I am grateful to be able to present this letter to all interested
readers of the MMD, sent to me by James Crank, a very good friend of
Richard Simonton, and someone who understands the technology of the
Welte Recording piano.
What stands out to me in his letter is two things, primarily. First
is his assurance that Welte did not defraud by false advertising, and
second, the master roll was in general, made as I had recalled it,
with soft rotary rubber inker wheels which compressed to make a heavier
They used colloidal graphite conductive ink. I didn't know that,
figuring the ink may have been made conductive later. But such as it
is, the ink was intended to conduct electricity, and hence to operate
equipment, presumably an interface to the piano. By this fact, we
know that the inking system was not simply to look at, measure labor-
iously, and interpret later on. It was designed to play the piano
No one I have written to or spoken with yet knows for sure that Welte
was able to automatically play those rolls back to the artist. We have
only Welte's word about this. But the Welte corporation was not a fly-
by-night operation with no scruples. And had it ever been understood
by the industry that Welte was lying about their piano, there would
have been serious legal ramifications involving the Welte artists as
well. They would be named as co-conspirators in such a scam.
I believe we now have the first letter which attests to a first-hand
knowledge of the machine which Richard Simonton actually saw. Here is
James Crank's letter, which he has given permission to publish.
- - -
From: "James D. Crank" <email@example.com>
Date: Sat, Jan 29, 2000, 10:11 AM
Subject: Re: The Welte Reproducer System
Craig, Let me shed a little light on this business of the Welte system.
I knew Dick Simonton very well and we too had long discussions about
the Welte system vs. Aeolian and Ampico, and how it worked. Dick even
got me my first reproducing piano: needless to say, a Welte Vorsetzer,
which I certainly wish I could buy back. It was used on a Steinway
Especially since we can now get recut rolls, unobtainable then, and
original rolls were the very devil to try to find. My belief is that
after the U.S. Government stole the American Welte firm when WW1
started, and the Duo-Art and later the Ampico systems entered the
market, the expensive Welte rolls vanished. The red paper rolls, not
the later version of Welte rolls.
The carbon rod under each key was the way it worked, all right. The
logic for this system -- now, remember we are talking about the
1900-1905 era of technology -- was that the little carbon rod dipped
into the mercury, which had a film of oil to prevent oxidation, and the
lower it dipped, the less resistance that circuit had. Over the period
of time that the key was being depressed, and how far it was depressed,
you actually got a curve if you plotted voltage against time.
Now, the recording machine was a row of 80 or 88 ink-coated rubber
disks, very small, with a sharp edge as viewed from the edge. As the
musician played, the little wheels would depress against the moving
If I recall correctly, and I may be totally wrong about this, they were
being slowly rotated by a motor drive approximating the speed of the
paper being fed under them to prevent skidding, then as the key was
released, the rubber disks would rise against an ink impregnated felt
strip, ready for the next key stroke. The faster the key was depressed
the quicker the track was widened on the moving master roll paper.
That is not hard to visualize.
Light touch: small line on the paper; hard key stoke, wider line. Slow
key depression: gradual widening of the line; hard key stroke, rapid
expansion of the line.
Then, some smart technician at the Welte factory could interpret the
loudness of the note by not only the width of the line, _but also_
the rate over distance of the line expanding. He then converted this
to the expression loudness control holes via the Welte floating
throttle valve system. One for treble and one for bass.
Dick had several of the carbon rods he salvaged from the bombed Welte
factory and also had several feet of a master roll, which certainly
showed the system and how it worked. The note tracks were certainly of
varying width. It was a prized possession and handled with the
greatest of care. He also had a very old and very poor photo of the
mechanism of the mastering machine and of the factory recording pianos
trough under the keyboard. That was the system Welte used.
This is a very archaic system compared to what Duo-Art and especially
Ampico used, but it was a decade before theirs, and I have heard enough
Welte Red Paper rolls played back on a 9' Steinway Concert Grand with a
Vorsetzer to say that it was dynamic and very good, in fact, absolutely
I had the good fortune to be in the recording studio when those
Simonton-sponsored recordings of the Welte music were made, the Readers
Digest tape series. I sat right on the floor next to that magnificent
Steinway Concert Grand, with the Vorsetzer absolutely buried under
blankets to muffle the noise.
That roll of "Listz's Variations of Mozart's Don Juan" was the most
dramatic reproducing roll I have ever heard. The piano was just
smoking after that Busoni roll was finished. Unfortunately that roll
never made it into the released tapes. I seem to recall that Dick said
that it was one of the original master rolls.
I have heard many hundreds of Duo-Art and Ampico rolls played on well
restored instruments, but nothing has yet to equal the dynamics of
those red Welte rolls played back by the Vorsetzer. It was pure magic.
It always puzzled me why the Vorsetzer playing was so much more
dramatic than the Ampico or Duo-Art reproducers, or for that matter the
Welte T-100 rolls played back by a system built into the piano. Dick
had a magnificent Hamburg-Steinway Grand with the Welte in his living
room and he proceeded to show me why. The Vorsetzer had much larger
pneumatics than the built in player and the lever arm was supposed to
be the same as a human arm. Obviously you couldn't get that large a
system packed into a grand piano case. His Vorsetzer had an external
vacuum pump that was quite good sized, bigger than the pump of the
built in player. It was the original pump, not some modern
As to the instant playback ability: I too heard this said, but I have
a hard time believing it. I am sure of the recording system, as I saw
the parts and a piece of a master roll and the ancient photographs. At
one time there was a story that Welte could take this master roll and
instantly make a punched roll from it, but that the dynamics would be
missing. This I can accept; but that they could replay the master roll
instantly -- well, I question that.
Those Welte people were very clever and certainly thought out the Welte
red paper system to a very high degree. Maybe some special resistance
measuring playback contraption was in existence. The ink was a
colloidal graphite type and, considering the ingenuity of the Welte
people, I would not be at all surprised if they had not constructed a
special one-off playback Vorsetzer that could read the conductive ink
and reproduce the dynamics too. I certainly wouldn't put such a
sophisticated idea past them. The electrical technology of the day
could have accomplished this, if the designer was really clever. And,
the Welte people certainly were clever.
I hope this helps. If you want to put this on the site, go ahead.