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Archive of midi files emerging from music rolls



In the late 1800's, early devices called "push-ups", or "vorsetzers", emerged which, when rolled into place in front of most any piano, would "play" the piano by means of a row of felt-covered fingers hanging out its back side. The device was essentially vacuum operated, quite bulky, and depended upon rolls of paper punched with holes to provide the basic variable - music.

In the early 1900's, the vacuum operated mechanism was sufficiently miniaturized to be shoehorned into the case of upright pianos with deepened cases. These early version for the most part, with full 88 note scale for human playing, "played" only 65 of the 88 notes. About 1912, the full scale 88 note player mechanism emerged as a general industry standard that remained basically unchanged until approximately 1930 at which time deteriorating economic conditions brought a fundamental halt to this delightful and important slice of our musical heritage.

In the mid-teens, a few player pianos emerged, most in grand form, capable of reproducing the expression and intent of the original recording artist. Many of the legendard masters of the piano recorded for this instrument. At the time, it was simply a normal business transaction. However, these early recording have had the effect of preserving for all time the artistry of these unique people.

In all cases, these pianos depended upon the presence of paper music rolls punched with holes. These rolls were the records of the day, later replaced by disks, later replaced by wire recordings, later replaced by disks in variety of evolutionary formats, later replaced by tape recordings in a variety of evolutionary formats, and eventually replaced by CD's and DVD's in today's market.

Only the paper music rolls make it possible today to hear a real piano played by the legendary masters. All other subsequent recordings were fundamentally simulations of the real performance. Unfortunately, the real player piano is still dependent upon the original paper music rolls. While the piano itself can be repeatedly restored into perpetuity, the original rolls cannot be restored. Time is their fatal enemy. All of the original paper music rolls will eventually become unuseable as they deteriorate over time.

Back in September 1988, I wrote an article for the AMICA Bulletin, "Future of Paper Rolls", in which I stated:

Some 14 years later, the eventual death of original paper music rolls is coming into ever sharper focus. The self-destruction process is now visibly underway. A number of technically competant people, seeing this inevitability, have designed and constructed fine quality perforating machinery to make new recuts of the old rolls available. This is admirable, commendable, is widely supported and making a huge contribution towards keeping player pianos alive and performing well.

A Player Piano Rebirth

In recent years, we are beginning to see an evolutionary development of contemporary electronic devices to make it possible to preserve the content of paper music rolls in electronic form. The preservation of the content of music rolls is now becoming a reality by means of lo-cost scanners that can be built by most any technically competant person, and migrated around the world to various people owning large collections of original rolls. The objective being to convert the content of these rolls into midi format. Over time, a huge library of these conversions can be made freely available to anybody inclined to have them.

While player pianos have been threatened by the predictable demise of original paper music rolls, these new developments marrying leading edge technology with turn-of-the-century technology are having the effect of provoking a rebirth of interest in, enjoyment of player pianos, and perhaps most important - preservation for all time of the performances by legendary masters of the piano as they personally recorded their artistry on paper rolls.

While the dominant thrust has been on preserving music roll content in a form that improves longevity, a secondary initiative has been to develop a method of operating pneumatic pianos from a computer under midi control. The objective is to add to a pneumatically operated piano, a set of e-valves (might be referred to as "relays"), in such a manner that for whatever reason in the foreseeable future, they can be removed to restore the piano to its original state.

A number of such pianos currently exist worldwide and all are providing extraordinary reliability and pleasure for their owners. These e-valves are actuated under midi control. The midi files needed for this purpose are ordinarily referred to a e-rolls. Typical midi files have built in each note "on" command, an intensity level. e-rolls give each playing note a constant velocity, with additional midi commands for dynamics, sustain and soft pedal actuation of companion pneumatic functions.

For additional information on this development, click over to e-valves.

This Web Site

The principal purpose of this web site is to provide a repository of midi conversions emerging from the scanning processes of original player piano rolls produced in the golden era of player piano music.

As lo-cost scanners are successfully built, their owners are encouraged to share the results of their work by posting them on this site or on their own personal we site. As my own scans emerge from my scanner, they will be added to this repository. Upon completion of scanning my own 1200 rolls, I will make my scanner available to somebody else wishing to scan their rolls. Hopefully, other scanner owners will do likewise.

The raw data emerging from the scan process is basically far too large for conventional web site postings. For every midi conversion from an original music roll, there is a companion scan file. While not posted on the web site, these scan files can be available to anybody wishing to have them. It is quite possible that contemporary roll recutters will find these initial scan files of great help in their efforts to provide the player piano community with an ever larger library of new rolls for those preferring to operate their pianos with new recut rolls.

This site is a continuing work in progress, more scans will be continually added as they become available.

If by chance there are player piano music rolls in homes where there may no longer be a player piano, consider contacting me for disposition. A good example was a recent contact from the granddaughter of a prominant popular music composer of turn-of-the-century. She had a number of music rolls containing her grandfather's compositions, but had never heard them. For the cost of postage, I was able to scan these rolls and add them to this unique repository of heritage music.


Terry Smythe
Apmt 205, 920 Chancellor Drive,
Winnipeg. MB, Canada   R3T 6H8
204-918-4659 (cell)
5 January 2003
Revised 5 February 2019
Restored 1 March 2024

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