Less Rock, More Roll: A MIDI Barrel Piano

Strolling around a park, pedestrian zone, or tourist area in any bigger city is rarely complete without encountering the sound of a barrel organ — the perfect instrument if arm stamina and steady rotation speed are your kind of musical skills. Its less-encountered cousin, and predecessor of self-playing pianos, is the barrel piano, which follows the same playing principle: a hand-operated crank rotates a barrel, and either pins located on that barrel, or punched paper rolls encode the strings it should pluck in order to play its programmed song. [gabbapeople] thought optocouplers would be the perfect alternative here, and built a MIDI barrel piano with them.

Keeping the classic, hand-operated wheel-cranking, a 3D-printed gear mechanism rolls a paper sheet over a plexiglas fixture, but instead of having holes punched into it, [gabbapeople]’s piano has simple markings printed on them. Those markings are read by a set of Octoliner modules mounted next to each other, connected to an Arduino. The Octoliner itself has eight pairs of IR LEDs and phototransistors arranged in a row, and is normally used to build line-following robots, so reading note markings is certainly a clever alternative use for it.

Each LED/transistor pair represents a dedicated note, and to prevent false positives from neighboring lines, [gabbapeople] 3D printed little collars to isolate each of the pairs. Once the signals are read by the Arduino, they’re turned into MIDI messages to send via USB to a computer running any type of software synthesizer. And if your hands do get tired, you can also crank it with a power drill, as shown in the video after the break, along with a few playback demonstrations.

It’s always fun to see a modern twist added to old-school instruments, especially the ones that aren’t your typical MIDI controllers, like a harp, a full-scale church organ, or of course the magnificently named hurdy-gurdy. And for more of [gabbapeople]’s work, check out his split-flip weather display.

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Retrotechtacular: Piano Rolls, Made By Apple ][

Piano rolls are the world’s longest-lasting recording medium, and its first digital one. They were mass-produced from 1896 to 2008, and you can still get some made today, although they’re a specialty item. The technology behind them, both on the player and the recorder side, is simply wonderful.

[lwalkera] sent us in this marvelous video (embedded below) that provides a late-80s peek inside the works of QRS Records, and the presenter seems to be loving every minute of it.

Player pianos are cool enough, with their “draw bar” pulling air through the holes in the paper roll as it goes by, and pneumatically activating the keys. But did you ever think of how the rolls are made?

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Sheet Music To MIDI Converter

Learning to read sheet music is a challenge for new musicians, so a group of Cornell students decided to make a robot do it instead. For their final project, they built a robotic sheet music reader (link warning: this page seems to automatically start a .mov file download when loaded).

As an input, the robot takes a piano roll. This is a long strip of paper with music printed on it, which can easily be fed through the reader. A rotational servo keeps the strip feeding at a constant speed, and passes it through the reader.

The reader is based on a Melexis MLX75306 linear optical array. This IC is a 142 x 1 array of photodiodes, which is designed for fuel quality sensing in cars. In this project, it’s been repurposed as a camera to read the music as it passes by. An array of LEDs illuminates the piano roll, providing a more accurate reading.

The components are connected to an Atmel ATmega1284P, which does all the required control and processing. It creates a MIDI output of the piano roll, which can be connected to any hardware or software synthesizer.

Digitizing Player Piano Rolls

What do you do with 100 player piano rolls but no player piano? You come up with a way to digitize the information for MIDI playback. The rolls have 90 columns worth of holes, 88 for the keys and two more for pedals. Voids in the paper cause a note or pedal to be played, so an optical sensor can be used to transform the analog data into digital information. Simple enough, you’ll just need 90 sensors. But this brings up quite an alignment issue. The solution is to use fiber optic cable to position the IR light source in a hand-made 0.2″ spaced jig. At least the spacing meshes nicely with standard 0.1″ protoboard, which is what was used for mounting the sensors.

[Thanks Mike]