'Roll' out the music; Punching tunes in a factory time forgot

Back before the family gathered 'round the video game for a rousing battle of smash-the-asteroids, back before everyone grouped for Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights, and back before The Shadow knew, there were player pianos.

And there still are. Not only are the old ungainly uprights being hauled out and restored, but about 10,000 sleek new spinets are produced each year by three manufacturers.

Old or new, they all need one thing: player piano rolls. And most of them come from Q.R.S., an 80-year-old company hunkering in a confetti-littered factory a few blocks from the Niagara River in Buffalo, N.Y.

It takes a warehouse full of convoluted, confangled contraptions to make a player piano roll, a collection of rubber tubing, wires, and bellows sure to quicken the pulse of any weekend tinkerer who happens upon it. The place looks ripe for modernization or at least reorganization.

But after all, the product being made here is designed to fit a musical anachronism. A glittering chrome factory would be a disappointment.

In fact, the bright yellow stereo headphones clamped over half a dozen heads are the only modern equipment in sight. The rest is worn black metal and smooth dark wood, still wheezing and clunking after all these years.

Reduced to simple terms, making a player piano roll is just punching a bunch of holes in a long sheet of paper (whence the confetti), and, concedes Q.R.S. president Ramsi P. Tick, a mechanically inclined person could find a number of ways to do that better.

But it's a lot more than just punching holes. It's knowing how to add all those rippling hemidemisemiquavers and little trills and ka-thumpy bass lines to the melody in just the right way to make it sound like - well, like a player piano.

That's the job of the arranger. Rudy Martin is the chief arranger, and his domain is two glassed-in balcony rooms overhanging the main part of the factory.

In one is a most bizarre piano. This is the one that Rudy ''plays'' when he is preparing a new title. It has the regulation 88 black and white keys, but over them are two rows of little levers that in effect become his extra fingers. A 15-note chord is simple on this gizmo.

What isn't simple is sitting down and plunking out a tune. The piano is connected to a jumble of tubes and wires, all of which conspire to punch holes in a piece of paper. And it is a slow process.

''That machine is as slow as could be,'' laments Rudy, settling in on top of the telephone book taped to the piano stool for a demonstration. He trips a few of the levers and stretches his hands over a chord.

Then, still holding down all the keys (and the levers holding down the rest), he tromps on a metal bar under his right foot. This activates the spaghetti collection hooked to the piano, which obliges by punching a row of holes in the paper, corresponding to the notes being held down on the piano.

But one row of perforations does not a quarter note make. Before he even strikes that first chord, Rudy has had to decide how long to make a quarter note , which is related both to tempo and what sounds ''right'' on a player piano. If , for example, he has decided that each quarter note is to be four perforations long, then he has to tromp on that bar four times. But there might be little things going on within that quarter note - the start of a little trill up high, for example. Not only does he have to keep track of the melody line, but he also has to introduce all the frosting as he goes along. A quarter note can take quite a while. It will take him all day to punch out one song.

Meanwhile, the little punches are busy chewing bits out of the paper. This makes the roll which Rudy will carry into the other room to edit.

Here he sits at a little slanttop desk, the roll-in-progress draped across it , smeary with his editing marks. Propped up against the wall is the sheet music he uses as his guide, since that is the version of a song most people have in mind when they order a roll.

''I use it as a guide for chords and style and add to it what I think is needed to make it sound full.''

It's not my song. I just arrange it.''

He claims he's ''not a fabulous piano player,'' but that's not necessary for this job. What you have to have is ''a little imagination.''

When he arranges, he just imagines it in his head, he semi-explains. ''I just punch it out and think it out.'' Then he spends some time editing, taping over unwanted holes and cutting in new ones, and at last he's ready to get a final master roll.

That's where all the antediluvian equipment downstairs comes into play. The biggest of the machines can produce 64 copies (in four groups of 16) of the master at once, through an arrangement of sucking devices which collapse little bellows which pull little wires which trip little punches which make the holes which eventually become music in your living room.

The title is immediately stamped on as a white cat watches proprietarily. Gladys, the title-stamper, moves with split-second precision through the batches of 16 rolls. There is no automation here. ''Why automate for 16?'' Ramsi Tick asks.

The two machinists who keep everything whirring and cranking here are squatting in front of the mastermaking machine, delicately performing a task that looks suspiciously like cleaning out confetti. To their right, the unrolled rolls lie in a wooden trough, and are caught one by one and whipped past a drum which prints the song lyrics down their right hand sides and shoots them into a long wooden cart.

Each roll, some 20 to 30 feet long, is then twirled around a cardboard tube and snuggled into a box, appropriately labeled.

Nearly everything for the rolls is made here: the cardboard tubes, the plastic ends for the rolls, the little tabs which attach the roll to the piano. What can't they make here?

''We don't have a paper mill,'' laughs Ramsi. Give him time, though, and he might figure out where to squeeze one in. He left his job as manager of the Buffalo Philharmonic to join Q.R.S. in 1966. He still hasn't found out what Q.R.S. stands for. The meaning is lost.

This might be a factory that time forgot mechanically, but its musical tastes are right up to date. The new releases include ''Bette Davis Eyes'' and ''Believe It or Not,'' which have barely fallen off the charts.

And there are plenty of old favorites, including ''The Old Piano Roll Blues, '' currently No. 3 on the Top 100 list (outsold only by ''The Entertainer'' - a.k.a. ''The Sting'' - and ''Bill Bailey'').

Tucked in among these latter-day offerings are classic rolls such as ''The Charleston,'' played by composer James P. Johnson, and ''Rhapsody in Blue,'' played by George Gershwin. There's something for everyone: 83 ''classical'' titles, a collection of children's songs, tunes from the '20s and '30s, and country and western selections, among other categories.

Or, for tastes which run in other directions, there is -''Rubber Duckie,'' which comes complete with rubber duck.

There is also the Q.R.S. Celebrity Series, hand-played rolls by world-famous pianists and composers, from Liberace to Marian McPartland to Eubie Blake.

The procedure for making these rolls is slightly different. The ''guest artist'' settles in at a Steinway grand draped with '20s fringed shawls in the reception hall of the factory and plays away, up to speed. The Steinway is connected to a marking device nearby, which uses little inked pegs to mark where the holes will be on a roll of paper, which is then hand cut and edited as usual , with the intent of making the roll suitable for player pianos but not significantly altering the performance.

Q.R.S. will produce maybe 600,000 rolls this year, a snap compared with the years during the '30s when the company made 5 million, but easily keeping up with demand in the 1980s. Whether or not automation would work here is a silly question. It certainly isn't needed. The 30 or so workers spend their time twirling and stamping and punching, and the machinery creaks on. Just like a player piano.

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