Notes on Arranging Music for Paper Rolls for Band Organs

Background on My Experiences

Printing Roll or Book Templates

Other Ways to Get Rolls from MIDI Files

Early Arranging Experiences

Arranging the Star Spangled Banner

The book From Music Boxes to Street Organs, by Romke De Waard, translated by Wade Jenkins, The Vestal Press, 1967, Library of Congress number 67-27808 is a very important resource for anyone working with mechanical organs. Chapter 10, "The Notation of Organ Books," is devoted to traditional Dutch methods of preparing folding book music. It includes a good description of the methods on laying out music on a 'marking table.' It also includes a good sample taken from a book for an 89-key Gavioli. Using the method described, it is certainly possible to make out a book or a roll, which can then be cut with an X-acto knife or a hollow punch and a hammer.

The chapter includes an excellent list of qualifications which the arranger should have. These include a thorough knowledge of harmony and counterpoint, at least limited skills as a composer, a thorough knowledge of  mechanical organs' sounds in general, the styles used in street and fairground music, and a detailed knowledge of the scale and responses of the particular organ for which the arrangement is to be prepared.

In reality, few of today's band organ arrangers working in Britain or America have much formal training in arranging. Most have training as amateur band or orchestral players, and some are skilled at sight playing in a concert setting. On the other hand, I know of at least two arrangers who claim they can not read music. What they appear to have in common is a thorough knowledge of mechanical organ technology, a good feel for music, and a desire to increase the number of tunes available for their instruments.

I think most contemporary arrangers are working on computers using MIDI. The advantage of this is that you can hear playback of the file at every stage. Corrections can be made without punching a book or roll. This is frequently used even when the sole objective is to produce rolls or books for public performance. It works particularly effectively when computer controlled punching machines are available.

If you work in MIDI, it is, in fact, probably unnecessary to actually own a punching machine since there are a number of people who will punch rolls to order from MIDI files.

Background on My Experiences

I began punching my own 20er (a commonly used abbreviation for "20 note scale") paper rolls for my organ several years ago.

I use a home-built traditionally styled one-hole foot operated punch, and guiding the paper by hand. the punch is described in "Hand Punching My Own Rolls from MIDIBoek Templates" , originally written for the COAA magazine The Carousel Organ.

I'm happy with many (but not all) of the results of my work. I now have so many rolls I have to decide which to leave at home when I head out to a rally.

I an strictly an amateur musician, but not completely untrained. I took a lot of violin lessons as a child, and played (poorly?) in school orchestras. I had an introduction to musical theory in a high school music club. I assume that you, dear reader, at least can read music, and know what chords are. I know at least one noteur who lacks these qualifications, but that takes rare talent. As a self-taught amateur noteur, I make no claim that my methods are "the right way to do arranging," but they work for me.

My first rolls were punched from 20er MIDI files I found on the web. The number of decent free 20er files on the web is very small, and may even be decreasing, but there are many other MIDI files which may be downloaded for free..

Having a great MIDI file is only the beginning. You usually still have to arrange it for the organ scale, regardless of whether it is a 20er, Raffin 31, or a large Gavioli or Wurlitzer 165, and whether you are driving the organ with barrels, books, rolls, or MIDI. I had started editing MIDI files many years earlier, and my next step was to learn some arranging techniques.

Early on I found little formal material to guide my studies, although I benefited greatly from a few conversations and short items in newsgroups. That is a major reason for offering these simplistic notes.

Recently I found two webpages by
Harald M. Mueller which may be very useful to others:
Some Remarks on Arranging for the 20er -
A Short Course on Arranging for Small Organs -
Our methods differ, but everything he says looks reasonable to me.

Since the time I started making rolls I have primarily been using a program called PowerTracks Pro for MIDI editing. I had previously used and liked a DOS version of Cakewalk, but I have found that I don't like the Windows versions of Cakewalk which I have tried.

PowerTracks Pro Audio is a MIDI editor distributed by PG Music. It is pretty much a "full featured" editor, and includes many options. Particularly useful is the "Piano Roll" display, in which you may adjust all notes of the same MIDI number. This allows you to transpose all occurrences of a note. This allows you, for example, to move a bass note missing from a scale to another octave, or move a missing note up or down a 3rd, 5th, or 7th.

Printing Roll or Book Templates

I print my rolls on a Panasonic dot matrix printer using traditional perforated, fan-fold computer paper.

MIDIBoek does the "drafting" work of laying out a template of a roll, or strip, as well as a lot of file checking. It uses an organ scale in the form of a "Gamma File," in this case a text file of the scale description saved with a .GAM extension. MIDIBoek prints only those notes which lie within the instrument scale, and lists those notes which do not fit. It is not an editor, but does allow for transpositions. You can download the MIDIBoek for Windows software and the editor Noteur from  The authors of MIDIBoek distribute it for FREE! (MIDIBoek is a Windows only program. Mike Knudson wrote a somewhat similar program which runs under Linux or UNIX.)

While in general MIDIBoek works just fine in most, or perhaps all, versions of Windows, it does not correctly print in banner format in versions after Win 98. This is the fault of Microsoft, not the MIDIBoek authors. The printer drivers for recent Windows versions apparently count lines and issue page feed commands at inappropriate places. I have resolved the problem by using an old computer running Windows 95 exclusively to print my rolls.

Other Ways to Get Rolls from MIDI Files

If you don't want to build and operate a punch, you might use a punching service.

Mel Wright offers punching services for John Smith 20 and 26 and Raffin 20 and 31 note formats. I've used his service a couple of times (in addition to buying a number of his rolls) and I can testify that he provides a high quality product at a reasonable price with about a 7-day turn-around to the USA.  

You might also inquire about services from Roll Cutter.

If any others offer punching service, I'd be happy to know about them and will post the information here.