The ‘Melodium’. Harald Bode, Germany, 1938

The "Melodium" (1938)

The “Melodium” (1938)

Bode’s second instrument, previewed in 1938 was a monophonic touch sensitive keyboard instrument, the ‘Melodium’, developed with the assistance of Oskar Vierling, inventor of the ‘Grosstonorgel’. The instrument was used extensively for film music and ‘light music’ during the 1940′s.
Bode had designed oscillators with good pitch stability given the technology of the time, but he realized that a monophonic instrument would present far fewer tuning problems than his radical Warbo Organ. Like all good designers, Bode understood the necessity for providing increased nuance capability in a solo instrument; hence, touch sensitivity. The Melodium had a 49-note keyboard (low-note priority). But unlike traditional keyboards, each key had a fulcrum, or pivot point, not at the rear of the key, but at its midpoint. Each key was an individual little teeter-totter; when the performer depressed any key, he or she could seesaw a long aluminium rail located at the rear of all keys up and down. This rail made contact with a strip of felt soaked in glycerine — a so-called “liquid potentiometer.” Depression of the felt altered the electrical resistance between two electrodes, providing loudness control. This was a direct keying system that should not be confused with modern force-sensitive keyboards found on certain synthesizers. On the Melodium, the actual onset of sound was begun like it is on most acoustic instruments: as a function of the performer’s continuously variable mechanical effort. This is unlike most of today’s synthesizers; they have electronic envelope generators with fixed time constants for attack and release. Even when a synthesizer is force-sensitive, this sensitivity is usually in conjunction with the unvarying envelope generator attack and release. (Thomas L. Rhea. Contemporary Keyboard magazine (January 1980, p. 68) )

The articulation on the Melodium has been likened to that of Franklin’s Glass Harmonica, an instrument having rotating glass disks that are played with moistened fingers. This characteristic singing (slow) attack, and the tone colours produced by formant filters borrowed from the earlier four-note organ, made the Melodium an expressive and colourful instrument that found public acceptance. Bode says:

… it was a very responsive instrument to the response of the artist, although it didn’t have these automatic — or maybe because it didn’t have these automatic [envelope] — controls.” Harald Bode

Due to its unorthodox design, the Melodium was not suitable for mass production; it found public acceptance through its rental for film scores, stage plays and on German radio. It enjoyed a considerable vogue with German film score composers. The brief career of the Melodium ended in 1941 due to the war; eventually Bode had to cannibalize the instrument due to the scarcity of electronic components.

The "Melodium" (1938)

The “Melodium” (1938)

Biographical notes

Harald Bode; October 19, 1909 Hamburg Germany – January 15, 1987 New York USA.

Harald Bode; October 19, 1909 Hamburg Germany – January 15, 1987 New York USA.

Bode Studied  mathematics, physics and natural philosophy at Hamburg University, graduating in 1934. In 1937, with funding support provided by the composer and band-leader, Christian Warnke, Bode produced his first instrument the ‘Warbo-Formant Orgel’ (‘Warbo’ being a combination of the names Warnke and Bode). Bode moved to Berlin in 1938 to complete a postgraduate course at the Heinrich Hertz Institute where he collaborated with Oskar Vierling and Fekko von Ompteda. During this period Bode developed the ‘Melodium’ ;  a unique monophonic touch-sensitive, multi-timbral instrument used extensively in film scores of the period.

When WWII started in 1939 Bode worked on military submarine sound and wireless communication projects “…We had the only choice in Germany, to go to military service or do work for the government. I praise myself lucky, that I was able to go to the electronic industry” and moved to the  small village Neubeuern in southern Germany, where in 1947 Bode built the first European post-war electronic instrument, the ‘Melochord’. In 1949 Bode joined the AWB company where he created the  ‘Polychord’ a simpler, polyphonic version of the ‘Melochord’ which was followed by the ‘Polychord III’ in 1951 and the  ‘Bode Organ’, a commercial organ which became the prototype for the famous Estey Electronic Organ. After leaving AWB, Bode’s designs included the ‘Tuttivox’, a miniature electronic organ and collaborated on a version of Georges Jenny’s ‘Clavioline’, both big sellers throughout Europe.

In 1954 Bode moved to the USA, settling in Brattleboro, Vermont where he lead the development team (and later, Vice President)  at the Estey Organ Corporation. In 1958, while still working at Estey, Bode set up the Bode Electronics Company where in March 1960 he created another unique instrument; a modular synthesiser “A New Tool for the Exploration of Unknown Electronic Music Instrument Performances” known as the  ‘Audio System Synthesiser’ which Robert Moog used as the basis for his line of new Moog synthesisers.

After the Estey Organ Company foundered in 1960, Bode joined the Wurlitzer Organ Co and moved to Buffalo, New York where he was one of the first engineers to recognise the significance of transistor based technology in electronic music.  Bode’s concepts of modular and miniature self-contained transistor based machines was taken up and developed in the early 1960′s by Robert Moog and Donald Buchla amongst others. 1962 saw the beginning of a long collaboration between Bode and the composer Vladimir Ussachevski at the  Columbia Princeton Center for Electronic Music which lead to the development of innovative studio equipment designs such as the  ‘Bode Ring Modulator’ and ‘Bode Frequency Shifter’. The commercial versions of these inventions were produced  under the Bode Sound Co and under license Moog Synthesisers.

Harald Bode retired in 1974 but continued to pursue his own research. In 1977 he created the ‘Bode Vocoder’ (licensed as the ‘Moog Vocoder’). In 1981 he developed his last instrument, the ‘Bode Barberpole Phaser’.



Bode’s Melodium and Melochord by Thomas L. Rhea. Contemporary Keyboard magazine (January 1980, p. 68) 

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