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The Unola – a mirrored double melodica

Unola – the two handed melodica

This was an idea I had when I first began making my own melodicas, and I knew I’d have to build one to see what it was like to play. Standard melodicas leave one hand redundant, and I thought an instrument that uses both hands, although harder to play, could have a lot more potential as a serious instrument.

The Unola, a melodica with two keyboards

I decided to make the left hand keyboard mirror the right hand. This is a new concept, and it has 2 advantages. Firstly, it means that once you can play something with your right hand, you can already play it with the left hand by using the same hand movements. Also the larger reeds which need more air are situated closer to the mouthpiece, so its the natural layout for the instrument.

While I was developing the concept, I became friends with David Brancazio, a melodica performer and MIT trained engineer, who was telling me about his experiments with heating melodica reeds. If you’re not familiar with melodicas, reeds are the vibrating metal tongues which make the sound.

The Unola with the casing removed, showing the battery powered heating system
With the casing removed, you can see the battery powered heating system

A shortcoming of the melodica is that condensation from the breath collects on these tongues, causing tuning problems and unpredictable sounds after as little as 20 minutes or so of playing. We decided to try incorporating them into the Unola, as the accordion-style reeds I used are particularly prone to condensation problems.

A conceptual melodica

Right from the beginning, I wanted to make a very personal instrument, which bought in elements of my cultural identity. I was born in London, but my bloodline is half Irish, and half Indian. I love playing Irish music, and find the wooden melodica fits really well into an Irish session.

I found a way of incorporating all of these elements by using materials from all these countries. I was delighted to find A piece of timber from a tree that had fallen over in Soho Square in 2022 for sale at Fallen and Felled, a London based tree rescuing service, based at the Blackhorse Workshop. I used to spend many Saturday afternoons in Soho Square after music college when I was a kid.

The moment a tree fell down in Soho Square, April 22nd 2022
The moment a tree fell down in Soho Square

I decided to make the keys from two contrasting materials – cattle bones from Ireland, and ebony wood from India. They arrived at the studio as a chunk of tree chunk, and 3 thick bones, so I knew there was a lot of work ahead. I also incorporated the symbols of the sun and moon, representing the masculine and feminine coming together in a musical union of the opposites.

sun and moon metal alchemical
I carved this sun and moon panel with a craft knife

I wanted the name to be based on the word ‘one’, and settled on the name Una, which derives from the latin ‘Unus’, meaning one, but is also an Irish name. I added the ‘ola’ part to make it sound more like an instrument, such as the Claviola. So the name Unola seemed perfect.

Working with cattle bone

I was excited to try out making keys from raw bones. I was sent a box over from Ireland by Tom Connolly, who makes the traditional Irish percussion bones. He prepared them for me – so they were stripped of all flesh, and fully dried. I found them very easy to work with – like soft wood.

Cattle bones from Ireland
Cattle bones from Ireland

I cut the bones in half with a small bandsaw, then went on to cut the ends off, as they didn’t have much usable material. From there, I kept halving them until they were a good size to make little key tops from.

Sawing the bone in half with a bandsaw
Sawing the bone in half with a bandsaw

The only difficulty was the amount of dust, and the unpleasant smell, similar to burning hair. The smell would linger in the studio for days, but it wasn’t unbearable, just a bit strange. I finished the keys with wax, and they’re not highly polished as I like a bit of grip on the keys.

Working with ebony wood

It would’ve been a lot easier to buy the ebony in milled sheets, but I wanted to go through the whole process of turning a heavy and chunky piece of tree into 68 delicate little keys. The dark ebony wood lies at the centre of the tree. So I cut it into slices, and trimmed off the lighter sections.

A very heavy piece of ebony, shipped to London in the 1980s
A heavy piece of ebony, shipped to London in the 1980s

The piece I was working with had many cracks and inconsistencies, and was too tough to go through my miniature wood thickesser, so I ended up sanding them to the correct thickness. I’ve worked with ebony before, and love the experience, it’s like working with dark chocolate.

Hand filing the ebony to make individual keys
Hand filing the ebony to make individual keys

I printed out templates for the different keys on sticky-backed paper, and applied them to the processed wood. This made it easy to get each one into the right shape with various wood files. Once I had done the basic shaping of the ebony and bone, I could get an idea of what the keyboard would eventually look like.

Working with London Plane from Soho Square

As well as fitting the concept of an instrument made in London by a Londoner with a London tree, I was really lucky. I chose the wood after looking at everything I could find that came from London. It wasn’t until I was already cutting it to size, when I had a conversation with Bruce Saunders, the owner, who told me it was from Soho Square. I used to love visiting London’s main electronic music shop (Soho Soundhouse) in Soho Square as a teenager.

Inside Fallen and Felled
Inside Fallen and Felled

The piece I used was an off cut, barely 5mm thick , but it looked like there was just enough to make the resonating case from. London Plane has a beautiful look -the grain is wavy and random, like a painting, and it’s full of variations. Some of the pieces even had shrapnel from past wars.

3D printing the frame

One technology I had to push the boundaries of, was 3D printing. The 3D printed frame was huge, and had to be extremely accurate (for air tightness). I tried several methods, companies, and materials before hitting on something that worked.

I thought this would’ve been relatively easy, as I’d already made a few 3D printed melodicas. But there were many unforeseen challenges here which nearly caused me to give up several times. It was the size of the structure, coupled with the complexity, and the accuracy required. With a wind instrument like this, with 68 moving parts, it had to be extremely accurate.

The final version of the 3D printed frame
The final version of the 3D printed frame

I tried various materials, resins and plastics, but most came back either slightly inaccurate, sometimes wildly warped, or not strong enough to withstand the pressure of the springs pulling from the keys. There were a lot of casualties along the way:

All of the 3D printing attempts that went wrong
All of the 3D printing attempts that went wrong

I eventually settled on resin, using a technique called stereolithography (SLA). It uses a UV-laser beam, with layers of photosensitive liquid resin, building up the 3D print in tiny layers as the resin solidifies. I glued in little individual screws for the springs to attach to, as I found that they could break if made from resin.

Gluing in tiny screws to attach the springs to, for added strength
Gluing in tiny screws to attach the springs to, for added strength

Nylon would’ve been much cheaper and stronger, but the accuracy wasn’t there. The resin was on the brittle side, but as long as I replaced the most delicate parts with metal, it worked out okay. There were many attempts before I found a solution. Sometimes it would be a mistake in my design, and sometimes just poor printing quality.

Putting the instrument together

Once the frame was ready, I laid out all of the reeds – there were 34 for each side, representing a total of 68 notes.

I used wax to fix all of the reeds into place on the 3d printed structure, melting it with a soldering iron. This way reeds could easily be replaced if needed.

Waxing in the reeds
Waxing in the reeds

And the case was designed to be completely removable from the top and the bottom. Taking off the top panel gives you access to the keys, and removing the bottom panel gives you access to the reed chambers, so you can tune it easily.

Removing the top panel
Removing the top panel

Collaborating with others

Quite late on in the build, the melodica was sounding good, but didn’t look quite right. The hexagonal shape was nice, but it looked unfinished with a long aluminium pipe sticking out of it. I normally make everything myself, but this was definitely the build where I learnt to collaborate.

I envisioned a beautiful carving made from solid wood, but didn’t have the skills, or time to learn them. I was having dinner with my illustrator and designer friend Daniel Schlierenzauer, telling him about my challenge, when he revealed his hidden skill and passion for carving! He agreed to make it in his spare time from my design, and the results were stunning.

Before Daniel started the carving, the thick walnut block needed to be turned – put on a revolving machine called a lathe. I asked Enrique Melin, a talented woodturner in an adjacent studio to do this for me. It wasn’t a simple job, as the centre of the flower was not in the middle of the block, so he had to use a technique called ‘off centre wood carving’. He made the distinct 3 steps at the top, where the mouthpiece comes out, and left a rough shape for Daniel to carve.

There were plenty more small unofficial collaborations and discussions with friends at he studio, Richard Ellis showing me his walnut staining experiments, Michaela Pedros suggest a varnish finish for the London Plane, Enrique giving me practical advice along the way, and Atakan Mercan acting as my soundboard and extra ears on many late night sessions.

Learning to play the Unola

I always knew that once I’d finished the mammoth task of getting the instrument made and tunes, I’d have to actually learn to play with the new system. It was actually easier than I thought it would be. I practiced 2 part Bach compositions first, and then made an arrangement which I knew I would use in the YouTube video.

I chose the tune ‘Music for a Found Harmonium’, as it has an Irish feel to it which I find very comfortable and sounded good on the Unola. But I also added a theme and self-composed variation from Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, to demonstrate how it sounds with classical music.

I recorded it at my small home studio, using an AKG C414 mic, which was very much suited to the instrument. The backing track used samples and included a guest appearance from the Hohner Claviola, for a bit of fun, and to show how the Unola works nicely as an accompanying instrument too.

It will still take me a while to get fully used to the keyboard system, but this new instrument has opened a while new world of possibilities and sound that I didn’t have before with a standard melodica. I hope to be recording some more tunes on the Unola in the future.

The Ultimate Guide to the Melodica in 2022

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