Ted van Beek is an expert in harmonica testing. He has accepted to submit two reviews of recently released harmonicas : the newly released "Bushman Harp" and the amplified haRmonic Solutions Electric Harmonica. Ted also has a marvelous website focusing on double-reed harmonicas at the following url : http://www.double-reeds.com.
The Harp Depot Bushman is diatonic harp with 10 holes and 20 reeds. It is available in the standard 12 keys. Made in Germany. The street price is $25. The review is based on two new harps.
Initial Impressions :
This harp comes in a pretty paperboard box which when opened reveals a black with gold graphics leather pouch holding the harmonica. This is certainly different! The harmonica is very attractive with a high-gloss black finish and more gold graphics.
The harps (I received an Ab and Eb, and yes, thats what I asked for) played well straight out the box. The gapping was a little to high on the draw plates, and the Ab wasnt very air-tight, but I immediately fell in love with the tone, and the reed response. It may be hard to tell when a harp player is grinning, but my wife noticed! Recessed plates, an exceptionally smooth mouthpiece, and slick covers make whipping this harp past your lips a pleasure.
On The Bench :
The overall dimensions measured at 4.1x1.14x0.77 inches. Its slightly wider than a Special 20, but height and depth are about the same. Weight is also about the same. The design of the stainless steel covers resemble many of the currently popular models (like a Special 20), and are 0.0125 inch thick (pretty light-weight). The paint coat is a bit soft and easily damaged. Perhaps it just needs a bit more curing time. The reed plates are a Yellow Brass, 0.040 inches thick, and are attached to the comb with 3 screws in an uncommon pattern: two in front, one in back. There was some twist to all four plates. An unusual design features are the rounded edges of the reed slots on the off side, and tight tolerance between the reeds and slots (very Hering like). The comb uses variable length reed cambers, and there also was some twist to both combs.
All the reeds on these harps were accurately centered and straight. There were no loose reeds. The reeds are micro-rolled, like the Lee Oskars, but with a finer offset. Quite unusual is that many reeds had no tuning marks, or very slight ones. Reed gaps were a little inconsistent, but after resetting them I discovered that this was probably on purpose. In between the variable reed chamber volumes, reed slot proportions, and reeds; a linear interpolation didnt work as well.
We straightened the plates. The brass alloy used is quite soft. A potential for deforming them is to cinch down on the plate screws to much, or unevenly. The plastic formulation of the comb is soft, and easily allows distortion of the form. For the Conan bunch: its possible to take this harp (assembled) in your fingers, and twist it (torsionally) into interesting shapes it just doesnt do much for the tone.
After the Break-In :
With the plates leveled and some experimentation with plate screw torque settings, the air tightness was perfect. Reed response did not change during the break-in period (I cant imagine how this could get even better on a production harp). The reed tuning was OK, but not outstanding (+/- 5 cents) centered around 441. Reed response was well balanced (after undoing my "fix").
The mouthpiece and cover design provides good tactile feedback and is quite smooth. I lost no mustache hairs playing these harps.
These harps have a wonderful tone. The best way to describe it is "Courvoisier Erte" after a great dinner with a favorite companion. I compared them to 7 "likely suspects", but couldnt find a real equivalent. The closest was a Hering Velvet Voice chromatic at middle C. As a strictly personal opinion, I think this harp may be mis-directed at the Blues crowd (they have lots of choices anyway). I retuned mine to Country Tuning (Ah, thats why the Ab/Eb) after this test was over, and they fit wonderfully. Of my next set I intend some more retuning to see how theyll fit into some other styles. I think theyll do great.
One thing about these harps that did not please me. Their overall volume is a bit puny. Of course the amplified players dont really care about this, but to us "unplugged" folks it matters. I compared their oscilloscope envelopes and spectrum analyzer response to 6 other comparable diatonics, and the Bushman had the lowest volume response (10 dB down from most thats half as loud). The spectrum analyzer shows that the overtones are well down from the norm, explaining both the smooth response as well as the lack of volume.
Final rating (on a five star scale) :
Just a great harp what more can I add.
I thought about giving the Bushman a higher rating. But here is the cop-out: I have never had a chance to try one of the true custom diatonics. I wish to believe these are magical instruments, and if the are, I need to reserve some headroom in my scoring (Do you watch figure skating?). Of all my other diatonics, even my beloved Hering Blues, none deserve a higher rating than the Bushman.
|The haRmonic Solutions Electric
The haRmonic Solutions Electric Harmonica is an arp with 10 holes and 20 reeds. It features a microphone built into the comb, connected to an external power supply/preamp. It is available in 12 keys, Major and Minor keys are in stock. Made in the U.K. The price of the Starter Pack (Includes one arp, power supply/preamp, arp-to-supply cable, and padded case) is $120. Additional arps are $42. The review is based on two new arps (Arp is the term for a 10-hole Richter tuned harp with one reed per cell).
Initial Impressions :
To begin, I should point out that these arps are entirely designed and manufactured by Richard Smiths haRmonic Solutions, they do not "borrow" parts from other models or makes.
The Starter Pack comes in a very nice, well-padded leatherette case. It provides ample room for the belt-clip type combination power supply/preamp and the connection cable to the arp. The arps come in their own matching (but smaller) cases. Unzipping the cases brought a surprise: probably the most colorful harps on the market. These are no shrinking violets as the combs come in 10 different colors: Pale Blue, Pink, Yellow, Lime Green, Orange, Red, Pewter, Dove Grey, Purple, Fudge (customers choice). The enameled covers come in contrasting colors.
Playing the harps required a bit of an adjustment. To accommodate the microphone the combs are made thicker than usual (by about a tenth of an inch). The mouthpiece uses round holes, at the standard arp spacing, but smaller in diameter then holes on a chrom (0.200" compared to 0.280" on my Herings). The mouthpiece also projects farther out then other recessed-comb arps, but not as much as the mouthpieces on chroms. Switching from my normal pucker to TB made getting a proper seal much easier, and within an hour or two the arp felt comfortable. The combination of the silky-smooth covers and comb easily makes this the slickest feeling harp around, even beating the Bushman.
Both harps were nicely set up, uniformly conservative gapping, but a bit more variation in tuning than I like. Air tightness was acceptable except for some excessive leakage at the 9 and 10 holes. Their tone (in the acoustic mode) was very nice, somewhat like the Hering Blues.
On The Bench :
The overall dimensions measured at 4.3x1.3x0.9 inches. The stainless steel covers are 0.020" thick (the enamel accounts for about 0.005 inch) and are very sturdy. Their shape is much like the Lee Oskar, with slightly more volume, a larger rear cutout and additional MB-like rectangular vent holes at the sides. The reed plates are a Yellow Brass, 0.035 inch thick. Each plate is held in place by 3 screws in a LO pattern. The plastic comb uses rectangular reed chambers, decreasing in length with higher pitched notes. At first glance the chambers seem rather narrow, but it must be remembered that the comb is higher than standard thus the chamber volume works out to be within the normal range.
All the reeds on both arps were accurately centered and straight. There were no loose reeds. The reeds are micro-rolled, and have very tight reed-to-slot clearance. The reeds were gapped consistent, but as a personal preference I lowered the draw reed gaps a bit. The tuning on both arps varied +/- 10 cents, and this was corrected. The only modification I made to the harp was to scuff up the top surfaces of the reed chamber walls to provide better and quicker sealing. The walls are quite wide and are as smooth as the mouthpiece. Roughening them up with a piece of 400 grit emery cloth helps.
The electronics consist of a small microphone with an integrated FET mounted in the comb. A 3.5mm connector on the comb (it can be ordered on either the right or left side of the comb) accepts the plug of the arp-to-preamp cable. This cable plugs into the preamp box using a 3-pin XLR connector. It is long enough to be routed underneath a shirt and through the shirt sleeve to the arp. The preamp output is via a ¼ inch jack allowing the use of a standard instrument cable to the amp. The diecast aluminum preamp/power supply box measures 4.3x2.4x1.25 inches, excluding projections of the gain control knob and jacks. The cast belt clip is pretty strong, and replaceable in case it does break. Its comfortable enough to wear so that youll forget its there. A couple of times I put the arp on a table and walked away, winding up dragging the poor thing behind me.
The preamp circuit is rather basic, the FET is the only active component, and the box contains a few more passive components. The Low-Z output measured about 1200 Ohms. I couldnt measure the gain without removing the mic and cutting it open, something I didnt want to do. The output of the system is fairly low, in fact when I first tried it (plugged into the only harp/guitar amp I have, a Crate G10XL) I thought it wasnt working. With both the preamp and amp gain turned all the way up there was some evidence of amplification, but not much. Cupping the arp made a huge difference, enough to drive the amp to clipping. During the break-in period I also noticed that when I was sitting in front of my big-screen monitor the reflections off the glass were sufficient for adequate mic pickup. A white-noise test showed the mic/preamp combination to have some noticeable non-linearity (exceeding 15 dB), although in practical terms the pertinence of this comes down to a personal taste in sound qualities.
The only change I made to the electronics was to add battery reverse-polarity protection. Although one shouldnt be swapping batteries "live", sooner or later its bound to happen.
After the Break-In :
The arps were airtight after re-assembly. They use Just Intonation (30 cents), centered on 441. Reed response was very Hering-like. When new they "feel" stiff, but after the break-in the response is much smoother. Overall volume is louder then average, and the dynamic range is very good.
Much of the break-in period (my standard 25 hours spread over 10 days) was spent experimenting with hand cupping. The system is very sensitive to this, and it took a while to discover the subtleties. I should add I do not use a hand mic very often (it is nice to have around in case I have to threaten the listeners with my singing if they dont behave) and hardly consider myself an expert in its use. I found the haRmonic Solutions system easy to adapt to, and easier to use than a separate mic. Flipping the arp over so that the mic element faces you provides for adequate vocals usage.
Final rating (on a five star scale) :
I couldnt quite decide what to base the ratings on. If I based it on the overall system, I have nothing similar to compare it to, and the performance of the electronics becomes a highly personal subjective evaluation. In the end I decided that the fairest rating should be based on the performance of the arp alone.
Both harps were very nice, but needed some improvement in sealing. The packaging and finish get high marks. Despite some mishaps the covers still look new. The color schemes are interesting and certainly make the arps stand out. Of course this is not everyones cup of tea, but more sedate combinations are available.
It only takes a little work to improve the air tightness to a high standard. The arp has a nice tone and is very responsive. It is also easy to control, and has an excellent "feel". Overall I found it to be an enjoyable instrument.
A highly recommended harp.
I would like to add an expression of admiration for Richard Smith. He has shown us that even in this day and age a single individual can become the driving force behind a new harmonica, beginning with a concept, developing it, and delivering a quality product to the marketplace. Im sure the process is fraught with headaches and hardships, and it didnt take place overnight, but Richards enthusiasm and pride in his products demonstrate the potential for immense self-satisfaction. I would hope other innovators might be inspired by his example.
Additional information, pictures, and test plots are available in the Tech Pages of my website.
More info is also available on the haRmonic Solutions website: http://www.harmsol.co.uk
Currently the products are available directly from haRmonic Solutions, including custom integrations. UK and continental EU readers can purchase these through their Hering distributors. The UK distributor is:
Edge of Sound Ltd.
tel 44 (0)208 822 40710
Hering will be manufacturing the Electric Harmonica under a License Agreement, including a chrom version based on the Velvet Voice. In the USA distribution of these models will be handled by HeringUSA, perhaps as early as the end of this year.