Peter Phillips
Sydney University

Archiving and Accessing Recordings on Reproducing Piano Rolls

The library of music recorded on reproducing piano rolls is a significant historical documentation. My research into how roll recordings were produced for the Welte-branded instruments, the Duo-Art and the Ampico has shown that these recordings are generally accurate to the artist, particularly recordings made by notable pianists.

It is therefore vital that this library of music is archived, a topic that has received little academic interest. Methods of producing duplicate rolls have been developed by a number of enthusiasts, and Stanford University is presently constructing roll scanning apparatus to also achieve this. An accurate recut of a reproducing piano roll is arguably an archival copy of that roll.

However, it is the lack of accessibility that prohibits the wider use of reproducing piano rolls in research. In the cases that I have examined, researchers have relied on audio recordings made of piano rolls, or the benevolence of enthusiasts who own the required instrument and rolls. Therefore, an accurate copy of a piano roll does not solve the problem of access.

My talk discusses methods of archiving reproducing piano rolls as MIDI files, in which I focus on archiving the recorded performance, as opposed to roll data, although both archival forms are important. The difference between roll data and performance data will be explained, and methods of obtaining performance data from a reproducing piano roll will be presented.

The important aspect is accessibility. Today it is possible to obtain a copy of virtually every early recording made on cylinder and disc, even those that were not issued at the time. This unprecedented access has opened many research pathways, albeit with one limitation: few of the recordings were made by contemporaneous pianists playing solo piano works. This gap in our recorded history is covered by recordings made on reproducing piano rolls. In this talk, I present the approach I took to make raw MIDI files of Welte-branded rolls compatible with contemporary MIDI instrumentation.

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Peter Phillips has been involved with reproducing piano rolls and related instruments for over 40 years. He maintains a membership of virtually all related interest groups around the world and regularly contributes to their publications. He has owned various reproducing pianos and presently maintains a 1923 Ampico and a 1925 pedal-electric Duo-Art. In the late 1970s, Peter pioneered a method of recording piano roll performances as digital data on magnetic tape, thereby developing an electronic library of over 1500 Ampico rolls suited to a specially-equipped Ampico reproducing piano. In 2006 he developed a new suite of roll recording equipment that has subsequently been used to accurately record nearly 7000 piano roll performances as raw MIDI files, including over 4000 from rolls in the Condon collection, now owned by Stanford University.

Encouraged by Professor Neal Peres Da Costa, Peter enrolled in a PhD at Sydney University (Sydney Conservatorium of Music), commencing 2013. His thesis is titled “Piano Rolls and Contemporary Player Pianos: The Catalogues, Technologies, Archiving and Accessibility.” He submitted on December 16, 2016 and (at the time of writing) awaits examiner results. Peter has presented talks at numerous universities, including Stanford (twice), Sydney, Adelaide and Barcelona, plus at a range of other venues. He holds various engineering and other qualifications; he writes engineering textbooks and has a passionate interest in piano music, in particular performance practice. He is presently working with a number of colleagues on piano roll related projects. Peter maintains a website at