Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Essential Music

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of music in our lives. Since the earliest times great efforts have gone into making music, and reproducing it. For centuries the leading edge of technology has been used to reproduce music as faithfully as possible. Modern methods record and replay sound but mechanical methods of producing music go back to the 9th century.

The principle of recording the notes to be played, rather than the sound produced, has been applied in various ways. Chiming clocks and musical boxes use mechanical means to record the data. A favoured method, still in use today, utilises a drum which rotates. Pegs stick out of the drum and strike or pluck the notes.

Similar to the pegged drum are perforated metal discs which allow for easier storage of more software. Techniques borrowed from the Jacquard loom, led to the player piano with its paper roll. These were initially produced by manually punching out the notes, the music to be played had to be worked out in advance, then realised in the workshop. Then, around 1900, techniques for recording an actual performance of a keyboard player were devised.

Recording methods were gradually improved. One of these, the Duo-Art, recorded a four bit binary code, representing loudness, on to the paper roll. The Duo-Art ‘expression box’, was a mechanical servo system which decoded the binary data and converted it to 1 of 16 volume levels. A new volume level was set every 1/60th of a second.

In the picture, the musician, at the keyboard of a recording piano, is working with a recording producer who is adjusting the levels. There was an extensive post recording process where the producer could rework, and tidy up the recordings. Eventually an edited master would be signed off by the musician and the producer and mass production would begin.

With lots of 'software' available ‘Player Pianos’ became very popular. The family would congregate around the piano and someone would work the foot pedals. These drew the paper roll through its reader, and provided the energy to strike the notes. Sometimes the paper roll would have song lyrics written on it as well, and these would come into view as the roll was drawn through the machine, much like a karaoke machine.

A device known as a 'Piano Player' was made, these could turn a normal piano into a recording player. Concerts were sometimes staged where an orchestra played along with a virtual pianist recorded on paper. In 1985 Rudolph Granz made a posthumous performance using this method, playing along with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. This puts a different spin on 'live performance'.

While few self respecting middle class homes lacked a piano, automated or otherwise, the super rich needed something better. For the very wealthy, with lots of room, orchestrions was produced. Often centered around an automated pipe organ, orchestrions added automated drums, automatically fingered violins and often animated figures. This detail show part of an orchestrion for playing a violin.

Smaller orchestrions were installed in pubs and cafĂ©’s These machines were very robust and could play a variety of music with the ‘software’ often on books of fan fold card pages.

With such sophistication, small wonder that recorded music, rather than recorded sound, held sway for so long. Before the invention of electronic amplification mechanically recorded sound was scratchy, tinny and low in volume. Devices such as the orchestrion could reproduce very high levels of sound. Moreover, some music prepared for these mechanical musicians was so involved that it is too difficult for a human to play.

The precision technology of the mechanical servos was robust and versatile. Engineers found alternate applications for it. One American company, The Link Piano and Organ Factory of Binghamton, NY started out manufacturing player pianos and organs. Ed Link, son of the man who founded the piano company, adapted player piano pneumatic servo systems and used them in the Link pilot trainer. Thousands of these were built for pilot training and, in somewhat modified form, as fairground rides.

The Link trainer with its vestigial wings.

The Binghampton company, now CAE Link, is still making simulators. In the movie Apollo 13, the Link logo appears on the side of the Lunar Lander simulator. Though by the 1960's Link had abandoned pneumatics and taken to using digital computers with electronic servo systems.

By the 1950's sound recording with electronic amplification had finally started to catch up. Scratchy 78s gave way to 45s and magnetic tape. These in turn gave way to digital recording. But the old player piano technology has a modern counterpart. MIDI is a digital protocol that allows computers to exchange control information with electronic instruments and mixing equipment. MIDI can also be used to cue stage lighting, effects and animation. An entire performance, of electronic instruments, can be recorded as MIDI cues and reproduced note for note. As such it makes a good modern analogy to a player piano roll.

Music, as close to the cutting edge of technology as anything humans do. How did it ever become so important? Sounds like a topic for a future blog.

Link trainer
Player Pianos

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