The world’s first software company and the world’s first player violin
By Mike Hanlon
August 24, 2005
August 25, 2005 Prior to the advent of electronic mass media, the height of home entertainment technology was the player piano – a piano which played music encoded in binary format on perforated paper rolls. The company which became the dominant provider of both player pianos and the rolls they played is still in business today, and rightfully claims to be the world’s oldest software company. Interestingly, QRS (formerly Quality Roll Services) is now selling one of the most remarkable musical instruments in the world - the world’s first player violin, the QRS Virtuoso Violin. The QRS Virtuoso Violin is a real acoustic instrument. It produces sound by moving a bow across a string, just as a traditional violin does. Only in this case, bow and string are controlled by a computer chip rather than a human hand. Unlike the traditional violin, which has four strings, the Virtuoso Violin uses a single three-Inch steel "string-blade" to create sound. The bow, driven by motors and microchips in a box on which the violin is mounted, glides back and forth over this vibrating blade. The resulting sound rivals that of the traditional violin.
In these days of personal audio and video players, it’s hard to imagine that commercial radio has been with us for just 86 years, and that people born at the time of the first television commercial (1941) have not yet reached retirement age.
From the turn of the twentieth century to the coming of high-fidelity phonographs and electronic mass media, the height of home entertainment technology was the player piano – a piano which played music encoded on perforated paper rolls – the player piano was the first widely successful consumer device to encode its data in binary format.
Initially, as in the modern computer industry, there were many different methods for encoding and playing rolls before the industry finally settled into the logical best format and a standard roll size. The man who invented the standard roll size which encompassed all 88 notes was Melville Clark, whose company QRS was arguably the world’s first software company. The Apollo Player Piano of 1901 was the first to use the standard roll and the company still makes player piano software in this format to this day.
Punching rolls for the player piano required the creation of a master roll to serve as a pattern for the high-speed duplicating machines. For many years master rolls were created by hand-perforating from the original music score.
The main problem with music produced this way was the lack of artistic interpretation, resulting in a flat, lifeless sound. In 1912, Clark went one step further when he invented the Marking Piano which could record a “master roll” from live performances. The QRS Marking Piano was produced from 1912 to 1931, adding a human dimension to piano rolls.
With realistic performance possible on any player piano, sales took off and created the unmistakable sound of the music halls and the “Roaring Twenties”. Sales of player pianos peaked in the mid twenties, when over 10 million QRS rolls were sold and more player pianos were sold in America than normal pianos.
QRS today still has its factory in Buffalo and it still churns out the same quality piano rolls that gave it its name (Quality Roll Service) on machinery that is 105 years old and still operates flawlessly – they sure don’t make ‘em like that any more.
There are now over 7000 rolls (musical arrangements) in the catalogue and some of them are considered American national treasures, as the company still has the original recordings from the Marking Piano of Sergei Rachmaninov playing his own music and of George Gershwin himself playing “Rhapsody in Blue.” The master rolls have now been rejigged to play on the company’s current technology for its current range of player pianos.
The company prides itself in having made the world’s best player pianos for over 105 years and during the course of a dinner in the United States a few years ago the management got talking about the directions its technology was taking and came up with a challenge for the long-time collaborators Fred Paroutaud and Dr. Thomas Paine of Paroutaud Music Laboratories – to make a self-playing violin.
Paroutaud has written and orchestrated for such productions as Murder, She Wrote, Amazing Stories, Phantom of the Opera and The Gambler II. Tom Paine was administrator of NASA during the Apollo flights to the moon, vice president of General Electric and president of Northrop Corporation.
"We began working on the Virtuoso Violin in 1989, looking at how a violin string vibrates, and how a performer controls that vibration," Paroutaud recalls. "A violin plays different notes when the performer changes the length of a string by depressing his or her fingers on it, causing the string to vibrate at different rates. We didn't want to duplicate this action with solenoid fingers-they would be too cumbersome in an instrument as small as a violin. Instead, we developed an entirely new technology. As a result, the Violin is capable of an array of nuances, including glissandos and vibratos, that solenoids are not well-suited for."
Rather than trying to change string length, Paroutaud and Paine decided to electromagnetically drive a single string (or "string-blade") at different frequencies. As the frequencies changed, so did the resulting pitch played by the violin. This eliminated the need to change the string's length, resulting in a vastly simplified mechanism.
"People are just amazed the first time they see a violin 'playing itself,' making beautiful acoustic music without a person moving the bow across the string," said Dick Dolan, president of QRS Music. "Watching its bow glide across its 'strings' as if guided by an invisible hand is likely to be one of the more memorable images you'll ever see."
The resultant instrument is now called the Virtuoso Violin. This acoustic instrument produces sound by moving a bow across a violin, just as a traditional instrument does, but human hands never touch either the bow or instrument; instead both are controlled completely by a built-in micro-controller circuit. QRS has prepared this brief comparison of how the Virtuoso Violin compares to a real violin.
The unique, patented technology and rich, acoustic sound of the Virtuoso Violin make it the perfect complement to QRS's Pianomation system, a computer-controlled "self-playing" piano featured at Hollywood's famed Magic Castle. The Virtuoso Violin, a finely crafted instrument capable of achieving the full range of notes produced by an acoustical violin, can play independently or can perform duets with the piano.
The QRS Pianomation system can turn any piano into a reproducing player piano. A patented hardware and software process can store and transport Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) information as an analog signal. This process gives QRS the ability to store, and wirelessly transmit, MIDI performance data in an analog format from a controller (CD, video, cassette, DAT or Minidisc) to the receiver on the piano.
This creates numerous possibilities. For example, most off-the-shelf audio equipment has a left and right channel available for use. State-of-the-art technology permits QRS to store the digital signal in an analog format on the left channel of the software which operates those players. This leaves the right channel available for live prerecorded audio music, even vocal recordings. Pianomation blends them together in perfect harmony and synchronisation. The Pianomation MIDI System is the first product of its kind to "marry" analog and digital technology.
The only virtuoso violin in the southern hemisphere is currently on show at the QRS Music Darling Street showroom in Sydney. And finally, Fred Paroutaud, like his ex-NASA business partner, has many facets, not the least of which is a love of motoring. Fred recently wrote a report on the Ferrari Breadvan for the Robb Report and published his own report on the Concorso Italiano held last weekend in California.