Expansion (2019)


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 and was initially built to playback my collection of Piano Rolls and as a means of composing straight to paper in a similar fashion to Conlon Nancarrow,. The mechanism itself is rather simple, a servo motor pulls the piano roll across a light box and a camera placed above reads the light passing through the punctured skin of the piano roll. Software then interprets the light as on and off signals which can be used as MIDI information.

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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.

Simple Format

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).

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Cyanotype Copying

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)