The Mastertouch Tale

The Artists of Mastertouch

Piano Rolls in Australia - since 1919

History of Piano Rolls

Piano Roll Manufacture

Custom Box Manufacture

Alphabetical Roll Title Catalogue


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History of Piano Rolls


The question,"who invented the player-piano?" is like`"who invented the automobile?".There isn't any clear-cut answer,for as in the case of the auto, the credit must be divided among a number of pioneers in the field. Undoubtedly many similar ideas were conceived independently by different individuals about the same time, but we do know that in 1863 a Frenchman named Forneaux patented what appears to be the first player operating on pneumatic principles. This he called the "Pianista" and it formed the basis of practically all later developments in the field.

Alfred Dolge is an important figure in American piano history, for he foresaw the immense commercial possibilities in the market. To capitalize on them he built large factories in what is now Dolgeville, New York, to make piano-felt and to mass-produce sound-boards from Adirondack spruce at a price which individual piano manufacturers could not possibly match. He eventually became a leading supplier to the trade for almost all piano components, and he established factories on the West Coast as well.

Dolge suggests that one R. W. Pain was probably the first who built a pneumatic self-playing piano (that is, a completely self-contained unit) in his 39-note instrument built for Needham and Sons in 1880. Later, in 1888, he built a 65-note electrically operated piano, and this probably was the first of its kind, also.

John McTammany patented in 1868 certain devices pertinent to automatic organ construction, which in effect were improvements over Forneaux' designs.

Elias Parkman Needham invented the upright action used in reed organs, which made possible all their later improvements. He originated the idea of the perforated sheet of paper which allowed the escape of musical tones as the perforations passed over the reed opening. This idea was protected by fifteen patents, which he later sold to the Mechanical Orguinette Company, later to become the basis of the mighty Aeolian Corporation.

In 1886 George B. Kelly developed the slide-valve wind motor, and this device eventually became universally adopted as the type of motor to be used to cause rotation of the drive spool for paper music rolls in player-pianos.

W.B. Tremaine was the founder of the business (in America) of manufacturing automatic playing musical instruments. Before the advent of the "Pianola" there was neither competition nor encouragement from the piano-trade, and it required a man of keen foresight and courage to meet these conditions and make a success of the business, as he did, up to the time of his relinquihing it to his son.

In H.B. Tremaine (his son, born 1866) we meet the new element in the business world. The thorough education which he enjoyed, had trained his mind in logical reasoning, supporting his large vision for utilization of modern inventions and discoveries on a vast scale.

The remarkable results achieved by this Tremaine within so short a time can be accounted for by the fact that he learned from History what others had to learn from the dreary School of Experience. As an observant student he saw the potentialities of mechanical appliances for musical instruments and knew how to develop them. A genius as an organiser, he believed in a combination of capital and brains, division of labour and responsibilities, and adequate compensation for all.

The impact of the "Pianola" on the market can be appreciated from the fact that while this was actually a trade name, copyrighted and registered by his Company, the name caught on so well that for all practical purposes it became a generic term applied to all types of piano-players.

Another of the great pioneers in the player-piano industry, Melville Clark, was one of the first to market pianos and their players as a complete unit and was also the first (1902) to build a player unit to operate the entire 88-note range of the piano keyboard. Clark was a prolific inventor who secured many patents in the field - the most notable of which was the transposing device which permits a player-piano to operate in a number of different keys, obviously a great boon to the accompaniment of vocal music.

This resume of course, recognises only the American contribution to mechanical music. There was a great deal of activity too, in Europe, particularly England, Holland and Germany. (For example, Philips, the Dutch manufacturer, which however, is much better known today for its connections with the electrical industry.) Some of the mightiest mechanical musical instruments - the Orchestrions, or Band Organ - came from Edwin Welte and Sohne's German plant. Welte was also responsible for an alternative expression or "reproducing" player-piano mechanism. As his Company entered this field very early, their library of masters included works by all the musical giants from the end of the last century and those prominent at the beginning of this century. (The accuracy or the fidelity of their recording system has allowed a number of the remaining rolls made by Welte to be used as the "recording" source for these musical treasures to be made as modern CD's. Often these "reproducing" music rolls are now the only means of hearing many of these early artists of great renown as their performances predate any other form of recording). With Germany's defeat in the First World War,with the consequence of cheap labour, many of the German piano manufacturers became "subsidiaries" of the American player-mechanism makers. A huge number of standard player-pianos were exported from Germany all over the world.These player-pianos were beautifully engineered in fine German pianoforte, but many were so complex and difficult to repair that they are not so popular today.


By 1910 the public didn't have to be sold any more on the idea of the player-piano - the instrument was here to stay, or so it seemed! The monumental step forward accomplished by the standardisation of roll sizes and perforation spacing set the stage for the great mass penetration of the market, where the hucksters and peddlers could make their great play. It was no longer a question of whether or not to buy a player-piano - rather the question now was what kind to buy. By this time the technical development of the ordinary foot-operated player had reached its plateau, and any improvements made upon the mechanisms of players after this date were mostly in the class of minor refinements.

Naturally enough, of course, through the years, various manufacturers came up with wonderous gadgets and gimmicks to assist in the sale of their machines. Some of these were sold as accessories, but plenty of them were part and parcel of the pianos themselves.

Undoubtedly the two most famous trade-marks in the history of mechanical music are the Victor Dog and the Gulbransen Baby! Not only were the pages of the "Saturday Evening Post" and other popular magazines adorned with the both of them, but every well-equipped dealer in either line had a papier-mache model of either the dog, the baby, or both, adorning his showroom window.

As it is with the great organizations of the mid-twentieth century selling television, automobiles, cigarettes, and any other consumer product one can name, the success of the concern depends mainly on its merchandising ability and not so much on inherent basic differences in the product. With the player-piano the merchandisers really came into their own. Typically each Company lined up behind its particular gimmick for sales appeal - some relied on catchy adjectives, others on the fact that "anyone could play". Gulbransen leaned heavily on the curious line that unless your friends saw the player-roll, they would think you were playing the piano yourself! Others (notably the Autopiano) featured endorsements, assuming that somehow the fact that the Pope or the Shah of Persia or the Japanese Royal Family liked their player-piano would influence the public to buy their brand. Melville Clark even published a letter expressing the delight of the Dowager Empress of China with her machine! Of course, if you didn't care for the brand endorsed by royalty, you were sure to find one favoured by the latest movie matinee idol of the day.

With the advent of the Great Depression the player-piano was,for all practical purposes, a dead issue as far as the public was concerned. After the hectic rage of the Jazz Age in the Twenties,the player-piano was eclipsed by the coming of the "picture" house.The player-piano was essentially a home entertainment.When the movies came, the public had to go out to a central location where the films were shown. (Often these were open-air arenas, but with the coming of the talkies very elaborate picture palaces became the order of the day!) Initially, under the adage of "if you can't lick'em, join'em", the player piano went into the picture house as an accompaniment to the silent movies - it was the poor show-man's orchestra! Some of the player-pianos were elaborately "extended", with pipe organs and effects (eg.drums,bird and train whistles, etc.) installed in side-cabinets beside the player-piano,(the Fotoplayer), so that the accompanist could truly recreate the mood of the film. When the films became "talkies", this accompaniment was made redundant as the music came with the film and was usually replayed through elaborate electrical reproduction devices. The player-piano,epecially at home, became almost forgotten too, its top lid becoming an extended mantle-piece for the display of the children's wedding photographs and maybe a souvenir or two from your trips abroad!

There was a limited revival of interest in the player-piano with the advent of the Second World War. When the boys came home on leave they wanted to stay at home and sample Mum's cooking and maybe sing a chorus or two of the Vera Lynn favourites,"Till the Lights of London Shine Again" or, "The White Cliffs of Dover"! This revival was really an Indian Summer, for with the advent of television, the player-piano was happily traded-in as the deposit on the new television set. The fact that most of these player-pianos were traded-in at the ridiculously low price of fifteen pounds ($30.00) to electrical retailers, who had no idea what to do with them, created the ironical situation where these same player-pianos were then sold back to the trade cheaply - so cheaply that the player-men could repair them and resell them at a reasonable price! This fuelled another mini-revival of roll manufacture in the early sixties. It did not stop the unfortunate situation, however, where many of the player-pianos were considered valueless and sent to the tip to be burnt! In New South Wales too, with the advent of clubs, it became prestigious to have a grand piano in the auditorium. Many of the priceless player-grand pianos were gutted and sold to these clubs where all too soon they were destroyed by the "rock and roll" artists of those times.

Whereas every second family may have had a player-piano in the hectic days of the Twenties, today they present as a curio in the home, all the more so if they are still used.

There have been a number of serious attempts to revive the hey day of the player-piano. In the Seventies there was an attempt to bring the mechanics of the player-piano into the Twenty-first Century, by basing the new unit on electronic components - even going so far as to substitute a computer disc for the paper player roll. This development has met with only limited success as the modern manufacturers overlooked one of the unique features of the old pedal player-piano. It was an artistic, participatory activity for the operator, who, for the duration of the piano roll, became "the Padereswski of the keyboard" - he was creating his own musical experience, the piano roll became simply his fingers. With the advent of high-fidelity in reproducing sound, why bother just buying an electric piano when a high-fidelity recording system gave you sensory enjoyment from such diverse sources as the orchestra and the human voice as well.

While no-one believes that history will repeat itself to the extent that players will again be as popular as they were in the Twenties, the fact that a lot of people still like these things will ensure however, that mechanical music will still be around when we move on into the new century.


The man who sells pianos has traditionally had a big disadvantage in comparison with the sellers of most other types of household merchandise. Those who sell automobiles to the consuming public may be sure that the customer will eventually want a new one and will probably return. Even those who sell furniture have a certain recurrence in their clientele. Appliances wear out and people come back to the dealer for new machines and devices. This is not so with pianos, because it is rare indeed that any family ever buys more than one in a generation.

The advent of the player was therefore a tremendous boon to the retail end of the piano industry, because it gave the dealer the opportunity to keep on selling merchandise - in the form of piano rolls - to those who had purchased player-pianos from him. Of course, he had always sold sheet music in the past, but buyers were limited to those who could play. Now, everyone, musically skilled or not, became a potential customer.

The teen-age and young adult set, naturally enough, bought all the latest popular hit tunes, all the way from "Come, Josephine in My Flying Machine" (1910) and "Alexander's Rag-time Band" (1911) to "After You've Gone" (1918) and "If I Could Be With You,One Hour Tonight" (1926). During The Great War, the big rush was on for all the patriotic airs, "Goodbye Broadway, Hello France" was probably never equalled in its capacity as a one-step to make the most of the pure mechanical interpretation of piano music, and enthusiasts of schmaltzy numbers never fail to recall the heart-rending strains of "Rose of No Man's Land". Of course as soon as the war was over, every player owner needed the latest release of "How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm, After They've Seen Paree?"

The dealers were able to do business with the toddlers as well. Every major roll company had its repetoire of numbers based on the Mother Goose Rhymes. Probably the best remembered children's roll was "Peter Rabbit" complete with illustrations up the side with the words, (bloodthirsty pictures at that which would probably be banned today!)

Not only was the dealer able to peddle rolls on the basis of age groups and individual musical taste, he could also approach the customer on the basis of his nationality, political or religious beliefs, or the organisations to which he may belong.

One of the biggest concerns engaged in the manufacture and sale of piano rolls was the company which for over half a century produced rolls under the QRS label. This company secured the services of all the leading pianists in the field of popular music, and many in the classical field as well. Names like Lee S. Roberts, Felix Arndt, Pete Wendling, Victor Arden, Phil Ohman, Russell Robinson, James P. Johnson, J. Lawrence Cook, Zez Confrey, Fats Waller and Max Kortlander are familiar ones to all devotees of pianola music. Rolls by these giants continued to be produced in Australia under the Mastertouch label following the merger of the latter with QRS in Australia in the Great Depression.

Roll production continues today as the player-piano owner still seeks to buy the "Top of the Pops". Whereas for many owners the player-piano sound is the heavily orchestrated foxtrots and waltzes of the Roaring Twenties, the bulk of the Young Moderns prefer the Sound of Today. "Rose Marie" and the "Desert Song" may be the favourites of the "Silver Threads Among the Gold" set, but today's teens want selections from Elton John, Billy Joel and Bette Midler! This has forced a radical revision of what is or is not to be included in a roll catalogue. Today's artists try to suit all tastes by offering the old-style orchestration in songs where the song will accommodate this type of orchestration, for example "The Lazy,Hazy Days of Summer". Otherwise they try to make the piano arrangement evocative of the audio rendition the public has heard of that particular song.


The concept of a mechanically operated piano which has the inherent capability of playing not just mechanically, but with all the nuance that the human artist can put into his playing, is one that intrigued many an early-day inventor in this field. The honours for first having succeeded in this field go not to the Amercians but to the Germans. Shortly after the turn of the century,machines capable of actually reproducing the expression of the human artist were marketed.

The Welte organisation of Freiburg, Germany, which was started by Michael Welte in the first half of the 19th century, made the Welte-Mignon expression piano, and by 1905, the company was getting various composers and pianists of the day to sit down and record paper rolls which would have punched into them in the process, not only perforations recording the notes played, but additional perforations to record that artist's expression in his interpretation of the piece played!

As the years went on, practically all the great artists of the day, recorded at one time or another for Welte, and many of these interpretations were later adapted for American-made machines of other types. But not only were the pianos capable of playing back these expression rolls exceedingly costly, in terms of the average person's income, but the rolls themselves also had staggering price tags! The 1912 Welte-Mignon Roll Catalogue contained a listing of rolls costing $10, $15 and up to $17 each, and some costing much more! This became an expensive exercise when some of the compositions had to be issued in two or three roll sets ,owing to their length.

After The Great War, the Steinway Duo-Art Pianola was introduced as result of a contract which had been made between the Aeolian Corporation and the Steinway Company in 1909. Aeolian purchased pianos in extended cases from Steinway, and then proceeded to instal their newly-perfected Duo-Art mechanism in them. Many Steinway models also, were made in special art cases with much ornate woodwork. As it was, the least costly of any of the models produced was around $4500, which was a considerable pricetag even in those hectic times.

Not to be outdone by the Aeolian Company, the American Piano Company produced its own expression mechanism and called it The Ampico. The Company chose to introduce their machine to the public through a formal demonstration held at the Hotel Biltmore in New York City in 1916. Leopold Godowsky was the demonstrating pianist. He played certain pieces himself and then let the Ampico alone repeat his work by playing pre-recorded rolls - a performance designed to convince even the most sceptical of the true capabilities of this expression piano in reinterpreting the efforts of the artist!

It was, in fact, a rather routine thing for companies selling player-pianos to stage demonstrations of this nature, and they were done all over the country, at one time or an other, with various artists participating. Some of these were solo affairs, some with more than one artist being involved,and often a whole orchestra was accompanied by a player-piano "untouched by human hands" during the performance.

In Sydney, Mastertouch offered concerts in the E.F.Wilks' showrooms in Castlereagh Street. Often quite well-known artists such as Elsie Akland,Clara Butt, William Beattie, and David Craven would concertise accompanied by George Horton or Eric Foote at the player-piano. "Accompaniment" rolls were also produced to allow instrumentalists to perform. These concerts were elaborate affairs with invitations and programmes printed for each occasion.

Both the German and the American expression systems had very secretive and elaborate techniques used to make the first take of the artist's recording. In Australia, Mastertouch offered "standardised" expression roll recordings only. In these, the editing artist, usually Edith Pardey or Lettie Keyes, coded the expression manually up the sides of the master. (This system used four gradations of vacuum to immitate the artist's touch, which could be further enhanced by the fact that the "soft" pedal or sostenuto rail was divided into two, allowing a subdued bass or treble.) Trial rolls were cut and played and replayed on the Gulbransen recording-piano until the editor was satisfied with the results of her effort.(As Paderewski had said,"the roll plays the way I would like to play!") These expression rolls were distinguished from the ordinary rolls by the prefix "E" in front of their catalogue number. Because of the great amount of effort and waste of materials involved in the manufacture of this series of rolls, the production of any new titles was halted during the Depression. Existing titles continued to be offered until the beginning of the war, however.

All the makers of expression pianos plugged hard at two items in their advertising campaigns: the fact that they were used and enjoyed by prominent, wealthy people; and secondly because of the fidelity of their performance this type of piano could be used in schools of music as a definite aid to teaching. Of course, the prominent wealthy citizens quickly moved on to the next craze if their fortune survived the Depression and the development of high fidelity electric phonograph recording sadly made the use of expression pianos in the music academies redundant.

These expression player-pianos, however, where they remain operational, are historically very significant, as often they are the only means for today's generation to hear the performances of some of the musical giants from the turn of the century. Saint-Saens for example, while he recorded for Welte, never made a phonograph recording! Today these "reproducing" player-piano performances are being used to produce CD's to delight a whole new audience of today's young, who often do not even know what a player-piano is.