Traditional folk music, dance and customs - Harrogate, North Yorkshire - Chas Marshall's Website

The Streb E-melodeon or Electronic Melodeon

During moments of idle thought, I have occasionally dreamed of inventing various gadgets for the folk world. Some of these inventions have been tongue in cheek, like the rubber hand with protruding finger which could be fastened to the shoulder. This was intended for traditional "finger in the ear" style singers who have subsequently decided to accompany themselves on guitar and no longer have a free hand or finger. Others, like the melodeon capo would be valuable, but beyond the technological skills of the age. This imagined melodeon capo would allow the owner of, say, a G/C melodeon to change it to A/D, C/F or D/G at the mere flick of a lever or switch.

I shared my idle thoughts about the melodeon capo with banjo player and computer programmer, Steve Rouse, who told me that it would be possible, but only electronically. No more of my brain power was spent on these thoughts, so it came as a complete surprise when Steve brought his electronic melodeon along for its public debut on Monday 8th September 2003. Ripon City Morris Dancers had just completed their Annual General Meeting in a back room of Ripon's Golden Lion. I meandered back into the bar in search of a pint of Black Sheep Bitter and, as I did so, I could hear the distant sounds of, what I took to be, a Hammond Organ. In the bar a crowd of fellow dancers were gathered round Ray Waite, musician for Highside Longsword, who was playing a melodeon from which emanated the sounds of the aforementioned Hammond Organ. At the push of a button he was then able to produce the sounds reminiscent of a violin as the melodeon bellows pumped in and out in their familiar fashion. Ray had received the first fully functional electronic melodeon designed and built by Steve Rouse. I had to find out more.

What inspired him to design and build this E-melodeon? Apparently the inspiration to make musical instruments has been with Steve since he was a teenager. His first project was a medieval fiddle or rebec, which he completed at the age of 18. This tale also reveals why the E-melodeon is called the "Streb" E-melodeon. When Steve had completed his rebec, his school friends began to call him "Steve Rebec" for a time. Northern economy of speech soon caused this to be shortened to "Streb" and it became his nickname. With interests in electronics, computer programming, woodwork and music the electronic melodeon was a dream project come true! One of Steve's life ambitions is to be making musical instruments for a living by the time he reaches the age of 40. Having sold his first melodeon at the age of 38, that ambition is still a possibility!

Steve started learning the violin at school and actually passed grade 6. When he reached the age of 16, his Dad suggested that he would get invited to more parties if he played the guitar, so guitar it was for years. (I am unable to discover if his father's strategy was a success!) On moving from Lancashire to the City of Ripon in North Yorkshire over 10 years ago Steve says "he fell in with the Ripon City Morris Dancers (God knows how) and took up Irish-style tenor banjo as a natural meld of violin and guitar". He also sings and plays bass guitar in a local rock band called Midlife Crisis. Steve threatens that he may yet pull out the E-melodeon at one of their gigs, so Oysterband had better watch out!

The Streb E-melodeon is built round standard Hohner replacement bellows to which is fitted a pressure detector to determine if the bellows are moving in or out and the degree of pressure. Switches replace the normal 21 treble buttons and 8 bass buttons of the standard 2-row melodeon. The signals from the switches and the pressure device are combined to decide the musical pitch and a synthesiser then creates the sound which is output through a small loudspeaker housed in the e-melodeon. To use Steve's own succinct expression - "reeds out, state of the art electronics in". Additional black keys on the right-hand fingerboard are used to select the voice and key in conjunction with a small LCD display located next to the loudspeaker. This allows the owner to switch between 5 diatonic tunings - G/C, A/D, C/F, D/G, E/A - and 4 chromatic tunings - B/C, C/C#, C#/D, D/D#. So with just one melodeon you can join in with any standard session keys without spending a fortune on melodeons - assuming you would have been strong enough to carry them all from session to session in the first place!

Batteries supply the power and outputs are also available for earphones, so it is possible to practise without making a sound, except for the slight click of the buttons. I will refrain from making any frivolous suggestions as to the benefit of a silent melodeon, for fear of upsetting my melodeon playing friends and acquaintances! Other outputs include MIDI and stereo line out. There is also a rotary control allowing the player to minutely adjust the pitch of the instrument plus or minus a semitone. So it is possible to adjust to old pitch for example or to play along with a record or tape which is not playing back exactly in concert pitch. There are some other advantages, such as opening up the world of synthesised sounds to the melodeon player who does not want to learn to play a keyboard.

I asked Steve how long this project took him and what difficulties he had encountered on the way. He replied that "research, development and the building of a prototype took just over a year. Ray Waite's production instrument took 6 weeks from start to finish. The major difficulty was sourcing the parts! The instrument contains some advanced electronic devices and the biggest hurdle was finding suppliers who were willing to honour small orders. 'Minimum order quantity of 100 pieces' gets a little depressing after three hours web surfing."

Having watched Steve making "in-flight" modifications to the e-melodeon at the request of the player, I realised that there is much fine-tuning and customisation which can be carried out to help suit each individual. For example, the configuration of the accidentals on the lower right-hand buttons can be changed. Also, as the switches which replace the normal buttons do not allow air to flow into or out of the bellows, there is an adjustable air release valve. For further information see www.streb.co.uk

Have I bought an e-melodeon yet? Well, no, I don't play the melodeon. But if Steve decided to make a multi-key E-anglo concertina with wave table synthesis which could sound just like a Jeffries or Wheatstone, then I may be his first customer! I have heard it rumoured that the Otley-based concertina maestro, Harry Scurfield, has seen an electronic concertina - I must have a word with him! So, it may be uncertain that the e-melodeon is a completely new concept, but Steve has applied for a patent anyway.