I recently started reading ‘Playback: From the Victrola to Mp3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money‘ by Mark Coleman. As the
title implies, it covers the innovations that have allowed us to record
and playback sound over the last 100 years. In researching another
essay that I haven’t posted here yet, I stumbled across a technology
that isn’t mentioned in the book, but purports to be one of the
earliest methods for recording a musical performance. This technology is the
Reproducing Piano.


     It’s important to make a
distinction between the reproducing piano and its more famous cousin the player piano, as they
are very different beasts. The player piano’s rolls are cut by hand to
play notes at a fixed dynamic with little if any expression or
variation. The resulting playback sounds stiff and mechanical,
fittingly. The reproducing piano used a much more complicated system
involving a mechanism that punched the actions of a human player into a blank roll as they played, effectively recording the performance by not only punching a hole according to the note being played, but also by recording the
velocity with which the performer struck the keys, their expression,
and pedaling. This innovation was developed by the German
Welte piano Company:

     “In 1895 the Welte firm developed a
successful paper roll operated
player piano, one of the first such devices to be made on a commercial
basis. This early player piano was entirely mechanical. The paper was
punched out by hand using a piece of printed sheet music as a guide.
There was no attempt at expression other than maximum or minimum
loudness. What the pianos lacked in subtlety of dynamics they
compensated for in volume. But the Weltes were true artists; they were
convinced that the public would buy better reproduction if it could be

     “So, in the early 1900’s, Edwin Welte and
his associate Karl Bockisch
developed a machine known as a ‘Vorsetzer.’ This complex device had
felt covered ‘fingers,’ one for each piano key. It was placed in front
of a piano’s keyboard (The name ‘Vorsetzer’ means ‘Sitter in front of’
in German), the same position occupied by the pianist. [When a roll
was played], it actuated the mechanisms within the Vorsetzer in such a
way that these ‘fingers’ came down and depressed the keys with the same
dynamics and in the same order as the original artist’s performance.
The mechanism also faithfully reproduced the artist’s use of piano
pedals. By this method, a performance could actually be played back
from a master roll, much as we do with our modern tape recorders

     “Every precaution was taken to get
conditions as nearly equal as
possible to the original performance. The wooden fingers of the
Vorsetzer were made the same length as a man’s fingers from the pivot
of his wrist to the tips, so that the same power of touch would produce
the same dynamic strength on the piano as the artist when he struck the
keys during the making of the master roll.”

     I’ll be quoting liberally from pages
324-327 of ‘Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments‘ by Q. David Bowers, a 1600 page tome that documents all manner of turn-of-the-century mechanized music. The book is overflowing with
black and white photographs of instruments you never knew existed, and
is punctuated with surprisingly engaging narrative passages. I liked it
so much that I bought myself a copy.

     A photo of several ‘recorded’ Welte rolls is shown below:


     To produce these rolls, four different pianists were asked to play the same piece to illustrate the Welte’s ability to capture variation and nuance. Once their invention was perfected, the Welte company contracted many famous players to record rolls. I am ignorant of which among the laundry list of pianists to have been recorded are important, but the fact that even I recognized several names says something, I suppose. Bowers’ encyclopedia collects correspondance and recollections of those attending these earliest ‘recording sessions.’ Debussy was reportedly very tempermental at his session, declaring that “There have only been produced so far in the world two great musicians: Beethoven and me!”

     The importance of the Welte rolls is easily seen – they allow us to experience the performances of composers and pianists, many who never lived to be recorded by other means.

     The most interesting part of this story is how the rolls came to be heard again. The rolls were in Germany during World War II, not exactly the safest place for fragile, rare art. The following is a passage by Richard C. Simonten:

     “As soon as hostilities ended after World War II, I sent a letter to
the last known address of the [Welte] firm in Freiburg, Germany. I eagerly awaited the developments.

     “After some months I recieved a despondent reply from Edwin Welte who
told me that the factory had been destroyed and that there were no
rolls available, but that he had in his posession, in his home, about
sixteen organ rolls which he would be glad to send to me in exchange
for food. They were literally starving and would be most happy to
convert these rolls into some form that they could eat. I was equally
happy to send them food for the rolls. In due course the rolls were
shipped, and I recieved them. I was so touched by their plight that I
continued to send food, and from that humble beginning a warm
friendship developed.”

     “After many months Edwin Welte told me of the work done in gathering
together the vast library of the playing of famous pianists, and he
impressed upon me the great value of the unique master roll library
which was wrapped in mothballs and put away. Both he and Karl bockisch
were elderly men, there were no heirs to the business, the plant was
totally destroyed, and it looked as if future generations would be
forever denied the privelege of hearing the great artists they had
recorded. Few people on this side of the ATlantic knew that thee
master rolls existed. In fact, the era of the reproducing piano had
been largely forgotten.”

     “Edwin Welte sent me sone old literature which contained photographs of
the artists and signed testimonials to the fact that the artists
themselves had actually recorded and commented on the faithful
reproduction of the Welte instruments. It presented a very imposing
roster of famous artists and composers and showed promises of being
musically important. I realized immediately that these recordings had
commercial possibilities. However, I first needed the answer to one
major question: Was the artistry, even after being recorded on these
specially prepared master rolls, worthy of the men who performed, or
was it lacking in subtlety and reminiscent of the old parlor player

     “Proving this point was not simple. The only conclusive means was to be
able to hear the actual reproduction of some of the masters and let
experts decide. The only place I knew of where they could be heard was
in Germany, and then only under very difficult conditions.”

Reproducing Piano Espionage!

     The following is an extensive passage describing the recovery of the Welte master rolls in post-war Germany. This is probably of interest to no one but myself, but I was really excited when I found it. Rife with suspense and intrigue!

     “There followed a furious exchange of letters across the atlantic. In
searching for a solution the fact came to light that the local radio
broadcasting station in Friedburg had a magnetophon, or the original
prewar German magnetic tape recorder which was later copied very widely
by American manufacturers. But there was no recording tape available
in all of Germany. The answer was to mail some tape from here and pray
that it would fit. The Magnetophon, however, was in the broadcasting
station as a permanent fixture, and the piano with its associated
reproducing apparatus was in Edwin Welte’s home. This impasse was
solved by suggesting that a telephone line connect the two, and not
meeting with any apparent opposition from the French occupation
officials, it was done on a temporary basis.”

     “Soon all arrangements were completed and, after many exasperating
delays, the day set for the demonstration recording arrived. Fourteen
selections were reproduced on the Welte apparatus, sent over the
telephone line to the Magnetophon in the station and recorded in a form
that could be sent to the United States to serve as a listening test to
evaluate the musical performance. All that remained was to get the
tapes from the station inot my hands.”

     “The next day Edwin Welte called on the French Commandant to ask for the
tapes so he could send them to his American friend who was eagerly
awaiting them. He was told that the French government had officially
seized the tapes, and that they never intended that he should have
them, much less send them to America – of all places.”

     “Of great assistance at this time was a young Ukranian displaced person
who had been a German prisoner of war. After his capture on the
Russian front, he was sent to Friedburg to teach languages at Friedburg
University. Mr. Welte met him there – where both had been assigned
duties by Hitler’s government. Since the war this young man had been
employed by the Radio station. The French officer evidently was not
aware that he and Edwin Welte had been good friends. The young
Ukranian was the first to tell Welte that the French officer was not
going to release the recorded tapes as they appeared to have value and
the officer hoped to sell them.”

     “One night the tapes in a wrapped package were left on the officer’s
desk, and at closing time our friend hid himself in a closet so as to
be inside after the French civilian supervisors had locked the door
behind them.”

     “With only the dim moonlight filtering in, he opened the package on
the commandant’s desk, carefully preserving the cord and paper. With
some other rolls of magnetic tape that I had sent by regular mail, he
set about recording duplicates. There was only time to record five of
the selections as his friend, a fellow displaced person, was waiting to
take the 2:40 a.m. train back to Frankfurt and had agreed to take the
package into the American zone and airmail it to me.”

     “He worked up until the last minute, magnetically spoiled the recordings
on the originals so they could’nt be used, and then he carefully
repacked them so as to make it appear as if [the spoiling] had happened
in transit. With tape hidden in a rag under his shirt, he climbed over
the transom, kept out of sight by staying in the back alleys until he
got where his friend was waiting, and together they went to the railway
station. In a dark section along the way they transferred the package
into the other man’s clothing. THere were always occupation officials
at the train station to open all baggage and examine travel documents.
It wouldn’t do to have the tape in evidence, as too many questions
would be asked. As it was, the tape got to Frankfurt, in the U.S.
Zone, without further incident. It was soon across the Atlantic and in
my hands.”

     “Almost without pausing I had the tapes reproduced and conventional
acetate records made from them. The instant I heard the first
reproduction I realized that the artistry was excellent, even though
the multiple re-recording had introduced some pitch variation and
distortion. This didn’t matter as it meant the master rolls were good,
and I could go back to them, and with proper recording apparatus, get
good records. This would be as good as the actual playing of the great
composers and artists themselves.”

     “The next step was to plan a trip to Europe and seek permission to enter
the occupied zones. My wife and I arranged for the care of our two
small children, and on September 28th we sailed on the Queen Elizabeth.”

     “Our first sight of Freiburg was one which we shall never forget. The
vista of a demolished city is one which an American cannot concieve of
unless he has seen it firsthand. The first thig we saw from the
railroad station was the twisted wreckage of the once awesome Welte factory. While our bags were being taken through customs and subjected to inspection by the French officials I strolled over to the edge of the platform and saw the remains of the many buildings which had once been the stronghold of the Welte empire, virtually a dynasty in the musical history of the world. All that remained were heaps of brick, twisted steel, and shells of buildings that could never be used again.”

     “In the latter part of World War II when the allies bombed freiburg (Freiburg was not a strategic target; it was a university town that was bombed in retaliation for an earlier German raid on the English university town of Coventry) the Welte factory and 65% of the city was reduced to nothing but useless piles of smoking rubble. One of the machines for playing the Welte master rolls was destroyed in the factory, but fortunately the other had been dismantled and stored in a safe place. There was only one man alive who knew how it was constructed and how it should be operated. This man was Karl Bockisch, who at this time was in his 70’s. Because of the proximity of the Welte factory to the railroad station, a prime target, the priceless master rolls had been transferred to a parsonage in the Black Forest and had been hidden in a barn. There they remained until October, 1948, when we came to Germany.”

     “Once we were set up and recording we worked tirelessly many hours a day. Often we would do a recording as many as five or six times because somehting had interrupted usor because a noise had ruined the sound. One time the distraction might be an airplane, another time the crackling of the wood fire in the little stove in the corner of the room. Of course, all of the beautiful homes like Edwin Weltes had central heating, but during the postwar hardship there was no caol available. They were allowed a few cords of wood to last all winter. To use the small supply sparingly, Welte and others set up little stoves in one or two selected rooms and fashioned makeshift chimneys. We had to keep the stoves going because it was the only way we could keep the piano in tune. Sometimes in the middle of a recording the power would suddenly fail for a few seconds, or else the frequency would shift and change the speed of our machine. Often we did a recording over and over until it was as near to perfection as possible.”

How does it work?

     I’m glad you asked! The key ingredient is Mercury. The piano used to record the performances was unique in that it had a trough of mercury beneath its keyboard and pedals. Attached to each key and pedal was a carbon rod. The mercury and rod were used as an electric switch, and depending on the depth the carbon was plunged into the mercury, the electrical current was varied. This current was used to actuate inked rubber wheels (one for each key / pedal) onto a master roll. These master rolls were used to cut rolls for Welte-Mignon reproducing pianos, an example of which is shown below (Clicking the image will open a higher quality .pdf document):


     The piece is Chopin’s Etude in F Major. The key and expression information on these playback rolls were read using a pneumatic system similar to conventional player pianos. Anyone who has ever sequenced MIDI will see a striking similarity to these almost 100 year-old rolls.

     As with any technological invention, the reproducing piano is not without its naysayers. L. Douglas Henderson has written a summary of his complaints with the reproducing piano here. His central complaint is that player pianos or pionolas, which were typically foot-pumped, were capable of expression as long as they were operated by a skilled interpreter, or ‘pianolist:’

     “Essentially, a pedal player action required one to use the treadles and the hand controls — which were levers or buttons — to INTERPRET the perforated rolls. The accomplished intepreter was called a “Player-Pianist”, “Playerist” and most frequently a “Pianolist”.

     “A “Pianolist” can modify and otherwise influence the tempo and pedal shadings of a perforated arrangement, but he/she is working within limits established by the music roll Arranger, who defines the striking by the control of the perforation lengths … and who also establishes the paper travel speed limits for the performance.”

     “A “Reproducing” piano merely uses marginal perforations to imitate in a generalized manner the SAME DYNAMICS which a human interpreter would add to the Player-Piano’s performance. It’s not unlike the automatic transmission of an automobile, such as Hydra-Matic™, which “does the shifting of gears” as one operates the accelerator pedal.”

     Clearly Mr. Henderson misses the point that a player piano roll with the addition of a human interpreter – whose relative skill effects the resultant playback – hardly constitutes a recorded performance. Much of the other criticism directed at reproducing pianos can be attributed to the many imitators who marketed reproducing pianos in the wake of Welte’s innovation. They payed a royalty for the ‘Welte Mechanism’ on each piano they produced, but used it only in theory, constructing their own mechanism by which to record and reproduce the performances. A further explanation for the ill will directed at these instruments may stem from their relative scarcity in working order – discovering a completely working original instrument is so unlikely that collectors classify them only as restored or unrestored.

     Recordings of these rolls being reproduced on a well-maintained Reproducing piano are now available on CD. This is obviously a niche market, so they tend to be rather expensive. You can listen to samples from two cds, representing two types of reproducing piano rolls on Amazon.com:

Paderewski on Welte-Mignon Rolls.’

Gershwin plays Gershwin,’ recorded using Duo-Art rolls.

Related Links

  • Histories of the Welte Mignon in the U.S. are available here and here.
  • There are photos of Welte recording sessions and a wealth of other related information here.