3D Printing a Melodica Pays Off

Mar 17, 2015 | Fun

Michael Molitch-Hou from 3D Printing Industry
3D-printed-toyota-EngineRenderWhile a great beginner’s instrument, the melodica is only a step above the kazoo or the recorder when it comes to playing professional tunes.  For that reason, London-based artist, composer, and founder of Melodicaworld.com, Daren Banarsë decided to make his own, with a look and sound that he’d be proud to play in public.  Banarsë explains:

When I first picked up a toy melodica, I was hooked. It only cost me £20, it was easy to play, and so small I could take it anywhere. I decided to devote a few years to it, and see if I 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.  I was ready for a professional melodica, but there wasn’t anything out there.

These days, 3D printing has become quite a popular method for executing one’s designs, due to the plethora of introductory 3D modeling platforms available and the prototyping ease with which the technology offers.  Naturally, then, Banarsë took to learning some CAD software and putting his ideas into the physical world with 3D printing.
disassembled melodica for 3D printed melodica project by Daren Banarsë
To begin with, Banarsë disassembled his own melodica to see all of its parts and replicate them digitally.  He tells me, “[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, and I also wanted it to look a bit special, something I could be proud of.”  The result was a large 40 cm-long frame and 32 individual keys that the musician-turned-digital-artist would need to bring into the physical world and, for that, he’d need a 3D printer.
3d printed melodica keys
Banarsë opted for a Flashforge Creator Pro, thinking that he’d print the frame in sections and glue them together, but, as soon as he began printing out the keys, he realized that a desktop machine wouldn’t be accurate enough for his instrument.  He then turned to local 3D printing service bureau 3D Alchemy, which printed the instrument with UV curable resin on a Stratasys Objet Eden 500V.
resin 3D printed melodica from Daren Banarsë
Unfortunately, as beautiful and fine as Eden prints might be, they are more suitable to prototypes than for end-use objects and the composer explains that “once the melodica was assembled, the keys began bending under the pressure of the springs I was using to keep them in place. It seemed my design and application didn’t suite the properties of the material.” Giving him a refund, 3D Alchemy decided to re-cure the frame, hoping to make it stronger.
melodica 3D printed nylon by Daren Banarsë
In the mean time, Banarsë began exploring yet another 3D printing option, 3D printing mega-provider Shapeways. He ordered his melodica parts in Nylon 12 (strong and flexible) and, though the frame, cured by 3D Alchemy, worked at first, the artist tells me, “I was disappointed to find that the resin frame began to warp under the pressure of the springs, just as the keys had earlier.”  Seeing the strength of the Nylon 12 keys, Banarsë decided to print the 40 cm frame in Nylon, too, which, the artist points out, is printed by the service provider on an EOS Formiga P 100 selective laser sintering machine.
black keys for 3D printed melodica by Daren Banarsë
Banarsë explains, however, that, as a woodwind instrument, a melodica needs to be airtight and watertight and, because Nylon 12 is porous, he’d initially been averse to using the material.  To get around this obstacle and take advantage of the strength offered by Nylon, the artist coated his print in acrylic sealant, before painting and varnishing it.
3D printed melodica finished by Daren Banarsë
Soon, he had a professional melodica on his hands, but, to get it looking like one, he applied some clever design elements to give it an organic appearance.  He tells me, “So I carefully shaped some wood to fit on top of the black keys, and made some end pieces to give the instrument a traditional feel. I also stripped the ivory from some old piano keys to recreate the touch of a quality instrument. And I’m delighted with the result. I finally have a musical instrument that I can take out and play at professional concerts and recordings, and it looks just as good as it sounds.” To hear how great it sounds, check out the video below.

The entire process was a long and arduous one that began last July and just finished up this month.  The work put into it, though, is obvious and the project demonstrates just what is and what isn’t possible with 3D printing, while illustrating which technologies are appropriate for which applications. Whether or not you’ll be able to get your own custom melodica from the instrument maker is still up in the air (no matter how badly I want one!). He says, “I really need to test this instrument out long term, to make sure everything continues working properly, before I’d consider making them for anyone else. Working on this melodica has generated a lot more ideas that I’d like to explore, so I’ll probably spend some time making more prototypes. That’s the beauty of 3D printing, there’s no limit to what you can create!”  You may not be able to get your own at the moment, but you can follow along with his detailed project over at Melodicaworld.com here.
Now, Daren Banarsë has a nice looking and sounding melodica that he can use in all of his musical endeavors, which include composing music and creating “musical sculptures” under the pseudonym Troy Banarzi.  If you recognize him from the video above, it may be because he was a former lecturer at Goldsmiths College and has worked with the Rambert Dance Company.  And if his music sounds familiar, it may be that you heard it at Somerset House or the Apprentice, Top Gear, Horizon and Coast.