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SDR Deposit of the Month: Player piano rolls jump to the 21st century

Who could have guessed it? Player pianos rolls, those curious scrolls of punched, now brittle and yellowed paper you might come across at the thrift store, are at the center of new research underway at – where else? — the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA).

The CCRMA research team is working with the Stanford University Piano Roll Archive housed at the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound, one of the largest collections of rolls in the world, “to provide a virtual experience of piano rolls including a high resolution color image of the roll and a digitally synthesized audio rendition of each roll” (1). The intention is to accurately emulate the roll’s full musical expression, as if replayed on the original mechanical piano, through algorithmic processing of the images. 

The team is releasing their first dataset: SUPRA-RW 1.1 now available from the Stanford Digital Repository (SDR). The research will be presented this week by Zhengshan (Kitty) Shi at the 20th International Society for Music Retrieval Conference in Delft, the Netherlands. Kitty’s co-authors are Craig Stuart Sapp, Kumaran Arul, Jerry McBride, and Julius O. Smith III.

This work is important, because player pianos and rolls are established as significant to the history of music, music technology, and early 20th century culture, and because they present major preservation challenges if research in these subject areas is to continue. Player pianos are obsolete technology and vintage roll paper is brittle, tearing easily when handled or played. This report from Stanford Libraries’ conservation experts explains what must be done to ensure delicate rolls can be scanned for processing. 

The SUPRA dataset, including audio files in various formats (MP3, WAV, M4A, MIDI), is being shared via the SDR with the music research community to invite feedback on the process and its results. The goal is to refine the process, developed in this case for the Welte T-100 roll type, and develop it further for use on piano rolls types issued by the other player piano manufacturers of the day. The Stanford University Piano Roll Archive, which continues to add to its collections, offers a trove of materials to drive this work. The ongoing output of this project is available on the SUPRA research portal and the Archives’ companion online exhibit.

UPDATE: The authors were awarded best paper at the ISMIR conference!


(1) Zhengshan Shi, Craig Stuart Sapp, Kumaran Arul, Jerry McBride, Julius O. Smith III. SUPRA: Digitizing the Stanford University Piano Roll Archive. In Proc. of the 20th Int. Soc. for Music Information Retrieval Conf. (ISMIR), pages 517-523, Delft, The Netherlands, 2019. Available at:

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