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MMD > Archives > March 2000 > 2000.03.19 > 18Prev  Next

Music Rolls, PowerRoll and MIDI
By Craig Brougher

I will second the comment by Stephen Kent Goodman that the PowerRoll
is definitely not a second-rate performance, by any stretch of the

I love rolls and nothing you can ever substitute will satisfactorily
and completely replace them.  When you use a PowerRoll, you are doing
so primarily for continuous playing ease and to extend your library
into the thousands, because otherwise, the differences in performance
between a good roll and the PowerRoll is negligible.  Sometimes the
roll wins, and sometimes the PowerRoll wins, and 99% of the time,
there's no difference at all.  You do not sacrifice performance with
a PowerRoll.

In regard to what Stephen said about SOFI, I sure appreciate it.
I have not found any delayed notes or percussion between her MIDI
software and the performance.  As a matter of fact, there is absolutely
no way that you can cut orchestrion rolls for triplets and 64th notes,
because they don't go fast enough, and one 3-minute song might require
90 feet of paper, or more.  With MIDI, you just don't really have
limitations like that, except in the ultimate speed of the pneumatic
or electric repetition of the instrument, itself.

I really don't think that very many people have a feel for how long or
short a millisecond really is.  We all tend to sing the Happy Birthday
Waltz at the same speed together, whether we can carry a tune or not.
So I will just cite the song Happy Birthday as an example.  If you
would time the first word, "Happy birthday,"  it takes about 1.5
seconds to sing.  That would be 1500 msec.  At a common roll speed of
'Tempo' 70, that equates to 1.4 inches per second.

If each perforation requires about .070 diameter, that means you can
squeeze 20 perforations into that space, but then, they would only be
a single slot to a player, if you did that.  So you'd have to cut that
number of repetitions in half (roughly).  That means, in 1 second's
time, you could play 9 repetitions, ideally.  Each repetition then
would require about 111 ms to complete.

So just look for a minute how much faster a piano valve is.  Some
valves (the Ampico model B) can make a full cycle in about 7-10 ms.
Loaded with their pneumatic, they can still beat the roll by a factor
of 5.  So you see, there really is less of a problem with the playing
mechanism itself.  The greatest limiting factor is the paper roll.  You
can get a real triplet on paper at a tempo of 90, at the beginning of
the roll.  (One solution: Begin the song arrangement slower).

Regarding the PowerRoll, I can also say in all fairness, that it
is the perfect marriage between the realism, power, and simplicity of
pneumatic reproduction, and the convenience of electronics.  You are
able to pre-program a superior pneumatic instrument with an evening's
musical choices, and the player will perform them in order, one after
the other, without a hitch.

The PowerRoll is especially nice when the momentous classics require
2-3 rolls to complete, and you don't want to break up a continuous
performance with rerolling times.

This is not to discredit solenoid players, because they are a wonderful
invention and allow those who never had the opportunity to own a fully
restored pneumatic reproducer of their own, to still enjoy a degree of
that capability.  Solenoid players are delightful, and I thoroughly
enjoy them!  But there are serious musicians who are critical of
musical performances and are very discerning.  You don't kid them!
They know when a player has a heart and soul, and when a player is just
going through the motions.  That's why solenoid players are dynamically
scaled to play pops and semi-classical.

However, there are many classical composers who did not write
concertos, and in these cases, these modern commercial solenoid
instruments are able to reproduce their works reasonably well.  They
cannot equal the dynamic range of a properly restored pneumatic
reproducer, however, and I don't believe that anyone who knows better
would claim that they could.  It is very easily measurable.

But another consideration is,  were a classical artist to play on your
own instrument in your own home, they would not attempt to render the
full-powered concert performance of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody #12.
They would take it a little easy and scale back the performance in
deference to the parlor your piano was sitting in, and the size of your

The solenoid player has a volume control, and with it you are able to
crank up its power to roughly one-half to two-thirds of that piano's
dynamic capacity, as well as the ability to play fairly softly without
missing notes.  On the other hand, the pneumatic reproducer can be set
to play that piece either as softly as it can be played, or in many
cases, up to the full capability of your piano's dynamic range.

Craig Brougher

(Message sent Sun 19 Mar 2000, 23:12:02 GMT, from time zone GMT-0600.)

Key Words in Subject:  MIDI, Music, PowerRoll, Rolls

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