Ampico B Installation

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Spencer and Gene Gerety visited us this week to install one of the very first e-valve systems into our Ampico B Chickering. As everyone probably knows, the Ampico B using the late model one piece stack with it's very large cover can be pretty tight-fitting with everything else one needs to have under that piano. We didn't have too much trouble doing it. We just mounted the valve units (I am avoiding using the word "valve blocks," since that term has already been taken by Ampico owners and others) on a long stick that reaches across the width of the piano, behind the drop skirt. It makes a really nice installation.

I was worried at first that we were going to have a tubing nightmare. I could just imagine this thing jamming stuff up so bad that if I had a valve failure or needed to get back into my player someday, I would not be able to, so I was taking a chance. As it turned out, It does make it "busier," but not inaccessible. Matter of fact, I resealed all the valve block elbows later and didn't have any trouble at all doing that. Then I even removed a valve block, as usual, and of course, it would be right behind the large feeder hoses and in the busiest portion of the stack, besides. I am satisfied about the cramping issue-- it is not an issue, when done right-- and I use the heavy-wall tubing throughout.

Performance? At least as good as rolls, and of course, better than some, because many rolls with problems, like too narrow holes, do not play well at lowest intensities. So they play just great, regardless what the perforator originally had done to it. You can forget performance problems. It doesn't exist. We played it for hours on end, all day long, day after day, and I could not detect ANY warmth at all. Hmm. "How dey do dat?"

It has this classy pick and hold circuit developed by Gene Gerety that initially opens each valve with high voltage and keeps it open with low voltage. To say that's cool is exactly right, literally and figuratively. And that's reliability, too. On the individual control cards mounted on each e-valve unit, you see no large transistor drivers. Just little tiny stuff that you could lose under a fingernail, and of course the logic converters. My units, being engineering models, do not have covers. That makes them a little more vulnerable. I suspect that shortly, this will be remedied. But cleaning those little valves will obviously be pretty easy, too. They are aluminum with a magnet structure attached. You remove the card and then just hold a screwdriver close to the e-valve poppet and out it comes, attached to your screwdriver blade. However, I don't see how they could ever get dirty. At least, it would be very difficult to do so.

Not so with other past attempts at this sort of thing by previous developers. And to try to clean other specially made magnet valves would be a major nightmare, if not impossible for most. With this system, you can breathe a sigh of relief. It's all easy, direct, simple, practical. And... cool.

Once installed, that's it. You have to buy a separate midi controller in series to send midi signals from your computer to the special controller box mounted in the piano. Those are made by companies like Roland, Edirol, MidiMan, etc.

So far, we don't have the software specifically designed to run this thing yet, but it's in the pipeline. It's coming. Luckily, it works on midi sequencer programs anyway. Cakewalk is a breeze, and so is Windplay 95. With that one, you have this nice sorting feature. So if you have, say, 3500 Ampico roll titles to look through, you can sort by composer, artist, title, roll number, etc.

Windplay still lacks some very important features, like a search engine. If you are looking through a possible 4000 roll titles for a particular song, played by a particular artist, how do you do it? You can't. It can also difficult for computer neophytes to get it all set up, I think. So it may not be for those owners who are not comfortable yet with computers because Windplay is fairly crude in my opinion, but this is to change pretty soon. There will be software arriving for owners of these valve systems-- hopefully sooner, rather than later. In that system, I expect it will have it's beta versions and subsequent refinements. It takes time to get a project like this off the ground.

I think the thing that sold me on the system more than what I had heard about it, was in getting to know Gene and Spencer. First by e-mail, and a few telephone conversations, and finally, in person. They are not "salesmen"-- that's for sure. We got along instantly. If we lived next door to each other, we'd never get anything done. It's like school chums, who can talk about anything. I can trust them. They are honest, they are thorough, and will eventually come through with everything they've expected to do. And when I buy something like this and take a risk, knowing that it is one of the first systems installed, it is so gratifying to realize in the end, there was no risk after all. Something I could not say for past attempts at e-valve interfaces. When something works this well, you just gotta like it.

I was asked by a friend why regular Petersen magnet valves wouldn't work, too? Well, there are lots of reasons why they do not work well on reproducers, but in the first place, they are too large and inefficient. They require lots of current, they are relatively slow to react and return, they are very susceptible to the tiniest speck of metal particles, like from steel wool, which will totally incapacitate them, and they would require a humongous cover to protect them from damage and interference. But mainly, they will not lift promptly enough (or at all) at the high vacuum pressures required for reproducers.

In a nutshell, these new e-valves and their slick electronics control systems are the future of pneumatic player systems. To have your entire library in front of you on a computer screen and all you do is click and play-- well, man, that's so neat! And then when you want to play rolls, there's nothing to turn off. Just remove the plastic over the trackerbar and the takeup spool cover, and play them to your heart's content. There will be plenty of rolls that you will not have copied to your computer, and this will not take the place of rolls. It is a vast new dimension however to get all the good out of your piano.

If you are a musician and own an electronic keyboard, you will also be able to hear your self play your own pneumatic reproducer, and when you hit a few clinkers, you can edit them right out.

Right now is a very wise time in history to buy one of these, as they are presently at the lowest price they will ever be. Buying Wayne Stahnke's Ampico e-roll CDs and Peter Phillips Ampico e-roll CD is going to be a good idea now, if you have an Ampico. Think what kind of music you will have. It's like buying 3500 or more brand new vintage Ampico rolls and all the cabinets to put them into! And then to hire several librarians to keep track of them all and instantly play them for you. For the low price you are able to own all this for, you may as well consider this electronic interface to be free. You have the best deal that was ever made for player pianos.

Craig Brougher

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