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Music In The Air

Spring 1994 | Volume 9 |  Issue 4

“That’s ‘Hark the Herald,’” says Robert Berkman, glancing at blank slotted paper emerging from a perforating machine made around 1915. “Those are the final chords.” The machine has been punching forty layers of paper at once, making player-piano rolls the way it made them during World War I.

Two feet and seventy years away sits a personal computer. A cable from it branches into a sprawl of wires feeding to solenoids that drive about a hundred tiny electro-pneumatic valves. They run the perforator’s ancient pneumatic system.

The place is QRS Music Rolls, Inc., of Buffalo, New York, the world’s leading piano-roll manufacturer for almost this whole century. The perforator is one of four that stamp out 200,000 piano rolls a year, serving customers who still prefer the home-entertainment system of the 1920s. Berkman, in his late thirties, is the chief operating officer. “Everything we do,” he says, “recording new music, redoing old music, and manufacturing the rolls, uses both the old equipment and computers. The computer is a great tool.”

One pictures Jelly Roll Morton or Fats Waller sitting at a piano and having his playing automatically transcribed for piano roll, but it didn’t usually happen that way. When it did, though, it was on a piano upstairs that QRS still owns and occasionally uses. The marking piano was built in 1912 —a baby grand with a riot of black air hoses snaking out from under it to a three-foot-high wooden cabinet in which tiny bellows drive wires that mark the paper passing through.

“We used it last year for a roll of New Age Christmas music,” Berkman says, sitting down at it. He flips a switch to set the paper rolling in the cabinet, and then he plays a few notes, and the wires in the cabinet jump and clatter like an old telephone relay board. “The basic concept of a player piano is pretty simple,” he explains. “The holes in the paper allow atmospheric pressure to run down to valves connecting to pneumatic mechanisms that drive the keys. My high school physics teacher would faint if I called it suction, but it’s suction. The marking piano essentially does the same thing in reverse.”

The marking piano wasn’t used at all for several decades after 1931. “They were doctoring the rolls so much it ended up being simpler to skip live recording. Editing was hard. Performers make mistakes you have to fix, and there are always things you want to improve. The biggest bugaboo was the sustain pedal. A player piano can only depress the pedal all the way. If you use a performer’s pedaling, it will overpedal terribly.”

So QRS switched to using a recording system consisting of a specially rigged piano hooked up to a perforating machine as big as itself. At the piano you would hold down a single note or chord, pull out a stop if you wanted pedaling, and with your foot tap a bar for each fraction of a second you wanted that note or chord held. Then you’d move on to the next note or chord.

“We don’t know when that machine was built,” Berkman says. “The company moved here from the Bronx in 1966, having started in Chicago, and a lot of records are lost. I didn’t come here until 1975. I was a dental student in Cleveland, and I liked player pianos so much I made a roll at home with a ruler and an X-Acto knife. I brought it in, and they offered me a job.”

Near that second recording piano Rudy Martin sits at its latest replacement—a computer. He is entering sheet music before arranging it on-screen for piano roll. “You don’t go crazy this way,” he says. “That machine there took a week a song; now you take one or two days.”

More ancient machines work away in the basement, which is both manufacturing plant and warehouse. Down the stairs we walk past racks of rolls, from “Drinking Song From The Student Prince ” to “Creedence Clearwater Revival Hits, No. 2.” A machine that makes the tabs at the ends of the rolls has a plate identifying it as built by United Shoe Machine of Boston in 1887. Nearby a woman operates a machine that stencils lyrics onto a roll. The words WHISTLE A HAPPY TUNE so NO ONE WILL SUSPECT furl by.

The future may lie with Tom O’Connor, who’s out in the front showroom. He’s programming a compact disc to play both a piano and a stereo, so you can hear piano and orchestra or voice together. QRS calls this new medium Pianomation. “Pianos are a tough commodity nowadays,” Berkman admits. “But a traditional player piano offers something no other form of entertainment can. It offers interaction. You can pump it yourself, control the speed and volume, sing along.

“And yet with just holes in paper, there’s almost no technology at all. It’s like magic. We had a customer who received a roll of Elvis Presley songs and asked where the voice should come out. I can’t blame her.”

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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