Review of 14-Hole Chromatics, Part 2 Chromatic for Diatonic Players
By Winslow Yerxa
In the last issue I got under the hoods of four mid-price 14-hole chromatics (try saying that fast several times). The harmonicas in question were the Hohner Chrometta 14, Suzuki Chromatix SCX-56, Hering Stan Harper 56, and the Bends Tonica 56. This time, I’m going to give you recorded samples of those instruments, together with my impressions from actually playing them.
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. (In future reviews, I’ll play them first, then take them apart.)
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 support. And the lower the price point, the less time they can spend. The fact that they get so much of it right is pretty amazing.
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 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. The 445+ pitch of the Chrometta reflects the A444 standard widely used in Germany. The other instruments are tuned close to A442, which will often bring the instrument to A440 when played normally (this, of course, varies from player to player).
Careful listening to the recorded examples played with A440-based backing tracks will give you an idea of how these instruments sound, at least when I play them, with American A440 pitch. You can form the strongest impression with the track When I Think of Spring, because the harmonica melody is doubled by guitar.
On all of the harmonicas, individual notes 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.
Airtightness is influenced by several factors: close fit between reed and slot, the presence or absence of windsaver valves, reedplate-to-comb seal, the seal between the reedblock (combined comb and reedplates) and the mouthpiece/slide assembly, and slide clearance
(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. On the higher priced instrument reviewed earlier, overall airtightness seemed to correspond with slide clearance. However, on the mid-priced instruments reviewed here, slide clearance didn’t always correspond with efficient air use.
One of the biggest surprises was how loud and generally responsive the Chrometta 14 was—and this is the lowest priced instrument and the one with the largest slide clearance. The Suzuki SCX-56 felt airtight when playing single notes, but seemed to lose more air than the Chrometta 14 when playing wide tongue-blocked chords and split intervals, as in the third-position demo piece, Solstice. Both the Hering and Bends instruments tended to lose air on the high notes, but delivered good airtightness in the middle and lower registers.
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 14-hole models. A skillful player can minimize this problem, but it helps if the harmonica contributes. While hot notes were quite noticeable on some of the higher-priced harmonicas, they were barely noticeable on the models reviewed here.
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. 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.
None of the instruments reviewed here displayed unusual bendiness, and I didn’t try to press the issue in playing them. However, I felt that any one of them could be adjusted for greater bending ability just by slightly raising the reed profiles.
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 in each series, with an open hand cup except where hand vibrato was desirable (as in the Menuet in G). I did not use any equalization or compression, but did use a slight room ambience patch as the only effect.
If you load the mp3 files into an audio editor that allows you to see the waveforms (such as Audacity) you can see the relative volume of each harmonica’s sound output when the long tones and scales are played and soft, medium, and loud volumes. Even without special software, you can hear when the loud attacks either depress pitch or cause the reeds to choke (The SCX was especially susceptible, which is unusual for Suzuki instruments, and I suspect that this was individual to this one instrument.)
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 Suzuki SCX-56 play the scale, click here: <34-02.mp3>
To hear the Hering Stan Harper 56 play the scale, click here: <34-03.mp3>
To hear the Bends Tonica 56 play the scale, click here: <34-04.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, then the high octave.
To hear long notes on the Hohner Chrometta 14, click here: <34-05.mp3>
To hear long notes on the Suzuki SCX-56, click here: <34-06.mp3>
To hear long notes on the Hering Stan Harper 56, click here: <34-07.mp3>
To hear long notes on the Bends Tonica 56, click here: <34-08.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.
I did not play a continuous chromatic scale. Rather, in each I played the same action sequence, consisting of blow, then blow slide-in, then draw, then draw slide-in. This way every five-hole octave combination could be tested. Note that on the last note, slide-in Draw C, I didn’t play an octave, because the highest draw slide-in note is tuned to D instead of C.
To hear octaves on the Hohner Chrometta 14, click here: <34-09.mp3>
To hear octaves on the Suzuki SCX-56, click here: <34-10.mp3>
To hear octaves on the Hering Stan Harper 56, click here: <34-11.mp3>
To hear octaves on the Bends Tonica 56, click here: <34-12.mp3>
The next series of recordings presents all three instruments playing tunes of differing characters. (All except the classical pieces 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.
Note that despite the relatively large size of the 14-hole chromatic and the relatively small size of my hands, I was able to locate my hand cup close to the right end of the harmonica so that I could operate the slide, which was needed for the notes F# and C#, and still achieve an effective cup.
Each instrument delivers a different character in this piece, giving the player choices for a preferred sound.
To hear the Hohner Chrometta 14 playing Menuet in G, click here: <34-13.mp3>
To hear the Suzuki SCX-56 playing Menuet in G, click here: <34-14.mp3>
To hear the Hering Stan Harper 56 playing Menuet in G, click here: <34-15.mp3>
To hear the Bends Tonica 56 playing Menuet in G, click here: <34-16.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.
On the more airtight instrument, I played more octaves, but on the less airtight instruments, I favored narrower split harmonies to conserve breath and still arrived at a full sound in keeping with the style.
To hear the Hohner Chrometta 14 playing Solstice, click here: <34-17.mp3>
To hear the Suzuki SCX-56 playing Solstice, click here: <34-18.mp3>
To hear the Hering Stan Harper 56 playing Solstice, click here: <34-19.mp3>
To hear the Bends Tonica 56 playing Solstice, click here: <34-20.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 www.winslowyerxa.com/products (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 Hohner Chrometta 14 playing Spanish Changes, click here: <34-21.mp3>
To hear the Suzuki SCX-56 playing Spanish Changes, click here: <34-22.mp3>
To hear the Hering Stan Harper 56 playing Spanish Changes, click here: <34-23.mp3>
To hear the Bends Tonica 56 playing Spanish Changes, click here: <34-24.mp3>
Fast Passages in the High Register
Here I play the uptempo waltz Viseur’s Dream in with rapid tongue-switching and chromatic scales to the upper register. This is a workout, both for accurate slide work and landing on the right hole.
To hear the Hohner Chrometta 14 playing Viseur’s Dream, click here: <34-25.mp3>
To hear the Suzuki SCX-56 playing Viseur’s Dream, click here: <34-26.mp3>
To hear the Hering Stan Harper 56 playing Viseur’s Dream, click here: <34-27.mp3>
To hear the Bends Tonica 56 playing Viseur’s Dream, click here: <34-28.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. Interestingly, all four harmonicas performed better than their higher-priced counterparts, both for the absence of “hot” notes that stuck out tonally in the middle register, and for sounding relatively in tune with the guitar melody that is tuned to A440.
To hear the Hohner Chrometta 14 playing When I Think of Spring, click here: <34-29.mp3>
To hear the Suzuki SCX-56 playing When I Think of Spring, click here: <34-30.mp3>
To hear the Hering Stan Harper 56 playing When I Think of Spring, click here: <34-31mp3>
To hear the Bends Tonica 56 playing When I Think of Spring, click here: <34-32.mp3>
All four instruments performed well in playing tests, but exhibit individual differences.
The Hohner Chrometta 14 is a surprisingly good instrument, especially considering its student-instrument beginnings and its Chinese manufacturer. At its price point, it’s a good value. Paradoxically, it’s the one Hohner instrument to still use the traditional, pre-2005 German designed chromatic reeds. I used to think of these instruments as less than robust, but then they were favored by blues great William Clarke, who didn’t pussyfoot around. If the slide clearance could be adjusted, this could be an amazing instrument.
The Suzuki SCX-56 costs more than the Chrometta, but delivers solid bang for the buck, with Suzuki’s solid, elegant design, excellent manufacturing quality, and smooth, even response. While not as nice as the much pricier Suzuki Sirius, it’s an excellent value, delivering robust performance, full tone, and excellent airtightness.
The Hering Stan Harper 56 sounds great and delivers good overall performance, but it suffers from lack of airtightness in the upper register. Considering its slightly higher price relative to the SCX-56, I’d have to really be in love with its sound and response to prefer it.
The Bends Tonica 56 has a really nice sound, especially when recorded, even though it doesn’t deliver as much volume as the Hohner and Suzuki models. It plays well, is solidly built, and its non-stick slide is a real plus. Its relatively high price is the only real disincentive to the cost-conscious buyer.
One advantage that both Hohner and Suzuki going for them is availability of service (and spare parts) in the United States. If you have a problem, you can send your Hohner or Suzuki chromatic to the manufacturer’s representative for service, whether in or out of warranty. Hering has an on again, off again presence in the United States, while Bends, considering the demise of the manufacturing facility, is unlikely to offer authorized service.