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Information - Voices and Tunings – A Beginner’s Guide.
By Steve Dumpleton

This article attempts to explain briefly what is meant by the terms ‘voice’ and ‘tuning’, how these terms are used in the descriptions of melodeons, and the way in which melodeons are tuned to give different types of sound.

Outline

  • 1. Reeds and Voices
    • Reeds – how the sound is made
    • What do we mean by ‘Voice’?
    • Two voices
    • One voice
    • Three voices
    • Four voices
    • More than four voices
    • Bass notes and chords
  • 2. Tuning and tremolo
    • Beats
    • Amount of tremolo: dry and wet tuning

1. Reeds and voices

Reeds – how the sound is made

The sound-generating device of a melodeon is the reed, which consists in essence of a spring-steel tongue, mounted at one end of a slot cut into an aluminium plate. The melodeon bellows applies air under pressure to the reed, which causes the steel tongue to vibrate in the reed-plate slot. This vibration ‘chops’ the air flow into a series of rapid pulses which we hear as an audible, pitched sound. Low-pitched notes are produced by relatively long reed tongues which vibrate more slowly than the shorter, thinner reed tongues used for the higher-pitched notes. Reed plates are usually made with two adjacent slots and two reed tongues, one on the upper surface of the plate which makes notes on the bellows push, and the other on the underneath surface which sounds on the bellows pull. A thin leather or plastic flap valve, mounted on the opposite side of the reed plate to the steel tongue, prevents air flow through the ‘pull’ reed whilst a ‘push’ reed is being sounded, and vice versa.

What do we mean by ‘Voice’?

When a single key is pressed on the treble (right-hand) end of a melodeon, one or more reeds are sounded to produce the note, for each bellows direction. The number of voices which sound for each note refers to the number of reeds which are sounding at the same time, and this depends on how the instrument is designed and constructed. Thus a two-voice instrument will have two reeds sounding for each single key press on the treble keyboard, a three voice instrument will have three reeds sounding for each key press, and so on.

Two voices

Two-voice instruments are the most common and are used by very many players, beginners and professionals alike, and include, for example, popular instruments such as the Hohner Pokerwork and Erica, the Saltarelle Bouebe, Pastourelle II and Connemara II, the Castagnari Studio, Laura and Dony, the Dino Baffetti Black Pearl II, the Weltmeister 86W, to name but a few.

In a two-voice instrument, the two reeds of each note are generally tuned to be very nearly, but not quite, at the same pitch. Usually one reed is tuned to concert pitch and the other is tuned slightly sharp. This slight difference in pitch causes the shimmer or tremolo effect which is characteristic of the sound of melodeons and accordions. More about tremolo below!

Two-voice instruments are usually in the ‘middle’ of the pitch range of instruments – what you play is what you get – so if you press the key which gives you the note A on the treble stave (440 Hz), you will hear that note A at its correct pitch. The reeds which produce these middle-range notes are thus known as ‘Middle’ or ‘M’ reeds. The reed which is tuned at concert pitch is designated the M reed and the reed tuned slightly sharp the M+ reed. So a two-voice instrument may be designated as having MM+ reeds, although commonly the + symbol is often omitted in routine descriptions; the sharp tuning of one of the reeds is taken as understood. The M reeds are also sometimes known as the ‘clarinet’ reeds, and M+ reeds the ‘violin’ reeds.

One voice

Single-voice instruments such as the Castagnari Lilly, the Loffet Touptit, the Saltarelle Epsilon and the Excelsior Mini all have just one M reed per note. Light and compact, they deliver a bright, clear sound, sometimes likened to a concertina (although the difference in the type of sound is noticeable). By definition, single-voice instruments cannot have any tremolo!

Three voices

In three-voice instruments there are three sets of reeds for each note, typically MM+, plus an extra reed: the ‘Low’ or L reed, tuned an octave lower than the M reed, and therefore also sometimes known as the ‘bassoon’ reed. This adds a deeper, richer sound to each note. Commonly, the third L voice is controlled either by a sliding stop on the top of the treble end of the instrument, a switch or lever behind the keyboard, or a switch on the treble end grille, so that the L voice can be added or removed at will. Three-voice melodeons like this are thus designated LMM; popular examples include the Saltarelle Nuage, Pastourelle III and Connemara III, the Castagnari Tommy, Hascy and Mory, and the Dino Baffetti Black Pearl III. The stops on the Saltarelle models mentioned and the switches on the Castagnari Mory, for example, also allow each voice to be controlled independently, so on these instruments it is possible to select the following combinations of voices: M, MM+, L, LM, and LMM+. These combinations allow for a variety of different sounds, although the extra mechanism involved does increase the weight of the instrument.

Another type of three-voice instrument is tuned M-, M, M+ or MMM for short. In this instance, the M- reed is tuned slightly flatter than concert pitch. This is known as musette tuning, and produces a complex, fat and rich-sounding tremolo, which can be very powerful and penetrating. Popular examples of this type of tuning include the Hohner Corso and Corona III.

Four voices

Most commonly, these are one-row instruments tuned to L, M, M+ H, or LMMH for short. The High ‘H’ (or ‘piccolo’) voice is tuned an octave higher than the M reeds, and gives a bright, cutting edge to the overall sound. Each of the voices is usually controlled by slider stops on the top of the treble end, and gives rise to the designation ‘one-row four-stop’ instruments. With all four voices in use, the sound is very rich and powerful. Well-known models are the Hohner HA-114, the Castagnari Max and the Wesson Clipper. One-row four-stop LMMH instruments are also used for Quebecois and Cajun music.

Four-voice two-row instruments are less common than they once were. They include the Saltarelle Tara (LMMM or rarely LMMH), the Castagnari MontMarte and Weilly and some instruments made by French maker Eric Martin. Older instruments (Paolo Soprani and some others) are still played in parts of Scotland, Ireland and North America. Four-voice three-row instruments with a LMMM set up are also widely used for Scottish music. Notable examples include the Hohner Shand Morino and Gaelic.

More than four voices

Even rarer are six- or eight-voice instruments, which may have such combinations as LLMMMH. With a weight and a sound somewhat reminiscent of the larger Jurassic terrestrial fauna, they are definitely specialist instruments only!

Bass notes and chords

So far we’ve only mentioned the treble end. Inside the left-hand end there are reeds for the bass notes and chords.

When a chord button is pressed, the pallet opens up air flow into (usually) three reeds in order to produce a three-note chord consisting of the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the scale. Some melodeons have a stop which allows the 3rd to be silenced if desired, leaving just a 2-note chord of the 1st and 5th. This ‘bare’, chord is neither major nor minor, but will fit in with either, whichever the music requires. Some players prefer this rather sparse sound and make much use of it, others prefer the full chords with the thirds; it’s a personal choice.

Each bass note button similarly controls airflow into (usually) three reeds tuned an octave apart: a low bass note, a middle bass note and a higher bass note, although the Castagnari Lilly and older versions of the Tommy have only two bass reeds per button, omitting the low bass note. The Hohner Pokerwork and Erica also have only two bass reeds per button, but in these instruments, they are the low and middle bass notes, so they sound still quite rich and full.

Regardless of how many right-hand treble voices the particular instrument is quoted as having, the left-hand arrangement of reeds is just about always as described here.

2. Tuning and tremolo

Beats

As already mentioned, a 2-voice instrument will typically have its two sets of reeds tuned slightly apart from each other, which creates the characteristic, pulsating tremolo sound. These pulses are known as ‘beats’, and are caused by the sound waves from each reed alternately reinforcing and diminishing each other. The number of beats per second is equal to the difference in frequency between the two reeds; for example, for the note A, if one reed is tuned to concert pitch at 440 Hz (Hz = Hertz, the number of vibrations per second) and the other reed is tuned slightly sharp at 444 Hz, the resultant rate of beating will be 444 minus 440 = 4 beats per second.

Amount of tremolo: dry and wet tuning

If the two sets of reeds are tuned exactly the same as each other, there will be no beating and hence no tremolo. This is known as ‘dry’ tuning. All other tuning will give a certain amount of tremolo. A marked tremolo – say 5 beats per second or more is usually described as ‘wet’ tuning, and of course there are all sorts of degrees of wetness in between. Different manufacturers and different nationalities will describe the tremolo in different ways, usually with a certain amount of overlap; but mainly can be summarised thus:

  • Wet: 5 or more beats per second ( >20 cents at A=440)
  • Tremolo: around 4 beats per second (15 cents at A=440)
  • Demi-swing: about 2 to 3 beats per second (8 - 12 cents at A=440)
  • Swing: a light tremolo of 1 to 1½ beats per second (4 - 6 cents at A=440)
  • Light swing: very light tremolo, slower than 1 beat per second ( <4 cents at A=440)
  • Dry: no beats at all

Musette tuning generally refers to three-voice instruments tuned M- M M+ with a wide spread of tremolo (5 beats or more per second).

The amount of tremolo is a very personal thing; some people like the warmth and fatness of sound of a wet-tuned instrument, and believe that it helps the sound carry better in an outdoor situation. Others prefer the much ‘purer’ or even austere sound of swing or dry tuning. As a rough guide, most factory-tuned two-voice Hohners e.g. Pokerwork, Erica, Corona, etc., tend to be wet-tuned at 5 or more beats per second, Castagnaris swing-tuned at around 1 – 2 beats per second, and Saltarelles, Dino Baffettis, etc., somewhere in between, in the demi-swing to tremolo range. The M reeds of one-row four-stop Cajun and Quebecois instruments are often tuned dry (no tremolo) or just a light swing. However, it is sometimes possible to specify the degree of tremolo when ordering an instrument, otherwise a reputable tuner will be able to tune your instrument according to your particular wishes.

Remember that the values quoted above refer to the tremolo for the note A4 = 440 Hz. Rather than having a constant rate of tremolo over the range of the instrument, the lower notes are often tuned with much less tremolo, and the higher notes with more tremolo, the rate gradually increasing as you go up in pitch. Why? To most people, it simply sounds better that way.

However, if you are not sure what you want, listen to as many different instruments as you can, either on recordings, or preferably live; and if you are able, try them out for yourself.


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