Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

The ghost in the room Rachmaninoff plays Rachmaninoff, an early attempt at Hi-Fi recording

A friend of mine in the Dutch small town of IJmuiden (on the coast, mostly known for its huge steel mills) asked me if I wanted to relieve him of an old player piano sitting on the first floor. I didn’t have any use for such a device but I found a man that did, the owner of the Dutch pianola museum. A whole day of work with pulleys and rope (and lots of swearing) later I’d managed to maneuver the pianola out over the staircase hole and slowly down the two flights of stairs. Pianos are heavy, pianolas are much heavier still!

At the agreed upon time the trailer with flat bed arrived, and the pianola found a new owner.

We spoke for a bit and the man invited me over to his museum to have a look at all the amazing machines that he had there.

Around 1900, a couple of centuries after the invention of the piano (by way of the Harpsichord) some enterprising people realized that one of the bigger stumbling blocks to selling pianos was that playing the piano decently is hard. Anything over three blind mice that is suitable for consumption by others will take you at least a few years of practice.

The first attempts at making a piano play automatically were done using ‘barrels’, rolls with pins were used to activate the hammers that strike the strings. The technology was adapted from music boxes but the piano was not very well suited to be operated in this way.

A breakthrough came with the use of pneumatics and paper rolls with holes in them. Hackers will immediately recognize a stream of bits, where ‘hole is open’ indicates the striking of a key, much like a computer program will present a stream of bits to a processor with ‘1’s and ‘0’s. Suddenly it was possible to program a roll to play a tune.

Many rolls were produced with a whole range of classical (from a 1900’s perspective) and more modern compositions, transcribed from their musical notation to a pattern of holes. After a while tracks were added to allow control of the action of the pedals, increasing the ability to change the dynamics, as well as tracks to influence the speed with which the hammer struck the string, allowing changes in volume. Some of these instruments allowed the user to influence the speed of the reproduction and the volume ‘in realtime’ as the piece was played, giving the user a sense of accomplishment.

And thus the player piano, or pianola was born. The player piano was an enormous commercial success, at some point half of all the pianos in the United States contained a player mechanism. (the story of that commercial success is interesting in its own right, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pianola)..)

During my visit to the pianola museum the owner (Kasper Janse) took me to a room with some of the more treasured items in the collection of the museum.

As the quest for realism improved the mechanisms another possibility was explored. In 1904 the firm of Welte-Mignon invented a device that is called the reproducing piano. Instead of transcribing the musical script note for note on to rolls they had well known and accomplished pianists come in to record the rolls. These were then copied and like that a very early version of ‘Hi-Fi’ recording was created, just ahead of the electronic version of the phonograph. Compared to the phonograph (at the time a passive device with a rather tinny sound) the recording quality of the reproducing piano was absolutely amazing, so much so that some pretty famous pianists were convinced to record their performances.

One of those people was the great Sergei Rachmaninoff himself, and the museum has a roll recorded by Rachmaninoff and a reproducing piano to play it on.

I can’t really describe the feeling it gives you to hear Rachmaninoff playing Rachmaninoff and standing in a room with an instrument the keys and pedals of which go up and down as though moved by invisible hands, it’s like being in the room with a ghost. And you’ve never heard this piece performed better or more realistic, no matter what the price of your Hi-Fi installation. Suffice to say that 15 years after the experience it still gives me goose-flesh.

This was the peak of a weird hybrid of analogue and digital recording / reproduction, soon after the electronic version (amplified) of the phonograph came out and pretty much owned the space (talk about disruptive technology). The player piano and its cousin the reproducing piano lost out against the convenience and price of those magical grooved black discs and their relatively cheap players. They also had the advantage of being able to do much more than just piano.

But still, in some places the ghost in the machine lives on and better still, you can see for yourself, next time you visit Amsterdam: http://www.pianola.nl/

Thanks to Ivan, who inspired me to finally finish this blog post :)