When composer and artist Daren Banars? first picked up a toy melodica, he was hooked. It only cost him £20, it was easy to play, and so small he could take it anywhere. The former lecturer at Goldsmiths College who has written music for hundreds of adverts and TV productions, including The Apprentice and Top Gear, but decided to devote a few years to the melodica and see if he could discover its full potential.
“At first it was great fun, and quite a novelty to be playing a toy instrument to a high standard. But it had its drawbacks. You couldn’t play fast melodies without some of the notes dropping out, and the tone was so shrill, I felt sorry for anyone sitting next to me. But perhaps worse of all, I found it difficult to be taken seriously at music sessions when I pulled out a bright plastic instrument which was ultimately designed to appeal to kids.”
Because of this, Banars? was ready for a professional melodica, but there wasn’t anything out there, so that’s when he thought about making one. He’d heard of 3D printing, but it was something he knew nothing about.
“I began the journey by getting some lessons in CAD software. Once I’d covered the basics, I took my melodica apart, and bit by bit recreated it within a 3D environment. And once it existed in virtual reality, I could make all the changes I needed to create my dream instrument. I wanted something that sounded as good as any other professional instrument, with a clear tone. I also wanted it to look a bit special, something I could be proud of.”
He ended up with the design for one large section, a type of frame which was 40cm long and had 32 small keys that slotted into it. He bought a Flashforge Creator Pro with the idea that he’d print the 40cm long frame in sections, and glue them together. After printing out some of the keys, it soon became clear that the accuracy wasn’t sufficient for building a melodica.
“Instead, I decided to get it all printed in Nylon 12 as I’d heard they were strong and flexible. There was one potential problem though – melodicas need to be airtight and watertight, and Nylon 12 is quite porous. I got around this by coating it in a few layers of acrylic sealant, before finishing it with paint and varnish. Once assembled, I could see that I had the right material. It was strong and light, and looked great with a layer of acrylic paint.”
Once it was all working properly, it was time to turn it into an organic looking instrument that would look at home in a professional environment so he carefully shaped some wood to fit on top of the black keys, and added extra material in areas to give the instrument a traditional feel. He also stripped the ivory from some old piano keys to recreate the touch of a quality instrument.
Banars? is now currently taking the project even further by experimenting with alternative materials. In his quest for perfection, he redesigned the instrument to take handmade Italian reeds, similar to the ones you’d find in an accordion, with a sweet timbre.
The Workshop has been helpful for the current process of this project as Banars? has been making use of the wood workshop, building cases out of various timbers, so he can see the effect each wood has on the tone quality and projection. It was the development on the melodica itself that brought Banars? to Blackhorse. After starting a research MA in London when looking around for a place to make some prototype instruments, he soon realised he was in the wrong environment.
“Rather than going to lectures and writing essays, I needed direct access to a fully equipped workshop, where I could try things out as soon as I thought of them. So I decided to ditch uni and join Blackhorse, where there is always someone on hand to get advice from and there seems to be at least one specialist in every creative arena. As well as that, there’s a great community here, and I can get inspired by just strolling around the workshop.”
There has been a lot of trial and error involved, and he admitted that the process can get quite frustrating sometimes. But at the same time he also admits that nothing beats the feeling of being able to turn up at music sessions or recording, with his very own, homemade dream instrument!