Inside and Out Part 1 – The Super-Preciosa

This is the first in a series of posts on the workings of the melodeon.

I am very interested in the melodeon and would like to share some of the thoughts that I have on the design. I think that the best way for me to do this is to investigate the detail of how specific instruments are put together. The first of these is my own Super-Preciosa. I have 3 or 4 instruments after this one lined up, but if you have a box which you think is interesting then please do get in touch and I will write about it! Especially if you have a Lõõtspill…

The Hohner Preciosa was produced between 1935 and 1943 as a backpacker’s instrument. It features some really innovative features not found on many melodeons. The first of these, and the most obvious, is the size. It is tiny – the bellows dimensions (cross section) are 21cm by 12.4cm, which is small. It is also very complete, with two voices and two and a half rows. Most boxes that size will only have one voice. The picture on the right of me beating up a crowd with it illustrates this pretty well. I am 6’1″.  As I said, it is small.

The second most obvious innovative thing about it is the reeds. Most melodeons have reeds mounted in blocks, meaning that the reed is aligned parallel to the direction of the bellows. The Preciosa however has reeds mounted flat, aligned parallel to the soundboard (otherwise known as the fondo or action board). There is a debate raging on melnet at the moment about the exact effect that this causes, but it is acknowledged that the sound of flat mounted reeds is different to standard block mounted reeds – a cleaner, more direct sound with better attack and more power. The problem with flat mounted reeds is that they take up a lot of room and so generally you wouldn’t get more than one voice when the reeds are mounted in this way. Hohner solve this by having a double decker reed pan, something which to my knowledge nobody else has ever done. They get away with it because the reeds are smaller than usual, as they have a thinner cross section. The reedplates are therefore also smaller, and so are the chambers. If you try this mounting with standard reeds then you have response problems due to the cassotto effect. This is not a problem if that’s what you’re looking for, but it does mean that they won’t musette with the lower pan. The below picture illustrates the two pans well. Note that the upper pan is screwed in rather than clamped for a better seal. In the centre of the pan, under the wax is a third screw to stop pan resonance, which can cause serious problems.

Those of you paying attention will have noticed a mysterious rod going across the treble end.  This is an internal bellows lock, another thing that you don’t get very often on conventional boxes. There is a button on the bottom, which moves the rod up. A spring provides the restoring force to bring the rod back down. On the bass end is a hook attached to the reedblocks, to which the rod hooks on. It is a simple and effective solution.

One other thing that I would draw your attention to is the picture below, which I think sums up just how effectively this instrument uses the space. As you can see, there are parts cut away from the bellows frames to allow the end reeds to vibrate unencumbered. Again, I know of no other box which has to resort to this!

The treble end can be so tiny because the button spacing is a lot closer than on normal boxes. I haven’t yet found this a problem, even with large hands. In fact it means that unrealistically huge stretches are now second nature.

Going to the bass end, the reeds are mounted more conventionally, in blocks. The mechanism however is worth a look. It is linked bass, which means that there is some reed sharing between bass and treble. The bass block contains a low reed and a medium reed, both tuned to the same note but an octave apart. When the bass button is pressed, air also passes through the tonic reed in the chord block, i.e. an octave above the medium reed on the bass block. This means that there is 3 voice bass, which gives a lovely punchy sound. The other thing to note is the double air button, which works very well and means that collapsing the bellows is a piece of cake.

My instrument, the eagle eyed hypothetical reader will have noticed, is a bit unusual, in that it is mismatched, one end is grey, one end is red. This is because the Preciosa bass end above is not the one that I generally use. I have another bass end, which came from a Regina piano accordion (made by Hohner in 1937 and 1940), which has pretty much identical bellows dimensions but 12 bass rather than 8. It doesn’t have linked bass or a double air button and is rather more flimsy than the Preciosa bass, but it is worth it for the extra buttons. You can see the blocks (with the hook for the bellows lock) in the photo below.

As you can hopefully see, this is physically a very innovative instrument in many ways. What I haven’t mentioned are the shortcomings. The treble mechanism is basic at best, if you take the fingerboard off then all the buttons fall over and you get to spend an entertaining 20 minutes with a screwdriver and a bent paperclip trying to get them all back in the holes, accompanied by a whole selection of swearwords you’d forgotten that you  ever knew. In addition, the bellows lock has a flaw – the default state is down, meaning that if you press the bellows shut without pressing the button then you’ll bend the rod. This could have been dealt with by utilising the same mechanism that is in a clicky pen. Finally the air button on the Regina is slightly too small. These are fairly irrelevant though compared to the rest of the instrument.

The layout of this instrument is highly individual and took many, many pages of scribbling to sort out. The general principle that I started with is that I wanted fully chromatic bass. I have proved to my own satisfaction that it is impossible to have a system that works perfectly playing in sharps and flats with only 12 bass and 4 notes on the half row, but I am satisfied that this layout is as good as it gets for my style of playing.

The bass end is raked and raked in the opposite direction to that which is most comfortable. So I decided to have my layout being raked the other way, which meant that I had one extra button on the knee end and three on the chin end. I made the push C bass an F natural and the pull D bass an F# and put the corresponding chords on the spare button at that end. This was because having the push C chord and the pull D chord is very useful, especially when using C/D or when droning on IV when in G. On the other end I had G# and C# on the pull and D# on the push (so as to match with their adjacent chords, a bit like the counterbass with stradella) with Bb on the push using up the last remaining button (since I already had an F# bass). The spare chords I had as Bb/C#, since they were the most useful out of the ones that I didn’t yet have. All chords are thirdless, mostly tuned VIV.

On the treble end I made the decision early on to go with the dutch reversal on every octave, meaning that the G row is now an E minor row as there are no push Ds, only push Es. This works amazingly well and it has taken me almost no time to get used to it. I actually think that it is better to play a D/G first, as it means that I can play up and down and across depending on mood. I have fourth button start on both rows, the lowest button on the E minor row being a G/C, giving me a full diatonic octave “in G”. The lowest button on the D row is a Bb/Eb.

On the half row my first priority was to have G# on both octaves on the pull (to match up with the E bass). Since I had F on the push on the bass end due to the club system, I had two Fs on the push on the half row, on the same buttons as the G#s. For the two in the middle I had a unisonoric Bb  and a C/Eb. I spend some time pondering that, but I wanted to play in G minor so I needed Bb on the push and C on the push is very useful. So as a compromise I put my push Eb as a stab accidental at the top of the E minor row (as I rarely use the squeakiest notes and I had given myself more range at the bottom anyway), which also gave me a high Bb.

The layout is below. I am the only one to whom this layout makes sense, but hopefully some of you may find it of interest. Apologies for the poor quality.

The last thing to talk about then is the sound, which is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. It seems to combine the best out of the melodeon, concertina and harmonica, I love it. It is a supremely satisfying instrument to play and I play it a lot. It’s probably best illustrated by the below video, which was taken at Tudor Folk Club last month. The tune is Saturday Night followed by Bonny Green Bucknell. If you scan my YouTube channel you’ll find other videos of this instrument.

If you want to see more pictures of the insides of this instrument then my full album of 58 photos is here. In addition, Edmund Stevens has taken some pictures of his instrument, which includes pictures of a reedpan stripped of reeds, which should be of interest to some. His pictures are here. He has also created some plans of the instrument, which can be found here. Finally, none of this would be possible without Mike Rowbotham, who put up with me changing my mind all over the place and sending him crazy emails at 3am every week for 6 months. It took over 100 emails between us to sort this instrument out, but it was worth it.

This is the first in a series of posts on the inside of various instruments. Although I have a few lined up for the next few months, if you do have a squeezebox of some kind that you think is interesting and out of the ordinary then please do get in touch.