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MMD > Archives > March 1997 > 1997.03.03 > 16Prev  Next

Solenoid Players
By John A. Tuttle

Laurent Coray wrote:

> Hi John,
> I often see your writing in the MMD, and I enjoy your web pages.
> We at Octet Design, are considering going in the solenoid-piano MIDI-
> upgrade business, competing with Gulbransen and QRS Pianomation.
> So I'm looking for people who know about those systems.
> Do you know what those systems sell for, MIDI IN, OUT, or IN-OUT
> versions? What sensor technology do they use: optical? How accurate,
> technically, are they in reproducing a human performance? Can you get
> replacement solenoids or sensors? Do you install those systems in
> customer's pianos? What are your impressions?
> I have many questions, anything you can tell me would be appreciated,
> or if you know of any other resources. Thanks a lot.
> Laurent Coray

Hi Laurent, I don't want to throw a wet blanket over your idea but I don't advocate or recommend 'electronic piano playing mechanisms'. In fact, I do quite the opposite. My reasoning is quite simple: electronics companies go in and out business way too fast.

Evidence Pianocorder by Marantz. As of this writing, there is only one man in the entire United States that can supply replacement parts for that system and they are quite expensive. On the spot repairs are virtually impossible unless the technician buys a complete system to have 'on-hand'. Add to that the fact that there are less than 16,000 units world-wide and the numbers start falling into perspective.

Yamaha has told me that they only plan to support Disklavier for twenty years. I'll be in my late 60's by then but I'm certain, God willing, that I'll still be working on player pianos.

As an ex-electronics technician trained in the calibration and repair of electronic testing equipment, I realized early on how futile it would be to invest in technology that has no clear cut direction. Even the format keeps changing. Seeing the picture from the customers point of view, I can tell you this for certain.

Every single customer that has an electronic player mechanism is dissatisfied. They were happy for a few years until the system started developing 'minor' problems that were, in some cases, virtually impossible to repair.

The basic problem is parts availability. In so many cases, I was able to trouble shoot the problem to the component but when I got there, there was no part number or marking on the part that matched the schematic. What's a tech. to do? Punt and hope? Yamaha admits that they are still going through technical changes and that the schematics are not necessarily correct since creating the schematic is always a year or two behind production.

Story & Clark is in a similar situation. The head engineer, John Omiatek, is a good business friend of mine and we often speak of the problems that revolve around internal changes that never get 'put to paper'.

The Pianomation folks in Florida, while very amiable, are likewise unable to supply technicians with current state-of-the-art schematics because things are forever changing. So what is a technician suppose to do? If I could afford to travel all over the country and attend every class and school about electronic players, I'd never get any work done and the prices I would have to charge would be astronomical.

It's been my professional experience that people will live with the problems rather than have them fixed once they know how much it will cost. That's why I say again, every owner I know is dissatisfied to one degree or another.

Personally, I like the idea of electronic piano playing mechanisms because they utilize current technology and I'm kind of a techno-nut. However, placing such a unit in the home of a 'techno-know-nothing' is inviting trouble beyond words.

Try to remember that the first electronic players used an 8-track player. Do you know anybody that can fix an 8-track player? Or even wants to try? And how long will it be before the cassette will be obsolete? Ten years? I have a drawer full of basically useless 5 1/4 in. floppies and they've been around for a relatively very short period of time.

I apologize for belaboring my point but I insist that all the advances in electronic piano playing mechanisms fall short of the 1920 style mechanisms for one very simple reason. Rebuildability in the year 2020. As long as there are cows, trees and metal, the 1920 style units will be able to be rebuilt.

The same can not be said of electronic units. Evidence Wurlitzer Electro-Pneumatic units made just twenty-five years ago. I'm one of the first to extol the virtues of the age in which we live but practical experience has taught me that if one is intent on making a better mouse trap, they better be looking fifty years ahead or they will simply be a 'flash-in-the-pan'.

I fully realize that I have not answered many of the questions you asked. That is why I am copying this response to the MMD. I'm certain there are individuals in the MMD that can answer your questions very accurately.

I also apologize for using your inquiry as a soap-box for my general disdain for electro-mechanical devices used to play a piano. Personally and professionally, I've yet to hear ONE that even came close to a properly regulated Duo-Art, Ampico or Welte-Mignon. (Just my opinion)

John A. Tuttle

[ Editors note:
[ Thanks for climbing on the soapbox, John; I've the feeling that a
[ lot of techs have had the same frustrations. But think about the
[ early auto mechanics; they had the same problem as you, fixing
[ cars made by companies which disappeared in only a few years.
[ The American player industry in the early 1900's actually became
[ quite standardized, as by trial and error they found the most
[ efficient designs and production methods. Perhaps this will occur
[ someday in solenoid pianos, making them much easier to maintain.
[ Robbie Rhodes

(Message sent Tue 4 Mar 1997, 03:10:54 GMT, from time zone GMT-0800.)

Key Words in Subject:  Players, Solenoid

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