The PIANOLA News

Information for Player and 'Reproducing' Piano enthusiasts
from
The ARTCRAFT Studio in Maine

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"THE PIANOLA NEWS" Saturday: January 10, 1998 - Vol. I, No. 1
[Updated Weekly]


The "FULL Reproducing" Piano Myth

[An Editorial]

There is a "smoke-and-mirrors" trend among self-styled pneumatic player authorities these days, to separate the 'lowly' 88-Note pedal player instrument from the exhalted, lofty and supreme "reproducing" piano as if the two Pianola designs were entirely different commodities!

This myth of "two different instruments" is being promoted in our time by four groups of experts? in the Player-Piano field: a) marketers of modern solenoid players, such as the Disklavier, who wish sell pianos with the "ghosts on the keyboard" approach (especially the spectre of George Gershwin); b) hawkers of CD's made from clickety-click solenoid players or original "reproducing" pianos playing the supposedly authentic expression rolls; c) rebuilders of electric expression players, who know that "Rachmaninoff on your Knabe" is an easy-sell to those who have not heard the composer-pianist's existing audio recordings; and d) purveyors of music rolls, who don't wish to disturb the supposed 'value' of their collections and merchandise. Clearly, there is MONEY to be made by maintaining the mythology of two player instruments: one, an ordinary pedal-operated model with limited capabilities ... versus the other, a rare and complex "reproducing" piano which replicated every nuance of a now-deceased concert pianist.

These Web pages can give you a taste of contemporary promotional hype via our 'Link' (below) to the 'Earwitness' Duo-Art case, in which the author who wrote a scholarly book on the story of the Steinway piano family suddenly "discovers" the Duo-Art expression player, and begins by putting-down the pedal Pianola with these totally inappropriate lines: "...while superficially similar to the more common player piano..." (Check the linked article if you want to read his entire text.) Media publicity being what it is, the writer also disparaged the 88-Note Player-Piano in magazine articles, one using these words, "...the garden-variety pedal player" and other similar phrases.

What is the difference between a pedal Pianola and a "reproducing" Piano, such as the Duo-Art? The answer is: "VERY LITTLE"!

If we discuss a typical upright installation (for the sake of brevity), the industry broke a pneumatic player into two parts: the "upper action" and the "lower action" if one reads the original Service Manuals or articles in the Music Trades Review of the day. The "upper action" consisted of the pneumatic stack, the spoolbox, tracking system and the air-motor, which moved the music roll. The "lower action" provided the vacuum to power the instrument, plus featured the pneumatics for the soft and sustaining pedals ... and the bulkier pneumatic assemblies for modifying the playing levels, often connecting to control levers mounted under the keyslip for the Pianolist. The tempo governor for the air-motor was usually located in the "lower action" portion of the Player-Piano.

Boiled down, this meant the "upper action" read and played the rolls ... and the "lower action" provided the motive force.

A Pianola Piano the Aeolian pedal-operated standard player installation had the spoolbox, tracking system, the Themodist ('solo' system controls), the air-motor and the 88-Note pneumatic stack for playing the keyboard.

A Duo-Art Pianola Aeolian's "reproducing" player equivalent featured a spoolbox, tracking system, the Themodist, the air motor and the same pneumatic stack (except on late-'Twenties grand pianos, which had only 80 operating notes).

These were Aeolian's "upper action" layouts, and the differences were minute ... and usually non-existent.

Below, the Pianola Piano had the pedal assembly (two exhausters and an equalizer), the pneumatics for running the soft and sustaining pedals ... and the typical features which assisted the Pianolist in regulating the the music roll's speed (the tempo) and controlling the striking power, via pedaling and/or use of the sundry control levers. This was the" lower action" for Aeolian's standard player installations.

What did the Duo-Art possess which made it so much "more" (in the view of these latter-day experts?) than the standard pedal-operated instrument? The "lower action" of the upright Duo-Art Pianola consisted of an electric vacuum pump replacing the pedal assembly and an expression box which came in-between the pump and the "upper action" as described above twice. The task of the expression box, which had 16 intensity steps, was to restrict the vacuum and graduate the dynamics by means of sliding knife valves ... and bleeding out the excess vacuum via a "muffler" device. Some, but not all, Duo-Art players had a rewind/repeat/shutoff system of pneumatics, connected to the same hand controls which a Pianolist used on the pedal-operated instrument.

Why was the Duo-Art called a "Pianola" for most of its life in the marketplace, especially abroad where a sophisticated clientele embraced the product? The Duo-Art (meaning 'interpretive' and 'performing' arts OR 'manual' vs. 'semi-automatic' operation) was fully controllable by Pianola levers, which Aeolian said in 1918 could "surpass in the hands of a musician even our own pedal-operated models". This is another way of stating that the electric Duo-Art Pianola, when controlled MANUALLY by an artistic operator, transcended the pedal Pianola Piano ... and it was the manufacturer's manner of reiterating, in the early years, that personal involvement with music roll performance was the KEY to long-lasting musical pleasure for the piano owner.

No concert pianist really "recorded" the dynamics which were applied to expression roll Masters, in order to create the Duo-Art releases of the past. These were merely perforations added at the factory by artisans which "tugged" on the same hand controls that were available to the "reproducing" piano owner.

Thus, both the 88-Note Pianola Piano (with foot pedals and standard rolls) and the electric Duo-Art Pianola (using expression arrangements and/or 88-Note rolls) could graduate the tone through the ENTIRE SPECTRUM of the piano's range. There was no difference in the performance level, and when examined with the clarity of historical hindsight, most of the old Duo-Art "reproducing" rolls had limited, generalized dynamic scores, featuring "too much" sustaining pedal and "too few" dynamic commands. Anyone with a moderate musical aptitude could override or switch off the Duo-Art feature and take control of the music roll performance himself. That's what Aeolian suggested to their retail stores, regarding musical customers!

Now, for the sake of putting total baloney once more into the spotlight, let's review an 'Earwitness' statement ... only one of many in a similar vein today: "Enormously complex, they operated pneumatically from a vacuum pump with a
fantastic array of hoses, linkages, and finely polished bearings. Their cost was commensurate with
their complexity: a single fine "reproducer" could easily cost as much as dozens of automobiles."

As stated above, the pedal and "reproducing" players by Aeolian were essentially the same instrument, and were occasionally built as pedal/electric combinations for those wishing to use both methods of playing music rolls. Whatever "fantastic array of hoses and linkages" one type of Aeolian player possessed, the other did as well. In over 4½ decades of work with player and "reproducing" pianos, this writer has NEVER SEEN "finely polished bearings" on anything that Aeolian built in the manner of a Pianola action. Wood screws holding down pivoting flat rods and 'shoulder screws' with piano felt bushings appear to be the norm. Also, what the customer didn't see in the showroom was rarely "finely polished" and often jury-rigged in the 'chisel school of carpentry' at the Garwood NJ Aeolian factory, when installing a player in a Steinway instrument. As for cost, a 9-foot grand piano by S&S would have been in the neighborhood of six thousand dollars (in the 'Twenties); the Duo-Art action usually cost about a thousand more, give or take two hundred dollars. A luxury automobile chassis for the Locomobile or Packard could easily run ten to fifteen thousand dollars or more ... and this is before Brewster, Murphy or Fleetwood (before General Motors) would create a custom-built body for the completed vehicle. "Methinks the author didn't do his research on the 'Earwitness' project," said one collector, after laughing at the term "reproducer" (which applied to an Edison phonograph part and not a piano).

Our moral is, "Don't try to separte pneumatic players into 'higher' and 'lower' categories, for it's an impossible task."

No matter whether foot pedals, Pianola levers (on a Duo-Art electric player) or the expression rolls control the dynamics and pedal shadings, it's all the SAME thing! In the case of the old commercial Duo-Art rolls, few of them were as good as the feet and fingers of an accomplished Pianolist. (ARTCRAFT Interpretive Arrangements of today do equal the "full dynamic range" potential of the Duo-Art player, however.)

The next time you hear "FULL reproducing" ask for a definition of the word "full". If the expert? goes into the hoopla about all the 'recorded' dynamics of the expression roll, whip out 2 or 3 Aeolian Duo-Art rolls and point to the FROZEN ACCOMPANIMENT (on the left) and LIMITED THEME SETTINGS (on the right). You don't have to play the average Aeolian Duo-Art roll to see that things are visually static most of the time, which translates into a limited semi-automatic performance. That's why the Pianola levers were installed ... and the instrument was called a Duo-Art Pianola. It's time for YOU to jump into the performance activity!


Tom Snyder discusses his Steinway Duo-Art Pianola on the January 9, 1998 broadcast!

The popular talk show host has been a Player-Piano advocate for many decades, and once featured his 'Twenties Steinway 'XR' Duo-Art on television shows, such as the memorable program with lyricist Irving Caeser (who co-authored SWANEE with the young George Gershwin). In recent times he's featured a Diskalvier solenoid player "nudging" keys down, for the leads into commercial breaks, on his CBS-TV late-night show.

The 1/9/98 telecast featured a concert violinist demonstrating a Guarnerius instrument (which had a price tag of three million dollars!) ... and the interview concluded with a discussion about the aging-of-the-wood, which might have something to do with the fact modern attempts to recreate a Stradivarius violin have not meet with success.

During the sign-off, Tom added a postcript about the fact that he has had a Steinway Duo-Art for the past 20 years and also a Disklavier piano. "I'm not knocking the Disklavier," Tom commented, "but the fact is the Steinway Duo-Art sounds BETTER! Maybe it's the wood in the Steinway," he concluded.

We'll leave the Steinway vs. Yamaha piano discussion aside in this column, though it must be said that theYamaha is not noted for memorable tone in the opinion of many pianists and music lovers.

When it comes to the player actions, Duo-Art Pianola vs. Disklavier, there's a physical reason why Tom Snyder enjoys his Steinway to a greater extent. The Pianola uses pneumatics, which have the "striking power" at the beginning of the stroke, much like human fingers but without the flexibility of the keyboard pianist's touch, of course! The Disklavier uses solenoids (electro-magnets) which 'bop' the keys and develop their power during the course of the stroke ... which is not the way a pianist (or a Pianola) plays the notes. Add to that the inability of MIDI instruments to play chords and octaves in unison, and it doesn't take long for anyone who has the benefit of a side-by-side demonstration to discover that the older pneumatic design hasn't been surpassed, let alone equalled!

It should be noted that Tom Snyder has ARTCRAFT Rolls in his collection and even on one occasion called the Maine Studio, for what turned out to be a long "player roll discussion". More recently he featured Ian Whitcomb on his CBS-TV interview show, a 'regular' from prior years, and after the broadcast Tom took a copy of CHESTER The CAT One-Step home ... one of Whitcomb's latest compositions. (Long after the solenoids have burned-out on the Disklavier player, we expect that Whitcomb's sparkling composition will continue to entertain the Snyder household on the Steinway Duo-Art!)

It was certainly a pleasure to hear a Steinway Duo-Art MENTIONED BY NAME on a recent television program. Good products always survive in the long run.


Back issues of "The PIANOLA News"
Vol. I, No. 2 (1-17-98)
Vol. I, No. 3 (1-25-98)
Vol. I, No. 4 (2-1-98)
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- L. Douglas Henderson, dba ARTCRAFT Music Rolls, P.O. Box 295, Wiscasset, Maine 04578 (USA)
Telephone:
(207) 882-7420 - E-Mail: artcraft@wiscasset.net


A second ARTCRAFT Website? Not really, but a "toe in the water" featuring some basic information has been on the Internet for close to a year. There's a short bio on the business which might be of interest to 'hard-core' ARTCRAFT fans. Check out this URL: http://people.whowhere.com/pages/artcraft (Make sure that "www" isn't in this URL!)


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