It’s hard to grasp the power of the Wheelharp until you try it for yourself. The connection you make between the pedals, the keys and the sound is absolutely joyful and like nothing else. Its richly resonant notes transcend genres.
The instrument fascinated hardened synth-lovers, bass players and orchestral types alike, for while its designers are aiming for it to sound like you have your own chamber orchestra to hand, there is a huge range of otherworldly sounds to explore.
The makers boast that the string sounds are better and more convenient than either string instrument sampling or string synths. After all, most musicians can’t have an orchestra at their beck and call.
The Wheelharp’s claim to fame is that it lets you orchestrate a full chromatic scale of sixty-one real bowed strings (you can see them!), with a keyboard.
It uses a special action and bridge to translate your finger movements into a range of bowing intensities. It comes with a damper system and electronic pickup system, to enable you to make complex sounds.
Its designers Jon Jones & Sons, and Mitchell Manger, Antiquity Music founder, say it’s aimed at musicians, composers, and studios that want to create the natural sound of classical string instruments while avoiding the frequently sterile quality of digital string synthesizers and samples, or for those looking to foray into new sonic territory.
We fell into the new sonic territory camp straight away, and would happily have spent hours testing it out.
Musicians trying out the Wheelharp at NAMM included Grammy award winning A.R. Rahman, and it was dubbed the ‘coolest thing at NAMM’ and more.
Here’s a detailed look at the mechanics of it from the makers. Antiquity Music is a boutique company based in Los Angeles, that also deals in vintage and antique musical instruments.
When the player presses any key on the Wheelharp, the action moves the selected key’s respective string toward a rotating wheel with a rosined edge, thereby bowing the string. With the right pedal, the player controls the speed of a motor that turns the wheel, which varies the bowing speed of the wheel against the string and thus changes the dynamic effect. For instance, the wheel speed and the key depth can both be used to create swells and decrescendos.
The action for each note can easily be removed as necessary for maintenance or string replacement. The left pedal controls a full damper system that extends across the strings. An electromagnetic pickup floats above the strings and a piezoelectric pickup is mounted to the soundboard, allowing for the player to fully control the amplified timbre of the Wheelharp.
It is available in a Radial Model (curved keyboard) and a Linear Model (traditional straight keyboard), and in several ranges - in 3 - 5 octaves, from 37 - 61 strings.
Designer Jon Jones began work on the instrument in 2001. The story is that he was regulating his hurdy gurdy, an ancient instrument that uses a rosined wheel to bow strings, and thought how great it would be to have a full-scale chromatic keyboard instrument on which each string would a different note that could be individually bowed on a rosined wheel. He then began building the first Wheelharp, which proved itself and followed it up with a smaller, improved and more portable version.
The wealth of sonic possibilities comes at a price - it’s a high-end, beautifully-crafted instrument that sells for around $10,000-$12,000. Judging by the stir it caused at NAMM, there will be plenty of people ready to make that kind of commitment.