Why am I interested in Pianolas?

Inside a pianola

When I was a small child my grandmother gave the family a pianola for Christmas.

I was fascinated by all the cogs, chains, and moving parts inside the pianola. Also, as I was learning to play the piano at the time, I was delighted that I could seem to play proper, grown-up piano music on the pianola.

My favourite tunes were the waltzes, the fox-trots and the Gilbert and Sullivan medleys, and these particular pianola rolls were played a lot.

However, it was soon clear that the pianola rolls were old and wouldn't last for ever. Therefore from an early time, I tried to save the music in a different format.

Initially, I tried transcribing the notes on to sheet music, but it was very time consuming, and the resulting sheet music was too difficult to play, or often required two people playing a duet.

When I was studying electronics at school, I made a circuit board with computer chips (the E510 "Keyboard Scanner for Touch Sensitive Keyboards" 16 pin DIL chip, sadly no longer available from Maplin Electronics) and a row of miniature infra-red light detectors that together were supposed to create MIDI output.

Unfortunately it was difficult to calibrate the infra-red detectors to detect the holes in the pianola rolls, the resulting MIDI output typically being all the notes playing all the time. So I abandoned this approach.

Some Pianola Rolls

Photographing a Pianola Roll

Next I created an AVI video file of a pianola roll as it played on the pianola. I then wrote a computer program to measure the time when each note played and its duration. However, the quality of the AVI file, and the jerkiness of the images meant that the resulting music lost the original rhythm, and sounded messy.

Finally, many years after my initial attempts, I photographed each pianola roll, combining adjacent images to create a very tall and thin BMP file (typically 480 pixels wide by 12,000 to 20,000 pixels high) for each roll. I adapted my earlier computer program, and was able to create MIDI files that sounded like the original music.

At last I had saved the music on the pianola rolls in a different format which I hope will last for many years.

But what to do with these MIDI files? I decided to put them on the Internet so other people could listen them too. I hope you enjoy listening to them.

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