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Harmonicas with Modular Reedplates

Posted: Thu Sep 20, 2018 7:45 am
by Brendan
This is another topic first discussed in the Any News thread. I've been doing some testing of the idea, and am getting closer to the point where I think it could be practical to offer modular reedplate harps for sale. Not definite yet, but it's looking more possible.

But this is unlike anything I've done before, as all my previous custom harps have used full size reedplates. It's going into uncharted territory, as modular reedplate harmonicas would essentially create a whole new category.

The practical/mechanical sides are quite a challenge: splitting reedplates neatly, fast and at low cost; efficient storage and retrieval of parts; quick, easy and secure attachment of the modular reedplates, maintaining tone and response etc etc - the list goes on.

But assuming they can be mastered, the modular reedplate system raises a lot of questions from a marketing point of view. Hopefully you can help resolve some of these for me, because I'm in a bit of a quandary about it. Here are some of the dilemmas:

At this stage, lipped comb harps are the only ones that work, because the front lip protects your mouth from the cut edges of the sliced reedplates. There are quite a few to choose from, as every manufacturer makes this type.

Should I choose just one model to offer modular reedplates for, or several? Which one or ones? More models would please more people, but add to the complexity of an already complicated operation.

The idea is that an owner of one of the chosen harps should be able to order extra or replacement reeds at will. That means having a big stock of all the 48 reeds on hand so they can be shipped out straight away. That means pre-buying lots of reedplates and slicing them up, or having them pre-cut at source. Either way it's a big investment in an idea that may not find favour in the market.

Some manufacturers will be more amenable to this than others, so that could decide the model. If it's not a model that many have, it would mean buying new harps, which could be a disincentive.

From a logistical point of view the whole enterprise seems quite a daunting prospect, even if the practical side can be sorted. It's one of those projects that makes me wonder whether it would be worth the hassle involved!

Would love to hear your thoughts on how you think it could work best - not just for the player, but also for the maker/supplier.

Re: Harmonicas with Modular Reedplates

Posted: Thu Sep 20, 2018 11:18 am
by Lizzy
One big point could be if its possible se how much demand there is for this kind of harmonica before it goes to far. Would be pitty if there is a very limited demand after all work. About manufactors, Seydel have taken several tunings from you and seems to be the closest manufacter that i can think of even if i cant remember if they have been engaged in something else than your tunings. I was reserved regarding multiple parts in a harmonica but if its possible to decimate/merge 10 parts to 2, 6 to 2 or even 4 to 2 it can help reduce some difficulties.

Re: Harmonicas with Modular Reedplates

Posted: Thu Sep 20, 2018 8:40 pm
by DanPa
I agree with Lizzy about scoping the demand.

Assuming it would be cheaper than buying multiple harmonicas, from a players perspective it is a great idea as it allows beginners (me) and experienced players alike to try different tunings. As a beginner my first harp was a richter C diatonic - pretty standard. Having now done some reading I find there are many tunings and maybe richter is not the most logical or easiest to learn on. I watched Sugar Cain's video on Patrick Byrne's new tuning and was interested he described it as good for beginners. I have bought and am eagerly awaiting delivery of a power chromatic Lucky 13 😁 which will be my first diversion from richter 10 hole.

I guess you could split the market into first time buyers and more experienced (HAS sufferers!)

1. This would be a great product for beginners as it would allow flexibility without having to buy multiple harmonicas. The problem is how to "educate" an uneducated audience (no offense meant to beginners) and overcome the the multitude of vids/articles saying start with a richter C.

2. A great product for the more experienced for same reasons as above plus the ability to replace single damaged reeds easily and cheaply. The barrier here is that more experienced players may already have multiple harmonicas so convincing them to invest in a system to replace all they have may not appeal to all.

I guess a lot boils down to price. Using me as a typical case I looked at Hohner, Suzuki, Lee Oskar/Tombo, Seydel when choosing my first harp. The price range in the UK for what reviewers described as a good/proper instrument was £25-30. If you can be close to that for a single complete harp you are likely to attract newcomers and experienced players. The more expensive I think exponentially smaller the market is.

The final hurdle is getting any, but particularly the established brands to take it on as it could mean less sales for them. Even Seydel who seem the most progressive in terms of customisation and range may balk at a system that means a customer buys one harmonica with multiple reeds at a fraction of the cost of multiple harmonicas.

These are my ramblings and I will admit to having no insider knowledge of the harmonica market. Personally I hope it becomes viable as I would be interested - I have HAS😉

Re: Harmonicas with Modular Reedplates

Posted: Thu Sep 20, 2018 9:30 pm
by Lizzy
I mostly use 2 tunings and is more interested in the ability to play those chromatically so the modular harmonica is not my big interest right now, but like DanPa say, for those who is interested in experiment with many different tunings or even beginners who are unsure what tuning/s that suits them would this be a good idea. Even if beginners stop at one or two tunings in the end the modular harmonica is fully playable and does not require several other harmonicas.

Re: Harmonicas with Modular Reedplates

Posted: Thu Sep 20, 2018 11:16 pm
by CrawfordEs
I would be interested in one that used accordion reeds. If you can make a comb for those, I’ll buy one.
For a regular diatonic with regular reeds, probably not. Solder and a file get the job done for me.
Now, if I could chose to have all the chambers long, and put Seydel or Hohner Low reeds all the way across I would be into that.
If it was possible to also fit it in a switch harp the possibilities for fun are increased.
Tune one comb in fifths like the Easttop mini Bass, or as a purely chordal instrument and the other in your favorite melody tuning.
Play chords or bass lines,then switch to melody with a button push.

Re: Harmonicas with Modular Reedplates

Posted: Fri Sep 21, 2018 2:18 am
by Brendan
Thanks for your thoughts on this.

Though I've always loved the idea, and it's a fun challenge to turn it into a practical reality, the more I think of it, the less I can see much initial demand for general playing. Your comments tend to confirm that.

Certainly it would be handy for trying out different tunings if you had one harp, in C say, plus a bunch of extra reeds you could insert to test different layouts. Also good for reed repair, saving the cost of buying a new harp (or reedplates) for the majority of players who don't replace reeds. But that means they have to own at least one if these harps in the first place, which is a cist on top of all the normal harps they already have.

Certainly, as DanPa days, keeping the cost down would be important, but that would be tricky given there is quite a lot of extra work and time involved in slicing the reedplates, plus extra parts to attach them securely. If the initial model was eg. the Hohner Special 20, a modular reedplate version would necessarily be more expensive than a stock S20.

The impetus for looking into this idea came from doing new work on developing my TwinDiatonic UniBender - the all-bending harp with a frontal valve system. This requires the reeds of the twi harps behind to be retuned into quite odd pitches to get the big bends.

The only options have been to retune existing reedplates or order specially tuned harps from Seydel via their Configurator. The modular reedplate system would offer players a third way to make these crazy-tuned harps easily in other brands.

It's a niche market for sure, but one that might grow over time, and having the capability could open up other areas. As CrawfordE notes, a modular reedplate system would allow the creation of quite different forms of diatonic harmonicas using custom combs - such as chord harps with all long, low reeds.

I'll keep tweaking it with those specialist uses in mind, rather than trying to interest the mainstream player. That will give a clearer focus on the purpose of the work. Thanks for your helpful advice.

Re: Harmonicas with Modular Reedplates

Posted: Fri Sep 21, 2018 5:52 pm
by Alan
One interesting question for later is how do you sell this? Completely by the piece? Comb, cover plates, and then whatever reeds you want, or as a experimental kit with say three octaves of chromatic notes. Depending on what kind of tuning you're interested in trying, you might need duplicate notes so having those available would be important too. I'd buy a kit and full set and use it to experiment, then if I really found a tuning I liked, make a custom in that tuning.

Re: Harmonicas with Modular Reedplates

Posted: Sat Sep 22, 2018 2:23 am
by Brendan
Indeed Alan, that's exactly the stuff I'm mulling over. A modular reedplate system opens up a lot of possibilities, but also many questions!

One way to keep the cost down for buyers is to sell sets of reeds and ancillary parts that can be attached easily to existing harmonicas. Taking the Special 20 as an example, a lot of players have at least one or two of these in their harp bag, and possibly one with a flat reed. For the majority who don't have the skills to replace reeds, that will mean it's out of commission.

Swapping the existing reedplates with the modular system will get the harp playing again, and give the owner the ability to keep it playing indefinitely by exchanging reeds that fail with new modular reedplates. So the system can be seen as an economical option compared to stock reedplates in the long run.

Four options seem to be emerging from this discussion, in terms of commercial offerings:

1. Fully assembled modular reedplate harps. These could be in any tuning you like for no extra cost, which is a nice sales point.

2. Sets of reeds and attachment parts, to fit to existing combs/covers. Again in any tuning desired.

3. Individual reeds that can be bought one by one.

4. Specialist harmonicas that can only be made with modular reedplates, possibly on custom combs. For example, a chord harmonica with long chambers throughout, for low pitched reeds.

The first three could be for just one harmonica model, or several.

It's important that the modular reedplate attachment system is very simple, so that even the most technically challenged harp player can manage it. I think I have that side pretty much sorted, but the question of getting harmonica reedplates cut in industrial quantities remains. Then there are efficient storage and retrieval solutions that need to he found, so when an order comes in the exact reedplates needed can be located quickly, without any possibility of mistakes.

Doing something completely new like this is certainly an interesting and complex challenge, in every way! For that reason alone it would be a satisfying project to pull off. I think it could also open up new possibilities that would only become apparent after the system becomes available, and many brains start to dream up what they could do with it.

Re: Harmonicas with Modular Reedplates

Posted: Sat Sep 22, 2018 9:45 am
by Lizzy
And also simplify or compensate for Helmholtz with higher pitched reeds/key if it could be adapted to Unibender or Switch-harp? :roll:

Re: Harmonicas with Modular Reedplates

Posted: Mon Nov 05, 2018 11:19 am
by EdvinW
I would buy this in an instant, no matter the format, and I would happily pay good money for it too! I like to experiment with ideas for tunings, but due to the large effort of actually changing the pitch of a reed most of the time i spend is with pen and paper; only one idea in a hundred ever reaches my mouth, if not even fewer. A few hundred euros to be able to try out any tuning ever invented seems a bargain to me!

I realise I'm not a typical customer, and if only people like me would buy this idea it would be risky at best, maybe even madness, to put it into production. I think it has a much wider audience though!

I think the way to market this is as a way of getting alternate tunings without any hassle. Say that you're rehearsing a song in Bb, for a gig say, and you realise this particular song would come out much easier and nicer with country tuning, or solo tuning, or harmonic minor tuning with a raised middle sixth. You're not likely to have a harp like this just happening to sit in some drawer, so you simply get out your box of Modular PowerBits, tinker for 10-15 minuets, maybe less, and your done! It might not be your best harp, with all the careful calibrations for every overblow and that just intonation that you normally favour, but it has all the notes and all the chords you need.

It might make sense for a serious player to buy a full twelve-harp set in one or two tunings but, unless you have some very special reason, an EasyThird in E, a PowerBlow in F or a Spanish tuned harp in Db is not likely to be part of your set.

A serious harp player who is not totally focused on a single genre should see the sense in owning at least one modular instrument. Just imagine going to a gig, knowing that in your bag sits precisely the harp that you need for every song!