Andrew's blog

"Where can I get that engraver?"

I get asked about the blue engraver you see in my YouTube videos. I use it for tuning.

It's from a local store and they no longer sell that model. I bought a few of them when they were clearing them out. They seem to last forever.

From the product description:

Hold the engraver as a pen and apply a minimum amount of pressure. Do not apply excessive force when engraving, as a higher speed will result in better engraving. Free speed: 11,000 to 12,000 RPM.

Here is the new model:

The newer models come with a smaller tip. I like the bigger tip - it's gentler and I can get really close to the side of the reed and not have to worry I am going to cut through the reed. What I do looks a lot more like chamfering once I am done.

Here are the two types of tips you can easily find on Ebay:

With the big gentle tip, I feel I can take off a lot of brass or stainless steel without distorting the reed.

One thing about some engravers is that they can have a little or a lot of run-out.

What is run-out? It's an inaccuracy of rotating mechanical systems, specifically that the tool or shaft does not rotate exactly in line with the main axis.

A lot of run-out will make the tip wobbly and difficult to use. You will distort the reed using such an engraver.

Hold the tip up to the light and watch it spin. If it stays straight, you've got a good one.

If the tip wobbles, I suggest you find a better engraver. Many cheap engravers made in China can have a lot of run-out while some will have almost none. I bought five of them for $2 each and threw four away.

I never got used to using files even though I spent a lot of money on some of the finest files. Early on, I wrecked reeds, bent them out of shape and overshot the mark using files. I found it a lot easier to use the diamond-tip engraver. I suppose there are many ways to get the job done!

Use any method that brings you success!

Tweaking harmonicas: Measure what you change

This is about methodology.

I made yet another harmonica tweaking video.

Here's a video demonstrating some of the things that are straightforward to quantify so that you can make changes that have a measurable benefit.

Some of these things include:

Tuning: It's easy to measure the pitch of a reed and whether it's in tune with another reed. Play all the octaves available and listen for "beating".

Bending: Bend the 3 draw (or any other bend) with as little force as you possibly can. You will find a "blind spot" somewhere in the middle where the workload is handed off from the draw reed to the blow reed as you bend down. How much work is needed to "skip over" this blind spot can be felt, albeit subjectively; it tends to be more work on lower key harps. We learn to "skip over" this blind spot early on when we are learning to bend. A well-playing harp can be played with very little breath force without having to work hard around the "blind spot".

Reed shape efficiency: By playing a single reed using your lips on the plate off the comb, you can get sensory feedback on how easily the note responds, how much flow you need to make the note sound strong, and how loud the note is. A well-shaped reed will make the whole reed plate vibrate when you play it.

Reed shape efficiency (again): By bending the single reed's note down, you can determine if the reed is prone to squealing. That's a great indicator of how efficiently the reed is set up.

Sending harmonica reed plates by mail (the safe way!)

I usually prefer to work on a harmonica along with its comb and cover plates. However, there are times when I only require the reed plates. This can save on shipping costs because reed plates can be sent through regular mail.

You do need to be careful to package them in a way to try to avoid damage or loss. If you just drop reed plates into a plain envelope, I probably will receive an empty envelope with a hole in it.

Here's a safe way to package reed plates for transit by regular mail. Please be advised that although this is a great way to package them, regular mail is a lot less safe than sending them as a parcel with insurance. I cannot assume responsibility for list or damaged goods. It's up to you to make the choice whether the cost savings is worth the risk.

Step 1 - Place the reed plates back-to-back. Make sure the reeds are on the out side of both plates.

Step 2 - Wrap them up in wax paper.

Neatly fold the paper around the reed plates.

Step 3 - Use wide packing tape and stick the reed plates to a piece of cardboard. Make sure the reed plates are under a "bubble" of tape and completely covered.

Step 4 - Repeat the process for any other reed plate sets you are sending. Position the plates so they are parallel and centered on the cardboard.

Step 5 - Cover the first piece of cardboard with about piece of the same size. Make a sandwich.

Step 6 - Tape it up. Wrap the tape around the cardboard in both directions.

Step 7 - Put the cardboard sandwich into a bubble envelope and you are ready to send it!

Research and development of optimized combs

I have an ongoing process of quality improvement and I devote some time and resources for research and development on certain projects. I've enlisted the help of a number of players to do some testing. I need the input of different players to determine if a particular change to a comb design is indeed an improvement that can be measured.

In cases where the improvement is felt across the board, the change becomes part of my standard design.

In some cases, the change is subjective. Some may love it while others may hate it. In that case, I can offer the new feature as an option so that customers can get a truly customized comb, made to order with or without any desired design tweaks.

I recently had some testers compare two combs. Both were identical except for the hole spacing. The Hohner Rocket boasts wider spaced holes and I wanted to provide that experience without making the comb tines too thin.

Wide openings and standard openings

The tines are only thin at the opening and become a normal spaced channel to provide less compressible volume a little further down. This is to improve responsiveness. The hole openings are 40 per cent wider than standard Marine Band comb openings.

Feedback is trickling in and I am considering it carefully.

My next test will involve resonance chambers. I feel the consensus is that thinner combs offer better response because there is a smaller compressible volume between your lips and the reeds. But thicker combs offer a larger resonance chamber and some prefer the tone of a thicker comb. Here is not-too-thick comb with enlarged resonance chamber. The aim of this design is to get the sound of a thick comb with the responsiveness of a thin comb.

Comb with built-in resonance chambers

Comb with standard shaped tines

I will be looking for more testers in the near future. I need to finish getting feedback from the first test as well as tweak the "resonance chamber" design before I call for more testers. Stay tuned!

***Update 2016/05***

I have come to the conclusion that resonance chambers have no real benefit and some drawbacks, namely that they can interefere with the performance of some bends/overbends. The original, classic comb design with straight chambers provides the best, smoothest performance.

Although this doesn't result in any innovation, it does provide some helpful evidence as to what makes a harp play well. I believe this project was time well spent.

Acrylic (Plexiglass) harmonica parts

Acrylic is horrible on the environment to make in terms of the chemicals that are put into the air but it is sustainable once it is produced. It can be recycled or re-purposed. That being said, my community does not recycle acrylic. It goes into landfill.

So when I stumbled upon a small amount of discarded Plexiglass, I decided to give it a new home. After some tinkering, I found a way to produce some pretty nifty combs and French Tuners!

Once the sides are flat-sanded for air tightness and the tips finished to a smooth matte surface, they look like they are made of ice. Canadian-made ice combs for sale!

I am offering these combs at budget prices. They look terrific, offer quick response and sound great, but they don't offer the same juicy timbre as my Dark combs. They are most certainly a huge upgrade from stock combs and will add some punch to your harps.

If you want a comb that gets the job done at an economical price, this is the comb for you.

Limited quantities available. Click here to order. (Sold out!)

Video: Replace Marine Band nails with screws and install new comb

This is a quick and easy way to install a flat comb in to a Marine Band harmonica. The stock comb has dimples to make room for the ends of the rivets which hold the reeds. My combs provide more surface area to make an airtight seal with the reed plates and the rivet ends need to be flattened.

This is a harp in the key of G. The end result is a fantastic harmonica that is loud and responsive. I was happy with the instrument but was not satisfied with the 4 overblow due to the shape of the reeds (out-of-the-box profiles).

I spent a few minutes and did some re-shaping of the blow and draw reeds to make them more efficient. It's much more work than just gapping. But the end-result is a 4 blow that is not tight and plays normally with hard pressure as well as a solid - and bendable - 4 overblow.

Is my vintage Marine Band a lemon? How to spot a bad Marine Band harmonica

Restoring old harmonicas can be rewarding. Some of those old harps have a lot of soul!

Some Vintage Marine Band harmonicas are worth restoring because they have the potential to become responsive instruments with that earthy Marine Band sound.

But some are not.

Hohner went through a difficult time in the late 80s and early 90s and the quality of their harmonicas suffered. No matter how much work you do on such a harp, the result will be a serviceable harp at best. When they were first bought, a lot of them were hardly played because of the poor quality and they were simply put away. Today, these harps are surfacing on online markets as Vintage harmonicas in great "cosmetic" condition! They are cosmetically excellent because they have had barely any use due to their poor quality out-of-the-box.

How can you tell the difference between the good and the bad vintage Marine Bands? Here's a simple way. This method can help you spot a lemon over 90 per cent of the time.

Take a look at the back of the harp. Flip it upside down and look closely under the cover plate. How many nail heads can you see in between the reeds on the draw side (the bottom reed plate)? If you can see three, the harp is from a good period - either before or after the difficult time in the 1980s and 1990s.

If you can only see two nail heads, you have a harp that is most likely not going to be as playable as you would like it to be no matter how much work you do on it.

Sandwich-type harmonica made from recessed reedplates

Harmonicas like the Lee Oskar, the Hohner Special 20 and the Suzuki HarpMaster (Bushman Delta Frost) have a "recessed" plastic comb that surrounds the reed plates. Your lips don't make contact with the front of the reed plate, instead, they are in contact with the plastic comb. To replace the stock comb with a "sandwich-type" comb, you need to round off and smoothen the front of the reed plate so that it's comfortable in your mouth.

Here's how you do it

Start with some fine sandpaper. Sand down the draw reed plate as described in the document "Preparing a reed plate for use with a flat comb." This gets rid of the protruding riven ends and allows the reed plate to sit properly on the comb. It makes the harmonica more airtight and is recommended on all harmonicas, even Suzuki harmonicas which have no rivet ends.

Next, hold the reed plate at an angle and sand the front edge of the reed plate in a circular motion.

Next, do the same to both sides.

Using a piece of 600 grit (or higher) sandpaper and polish the front edge. Be sure to avoid contact with any reeds.

Place the side of the reedplate on your working surface and run the 600 grit sandpaper back and forth over the edge. You are making a nicely rounded edge along the side of the reed plate. Don't be afraid to rub pretty hard. Just be sure to not catch any reeds when you work on the draw reed plate.

Once you are done, the corners should look smooth and comfortable.

This is a very comfortable and airtight harmonica made from Suzuki reed plates with a sandwich-type comb and a set of Special 20 cover plates. You can't buy a harp like this in stores!

Special note regarding Lee Oskar harmonica comb swapping:

The cover plate on a Lee Oskar just barely sits on the edge of the reed plate. When converting a Lee Oskar harmonica to a sandwich-type comb, moving the cover plates back will help improve airtightness. A very easy way to accomplish this is to enlarge the cover plate holes. Simply drill the existing holes with a 1/8 drill bit.

Once assembled, you will be able to position the Lee Oskar cover plates further back.

Unsealed Pearwood Comb

The top comb is not flat, the bottom one is.

One of the time-tested methods of improving the Marine Band harmonica is to flat sand the comb. This makes it much more airtight and removes the waterproof seal (on current Marine Bands only - the old ones don't ever have a seal) and can sometimes cause the comb can swell. It can become distorted and leak air, causing the harp to play poorly. The tines can also start to peek out and that can make the harp very uncomfortable to play.

This can happen in a week, a month or with a little luck can sometimes take years before the comb wears out. But this unpredictability means that the flattened, unsealed Pearwood comb is usually immediately replaced with a third-part aftermarket comb in most custom harmonicas.

So how can you experience the "gold-standard" unsealed, perfectly flat Pearwood comb? If you send me a Marine Band harmonica for Service, I will automatically provide you with a high-performance, flat, waterproof comb. For a very small extra fee, I will provide you with your harmonica's original comb, drilled for screws and flattened to my standards in addition to my replacement (long-lasting, waterproof) comb. You get the best of both worlds!

Compare for yourself. You may fall in love with the authentic tone of unsealed Pearwood. Or you may not notice a difference between the two - equally flat - combs. Either way, you get the choice.

More information on combs

The very early Hohner Marine Band harmonicas used Peachwood as their comb material until about the 1920s . They switched to Pearwood and have continued to use it to this day. Some feel that the wooden comb gives the Marine Band its signature warmth. Others feel that comb material has very little to do with the overall tone and that the way to get that warm tone is to make the harmonica airtight by making the reed plates and comb as flat as possible.

Brendan Power and Vern Smith used the scientific method at the 2010 SPAH convention and enlisted an army of pro players to test various comb materials on a single harp before a live audience. One comb at a time, players played the same lick before the audience; neither the players nor the audience were told what comb material was. Both the audience and players rated the tone and response of each comb sample.

The quick-switching mechanism was a point of conflict as some of the pro felt the test harp was not airtight and therefore the instrument's tone was not representative of real-life... One surprising conclusion was that despite the range of responses from the pro players testing the various comb materials, the audience couldn't tell the difference between comb materials. They could distinguish between players, though.

A similar event was held at SPAH 2013, but admittedly, that event was far from scientific. The audience and players had a lot of fun showcasing the product line of a harmonica comb company. That event successfully engaged the audience and got people talking about combs without as much vitriol as in 2010. But there can be no conclusions drawn from this experience due to the lack of standardisation used in the process.

So the jury is out as to whether the comb material really changes the tone of a harmonica.

To further complicate matters, no out-of-the-box harmonica has a perfectly flat comb. The Marine Band is a paradox because every single one ever made has the potential to be a world-class instrument - the one-of-a-kind favorite harp in your case. But none of them are set up from the factory to fulfil that potential.


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