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MMD > Archives > November 2002 > 2002.11.21 > 10Prev  Next

Pneumatic vs. Solenoid Pianos
By John A. Tuttle

Hi Folks,  In all seriousness, I have listened to the best solenoid
and pneumatic players ever built, and I have to agree that the solenoid
units offer more to the person for whom money is no object.  But let's
try to be real here -- money is an object for most people.

Let's start with the recording medium.  We started with 8-track
cartridges, then went to cassettes, and now we have CD's and computers.
What's next?  When will your technician (not a tuner or rebuilder) say,
"It's time to upgrade".

Let's look at the advancements over the past ten years.  They have been
phenomenal, but they all require a new system with new components and
more money!  Let's look at reliability.  When was the last time your
computer crashed?  How long do transistors, capacitors and integrated
circuits last?  10 years?  15 years?  Certainly not 30-40 years.

You won't get an argument from me about performance.  I've heard
the same pieces played on very fine instruments.  Frankly, I listen
to them on my CD player as I go to sleep each night.  Theoretically,
the performance of a solenoid player should be identical to that of
a pneumatic reproducing player if both are properly adjusted and

Let's be real.  The original performances come from music rolls.  So
unless the performance of the MIDI (or other) file has been "enhanced",
it is identical to the roll used in the pneumatic player.  But for some
reason, the sound of a 9-foot Boesendorfer is just better than the sound
of a 6-foot Steinway.  Duh!!!

Here's my point.  In my book, it's all about reliability, not
performance.  A properly restored pneumatic player will continue to
operate flawlessly for 25 years minimum as long as it is maintained and
regulated every so often.  Those who have owned a solenoid player for
20+ years and have used the unit regularly know that the solenoids,
power supplies, tape decks (or CD drives) and internal electronics have
a comparatively limited life span.  "It's the nature of the beast."
It's planned obsolesce.  Reproducing player pianos didn't suffer from
that stigma.

When I was fifteen, twenty seemed a long way away.  When I was 20, 30
seemed a long way away.  When I was 30, 50 seemed old.  At 54, 90 seems
old.  So, do I want to invest in something that lasts for 15 years or
40 years?  That's one question.  The second question revolves around
the recording medium.  I have music rolls from 1917 that work perfectly.
All of my 7" open-reel tapes from the 1970's, which were high quality
tapes at the time, all have flaws now: clicks, drop-outs, etc.

I threw out all my 8-track tapes years ago.  I almost never use my
computer "A:" drive with its floppy discs, and forget about the 5-1/4"
floppies -- they were obsolete almost before they became popular.
Cassettes?  They are considered "ancient history".  Am I getting
through to anyone?

No bragging intended, but I have serviced hundreds of pneumatic players
every year for the past 30 years.  Every time I service a solenoid
player, the customer ends up paying a lot more money.  Why?  Because
when something fails (and they call me), I have to replace "that board"
or "that deck" or that "power supply", or a combination of the above.
_Big bucks!_

So, as I intimated near the beginning, it's all about money.  If you
want reliability, go pneumatic.  If you want state-of-the-art, go
digital.  It's really that simple.

Further, if you want the best of both worlds, integrate a properly
restored pneumatic reproducing player with a digital system like those
offered by Spencer Chase (whose system is just about ready for the
general public) or Larry Broadmoore (who is attending to the problems
of his system), or Donald Dusenbury (who has some very unique and
interesting ideas).  They're all electronic and they are all going to
change within a few years.

As a closing thought, if Rachmaninoff were alive today, he would
certainly elect to record his music digitally.  With digital, every
note would be replicated exactly as it was played.  That was not
possible when the original music rolls were created.  So even in a best
case scenario, what we hear on a music roll is an interpretation of the
master, not the master himself.  If you want to hear the master, get
a 78 rpm record produced while he was alive!  If you want the next best
thing, get a properly restored pneumatic player.  Fact is, the digital
player uses music rolls as the basis for the digital files used to play
the piano...  Hmmm.

Musically Opinionated,

John A. Tuttle

P.S. If Rachmaninoff were alive today, he would certainly choose to
record his music via a system that copied every single nuance of his
performance.  And that medium would be electronic, not pneumatic.

Why?  With the electronic medium, every single note can have its own
volume -- and "human error".  Anyone who has ever recorded a musical
piece on a MIDI instrument knows that each event occurs at a
different time.  There is virtually no such thing as hitting three
notes on a piano at exactly the same time.  With music rolls, these
human errors are 'edited' out.  With a MIDI file, they stay in the

So the performance of newly recorded music is actually more "human"
than any music roll.  When the music roll is the controlling factor,
the MIDI file is actually "too perfect".  That's what I said in my
review of Wayne Stahnke's CDs.

(Message sent Fri 22 Nov 2002, 01:49:09 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Pianos, Pneumatic, Solenoid, vs

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