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No More Faking
January 12, 2009 4:49 AM   Subscribe

Old Timey Player Pianos! Gotta get one? No? 'Cause the music stinks, right? Not so fast, how about a roll of Creedence? Who doesn't love Creedence? Or Britney? You know, for the kids? Here's how they're made. QRS has the latest hits and oldies too, but better act fast 'cause they're closing up shop.
posted by From Bklyn (35 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
> they're closing up shop

To clarify, they're still in business; they stopped making the paper rolls. Still, 108 years of production is one hell of a run. And thanks for the post.
posted by sdodd at 5:02 AM on January 12, 2009


Five of ten employees were laid off because of the shutdown of the paper roll line, too.

How'd you like to be the guy who tells that story to the unemployment office? "Yeah, I lost my job making player piano rolls. I'm looking into the buggy whip industry; I think I have some transferrable skills there".
posted by yhbc at 5:13 AM on January 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


Wow, I'd never thought about recording spools for player pianos, but that is amazingly cool. Funny how even when they added the computers the actual method of production was still so old-timey.

I've only seen one player piano in a private home, and it was super-cool. They had a closet jammed full of rolls in just about every genre. It's a shame they'll stop making these, but then I'm surprised they've been making them at all recently.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:42 AM on January 12, 2009


With all this player piano knowledge flooding into the marketplace, I bet IBM punch card operator wages are going to collapse.
posted by DU at 5:42 AM on January 12, 2009


'Cause the music stinks, right?

Are you out of your mind?
posted by ChickenringNYC at 5:45 AM on January 12, 2009


Thanks for this post. I was told once that my great grandfather invented a machine for making piano rolls. I do not recall having heard what became of that (they lived in San Francisco for the big earthquake).

What is the most exciting thing about these piano rolls, is many of them actually reproduce composers playing their own material (eg, there are rolls of Gershwin playing Gershwin). Not a recording, but a piano playing it! Of course now we could convert such things into MIDI, and spread the jam even further.
posted by Goofyy at 6:22 AM on January 12, 2009


Thank you for this wonderful post!

The video alone was worth being awake too early. Reminded me of those Mister Rogers factory clips (on "picture-picture") and there in the YouTube comments was a reference to Mr. R.'s actual trip to QRS!

Also, my children always referred to player pianos, old-timey or modern/digitalized as "ghost pianos."
posted by emhutchinson at 6:47 AM on January 12, 2009


The novelist William Gaddis also had a thing about player pianos.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:51 AM on January 12, 2009


Some old family friends had a player piano with the closet full of rolls, and let me tell you, as a kid that thing was all kinds of fun. I remember setting the rolls and then using the little lever to adjust the tempo, and then you just started pumping, and that piano would sing. Then the words scrolled by so everyone could sing along. I'm going to need to procure one of these for myself, so I can be a player piano player...piano.
posted by Hachijuhachi at 6:55 AM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


'Cause the music stinks, right?

No. It doesn't.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:06 AM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've got a player piano (got it from an ex-friend as he liquidated his possessions before going to prison. Like I said, an *ex* friend.) Never got the damn thing working - all the bellows were in rough shape, and the thing was hella out of tune.
posted by notsnot at 7:26 AM on January 12, 2009


Listening to piano rolls of Scott Joplin playing is as close as you're going to get to listening to Joplin play himself. It's almost ghostly -- it's like his invisible fingers are moving across the keys.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:27 AM on January 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


The story goes that a piano roll company approached one of the great pianists - Schnabel, if memory serves me correctly - and boasted that their apparatus boasted 32 degrees of key sensitivity. The pianist regally replied, "Alas I have 33."
posted by Joe Beese at 7:33 AM on January 12, 2009


I grew up with one of these - so sad to see the company going out of business. We had bought a whole heap of rolls at auction in the '80s - the thing still plays like a charm.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:36 AM on January 12, 2009


This machine has been making about a million tabs a year since the turn of the century. It still works perfectly. Too bad this company didn't make cars.

Great video. David Stringer is always interesting.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:55 AM on January 12, 2009


My family had an Aeolian player piano that we stripped down to nothing and rebuilt in its entirety - all the bellows and hoses, including rebuilding the Duo-Art mechanism that was missing a lot of pieces.

We had a stack of QRS rolls that were, frankly, not that great. The Duo-Art recordings of classical pieces from Aeolian were fairly incredible - Liszt, Chopin, Debussy.
posted by plinth at 7:55 AM on January 12, 2009


a player piano player...piano.

REFERENCE ACKNOWLEDGED
posted by DU at 8:00 AM on January 12, 2009


And then there's today's player piano: the Yamaha Disklavier, powered by Linux.
posted by mothershock at 8:25 AM on January 12, 2009


I grew up with a player piano in the house and inherited it later. It's really neat. Someone long ago added an electrical motor so that you wouldn't have to wear yourself out pumping it. We hardly ever play it, though. My husband dislikes it - it scares him a little. He grew up with a family full of piano players and this thing...it's just unnatural to him.

We have a cabinet full of QRS rolls and I was just thinking that I should see what they have to offer these days. I'm sad they are discontinuing production! My favorite roll was always the one with three songs from Disney's Aladdin. Really fun to sing along to! Thanks for the post!
posted by bristolcat at 8:58 AM on January 12, 2009


From the last link:
Berkman said the company eventually hopes to resume production in Seneca, Pa. The piano rolls were at full production in 2008, building up a stockpile of one to two years, he said.

"Production shouldn’t be interrupted in any huge way. No one wants to see an end to it, and I think the numbers are favorable for resuming production," Berkman said.
So, they're not closing up shop permanently, then?
posted by mkb at 9:02 AM on January 12, 2009


anyone needing more pianola love should get themselves to Utrecht to see the National Museum from Musical Clock to Street Organ.
posted by scruss at 9:35 AM on January 12, 2009


Until the day I die, whenever I hear Turn Turn Turn I will flash back to the Mission Valley Farrell's Restaurant circa 1970s. Because once you hear the Byrds on a player piano first hand, you just can't ever pretend you haven't. The perkiness of this automated old piano turning a stoned 70s rock anthem into an energetic stride piano ragtime... all of the elements combined to make something... oh God, just truly indescribable. I was probably 7 when I first heard it, and it just felt so wrong that whenever I was at Farrells I used to try to put that roll on just to share it with witnesses and to confirm to myself that it really *was* as weird as I remembered it. It was. Oh yes, it was.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:59 AM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Bad Moon Rising" and "Down On The Corner" for CCR? Forget that. What I want to hear is one of those old-timey pianos banging out all the dark heart and soul of "Born On The Bayou". Better yet, a video with this player piano playing at a Vietnam forward artillery base, rallying the troops in the heat of a mortar attack by the VC.
posted by crapmatic at 10:14 AM on January 12, 2009


Say, friend, you can always go into vaudeville, see? You know, give ‘em the old soft shoe!
*tosses sand on the floor*

I’d like to go to San Francisco, cue up one of those really rollicking polkas or something, and send the piano down the hill, maybe throw in a loose cannon (lit fuse, ‘natch), some bowling balls, dogs, out of control soap box racers.
Maybe hire some guys to try to lug big hunks of ice up the hill.
Give the player pianos a proper send off. Plus it’s a great way to spend an afternoon.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:09 AM on January 12, 2009


As a player piano owner, this pertains to me. I've been obsessed with player pianos since I was very young, and it was last year that, quite beyond my wildest dreams, I managed to come into possession of one through pure happenstance.

QRS is hardly the only game in town - BluesTone seems to have a pretty healthy catalog of hand-cut rolls. I did order from QRS once, though, as there was one crucial selection I just had to have.
posted by anazgnos at 12:02 PM on January 12, 2009


I suppose now would be a good time to pick up that Liberace version of "Alley Cat"...my (non-Liberace) roll is shot to heck.

As a side note, there's apparently some controversy in the ragtime community over the QRS version of "Maple Leaf Rag". Apparently their roll is derived from Joplin's performance, but as heard here, it's been interpolated into a "swing" rhythm, rather than strict ragtime. I can't find the specific comment, but I did see the QRS version referred to as a "swung monstrosity" somewhere.
posted by anazgnos at 12:28 PM on January 12, 2009


So, what made them decide to pack up the shop in the end? Photocopied rolls passed around at copy parties? Torrents of scanned rolls up on The Pirate Bay? Piano rolls dont have a loss of quality for each generational copy, so the pirating must have been fierce. I hope Canada's private copying levy on blank paper will help to put things right, even though it's just a drop in the ocean.
posted by Harald74 at 12:33 PM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Shouldn't cry too much for QRS, not when they make this and perhaps more belovedly these.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:37 PM on January 12, 2009


I can't find the specific comment, but I did see the QRS version referred to as a "swung monstrosity" somewhere.

Well, there are some sections in there that are not what I'd call pleasing to the ear, for sure.
posted by uncleozzy at 12:43 PM on January 12, 2009


miss lynnster writes "Until the day I die, whenever I hear Turn Turn Turn I will flash back to the Mission Valley Farrell's Restaurant circa 1970s. Because once you hear the Byrds on a player piano first hand, you just can't ever pretend you haven't. The perkiness of this automated old piano turning a stoned 70s rock anthem into an energetic stride piano ragtime"

Well, to be pedantic, the lyrics are from the Bible, and the song was actually written in the 1950s by Pete Seeger, and I don't think it was intended as a "stoned anthem." The Byrds released their version in 1965.
posted by krinklyfig at 1:35 PM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Miss Lynnster: Than you very much for the Farrell's reference! I had thought, at times, that my memory of this place was lost to antiquity. And I'm feeling rather over-piggy, so keep the Trough, I'm up for a Zoo today!
posted by Goofyy at 10:26 PM on January 12, 2009


From Miss Lynnster's Farrel's link:
Bob Farrell currently resides in Washington and is a motivational speaker focusing on customer service. His book, Give ‘Em The Pickle

I've always said, giving them the pickle is the best kind of customer service! But, since no one ever gave me the pickle at Farrel's, I assume he means it in some way other than the traditional "pop 'em the pickle".
posted by Goofyy at 10:32 PM on January 12, 2009


We're this far into a player piano thread and nobody has mentioned Conlon Nancarrow ?
posted by louche mustachio at 11:33 PM on January 12, 2009


OMG, Miss Lynnster! I actually worked at the now-defunct Chula Vista Farrell's in '87 and '88. We didn't have much of a selection of piano rolls, but I used to enjoy putting on some of the "rock n roll" ones just for kicks. But equally as amusing was playing the roll of Rachmaninoff's C# minor Prelude -- hearing that already kind of spooky piece on a miserably out-of-tune player piano whose keys only half-worked anyway was pretty creepy. Which for me only added to the bizarre ambiance of Farrell's.

(My favorite memories of Farrell's, aside from the player piano: 1) Being 15 and waiting on the costumed Rocky Horror Picture Show crowd and 2) running the Zoo with another server who decided to go not only for a lap around the restaurant, but out the door, through the movie theater lobby, over to the roller rink, by the Arby's, and back through the kitchen door at Farrell's. I remember all the servers thinking it was pretty hilarious, but maybe the customers didn't find it so amusing.)
posted by mothershock at 6:40 AM on January 13, 2009


Until the day I die, whenever I hear Turn Turn Turn I will flash back to the Mission Valley Farrell's Restaurant circa 1970s. Because once you hear the Byrds on a player piano first hand, you just can't ever pretend you haven't.

I can't say I've heard the Byrds on player piano, but my grandparents had a player piano. Most of their player piano rolls were Christmas carols or pre-rock "standards," but for some strange reason, they had a roll of the McCoys' "Hang on Sloopy."
posted by jonp72 at 9:25 AM on January 13, 2009


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