Chromatic for Diatonic Players: Review of 14-Hole Chromatics, Part 2
By Winslow Yerxa
In the last issue I gave plenty of data and pictures of three high-end chromatics in C that start on G below Middle C—the 14-hole Hohner Meisterklasse, the 14-hole Suzuki Sirius S-56S, and the 12-hole Seydel Saxony Orchestra. In this issue, I continue with my impressions from actually playing the instruments and with several recordings of each instrument.
After all the measuring and photographing, I was finally able to reassemble the instruments and actually play them. I resisted the temptation to adjust, alter, or otherwise change anything about these instruments because the point of these tests is to tell you what you’re likely to find when you first take the instrument out of the box and play it.
My impressions as recorded below are nitpicky. However, I’m more sympathetic to manufacturers than you might think. They have to assemble instruments quickly in factory conditions at a cost that allows them to sell at prices that players can afford. This is true even of relatively pricey harmonicas like the ones reviewed here.
Any harmonica can be improved by being set up by a customizer. After-sale setup at additional cost is standard practice with new guitars—knowledgeable players expect to pay for it, appreciate the enormous improvements to be gained by competent setup, and don’t complain about the manufacturers. Harmonica players can realize the same benefits if they simply accept the reality that new instruments function best when properly set up outside the factory gates.
Having said all that, I find that these instruments all play extraordinarily well straight from the box.
Harmonicas are usually tuned higher than the standardized A440 reference pitch. This is partly to compensate for the pitch depression that occurs naturally due to breath pressure, and partly because in many parts of the world, higher reference pitches such as A444 are the norm. Each of the test harmonicas was tuned higher than A440, as noted in Figure 2 in Part 1.
Tuning to A442 will usually put a harmonica in tune with A440 when played at normal volume. The Sirius came closest in this regard, while on the Meisterklasse most notes were tuned to at least A446 and often even higher than A447, which was the limit of my tuner. This might work with the German reference pitch of A444, but can be unbearably sharp for playing with A440. You can hear the effects of high reference pitch in the various test recordings, especially in When I Think of Spring, where the melody is doubled on an A440 instrument.
All of the harmonicas varied somewhat from their apparent reference pitch. Some of this happens because tuning drifts over time; to achieve stable pitch you need to tune an instrument twice about three weeks apart—not an option on a production line. However, some variations in tuning are deliberate—the lowest holes on a chromatic are often tuned a little high to counteract their heightened sensitivity to breath pressure. However, all three instruments had somewhat lowered pitch in the high range, which put the octaves out of tune. You can hear the results of this in the test recordings.
Slide clearance is the amount of space above and below the slide in the slide channel. A reduced slide clearance improves airtightness, yields greater responsiveness and sensitivity to breath, and also tends to promote brighter tone color. However, the observations below on response and tone color make it clear that airtightness around the slide has both benefits and drawbacks. The relative airtightness of the three instruments corresponded with their slide clearances as shown in Figure 2 in Part 1.
The Saxony Orchestra and Meisterklasse both had easy reed response through their entire ranges. At first, the Sirius was stiff and hard to play in the upper register. This is not typical of other Sirius, SCX, or G-48 Suzuki’s I’ve played, so that stiffness may have been particular to this individual instrument. However, with a few minutes of playing it became quite responsive. Chromatic harmonicas often have a mushy response in the B and B# below Middle C, with volume a little hard to get without having the pitch sag. This was not a problem on the Saxony, which gets points for the most level response overall. The Sirius was next best in this regard, followed by the Meisterklasse.
The Sirius S-56S reeds feel like the weighted keys of a piano, as if they have measured resistance that yields to the touch in a controlled way. It can give the feel of driving a large, powerful car. I noticed that it seemed to helped with accuracy when playing at fast tempos. The Meisterklasse, by contrast, offers no resistance; it’s as if the instrument disappears and you just have to think the note to sound it. But a responsive instrument also makes the demand that you play it accurately.
Both diatonic and chromatic harmonicas have a few “hot notes”—notes that stand out as sounding disproportionately bright compared with other notes. The more airtight a harmonica is, the more likely hot notes are to show up. On chromatic these notes appear in the upper middle register, around Hole 7 on the Meisterklasse and Sirius, or Hole 9 on the Saxony Orchestra. A skillful player can minimize this problem, but it helps if the harmonica contributes. The Saxony was the least prone to hot notes, followed by the Sirius and the Meisterklasse.
The Saxony Orchestra had the most neutral overall tone color. It can sound agreeably brawny in the low register, and substantial and even slightly sweet in the middle and upper registers. The Sirius S-56S has a silky tone, with a large amount of the treble overtones damped, and with a lot of punch behind the slightly veiled overtone profile.
The Meisterklasse sound is vivid and warm, with crisp detail, like being in bright light. It has everything present, with nothing left out—which can easily get too bright if you don’t control it. The Meisterklasse gives you a lot to work with, but you have to deal with what it gives you. Played immediately after the Sirius, the Meisterklasse can sound very bright and even a little thin until you readjust and start to find the meat of the tone again. By contrast, the Sirius played after the Meisterklasse can sound sort of dark and diffuse.
Varying pitch slightly is an important part of musical expression, and a harmonica that allows pitch variation offers greater expressive possibilities than one that doesn’t. The Meisterklasse had the easiest access to note bending while the other two required a more careful approach. Bending ease is something that varies from instrument to instrument and is highly individual to the player as well. This is something that a good customizer can dial in if desired.
To compare the three harmonicas playing identical passages, I played them 4 inches (10 centimeters, or the length of a diatonic 10-hole harmonica) from a Shure SM-58 microphone and recorded the results. I used the same input volume settings for all recordings, with an open hand cup. I did not use any equalization or compression, but did use a slight room ambience patch as the only effect.
C Major Scale Comparison
On each instrument, I played the C major scale, ascending and descending, first softly, then at medium volume, then loudly, in the low, middle and top octaves.
To hear the Saxony Orchestra play the scale, click here: 31-01.mp3
To hear the Sirius S-56 play the scale, click here: 31-02.mp3
To hear the Meisterklasse 7565 play the scale, click here: 31-03a.mp3
Long Tones Comparison
On each instrument, I played the note F, first as a draw note and then as a blow note, playing a long note that starts softly, swells to loud, then back to soft. I do this in the low octave, then the middle, and finally the high octave.
To hear long notes on the Saxony Orchestra, click here: 31-04.mp3
To hear long notes on the Sirius S-56S, click here: 31-05.mp3
To hear long notes on the Meisterklasse 7565, click here: 31-06a.mp3
On each instrument, I played two simultaneous notes an octave apart to determine whether these notes sounded in tune with each other. I did this through the entire range of each instrument starting with the lowest octave pair available and proceeding to the highest.
To hear octaves on the Saxony Orchestra, click here: 31-07.mp3
To hear octaves on the Sirius S-56S, click here: 31-08.mp3
To hear octaves on the Meisterklasse 7565, click here: 31-09.mp3
The next series of recordings presents all three instruments playing tunes of differing characters. (All except the classical piece are my original copyright compositions.)
Playing into a Shure SM-58 microphone on a stand and using hand cupping, I play the J. S. Bach piece Menuet in G. I use typical techniques and expressive devices that classical players employ to give definition and expression to musical lines and the notes within the lines. You can judge how well each instrument responds.
To hear the Saxony Orchestra playing Menuet in G, click here: 31-10.mp3
To hear the Sirius S-56 playing Menuet in G, click here: 31-11.mp3
To hear the Meisterklasse 7565 playing Menuet in G, click here: 31-12a.mp3
Third Position Blues
Cupping the harp to a Shure SM-58 microphone, I play three times through Solstice, using blues-based techniques of exploiting the draw chord while playing octaves, split intervals and various tongue effects. Solstice is played partly in E-flat minor (with the slide held in) and partly in D minor (with the slide in the out position). From 1:25 through 1:48, the sound gradually changes from a clean sound to a distorted, amplified sound, so you get to hear the harmonica both ways. As these performances weave improvisation into the tune, I do not attempt to play the same things literally on each instrument. Rather I let the qualities of the instrument guide me.
To hear the Saxony Orchestra playing Solstice, click here: 31-13.mp3
To hear the Sirius S-56 playing Solstice, click here: 31-14.mp3
To hear the Meisterklasse 7565 playing Solstice, click here: 31-15a.mp3
Brooding Melody with Low Notes
Playing into an SM-58 microphone left on a stand, I play Spanish Changes, an original jazz tune that you can also hear on the DVD West Coast Jazz Harmonica Summit 2009 (you can hear Viseur’s Dream on the same DVD). This tune uses the low range of the harmonica and also makes extensive use of subtle note bending.
To hear the Saxony Orchestra playing Spanish Changes, click here: 31-16.mp3
To hear the Sirius S-56 playing Spanish Changes, click here: 31-17.mp3
To hear the Meisterklasse 7565 playing Spanish Changes, click here: 31-18a.mp3
Fast Passages in the High Register
Here I play the up-tempo waltz Viseur’s Dream in with rapid tongue-switching and chromatic scales the upper register.
To hear the Saxony Orchestra playing Viseur’s Dream, click here: 31-19.mp3
To hear the Sirius S-56 playing Viseur’s Dream, click here: 31-20.mp3
To hear the Meisterklasse 7565 playing Viseur’s Dream, click here: 31-21a.mp3
Unison with other Instruments
Here I play the mid-tempo When I Think of Spring in what would be the middle octave of a standard 12-hole chromatic. The melody is both doubled and played in three-part harmony by MIDI guitars set to A440 pitch reference. All three harmonicas are tuned higher than A440, partly to compensate for pitch depression by the player. Even with pitch depression, at least with me playing, all three sound sharp relative to the other melody instrument. You can hear the effect of this tuning mismatch for each harmonica, and you can also hear the infamous “hot notes.” However, you can also hear how each harmonica can deliver its own brand of fat, sustained tones in the middle register.
To hear the Saxony Orchestra playing When I Think of Spring, click here: 31-22.mp3
To hear the Sirius S-56 playing When I Think of Spring, click here: 31-23.mp3
To hear the Meisterklasse 7565 playing When I Think of Spring, click here: 31-24a.mp3
In their price range, the Meisterklasse 7565 and the Sirius S-56S are neck in neck both for price and for performance, but each is highly distinctive both in its tonal qualities and in its response to the player. At a lower price point, the Seydel Saxony Orchestra offers a high level of build quality and sonic capability. Its compact 12-hole size fits nicely in the hands while omitting rarely used extremes of range (this can be a benefit or a drawback, depending on whether you make use of those notes). Its sonic signature is less highly colored than those of the other two. All three are highly worthwhile instruments and I hope that this review has helped you form an idea of their individual characters.
Next time, I’ll test drive the Bends Tonica 56, the Hering Stan Harper 5156, the Suzuki Chromatix SCX-56, and the Hohner Chrometta 14.
Recommended Book: Basic Blues Chromatic (MB99186BCD)
Please visit http://archive.harmonicasessions.com/feb05/ChromaticTab.pdf for a notation key.