A few years ago I got a tour of the QRS Piano Rolls factory, on Niagara Street in Buffalo. This is a short, easy ride from downtown Buffalo and a fascinating lesson in historic player pianos and other player instruments. If you have any interest in mechanisms, you’ll love the museum.
If you have any interest in architecture, you’ll love the building.
Just as fascinating is the manufacturing process itself, which is almost Rube Goldberg in the way it takes 20 tons of machinery and an Apple IIe computer and ever-so-gently punches holes in paper to make a piano roll.
The composition process is also remarkable. Player piano rolls do not have impact (velocity) information, so player pianos have no volume control per se – that is, all keys are struck with the same velocity and therefore have the same volume – yet QRS artisans carefully craft each composition to introduce the nuance of volume by the increasing or decreasing the number of notes, or changing note timing to attack or delay one or more of them. QRS’ craftsmanship is in the composition.
I’m not sure if player pianos, as we know them today, have much life left. The mechanical systems have gone digital and are being replaced by solenoid-driven apparatuses that attach to regular pianos and get their commands from CDs controlled by computer. It may be very soon that the only place where you’ll see a real, working player piano is in the QRS museum. In fact, QRS Music’s web site doesn’t even mention the museum. I hope it’s not too late. Note to self: There is no entry for it in Wikipedia, either.
I’ll hazard a guess that the museum is still there. QRS is the last standing piano roll manufacturer in the world. Go see it.