History of the Player Piano - Music Rolls

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. 1) 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 2) the music stencil is created metronomically via a piano-keyboard operated punch machine 3) 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 4) 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, including South America and Australia. Even New Zealand had their own home-grown roll brand and machinery. A vast number of titles from all manufacturers survive to this day and roll still turn up regularly in large quantities.

The last remaining mass producer of piano rolls in the world, QRS Music, halted production of the rolls on December 31, 2008. [2]

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 computerised 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 maximises the accuracy of any secondary activity.

Reasons for replicating the master roll 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 computerised form. The rationale is that if you start with the master in this form you can do anything 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.

Why is this so? The simple answer is that 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 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 you count in rows, you have 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 has been recreated, you have perfect and complete knowledge about the roll, and anything you want to do after this can be done to the accuracy of the original roll. If you stick with the analogue version all its timing errors are carried through to whatever you do with it, and frequently amplified along the way. 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 we are concerned about here 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 Rex 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.

from wikipedia


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