The Reproducing Piano

These are player pianos that contain additional mechanisms to automatically recreate pre-programmed musical dynamics encoded onto their music rolls. The rolls and mechanisms endeavour to reproduce the effect of a live performance, hence the term ‘reproducing piano’. They can be extremely effective when properly restored and regulated and their recordings are now regarded as of great historical interest. Unlike the player piano, where the human is the interactive participant in the music making process, reproducing pianos remove the person from the position of musician to that of audience member. As such they are, strictly speaking, not the highest development of the player piano but the end point development of pneumatic player piano technology. Specific makes are described chronologically in a brief table below:

Brand Date Maker Notes
Mignon 1904 Welte the original Welte Mignon
DEA 1905 Hupfeld
Duca 1908 Philips
Duo Art 1913 Aeolian
Stoddard Ampico 1914 Ampico
Artrio Angelus 1915 Wilcox & White
Art Echo/Apollo 1915 Melville Clark
Solo Carola 1916 Cable
Welte-Licensee 1917 Welte American version
Triphonola 1918 Hupfeld
Ampico A 1920 Ampico
Mignon 1922 Welte revision of original Mignon system
Ampico B 1929 Ampico revision of earlier systems

Reproducing pianos were typically marketed to those who wished to hear live piano performances in their homes who did not wish to produce their own performances by means of the player piano. To collectors today the reproducing piano holds many attractions, such as the fine pianos used, the historical pianists who recorded for them, and a fascination for the complex mechanisms employed.

The music for the reproducing piano is a major subject in its own right. The greatest pianists of the heyday of the era performed on pianos ordinary in every respect except for electrical contacts under the keys allowing for the note tracks to be accurately captured together with rudimantary dynamic performance data.

The dynamic data and note tracks were combined by skilled roll editors into the finished product : a roll containing the note tracks and dynamic data codes required to render a likelike performance of the original recording session. The resulting piano roll was always a joint product of recording artist and roll editor. Roll editors were musicians in their own right, and always ensured that the roll gave the best possible representation of the original performance.

In some ways the reproducing piano was a backwards step because it removes the interactive capability of the player piano, making it purely a mechanical playback device that does only what it is programmed to do. The instrument must be carefully regulated so it responds in a musical manner to the roll coding. If this is done, the performance will not sound in any way mechanical.

Poorly restored or regulated reproducing pianos (which are sadly far too common) have rightly attracted much adverse comment from musicians over the years. Enthusiast societies such as the PPG offer assistance with restoration and regulation, starting by identifying good instruments to raise awareness of what can actually be achieved. A poor-condition player piano, by contrast, can usually be compensated for by the player pianist during performance, making the defects far less obvious.

The relative merit of player pianos and reproducing pianos has long been debated, but in reality they are simply different, each with its own capabilities. Anyone considering purchasing an instrument should consider what they want from it, and choose the one which best suits their own needs. Many later reproducing instruments come with the dual facility of being able to play pre-recorded material or be played under normal interactive control.