E. Robert Schmitz
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The player piano goes back to the 1890s, but like today, the technology of the time sought to improve the listening experience. In 1905 German company Welte & Sons invented a player piano that played with expression. That is, the piano roll included extra information to tell the player system how loudly or softly to play each note.
It may seem incredible that you can now hear full fidelity recordings of pianists of the early 1900s on your Disklavier or PianoDisc, but read on...
This invention spawned a huge industry that soon saw a range of other reproducing pianos, including Ampico and Duo-Art. The companies made their money from selling rolls, which at the time were very expensive. Eg, a Welte roll in today's money would have cost over US$1000.
Reproducing piano manufacturing ceased around 1940, leaving us with a legacy of digital recordings in the form of piano rolls of most of the important pianists of the day, including Rachmaninoff, Lhevinne, Moiseiwitsch, Rubinstein, to name a few.
Then came the computer age. In the 1980s I developed a system of recording Ampico piano rolls in electronic form, using a complex recording machine of my design. To play these 'erolls' on an original Ampico required installing a set of electrically powered 'valves' to operate the pneumatic system in the piano.
During the 1990s, US developer Larry Broadmoore patented the PowerRoll, a detachable device that fits into a player piano's spool box. Others (eg, Gerety/Chase) have since developed MIDI valve systems that can be installed into a player piano so that, as with the PowerRoll, the piano could play from MIDI erolls.
The most significant development today is the mechanical MIDI piano, such as the Disklavier, PianoDisc, Stahnke LX, Bosendorfer CEUS system etc. These play from standard MIDI files, which required the eroll files described above to be converted to standard MIDI (SMF). This involved emulating the Ampico piano roll expression coding, which was done with a program called Windplay. The result is nearly 1500 eroll files in three formats to suit electrically powered or pneumatically powered instruments. These formats are explained on the next page.
Regarded now as the first computerised system to operate a piano, the Phillips-Ampico system was based on an Apple II computer with roll files stored on 5.25" disks. The system was marketed in Australia during the 1980s, and featured a large library of Ampico erolls. See Gallery page for photos
This is a mechanical piano capable of reproducing a performance with expression. In the '20s, these were vacuum powered (eg, Ampico, Duo-Art, Welte etc). Today they are electric, with the keys operated by solenoids (eg, Disklavier, PianoDisc.)
Background to the PA erolls
Air From Louise (extract)
Into the 21st Century
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