Friday, June 20, 2008

Anatomy of a Melodica - and repair

I unzipped my Melodica case last weekend expecting to honk out a fast and dirty dub solo line only to find that almost all of the keys were sticking rendering the incredibly economically priced instrument ($30.00) all but unplayable. That was the end of that recording session. Instead it was time to get busy with a screwdriver and see what was causing the problem - and perhaps more importantly to give you the reader a look inside. A picture gallery of the Melodica in various stages of deconstruction and repair can be found here.
The Melodica is a fascinating instrument the history of which can be found here, so there is little need for me to go into any great detail. Suffice it to say that this 'toy' instrument in the right hands and with the right production can produce transcendent music (Augustus Pablo) or in the wrong hands if left untreated by a pleasant wash of reverb and a nice delay can require surgical removal!

It didn't take very long to find that an adhesive foam material used for damping the keys when depressed was the source of the problem. I had no hesitation in removing the foam and discarding it. But that left me with a pile of keys looking strangely like a disorderly heap of pulled teeth. The reed frame of the melodica resembled a huge harmonica and the brass mounting plate and reeds were and still are surprisingly tarnished.

I packed everything away for a couple of days and intermittently pondered what I would use to replace the foam. Quickly enough I decided upon felt, purchased some fabric glue and got to work. It was actually quite a simple and painless operation, the most difficult part being the feeling of trepidation that it might not re-assemble quite correctly or would not play properly. Both doubts were quickly put to rest and the melodica once again plays perfectly.

During this process I sent an e-mail to Hohner, not to make a claim of any sort, but to politely inform them of the problem with the instrument. I received a reply the next day which was heartening but I was not thrilled with the response:

Since it is a mouthblown instrument , it does depend what goes into melodica when played. Very sticky saliva etc. can affect playing. If you like, please return melodica to Hohner Inc. at address below for inspection/correction.
Two problems with this assessment: The damping foam beneath the keys would not be affected by whatever is coming out of the player's mouth as this part of the instrument is separate from the air passage that allows breath to be channeled to the reeds. It is not saliva that enters the instrument when blown (well, not through normal use) - it is breath vapour, condensation, water which should not be any stickier than what comes out of the tap. Anyway, in fairness they did offer to inspect and correct, but frankly I was not willing to wait around for them to do this - and I really wanted to have a go at fixing it myself.

I have given Hohner two further updates on my progress and hopefully my efforts will encourage them to try a better damping material in their manufacturing process.


Charlie said...

Thank you so much for documenting this experience. I also have a Honer student 32 melodica, and my keys also stick.

I am going to see how Honer's customer service is, but if it isn't good, I will try replacing the foam with felt.

umbigo said...

hey man, thanks for publishing your process.
I am opening my melodica right now, it is one of this chinese cheap models. Interesting to see the diference between the fabrication of them.
I will see if I get a camera to show mine.

The reeds of my melodica are very oxidated(? they're green). Maybe you can suggest what should I use for clean them..

The Foam used is the same poor kind.

thanks man, dub echoes for you!

surian (from brasil)

ACEtone Studio said...

Thanks! glad somebody reads this stuff and that you found this post useful.
I have no idea what you might use to clean the reeds. I would say, just leave them alone if they sound OK when played. When they get wet they will oxidize to a green color again anyway, because they are made from brass! In fact the layer of oxidation probably serves to protect from further oxidation. Whereas if they were made from steel, they could theoretically rust away over time. That's my crude metallurgical understanding anyway.
Would like to see your pictures...

@Charles - Thanks for commenting. Did you ever try out Hohner's customer service?

toddv said...

While I am not familiar with the insides of a melodica, I do know that a harmonica can be fairly quickly ruined by drinking soda rather than water. Whatever is in your mouth absolutely does end up inside the harp. Sticky stuff mucks up the reeds. Since the melodica has brass reeds similar to a harmonica, it is probably wise to drink water only while playing. I first learned this out of a book, and verified it with a professional harmonica player who learned about not drinking soda after ruining several harps. I start with a clean mouth and nothing more than water goes in it before or while playing.

ACEtone Studio said...

Todd -thanks for commenting. It is nice to see that my little post has helped some people out and promoted a discussion on this wonderful instrument. Your point is well noted, but if you read the post again you'll see that I did not have a problem with the reeds. Note this part: The damping foam beneath the keys would not be affected by whatever is coming out of the player's mouth as this part of the instrument is separate from the air passage that allows breath to be channeled to the reeds.
Hence, the foam material used in the manufacture is essentially a defect which Hohner will not admit to. Shame on them and all that. Anyway, my melodica is still going strong and I use it often. the stickiness of the foam in the valve area takes a bit of blowing and playing to overcome, but after a time it plays nicely.
Thanks again!

Michelle said...

Thanks for the info & pictures.

I pulled out my Honer 36 melodica just yesterday morning and played. I haven't done so for a very long time. It almost sounds as though some of the notes are a bit flat. That's how I got to this blog. Does anyone have similar experience?

I don't have a problem with sticky keys.

ACEtone Studio said...

The only thing I can think of that would change the tuning of your melodica is corrosion of the reeds which might slightly change their size and hence the pitch. Possibly a build up of oxide causing the reeds to be bigger therefore lower in pitch? Just conjecture on my part.
I found this webpage which I thought informative (though perhaps not applicable):
However, I personally wouldn't attempt this procedure unless there was a serious tuning problem.
I'd be most obliged if you would buy a tune or two to help me keep my musical activities going :)

Michelle said...

Thanks for the info. I'll check out the website. Next time I go to i-tunes, I'll pick up a song or two.

Anonymous said...

Hello hello..

Hohner melodica 36.. I've got high mettalic buzz from one of the reeds.. having taken it to bits to see if there was anything obvious and finding nothing was wondering you had any ideas? was thinking of sticking some vaseline on the pin joint?


ACEtone Studio said...

thanks for posting. Have you been able to isolate which reed(s) is/are making the unpleasant sound? Sounds like you have. I'd guess you'd need to closely inspect them, comparing them to other reeds without the problem and see if there is any difference in appearance. Is there corrosion on the underside of the noisy reed? Or is the reed just fractionally closer to the body of the melodica causing it to buzz? It might just be a matter of bending the reed ever so slightly upward to clear it from the rest of the instrument. Just guesses on my part. I don't know what the vaseline would do other than possibly help to clean the reed and protect it from further corrosion. All I can say at this time is, good luck, I hope you find a solution.

KowPie said...

Greetings From The Land of The Alamo! I have a Hohner Piano 26 that is missing a 'B' key. I would be forever grateful if somebody could tell me where in the World I can acquire one. Thanks for your Consideration. P Farrell, San Antoine

KowPie said...

Greetings From The Land of The Alamo! I have a Hohner Piano 26 that is missing a 'B' key. I would be forever grateful if somebody could tell me where in the World I can get one. Thanks for your Consideration. P Farrell, San Antoine.

Whatever said...

My melodica has one note that doesn't sound... no sticky keys. I've taken it apart, looks normal, but can't undo the many tiny phillips screws holding the copper or brass reed-plate in. Can anyone help... ?
btw, it's a chinese-made 'Melodyhorn'AM37K3.

Uncle Bee said...

I'm a harp player that does his own repairs. The metallic reed buzzing in the melodica could be caused by a reed being slightly off center in it's slot. Alot of the tuning work on a melodica is similar to the work done on the harmonica. I have an old Piano 26 that has a broken mouthpiece. I figured that I could remove the mouthpiece to glue it up, but was thwarted by the many frozen screws. I'll try again in the near future, by til then, I'm picking up a new instrument, so I can have something clean to work with at gigs.Try some YouTube harp repair vids to see how to solve the buzzing, etc....

Anonymous said...

Very helpful blog. I'm not so sure about your claim about moisture in the melodica not getting to the felt strip.I know from disassembly of my Yamaha that moisture does collect at least on the outer strip and leeches down into the glue, thus producing a sticky spot. Also, I see overlap in the strip at D4.