Review of 14-Hole Chromatics, Part 3 Chromatic for Diatonic Players
By Winslow Yerxa
Last time I reviewed two high-end 14-hole chromatics from Hohner and Suzuki, and a Seydel 12-holer that also starts on G below Middle C. This issue I’ll review four 14-hole models that deliver solid quality at the low-to-middle segment of the price spectrum. These are the Bends Tonica 56, the Hering Stan Harper 56, the Suzuki SCX-56, and the Hohner Chrometta 14.
In the previous installments I discussed the rationale for the slightly extended range of 14-hole instruments and their relationship to the 12-hole and 16-hole sizes. However, you can find the rest of that information in the March 2011 issue of harmonicasessions.com. And you can read the basic facts about chromatic harmonicas in the September 2009 issue. I also gave a comparison table for all the 14-hole models reviewed in this series. For your convenience, I’m including the comparison table here.
Cheap or Expensive – What’s the Difference?
The seven models under review range from suggested retail prices of $174 for the Chrometta 14 up to $845 for the Meisterklasse, with several price points in between. They’re all harmonicas made of similar stuff—no gold or rubies. So why the price spread? Basically it comes down to performance, which is partly a matter of design and partly one of care in executing that design. The high-end instruments tend to be better made, to put out more sound, and allow the player more control. But the good news is that you can get a good harmonica at nearly any price point. And if you want something better, there’s another step up in both quality and, yes, price.
(note: all weights are in grams and all measurements in millimeters.)
Stan Harper 5156
|Seydel Saxony Orchestra||Suzuki
(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|
|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|
|Reedplate material||brass||brass||brass||brass||Nickel Silver||chrome plated brass||chrome plated brass|
|Reed material||brass||phosphor bronze||brass||phosphor bronze||stainless steel||phosphor bronze||brass|
|Reed attachment||rivets||welding||rivets||stainless steel rivets||rivets||welding||rivets|
|Material||plastic||chrome-plated brass||Chrome-plated brass||chrome-plated brass||chrome-plated metal||silver-plated brass||chrome-plated metal|
So now, let me show you the models under review, along with their innards and unique characteristics, and then play them for your assessment.
Hohner Chrometta 14
History is vague and hard to get at on a few points, but the invention of the Chrometta in 1956 was a landmark of innovative design, and may have heralded the first cross-tuned chromatic and the first 14-holers as well. Conceived as an inexpensive student instrument, the Chrometta comes in 8, 10, 12, and 14-hole sizes, and nowadays is made in China, but with old-school Hohner-style reeds that make a robust sound. The cover graphics on the current model aren’t as nice as the original red-inlaid design, and the somber black comb has replaced the cheery original red, but the internal design otherwise seems unchanged save for the reedplate screws that have replaced the awful brads originally used to hold the reedblock together.
Suzuki Chromatix SCX-56
Suzuki’s mid-price Chromatix line includes 12, 14, and 16-hole models, all cross tuned and updated with the rounded mouthpiece that has become standard on all newer Suzuki models. It’s strikingly similar in appearance and construction to the high-end Sirius model reviewed in last issue, but with some important differences. Rather than being a bold innovation, the Chromatix line represents the incremental improvements at the lower end that seem to trickle down from the innovations that happen at the high end, improving both quality and value for the money. A bit pricier than the Chrometta, the SCX offers greater airtightness that contributes to its robust sound.
Hering, founded in 1923 by a German-named family in the German-named town of Blumenau in Brazil, did offshore manufacturing for lower-priced Hohner product lines for awhile in the 1960s and ‘70s, then reasserted itself as a producer of its own vision that seems to have started with updates to classic and well-regarded designs abandoned by Hohner. That vision evolved during the 1980s and 1990s along with a reputation for accurate tuning, precision manufacturing, and bright, responsive instruments. Hering’s distribution in the US has been haphazard, but their products are held in high regard.
The Hering Stan Harper 56 is named for the legendary elder statesman of the chromatic harmonica, who is very demanding of quality in his instruments and not at all shy about speaking up when his standards aren’t met. Like all Hering chromatics, is straight tuned.
Bends Tonica 56
Bends is a recently formed Brazilian company. Founder Melk Rocha took a sidelined car-parts factory made available by his father-in-law and converted it to a harmonica factory with impressive results. Unfortunately, since I started writing this article, Bends has announced that it’s closing down production. However, instruments may still be available, and they’re worth seeking out. Their product line includes several models of diatonic harmonicas and two lines of chromatics, the Allegro and the Tonica, in three different sizes.
The Tonica line comes in 12 and 16-hole versions in addition to the 14-hole Tonica 56 under review here. The Tonica models have matte black covers that remain raised above the reedplates for the entire length of the harmonica and bronze reeds fastened with stainless steel rivets that won’t rust. One unusual—and desirable—feature of the Tonica models is the Teflon-coated slide. This makes the slide slightly thicker than normal, but also makes for quiet, smooth, stick-free operation. The Tonica models rapidly gained an enviable reputation for quality among knowledgeable players.
Opening the Box
The Chrometta 14 comes in a wraparound vinyl pouch that is economical of space and protects the harmonica from foreign matter but offers no protection from impact. (Figure 1)
|Figure 1 – Chrometta 14 Pouch|
The Chromatix SCX-56 comes in a hard blue plastic box (Figure 2) that is standard for most of Suzuki’s recent chromatic models, with box lengths matched to the 12, 14, and 16 hole sizes. The Chromatix box is durable, will resist strong impacts, and is unlikely to suffer significant cosmetic damage.
|Figure 2 – Chromatix SCX-56 Box|
The Hering Stan Harper 56 comes in a hard-shell fabric zippered pouch (Figure 3) that is compact and attractive, and offers protection fro the normal knocks and jostling of everyday use.
|Figure 3 – Stan Harper 56 Pouch|
The Bends Tonica 56 comes in a rigid, fabric-covered zippered pouch with the company logo impressed and a dimple that creates an area to protect the protruding slide button. The pouch is small and space saving and probably won’t suffer cosmetic damage from being jostled in a gig bag with the usual assortment of microphones, cables, loose instruments, and other accessories.
|Figure 4 – Tonica 56 Box|
That First Thrilling Glimpse
Each of these harmonicas presents their own aesthetic vision.
The Chrometta 14, as shown in Figures 5 and 6.
|Figure 5 – Chrometta 14 Front||Figure 6 – Chrometta 14 Back|
The Chromatix SCX-56 presents an unpretentious, solid appearance. (Figures 7 and 8).
|Figure 7 – Chromatix SCX-56 Front||Figure 8 – Chromatix SCX-56 Back|
The Hering Stan Harper 56 presents an elegant appearance that is distinguished by its white plastic comb, unusual in a world where black seems to rule. (Figures 9 and 10)
|Figure 9 – Stan Harper 56 Front||Figure 10 – Stan Harper 56 Back|
The Bends Tonica 56 has a matte black coated finish with wraparound covers, set off nicely by the swirling designs cut into the finish and by the chromed mouthpiece (Figures 11 and 12). The clear acrylic comb presents a handsome contrast with the covers.
|Figure 11 – Tonica 56 Front||Figure 12 – Tonica 56 Back|
Picking It Up
The Hohner Chrometta 14, weighing in at 170 grams, is by far the lightest of the four models. Its rounded corners and edges make it comfortable to hold, as well.
The Suzuki Chromatix SCX-56, although slightly smaller than the Chrometta, is a good deal heavier at 262 grams, and gives the feel of normal heft for a chromatic harmonica. The corners of comb, reedplates, and form-fitting covers are all rounded, eliminating the unpleasant sensation of the corners of the reedblock poking into your hands.
The Hering Stan Harper 56 is the heaviest of the four models at 298 grams, but the weight differences among the Suzuki, Hering and Bends Tonica 56 (276 grams) is barely noticeable. Both the Stan Harper and the Tonica have pointed reedplate corners that can cause hand discomfort.
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 vertical wall or 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, 15, and 16 show the profiles of the Chrometta 14, SCX-56, Hering, and Tonica 56 respectively.
|Figure 13 –
Chrometta 14 Profile
|Figure 14 –
|Figure 15 –
Stan Harper 56 Profile
|Figure 16 –
Tonica 56 Profile
The mouthpiece and covers of the Chrometta 14 (Figure 13) integrate closely so that the bump between the covers and mouthpiece is barely noticeable and presents no impediment to tongue blocking. The holes are very large, the largest of any chromatic under review here. One result is that the dividers between neighboring holes is very thin and you may find it difficult at first to isolate a single note.
|Figure 17 – Chrometta 14 Mouthpiece Front|
The SCX-56, as noted on the box, has a new mouthpiece shape. The original truncated wedge has been replaced with a rounded shape similar to that used in the pricier Sirius, Grégoire Maret, and Fabulous models (but with chrome plating instead of silver or gold). The curvature of the mouthpiece and the slope of the covers combine to form a continuous line (Figure 14), 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 Hohner 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 18, are similar to those found on other round-hole chromatics.
|Figure 18 – SCX-56 Mouthpiece Front|
The Hering Stan Harper 56 (Figure 15) and the Bends Tonica 56 (Figure 16) both use the traditional truncated wedge mouthpiece shape. These offer a comfortable shape for tongue blocking, but when playing wide intervals such as octaves, the SCX-56 and Chrometta both allow an easier seal. Between the two wedges, I found the Bends to have a slight advantage in comfort, possibly because the covers are located a little closer to the mouthpiece and have a slightly steeper slope. The holes of the two models present a similar appearance, with standard sized round holes.
|Figure 19 – Stan Harper 56 Mouthpiece Front|
|Figure 20 – Tonica 56 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.
The Chrometta 14 has a slide travel of 9.3 mm. This is the longest of any chromatic harmonica, and it takes some getting used to. The slide assembly itself is a unique system and worth looking at. The slide itself splits into two forking top and bottom halves (Figure 21).
|Figure 21 – Chrometta Slide|
|Figure 22 – Chrometta Slide Assembly – Rear|
I once recorded the SCX-56 and S-56 and recorded identical passages, then swapped the slides and recorded them again. Most listeners could not tell which recordings were played with a straight-tuned slider and which ones were played with the larger holes of the cross-tuned slider.
|Figure 23 – SCX-56 Slide Assembly|
The Chrometta comb and mouthpiece are integrated into a single injection-molded part, with a slit to insert the slider, and a horizontal guide rail that keeps the top and bottom halves of the slider in alignment. Internally, the walls of the chambers press against the back of the slider, functioning like a backing plate Figure 22). While this design simplifies parts fabrication, it also means that the slide clearance can’t be adjusted. The wide built-in clearance of 0.21 mm ensures that the slide will always be leaky (a workaround is to thicken the slide itself with tape or varnish).
The Chromatix SCX-56, like all the newer Suzuki models, 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, as you can see in Figure 23. The slide clearance of only 0.13 mm is very good, especially when you consider the low price of this model.
The SCX-56 is cross-tuned, with larger slide holes that, according to manufacturers, allow for more airflow and greater volume of sound. However, this also increases slide travel. On the cross-tuned SCX-56 slide travel is 6.73 millimeters. By contrast, the straight-tuned Sirius S-56S has a slide travel of only 5.45 millimeters. As to differences in sound, you can compare the recordings of the S-56S in the October 2011 issue to the recordings of the SCX-56 in the issue that follows this one.
|Figure 24 – Stan Harper 56 Slide Assembly|
The slide assembly on the Hering Stan Harper 56 (Figure 24) uses the traditional four-layer construction. To give the slide a stable surface, a backing plate is laid over the front of the comb and reedplates, and the slide rests on the backing plate. The slide is housed in a U-channel, which resembles the backing plate but has curved edges, creating a U-shaped channel for the slide to move in. Above the U-channel is the mouthpiece, which is screwed down to hold the entire assembly in place. Note the sanding on the back of the mouthpiece to promote an airtight seal.
|Figure 25 – Tonica 56 slide assembly|
The Tonica 56 also uses the traditional four-part slide assembly (Figure 25). The front surface of the Tonica comb is hand sanded to assure flatness. The ends of the mouthpiece are bent upward to curve away from the harmonica. When they are screwed down, they exert extra pressure on the middle of the mouthpiece to assure airtightness. The back of the mouthpiece is also hand sanded to assure flatness in that critical area.
However, the most notable part of the Tonica slide assembly is the slide itself, coated with Teflon in a patented process. This makes the slide notably smooth and quiet in action, and is likely to help prevent sticking. Slide travel on the Tonica, at 4.85 mm is very nearly as short as that of the much more expensive Hohner Meisterklasse, allowing for very quick slide movement. The slide clearance, at 1.0mm is also the closest of all the models here, yielding the least amount of air leakage around the slide.
Figure 26 – Chrometta 14 Comb
|Figure 27 – SCX-56 and Sirius S-56S Combs|
The Chrometta 14 comb, as shown in Figure 26, is sturdily and precisely made, and shows no evidence of corrective hand finishing. The reed chambers have ramps found in more expensive models to optimize air usage.
The 11 screws used to secure the reedplates allow for an airtight seal between reedplates and comb.
The SCX-56 has an injection-molded ABS plastic comb nearly identical to the comb used in the premium priced Sirius S-56S model, the only differences being the smooth outer finish on the SCX comb and absence of the brass weights installed in the Sirius comb. Both combs are shown in Figure 27, with the SCX comb on top. The 8 reedplate screws don’t include any along the front edge of the comb, and yet this model feels very airtight to play.
The 10 reedplates screws include 4 along the front edge of the comb. Unfortunately, these screws have tiny head, are made of soft brass that is easily deformed by a screwdriver, and are located so close to the reed slots that reed pads can easily obstruct the turning of a screwdriver, and it is easy to accidentally damage windsavers or pry them off while turning a screw.
The ramps in the Stan Harper comb are lower than on most other chromatics reviewed. This may reflect Harper’s preference.
|Figure 28 – Stan Harper 56 Comb|
The Tonica 56 comb is injection-molded from clear acrylic. This makes it difficult to photograph effectively, which you can perhaps tell from Figure 29. The slide spring post is part of the comb, and, as with the SCX 56 and the Chrometta 14, the spring itself is easily accessible (not always a good thing, as an exposed spring can easily pop off and fly away to parts unknown).
Like the Hering model the Tonica has screws that secure the front edges of the reedplates to the comb, but they are stainless steel, and countersunk with reasonably large heads that are easy to turn. They are also placed so that turning these screws does not bump against reed pads or offer danger to windsavers.
|Figure 29 – Tonica 56 Comb|
In the next installment we’ll put these harmonicas to the real test of value—how do they play? I’ll record multiple examples of each so that you can compare their sound and response, then I’ll give my overall playing impressions.
Recommended Book: Basic Blues Chromatic (MB99186BCD)