The Piano Roll Machine (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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Taking things a little further I wanted the machine to reflect my research into the mp3. The scale of the piano roll, particularly in contrast to the contemporary champion of audio formats became key. The mp3's success is due in no small part to its method of compression; so what better way to analyse that compression than by expanding this microscopic format across a 40ft piano roll. Now to even hold a single second of an mp3 on a 40ft roll  requires a huge reduction in both sample rate and bit depth, particularly if you have to hand punch each individual hole, so to say an mp3 is encoded into the  roll is certainly an overstatement. But, I think the analogy is clear even if the  result is not quite so - yet it is distinguishable (more on this later). An irony that exists between the mp3 and the piano roll, that I think worth mentioning: the mp3 -  obviously the higher definition recording but the piano roll by striking a physical string will vibrate an unrepeating analogue continuum, while the mp3 is confined to the same sound forever.


The single second I chose to encode in the roll was Ed Sheeran’s song ‘The Shape of You’. A song that while never finding its way onto a physical medium, holds the title of most streamed track of all time, numbering in the billions.  While that made it fitting enough in itself there were two more reasons for this decision. First from my time working in a bar, I could distinguish this track by the first second of hearing it and second the name could be seen to reference its listener and the crux of my thesis by looking at the mp3 and its compression showed the individual at the end of the chain of events hearing the sound is much like the analogue continuum that the piano roll orders to strike.

My thesis, which has a chapter dedicated to the definitions and etymologies of the analogue and the digital goes into this a lot deep. I might at some point post that on here if I get round to rewriting it a bit better.