The Piano Roll Machine
The Piano Roll Machine is a modern interpretation of the technology found in the Pianolas and Piano Rolls of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Over the course of several months and five prototypes, the machine was designed to simply pull a Piano Roll across a light-box, while a camera suspended above, reads the punch holes as on and off signals (0 and 1). These zeros and ones are then used as note on and note off signals assigned to the respective pitch values of their positions.
This modern version has several advantages over its predecessors. It can play forwards or backwards, inversions, changing speeds, non-western tuning systems, it can join to other MIDI instruments and the assigned samples can be changed, offering a limitless timbral palette. These samples and timbres can also be modified over time. With a little imagination many additions could be postured and the Piano Roll Machine could be an effective compositional device in its own right.
While the Piano Roll Machine was built for the simple purpose of allowing my small collection of antique Piano Rolls another chance to sing, it also serves as means to probe the mechanisms of sound storage. My project 'Expansion' looks at the Piano Roll as the first mass-produced vessel of organised sound (exempting the musical score!) whilst bringing it into contrast with a modern day equivalent - the Mp3. Where the Piano Roll seemingly reduces a composition to note on or note off, the Mp3's reduction takes place by removing certain frequency ranges in order to carry its sound. These reductions are known as compression and are designed to take advantage of the limitations of the human auditory system. However, the developments of these process contain not just the bias’ of the engineers that designed them but also the echo of the music that was used in the control sessions informing their designs. The foci of my research is the nature of this compression, the often misunderstood meanings of the analogue and the digital and ultimately, systems of control.
To articulate my research I developed a simplistic format using the Mp3 as a basis and the Piano Roll as a means to make the process' visible. The format would be a reversal of the Mp3's function to minimize and so the 40ft of blank Piano Roll would become home to one second of recorded audio. Even this one second would be heavily reduced in quality from that of an Mp3 and even at that, it would require many
thousands of holes punctured into the roll. To reduce the information to a workable amount an FFT is performed on the sound, revealing the ten strongest partials and their respective amplitudes at any given moment. The frequency information is further reduced by rounding off to the closest piano note counterpart. The amplitude values are similarly reduced and when encoded onto the roll are given ten possible values. The Roll is also read in its entirety to load all of the information first. This process takes several minutes.
The Shape Of You
For this single second of sound, a very particular track was chosen to grace the paper in Ed Sheeran's - The Shape of You. A track that while never having occupied a physical format, holds the title of most streamed song of all time, numbering in the billions! (Correct as of February 2020).
One thing the Piano Roll holds over the Mp3, if piracy comes before proliferation, is the effort with which it takes to copy. The closest my own experiments got was by using the cyanotype photo-chemical process. By mixing ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide to create a solution with which to paint a sheet of paper, then leaving the piano roll on top, the light that passes through the holes, reacts with the solution and leaves an almost perfect outline.
Essay Analogue and Digital (work in progress)