The Heart and Soul of an Accordion

The Heart and Soul of an Accordion - by Joe Petosa

~ a perspective from an accordion manufacturer and reed maker ~

by Joe Petosa Sr. ~ petosa accordions 

Many people have an interest in accordion reeds. Reeds can be referred to as the heart and soul of an accordion; however there are other factors to consider. This article will describe what reeds are, the benefits of improved quality, and the other additional factors that also affect the reedʼs ultimate performance.

What is a Reed?

An accordion reed is made of four components:

  1. The reed plate 
  2. The reed tongue
  3. The rivet
  4. The reed valve 

Reeds are the sound principle of the accordion.  In other words, they are the physical element that creates the sound of the instrument.  The Italian word for reed, “voce” (lit. voice), may refer to the idea behind the invention of the free-reed aerophone musical instruments, like the harmonium, from which the accordion seems to derive: the attempt to emulate the sound of the human voice, which is thought to be the perfect instrument.

The rivet and reed tongue are made of steel, the plate is made of aluminum, and the reed valve is made of leather or, more commonly used today, synthetic leather or mylar plastic. The reed tongue vibrates when air passes through making the pitch of the defined voice (note). Each reed includes a pair of steel tongues, one mounted on opposite sides of the plate to obtain a voice for each direction of the bellows (push and pull). The reed leather acts as a valve allowing air to pass through only one reed at a time. Reed leathers are not necessary on selected higher notes since the reed is small enough to work only in the direction of the airflow.

Reed Fundamentals

Reed material used for the grades defined in this article are made of quality Swedish Blue Steel, known for its characteristic blue tinge after the steel has been treated. Swedish Blue Steel is a specific type of spring steel known for its flexibility and lasting vibration quality. Reed quality is broken into three major categories; Machine, (Voce a mechanica), Hand-Finished, (Voce tipo a mano) and Handmade. (Voce a mano). Within each category there are variable qualities determined by the materials used, but mostly dictated by the skill of the artisanʼs craftsmanship. For example, there are some machine reeds that can be considered better than some hand-finished reeds, and there are even hand-finished reeds that can be considered better quality than certain handmade reeds.

Think of the accordion as a vibrating machine. The more dense the material and solid the surface, the better the vibration. Since the accordion is made of many different components and materials, the challenge is then to create the best acoustic environment surrounding the reeds to enhance their vibrating tone. This article is not intended to offer specifics on every detail of manufacturing, but to outline a broad overview of general principles. These principles can be used as a guideline when purchasing an accordion and to better understand the quality differences between various accordions.

Reed quality is the single item within an accordion that will affect the cost of an instrument the greatest; however it is by no means the only determining factor of value. The manufacturing rule for pairing what quality of reeds fit a given quality accordion is: “The cost of complete finished reed assembly should be minimally equal to roughly thirty percent of the price”. Therefore, today the cost of a standard quality 41 treble note 4/5 set reed accordion using genuine Handmade reeds will be around $9,500 plus. Other attributes such as reed leather material, pre-tuning, and quality of final tuning can increase or decrease this percentage. It doesnʼt make much sense to produce a low quality instrument with high quality reeds or vice-versa, so be careful if the price and expected quality of reeds donʼt match. Knowing the quality of reed is important if you are to understand the reasonable expectations of performance and longevity for each accordion. Later in this article we will explain that, although the reeds are the Heart and Soul of an accordion, great reeds alone do not make a great accordion; just as the best violin strings donʼt make for the best violin.

Handmade reeds (Voce a mano)

Handmade reeds are the only category of reeds that begin with a ribbon (strip) of steel; the width equal to the reeds base. Handmade reeds are larger than the other types, and begin with the reed tongue getting cut to its dimensional size using a cutting blade. Both tongues are cut and shaped as a back-to-back matched pair to ensure uniformity of the note when both pushing and pulling the bellows. Today the pitch of the reed is sanded by a slow speed computerized wet sander in order to maintain the integrity of the original tempered steel. A highly skilled artisan finishes the filing by hand, separates the matched pair and carefully mounts the paired reed tongues by hand to an Avional aluminum plate using a steel rivet. A properly installed rivet is extremely important, ensuring the best vibration of the tongue, helping secure its longevity, and maintaining the reedʼs original pitch after tens of thousands of vibrations. You can visually see the hand pounded rivet with its convex dome shape head, and although each rivet may appear identical, they are not. The plate for a handmade reed also has its reed apertures smoothly filed and polished to remove any burrs left behind by punch marks. This allows for a narrower air-gap of the reed tongue edges. Each tongue is then perfectly fitted, adjusted, and honed by hand to its specific reed plate.

The reed profile is an important characteristic, as its thickness and contour ultimately defines its response. This contour will change from one artisan to another varying the response the artisan wishes to obtain. Therefore, not all handmade reeds are created equal. It is very important to have a very minimal side air-gap between the edge of the tongue and plate to ensure maximum air efficiency and volume. Too large a gap and air is wasted, too small a gap and the tongue makes contact with the plate causing the reed to buzz. The correct gap can measure as small as 5/10,000th of an inch tolerance. Itʼs important the tolerance of the reed tongue is consistent from one to the other. Reed plates for handmade reeds use Avional aluminum also known by the commonly registered name “Duraluminum”. Avional is a high strength aluminum alloy containing 4.75% copper, .05% magnesium and 1.4% silicon. This harder surface allows the reed to better resonate. The high piccolo reeds found within high quality handmade reed sets are mounted on brass plates, sometimes then chrome plated to match. Brass is harder than Avional, and ensures a better response since the reed tongue mass of piccolo reeds is so small. Brass would make a better reed plate for all reeds, but is constrained for an entire set due to its immense weight.

As mentioned earlier, not all handmade reeds are made equal due to differing craftsmanʼs skills. The quality of handmade reeds (unlike their counterparts hand- finished and machined) allow for more air efficiency. Interestingly, prima tipo a mano can be made with the same precise gap as handmade, thus requiring less air (bellows pressure) to start vibrating, and can therefore withstand more air pressure before choking (too much air pressure forces the reed to stop vibrating or “freeze”). The more air efficient the reed, the more bellows expression is available in oneʼs performance. It is not simply the note we listen to, but how the note is articulated, thus creating musical expression. Quality handmade reeds offer the most “expression”, as well as hold their pitch (tuning) longer when compared with machined and hand finished reeds. Handmade reeds also offer the player better control to reflect their total expressive range; pianissimo (minimal air-flow,) or fortissimo (maximum air-flow) - allowing for a greater dynamic range.

Reeds change pitch when played from pianissimo (soft) to fortissimo (loud). The ideal being, the less pitch-change of a reed played between (p) to (ff), the better quality reed. Expressive range becomes a playerʼs personal choice depending on what suits their needs best. A key feature with handmade reeds is that they will improve in response the more they are played, becoming more flexible and vibrating with a wider range. When surrounded by a quality wood structure, the entire accordion sound will also improve over time. Like a new engine, your reeds should be broken in pianissimo at first and then fortissimo after a month or two. It is a good idea also to allow your new instrument to adjust to its surrounding climate and all four seasonʼs. It is common to expect a fine- tuning and reed adjustment after initial 12 month break-in period.

Hand-Finished (Voce tipo a mano)

Finest quality hand-finished reeds are known as prima tipo a mano (finest made like hand) and are identical to handmade except the reed tongue base is slightly narrower and stamped from a sheet of steel rather than cut from a strip and not paired. The rest of production is identical to that of handmade reeds. Prima tipo a mano reeds are finished by the same handmade highly skilled artisan and therein lies the secret of the finest quality of voce tipo a mano. When a tongue is stamped, the tempered steel is weakened. This will slightly narrow the expressive range and volume and can make the reed more vulnerable to breaking. A first quality hand-finished reed (prima tipo a mano) offers most of the benefits of a fine handmade reed but at an affordable price. There are several less expensive hand-finished reeds by which one or several of the above methods are altered in a way to speed up production. Increased production invariably causes quality to be sacrificed as a consequence. Faster production weakens the reeds tempered steel, leading to additional reed fatigue. Even though riveting is done by hand, faster production diminishes consistent quality from one reed to the next. This will reduce the range of expression, create greater pitch variations, lower the reedʼs overall volume and performance, and lessen the reedʼs ability to stay in tune. Unlike string instruments, the accordion is not designed to be frequently tuned. Tuning is very costly and the more a reed is tuned, the sooner the reed goes out of tune. Hand-finished reeds can be mounted on variable alloy plates, some plated then finished by hand, others not. The tongue air-gap can be made equal to a handmade reed (prima tipo a mano) or far from it. Hand-finished reeds are generally designed for the more advanced player. Offering performance nearer to handmade reeds. Hand- finished reeds can reduce the cost compared to handmade reeds by 30 to 60 percent depending on their quality.

Machine Reeds (voce a mechanica)

There are several qualities of machined reeds as well. One process may be better than another, but machined reeds are intentionally produced to be the least expensive. Machined reed tongues can be manufactured using lower quality steel, and the tongue and base are smaller in size than their counterparts. Production is always faster than hand-finished methods. The reeds are machined sanded at much higher speeds and with less concern for the reed profile. The tongue is stamped, riveted by machine on usually a softer aluminum alloy reed plate using iron rivets rather than steel. This system does not hold the reed tongue to the plate as firmly. After thousands of vibrations the reed tongue can loosen from the plate. Generally machine reeds are visually noticeable by their flat head machined rivet. This said, one canʼt always verify a machined reed by this fact alone; rivets can also be machined with a convex dome shaped head. Ultimately all machined rivets can be confirmed however, simply by observing that the rivet head from one reed to the next---regardless of shape---are all uniform. Imperfections of the reed plate are left behind, so the side air-gap of the tongue will be greater. This requires more air to start the reed to vibrate making the reeds use excessive amounts of air. Machined reeds do not hold their tuning as long, and have a more limited expressive range and volume. Manufacturing by machine is to achieve decreased production time, obtain higher production volume, and therefore decrease cost. Although the basic operations of stamping, filing and riveting with their own accuracy can satisfy basic reed requirements, what factory machines canʼt do is notice imperfections that are created in the manufacturing process. When used properly, machine reeds can offer basic routine requirements for a beginner and the occasional player. Machine reeds further reduce cost as compared to handmade reeds by 60 to 90 percent.

Pitch

All instruments use a standard of pitch in order to play in a group, ensemble or orchestra. Accordions, like pianos are usually tuned to the system called “equal temperament”. In this system of tuning, every pitch is derived from its relationship to a chosen fixed pitch, which is usually A440 (A above middle Cʼs frequency of 440Hz – 440 beats per second). The accordion industry does not recognize this common used world standard pitch of A-440. Most accordions are tuned to the higher European standard pitch of A-442 to A-444. Depending on your performance situation, you may wish to confirm the accordions pitch prior to purchase. There are rare occasions when a pitch other than standard A-440 may be required. The reeds pitch is performed by the “pre-tuning process” prior to the reed set being mounted to the reed blocks. Once reeds are pitched, it is undesirable and not cost effective to have them re-pitched.

Tuning

A common term used out of context is an accordion having “hand tuned reeds”. This in an attempt to lure the reader in thinking that this is a good thing! Fact is all accordion reeds are tuned by hand. The fact they are hand tuned has no bearing on quality. What differentiates tuning quality is how much time is spent on each instrument during both pre-tuning and final tuning. The closer the pre-tuner gets to the correct pitch, the less file marks the final tuner requires. This initial effort is always in the best interest of the reedʼs final performance. Final tuning must be done with reed blocks placed inside the accordion, after reed valves are installed and reeds are mounted to the reed blocks. A skilled tuner makes minimal hand file marks on the proper location of each reed tongue. No machine devices should ever be used during final tuning or any future tunings. The less file marks made, the better the result to maintain the original profile of the reed.

One method of tuning the accordion begins with tuning all the notes in a "temperament" octave using the middle (Clarinet) reed set. A beginning pitch is tuned from an external reference, usually an A440 tuning fork, and the tuner successively adjusts each note's tempered intervallic relationships to other notes in the scale. During tuning it is common to assess fifths, fourths, thirds (both major and minor) and sixths (also major and minor), often in an ascending or descending pattern to easily hear whether an even progression of beat rates has been achieved.

There are many factors that will effect tuning of an accordion over its lifetime. The most common are the reed valves: A reed valve (leather or synthetic) which is not flush to the plate will change the air-flow causing the reed to be out of tune and reduce the volume with minimal bellow pressure. The quality of wood and the method in which the reed blocks are mounted within the instruments body is extremely important. If the reed block is allowed to warp and or the box shifts, these problems can cause reeds to go out of tune. A high quality instrument should remain in relative tune even after decades of use. Inspect the reed tongues and reed valves. Reeds should show few file marks and reed valves should be overall flat to the reed plate. If an accordion is severely out of tune, this can be a sign of lack of quality or one or more of the aforementioned scenarios. Long-term exposure to outside contaminates and weather is another cause for reeds to change pitch. The bellows of an accordion work like a vacuum cleaner. When the bellows are opened, air and particles are drawn inside. A percentage of those particles adhere themselves to internal parts, including reed tongues. The addition of such miniscule particles will change a reeds pitch. So remember, itʼs not only the reed tongue itself that can affect a reeds pitch, but several other variables.

Treble reed symbols are shown in the spaces to differentiate octaves. Referred as: L (16ʼ - low set) M (8ʼ - middle set) H (4ʼ - high set). Common reed combinations are LM (two reed set), LMH (three reed set) and (LMMH) four reed set. These combinations are generally referred to as “Concert” or Dry tuned. This tuning is heard when all reeds are tuned to the same pitch or unison. There are variations of tuning by use of the second middle reed tuned sharp.

Other popular combinations are LMM and LMMM to achieve what is referred to as “Musette” or Wet tuned. This tuning is when one or two of the middle reeds are tuned sharp or flat to create a relative measured beat against the other middle reed in pitch. This increment of beats is known as cents. (The cent is a logarithmic unit of measure used for musical intervals. Typically, cents are used to measure extremely small finite intervals, or to compare the sizes of comparable intervals in different tuning systems).

Bass reeds are shown on lines to differentiate the octaves. They are recognized from the bottom to top: Bass, Tenor, Contralto (shown on the line, also known as the straddle reed because half the reeds are the same octave as the Tenor and half Alto), Alto and Soprano.

Reeds arenʼt everything

Anyone would agree that it is not the strings of a Stradivarius that make it a Stradivarius, or the strings of a Steinway that make it a Steinway. Simply moving the Stradivarius strings to another Violin wouldnʼt make it a Stradivarius. Nor then is it the reeds alone that make a fine accordion.

Offering the finest handmade reed does make the best sounding accordion, but only when other critical conditions are met.

As an observation test, hold a single reed plate suspended with two fingers, then pluck the tongue with your fingernail. The reed creates somewhat of a vibration to a pitch but has not much tone or lasting vibration. Now set the plate on a solid surface and pluck the tongue. Alas, the note is clearer in pitch and with a sustained vibration. Just as the harder alloy plate offers better results with the tongue, so then how and what the reed plates are mounted to and their surroundings make for an overall change to their tone. Basically no tonal characteristics are present until the reeds are mounted on a reed block, the block secured to the sculpted accordion shell. This is when and how the sound is allowed to come out of the accordion and offers the beautiful sound we hear. All these factors can change depending on the type of material and craftsmanship in each step of accordion production. Most reed plates are mounted to the reed blocks using a composition of beeswax and resin. The viscosity of this wax carries its own behavior of the timbre. Some accordions use only nails or screws for mounting reed sets, thus drastically altering the timbre.

It is the essence of the crafted surrounding that reflects the sound of the reeds in order to create a unique and desirable tone quality. We all know with the class of wood musical instruments, the different types and qualities of woods will influence the tone. The accordion is no exception; the reeds become a reflection of their surroundings, discretely mounted and tuned for a certain intended sound. When the attention is shifted to production without consideration of sound as a priority, manufacturers have replaced naturally aged wood with low-grade wood and or substitute materials in order to lower costs and increase production. This alters the surroundings and therefore the tone of the reeds, regardless of the reed quality. So, whenever using handmade reeds within a lower quality surrounding the reed may have the attributes of a handmade reed but will be lacking in beauty of sound and tone.

Additional Considerations

The item that has the single greatest impact on a reedʼs response, tuning, and tone, other than the reed itself, is the “reed valve”. Genuine leather itself has always been the most widely used material; it seals the reed aperture best and its soft and supple texture allows for effortless movement with the direction change of airflow created by the bellows. Quality of the leather is a key factor. Leather offers a subtle warm tone to the sound of the reed. Other substitute materials such as synthetic leather, mylar |ˈmˌlär| {a form of polyester resin used to make heat-resistant plastic films and sheets} and felt provide less than optimal tone, response and longevity.

Contrary, in certain scenarios an inexpensive lower quality accordion produced with machine reeds, substitute plastic and metal components has a benefit. Being not so re-fined and with large tolerances there is room for error, therefore major outside contaminants and weather conditions will not affect the original performance compared to the higher quality instrument.

Needless to say, all accordions have a life expectancy due to age. This varies depending on quality, use and environment. We know today, with exception of environment, accordions produced pre WWII have reached their life expectancy. Nineteen Hundred and Fifty began the era of “The Golden Age of the Accordion”. Thus began the quest for developing improved manufacturing and led to re-define quality, longevity and the more contemporary design of today.

The mechanical portion (keyboard, bass system and bellows) of an accordion can generally be repaired to their original condition, which may or may not be worthwhile. The main factor that determines the life expectancy is when the reed wax dries to the point of becoming hard and brittle. The reed plates are no longer secured and or the reed valves have lost their elasticity to function properly. This becomes known as a “reed overhaul”. This repair is extremely labor intense and requires all reed plates, reed valves and wax to be completely removed, reeds cleaned, new reed valves installed, re-waxed and then followed by a complete tuning. In most all circumstances this is not cost effective. Considering the cost is in the thousands and likely the accordion needing other major repairs at this point. If a reed overhaul is considered to a high quality instrument, be conscious of ones expectations. The craftsmanship and/or materials most likely will not be identical to the original. Then the question, 'will it then sound original'?

Helpful Hints

Since all reeds, other than handmade, are stamped from a sheet you will see the blue tinge located at the rivets base edge on either side is gone. Seeing a blue tinge at the reed base edges does not always indicate a handmade reed, but not seeing the blue tinge generally ensures that it is not handmade. There are several other factors to distinguish qualities of handmade, hand-finished, and machined reeds of which there are far too many to describe in the scope of this article, but hopefully you have gained some insights to become more informed about how to choose the best instrument for your needs.

Many wonder with todayʼs technology why a machine canʼt produce a more perfect reed than the human hand. You need only ask any artisan instrument maker who individually hand-crafts one instrument at a time, or why the most expensive automobiles makers in the world, Ferrari, Bugatti, Bentley and others are still produced by the human hand and not robotics. There is yet to be a replacement for the art of “the human heart and soul”.

Finally, a recap of the essentials: When contemplating an accordion you might wish to decide initially on selecting a reed type: Machined, Hand-finished, or Handmade, which best reflects your needs and budget. Decide what reed combinations and style of tuning you prefer, Concert , Musette or other variations. Make sure to physically play the instrument, listening that the overall tone and individual registers are pleasing to your hear. Feel for comfort, balance and air efficiency. You may think a lighter accordion would feel better, but itʼs the balance of weight and air efficiency that will make an accordion feel lighter. A video can offer an overview of features, capability and type of tuning, but lacks the ability to allow the buyer to feel the balance, response, tone and vibration from this living instrument.

A quality instrument may cost a bit more in the short term but will last longer, be worth more and actually save you money in the long term. Think about the accordion; “No other musical instrument is capable of actually able to teach music theory or of producing melody, bass, harmony and rhythm simultaneously. All that in a portable instrument you can take anywhere . . . You really have to love the accordion!

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