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MMD > Archives > July 1999 > 1999.07.24 > 05Prev  Next

New and Old Reproducing Pianos
By Craig Brougher

Regarding the player pianos of old, versus the new solenoid models,
there is truly a resurgence and renewed interest in players despite the
mechanical system and quality involved.  But there is actually a huge
gap between these two distinctly different kinds of instruments that
will never be closed.

I think we ought to define what it is that people find interminably
fascinating about an old player piano, and why they are willing to pay
the extra to get one restored right, all the way through.  I have found
that they identify with the pneumatic player when they buy the elec-
tronic one.

First of all I believe, is the mystique of a beautiful, ancient player
that, when restored, will make any room look good.  I rebuilt an upright
Steinway Duo-Art that went into a modern mansion's living room.  Despite
all the fine furniture and glass, some of it worth a king's ransom, the
piano was the first thing that caught your eye and the last thing one
forgot about that home.  It was regal-looking and looked quite
comfortable there, and not even a grand.

In that room at least, a plastic-coated piano that looks like it had
been tested in a wind tunnel would have been out of place.  The wood
in this piano was high-quality by comparison, so it glowed with depth.
Modern pianos don't use expensive veneers, and cover what they do use
with pigment stains so you don't notice the inexpensive veneer and

Recently, at the PTG convention here, I noticed that the Steinway I am
presently finishing up would have put every new piano on the floor to
shame just with its veneer, alone.  Both in quality, richness of color,
fire, and translucency, it is far superior to the best that I saw at the
show.  And the rubbed satins that I saw there lacked clarity as well as
color and depth.  That's because they are steel-wooled down.  The old
piano refinishers would have shaken their heads.  One paints wood and
tones it down when one doesn't want to bring attention to it.

But the worst was the Formica covered pianos!  Because the modern
veneers are just pigmented (washed with thinned-down brown paint)
anyway, then why not cover a new piano with Formica, and you can set
drinks on them, beat them up, and with just a wipe-off, they still look
as good ten years from now as they did when they were new?  So that's
what they're doing, now.

It really fools a lot of people who don't know what to look for, too!
They take a "realistic" wood-grained composition material and seal it
around particle board.  That one had a solenoid player installed.
(They never did get it to work when I was there, by the way.)

I was thinking, "Hmmm..  What's wrong with decoupaged chip board in
clear plastic?  I saw some lovely attic closet doors done that way,
once when I was about 16, I thought it had potential!  We could call
it natural inlay."

Another powerful draw that pneumatic players have, is the power of those
old pianos, themselves.  A good old upright is awesome in its ability to
bathe the room in the rich power and harmonic overtones of an acoustic
instrument designed to fill a home with music.  By and large, such
pianos are not available anymore, with one exception, and it is a very
"expensive" exception.  So to get anything comparable, today, one would
have to spend several times the cost of a pneumatic player to duplicate
just the piano alone.

Retrofitting an old upright piano with a new electronic player is a very
nice way to go, by the way.  You can at least get the power of an old
upright-- that is, if you are willing to have it rebuilt, and it should
be.  But there will never be a substitute for what the player used to be
able to do-- that is-- it used to play paper rolls.

The most important thing about a pneumatic player, in my mind, is the
roll.  The mind, regardless how technically oriented, will always find a
romance and an almost childlike fascination for the paper they see being
wound up as it plays that piano.  They take up a lot of room, they only
play one arrangement at a time, they tear, they get broken flanges and
beat up.  But the words are on the roll, and when folks want to have a
good time and cut up and share each other's friendship at a party or
something, while the electronic player's volume control seems to get
turned all the way down, and the pneumatic player's volume seems to go
up.  The electronic player becomes a background source, and the
pneumatic player becomes the life of the party.

The only difference I can see there, must be the roll.  There is only
one rule -- "He who picks, pumps."  You get to choose what you want to
play.  You get to at least watch the words go by.  And if you don't like
it, you can reroll it and put on another one.  And you get to hear songs
that you've never heard before.  It is entirely at your disposal.

You control it and make it play and sound exactly like you want it to.
You can watch it play the roll you picked, and in the case of the
reproducing players, you actually want to enjoy both realistic perform-
ances as well as word rolls and be amazed.  I've not yet heard a home
solenoid player realistically reproduce the great artists like the
pneumatic reproducer can.  It is not at all a spine-chilling performance
like a fully-restored pneumatic reproducing piano.  But to my mind, they
have a different purpose.

Of course, the real proof is yet to be seen.  When a pneumatic player
has been restored properly, it will probably last two generations
between overhauls without much more attention than vacuuming, in a cen-
trally heated and air-conditioned modern home.  And its rolls, even the
50-60 year old ones -- will still probably outlast the tapes and CDs.

I like solenoid players very much, actually, but they have a different
purpose in the average home than a pneumatic player does.  They are more
often "chewing gum for the ears."  They play softly in the background.
At least, that seems to be their main purpose, unless they are owned
by a musician who practices on the piano and uses the playback feature.
I have yet to find anyone standing around the electronic player and
singing the tunes, making selections, cutting up, and having fun.

So I don't disagree with John Tuttle at all, in his evaluation that more
people are buying them.  But I've always said I didn't want many people
to get interested in players, because once a larger market gets the
craze, they will take everything down to the lowest common denominator
and denigrate the real value of what we had and why it was such a
classic art.  This now is the beginning of how that happens.

The best of the "performance world," it would seem to me, would be that
of the PowerRoll.  There is no substitute for the performance of the
pneumatic player.  I don't think that many will deny that (although
there are some who haven't heard the best of both to compare properly).

So when it comes to a desire to hear a catalog of music, classically
performed, in the peace and quiet of your home, it seems as though a
PowerRoll connected to a pneumatic player is just a perfect marriage.
At the same time, that same player piano will play rolls for your next
party, too.  This way, you can enjoy both.

Craig Brougher

(Message sent Sat 24 Jul 1999, 13:40:55 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  New, Old, Pianos, Reproducing

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