Midi Drum Samples

Scanning and converting a player piano roll into MIDI form is a fairly straight forward process. Imagine a flat-bed computer scanner copying a page, where the image reading head moves along a track. Now picture the scanning head stationary while the paper itself moves, This can also be used for drum samples.

My scanner was loaned out to me for the duration of my project by a good friend, Robert Perry of New Zealand. (It was no small feat getting the scanner back into the United States and shipped to me). As a Mark 3 generation scanner, it is capable of capturing all perforated data on the roll, but not printed material such as song lyrics or leader song identification. The scanner’s components were designed by fellow roll archivists Warren Trachtman, whose web archive has paved the way in the hosting of many thousands of player drum¬†piano rolls. The scanner itself was built by Terry Smythe, another enthusiast, in Canada. I A satisfactory image is created for a good listening experience, and the images resulting from my scans can be used to perforate new re-cut music rolls so that these performances can continue to exist on new rolls.

The main scanner components are:

  • The Roll Frame: This is the red wooden frame that transfers the roll from the upper area to the lower take-up spool (where the roll attaches to on the bottom)
  • CIS Reader: This is the long metal bar in the middle of the picture that receives the image. Light shines through from a lamp behind the roll and the CIS Reader pics up the light variations.
  • The MK3 Circuit Board: This circuit board is mounted on the back wall in the middle and converts the image data that the CIS reader head receives into a .CIS image of the music roll.
  • The transmission: The stepper motor (Power’s the roll’s movement) connects to the transmission to pull the roll onto the lower take-up spool. The stepper motor is powered by a Circuit board to insure precise movements.
  • ¬†Encoder: This wheel (top left of the picture) encodes precise movements so that the image converts to a uniform and steady MIDI file.
  • The scanning process can be summed up into three main points: 1.) Initial setup of the scanner to the computer: 2.) Roll conversion to midi; 3.) Adding song information to the midi and hosting it.


Step 1: involved actually downclocking my computer so that it was capable of interacting with the DOS-based scanning hardware and software. The scanner is connected to the computer via a standard LPT-1 Parralel port connection. Once the computer was able to boot into DOS, by executing the program, it asks for general information about the roll, including type of roll(standard 88-note rolls in my case), and the roll tempo. The software creates the image on a virtual drive in DOS and at the end of the scan copies the image to the hard drive.

drum samples
Mixing drum samples in the studio

Step 2: involves booting into Windows and bringing up Warren Trachtman’s RollConverter Software which is able to convert the scanned drumsamples and CIS image of the roll into MIDI format. See the picture to the lower right. Click on it for a larger view showing more detail about the software. There is some adjusting needed to make sure the MIDI created plays correctly and at the right tempo.

Step 3: is a simple custom made editor program that takes the MIDI file without any roll information and adds metadata of your creation inside the file; including song content like Roll Brand, performer, copyright information, roll tempo range, and type of song. Once this refined MIDI file is created, it is a simple matter of adding it to the online archive.

Once The Piano Roll Has Been Scanned, I switch the transmission to re-wind and re-wind the music roll. Care is taken to insure that the edges of the paper are not torn during re-wind. I put the roll in a special area for rolls already scanned to seperate them and to make organization easier.

For more technical information about my variant of drum sample scanner, I suggest you visit Terry Smythe’s Website. If you’re interested in building with drum samples, This document along with Terry’s site will get you started, but I also suggest getting in contact with The International Association of Mechanical Music Preservationists (IAMMP), who are part of a Yahoo group here. They can help you answer almost any question.

Piano Drum Samples

Piano rolls are one of America’s oldest playable media formats dating back to the turn of the century. While the player pianos that perform the rolls are useable indefinitely with simple restoration, many of those piano rolls are deteriorating into obscurity. Many important figures recorded on piano roll, including many percussion ensembles. Rolls capture the performances of important figures like George Gershwin, Edward Grieg, and Thomas “Fats” Waller, but they also recorded the performances of vaguely known figures, who’s performances exist only on roll. It is of equal, if not greater importance, to archive the performances of these unknown artists. This website aims to serve only one main purpose; to provide students, teachers, and music enthusiasts valuable resources to musical content that is otherwise unavailable.

Throughout this site, you’ll find resources to learn more about piano rolls, an overview of my archival process, and of course, access to historically important piano roll performances in midi format.

Player piano rolls represent a media format that was the height of entertainment from 1910-1930 before Radio overtook the player piano in popularity. The piano was seen as a luxury item that was a necessity in everyone’s home. However, because not all those wanting pianos could actually play the piano, the player piano served as a means for the average person to enjoy the popular music of the day. Because of recorded sound’s initial fidelity issues, the player piano was thought by many recording artists to be the best method to record their performances. A listener could simply play the roll and it was as if the performer was there in their very home.

Recorded sound suffers from degradation in sound quality over decades, but a piano roll will sound the same as the day it was punched. Piano rolls are not free from defect however. Many “budget” brands of music roll issued outstanding recordings of artists on economical paper that was not designed to last. Roll brands such as Atlas, Paramount, Supertone, International, and Standard all could be categorized as having deficient paper. Depending on the acid content of these rolls, some are so brittle today that they can literally explode and tear if mishandled. It is because of paper degradation that some remaining rolls by these brands are damaged either while being played on a piano or from improper handling. The picture below illustrates why it is so important to archive as many of these rolls now before they all suffer the same fate.

One of the nice things about player piano rolls is that they can be acquired for cheap. A quick look on eBay finds that rolls go for about $.50 or less in large lots on the average. Occasionally rolls will be worth a lot, but it just depends on which collector is needing which roll. Because so many different artists recorded on piano roll, the same song can sound completely different on two brands of roll. Finding great performances on rolls is one of the thrills of collecting.

Music rolls are one of my personal favorite forms of music. When you play a player piano roll on a real piano, you’re able to inflect tone, subtlety, volume changes, and basically make your own performance. As a musician myself, this is as close as it comes to playing the piece yourself. It is this magic quality that needs to be preserved by scanning these rolls, to make it so that they can be re-cut and continued to be enjoyed on restorable player pianos. I hope you enjoy your visit to this site, and hopefully by listening to some of these files, you’ll catch the Piano Roll bug like I did.