Bryan Salt : Renzonica
Renzonica
The Renzonica started as an interesting father-son project for my five-year-old. Music is something we both love despite my absolute lack of talent or ability. My son is quite musical like his mother, so we thought together we could create a new type of instrument in about a year. An instrument anyone could play. My son is now 10 so it took a bit longer than expected, but we got there in the end.
A musical instrument anyone can play.
Chile
In its final form, it is a 19 note semi-automatic instrument based on standard Hohner harmonica reed plates. Its sound is most like a Melodica and its heritage is similar to the old automatic Pianolas popular in wild west movies. Music song "Rolls" are created on a mobile app using a standard Harmonica tab format, this is then sent via Bluetooth to the device where it mechanically sets up the correct notes to be played by opening and closing air outlet valves at the request of the musician. The musician then blows or draws into the instrument to create the note, then releases a button to automatically select the next correct note. Unlike a pianola, the Renzonica does not seek to remove the musician from the performance, it instead simply removes the burden of having to remember the notes to play.

I'm friends with a startup, Seguel Robotics, that supplies STEM projects to disadvantaged schools here in Chile. They have a great controller, the Brainbox , an ESP32 based board that is Arduino compatible has wifi, Bluetooth, some inbuilt buttons 25 RGB LED display and can control servos well. So it was a logical choice for the brains of the Renzonica. I wrote the main code for creating songs in an Android app for mobile phones that then sends the songs to the Brainbox via Bluetooth. The brainbox then displays the song and controls 5 servos that are linked via rods and levers that close off the holes in an air manifold. The design was modelled first in a 3d package. The main body is laser cut out of acrylic and wood and the prototypes were built using a Formlabs 3d printer. The final version was professionally 3d printed by Shapeways. Whilst we began the project trying to make our own reeds also, this proved to be very difficult and we started to admire and appreciate the craftsmanship that still goes into standard Hohner harmonica reed plates. So the Renzonica currently uses 2 Hohner harmonica marine band plates in C.

Perseverance is everything. A one year project soon became a five-year project with many wrong directions along the way. At first, we tried to create our own reeds, before deciding to base it on a standard Hohner harmonica. Then we experimented for a long time with homemade air valves, but controlling air going into the harmonica body proved troublesome. Eventually, we settled on a Melodica inspired design, where you control the air valves on exiting after the reeds (the opposite of a harmonica) These valves are controlled by 5 servos rotating in opposite directions to control 10 valves in total to give 19 notes via drawing and blowing on the instrument (1 note is duplicated on harmonica reeds)

I wanted to also make a useful mobile application to create songs for the Renzonica. A phone is easy to carry around than a PC so it made a lot of sense. I make games for a living so this was also relatively easy to achieve. I was inspired by a game called Piano Tiles but made something more functional. You can input Harmonica tabs, which is a common format for harmonica music. The numbers relate directly to the 10 holes you are blowing (+ve) or drawing (-ve) on the harmonica. The one problem is there is no timing information in that notation, so I allow you to add a "performance" and then generate standard music notation from that. This can be downloaded to the Renzonica via Bluetooth instantly in the Renzonicas own format. What I found interesting is its also useful for learning and playing a normal harmonica so I put in an option to use it for that and will publish a version on Google Play soon if you want to try it out.
Side Story
The Renzonica started as an interesting father-son project for my five-year-old. Music is something we both love despite my absolute lack of talent or ability. My son is quite musical like his mother, so we thought together we could create a new type of instrument in about a year. An instrument anyone could play. My son is now 11 so it took a bit longer than expected, but we got there in the end. In its final form, it is a 19 note semi-automatic instrument based on standard Hohner harmonica reed plates. Its sound is most like a Melodica and its heritage is similar to the old automatic Pianolas popular in wild west movies. Music song "Rolls" are created on a mobile app using a standard Harmonica tab format, this is then sent via Bluetooth to the device where it mechanically sets up the correct notes to be played by opening and closing air outlet valves at the request of the musician. The musician then blows or draws into the instrument to create the note, then releases a button to automatically select the next correct note. Unlike a pianola, the Renzonica does not seek to remove the musician from the performance, it instead simply removes the burden of having to remember the notes to play.
Frequently Asked Questions
What inspired you to do this?
I always admired friends who play music and my favourite nights are when friends play, my house was usually full of them. I used to carry around a harmonica when I was 18, but I only knew one song. Recently my friend Renzo gave me a set of harmonicas and I’ve been having the same problem I always have, my brain is a sieve when it comes to rote memory. I was looking for a tech project for my 6-year-old we could work on together, so it seemed a perfect problem… sequence the correct notes for any song, but leave the physical playing of the instrument the same.. like having a one-string acoustic guitar that always plays the right note for you, except the harmonica, once you're beyond the note selection has so much that is personal to the performance, how long and hard you blow, tempo and the shape of your mouth and hands.
How long did it take to make it?
Perseverance is everything. A one year project soon became a five-year project with many wrong directions along the way. At first, we tried to create our own reeds, before deciding to base it on a standard Hohner harmonica. Then we experimented for a long time with homemade air valves, but controlling air going into the harmonica body proved troublesome. Eventually, we settled on a Melodica inspired design, where you control the air valves on exiting after the reeds (the opposite of a harmonica) These valves are controlled by 5 servos rotating in opposite directions to control 10 valves in total to give 19 notes via drawing and blowing on the instrument (1 note is duplicated on harmonica reeds)
How long have you been doing things like this?
Always, I never learn.
How much did this cost to do?
Over the five years hard to say, too much for sure, but if I built it again now it would be in the region of $50 laser cutting and materials, $100 3d printing at Shapeways and a $25 brainbox core, 5 servos around $15, a typical Hohner harmonica ($15) and some nice nuts and bolts and springs to finish it off.
Have you done other things like this?
Hell yes, My day job demands a commercial vision, so I love using creativity without the profit burden, to build just for fun.
What did you wish you knew before you started this?
I am not a musician in any way and it was a fun journey to learn more. I started this project because I knew that I knew nothing before I started and that was part of the journey. I also have a new respect for the craftsmanship that is still in Hohner Harmonica Reeds after arrogantly trying to make my own.
Are there plans available to make this? Do you sell this?
No, it's nice to work on something without a financial goal. For the joy of learning. I did however find that the mobile ap I developed for the Renzonica can also help you learn a standard Harmonica so I am hoping to release that as a free mobile app in the near future.
What’s next?
After so long, I'm taking a little break from this obsession, then I will develop and release the mobile ap soon. Maybe I may do a melodica version next year as it's very similar.
Resoures?
Unity, Arduino, Siguel Robotics BrainBox, 3d Max.
Bryan Salt : Creative
The maker Bryan Salt
Chile
​Bryan has worked on the cutting edge of games, technology and entertainment for the last 30 years, he ​has published over 50 titles with household names and world-class IP's. His most recent game, Cobra Kai (Sony Pictures/ Netflix) was released in April 2021. He was an influential pioneer in real-time 3d and Virtual Reality in the early '90s, and was heavily involved in the first 3d games and 3d engines for mobile phones, co-authoring several global patents. In 2001 He led the creative team that initiated the first java global standard for 3d on mobile phones.
In the past, he has worked directly with top tier manufacturers on the release of new 3D mobile technology including Motorola, Siemens, ARM & Hewlett-Packard. In 2014 he was awarded China’s Innovation and Entrepreneur title for his groundbreaking work in the 3D printing, on-demand manufacturing field with manufacturing giant Haier. He is currently the Creative Director of Gamaga, creators of Banana Kong.
Connect with Bryan Salt
How I can help you:
I thought the mobile application I wrote could also be a useful learning tool for people who want to play a normal harmonica so I put in an option to use it for that and will publish a version on Google Play soon if you people want to learn.
How you can help me:
I'm good, my little boy provides all the help and inspiration I need.