Creative ideas by two Winston-Salem residents have turned into inventions that they hope will benefit themselves and society.
Bobby Locke has invented the Elephant Ear Receiver, a smart phone accessory that is basically an FM receiver with a microphone aimed at allowing people at music or sporting events to hear the mixing board directly.
“If they are in nose bleeds and they take a video on their camera, they get this studio sound instead of all the noise,” Locke said.
Mike J. Baron’s invention is called the SlingBaron, an orbital harmonica dryer.
Baron said it is the world’s first harmonica dryer.
His product ejects saliva and is aimed at preventing corrosion and doubling the life expectancy of harmonicas.
His pitch to harmonic players is that “it will make their harmonicas last twice as long and they’ll save a ton of money.”
“They won’t have to be buying harmonicas all the time,” Baron said.
Filling a need
Locke, 65, is a musician. He has been in the entertainment industry since he was in high school, starting as a drummer for the rock band Rittenhouse Square in the early 1970s.
His family used to run a night club called Rittenhouse Square in Winston-Salem that was later named Casablanca.
In the early 1990s, Locke started getting into DJ services, karaoke and video production.
In 1992, he went on the road with a TV show called “Karaoke America” and appeared on the “Entertainment Tonight” TV show. Locke and his wife, who died in October 2020, produced “Karaoke America,” which ran on the local CatTV6 cable TV station in some form until about 2000.
“In 2001, I got on CNN for having one of the world’s first amateur streaming music TV channels,” Locke said, referring to his “Fast Track to Fame,” which offered live music and performances by singers.
Locke saw a need for the Elephant Ear Receiver as soon as smartphones really hit the market about 2007 and started working on his invention 10 years ago.
“My core motivation was that it just disgusted me when people in trivial fashion point their $1,500 phone at a band or a singer or something, then they get home and it sounds like a train wreck,” Locke said.
He doesn’t see people parting with their smartphones anytime soon given the popularity of selfies, saying people want snippets and the ability to show others that they were at a place or event.
“Everybody has a phone and everybody says they like music, but if they’re hearing it badly, maybe they’re missing something,” he said.
He considers bad audio sound a tragedy from an artistic standpoint, saying bands typically rehearse for months and put their lives into their music, but what gets posted by people from their smartphones doesn't reflect it.
“My idea is to turn this into a new medium,” he said of the Elephant Ear Receiver. “We’re delivering high quality sound from a mixing board, wirelessly direct to the phone through this receiver.”
Locke said that he and his wife went through five years of research just to create the Elephant Ear Receiver.
He developed the product and now has a partnership with Cinet Co. in Manassas, Va., which financed and has the patent on the product.
Through his partnership with Cinet, Locke markets, promotes and sells the product, as well as teaching people about it.
He said sales of the Elephant Ear Receiver were going good until the coronavirus pandemic.
“That just put a break on everything,” he said.
Locke has started Elephant Ear TV, a Roku channel that accepts home videos from singers and vocal acts who use the device for their recordings.
“We’re going to have some genre shows created with content made from the receiver itself,” Locke said.
He said several bands will participate on Elephant Ear TV, including Big Ron Hunter and Gypsy Soul, both of Winston-Salem, as well as singer/guitarist Robert Rominger, also of Winston-Salem.
“They have already gotten the little transmitter so everywhere they play, anybody that owns one of these receivers can go there and record,” Locke said. “That’s the concept. We’re following kind of a Wi-Fi model where the signal is available, and we let people know where it is.”
He said he has been contacting bands about his product while everyone is at home because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“I’m getting a network of people ready to go out and sell this stuff,” he said.
Orbital harmonica dryer
Baron, 72, plays the guitar and harmonica and is a local folk singer.
He is a cancer patient but is currently in remission.
“I’ve been on a rollercoaster for 16 years,” Baron said. “I have a strong faith so that keeps me going. The Lord keeps me going.”
As a cancer patient, he said he is just getting back to selling his product after a year because of some health issues, and the pandemic didn’t help.
“My target is harmonica players — musicians,” Baron said of his SlingBaron. “The music business is suffering terribly because there’s no live music. It’s hard to sell.”
His invention is an actual sling and his last name is Baron so he figured SlingBaron would work as the best name for it.
Unlike instruments such as trumpets and trombones that have a spit valve to get rid of saliva, “a harmonica has no hood that you can pop open and do maintenance,” Baron said. “Harmonicas are really made kind of tightly and they collect saliva and debris.”
Baron said harmonicas are wonderful instruments but they all stink because of the collected saliva and debris.
“The material sits in them and rots in them and actually has bacteria and decay,” he said. “That’s what really sends a harmonica to an early grave.”
He said harmonica players have been banging the instrument in their hand or on their knee to jettison the saliva that accumulates as the harp is played since the instrument’s invention more than a century ago.
“It’s the only known method,” Baron said.
He said the instrument’s insides are made of brass and corrosion results when saliva contacts brass.
“Saliva slowly dissolves the paper-thin brass reeds that vibrate and produce the music,” he said. “And not only is saliva corrosive, but it also contains various solids and organic material that get deposited inside and really ‘gum things up.’ Eventually, a reed malfunctions, and most players toss the harp in the trash and then purchase a brand new one in the same key.”
After all the banging, he said, harmonica players typically allow the instrument to “air-dry” based on instructions from manufacturers.
But he said there is a problem with air-drying the harps because liquids evaporate but solids do not evaporate, and organic solids begin to rot.
He also said that when people bang harmonicas, “the shock from the strikes’ give tiny concussions to the brass reeds.”
He said that if harmonicas are completely soaked, meaning a bath, it would take 45 minutes to get all the moisture out, whereas the high-speed orbit ejects saliva in 30 seconds.
In 2017, Baron decided to use centrifugal force to fully eject salvia from harmonicas after they are played.
His idea was to put the harmonicas into orbit and allow the G-forces to jettison the saliva.
Baron evaluated the prototypes he built using various materials and decided on making his SlingBaron’s “cradle” out of injection-molded ABS plastic.
He said he paid $6,000 to ICOMold, a company in Ohio, to make a two-piece solid steel production mold that would form the molten plastic into SlingBaron “cradles.” Later, he used the same company to produce 2,000 injection-molded cradles that he assembled in his living room.
In terms of flying saliva, Baron said he solved that problem with a moisture blotter.
He was awarded a U.S. patent and now sells direct to customers on eBay.
SlingBaron was designed to accommodate all brands and all models of 10-hole diatonic harmonicas.
“I was sure that centrifugal force was the answer, but I had to prove it and I had to build the product for it,” Baron said. “I can’t believe I got a patent for it, because it was really hard to apply for a patent and everything, and the engineering was not easy.”