Hello and welcome back to the second installment of the series which literally tens of people are waiting to read. This time, because I haven’t had time to write the long, wordy post that I was going to post, we are looking again at the inner workings of the melodeon, this time this rather lovely Sibylla Brand, a three row G/C/F 12 bass belonging to Malcolm Woods (no relation). All photos are taken by him and I’m grateful for him allowing me to use his instrument in this series. If you have an instrument that you would like to see featured here then please do get in touch.
Sibylla Brand is a make of box from the Klingenthal region of Saxony and this example is from the 1930s. In general, Saxony boxes do not have a fantastic reputation and the quality is generally poorer than the equivalent Hohner boxes, however this box is pretty well put together.
The first thing that you notice about this instrument, as with the previous installment (my Super-Preciosa) is the size. This is the smallest 3 row 12 bass 2 voice that I have ever seen and may well be the smallest ever made. Certainly I haven’t seen a smaller one. The above photo shows it next to a rather battered Hohner Pokerwork. The bellows dimensions of this instrument are 23.5cm by 13.5cm. For comparison, the Preciosa has bellows dimensions of 21cm by 12.4cm, so this instrument is only very slightly bigger, yet has 9 buttons more on the treble end.
The second thing you notice is the keyboard, the buttons are curved. This is a very unusual thing to find on melodeons, this is the only example that I have seen. You do occasionally find large piano accordions with curved fingerboards, such as this Hohner L’Organola De Luxe, but it is a rarity. It is not difficult to see the advantages; moving the hand in a radius needs less movement than moving it in a straight line and so for this reason it has the potential to be more ergonomic. Whether this is significant and indeed whether the designers chose it for this reason, rather than as a gimmick, is open to debate; I’m skeptical myself. However, it probably doesn’t do any harm and it looks fantastic. When asked, Malcolm said that he didn’t have any problem finding buttons or crossing rows and that he liked this feature of the design. I’d love to try this feature out, if it is much more comfortable then it would be very interesting.
Inside, things are pretty packed. The three rows are mounted on individual blocks, with the two voices on either side. This design can sometimes give a muted quality to the innermost row, but on such a small box it shouldn’t be that significant. The Shand Morino famously has three rows of buttons into two rows of pallets to avoid this problem. The construction is fairly standard, with solid multi-part reedblocks, albeit unusually without a connecting strap, although it looks like there might have been one once.
The bass end is a little more interesting. The Preciosa (regular hypothetical readers will doubtless recall) has a linked bass mechanism, meaning that there is reed sharing between the bass and chord, giving three voice bass. This instrument, despite it’s size, has three voice bass without reed sharing. The block closest to the buttons has the chord reeds on it, in groups of three, alternating two on one side, one on the other. The next block has the bass (lowest) and tersette (one octave above) reeds, mounted opposite each other. The medium reeds (one octave above the tersette, the same pitch as the tonic of the chord reeds) are laid flat on the final block, something seen sometimes in high end piano accordions. I won’t go into how this affects the sound, because there is a substantial amount of disagreement on that question, but it would appear that laying the reeds flat gives a more direct, punchier sound with a quicker response. The bass end of this instrument is interesting because it is inefficient in terms of space and weight, but it does provide a very nice sound for something which is mechanically very simple (and which will therefore feel crisper).
Aesthetically, this instrument is really quite attractive. The cream celluloid, chunky corners and black buttons with the white tops make this pleasingly distinctive. It is a box full of character.
The most important thing of course in any instrument is the sound that it makes. Below is a video of the owner, Malcolm Woods, playing a set of jigs: Seven Stars and Anne Fraser MacKenzie. The sound is punchy, light and clear, with plenty of power behind the sound. Probably not the subtlest of sounds, unlike the Super-Preciosa, but in a crowded pub that isn’t necessarily an issue! I think it sounds fantastic and I covet it.
A few more pictures may be found here, all again taken by Malcolm. Thanks again to him for letting me use them and show off his instrument and his playing! Hopefully you have found this installment of interest. There will be another along in a few weeks I expect, I have a (very exciting) instrument all lined up. After that I have maybe two more, so if you have one that you think is interesting then please do let me know. My details are on the “Contact” page.