The Merlin Harp - Beginnings, Technicalities and Inspiration
In the late 70's Rick Rubarth was a young singer/songwriter/guitarist working the folk clubs in the Detroit area when he heard his first harp on a recording by Robin Williamson. Captivated by the beautiful sound of the Caswell harp on the album, Rick vowed then and there to have harps in his life.
He was fortunate enough to live near the Sterns Instrument Museum where the curator shared his knowledge and collection with him. These were important historical instruments - there was an early Morley harp and a very old copy of the Queen Mary harp - but they had fallen apart and were lying in pieces on the shelves, awaiting some time in the future when they might be restored. This was an unbelievable opportunity and a great foundation for his future education and Rick used this knowledge to help create and perfect the Merlin harp that he builds-today.
In the late 80's a music dealer suggested there was a niche available in the market for small harps, so Rick designed a 22 string instrument which proved to be very successful. Throughout the years he has built and sold over seven hundred of these affordable harps, however larger harps have been his true passion. Eleven hundred harps later he has become one of the best builders in the harp world today.
Rick currently devotes all his attention to his Merlin harp design, a 35 string harp that he feels is the pinnacle of his life's work. Designing and refining the Merlin harp took over a decade of experimentation and hard work. " A harp is a complex puzzle whose pieces must work in harmony," he explains. "If you change any one element - the scale length of a string, for example, all the other elements are affected as well. I had to keep building new harps to test my ideas. Sometimes the improvements are small and sometimes they are more dramatic. It all takes a lot of time and patience to refine and perfect."
The Merlin has an eight sided coopered stave back of solid Maple, a sound board of aircraft quality Birch, and a truss rod system in the column, which allows the pillar to be extra strong and not too heavy. What really sets the Merlin apart is a unique system of suspended struts inside the instrument that are made of synthetic material, which unlike wood, does not lose strength over the years. The struts relieve much of the huge tension (about 1200 Ibs.) that the strings exert on the soundboard, allowing it to move more freely and produce a stronger, richer sound.
There are many exclusive features on the Merlin harp. One very important feature is that the Merlin has 3 sound holes instead of the usual four. Rick describes this feature in these words:
"I see the sound holes more as tuned ports than sound 'holes. You have to be very careful about the number of square inches you devote to these openings. A cello, for example, can fill a concert hall and yet the f-holes are a small fraction of the total surface area of the soundboard. For the best bass response I don't want the sound to just spill out. Instead I want the sound to be captured momentarily - to mature inside the box before it is released. I've got a special access plate in the base that you can remove to get to the bass strings when you need to change them."
Floura-carbon is the material he chooses with which to string the Meflin harp. David Kortier, another respected harp builder, introduced him to flouro-carbon. lt is 20% more dense than nylon or gut. Its shelf life is"undetermined", that is to say is does not deteriorate. Flouro-carbon is also a very highly polished material and is, therefore, very kind to the fingertips. Most importantly, flouro-carbon contains deep, rich frequencies. Unfortunately you can't string flouro-carbons on just any harp and expect a big improvement. You have to build an instrument to specifically maximize what the floura-carbon can do.
Rick has also developed an unusual strut system in his Merlin harp. He has given extensive speethes to the American Luthier Guild explaining the dynamics of his harp. He explained 6 points in a recent speech:
1.The harp is a brutal instrument. All the strings are trying to rip the soundboard out due to the string tension. Unlike a violin, which is dynamically balanced and can last for centuries, a traditional harp is unbalanced and has a relatively short life span. If you make a top thick enough to hold up the string tension you impair its ability to vibrate. If you make it too thin it will just fall apart. So the traditional solution is to graduate the top::...which means carving it thinner on the treble strings and gradually making it thicker towards the bass strings.
2. At the pinnacle of my traditional building I was graduating the tops with string tension on. This technique revealed many surprises about how to maximize the graduation of the top which was very rewarding. However, there is always that inherent conflict in the harp between making the soundboard strong enough to stand up to string tension and making it light so it vibrates well and projects sound efficiently.
3. For a long time I felt that I had taken my harps to the limits of what traditional methods would do. Then I began to think in different terms. Instead of building a contralled instrument and then trying to get it to "give it up", I started building out of control and devising ways to control it.
4. One day I saw a video of the famous footage of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsing under high winds, with the roadway flopping around like it was a rug. I stared at the curled cables and the undulating deck and felt it was telling me something. Eventually I realized that I wanted to counteract string tension with curved struts just the way a suspension bridge counteracts the force of gravity with its curved suspension cables. In the Merlin, the non-fatiguing struts oppose the string tension, relieving much of the stress on the bass end of the soundboard, allowing the top to be relaxed.
5.The harp is no longer being choked by its own string tension, and the life of the instrumerit is extended dramatically. The top is now free to vibrate from the treble to the bass end rather than from edge to edge. This directional change uses the soundboard efficiently so that a large harp is not needed for a large sound ..
6. "The eight sided stave back of soft maple promotes a tremendous amount of projection. This gives the harp more dynamic range so the player has a wider range of expression. Every feature in the Merlin makes a tangible difference in the harp. It is not a one trick pony. The whole is greater than the sum of it's parts.
Thus you now have a balanced, strong, durable, dynamic harp with an extended life span.
Although technical language and build is indeed very important to the harp, there is another critical aspect that cannot be left out. It is that of the sound and the audience.
Rick has emerged in his expertise from the developmental stage to mastering an expressive and diverse harp. An inspired instrument inspires the player. The player inspires the audience. Rick's love of music, his dedication to the quality of sound, the beauty of the harp itself, all make the Merlin an incredible instrumnent that many own, and all who hear it, enjoy.
Rick now lives in Denver, Colorado and can be contacted at [email protected]
As seen on the "Harplust List"
5021 Perry Street
Denver, CO 80212