The Birthplace of the Music Roll -
The Mason & Hamlin Organ Factory at Cambridgeport, Massachusetts - 1878.
Many people took part in the development of the music roll; some, like John McTammany, more vociferously than others, but from a number of American sources we can reasonably reckon that commercial production began in Cambridgeport, near Boston, Massachusetts in about 1877. This is earlier than any noticeable European activity, and so the industry was born an American citizen. The workers who later made up the Automatic Music Paper Company began in workshop space rented from Mason and Hamlin. By profession some of them were already reed organ action builders, and one can imagine a small trade in music rolls being started in the corner of the Action Room illustrated above.
Although rolls for the reproducing piano receive much publicity nowadays, with each successive CD of famous pianists being trumpeted as the last word in fidelity, the vast majority of music rolls were not recorded at a keyboard at all. Instead, musical editors prepared master rolls by hand, by marking and punching out perforations according to the sheet music, and fair copies of these masters, known generally as stencils, were used by automatic machines for subsequent mass production.
View from above of George Kelly's Stencil Cutting Frame - Boston, USA, 1880.
The first pair of dedicated roll perforating patents in the Aeolian Company's archive were taken out in late January 1880 by Roswell T. Smith of Nashua, New Hampshire, and George B. Kelly of Boston, and they no doubt represent the commercial practice that had evolved up to that point. Kelly's patent illustrates the process of making stencil rolls, and Smith's rather sturdy machine shows how the stencils were then used for production on a larger scale. The scaling of the music rolls was the early standard of 14 notes, with essentially square perforations.
Roswell Smith's Music Roll Perforating Machine - Boston, USA, 1880.
During the following fifteen or so years, the range of notes played by automatic reed organs increased, via 20, 31 and 46 notes, to a generally accepted 58 note standard, which fitted quite well with a normal five octave organ keyboard. By the early 1890s, commercial roll production involved many people, including stencil arrangers, perforating machine operators and roll spoolers. The following three illustrations are taken from the Aeolian Company's 1894 catalogue.
Laying out Music for the 46-note Aeolian Organ - Meriden, Connecticut, c. 1893.
Perforating the Various Sizes of Music Roll - Meriden, Connecticut, c. 1893.
Spooling up the Music Rolls - Meriden, Connecticut, c. 1893.
When roll operated pianos were introduced in the late 1890s, so the range increased once more, to 65, and then finally to 88 notes, being the full extent of the normal piano, but the methods of roll manufacture remained essentially the same. In larger factories, the marking up and punching out of stencil rolls was split between musicians and unskilled workers, as the following two photographs from the Universal Music Company factory in England testify.
Musical Editors marking up Stencil Rolls - London, England, 1911.
Workers punching out the Stencils - London, England, 1911.
Recorded Music Rolls
Various methods of recording the playing of pianists on paper music roll were developed from the 1890s onwards. At the outset, the aim was to speed up the production process of standard music rolls, rather than to capture for posterity the playing of famous pianists, and so the recording machines were not especially subtle in their operation. For example, the Perforated Music Company in London, England, did not overtly publish recorded music rolls at all, and the following photograph needs to be understood in that context. The recording system, consisting of an normal upright piano, connected by rubber tubes to a pneumatic marking machine some six feet away, would hardly have afforded a restful atmosphere to inspire the likes of Paderewski!
Recording a Roll at the Perforated Music Company - London, England, July 1909.
In 1904, when Edwin Welte and Karl Bockisch brought their Mignon 'Artistic Player-Piano' into the world, it is quite likely that Welte and Sons had already been using some form of recording system for their orchestrion rolls, but whatever the case, the demands of the new instrument and its virtuosi necessitated a much more sophisticated device. In 1905/6 Welte took their recording mechanism to the Leipzig Fair and captured the playing of many famous pianists in a dazzlingly short space of time. Arthur Nikisch, the Hungarian pianist and conductor, was photographed on 9 February 1906 - the cabinet on his left contained the roll marking machine, and Karl Bockisch, one of its inventors, can be seen sitting at the controls. Electrical contacts under the keys not only ensured that the "touch" of the piano action remained largely unaffected, but also allowed the recording cabinet, connected by wires rather than tubes, to be moved discreetly away when the photographer was not present. Not only the duration of the notes, but also their dynamics could be recorded, and there is much controversy regarding the methods that Welte used for this. See our dedicated Welte-Mignon page for a more detailed discussion.
Prof. Arthur Nikisch recording for the Welte-Mignon - 9 February 1906.
Industrial Perforating Machines
As we have seen, the stencils or master rolls were marked up, either by hand, or by recording machines connected to specially adapted pianos. No-one is perfect, not even a musician, and so corrections to the stencils could be made with sticky tape. But thin paper tape is not a good idea for a stencil that must be used repeatedly for punching out the latest popular music roll, and fair copies of the edited stencils were made, which were then used for production on a commercial scale. The punching out of music rolls was, and still is, a time-consuming business. It is closely allied to the printing industry, because it involves relatively heavy machinery which needs to be regularly lubricated and serviced, and in addition, most music rolls carry printed information of some sort. There is a palpable sense of oil, ink and leather in the photos of belt-driven machinery from the Universal Music Company's factory in Hayes, Middlesex, a few miles from the present day location of Heathrow Airport in London.
Copying Stencil Rolls - London, England, 1911.
Production Perforating Machines - London, England, 1911.
Printing Dynamic and Tempo Lines - London, England, 1911.
When the latest hits of any season were perforated, there were no doubt many customers prepared to purchase the rolls outright. Nevertheless, libraries of rolls which could be borrowed were an essential part of the player-piano industry, especially for the more standard repertoire. It was an accepted maxim amongst Aeolian Company staff that its profits came from the sale of instruments, and that rolls were manufactured as a means to that end. Although such sentiments are hard to verify, it is certainly the case that roll libraries were well organised and stocked throughout the western world, as this photograph from Madrid demonstrates. At a very rough estimate, based on the capacity of the shelf units and the probable size of the room, which is also depicted in other photographs, there were around 100,000 rolls available from this particular library.
An Aeolian Company Roll Library - Madrid, Spain, c. 1918.
Other Sources of Information
Larry Givens - Re-Enacting the Artist, The Vestal Press, Vestal, NY, USA, 1970.
Rex Lawson - De Fabricage van Muziekrollen, in Pianola's, Nederlandse Pianola Vereniging, Baarn, Netherlands, 1981, pp. 80 - 91.
Eszter Fontana (ed.) - Im Aufnahmesalon Hupfeld, Verlag Janos Stekovics, Halle an der Saale, Germany, 2001.