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Adventures in Piano Building (medium.com)
173 points by cevn on Dec 24, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 30 comments

Wonderful piece, but the author is wrong about one point.

The idea that Piano rolls predate all other programmable storage medium is factually incorrect. Surely the Jacquard loom and its punch-card system, patented in 1801, pre-date the piano rolls of the 1900's?

Other than that, a great piece, but I would be remiss if I missed a chance to remind people of how amazing (and early) the Jacquard loom must've been at the time.

Carillons (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carillon) had control drums ('speeltrommel' is the better search term) in the sixteenth century (oldest one I could find is from 'before 1542') that allowed one to program in a melody to play. Example of programming at http://youtu.be/kHuvTKxZwr0

Well, there's a reported cylinder-based musical automaton in the 850 CE "Book of Ingenious Devices": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Ingenious_Devices So it looks like mechanical musical instruments may have been the earliest to use storage media, even if not exactly piano rolls.

It's still just as amazing today, even more amazing that they are still in use!

And also that it was considered a diabolical device designed to steal from artists who deserved simply to make a living when it was introduced.

Good point. I probably could have done more research on that. The little that I DID do placed the piano roll at late 1800s. I'm not a historian. ;) I absolutely find all these ancient systems remarkable.

I think programmable medium must handle conditions. Anyway ancient water clock, antikythera, or even Stonehenge could classify as 'programmable storage medium'.

I also found some very hard and crusty pieces of cotton wedged between a few of the hammers that didn’t look like they were supposed to go anywhere and were blocking some of the parts

Those were the dampers, without them the sound will be "harder" and more percussive:


With such a big LCD I think it would be a fun addition to embed a PC inside it, with the keyboard of the piano acting as its... keyboard. After all, the original PC/AT keyboard only had 84 keys.

...and those who liked the article might find this interesting too: http://www.linusakesson.net/chipophone/

That's interesting. I'll look into adding fresh ones back in, but the existing ones were definitely getting in the way of the action, probably because of age. I'm not sure what the sound is like without them, but the whole system still sounds pretty good.

Oh also, there is a Mac Mini controlling the display. The next phase of the project is to install key scanning hardware that would detect key presses. So it COULD in theory act as a regular keyboard as well. The music would be pretty random though, but interesting.

I really enjoyed and liked the going down the rabbit hole aspect. And the confidence that at every step, even as they got more fractal, there would be a solution.

As someone who has taken a woodworking class or two, I love the ethos of how sometimes experienced wood workers tell the beginners to just throw in a shim [1]. I know that some wood workers would blanch at that - but art is about compromises.

I wonder out loud how we can start getting underserved kids to learn how to make more physical stuff with digital help (CAD drawings).

Reminded me of Tim's Vermeer


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shim

Bravo! It's so fun and... whatever that word is that is a mix between inspiring and intimidating... to see journals of projects like these where so many different interests and passions come together. I loved the visualization exploration, too - aside from the lines, most of them didn't really communicate anything to me but I was surprised at how well the circles one worked.

The small clips I recorded don't really convey the connection as well as when you're standing right in front of it. You see the connection between the keypress and the visualizer much better when it all works as one.

If you're interested in getting into the nitty gritty of piano building and maintenance, check out this book: http://www.pianosinsideout.com/

It's basically an engineering textbook for pianos.

Thanks for that - I've never seen that book before but it looks incredibly thorough and comprehensive.

Another book on the subject is Arthur Reblitz's classic "Piano Servicing, Tuning, and Rebuilding: For the Professional, the Student, and the Hobbyist" which I do own and highly recommend.


My tuner recommended Inside Out to me after he saw I bought Reblitz. Apparently Reblitz is pretty out of date as far as tuning methodology goes? Can't really speak to it myself as I now own both and have read neither due to that particular hobby getting backburnered for a bit.

Fantastic! I love your integrating the display into the whole experience. Its really surprising how nice the tuned piano sounded. Your tuner worked some real magic there.

I've seen the same shiny-eyed ethos in piano builders as I have in computer makers. There's something very aesthetic about both sciences, which makes them so valuable - at a spiritual level - to us all. Piano's will never feed you, nor computers - but both can be used to motivate our fellow man into the effort, and thats all that matters I suppose.

That's one of the best posts for the year. Thanks cevn!

Wonderful article. I've played piano all my life, except for the first 6 and a bunch of layoff years, and other instruments (woodwinds, strings, percussion, mostly). I understand the others and tune them myself to the extent i can, but pianos are a mystery.

I have to be that guy and remind people that are inspired by this to truck a piano home, that hantaviruses are a thing, sometimes a fatal thing, and mouse droppings are biohazards.

Masks and gloves were worn during cleaning, plus lots of ventilation.

I have no interest in pianos. How interesting could this possibly be?

WOW! This is something that would bring a smile to... hmm, I would guess, damn near everyone.

One thing i know from my own Digital Piano is how important the force and speed of the key strokes is.

Something that the article did not mention accounting for.

Since the original player piano mechanism doesn't support force there was no need to incorporate it into my design. Many of the original QRS piano roll scans don't even have that information. Although with further work and a switch out of the solenoid to a pressure control valvle I might be able to control the pressure of the key stroke.

This is a great post! Thanks for sharing. Makes me want to pick up a hobby that involves something other than staring at a computer screen.

This looks like a piano from the future. It's different and mixes traditional (the piano) with modern (that giant screen.) Neat job!

Fantastic work, really enjoyed the article.


Pianos, as they're advances, are very prone to decay

I wonder if there are studies of building pianos with more stable materials (like polymers?)

That being said, it would be better if the author knew about the difference between "its" and "it's"

The author knows. But between desktop autocorrect and not enough proof-reading. It's hard to get it all right.

damn, that's really cool.

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