As pretty much anyone who has ever met me knows, I love trash. Much as some kind-hearted pet lovers cannot turn away a stray, I am a sucker for anything old and cool–or often, not that cool–left out on the sidewalk or in an alley. Over the years I’ve collected a good deal of audio gear from the streets; a bass guitar, an amplifier or two, keyboards, a weird homebrew EQ unit, and on and on. Perhaps most notoriously, I found a 1954 toaster on the streets on San Francisco and insisted on bringing it home, where it quickly became known as the “Chrome Toast Assassin” for its temperamental heat control. But it was beautiful, and old, and found, so I kept it for many years too many.
More recently here in Portland, a 1960s Silvertone electric reed organ appeared on a parking strip not far from my house. It gives me perverse pride that at least two unaffiliated parties saw it and made a conscious choice to withhold its location from me, either to protect my family from my rampant junk-collecting or to prevent my studio from becoming even more utterly clogged. But not even my friends’ altruistic natures could keep me from a discarded vintage musical instrument. I took it home and began disassembling it to find out what could be done with it.
As it turns out, not a great deal. This was never a great musical instrument, perhaps never even a good one. But oddly enough, it’s one I want to play and play. There’s something about the inconsistencies, general jank and wheeziness that appeals to me. Whenever I start playing it, I don’t want to stop.
My first move (and without a doubt my dumbest, aside from taking the thing home in the first place) was cutting it down to make it “portable.” I was preparing for a tour, and had the notion that I could bring this on the road with me. Just…wow. What a bad idea. Later, after I realized the gravity of my error, I remembered a hand-me-down antique pedestal in the attic, which I bolted to the bottom of the organ, thus creating what may be: The ugliest musical instrument in the world.
In any event, it happened. This also removed the volume pedal, so that the organ was full-on all the time. That’s not a problem per se, but the fact that “full-on” wasn’t very full WAS one. I disassembled the reed chambers, vacuumed out the inevitable dead bugs, dust, and alien spores, and then applied weatherstripping to the bellows boxes in order to force more air through the reeds and lower the noise floor.
Next up were the electronics, such as they are: A cheap foam-wrapped microphone functions as the “pickup” in this system; there are also volume and tremolo depth controls, and a switch marked “horns” and “strings” which functions as a steep low-pass filter. The tremolo, while not adjustable in frequency, is quite pleasing and a welcome addition.
I rebuilt the amplifier in the more-or-less usual fashion. Replacing crapped-out components helped, but the most noticeable improvement came with changing the lead dress–the layout and orientation of the wires, especially those carrying current–and properly grounding the amp chassis and electrical shielding around the bellows motor and frame. Then I added a preamp out and volume control, and a switch to defeat the speaker if so desired.
Figuring the organ couldn’t get any uglier, I relocated the amplifier chassis from inside the wooden case to the outside. Think of it as the cherry on top of a sundae that’s been left out in the rain.
And there you have it. Not an utter waste of time, but…fairly close to one. Here’s a little ditty featuring my ugly, crappy, free, but beloved reed organ: