Besides the number of pedals, the two main identifying aspects of a pedalboard are: (1) whether all the pedals are at the same height relative to the floor ["flat"], or whether the pedals in the middle are lower than those on out outer edges, forming a curved-in shape ["concave"], and (2) whether all the pedals are completely parallel to each other ["parallel"], or whether the pedals are closer together at the far end than at the end closest to the organ console ["radiating"]. Specifications vary by country, organbuilder, era, and individual tastes.
Exact design specifications for pedalboards are published in the United States by the AGO (which requires a 32-note concave/radiating board), in Great Britain by the RCO (which requires a design similar to the AGO's), and in Germany by the BDO (which allows both 30- and 32-note pedalboards, of both concave/radiating and concave/parallel varieties).
A small number of pedalboards have a pedal divide system which enables the organist to split the pedal board at its mid-point. With this system, an organist can play a melody with the right foot and a bass part with the left foot.
In some organs, a "pedalboard check" mechanism is used as a safety catch, to shut off the pedalboard keys when it is engaged. The mechanism prevents the pedalboard notes from being accidentally sounded during a part of a performance which is only written for the upper manuals.
Firmin Swinnen (1885-1972) was a Belgian organist who became famous in the US in the 1920s for his theater organ improvisations during silent films. Swinnen wrote a pedal cadenza for an arrangement of Widor's Fifth Symphony. The cadenza was published separately by The American Organist. The publisher promoted the cadenza it as the "most daring, the most musical Pedal Cadenza obtainable"; this praise is corroborated by reviewers who were at the performance, who remarked at the complex footwork required by the work. The symphony was performed 29 times during the week of its premiere, to "...literally screaming audiences...who had never seen such a sight as an organist up on a lift [platform] in the spotlight playing with his feet alone".
Although the pedalboard is generally used for the bass part, some composers of the twentieth century have used it for higher parts. In his serene Le Banquet Céleste Olivier Messiaen places the tune, registered for 4' flute (and higher ranks), in the pedals.
In popular music, the pedaling style may be more varied and idiosyncratic, in part because jazz or pop organists may be self-taught. As well, the pedaling styles may differ due to the design of electromechanical organs and spinet organs, many of which have shorter pedalboards that are designed to be played primarily with the left foot, so that the right foot can control a volume (swell) pedal.
Standalone pedalboards usually have a 13-note range and short pedals, which limits the types of basslines which can be performed to fairly simple passages. If the group's bass guitarist or electric guitarist is playing the pedalboard from a standing position, they could only use one foot at a time to play, which would further limit the types of passages which could be performed.
The BASYN analog bass synthesizer is a 2 VCO analog synthesizer which uses a 13-note "button board". Instead of using organ pedalboard-style pedals, the player depresses momentary pushbutton switches.
Some MIDI pedalboards are designed for the church pipe organ market, which means that they use AGO specifications such as a 32-note range. Most pipe organ-style MIDI pedalboards are too unwieldy for transportation, so they are typically installed under the upper manuals. However, a German company makes a MIDI pedalboard which has a hinge in the middle and wheels on the underside, which allows it to be moved more easily. Since AGO-specification MIDI pedalboards are often priced in between $1000 and $3000 USD, some amateur home organists make DIY MIDI pedalboards by retrofitting an old pedalboard with MIDI. Due to the popularity of theater organs and Hammond organs during the 1960s, there are many organ parts on the market, including 25-note pedalboards. After the pedalboard is cleaned up and the glass reed switches are repaired or replaced, the pedal contacts are soldered into a keyboard matrix circuit-equipped MIDI encoder, which can then be connected to the MIDI input of a digital sound module to create a bass organ tone .