2007 Model E-Roll Player Review
I promised to let everyone know what I thought of this present 2007 E-roll player, once I had enough experience with it. I think I have had all I want, and remembered my promise to you to report on my experiences. (so far have installed 3).
First of all: Each system I have installed works well. I could not ask for a better response, once everything is playing. The first thing one must do, of course, is prove the player's own performance, because it isn't going to play better than the piano can play its own rolls initially, and that's what one must first do—prove the player with many good rolls.
Electronic Interface The Perfect Solution
With an original roll supply dwindling exponentially, and all the really great arrangements already gone as a result of so many more plays, it won't be long before no original rolls will play (regardless how much we enjoy them) because of embrittlement, when they are too shredded to fix again. We are reaching the limit now and are the generation upon which this option rests. We must decide to exercise our options and provide this music and arrangements for our grandchildren. Either we are determined to preserve our heritage for them, or we are not!
There have been many engineers and techs out there who have built scanners to preserve this musical heritage, and yet few designers are willing to invest in an interface system, so that the average homeowner has the capacity to enjoy all this music at home, on their piano. My hat goes off to Gerety and Chase who designed the first successful system to do this, yet whose partnership was dissolved before it could ever really be perfected. Gene was only able to complete an initial copy of the player software which he envisioned. Amazingly, people's ears were to the ground about this. Every one of my customers heard about the idea and inquired about it, and in most cases I installed it because it was easy to show that when you're getting a reproducing piano restored for another 50 years, and their rolls are not going to last another 10, what a waste of money it is, otherwise. As a result, I have installed, to date, about 15 units. That's more E-Roll Players than any other rebuilder at this writing.
However, we need a system that doesn't disappoint. We need an interface that is as sure and trustworthy as the piano it was installed in, and particularly which can be removed for the time that the piano and player are being worked on, and then replaced and it plays exactly like it always did. We need clearly marked components which will never present a puzzle to the next tech. We need a configuration system that doesn't require a computer nerd to install, and which has pre-power tests before voltage is applied. We want a stable and long-lived interface that is solid, well-engineered, mistake-proof, and friendly to the midi protocol. So far, we don't have anything like that, even though we do have a system that works well, presently.
Computer Software The Weakest Link
Unless the software is self-installing and doesn't expect the owner to know about certain earlier or later system files and other requirements, it isn't going to be satisfactory, because sooner or later, that owner is going to have to own a new computer. Computers change and owners upgrade only to discover that their e-roll player no longer works. If nobody including the designers can help them, the system will get a bad reputation, and even if the problem is eventually addressed, new customers may not be forthcoming and the builders may wonder why. The reason is obvious. A prospective customer first asks an owner how he likes his interface system before he bites the bullet, himself. One bad review equals a thousand satisfied customers.
Another serious problem presently is that the system cannot be easily configured. Configuration is the term given to mapping e-valves to the player's tracker bar ports. This is a nerd's nightmare and the instructions for developing the configuration file apply both to spreadsheet lingo and a smattering of programming protocol. It is too crude to expect most player techs to succeed. I gave Spencer Chase my desired map, hoping he would send me back a config file that would apply to most Duo-Art grands, but he didn't reciprocate. Such was never the case with Gene Gerety. I suspect that it wasn't that easy for Spencer, either. It was finally John Tuttle who figured out how to do it. He then sent Spencer a copy and that's the configuration that Spencer will probably send out for Duo-Art grands.
The setup disks are different from each other, some having folders and sub folders and many obscure file names, making it impossible to determine, without calling and asking, which files you need to use. That disk, in some cases, is just like a garbage can. “It's all there.” But play the game, and see if you can complete the puzzle in the prescribed amount of time. It would be fun to go into detail here, but that would take too much room. The short- short version is, you feel safer copying the player program's setup files to a folder on your hard drive first, then double-click “setup” from there, rather than have a bunch of utility files you don't know anything about which may also install themselves from the CD, unbeknownst. The result is, the program doesn't work that way. You were supposed to install it directly from the CD and hope the customer didn't get the other files, too. Thanks to Gene Gerety, I learned a work-around to this.
The Van Basco Karoke features would be an excellent “engine” to incorporate sometime, to allow both play lists and lyric display. It would also be possible for lyrics to be added to songs on the play lists at any time. But whatever is done it must be kept in mind that owners who are not of the computer age generation need an interface, so the program must be designed friendly. That means, “setup” has to supply its setup files itself, hopefully without relying on the internet because of an unsupported operating system, which this player program presently requires. It must also check for file attributes and reset them to “none” when required. It must then delete its temporary files and/or registry entries and not leave traces of its installation that will confuse the computer if the program has to be reinstalled. It should have a recently updated help file that actually helps, and it should be versatile but not all-encompassingly complex. That's called thoroughness and professionalism. That takes time, but would be greatly appreciated and sets standards.
100% of the problems I have ever had with this system has been with the software, its strange “error boxes,” and the configuration problems. Does that mean the hardware is fine? Just the opposite, actually. Now I'm thinking of other people who might install this thing at some point in time. I've lots of experience in electronics and am not prone to making wiring errors. So far, none of the problems actually experienced have ever been remotely related to my wiring, although it's always my wiring that is accused and which we spend a lot of time re-examining. Yet when it's all said and done we always end up back at the computer, or the midi interface dongle in-line which drives the player interface. There has always been some kind of indefinable, inscrutable, far-out computer problem that you'd never heard of before at each individual computer. Of course, my own laptop works fine. It's the customer's that doesn't.
System Installation Insufficient
This system comes with 6 short (about 3 ft.) flat note cables for reproducers, and an insufficient quantity and quality of power cabling (stiff hook-up wire) to stub off from for the 6 valve blocks. A control box roughly 8 inches square and 2 inches high is included, and a separate power supply. Also included is enough brass nipples and plastic “Y”s to make the connections to the piano tubing. The problem is, it was designed to be mounted around the piano stack in a grand, leaving it entirely vulnerable to moving damage.
I have spoken with the legal counsel for Modern Piano Moving in regard to this, who told me that no moving insurance from any company covers vulnerable electrical components mounted like this. In addition he said that the installer himself could be held liable. That wasn't a happy note. Besides, to install a system this way looks really amateurish. All of my installations are up and out of the way of direct damage by moving straps and blankets. I place the control box close to the tail of the grand where the owner can reach it without getting down on their hands and knees. The cables usually run around the end of a stack if tubing is in the front and they are always clamped securely. To do this however you must make your own cables, and that requires a $300 connector installer tool, unless you improvise. Spencer Chase offers to make custom cables for us. I have yet to be anywhere close just by using a tape measure and expecting flat cables to lie flat to the control box without twists and to be snugly fit, unless I simply fit them myself, one at a time. A tape measure will not allow precise, clean cable runs.
The 43 page manual with the system includes what you need to install it, but that information is scattered. There's no actual picture of a valve block with call-outs to show the customer exactly what they are looking at, or what they look like upon arrival and what they look like when you're ready to install them with the filters and nipples in place, although there's text, and plenty of it. Luckily, I don't need it now, but my suggestions to fix this and many other things were never heeded.
There's no explanation about reversing the driver cards on the valve blocks either—to date. This must be done half the time because only one side of the block is ported. In every single installation so far, I have disassembled the valve blocks and found either tiny snips of tinned iron wire stuck to its magnets, or metallic “dirt” of some kind, proof that these were not tested before they were bagged and shipped. so it's smart to do it, anyway, and a lot easier before you tube it up, than later.
The order of the manual's subjects is also confusing (if you had to rely on it you will have questions) and there are no page numbers so it's impossible to cite references.
I have found only one clear + and – shown on any picture in the manual, but using this allowed me to figure out the polarity of the valve block power pins. I later found it desribed verbally, too. In the control box drawing the 8 note cable connectors in it are not even labeled, there are no polarities given, just black and white wires, which are no longer supplied by the way. You will be sent red and green, so don't get confused. Why this hasn't been updated is not understood, unless it was done by someone else with a CAD program who cannot be reached any longer.
Minor details and mostly inapplicable minutia like changing midi channels and changing the valve “hold voltage” could be put in the back of the manual in a different chapter. These are special midi configurations and not necessary information for any normal installation. Instead they are included in the installation portion. It was suggested that the manual be condensed and made much more direct, and include crucial information that isn't there. That was not appreciated.
Unless they are microscopic and I cannot see them, the power connections are unlabeled. The control box has a single row of 16 identically spaced pins, arranged such that any power connector supplied could be displaced along every position available, even though some pins are +, some are -, and some are empty. These pins are unmarked.
The power connections on the valve boards are the same way—unmarked, although on one of the pages in the manual, somewhere, you will read that the positive terminal is the pin closest to the center of the board. It occurs only once. That's why I suggest supplying a picture with call-outs.
Power connectors are not only un-polarized, but they connect to the power pins on 3 sides, 6 aspects. To expect any owner to wire this thing up correctly the first time with that many opportunities and no electronics experience is not smart. And to expect an experienced engineer or tech to do it is begging for improvements from someone who knows better. But to refuse help or suggestions to make it better is not the way to approach this problem, but a great way to alienate everybody. If your product cannot be trusted, then neither can you be trusted.
There is one way to make this work, and that is to go through his entire system and make your own clear labels, use paint and mark the connectors, the cables, and the boards.
The Smoke Test
In a system so prone to damage by current reversal as this may be, the customer is given no way to test for wiring errors before he plugs it in. If he gets smoke, that's (supposedly) his fault. He burned something out. I've been lucky so far, in that nothing like that has happened, but I have heard of it. It has definitely happened, already. The old smoke test however can be prevented if the owner will not trust himself and clearly label everything, first. There is no pre-voltage checks given before power is first applied, but this could all be avoided with the addition of a simple blocking diode in the control box circuit. When several of my own systems didn't work, I was always accused initially of wiring it up wrong. What can happen, however, is that the processor, if zapped by postal x-rays or other transients unbeknownst, can become unstable and chatter the valves to shut down the s.s. power supply. This gives the appearance of a short but it is not. When the processor is damaged the solid state relay will not get a turn-on signal either, so the motor to the piano will not turn on and off, automatically. None of that is caused by miswiring and I have had to send the control box back for that very reason, but I took the blame (For the last time, I might add). I shall deal with people I trust and who trust me, and who don't need to fix the blame.
Time to Reboot
The control box sorely needs a reset switch, and I would think that on a $2500-$3000 system, it definitely deserves one. The excuse, when this was suggested, was “the cost.” Presently, whether you are 18 or 80, when it needs to be re-booted, just like computers need, on occasion, you get on your hands and knees under the piano, unplug it, wait a minute, and plug it back in. This also happens to this box occasionally and always at the wrong time of the evening.
Customer Not The Computer Generation
The people needing this system the most and able to afford it are probably going to be 50 years old and older. They want something that represents some thoughtful engineering and thorough, conscientious detailing. They don't want something pasted around their player stack, operated with a squirrelly, unforgiving computer program and vulnerable connections. They won't even try to use a program that looks officially nerdy and requires a two year De Vry computer course and yoga classes to operate marginally.
Rebuilders Are Key To Success
There is much more to a proper installation than most owners are able to manage. This, by and large, is a system that must be installed and initiated by a professional who understands the instrument, how to fix e-valves that initially leak or don't work, mounting systems that allow the parts to be protected and which don't need to be disassembled before repairs or tests on the player can be done, shop-made fixtures, covers, mounts and supports and cable clamps which have to be made, and in some cases, modifications to some of the piano's pedal trap mounts to allow enough room for cable passage. Without knowledge of many different piano configurations and the creativity to work around them, these interfaces cannot be installed well on some instruments. This requires an experienced player tech. The tech therefore will either make or break this interface idea. A little latitude and a humble nature to take suggestions on the supplier's part goes a long way. To date, this has been the biggest hurdle, since “no one else has complained.“ But considering the “Disasterous Murphys” designed into it, it should make one wonder, “well then, why not?”
These interfaces have the capability of bringing back the pneumatic reproducing piano, increasing roll sales as well, and forcing them to be restored properly. As a result, the entire industry will profit when anything is offered which will finally restore this instrument to a place of prominence, which it deserves. I cannot see how some enterprising soul will not see the opportunity presenting itself here and capitalize on it, doing it right, the first time!
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