I have always been fascinated by devices that make music, electrically or mechanically. This page focuses on the mechanical devices. There are two kinds of devices that have caught my attention-machines that reproduce recorded music-phonographs, and those that actually perform directly with their own sound-organs and player pianos.
I don't own a band organ, but have always wanted to. Luckily, the internet is a great place to find videos of these incredible machines, and we will look at several here.
You may be wondering why these machines were made. Most commercially built band organs were made before WWII. At the time they first appeared, circa 1900, there was no way to play music at a reasonable volume level for public events or large halls, etc. Electronic amplifiers hadn't been invented yet, phonographs were not sufficiently loud; the only alternative was a live band or orchestra, which was not always practical or cost effective. The band organ overcame many of these obstacles. Even in the late 1920's, when vacuum tube amplifiers, microphones, and electric phonograph pickups were introduced, the fact that a band organ didn't necessarily need electricity to operate, kept them in production into the 1930's.
Let's start with this amazing home-built Trudy organ. This machine is a true work of art. No commercially built machine this sophisticated was ever produced. It is a concert band organ built by David Wasson and is absolutely amazing to watch as you can see in these Youtube clips. Note the machine is capable of many dynamic and voice effects that many of the band organs built at the turn of the century lack.
Here's another video of Trudy playing Fidgety Feet at 0:00 and Basin Street Blues at 3:13
Here's another of Trudy showing its capabilities, this time playing Begin the Beguine at 0:30 and Anything Goes at 3:43.
OK, how about some more typical machines? Here a a few Wurlitzer Military Band Organs
This video is of the tracker bar and roll on a Wurlitzer model 105 as it plays Rattlesnake Rag.
Howard Wyman describes the voicing of the 105:
"The Wurlitzer 105 Band Organ plays the Wurlitzer Style 125 roll which will play 41 notes plus snare drum and bass drum. The 41 notes include 14 melody, 13 counter melody, 9 accompaniment, and 5 bass. One note may sound several pipes and so the organ has 97 pipes. For example, in the melody section there are four ranks of pipes, melody flutes, violins, piccolos, and flagolets. To illustrate, let us say we open the valve for the melody note of C. Four pipes will sound simultaneously, all tuned to C but each with a different timbre or sound quality. In the accompaniment section each note will play two pipes, a flute pipe and a cello pipe. In the bass each note plays two pipes, a bourdon and a cello pipe. The counter melody has only one pipe per note, a trumpet pipe." From Building a Wurlitzer 105, Part 2.
This is another model 105, though this one is a reproduction in progress. Here it is playing Under the Double Eagle March.
Here is another video of the same organ after more progress had been made, playing Beer Barrel Polka.
Another video of the same machine, a little more complete and in tune, playing one of my favorites, Gounod's Faust Waltz.
And here's another video of the same machine, a little more complete still, playing Bring Me a Girl.
Another Wurlitzer 105. I am unsure if, judging by the case style, if this is a late-model machine, or a reproduction. Note how well tuned the machine is.
This organ was made by the North Tonawanda Musical Instrument Co., of North Tonawanda New York. Here it plays Pennsylvania Polka. You will note that many of the pipes are brass and resemble those of a band instrument.
This video is of a Wurlitzer Model 146 playing a couple songs. Note that this models has bells.
These work very similar to the organs described above.
Here is one playing Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag
This video will give an idea of how most player pianos work. Most usually have some sort of air motor that turns the air pressure produced by the pumping of the foot pedals into rotary motion to run the reels. Air pressure or vacuum actuates the valves when a hole in the paper tracks over a hole in the tracker bar.
Building a Wurlitzer 105 Articles on building a reproduction of a model 105 military band organ