Do you like those tiny automatic musical instruments you can wind up and listen to their adorable jingling tunes? Or your grandma’s dancing ballerina music box? Or the wooden cable car model you have got from your uncle, playing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”? If so, this overgrown hybrid of a music box and a hamster wheel created for the Budapest Palace Of Arts in Hungary is something you will appreciate too.

Folks at Hungarian design group and creative workshop called Medence invested four months of hard work in building the human-powered Müpa Budapest Sound Machine. The large box was exhibited for a week in a shopping mall in Budapest, and one of its creators, Tóbiás Terebessy, showed me the instrument and shared a few interesting facts about the manufacturing process.


Main characteristics:

  • able to play 30 notes, with a range of two and a half octaves
  • has six tunes, “recorded” on six flexible PVC sheets
  • each PVC sheet is 8.5 meters long and about 1.8 meters wide
  • each PVC sound sheet has as many as 400 holes punched by hand
  • has 5 rollers, 25 kg each, to convey the flexible PVC sheet around and round
  • the sound box is made of bamboo, and the membrane is made of plywood equipped with a piezo amplifier

The original idea was to combine playground activities with playing songs. The instrument makers at Medence designed and built this bulky wurlitzer-like prototype from scratch in a cold warehouse, and faced quite a few challenges in the warmer environment of the shopping mall where they assembled it: they had to tweak a lot of precision settings because of the thermal expansion.

Advertisement

Advertisement

One of the main challenges was to find the best sounding and most durable steel springs for the comb that makes the twanging sounds. At first, Tóbiás and his colleague Péter Koros ordered a set of springs from a local manufacturer, but those could not stand the load and often broke. The solution came from the United States: they simply ordered thumb piano (a.k.a. mbira or kalimba) springs off the shelf, and the mass-produced steel parts proved to be perfect.

Making the sound sheets was not easy too. Cutting more than two thousand holes in the PVC with a laser would have been fine–except the process would release hydrogen-chloride that could damage the sheets. So they spent a whole day punching hundreds of holes by hand.

Because the music box is so large, only children over 14 years and playful adults can operate it by stepping inside the heavy cylindrical drum and turning it with their feet as they walk ahead — a giant hamster wheel. The chain-driven mechanism can play six different tunes via the interchangeable PVC sheets: the Harry Potter Theme Song, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2., and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, among others, depending on audience preference. And the sounds coming from the bass, middle, and treble speakers are surprisingly pleasant, lending a unique ambient acoustic element to the usual shopping mall experience.

Photos and video: Attila Nagy