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Quality Difference in Concertina Play


David Lay
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I am wondering if there is agreement on how a good quality Anglo should play and what design features affect this.  I have a high quality modern instrument that to me is very supple, quick to sound, and has good volume.  I also have a hybrid which play similarly.  A friend, however, has a red Chinese product which I have tried and found to play "only reluctantly".  It's as though playing it is meant to build your strength (or wear you down).  Setting aside material quality differences, what makes the Chinese one so difficult?  (Certainly, very soft vinyl could be used in the bellows to make it yield.)  Is it all in the reeds and if so, what makes one reed design require so much more pressure to play than another that the Chinese maker didn't provide?  I understand that cheap materials are "cheap", that the Chinese maker might not quite tune the reeds, and that fasteners might be replaced with hot glue, but do not understand the greater effort required to play one.

Edited by David Lay
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Effort in getting a concertina to play is usually the reeds being of lower quality. Occasionally it is the bellows or both. The particular aspect of the reeds that makes them harder to play is too large a gap between reed and frame, thus makes them inefficient and you have to compensate by pushing hard.  Other contributing factors include the overall size of the instrument (affects llbs per square inch ratio), the size of the chambers and the thickness of the reeds. The play between these factors is important. For example, a concertina with less efficient reeds could compensate if the overall instrument is smaller etc. 

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Where can I read about design approaches to the details of a concertina?  I have found some photo essays of others efforts such as Bob Tedrow's and Henrik Muller's.  Henrik mentions lectures by Geoff Crabb, but I do not know if these are available.  W. Wakker has a couple of pages that help.  It seems the only true way to learn is by apprenticeship or by finding a mentor.  

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  • 2 weeks later...

I want to design and build a complete 56B baritone treble english by the end of 2022.

 

The reed scaling (thickness, width, length of reed tongues), chamber sizes including reed pan taper, the action plate hole sizes and their location over the reeds... details like the slot shape and size underneath the reeds... these are currently mysteries to me.  I think I can work out the action levers, pivot points, spring rates and stiffness and the valve leather thickness / size can be easily tweaked to get right.  I want to keep the feel as uniform as possible.  I would also like the dynamics, responses, tuning, etc. to be as even and predictable as possible across the full compass of the instrument at all volume levels.  I want clarity and quick predictable response for superior musical expression. These are not easily adjustable with out making the reed pans and the reeds over and over.  Are there formulas for these items or was it figured out through mainly time, experience, trial and error, etc.?  I often think about how much the three generations of crafts men and women who collaborated, lived and breathed concertinas their working lives must have known?  Wow!  

 

I was going to sell two instruments that I am not using and simply purchase a vintage BT Aeola but local demand is lie, shipping and taxes etc. are high... and most of all BT prices are much too high and the selection of quality instruments much too dmall (the supply and demand thing) so I am seriously thinking it is best just to build one.  It will be the unexpected next step in my concertina life.  I have the technical craftsman background and musician’s ear and know what a great concertina is do why not?  Tell me if you think I am crazy to do this.

 

I will start by building regular fretted amboyna wood ends and then ebony dot / comma ends for my raised metal ended ultra fast, short stroke, wall paper peeling loud, Wheatstone model 22 48B treble.  This will give me three configurations to compare against each other and to get the cnc router programming and machining working well.  

 

I am then contemplating using the reeds from my 9-1/2” Aeola 72B McCann duet to build the 8” Aeolla 56B baritone treble English as the next step.  I’ll copy everything that is already there as a starting point and to hopefully find out the many things that I don’t know that I don’t know.  It would be nice however if there were studies and design formulas to use to calculate and build the entire instrument including the reeds. Mathematical modeling is a great start.  Trial and error is necessary but time consuming and wastes material.  I’ve seen formulas for calculating pipe organ pipes and read piano and violin string length studies but have seen very little on free reed design.

 

How I wish I could go back a 100 years and be a fly on the wall for a few days at the Wheatstone and Lachenal factories.  Today we have high speed video to see things they couldn’t see and computers to do modeling and simulations and cnc routers to make the same piece predictably over and over and over again but nothing beats 150 years of multi generational experience and collaboration!  Wow!  

 

Free reed chamber sizing and reed tongue scaling info would be especially valuable.

Edited by 4to5to6
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I would start by studying your two Wheatstones very closely. Personally I would prefer to make a fully new instrument based on non-destructive measurements rather than modifying or cannibalising reeds from vintage instruments. Perhaps consider building something a bit less ambitious first, e.g. a 36 button baritone to complement your existing 48b treble rather than replace it. Don't expect your first instrument to be great - it's a complicated instrument and there is a lot that you can only really learn by doing it and making mistakes. I still learn new things with every one I make.

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It’s been a struggle...  I’m really only doing this because I badly need a baritone treble English for some parts I want to record.  I was going to start building concertinas a few years ago but there is so few players in my part of the world that I ended up discouraged.  I do my best to promote the instrument by getting decent good playing affordable instruments into young players hands and trying to chase the sharks away.  I have been analyzing what makes a concertina good and bad for year's now mostly by rescuing instruments and analyzing them.  I recently picked up an 1856 Wheatstone treble originally owned by the Bulteel family (Lord Revelstoke) and it is amazing.  Just as good as any Aeola. Mr. Blagrove also bought one on the same day.  It is a fairly simple instrument even though in the highest price range of the time so the added value must of been because of the reeds.  It completely changed my view on the older instrument and taught me a lot about reed quality.  I am sure most of my other old ones would be put in the bin by most restorers.  I do have an Excellsior with great reeds that I could redo the wood parts on.  It is so warped that I named it Pringle.  I spent maybe 80 hours on it and it does play and sound awesome now but there is no value in it and I could never sell it because of the warpage even though it is currently air tight.  Maybe this one would be a good one to copy as a first try... quick reeds, great dynamics and a clear tone.  Not as responsive or expressive as an Aeola but still a real joy to play with its clarity.  I will eventually make everything including the reeds myself if I can get things together and then experiment with new ideas as well but I would like to start slowly to at least try to get my workshop together again.

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Thanks Geoff.  Very nice instrument!  I’ll try my best to figure out what makes these “golden age” Wheatstones play and sound so good.

 

The first thing I immediately noticed was the air holes in the action plates are a bit different...  There is much more variation in hole sizes compared to my 1919 TT and 1919 McCann and other photos I’ve seen. They must of spent a lot of time better balancing the chamber air pressures and air flows by tweaking the air holes and pad sizes and probably also their locations over the reeds I would guess.  Interesting.  Balancing these pressures resulting in consistent fast reed attacks through out the range of the instrument would definitely increase the ease of musical expression.  I wish I was there to give it a try.

 

I can’t wait to draw it up and model it in SolidWorks. I’ll also do my 72B McCann in hopes that the reed scaling is somewhat the same so I can temporarily rob some reeds from it.  I’ll find out.  I still need an affordable CNC router and some other tooling and especially a good source of quarter sawn rock maple in Western Canada to make this happen but these will come.

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Concertinas with limited range can get by with one pad hole size, but it isn’t ideal.  Large low reeds need larger hole sizes or they will starve their reeds at higher volume.  Small reeds behave better and sound clearer with smaller holes. Concertinas with a large range of notes really need to  have a gradation from low to high, though this can be in 3 or more steps. I set my pad hole sizes by using the smallest hole that didn’t starve the reeds ( causes a  fairly sharp tonal change where higher overtones drop out ) a baritone’s low notes use a lot of air and need large enough pad holes to allow them. To have the reed be the limiting factor on air, not the hole.  You might think the hole has more area than the reed gap, or even the open reed, but the effect is there never the less.  We may need to think of the pad’s air space being the ring of gap around the pad as it lifts.  The effect is similar to a pad not lifting high enough.   
    My set of Wheatstone baritone reed pans have larger reeds than the same pitches in a treble or tenor treble.  The low reeds  overpower reeds not designed to match them.  By all means, start by copying.  A great deal of trial and error has already been done a hundred years ago by very clever people.  
Dana

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  • 3 weeks later...

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Thanks Dana.  Great info.
 
I plan on building a batch of A440 reeds in different lengths, widths and thicknesses with different back bevels, straight slots, tapered slots, etc. just to see how they all compare: sound, respond, their dynamics, etc.  I may even build a small test concertina containing all A440 reeds to help compare them all.  Just a thought.  I understand the theory but still can’t fully visualize the sound generation of reeds (ie. chambers on one side only but both draw and push sound the same) but will build some models to help figure it out.  I can sometimes hear larger reeds ringing on when the air flow stops so these vibrations must contribute to the the tone as well as the reed “chopping” up the air flow at a certain frequency.
 
I understand one of the biggest challenges is the reed back bevel.  Lower reeds having almost none and higher pitched reeds needing a lot to dump the air quicker decrease power while still having good dynamics and fast response.  The challenge of controlling the balance between response and dynamics... getting balanced response with equal power across the entire range.  This will be a fun challenge and a real learning experience.  Can I get all 56 keys to act as one big happy family fitting them all into an 8 inch octagon?  I am sure there will be a lot of design compromises to juggle back and forth.
 
Then there is the chamber sizing, action board holes / pad sizing, hole location over reed, etc.  Then on to getting the lever pivot locations right and balancing spring tension and feel with the action levers.  I have same gram gauges to help with this.  I picked up some different gauges of stainless and spring brass wire to experiment with.  Diameter and number of Spring coil turns will be a challenge.  I like a fairly strong spring tension for control and speed but too much and the concertina feels heavy to play, too light and no button feel or speed.  Dynamics and balance are critical to me.  Balance and feel across the entire range is going to be the challenge.  I’ll try to model each lever on the computer first.  Use the theory then experiment.  what have I missed?  What don’t I know that I don’t know?  Reed vent slot sizes and profiles need to be considered and are not easily observed in existing concertinas as they are covered by the valve and reed. Then the valves, type and thickness of leather and valve pins.  No pops once the reed starts as pressure is increased.  I got some gold plated craft brass for valve pins but may just use piano wire.
 
On and on and on... I have some challenges ahead but will try to use my 1919 McCann duet and 1919 tenor treble as a detailed model first drawing them up and then transfer this info over to the photos of Geoff’s 1927 56 button model 14 BT as a starting point to achieve my goal of having a model 14.  I will model everything on the computer first and build experiments then the final instrument.  Reed scaling will definitely be the biggest challenge but I’ll just keep experimenting until I’m happy.  Hopefully I can learn better how reeds work through these experiments first.  There’s also the break in period of reeds to contend with so results won’t be instant.  I find reeds take maybe a hundred hours of playing before they really come alive.  
 
My 1856 treble once owned by the Bulteel family is such a fun instrument to play.  Completely enjoyable.  Perfect except for those missing low notes I now need.  I can make it sing sweet or get it to growl.  Perfect balance of feel, dynamics and control.  Not super load but still crisp and responsive.  perfect for at home playing.  How did they do this and it’s not even a newer Aeola?  Research showed that Richard Blagrove may of had some influence on this instrument as he had a connection with Emily Bulteel and bought the next serial number on the same day so 7573 may have been made with especial care and attention.  I play it a lot which probably helps as well.  Check it out: http://www.horniman.info/WNCMARC/C1050/PAGES/C6P0140L.HTM Note the 12 guinea price.
 
I haven’t found a decent source for spring steel for the reeds yet or an inexpensive way to sheer it to prevent those tiny micro cracks that will cause reed failure later on?  I did see an inexpensive hand sheer that looks like a big pair of scissors that will do up to half inch mild steel but with a lot of curve in the jaws so I rejected it.  I can’t afford or justify a small fly press but did use them before in an electrical enclosure manufacturing company I worked for so know the advantages.  Any ideas?
 
Lots to think about.  Let's to do.  One bite at a time.
 
i’m talking a lot about my project but a lot of this applies to understanding the characteristics of what makes a good concertina so hopefully I haven’t completely hijacked this thread. 
 
All the little things that make a quality instrument.
Edited by 4to5to6
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Wow!  I am already looking forward to the posts!  Someone has had to have done similar experiments before.  I hoped they had shared what they learned, but it seems not.

(Interesting idea that a reed needs 100 hours to break-in.)

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