Piano Rolls for Reproducing Pianos

By Tim Gracyk

I do not collect piano rolls, but some of my phonograph-collecting friends own some fine reproducting pianos, and they have taught me a little about piano rolls. I'll share what I know. I am not an expert on this topic, so please do not send questions to me about your piano or piano rolls since all I know of these topics is here in this article!

If your piano has an Ampico or Duo-Art system, then you probably already take great pride in owning a high quality musical instrument. I am not an expert on these--I don't even own one!

An ordinary "player-piano" is not designed to play Ampico or Duo-Art rolls though I've been told that taping a small strick of plastic over the top 4 and bottom 3 holes of a tracker does allow someone with a "player-piano" to enjoy Ampico and Duo-Art rolls. I've never tried it and cannot say if one gets the rich sound one gets by playing the same rolls on reproducing pianos.

Reproducing pianos, especially popular from 1915 to 1930, are more sophisticated than mere player-pianos. The idea for the improved instrument came from Germany. Inventor Edwin Welte disliked the lack of expression of popular player pianos, which churn out music and sound unmistakably mechanical. They are amusing as novelty instruments but one never turns to player-pianos for sensitive artistic expression. In 1904 Welte designed the Vorsetzer using wide rolls with extra codes that operate sustaining and soft pedals and allow for the complete range of volume. Rolls were made of red paper, with green paper coming later, after World War I (the rolls were still recorded on a red system--the green were never manufactured in the U.S.). An American manufacturer produced the Welte-Mignon (Licensee). Welte rolls and pianos were produced by the successors of Michael Welte & Sons Inc. of Freiburg and New York, New York, with their own factory in Poughkeepsie, New York. Welte-Licensee was produced after 1919.

This led to other reproducing pianos and rolls that duplicate musicians' artistry. Reproducing music rolls have extra expression holes that activate pneumatics not on ordinary player-pianos, thus achieving varying expression or shading. Artists' phrasing and rubati are preserved in such rolls.

I should avoid a technical explanation, but people are mistaken when they refer to a reproducing piano as a player-piano. Think of a player-piano as a fun machine that cranks out music, and think of the reproducing piano as an early computer operated with air pressure and values. It is a musician's instrument.

L. Douglas Henderson has mentioned to me that some specialists prefer to put "reproducing" in quote marks since it was really an American marketing term more than anything else, with "reproducing" being one buzz word common in the industry in these years (Thomas Edison called his discs "re-creations," which is similar). At first, brand names were used, such as Hupfeld DEA, Welte-Mignon, The Duo-Art Pianola. The word "reproducing" came into use later in advertisements. Perhaps the reproducing piano should have been termed an EXPRESSION player. The playback on a "reproducing" piano is not an exact or true reproduction since it can vary on each performance because of technical reasons (we must consider timing, valves, and hole-sizes on the tracker bars that were not standardized for the automatic sustaining pedal mechanism, for example). Certainly the same roll can sound different if played on one "reproducing" piano and then another, due to the personalities of the individual pianos. Nonetheless, the so-called reproducing piano was a far more sophisticated instrument than mere player pianos.

In America, the large Aeolian Company liked Welte's invention and, around 1913, jumped into the reproducing field by making Duo-Art rolls. Look for built-in Duo-Art systems on Weber, Steck, Stroud, and Steinway pianos. Aeolian also manufactured the rare Themodist-Metrostyle pianola, which is commonly called an "expression" piano, not quite what we now call a "reproducing" piano. The Metrostyle (note the tempo abridgement pointer and the red lines on rolls) players date back to 1901, when the 65-note instruments first featured them. Themodist-Metrostyle features were on all Duo-Art uprights and foreign grands but were discontinued as "manual controls" on domestic grands after 1924, with a few exceptions. Aeolian made Themodist-Metrostyle Duo-Art uprights into the mid-1930s. Long after that, Aeolian sold Metro-Art and Pianolist's Library rolls for those with these machines, with the rolls still featuring the waving red line.

Competition came from the American Piano Company, whose Ampico rolls were first marketed around 1915. Look for systems on pianos made by Knabe, Chickering, J. & C. Fischer, Mason & Hamlin. I have an Oakland friend whose 1926 Ampico system delivers such rich sounds that I am inclined to argue for Ampico's supremacy. An Ampico system can produce several distinct levels of accents during a crescendo. Duo-Art collectors are equally passionate about their rolls, maintaining that Duo-Art rolls are best.

Duo-Art and Ampico were electrically-driven systems usually fitted into pianos made by the most prestigious companies. It would have made no sense to install such a system in a cheap piano. These were not coin-operated machines found at amusement parks!

Ampico rolls may not be played on Duo-Art pianos, nor vice versa. It is like phonograph technology: Edison records may not be played on Victor machines, nor may Victor 78s be played on Edison disc phonographs.

Great concert pianists, even composers like Debussy and Grieg, entrusted their performances to rolls designed for these pianos. Famous names found on Ampico and Duo-Art rolls include Josef Lhevinne, Josef Hofmann, Moritz Rosenthal, Harold Bauer, Sergei Rachmanioff, Paderewski. It may surprise some classical music lovers that Claudio Arrau made Duo-Art rolls back in the 1920s. Shura Cherkassky made Duo-Art rolls in the 1920s and he was giving concerts until last year!

Reproducing rolls are ideal for classical works--Chopin, Liszt, Brahms--but popular tunes are also on Duo-Art and Ampico rolls. Collectors generally pay less for songs like "Yes, We Have No Bananas" and Irving Berlin's "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil." The 1920s was the Golden Age for classical rolls, with the Depression more or less putting an end to renowned concert pianists making rolls. Look hard for the exceptions. New titles of fox-trots and other kinds of popular music were put on rolls until the U.S. went to war in late 1941.

I have Ampico catalogs that list nine different models of Ampico music cabinets. These cabinets are rare today and special. I have only seen one, and it is a beauty, especially since it is filled with pristine rolls.

Do not discard damaged piano rolls since they can generally be repaired. "Magic" Scotch tape, which is the ordinary Scotch tape, is ideal for mending rolls, but never place tape over expression holes!

In 1963 enough collectors were enthusiastic enough about Ampico machines and similar instruments to form the Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors' Association, or AMICA. Not many young people today know firsthand the superb sound of Ampico and Duo-Art systems. When pianos with such systems pop up at estate sales or auctions, take a close look and considering investing in an instrument from the past that will deliver many hours of listening pleasure.