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MMD > Archives > January 2002 > 2002.01.15 > 05Prev  Next

Is Automated Music a Dinosaur ?
By Craig Brougher

I have a few thoughts in regard to Frank and Tony Decap's question,
"Is automated music a dinosaur?"

In the first place, I have always hoped that automated music would
not catch on again, in general, but would remain appreciated by a few
musically driven people.  The reason for this is that entrepreneurs in
general, and Americans in particular, see first the dollar signs in
front of them, and last, they see the art, the beauty, and the
creativity and ingenuity.

As a result, their products to "meet the demand" is half-baked,
two-bit, weak, insipid, not well thought-out, poorly documented,
trouble-prone, and every other thing you can think of that happens when
people get dollar signs in their eyes.  As a result, they ruin it for

I can cite a number of modern products produced this way, both
pneumatic and electronic, but I'm going to spare you all, for now.
All I can say to you manufacturers is, "get some vision."  Use your
head.  Let the quality, the tone, the features be the thing, and let
the money follow, instead of the other way around.  Trust the consumer
and stop building junk!  Stop saying it won't sell.  Trust your

Some people who are wondering if musical automata are just dinosaurs
also make musical automata.  Part of the reason they wonder is because
nobody seems to trust the new stuff, believing that it won't last.
I think that's an excellent thing to worry about, myself!

My suggestion to manufacturers is that they concentrate not on copying
and reproduction, but quality and individuality.  Not on trying to make
an instrument that sounds just like "this and that," but that has its
own charm and it's own sound that is so desirable and individualistic
that it would be a "must have" in anyone's collection.  And that they
find a way to do it with beauty, tonal excellence, excellent
performance, high quality for long life and ease of maintenance -- and
then advertise that fact.  Create confidence in the product.  For every
problem, there IS a solution.

Tony & Frank wrote:

 "If you compare the better old style player piano systems to new
  systems -- like PianoDisc, QRS or the Yamaha Disklavier -- and this
  in turn to the real thing (an 'A-1' performing artist), how would
  they rate on a scale of 1 to 10?  Is a MIDI disk playing system
  actually better sounding, or not?  Does one have more advantages,
  or disadvantages?"

If you compare a Yamaha Disklavier, in a large grand for instance,
to, say, an Ampico in the same size grand (compare apples to apples),
there is such a vast difference in performance that comparison is
useless.  For instance, after (and only after) you buy an electronic
player, you are often told by the company to keep the volume low, as
raising the volume overheats the player and can shorten its life.
When you hear them playing in a piano shop for instance, you will hear
them playing very, very softly.

This is exactly what they do best: play softly.  It's called "salon"
style playing.  That means, music for background, which is very nice.
It's so that everybody can go eat in the dining room with soft piano
music droning in their ears.  A good stereo will do that well, too.
However, so will the Ampico or Duo-Art.  The only thing is, the
pneumatic reproducer will sound like a real person playing softly.

But the Ampico will play the classics and all music the way they
were intended to be played, with full dynamics, without hurting it.
The electronic pianos won't.  That's why you don't hear them playing
classics; they cannot do it realistically anyway, and if they were to
try, they would eventually burn up solenoids and driver cards.  They
were not designed to play the piano that way -- end of discussion.
They play classics, yes.  The same way they play pop music: gently
and carefully, with what I like to call 128 levels of mezzo-forte.

(I have always wondered a bit why people would buy a player that plays
music without the words, and which can only play softly, by itself,
with no human interaction?  Do people actually sit in their living
rooms and listen to a droning concert?  The main thing is that they
think they will.)

Pneumatic instruments are the instrument of choice for a musician who
knows what's good.  The others are instruments for those who just want
a magical piano that somehow plays itself.  They usually don't ask,
"How long are these pianos going to be supported by the company and how
long is it going to last?"

Pneumatic pianos however have one drawback when it comes to their
ability to play all day long in the background, and that's called the
paper roll.  They weren't designed to be chewing gum for the ears.
They were designed to be listened to deliberately.  Our generation
today isn't taught to really listen to music, but to decide if music
is good or not by the physiological effect it has in their glands or
something.  They want music all the time, either as background stuff,
to blot out their secondary thoughts so they can concentrate on their
primary ones, or to use as a psychological stimulant.  That's the main
reason I really don't care that mainstream manufacturing gets into the
automatic instrument business, unless its purpose is to build high
quality instruments.

One of these days, however, there is coming a really good after-market
invention that will replace the player roll for those times when people
want the piano to play continuously.  I do not speak of the PowerRoll,
as I'm concerned that this product may not be available or supported
much longer.  But I do speak of a device that once installed in the
instrument will be invisible and unobtrusive, will not affect roll
playing whatever, but when a midi cable is connect to that piano, it is
capable of playing a library of thousands of MIDI recordings of rolls
and will allow the user to build his own special programs, with some
really professional, nice, high quality software that comes with it.

The idea of automatic playing instruments is very much alive and
desired, as witnessed by the huge demand for electronic players.
It's just that the quality of the music is greatly limited, since only
pneumatics can really supply that quality of music, and most of the
so-called "restored" pneumatic players are merely repairs which are
already timing out, again.

Don't get jaded in regard to pneumatics.  A pneumatic system is the
most rugged, responsive, powerful, efficient, simple, restorable, and
inexpensive method of playing an instrument that there will probably
ever be.  Just remember that all soft working materials must be
replaced, or in a few years after the rebuild, they will cease to be
nearly as good as the rebuilder himself found them to be.

If that instrument was, say, 75 years old when it was "restored," the
chances are good that the leather used could have been another 20 years
old, in storage.  When new vacuum works on old leather it delaminates
it: fluffs it up and pulls it apart edgewise.  That's what is happening
to tens of thousands of "restorations" today.  When these so-called
"rebuilt" pumps are dismantled, you will find, in almost every case,
that the rebuilder didn't replace the inside leather flaps and seats.
No wonder the pump won't drive that piano strongly, anymore.  A
fingernail is all it takes to see the reason why.

So just remember one thing: obviously many people love and respect
player pianos and their music.  It's their doubts that they could ever
get the old pneumatic one rebuilt to play correctly and to look good,
and then they would have all this money tied up in a "dinosaur."

Craig Brougher

(Message sent Tue 15 Jan 2002, 16:11:58 GMT, from time zone GMT-0800.)

Key Words in Subject:  Automated, Dinosaur, Is, Music

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