MIDI And A Real Vox Humana Come To A Century-Old Melodeon

A hundred years or more of consumer-level recorded music have moved us to a position in which most of us unconsciously consider music to be a recorded rather than live experience. Over a century ago this was not the case, and instead of a hi-fi or other device, many households would have had some form of musical instrument for their own entertainment. The more expensive ones could become significant status symbols, and there was a thriving industry producing pianos and other instruments for well-to-do parlours everywhere.

One of these parlour instruments came the way of [Alec Smecher], a pump organ, also known as a harmonium, or a melodeon. He’s carefully added a MIDI capability to it, and thus replaced its broken “Vox Humana” tremolo effect intended as a 19th century simulation of a choir, with a set of genuine human sounds. There is an almost Monty Python quality to his demonstration of this real Vox Humana, as you can see in the video below.

Lest you think though that he’s gutted the organ in the process of conversion, be rest assured that this is a sensitively applied piece of work. A microswitch has been placed beneath each key, leaving the original mechanism intact and working. An Arduino Leonardo has the microswitches multiplexed into a matrix similar to a keyboard, and emulates a USB MIDI device. It’s fair to say that it therefore lacks the force sensitivity you might need to emulate a piano, but it does result in rather an attractive MIDI instrument that also doubles as a real organ.

As you might expect, this isn’t the first reed organ conversion we’ve shown you.

6 thoughts on “MIDI And A Real Vox Humana Come To A Century-Old Melodeon

  1. Funny hack, actually. I would have preferred some VSTi usage like Tarilonte’s “Cantus”, switching from the (somewhat horrible) real sound to a full blown Gregorian Chant Choir …

    I wonder if the claim that “most of us consider music to be recorded” holds much truth. “Do you plan any instrument – yes, cassette recorder” is still a joke that works for most of my friends. It would not be a joke if “cassette recorder” was considered to be the source of music (replace CR by AAC player or whatever you prefer, obviously). In fact, almost everyone I personally know would consider “music” something you have to practice creating for a long time … which doesn’t feel right for pressing “play” anywhere.

  2. The Vox Humana did not emulate a choir, but the vibrato of a single voice. It was a paddle of cardboard spinning slowly to reflect some of the internal sound up to the grille work. In reality the proto Leslie speaker made a generation earlier, or the LFO delay or filter set to 7Hz. Otherwise that stop is pretty useless on these reed organs.

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