Orchestrion (Studio 801 Designed and Built)

In order to show the scope of work that can be performed at the studio, I designed and built a type of player piano called an "Orchestrion." An orchestrion is a self-playing or mechanical orchestra. My orchestrion has 10 working playing musical instruments and was styled after the concept of the Operators Piano Company's Coinola, (model "CO".)

I had gotten a broken down "Stroud" up-right player piano from a friend in exchange for a custom stained glass window. This piano was not working, it was not even complete. In its past, someone was going to "fix-it," and they did. It had been a failed restoration attempt of a "non-mechanical music based wood-butcher." The piano had no white key tops left on it, it had no roll frame or air motor and it was missing, nearly all of the player piano's operating linkage. At first, I restored my new piano as a regular 88 note player, and did have it working in that form for a short while. I got it playing with the help of a modified Schultz roll frame and wind motor.

The Schultz parts came from a destroyed player piano that had flipped out of a truck at the corner of Delor and Kingshighway in South St. Louis, Mo.When I found it, the piano was laying on its top at the curb side, like "musical road kill" (Needless to say, I stripped that piano carcass down like a hungry vulture.)
 
Click the "Orchestrion Image" above, to link to a performance of W.C.Handy's "St. Louis Blues"
 
"RIVERBANK RAZZMATAZZ" (a CD link)  

The digital Orchestrion music St. Louis Blue, (used above,) can be heard and purchased on the CD "RIVERBANK RAZZMATAZZ." Click the CD cover to the left to purchase a copy. Please tell them you heard about their recordings from a link on "studio801.com" "It is probably the best mechanical arrangement I have ever heard of this tune. I did not have a digital copy of the Blues but wanted to use it for my orchestrion, (it relates my St Louis.) Hopefully I will find that roll some day to use in my instrument."

   
The Extra Instruments

 

As the years went on, I decided to re-work my project as an orchestrion. I designed and built all of my instruments before changing anything on my now working player piano. As I finished building them they were placed on the piano, so I could start thinking about the case that would hold all of these new pieces. Before the player piano could become an orchestrion, instruments had to be built. These instruments included: metal bell bars, a tambourine, a triangle, a wood block, two drums, and two cymbals. Piano expression and a harpsichord rail were added to the mix when everything was later installed into the piano case.Then there was a matter of an "O" type music roll frame, (seen in the table photo below.)

For this I used the Vestal Press "Technical Series" drawings to start the project and was very lucky because "Play Piano Co Inc." of Wichita KS, had been involved in a project remaking stock Coinola roll frame units. I was able to get many parts I needed to build my frame from them. This image shows most of the extra instruments with their hand built playing Mechanisms. "This grouping of instruments was then screwed to a table in the studio." They were "tube d-up"and hooked to a vacuum supply so they could be tested, and everything went very well.

 
Then, A Case

Once all of the musical parts were all working, attention was turned to designing and building a case to hold everything in style. The back and sides were easy, they were simply extensions of the piano case. The back was a frame of 4x4s covered with glued planks of pine. The sides were assembled to a thickness of 1-1/2" using seven ply birch plywood. It was then covered with mahogany veneer on all sides. These parts were all glued together then were screwed to the top of the piano case. The hinged piano top was simply moved upand placed on top of the extension where it was screwed on. Lastly, a removable shelf was built above the roll frame to hold the all of the extras instruments.

With the necessary pieces in working order and all of the extra instruments in place, attention moved to designing a new case front.

Drawings were made of both the removable case front and also 10 leaded glass panels.

 

This two octave Orchestrion pipe set and chest were built for installation. The first set of pipes that were built for the Orchestrion proved unsatisfactory. They had pneumatics made in the pipe chest. These pneumatics collapsed when the wind pressure was increased to the amount necessary to operate the pipes properly.

This image shows a new pipe chest design. It was built with externally adjustable pneumatics and worked much better.

Duo-Art Reproducing Piano

When the orchestrion was playing with all of the instruments and a case with a new front was in place, another idea made it necessary to take it apart again.

This incarnation allowed it to become a full Duo-Art reproducing piano. This is a piano that does not simply play the notes of a musical composition, it also reproduces the performance of a pianist. My piano was fitted with all of the mechanics and pneumatics to allow it to become a "full" DUO-ART Reproducing Piano. The only problem I could for see was the modification of the tracker bar. Eleven new ports

or, (holes,) had to be added to the "Schultz" brand tracker bar I had installed in the piano to play it using 88 note rolls. This task proved easier than I figured it would be.
Tracker Bar Problem Solved

Ten holes were drilled in their proper location, above the first and last tracker holes on the tracker bar and at the area for the snake bite holes. These holes were files longer, as needed, using a needle file. When they were finished being sized & shaping, small brass tubes were cut and made to fit the backside of the tracker bar. After all ten were fitted and cleaned, the area around the holes was cleaned, wooden tooth picks were used to hold the formed brass tubes in their proper place for soldering. Tooth picks were also pushed into the first and last eight original holes of the tracker bar, from the tubing side to help hold them in place during the soldering of the new tubes. The area to be soldered was brush fluxed and checked for proper tubing allignment.then heat was applied to the ends of the tracker bar and solder was applied. As the flux melted and proper temperature was reached the solder flowed around the new tubes. Before the soldering took place the tooth picks burnt causing them to be deposit soot and smoke on the inside of the tubs and holes keeping them from filling with solder.

 
While at a MBSI, Mid-Am Band Organ Rally Mart, I purchased an early Aeolian roll frame and air motor assembly. These new parts were made to play 88 & 65 note rolls. With that purchase my "Duo-Art/Orchestrion" conversion was about to be taken to another level. This new tracked bar was drilled and tubes with even better results than the "Schultz" brand had. The complete unit was tubed in and everything was added without a hitch.
Piano Hammer Action
With all of the player designs working very well, it was time to address the heart of the piano, the hammers and piano mechanism. This entire section was taken totally apart. The up-right castings were plated and the wood frame parts were re- assembled. A full new rack was built for the instruments. Anything that was in the least questionable, was replaced.

Click above on the machine image to hear an orchestrion playing the St. Louis Blues.

 

In the end this Orchestrion, (that has taken me nearly 30 years to assemble) has become quite a unique instrument. My home-built instrument can only be described as a 7'-6", Stroud based, "O" roll, Duo-Art Orchestrion, that plays 65 & 88-note rolls, Duo-Art rolls (with full expression) as well as 65 & 88-note Themodist rolls (with limited expression.)

And the project continued: Three years ago, I made the parts that allows this machine to play square driven 58-note rolls too.

I don't think this instrument project will ever be finished. I can say, however, it has been evolving for quite a while now, and it has been fun. I have been at this mechanical music stuff for many years now and I try hard to encourage new collectors in their projects. On the other hand I would never encouraged a new collector to destroy a complete vintage machine. I have, and will continue to, truly enjoy my project piano. I also love to hear of collectors, who have given a second life to well intended project disasters. Good luck to others who strive to conserve, but are not afraid to explore the possibilities.

Foot Note:

At the age of 5, my oldest son Gus, drew this image of the Studio Built Orchestrion. To my delight, he was extremely observant and added all of the details of this instrument. This prized drawing has been archivally matted and is currently stored in the Studio's Art Collection.

Gus has since been awarded his "Bachelor of Fine Arts" degree from Fontbonne University and is currently working in independant film production.

To see more excelent by August Joseph (Gus) Stevenson, click his drawing to go to his web site.

(Rev.10-2007)

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