Over the past few weeks, I've been having fun playing the new Suzuki SCT-128. I was particularly interested in this harmonica as I once tried to build my own double reed chromatic. Mine was octave tuned, rather than tremolo tuned and although it was not entirely successful, it did convince me that I would like to have a good double reed chromatic. My prototype used two sets of standard Hohner 270 reedplates mounted on a comb that was double the usual distance front to back. This meant that the chambers were considerably longer than usual - not a great problem in the lower range of the instrument, but not at all good in the upper range. I wished at the time that I were able to manufacture my own special reedplates so I could use a shorter chamber for the high reeds. This is what Suzuki have done.
Of course, there has a tremolo chromatic already available as a custom order instrument, John Infande's Musette. John took two regular chromatics, placed one above the other and made a special mouthpiece that allows the player to sound both instruments at once. A very creative solution, although I am willing to bet that if Mr Infande had owned his own reedplate making machinery, he would have built something like the new Suzuki.
So, is it any good? Yes - it is very good.
Despite the old saying about not being able to judge a book from its cover, as soon as you see the heavy duty leather holster that contains the SCT-128, you can't help but suspect that the contents are going to be special. The holster is very substantial with air holes to allow the harmonica to air out after use whilst still safely protected and has a very solid clip for fastening it to your belt. One word of caution - you probably don't want to wear it like a gun when you are going through airport security!
The harmonica itself has a black ABS comb with tastefully engraved chrome-plated brass covers held in place by three interscrews. Its shape is sort of reminiscent of a grand piano, its front to back measurement being greater at the lower end of the harmonica. As with most Suzuki instruments, the finishing work is superb and the harmonica feels very nice to hold. Considering that it has twice as many reeds as a normal 16-hole chromatic, it also feels surprisingly light in weight - about 15oz (428g).
The mouthpiece/slide assembly is a typical 3-piece design like the modern Hohner 64. The backing plate and slide are made of chromed brass, the mouthpiece is gold plated brass (personally, I would have preferred silver, but that's just my personal taste) and it doubles as the U-channel for the slide as well as clamping the front edges of the reedplates firmly to the comb. The mouthpiece has round holes with very smooth edges and is held in place by a pair of Phillips head screws that are carefully recessed, everything feeling very comfortable to both lips and tongue. The slide button is nicely matte finished to reduce finger slippage and the whole assembly fits together with good tolerances and the slide worked very smoothly right out of the box. The reeds are cross positioned and the slide movement is about 1/4" (6mm). The hole spacing is the same as a Hohner 64 and the instrument measures a little over 7" (180mm) end to end, not including the slide button.
The reedplates are very substantial at about .05" (1.3mm) thick, nickel plated and held in place with no less than 19 screws. There are valves on all but the two highest reeds in each set, with double layer valves being used for the first three octaves and some of the valves deliberately cut a little short. The reeds themselves seem to be Suzuki's favorite phosphor bronze, reed lengths being fairly typical for a 4-octave instrument ranging from about 22mm to 7mm. The reeds are tuned by very neat scratching along the length of the reed and the reed adjustment is very even. Not too surprisingly, the reeds are spot welded and replacement reedplates will be available.
The tuning is quite accurately done, especially considering how tricky it is to set up something like this. The main reeds are tuned to around A=444/445, with the secondary reeds tuned a fraction lower giving a fairly wet sound with the speed of the tremolo effect about 4Hz in the lower range and 14Hz at the top of the instrument.
You might expect it to feel somewhat "windy" to play, given that there are twice the usual number of reeds, but it is surprisingly responsive. It takes considerably less breath to play than a typical tremolo harmonica and is only very slightly less responsive than a typical chromatic. Of course, note bending is out of the question, but you can alter the speed of the tremolo effect by slight changes in embouchure. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the covers are closed at the rear for half the length of the instrument, only opening at the lower end of the harmonica. This allows for some nice tonal shading.
Obviously the sound of the instrument would lend itself perfectly to musical styles typically associated with the accordion - tango, bal musette, zydeco, etc. It would also be a nice addition to the tonal palette of chromatic harmonica players in jazz, blues and folk styles, as well as for players of diatonic tremolo harmonicas who find themselves hunting for missing notes on their instruments. They are currently being sold in Japan for the equivalent of about US$500. The European and US retail prices have yet to be set, but they are expected to be somewhat higher.
It's great to see more innovative harmonicas from Suzuki and I sincerely hope this instrument is successful. If it is, I hope they will consider such things as 12-hole version for those who find the 16-hole instruments a little unwieldy and perhaps even an octave tuned double-reed chromatic.
To give some idea of how it sounds, I've uploaded a lo-fi .mp3 clip (about 250k) to my website:
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