by Thaddeus Kochanny of the Chicago AMICA Chapter
Part 1. Origins of the player piano
Automatic musical instruments have been around for over two millennia. Ctesibius, of Alexandria, Egypt, an inventor and writer, refers to a self-playing mechanical organ in the second century, B.C. Since then, as music making became more sophisticated, automatic instruments evolved into the Tower carillons (13th century), self-playing mechanisms (17th century), cylinder music boxes (18th century) and disc music boxes (19th century). By the early 20th century, automatic pianos, organs and orchestrions reach high sophistication level.
It all really started in 1800, France, when Jacquard Mills develops a loom controlled by punched cards. The cards programmed looms that created elaborately designed fabrics. They "instructed" the pathway for threads to follow to create the designs and patterns in the cloth.
A player piano can be played by hand in the usual way. The pedals and keyboard are identical to an ordinary piano. It just has the additional capacity to play by itself. Player pianos originated with a progression of vacuum operated systems. In the last twenty years or so, several digital electric versions have evolved to greatly expand the piano's abilities to include other instruments, accompaniment and visual effects.
In 1863, the Frenchman Fourneaux invented the player piano. He called it, "Pianista", the first pneumatic piano mechanism, which was introduced at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. In 1887, a year after Votey invented the Pianola; Edwin Welte introduced the perforated paper roll in Germany. The perforated roll mechanism to make music was based on the Jacquard punch cards used to weave designs into cloth.
The piano became 300 years old in 2000 A.D. Its evolution began in the 13th Century, when someone put a harp inside a box and added keys that struck rather than plucked the strings. The first automatic piano was unveiled in New York City by Needham and Sons in 1880. It was built by R. W. Paine and was an adaptation of the orguinette mechanism that was set up by William Tremaine at what later became the Aeolian Company.
Part 2. Heyday of the player piano
Since then, it's been a long series of incremental additions. As mentioned above, in the spring and summer of 1896, Detroit's Edwin Scott Votey invented the PIANOLA in his home workshop at 312 Forest Avenue, Detroit. Votey's first 1896 machine was in a piano sized cabinet that was pushed up to the piano keyboard so that a row of wood "fingers" aligned with the keys.
It used perforated paper rolls and foot-powered pedals. His was the first self-playing piano attachment. He made his patent application based on a smaller version in 1897. On May 22, 1900 he was awarded patent number 650,285 for the first practical pneumatic piano attachment. The Aeolian Company of New York produced it as their "Weber" and "Pianola" player pianos.
The Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1898 saw the first large-scale use of Nikola Tesla's alternating current generators. His invention lit the thousands of lights made by the Thomas Edison Company and opened the door to practical electric transmission nationwide. Earlier, in 1891, Eugene Singer's Sostenente Piano (Paris) demonstrates an alternating current activating string to achieve a more controlled play.
Punched paper rolls for the first Pianola were made by a technician perforating the paper after it was marked up in pencil using the original music score. The music sounded flat, like organ grinder playing, due to the lack of expression. Later, roll recording pianists used a special recording piano that marked the paper as the music was played. This allowed some expression such as tempo and phrasing to be built-in.
Punched paper rolls also drove the first 88-note player pianos. Their music is created when the operator or "pianoist" pumps foot pedals that operate a vacuum motor. An 88-note piano roll tracking mechanism, powered by an air motor, transports the punched roll across the tracker bar. Each piano key is connected to the tracker bar, one hole per key. On 88-note player pianos, by varying the pressure applied to the foot pedals and manipulating levers mounted below the keyboard, the operator manually adds color and expression to the music.
The player piano's heyday lasted from 1900 to the Depression in the1930's. Affordable radios started becoming commonplace in 1927. In 1932, not a single player piano was shipped from the factories. Player pianos sounded much better than radio or the Edison mechanical phonographs of that era. Player pianos were expensive but families who had them enjoyed the musical talents of the best pianists of the day. The poverty of the Great Depression effectively ended player piano production. Uncounted thousands of these instruments were chopped up and used for fuel.
Part 3. The reproducing piano
Reproducing piano rolls had additional punched holes along both roll edges that activate mechanisms controlling tempo, volume, expression and subtle tone, just as the recording artist played the original music. Holes in the paper matching holes in the bar activate the keys creating the music.
In 1905, Ludwig Hupfeld in Leipzig built the Dea reproducing piano. It "reproduces" the original artist's musical interpretation. "Reproducing" here means that the shading, expression, tempo changes used by the recording pianist were captured and played through rows of punch holes located in the margins of the piano roll. Three companies made reproducing mechanisms and licensed these to various piano manufacturers. The Aeolian Company, which started the technology, introduced the DUO-ART reproducing piano. The long list of world-renown pianists who recorded for DUO-ART included the best of the classical composers and artists then living.
The American Piano Company (AMPICO) used a different design to achieve the same result. It functions by regulating the suction level used to operate the keys, thus varying the force, tempo and intensity of the notes they play.
The Welte Company of Germany's "keyless Red Welte" introduced the first such instrument in 1904. In 1904, Freiberg, Germany's Welte developed its own reproducing player piano action using an electric suction pump and sophisticated expression control mechanism. The Pianola "roll-up" mechanism is now inside the piano! They called it the Welte-Mignon licensee reproducing action. Red Welte dispensed with key board, foot pedals and hand controls in favor of electric operation. Welte also introduced a cabinet-style external player similar to the original roll-up Pianola for use on any ordinary piano. Welte-Mignon Licensee reproducing action was the third version of reproducing mechanism. The big Three: DUO-ART, AMPICO AND WELTE-MIGNON dominated reproducing piano mechanisms in America.
The evolution of the reproducing, vacuum operated player piano continued through the 1930's but the high cost in a "down" economy killed the market for these instruments. After the Second World War, prosperity returned, interest in player pianos revived on a much-diminished scale. Many of the instruments that survived were restored. Many more unfortunately, were scrapped. Yet, technology continues to develop.
Vacuum type player piano actions were installed in instruments covering a broad price range. High-grade pianos spared no expense in their manufacture. Popular pianos represented the golden mean, the piano to buy. These pianos are well made by a responsible concern. Commercial pianos emphasize musical quality at a popular price. It is sold for what it is at a price consistent with its qualities. Trade -Mark pianos often have the dealer's rather than maker's names on them. Special name pianos bear any names other than their maker or dealer. This doesn't apply to new, modern instruments, but to those sold prior the World War II.
Part 4. Electronic player pianos
In 1886, the Berlin, Germany firm, Electorphonisches Klavier under Richard Eisenmann used and electric current to activate piano strings. Their system positioned electromagnets close to the string to produce an infinite "sustain" when a note is played. The system was perfected 27 years later in 1913.
Eugene Singer of Paris, France in 1891 introduced an alternating current (A/C) system that was pitched to the frequency of the string it was intended to activate. Control was said to have "improved".
Dr. Lee DeForest of New York, who later went on to invent the audion tube used in television, invented an amplifier patented in 1915. It was the first electronic instrument, but it was never produced.
In 1926, Hugo Gernsback at Pianorad in New York developed an early electronic instrument that used audio frequency oscillators on a two-octave keyboard. Its own oscillator controlled each note.
Since then, the floppy disc and later, the compact disc replaced the perforated paper roll. Holes read by a tracker bar that activated piano keys through bellows and valves morphed into zeros and one's read by a computer that activates solenoids actuating the piano keys. Expression, color, shading and tempo changes are retained by the new technology.
Today, QRS Music makes Story and Clark electronic player pianos. Their electronic system is called "Pianomation". This system may be retrofitted to ordinary pianos and has the unique capability of adding accompaniment by other instruments/orchestra to the playing piano. Yamaha Company also sells player pianos with its factory installed "Disklavier" system. This player system cannot be retrofitted to regular pianos.
Should you be in the market for a piano, in selecting one, the buyer should consider the room size. If selecting an upright rather than grand piano design, the instrument should not be placed against a wall because doing so muffles the sound. Tone, touch and durability are important. Case design, finish and wood type influence the cost.
If you would like to learn more about player pianos, reproducing pianos or electronic pianos, please contact one of our AMICA chapters and join us for a meeting, where you can meet others who share your interests.
"Pianola" redirects here. For the village in Italy, see Pianola (L'Aquila).
For other uses, see Player piano (disambiguation).
A player piano (also known as pianola) is a self-playing piano, containing a pneumatic or electro-mechanical mechanism that operates the piano action via pre-programmed music recorded on perforated paper, or in rare instances, metallic rolls, with more modern implementations using MIDI. The rise of the player piano grew with the rise of the mass-produced piano for the home in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sales peaked in 1924, then declined as the improvement in phonograph recordings due to electrical recording methods developed in the mid-1920s. The advent of electrical amplification in home music reproduction via radio in the same period helped cause their eventual decline in popularity, and the stock market crash of 1929 virtually wiped out production.
The idea of automatic musical devices can be traced back many centuries, and the use of pinned barrels to operate percussion mechanisms (such as striking bells in a clock) was perfected long before the invention of the piano. These devices were later extended to operate musical boxes, which contain a set of tuned metal teeth plucked by the player mechanism.
An early musical instrument to be automated was the organ, which is comparatively easy to operate automatically. The power for the notes is provided by air from a bellows system, and the organist or player device only has to operate a valve to control the available air. The playing task is ideally performed by a pinned barrel, and the art of barrel organs was well advanced by the mid-18th century.
The piano is a complex instrument, requiring each note to be struck with a different force to control the dynamics of the performance. The entire force required to sound the note must be given by the performer hitting the keys. It proved to be difficult for a player device to combine a variable percussive force and a controlled note duration. Barrels do not provide a percussive force, but a relatively gentle switching motion.
Early barrel pianos moved the hammer back and forwards continuously as the operator turned the handle, but the hammers did not strike the strings until moved slightly forwards by a pin in the barrel. The hammers hit repeatedly until the pin was removed. This played the note, but at a fixed dynamic and with a tremolo action quite unlike a pianist.
The development of the player piano was the gradual overcoming of the various difficulties of controlled percussive striking and note duration. The earliest practical piano playing device was probably the Forneaux Pianista, which used compressed air to inflate a bellows when the barrel pin opened a valve. This bellows struck the piano key and so played the note.
The acceleration of developments leading to the pneumatic 'player' device started in the 1840s and began to reach some recognizable device in the 1870s. The start of the player period can probably be seen as the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia, USA. At this exhibition were a number of automatic player devices, including the Pianista, that contained the elements which would lead to the player.
The earliest description of a piano playing device using perforated paper rolls was Claude Seytre's French patent of 1842. The concept was sound, but the device described was impractical in the way it read the roll and operated the piano.
In 1847, Alexander Bain described a device that used a paper roll as a 'travelling valve' that allowed air to flow through the reeds of a reed organ. Simple reed and pipe organs using this sort of system are still being produced. However, the air flow is not sufficient to drive a piano mechanism. In 1848 Charles Dawson of England described a more complex travelling valve device which added little to Bain's.
Hunt & Bradish of the USA, 1849, used a roll read by sprung fingers, the springs being strong enough to operate the piano mechanism directly. This device applied the entire playing strength to the paper, so would have shredded it rapidly, and the device would have had to be as wide as the piano keyboard.
In 1851, Pape, England, submitted a patent that recognized the need to remove the playing force from the paper, using light springs to read the roll and activate a more robust device which plays the note—a mechanical amplifier.
The first device to address the practical requirement of operating a piano mechanism was Forneaux's, of 1863. This recognized that a hard strike was needed to throw the hammer towards the keys. It used a traditional barrel, but tripped a pneumatic device that inflated bellows rapidly to operate the note. In 1871 a perforated cardboard book was substituted for the barrel, but it was still read using sprung fingers. This device entered manufacture, and is generally regarded as the first practical player device. It was exhibited in Philadelphia in 1876.
Van Dusen's American patent of 1867 was the first to describe a pneumatic striker operated by a roll. It was probably based on the work of John McTammany.
A leap in thought occurred in the 1873 patent of the Schmoele brothers. They described a 'double valve' system that acted as a pneumatic amplifier, reading the roll electrically and operating the pneumatics with an electromagnet. They also exhibited at Philadelphia. With some modification, and pneumatic reading of the roll, this would become the final player piano some 20 years later, although the Schmoele brothers never benefited from it.
In 1876, John McTammany exhibited a working player in Philadelphia that used a paper roll read using sprung fingers whose slight movement triggered a mechanical player device. This operated a reed organ. McTammany had been experimenting since the mid-1860s, and went on to be one of the key names in the early player industry. He claimed to be the inventor of the 'player', but not the 'player piano'—an important distinction.
As of 1876, in Philadelphia, three working devices were exhibited that between them contained almost all the components that the final player piano would require. However, it was to be 20 years before all these aspects were combined. Surprisingly, the missing component was the pneumatic reading of the roll. This was in all probability due to the lack of suitably flexible airtight material to translate the air flow into the mechanical movement needed to trigger the player device.
The mechanism that finally came into widespread use in the 20th century was all-pneumatic, with foot-operated bellows providing a source of vacuum needed to operate a pneumatic motor driving the take-up spool while each small inrush of air through a hole in the paper roll was amplified in two pneumatic stages (the so-called double valve mechanism) to sufficient strength to strike a loud note.
The Pianola was advertised in one of the most high-profile campaigns ever, making unprecedented use of full-page color advertisements. It cost $250 (equivalent to $7,400 in 2017). Other, cheaper makes were launched. A standard 65-note format evolved, with 11 1⁄4-inch-wide (290 mm) rolls and holes spaced 6 to the inch, although several player manufacturers used their own form of roll incompatible with other makes.
Huge sums were spent: by 1903, the Aeolian Company had more than 9,000 roll titles in their catalog, adding 200 titles per month. Many companies' catalogs ran to thousands of rolls, mainly of light, religious or classical music. Ragtime music did feature, but not commonly: in this period, the player was being sold on its artistic capabilities to rich buyers.
The pioneer of this decade was Melville Clark, who introduced two key ideas: the full-scale roll which could play every note on the piano keyboard, and the internal player as standard. Both ideas were ridiculed by his competitors as unnecessary or impractical, but Clark rapidly won both battles.
By the end of the decade, the piano player device was obsolete, as was the 65-note format. This was a major catastrophe for many small manufacturers, who had spent all their capital on setting up 65-note player operations, and the result was rapid consolidation in the industry.
A new full-scale roll format, playing all 88 notes, was agreed at an industry conference in Buffalo in 1908, the so-called Buffalo Convention. This kept the 11¼-inch roll, but now had smaller holes spaced at 9 to the inch. Any player made anywhere in the world could now play any make of roll. Understanding the need for compatibility was the defining moment of the player industry. The consensus was key to avoiding a costly format war, which plagued almost every other form of entertainment media that followed roll music.
While the player piano matured in America, a young inventor in Germany, Edwin Welte, was working on a player which controlled all the aspects of the performance automatically, so that his machine would play back a recorded performance exactly as if the original pianist was sitting at the piano keyboard. This device, the Welte-Mignon, was launched in 1904. It created new marketing opportunities, as manufacturers could now get the foremost pianists and composers of the day to record their performances on a piano roll, allowing owners of player pianos to experience such a performance in their own homes on their own instruments, exactly as the original pianist had played it.
From the early days, manufacturers sought to create mechanisms which would pick out the melody of a musical composition over the background of the rest of the music in the same manner as a live pianist. The true player piano was designed to be a fully interactive musical experience rather than merely an automatic instrument, and hence they are fitted with interactive control levers intended for the "player pianist" or "pianolist" to create a music performance to their own taste. The player piano would provide aspiring pianists and music lovers with the technical dexterity they lacked while permitting them to control the musical performance interactively as if they were an accomplished pianist.
Aeolian introduced Metrostyle in 1901 and the Themodist in 1904, the latter being an invention "bringing out the melody clearly above the accompaniment." With sales growing rapidly, and the instruments themselves relatively mature, this decade saw a wider variety of rolls become available. Two major advances were the introduction of the hand-played roll, both classical and popular, and the word roll.
- Hand-played rolls introduced musical phrasing into the rolls, so that player pianists did not have to introduce it through the use of tempo controls – something that few owners ever felt much inclination to do.
- Word rolls, a significant 1916 innovation, featured printed lyrics in the margins, making it simple to use players to accompany singing in the home, a very popular activity in the years before radio and acceptable disc recordings became available.
The other major advance was the arrival of major commercial rivals for the Welte-Mignon: the Ampico and the Duo-Art systems, both launched around 1914. When World War I came in 1914 and German patents were seized in the US, these two companies were left to compete with each other. In England, Aeolian had a huge factory and sales network, so easily outsold the Ampico. It is estimated that perhaps 5% of players sold were reproducing pianos.
In America by the end of the decade, the new 'jazz age' and the rise of the fox-trot confirmed the player piano as the instrument of popular music, with classical music increasingly relegated to the reproducing piano. Most American roll companies stopped offering large classical catalogs before 1920, and abandoned 'instrumental' rolls (those without words) within a few years.
Things were somewhat different in England, where the Aeolian Company continued to promote classical material to a receptive public. Word rolls never became the norm in England, always being charged at a 20% premium over non-word rolls. As a result, post-World War I American and British roll collections look very different.
1920–30 was the decade that saw the player piano reach its peak, and then its rapid decline. The peak sales of instruments and rolls were in the first few years of the decade. At one point, more than half of all pianos being made in America contained a player unit. The player piano was not an obscure by-line – it was the dominant force in the industry.
In the early 1920s, many pianists of note, in classical and popular fields, were called on to make rolls.
Little new technically arose through the 1920s. Perhaps the most significant was the launch of a significantly improved form of the Ampico system, the Ampico B, in 1926. This was accompanied by an automatic recording device that could record a pianist's note timings and dynamics.
The technical advances of the 1920s were instead largely in radio technology. The key development there was the introduction of amplification, so that it was possible to sit around the radio and listen as a family, unlike the earlier crystal sets which required the use of headphones. Amplification was also applied to the recording of 78 rpm records, the electrical recording systems introduced around 1925 allowing a major rise in sound quality. Radio and these new records rapidly eroded the market for the player piano, and it was declining from the mid-1920s onwards. Novel attempts to combine the appeal of the player piano and its new rivals were made by building radios and/or phonographs into player pianos themselves, but even this could not entice the public to continue buying player pianos.
When the Wall Street crash came in October 1929, the player piano was already in a very weak position, and sales effectively ceased. Only a few well-capitalized companies continued in business after this. Many of these companies were the result of consolidation throughout the 1920s, which had already seen the loss of most names, particularly in the roll-making field.
During this period player piano pneumatic technology was used as the basis for the aircraft training simulators by inventor Edwin Albert Link. This device, powered by suction and bellows, moved realistically in response to a pilot's operation of the controls. Link developed the flight simulator in his father's Binghamton, New York factory, which made coin-operated pianos for commercial establishments and movie theater pipe organs. The Link Company commercialized the device in 1929. A British equivalent was the Silloth trainer, based on Duo-Art technology. Electronic descendants of these devices are now widespread.
A few companies struggled on through the 1930s. In 1931 Aeolian purchased the American Piano Company, makers of the Ampico. To bring capital to the business, they sold off all their overseas assets, so the large piano factory at Hayes was closed and sold with one month's notice, to the Gramophone Company, also based in the town. The joint Aeolian-American operation stopped making new classical rolls and concentrated on popular material, and the final new rolls were issued in the late 1930s.
A major survivor throughout this was the QRS piano roll company, originally an offshoot of Melville Clarke's operation. Owned by the mid-1920s by Max Kortlander, and funded by his income as a composer, QRS continued to issue rolls, all of them created by J. Lawrence Cook, chief roll arranger from 1921 to 1961 (he supplemented his income as a postal worker). Thanks to QRS, roll repertoire is available from the 1930s and 1940s.
Other than QRS, the end of the 1930s had seen the end of the player piano era. The lingering roll production in England finally ceased in 1941 when paper rationing made it impossible to continue. The Aeolian Duo-Art recording machinery was destroyed by bombing during World War II, as was the Welte factory in Freiburg.
However, the immediate aftermath of the war saw the growth of interest in this lost era. Richard Simonton purchased the surviving Welte-Mignon rolls from Edwin Welte, and the first disc recordings were made of the performances. The enthusiast era had, tentatively, begun.
During the early 1950s, a number of collectors began to rescue player pianos and all the other instruments of the 1920s and earlier. Amongst them was Frank Holland, who formed his collection while working in Canada. On returning to England he located a number of like-minded enthusiasts and started to hold meetings at his house in west London. In 1959 this was formalized as 'The Player Piano Group'. By the early 1960s, Frank Holland had formed the British Piano Museum (now the Musical Museum) in Brentford.
In America, another collector was Harvey Roehl, who was so enthused by the players that in 1961 he published a book called Player Piano Treasury. This sold by the tens of thousands, and was followed by books on how to rebuild and restore these instruments. Harvey Roehl's Vestal Press was a major driving force in raising awareness of the player piano within the general population.
Other societies worldwide were formed to preserve and study all aspects of mechanical music, such as the Musical Box Society International (MBSI) and the Automatic Musical Instruments Collector's Association (AMICA) in the USA.
In 1961, Max Kortlander died of a heart attack, and QRS was run by his wife until she sold the company to Ramsi Tick in 1966, in whom it found another stalwart champion whose business philosophy was not so much profit as to limit losses. QRS's presence ensured that owners of newly awakened players could purchase rolls of the latest titles, so ensuring that the instrument remained current, not just a historical curiosity.
So great was the revival that in the 1960s, production of player pianos started again. Aeolian revived the Pianola, albeit this time in a small spinet piano suited to post-war housing. Other manufacturers followed, and production has continued intermittently ever since. QRS today offer a traditional player piano in their Story and Clark piano.
In recent years, there has been greater focus on full rebuilding as original instruments finally stop working. Early enthusiasts could often get by with limited patching, but the repair requirements have slowly risen, although even to this day it is possible to find original 1920s instruments that still work after a fashion – a tribute to their quality, and an indication of their continued popularity.
While there are many minor differences between manufacturers, a player piano is a piano that contains a manually controlled pneumatically operating piano player mechanism. It is intended that the operator manually manipulates the control levers in order to produce a musical performance. Various aids to the human operator were developed:
- Split stack control
- These instruments (the vast majority of all player pianos) have the pneumatic player mechanism divided into two approximately equal halves. The operator can lower the volume of either half of the keyboard independently of the other in order to create musical effects.
- Theme control
- These instruments have peripheral pneumatic hardware systems fitted which, when used in conjunction with special music rolls, are able to highlight those notes in the score which are intended to be accented away from those whose volume it is desired to subdue. Basic theme pianos subdue all notes and release full power to only those notes which are aligned with special music roll "theme" perforations. More subtle systems (such as Hupfeld's "Solodant" and Aeolian's "Themodist") have a graduated theme control where the background subdued level and the foreground melody level are both controllable. The nature of the mechanism is such that where a chord occurs notes to be emphasised have to be advanced slightly away from their neighbors in order for the mechanism to identify them.
- Isolated theme
- The hardware of these pianos is able to pick out the melody notes away from their background accompaniment within the entire range of the keyboard without the necessity for breaking up chords i.e. a software workaround. Manufacturers of these systems were the UK "Dalian" and "Kastonome" and the US "Solo Carola".
- Expression player
- The hardware of these pianos is able to generate a broad general musical dynamic from roll coding. The pneumatic stack operates at fixed pre-set tension levels depending on the coding giving a general effect of musical dynamics. Examples of this system are "Recordo" and "Empeco"
- Reproducing pianos
- These are fully automated versions of the player piano requiring no human manual control in order to produce the illusion of a live musical performance. This is achieved by the utilization of music rolls where tempo mapping is fully incorporated into the music rolls i.e. the note lengths of a live performance have been captured. The volume dynamics are created by peripheral pneumatic expression accessories under control from system-specific music roll coding. This obviates the need for human manipulation of the manual dynamic control levers. Typically an electric motor provides power to remove the human operator from the necessity to provide motive power by treadling. Most reproducing pianos are capable of manual over-ride operation, and many are constructed for dual functionality both as regular player pianos and also as reproducing pianos. Numerous companies made these utilizing different technology. The first successful instrument was called the "Mignon" launched by Welte in 1904.
Main article: Piano roll
Music rolls for pneumatic player pianos, often known as piano rolls, consist of a continuous sheet of paper rolled on to a spool. The spool fits into the player piano spool box whereupon the free end of the music sheet is hooked onto the take-up spool which will unwind the roll at an even pace across the reading mechanism (the "tracker bar") The music score to be played is programmed onto the paper by means of perforations. Different player systems have different perforation sizes, channel layouts and spool fittings though the majority conform to one or two predominant formats latterly adopted as the industry standard.
Music is programmed via a number of methods.
- the music is marked out on master stencil on a purely metronomic basis direct from the printed sheet music with the player-pianists being left to create their own music performance
- the music stencil is created metronomically via a piano-keyboard operated punch machine
- a live performance is played onto a special piano connected to an electronically operated marking mechanism, and a physical stencil is produced from this live output, either as-is or after some general regularisation of tempo where necessary
- modern computer software and MIDI software can be used to create piano roll stencils for operating modern-day perforating machines and create new titles.
The player piano sold globally in its heyday, and music rolls were manufactured extensively in the USA, as well as most European countries, South America, Australia and New Zealand. A large number of titles from all manufacturers survive to this day, and rolls still turn up regularly in large quantities.
It was reported that the last remaining mass producer of piano rolls in the world, QRS Music, temporarily halted production of the rolls on December 31, 2008. However, QRS Music still list themselves as the only roll manufacturer remaining, and claim to have 45,000 titles available with "new titles being added on a regular basis".
Preservation and restoration
Roll scanning has made significant advances in recent years, applying technology to possibly the most obvious yet hardest of all conservation and preservation topics, the replication of aging and disintegrating piano rolls.
Roll scanning is the process of reading a music roll into a computerized form that can be used for any purpose, such as cutting new rolls or operating old or new instruments directly. This uses the same technology as domestic flatbed scanners, hence the term roll scanner. The ubiquity of computers makes scanning fundamental to the preservation of rolls of all types, as well as providing the basis for secondary activities such as operating instruments directly. Roll master re-creation is the process of understanding how the roll was originally manufactured so that errors arising from the scanning are removed, and the computer works to the same accuracy as the original perforators in the roll factory. This allows exact replica rolls to be made, and maximizes the accuracy of any secondary activity.
Replication of the original master from which a perforated paper roll was created is the highest aim of roll scanning. Roll masters are not literally replicated, because they were originally large cardboard rolls, but re-created in a computerized form. The rationale is that starting with the master in this form, anything can be done with the music – cut new rolls, operate player pianos fitted with electronic valves, or simulate a performance for playing on modern instruments – all without introducing any errors.
This is the case because virtually all rolls were punched in fixed rows, where punches will occur only in one row or the next, but never in between: the roll is effectively a digital storage medium. Scanning simply counts the distance from the start of the roll to each note event, giving an analogue, and hence inaccurate, representation of the roll. If instead the rows are counted, the result is an exact representation of the original roll – a perfect digital copy. This can be done by applying knowledge about the original roll's creation to the scan.
Once the master computerized copy has been recreated, all of the information in the roll is retained, and anything done after this can be done with the accuracy of the original roll. When using the analogue version, all its timing errors are carried through to whatever is done with it. This is particularly true when making recut rolls, where imposing the punch-row spacing of the perforator over the (different) row spacing of the original roll causes surprisingly obvious and audible errors. However, even analogue uses of the scan, such as operating instruments directly, benefits from the recreated master because of the way it removes timing errors from the basic scan, and in so doing allows the accuracy of the scanner itself to be calibrated.
Roll scanning itself is not of major significance – it simply adds optical technology to the pneumatic, electrical and mechanical technologies previously used to extract data from perforated paper. The ability to store the extracted data on electronic media marked the start of the modern era of scanning, but did little more than act as a substitute for the paper roll. The most familiar such system is the Marantz Pianocorder, but at least two systems were produced, by Wayne Stahnke and Peter Phillips, to operate pneumatic pianos.
From having the performance in "streaming" form on a tape to extracting the note events into a list in a computer is a fairly small step. Such computerisation of the scanned data adds the ability to edit and manipulate it. The key advance is the manipulation that converts the analogue scan data to a replica of the perforation master.
The first serious and sustained roll master replication exercise was probably that of Wayne Stahnke, who described his by-then completed methods in the Mechanical Music Digest in March 1996, and used them to practical advantage in his Rachmaninoff-Bösendorfer CDs. He started with a pneumatic roll reader (from the mid-1970s, for the IMI Cassette Converter system and later projects) and later moved to an optical system. He has been offering commercial scanning and roll master re-creation since the mid-1990s.
Within UK Player Piano Group circles, the topic of recreating roll masters was already well established by 1996. Rex Lawson had raised the topic as part of his work developing a perforation-level roll editor software suite for his Perforetur rolls, and the topic was publicly discussed in the PPG bulletin during winter 1994/5 when Lawson explained precisely why rolls should be copied punch-for-punch, digitally.
Richard Stibbons started his roll-scanning attempts in the mid-1990s, and described his progress in PPG article “The PC Pianola” in December 1995. Soon afterwards he adopted the master replication idea, described very thoroughly in September 2000. This led directly to the launch of the Rollscanners group in February 2001.
The aim of this group has been to focus and publicise scanning efforts worldwide, encouraging sharing of progress and knowledge, a radical shift from the earlier essentially private attempts.
Later developments of the reproducing piano include the use of magnetic tape and floppy disks, rather than piano rolls, to record and play back the music; and, in the case of one instrument made by Bösendorfer, computer assisted playback.
In 1982, Yamaha Corporation introduced the "Piano Player", which was the first mass-produced, commercially available reproducing piano that was capable of digitally capturing and reproducing a piano performance using floppy disk as a storage medium. The Piano Player was replaced in 1987 by the Yamaha Disklavier and since 1998, the Disklavier PRO models are capable of capturing and reproducing "high-resolution" piano performances of up to 1024 velocity levels and 256 increments of positional pedaling using Yamaha's proprietary XP (Extended Precision) MIDI specification.
Almost all modern player pianos use MIDI to interface with computer equipment. Most modern player pianos come with an electronic device that can record and playback MIDI files on floppy disks and/or CD-ROMs, and a MIDI interface that enables computers to drive the piano directly for more advanced operations. The MIDI files can trigger electromagnetic devices called solenoids, which use electric current to drive small mechanical pistons mounted to the key action inside the piano. Live performance or computer generated music can be recorded in MIDI file format for accurate reproduction later on such instruments. MIDI files containing converted antique piano-rolls can be purchased on the Internet.
As of 2006[update], several player piano conversion kits are available (PianoDisc, Pianomation, etc.), allowing the owners of normal pianos to convert them into computer controlled instruments. The conversion process usually involves cutting open the bottom of the piano to install mechanical parts under the keyboard, although one organization—Logos Foundation—has manufactured a portable, external kit. A new player piano conversion kit was introduced in 2007-08 by Wayne Stahnke, the inventor of the Bösendorfer SE reproducing system, called the "LX".
Steinway now manufactures a player piano based on Wayne Stahnke's Live Performance LX system. Live Performance Model LX, was sold to Steinway in 2014 and re-branded as Spirio. In contrast to other piano brands, a recording option is not available in Steinway Spirio pianos.
Comparison to electric pianos
A player piano is neither an electric piano, electronic piano, nor a digital piano. The distinction between these instruments lies in the way sounds are produced. A player piano is an acoustic piano where the sound is produced by hammer strikes on the piano strings. Electrical or electronic components are limited to moving the keys or hammers mimicking the actions of a person; no sound is produced from electrically amplified audio.
- Reblitz, Arthur A. Player Piano Servicing and Rebuilding. ISBN 0-911572-40-6 Lanham, Maryland: Vestal Press, 1985.
- Reblitz, Arthur A. The Golden Age of Automatic Musical Instruments. ISBN 0-9705951-0-7 Woodsville, New Hampshire: Mechanical Music Press, 2001.
- White, William Braid. Regulation and Repair of Piano and Player Mechanism together with Tuning as Science and Art. New York: Edward Lyman Bill, 1909.
- The Pianola Forum The Pianola Forum
- The Pianola Institute London, England
- The Musical Museum in London, England
- The Music House Museum in Traverse City, Michigan, USA
- The Player Piano Group England
- Upright Player Piano, Weber / Aeolian Co. Ltd., Hayes ca. 1927, Andrzej Szwalbe Collection, Ostromecko Palace near Bydgoszcz, Poland
1. Pedal. 2. Pedal connection. 3. Exhauster (one only shown). 4. Reservoir; high tension (low-tension reservoir not shown.) 5. Exhaust trunk. 6. Exhaust tube to motor. 7. Air space above primary valves. 8. Secondary valves. 9. Striking pneumatic. 10. Connection from pneumatic to action of piano. 11. Piano action. 12. Pneumatic motor. 13. Trackerboard (music roll passes over trackerboard).