You may have heard all kinds of stories, pro and con, regarding the authenticity by which a reproducing player piano "reproduces" the performance of the artist. People who are supposed to know what they are talking about, owners of several instruments apiece, technicians, and so forth. Who do you believe? Is there really any way to know, actually for a fact? Or is this subject just based on opinion and there's really no objective criteria to base anything concrete upon? Is there nothing about it that you could cite to allay criticism? I think that after you read this short article, you will have a much better grasp of the true capabilities of the reproducing player piano.

But today, we have more than just the pneumatic instruments to consider. We also have the solenoid-type players, also called "reproducing player pianos" which operate off tapes or disks using a form of MIDI format. So let's take all kinds into account. After all, you ought to know that there are differences-- designed, purposeful performance criteria.

Regarding the solenoid players, they are very nice. Convenience is their primary concern however, and their performance, while being very well-mannered-- lovely players-- are primarily "salon-style" as far as famous power classics are concerned. That is not bad. It is a trade-off by the manufacturer. Salon style playing is what most people want to hear for live background music which does not take the piano up to its limits-- on purpose. It is a design decision. The solenoid type reproducers were never designed to produce awesomely realistic and exact performances of the heavy classics, whereas a pneumatic player was.

Physically, the commercial pianos using solenoids are not designed to play a parlor sized grand piano at its widest possible dynamic range, regardless of the feedback and controls incorporated in it. They "reproduce" most piano music very well, but not all. If electronic players become able to play as softly as a pneumatic instrument can reliably do so, year in and year out, they will still have a long way to go to play as powerfully. This is because the solenoids would have to be quite large and overly expensive, making the piano's stack larger and very noticeable, and the cost of the player mechanism would go up exponentially, making such an instrument affordable only to institutions like colleges, conservatories, and the like. This is not to denigrate the technology of these commercially available instruments, which are excellent players, and which have had many improvements since they were introduced. Personally, I really enjoy them so I am not afraid to compare them. Both types fill a need.

To give you an example of the difference between the force exerted by a pneumatic player and that exerted by an electric solenoid, I rigged up a little test a few years ago. I took the largest Duo-Art pneumatic in the bass section of a reproducing player and supplied it with 40 inches of vacuum–that's about the maximum that it will see under actual operating conditions, even though its pump is capable of 90 inches. I then hung a hook on the pneumatic finger of the moveable leaf and started weighting the hook to see when the moveable leaf would be overcome. This happened when I reached 15 lbs of dead weight.

By comparison, the solenoid at its top current can barely support 10 oz, and at that, only for about 3-5 seconds, before it begins to smoke. So heavily struck and held chords, repeated 3 or 4 times, while not lasting for 5 seconds but perhaps for a second each repetition, would heat these solenoids up quite rapidly, and as they heat up, they lose power exponentially on the same heating curve. This power curve is directly related to the repetition and loudness of the music, and the heat is quickly shared by their neighbors. A percentage of this is overcome with current compensating feedback circuits, which just heats them up more (when played to the full dynamic capability of the instrument). So there comes a point at which the limitation of the solenoid's size limits its maximum impulse as well as the number of minutes the instrument can be played at full power, which happens promptly at concert power in the heavy classics. That may be why we do not often hear the heavy classics playing on the electronic grands-- at least for any extended length of time. Instead, you usually hear the instrument playing background jazz softly. There's a reason for that.

By comparison, the pneumatic reproducing player pianos began life in this country during the heyday of the world's greatest piano artists and music critics. Some call this era the "Golden Age of Music." All the great artists were enthusiastically endorsing players such as Ampico, Duo-Art, and several Welte models. There were also other very fine but less-known names like the Hupfeld Phonolist and Dea, Wilcox & White's Artrio-Angelus, and Art-Apollo, among others.

Considering the fact that both Ampico and Duo-Art toured the country's great music halls with what they called "comparison performances," in which the artists accompanied the pianos and the local music critics were all encouraged to attend and critique the concert in their columns the next morning. This bit of history has done much for the lasting reputations of these instruments today, during an era which was very appreciative and critical of excellence in live piano music.

Keep in mind that more pianos were sold in 1926 than in any year since, and in that year, almost half of all pianos sold were player pianos. That means a certain percentage of those sales were reproducing players. A very large number of families in America owned a piano, even poor families, and the piano became known as the king of the instruments, being the basis of all instrumental music, compositions, and arrangements for everything from small combos to full orchestras. To this day this relationship has remained, unchanged.

What this implies today is there were many more talented musicians, song writers, and arrangers percentage-wise than there are today-- simply because far more children took home music lessons, and their central instrument was the piano. So before they learned a trumpet or a clarinet, they were usually forced to first learn something about the piano. Many private teachers would not even teach trumpet or violin until the child had a basic piano education, so the students of the clarinet or saxophone often came straight over from their first year piano teacher. This method still makes a lot of sense. Today, kids begin their musical education on a guitar, or start with their instrument of choice, like a piccolo or a trumpet. But years ago, children often began their music education on the piano, requiring many homes to own one. It still makes for the best of all musical foundations, and from it, they can successfully add any other instrument they choose, and master it quickly.

What I have noticed today is not a global criticism of the capabilities of the pneumatic reproducing piano as a genre, but an occasional criticism of either the performance of a particular instrument or of the romantic classical style popular in the twenties. Styles of playing change constantly, but the classics do not change. Today, again the older style of playing those same classics is experiencing a new resurgence, while the strict musical deadpan-- Richter-style-- I call it, demanding perfect adherence to the sheet music without any personal touches or embellishment of any kind, is fading (at last)! And with it, the nonsense of the android precision "cold metal" sustain pedal. An overcompensation to poorly trained musicians who tended to mask technique and clinkers by blurring the music by an overuse of the pedal. Of course, if the artist played it that way, the player would reproduce it that way. It's just that, well, it sounds so-- mechanical. I have always wondered why an artist would purposely try to make his music sound like machinery on purpose.

Frankly, I like Liszt played as Liszt would have embellished it. I like Rubinstein's warm, romantic spirit, Rachmaninoff's warm but deliberate, perfect control, and Hoffmann's fire and creativity (but I do not like "romantic" Bach, Haydn, or Mozart). These artists grew up in an age of impromptu virtuosity, and quite often you would hear their own variations on the themes in impromptu movements within a major classical work. Tempi also varied, and rubato was evident in places, adding color and beauty to small statements that had never before come alive in just that way. But regardless of style preference, were the pneumatic reproducers really able to recreate the artist?

I think the statement by Sergei Rachmaninoff says it all. He had just heard his first roll played back to himself and his wife, after having procrastinated for years about making rolls. He had strongly felt that no mechanical instrument could ever reproduce his own playing, which was so precise and different than any other artist making rolls at that time. So he had to be convinced against his strong mindset, and it was going to be a very hard sell.

There was one man at the time who was a very accomplished artist, and who was also an editor of player rolls, named Milton Suskind whom Sergei, it is said, greatly respected. Few people in America could impress Rachmaninoff, but Milton did. And it was Milton who finally convinced him to make a roll, just to test the capabilities of the Ampico. What happened as the outcome of that very important test is now history, and Sergei, after hearing the roll played back for the first time was visibly moved. He stood, turned to his wife, and in the presence of everyone in that room stated, "I, Sergei Rachmaninoff-- have just heard myself play!" That great virtuoso (former) skeptic became from that point on an ardent believer. He was happy to endorse his music on the Ampico.

Unfortunately, far too many pneumatic reproducers are not working up to their original specifications because of liberties which are so commonly taken with their restorations, and the apparent failure to test each component of the system for many things before they are then reassembled and regulated in the piano.

I was a guest in a home in which a mediocre finished, not-so-lovely but very rare inlayed parquet Ampico performed. It played but not too realistically, and as it performed it swayed, having an out-of-balance rotary pump and loose leg joints as a result.

The owner was very proud of it, and assured me that they all did this from the factory. It was a characteristic of the old rotary pumps. And wasn't the music lifelike? I was trying to imagine at the time what the piano might be able to do in a grass skirt with a little Hawaiian music. What a waste. But he paid his money and apparently enjoyed what he got.

I would like to see the owners of these instruments be a little more critical of the performance, rather than take what they are given and kid themselves that this is as good as it gets. These instruments are quite capable of sending serious musicians off on a quest to acquire one at any price. They are very good at creating a serious case of zee goose-bumps, and those who have ever heard a really good instrument in a suitable setting with an excellent roll will never forget the experience. It just takes a little time and an understanding of the music, because you can rest assured that those nuances are all on the roll. There is far more realism to unlock than you probably ever dreamed possible. It just requires a thorough knowledge of these systems and the music.

There is another nice thing about pneumatics, and that is its longevity and reliability. It's just about perfect. So once it's done and done right, all the way through, and guaranteed to you, it will not be troublesome. But now we learn from the factories that these cards and components are expected to only be supported for a 15 year life-span as of this writing. (In that amount of time, a pneumatic player piano is just getting started). That doesn't say that an owner cannot find boards and components somewhere, but that factory new boards and authorized technicians for those instruments will no longer be available. On the other hand, the pneumatic player's final regulation has to do with simple but very exact things like clearances, lost motion, height and width, the thickness of paper and felt punchings, and the fixed adjustments of screws, or the weights and balances of mechanical things, and the ease and freedom of motion. Re-regulation of the player will always be straightforward. Get it right and it remains right.

For those who like the convenience of electronic media, we now have the perfect marriage of both. There is a new product on the market called the PowerRoll which either fits over the trackerbar, or (my preference) can conceivably be directly tubed into the stack inputs of the player piano. This system allows the best of both worlds, in that you have the professional performance of the full pianistic dynamic range of the pneumatic reproducer with its long-lived, trouble-free system, combined with a computer interface having literally thousands of musical selections from both 88 note, Duo-Art, Ampico, and (I think by now) Welte reproducing systems. And the nice part is, that system is not only cheaper than its electronic grand counterparts, but its value is going to escalate as time goes by.

You have a true investment in the future with the superior antique piano and its pneumatics-- as long as both are thoroughly restored and regulated to perfection, musically. In my opinion they sound better, in anyone's experience and expertise they have timeless beauty, universal appeal, and uncontested trouble-free stamina. There is no question that they are fully and uncompromisingly restorable with age, and as with all antiques they increase in value as time goes by, as long as they are restored correctly and authentically. You can't go wrong.

Craig Brougher

I Don't..

This page was last revised on March 11, 2014

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