“How you make a music box is still something that is mind-boggling for the mere mortal,” says MB&F founder Maximilian Büsser, following the unveiling of MusicMachine 1 Reloaded – the second iteration of MB&F’s original mechanical music box, presented in the guise of a spacecraft.
As with the original MusicMachine 1, the second iteration was produced in collaboration with Swiss music box specialist Reuge, with six new tunes from the world of science fiction and Rock-n-roll, but gets a refresh by German designer Maximilian Maertens.
MB&F’s MusicMachine series dates back to 2013, and MusicMachine 1 – the brand’s first collaboration with external creators on projects other than wristwatches. It also led to the creation of a new category within MB&F – “Co-creations” – in which MB&F collaborates with various specialists to explore a world beyond miniaturised horology.
MusicMachine 1 was the first MB&F creation that did not tell the time. Instead, it is a music box that features many of the traditional, time-honoured elements of a high-end music box, but configured in MB&F’s individualistic manner as a music box for today’s generation. Between 2013 and 2015, MB&F collaborated with Reuge to release three MusicMachines, each playing different, untraditionally modern tunes, and each model was a success.
“When it comes to design and creativity, MB&F is the specialist,” says Reuge CEO Amr Alotaishan. “However, when it comes to execution and excellence of product – the technical, engineering, and manufacturing side – we are comfortable. The ability to have a creative design that can reach out and touch people is amazing, while we know that we can produce the complementary quality when it comes to the technology.”
Sainte-Croix, the UNESCO listed Swiss village, has always been renowned as the epicentre of the Swiss music box industry. It has been the home of Reuge since it was founded in 1865, and is today considered the world’s premier manufacturer of music automatons. It is famed for manufacturing pieces that are technically, acoustically and aesthetically superlative.
For the latest and fourth edition of the MusicMachine, Büsser decided it was time to redesign the first MusicMachine, thus the ”Reloaded” in its name. “The original design was done by young Chinese designer Xin Wang,” recalls Büsser. “But we had Maximilian Maertens, who is designing a lot of new crazy cool stuff with us, work on this one with the idea of being a little bit more streamlined, a little bit more open.”
Xin Wang’s design of MusicMachine 1 was based on a futuristic spaceship design proposed by Büsser, a keen fan of sci-fi films and TV series. Maertens has retained the general silhouette of the original MusicMachine – the dual propellers and twin silver cylinders mounted on sleek outrigger landing gear – but has made it more visually organic by introducing a concept he calls “more airflow.” The design also incorporates all the redesigned music box components such as the musically tuned combs, pinned cylinders, winding mechanisms, mainspring barrels, regulators, and an acoustically optimised case.
The MusicMachine series is important for the ECAL design graduate Max Maertens. When he first saw the original MusicMachine back in about 2015 as a design student, it inspired him to change his direction and way of thinking. So it was something of a dream come true for him to work on a redesign of precisely this piece.
“I made it into something that is more aerodynamic, more like my own design language,” he explains. This involved Maertens using more science as a base and looking to aerospace engineering. “The entire piece is in a kind of a flow,” he says. “This is especially visible in the wings, which now look as if they are in a wind tunnel with invisible airflow around them. I took the existing idea of how and where we place the mechanics and changed everything else about the MusicMachine, without losing the main essence of the previous piece – so that it really looks like a ‘reloaded’ version.”
“What we have designed now is more complex than the original MusicMachine,” adds Büsser. “Nine years later, with what I’ve learned, how I’ve evolved, and my tastes have changed, we basically reworked some of the details to have it become what I would want today. I’m not saying that I don’t like what we previously did. It’s just that being the creator I am today, this is what I would find cooler.”
The one significant change with the MM1 Reloaded is that the entire body is now made of anodised aluminium, in contrast to the wood of the original MusicMachine. “The process of machining aluminium is so appealing, so precise, and its surface is so beautiful,” says Maertens. Another reason for using aluminium was to ensure that each individual piece looks as if it were one fused piece.
On the technical side, high-end mechanical music boxes share many similarities with their horological counterparts – both technically and aesthetically, with similar finishing techniques. MM1 Reloaded has two independent movements, configured as mirror images of one another. This means their movement components and architecture are perfect inversions of one another.
Each movement comprises a winding propeller, a mainspring barrel that resembles a piston under the propeller, a horizontal cylinder with pins to create the melodies, and a vertical comb with individual hand-tuned teeth sounding each note.
The energy for the movement is derived from coiled springs and transferred by exposed gear trains. Fan regulators manage the unwinding speed similarly to those found in traditional minute repeater watches. The unwinding of the springs puts in motion the horizontal cylinders, whose 1,400 precision-placed pins carry the physical code for the melodies.
As the beautifully hand-finished cylinder revolves, the pins pluck the teeth of the steel comb. Both combs – resembling side air vent grills – contain a bespoke selection of 72 hand-tuned notes each. Each comb forms a unique pair with its corresponding cylinder; neither can play properly without the other. The combs are hand-tuned from a special steel alloy specifically selected for its acoustic impact.
Once a melody has been played, the cylinder moves slightly along its long axis. This change in position aligns the correct pins with the right teeth to play the next melody. Each melody lasts approximately 35 seconds and corresponds to one complete revolution of the cylinder.
Like the original, the two cylinders of MM1 Reloaded play three tunes each. Büsser drew on his youth when choosing the six tunes. The left cylinder plays the Star Wars theme, “Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back, and the theme from Star Trek. The right cylinder plays Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Reuge then recreated the melodies mechanically. First, a musician identified the most recognisable passages from each tune. He then set about recreating them for the 72-note comb. With each barrel carrying three melodies of approximately 35 seconds each – with some notes used by all three melodies, while some being exclusive to just one melody – the selection and arrangement of the notes posed a considerable challenge for the musician.
When asked about his impression of MM1 Reloaded, Reuge CEO Amr Alotaishan says: “I think it’s cool. If I had nothing to do with this company, I would consider buying it.” He then added: “We bring traditional crafts to a younger, up-and-coming world by magically transforming them so that they find the fascination as well.”
MusicMachine 1 Reloaded is a limited edition of 33 pieces in blue, 33 pieces in red, and 33 in black.