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.

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Reed Organ MIDI Conversion Tickles All 88 Keys

What did you do in high school? Chances are it wasn’t anywhere near as cool as turning a reed organ into a MIDI device. And even if you managed to pull something like that off, did you do it by mechanically controlling all 88 keys? Didn’t think so.

A reed organ is a keyboard instrument that channels moving air over sets of tuned brass reeds to produce notes. Most are fairly complex affairs with multiple keyboards and extra controls, but the one that [Willem Hillier] scored for free looks almost the same as a piano. Even with the free instrument [Willem] is about $500 into this project. Almost half of the budget went to the solenoids and driver MOSFETs — there’s a solenoid for each key, after all. And each one required minor surgery to reduce the clicking and clacking sounds that don’t exactly contribute to the musical experience. [Willem] designed custom driver boards for the MOSFETs with 16 channels per board, and added in a couple of power supplies to feed all those hungry solenoids and the three Arduinos needed to run the show. The video below shows the organ being stress-tested with the peppy “Flight of the Bumblebee”; there’s nothing wrong with a little showing off.

[Willem]’s build adds yet another instrument to the MIDI fold. We’ve covered plenty before, from accordions to harmonicas and even a really annoying siren.

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