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Chromatic for Diatonic Players: Review of 14-Hole Chromatics, Part 1

1 February 2011 51,615 views 3 Comments

By Winslow Yerxa

Over the next few issues, I’m going to review several models of 14-hole chromatic harmonicas from Bends, Hering, Hohner, Seydel, and Suzuki. It turns out that several models are available in this unusual size, and their special capabilities are very deserving of your consideration next time you’re in the market for a new chromatic.

 

The Value of 14 Holes

You may wonder, “Why 14 holes?” The more familiar 12-hole size has a three-octave range and fits nicely in the hands. The four-octave size is rather large but has all the range you could want in a melody instrument, and is especially good for that huge octave-wide chordal style used in blues chromatic.

Well, the 14-hole is just a little bigger than the 12-hole model, but isn’t quite as huge in the hands as the 16-hole, as you can see in the three photos of Figure 1.

Figure 1: 12-hole, 14-hole, and 16-hole harmonicas in a player’s hands

But size isn’t the only thing that matters. Often, a melody will go just below Middle C to B, Bb, A or G. Transposing that one note up an octave would break the line of the melody, while shifting the whole melody up an octave will often make it too bright (think of the low, dark, moody sound of “Round Midnight,” for instance). Having a chromatic that goes down to G below Middle C gives you those often-needed notes. It also means you can match the bottom notes of the violin if you play classical music.

Of course, you could simply use a 16-hole instrument. But many players can’t get the lowest two holes of the 16-hole to make a sound, and wouldn’t have a use for them even if they could. So the cozy, just-right size of the 14-hole form factor will be ideal for many players.

But I hear you ask, “Why not just build a 12-hole harmonica that starts on G below Middle C, and get rid of the top two holes of the C chromatic—who needs those high squeakers anyway?” That’s exactly what Seydel did with their Saxony Orchestra model. You get the low violin notes in a 12-hole package. And that’s why this review will include one 12-hole chromatic among all the 14-holers.

 

Some Basic Information about Chromatic Harmonicas

In case you’re not yet familiar with them, chromatic harmonicas have several features not present on diatonic harmonicas, and these will figure in the review. I wrote about this in a previous review article, so to keep this one from getting too long, let me refer you to that article:

http://archive.harmonicasessions.com/oct09/Yerxa.html

 

How the Holes are Numbered

On most C chromatics, Middle C is in Hole 1. If there are notes below Middle C, Middle C is still in the hole numbered “1.” If there are holes to the left of “Hole 1,” they either have no numbers or have “dot” numbers, as shown in Figure 2. The exception is the Seydel Saxony Orchestra, which starts numbering at the first hole, so that Middle C is in Hole 3. When I’m referring to the hole that in numbered “5” on a specific harp, I’ll write “Hole 5.” But otherwise I’ll write “’the fifth hole” to refer to the actual fifth hole from the left.

Figure 2: Hole numbering on the various harmonicas
  12-hole: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
  14-hole: .3 .4 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
16-hole: .1 .2 .3 .4 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Saxony Orchestra: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12    
                                 

 

Models under Review

This review is divided in four parts, with the more expensive models covered this issue and next, with the less expensive ones in the following issues. Even though I’m reviewing a total of seven models, I’m leaving some models out!

This issue, I’ll cover the Hohner Meisterklasse 7565, the Suzuki Sirius S-56S, and the Seydel Saxony Orchestra. Next issue, Part 2 will review lower priced models, including the Bends Tonica 56, the Hering Stan Harper 5156, the Suzuki SCX-56, and the Hohner Chrometta 14.

Prices and Measurements

The seven models under review cover a wide range of prices. When this article was written in December 2010, prices were as shown in Figure 3. Both pricing and availability are, of course, subject to change. The most expensive model lists for five times the price of the cheapest. Why such a wide range? Is it all just marketing hype or do the prices represent significant differences in value to the player?

Differences in construction and materials can affect the price of an instrument, and I’ll describe these over the course of the reviews. Luxury features such as a beautiful finish or nice case may help you feel good about shelling out a large sum. However, the qualities that give an instrument added value include durability, responsiveness over a wide range of volumes and attacks, power and clarity of tone, ergonomics, and overall quality of construction. Many of these qualities are as much a result of careful adjustment in manufacturing as anything else, and that care takes time.

Figure 3 – Pricing and measurements (All measurements are in millimeters or grams.)

Pricing
Hohner
Chrometta 14
Suzuki
SCX-56
Hering 14-hole chromatic
Bends
Tonica 14
Seydel Saxony Orchestra
Suzuki
Sirius S-56
Hohner Meisterklasse
US MSRP
$174.00
$259.95
$267.30
$389.95
$375.95
$799.95
$845.00
Average US
$118.94
$171.30
$180.13
$239.95
$375.95
$574.65
$576.46
Average EU
€84.70
€155.82
€138.33
€217.02
€279.00
€520.63
€411.38
Average UK
£71.19
£149.97
£104.31
£177.87
£224.46
£549.50
£352.32
General
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Dimensions
(W X D X H)
170 x 40 x 30
161 x 44 x 31
163 x 43 x 30
163 x 43 x 29
143 x 38 x 27
161 x 45 x 31
160 x 43 x 31
Weight
170
262
298
276
269
383
376
Covers
stainless steel
chrome plated brass
chrome plated brass
Matte black coated brass
textured chrome on brass
textured chrome on brass
chrome-plated brass
Comb
ABS plastic
ABS plastic
White plastic
clear acrylic
coated aluminum
ABS plastic with brass weights
anodized aluminum
Reedplates
             
Reedplate material
brass
brass
brass
brass
Nickel Silver
chrome plated brass
chrome plated brass
Thickness
1.05
1.07
1.1
1.18
0.95
1.24
1.21
Reed material
brass
phosphor bronze
brass
phosphor bronze
stainless steel
phosphor bronze
brass
Reed attachment
rivets
welding
rivets
stainless steel rivets
rivets
welding
rivets
Tuning reference
445+
442.3
442
444
443+
442+
446+
Slide
             
Hole pattern
cross
cross
straight
straight
straight
straight
straight
Hole area
21.3
32.10
21.84
19.67
19.70
20.20
21.04
Thickness
0.79
0.79
0.72
0.95
0.59
0.8
0.8
Travel
9.3
6.73
5.29
4.85
5.15
5.45
4.65
Clearance
0.21
0.13
0.2
0.1
0.17
0.12
0.06
Mouthpiece
             
Material
plastic
chrome-plated brass
Chrome-plated brass
chrome-plated brass
chrome-plated metal
silver-plated brass
chrome-plated metal
Profile shape
lip
radius
wedge
wedge
wedge
radius
wedge
Hole shape
squarish
round
round
round
round
round
squarish
Hole width
9.79
6.95
7.3
6.8
6.95
6.87
6.93
Hole area
72.9
37.9
41.9
36.3
37.94
37.07
48.65
Hole spacing
9.25
9.35
9.3
9.4
9.7
9.38
9.37

Hohner Meisterklasse 7565

Hohner is perhaps the world’s greatest success in the harmonica business. While they’ve been around since 1857, they’re not the oldest—Seydel has them beat by ten years. But Hohner has been the great success story of the harmonica world, both in their marketing, and the breadth of their product line. They have always used components—especially reeds—that set the quality standard by which all others are measured.

Hohner on the web:

1) http://www.hohner.eu/

2) http://Hohnerusa.com

 

The Meisterklasse harmonicas were introduced in 1982, consisting of the 7565 chromatic model and the 580 diatonic. Both had aluminum combs and smooth, wraparound chrome covers. The Meisterklasse 7565 chromatic was the first professional quality 14-hole harmonica (the very first 14-hole chromatic was the entry-level Chrometta 14, introduced in the late 1950s; I’ll review it in the next issue). The initial version of the Meisterklasse chromatic, although it was well regarded, had problems with comb oxidation due to an electrolytic reaction between the brass reedplates and the aluminum comb. It was withdrawn sometime in the mid-1990s, then reintroduced a few years later with design changes. Further refinements to the design have resulted in a superior chromatic harmonica.

Suzuki Sirius S-56S

Suzuki Musical Instrument Co. (not related to the motorcycle maker) was founded by Manji Suzuki in 1953 in Hamamatsu, Japan and has branched out from harmonicas to manufacture pianos, educational and band instruments, and Hammond organs. Mr. Suzuki retains a love for the harmonica and Suzuki has continued to drive innovation and quality improvements in harmonica design and manufacturing.

Suzuki on the web:

1) http://www.suzukimusic.com/harmonicas/

2) http://www.suzukimusic.co.uk/

3) http://www.suzuki-music.co.jp

The Sirius S-56S is the newest 14-hole model in the Suzuki line (The Sirius model family also includes 12 and 16 hole models). The covers are similar to those of the high-end Fabulous models, and feature a textured matte chrome finish that can look black, grey, or silver, depending on light and viewing angle. Like the Grégoire Maret model reviewed last year, the Sirius models have brass weights installed in their combs. The 12-hole and 14-hole Sirius models are straight tuned, while the 16-hole model is cross tuned. All three models have rounded silver-plated mouthpieces that glide nicely in the player’s mouth. (Suzuki also makes a mid-priced 14-hole model, the Chromatix SCX-56, which will be reviewed in the next issue.)

Seydel Saxony Orchestra

Seydel, founded in 1847—ten years before Hohner—is perhaps Germany’s oldest surviving harmonica manufacturer. In the post-communist era in eastern Germany, Seydel has successfully established a market niche as a small company focusing on high-quality products, often customized to player specifications. In recent years they have adopted the use of stainless steel as a reed material in place of the more common brass or phosphor bronze, starting with their 1847 series of diatonic models and continuing with the growing Saxony chromatic line.

Seydel on the web:

1) http://www.seydel1847.de

2) http://seydelusa.com

The Saxony Orchestra follows on the success of their initial Saxony model, and shares its striking cosmetics, with its large round holes and matte chrome covers that offer the hands a smooth yet graspable surface. Beneath the covers, it shares the comb milled from a block of aluminum and powder coated with a mottled gray finish, its reedplates made of German silver (also known as nickel silver, which is an alloy of copper, nickel, and zinc), and of course, the stainless steel reeds. While Seydel is renowned for their willingness to re-tune standard harmonicas, that is not the case with this model, due to the difficulty of retuning stainless steel reeds. The Saxony Orchestra features reeds designed and manufactured specifically for the pitch range of this model.

 

Investigations – Opening the Box

The Meisterklasse 7565 comes in a substantial leather box with a lockable clasp (Figure 4). The box is handsome and offers solid protection, though the leather is likely to suffer wear, and the box is a bit large for a gig bag. Figure 4 – Meisterklasse 7565 box
   
The Sirius S-56S comes in a hard blue plastic box (Figure 5) that is standard for most of Suzuki’s recent chromatic models, with box lengths matched to the 12, 14, and 16 hole sizes. The Sirius box is durable and unlikely to suffer significant cosmetic damage. Figure 5 – Sirius S-56S box
The Saxony Orchestra box (Figure 6) looks like a jewel case—It promises (and delivers) something special and precious. While the inside seems tough enough to protect the harmonica, the textured silvery outer surface of the box is pressed paper and might suffer scratches, gashes and other damage that would leave it looking shabby unless it were carried in a protective bag or second box. Figure 6 – Saxony Orchestra box

That First Thrilling Glimpse

Each of these harmonicas presents its own aesthetic vision.

The Meisterklasse 7565 presents a sleek, nearly unadorned appearance, with minimal graphics to disturb the chrome surfaces and the covers forming an extension of the slope of the mouthpiece, as shown in Figures 7 and 8.

Figure 7 – Meisterklasse front Figure 8 – Meisterklasse back

When you first open the box, the Sirius S-56S is sealed in a hygienic plastic wrapper, together with some sheets of silver cleaner for the mouthpiece. Once out of the wrapper, the instrument presents the same simple, yet striking appearance as the Maret and Fabulous models (Figures 9 and 10). The mouthpiece is silver-plated, which both adds to the austere color scheme of the Sirius and makes for a surface that glides easily in the mouth.

Figure 9 – Sirius S-56S front Figure 10 – Sirius S-56S back

The Saxony Orchestra presents the same luxurious, slightly retro look as the original Saxony model (Figures 11 and 12). It is the only model under review whose covers do not extend the full length of the harmonica. While the frosted finish is distinctive, it’s also practical—it helps to prevent the harp from getting slippery when your hands get wet under hot stage lights. (The covers are also available in a shiny stainless steel finish.)

Figure 11 – Saxony Orchestra front Figure 12 – Saxony Orchestra back

Picking it Up

The Meisterklasse 7565 has heft due to its aluminum comb, which brings the total weight of the instrument to about 375 grams (13 ounces). I find that once the instrument is in playing position, the weight disappears.

The Sirius S-56S is even heavier than the Meisterklasse due to the brass weights installed in the comb. Again, the weight disappears once the harp is raised to playing position, with the head level and the arms aligned near-vertically from the elbows.

The Saxony Orchestra has a solid aluminum comb, but at 269 grams (9.5 ounces) is the lightest of the three (partly due to its smaller size). I’m not sure you’d notice much difference between this and another 12-hole instrument with a plastic or wood comb.

Putting it in Your Mouth

When tongue blocking and playing two notes several holes apart, you need to get the harmonica far inside your mouth. At this point some harmonicas will cause a problem. As soon as your mouth encounters a steep rising angle—such as the front of the covers—this can break your embouchure seal, causing you to lose air (it can also be uncomfortable). Figures 13, 14, and 15 show the profiles of the Meisterklasse, Sirius, and Saxony respectively.

Figure 13 –
Meisterklasse profile
Figure 14 –
Sirius S-56S profile
Figure 15 –
Saxony Orchestra profile

The mouthpiece and covers of the Meisterklasse 7565 present a nearly unbroken sloping line that is narrow enough at the front for mouth comfort while easily slipping deep into the mouth for wide intervals and chords. The mouthpiece holes (visible in Figure 16) are neither square not round, and are sculpted so as to eliminate all sharp edges. I usually don’t notice details of mouthpiece holes, yet I find the holes of the Meisterklasse are quite pleasant, even luxurious, to explore with the tongue.

Figure 16 – Meisterklasse 7565 mouthpiece front

The Sirius S-56S is designed to make a continuous curve from rounded mouthpiece to the covers, making it easy to maintain a sealed embouchure for wide intervals. However, the large radius of the mouthpiece and the overall thickness are similar to that of the CX-12, and some players may find that this takes getting used to when placed deep in the mouth. The round holes, visible in Figure 17, are similar to those found on other round-hole chromatics. The silver plating on the mouthpiece allows it to glide smoothly in the mouth without friction or drag, which is sometimes noticeable on the chrome-plated Meisterklasse mouthpiece.

Figure 17 – Sirius S-56S mouthpiece front

The profile of the Saxony Orchestra puts the covers farther away than some harmonicas (such as the Hohner 270) but not as far as others (such as the Hering 5148). However, the low profile of the covers does not create as much of an obstacle as most other harmonicas, and wide intervals can be played with relative comfort and minimal air loss. Some players note the larger holes in the Saxony mouthpiece. Yet, as shown in Figure 18, the Saxony holes, with a diameter of 6.95 millimeters, are only slightly larger than the 6.87 mm holes in the Suzuki model. However, at 9.70 mm, Seydel’s hole spacing is wider than that of most chromatics, which ranges from 9.36 to 9.38 mm. It’s amazing the tiny differences that harmonica players not only can detect, but find significant.

Figure 18 – Saxony Orchestra mouthpiece front

The Slide Assembly

The mouthpiece and slide assembly are critical to the operation of a chromatic harmonica. If air is lost, tone is weak and the player can’t control the reeds properly. If the slide grates, moves sluggishly, or even sticks, then the player can’t access the notes he or she needs.

Figure 19 – Meisterklasse slide assembly

The Meisterklasse 7565 uses a three-part slide assembly: A mouthpiece that doubles as a slide channel, a slider, and a backing plate. The holes at the rear of the mouthpiece are narrowed to direct air to the width of the holes in the slider, as shown in Figure 19.

Slide travel on the Meisterklasse is the shortest of any of the harmonicas under review, at only 4.65 millimeters (about a millimeter shorter than on the Sirius S-56s or the Saxony). This short travel offers the possibility of very fast movement of the slide in and out. During playing tests, I found that it took me a few minutes to get used to this tiny but, again, significant difference.

Figure 20 – Sirius S-56S slide assembly

The Sirius S-56S strips the slide assembly down to only two layers by using the front fence of the comb as a backing plate, thereby reducing potential sources of air leakage. The S-56S mouthpiece, like that of the Meisterklasse, has holes that narrow at the rear to focus airflow to the slider holes, as you can see in Figure 20.

Slide travel on the S-56S is 5.45 millimeters. By way of contrast, the cross-tuned Suzuki SCX-56, with identical comb and mouthpiece dimensions, has a slide travel of 6.73 millimeters.

Cross tuned sliders have larger holes than straight tuned slides. Manufacturers claim that the larger holes allow more air flow and greater volume of sound.

Figure 21 – Saxony Orchestra slide assembly

The Saxony Orchestra uses an ingenious variation on the four-part slide assembly, with the parts laid out in Figure 21. The flat backing plate becomes the front plate, and the U-channel is replaced with an I-beam. One side of the I-beam helps clamp the front of the comb to the reedplates, which have beveled front edges to fit the I-beam. The other side of the I-beam creates a channel for the slide to travel in. The flat front plate rests on top of the slide, on its own ledge within the I-beam. The mouthpiece sits atop the entire assembly. The mouthpiece has a large amount of bottom surface area to contact the front plate. This assembly allows for very tight clamping of the mouthpiece without causing the slide to bind.

Slide travel on the Saxony, at 5.15 millimeters, is shorter than the Meisterklasse but longer than that of the Sirius.

While the Saxony Orchestra I played did not lack for volume and responded even to the softest breath levels, I have felt with both this instrument and the Saxony I reviewed last year that the sound was a bit airy due to some air escaping through the slider assembly. This makes the tone mellower and less likely to become piercing, but takes a certain amount of tonal control away from the player. If you as a player want to reduce slide clearance, you could file or sand a little height from the front arms of the I-beam or, for a less permanent solution, add a layer of adhesive tape either to the slide or to the inside of the front plate, then cut out the air holes.

The Comb

Figure 22 – Meisterklasse comb

The Meisterklasse 7565 comb is solid aluminum and a thing of beauty. It appears to be cast rather than milled. In Figure 22 you can see the underside, with slots to insert the receiving nuts for the mouthpiece screws. Because these can be replaced, you’ll never ruin an expensive comb by stripping out the mouthpiece screw threads.

Note that the Meisterklasse has reedplate screws along the front edge of the comb. This, together with precise manufacturing tolerances, may contribute to its responsiveness.

Figure 23 – Meisterklasse comb ramps

The Meisterklasse comb is ramped starting in the fifth hole, as shown in Figure 23. The fairly severe ramping may be a contributing factor to the excellent reed response throughout the instrument’s range.
 

Figure 24 – Sirius S-56S comb

The injection-molded ABS plastic comb of the Sirius S-56S is identical to the comb used in the mid-priced SCX-56 model, except for the matter outer finish and the brass weights installed in several of the voids, as shown in Figure 24. Also note the brass receiver nuts for the mouthpiece screws.

Suzuki claims that the presence of metal in the comb has a positive effect on the sound. They claim that these weights represent a middle step between the all-plastic comb of the SCX series and the all-brass combs of the Fabulous series.

I simply like to have a heavier harmonica in my hands. However, you can change the weights to suit your preference (and decide for yourself what effect it has on the sound). Each brass weight is actually a stack of four identical pieces screwed to the comb. If you prefer a lighter weight, you could unscrew the weights and reduce the number of pieces in the stack, or even remove them all.

Figure 25 – Sirius S-56 comb ramps

The front fence of the comb makes it difficult to see the ramps clearly in a photograph, but the Sirius S-56S comb is ramped starting in the sixth hole, as shown in Figure 25. The first two holes also have negative ramps, with the floor of each cell sloping downward to allow for the wide swing of the longest reeds. Not visible in the photos is the fact that the reedplates have one hole drilled that is not used, at the rear on the right, just behind the shortest reeds. This is true of the SCX-56 as well as the Sirius S-56S.

Figure 26 – Saxony comb
Figure 27 – Saxony comb ramps

The Saxony Orchestra comb is aluminum, with a baked powder coating to prevent any electrolytic reaction with other metals. The front has been hand-sanded to assure an airtight seal with the mouthpiece assembly, as seen in Figure 26. Note that this comb does not have separate receiver nuts for the mouthpiece screws. While these screws can be tightened heavily without causing the slide to bind, you run the risk of ruining the comb by stripping out the threads that are cut directly into the comb block.

The ramps, starting in the seventh hole, can be seen clearly in Figure 27.

Valves

Valves can stick, pop, rattle and buzz, but they are necessary to conserve air in chromatic harmonicas. Harmonica customizers have devised various alternative to the smooth dual-layer Mylar valves that have in general use since approximately the 1950s.

Recently manufacturers have been following suit. Seydel has been out front in this push, with their dimpled valve material now used on both the Deluxe and Saxony chromatic lines. A close-up is shown in Figure 28. (The rounded dark shapes are the Seydel “sun” logo.)

There has been recent talk of Hohner adopting a similar valve material, but the Hohner instrument used for this review, while new in October, 2010, still had the traditional valves.

Traditionally the highest holes in chromatic harmonicas are not valved, as leakage from the small reeds and slots has been considered negligible. However, valving does affect both tone and response, and each model is valved differently in the top end.

Figure 28 – Dimpled Seydel valves

 

The Meisterklasse 7565 has inside valves all the way to the top, but no outside valves in the top two holes. The Sirius S-56 omits outside valves in the top three holes, and, curiously, an outside valve on the high B but not on the slide-in High D. The Saxony Orchestra is fully valved except for the highest hole, which is completely unvalved.

Printable Version

Next Time

Next time I’ll give you my playing impressions and provide you with multiple recorded examples for you to hear what these harmonicas sound like in action.

Recommended Book—Basic Blues Chromatic

http://harmonicamasterclass.com/bc.htm

Notation Key

Please visit http://www.harmonicasessions.com/feb05/ChromaticTab.pdf for a notation key.

3 Comments »

  • Raymond A Johnson said:

    I’m a Chrom’ player and find this very informative. Many thanks Winslow. I’m looking forward to the “Next Time”

    Ray J

  • Henry. said:

    Excellent work Winslow!!
    Thorough and informative.

    Thank you,

    Henry.

  • Christian MASCRET said:

    Hi !

    Very good work !

    Thank you.

    Regards.
    Christian.