Today we go back to Inside and Out and I’ve got one of the giants of the accordion world to take apart for your delectation and delight. For those of you who are new to the blog and don’t know what this series is about, see Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. This week I’ve been given a set of pictures by Ian Cruickshanks (the same Ian Cruickshanks who took the pictures of the Schwyzerörgeli) from one of his other accordions – his 1950s Shand Morino.
For those of you that are unaware, this perhaps deserves some explanation. The Shand Morino is one of the most iconic of all squeezeboxes, being the instrument of choice of Sir Jimmy Shand, hero of Scottish Country Dance Music. Indeed it was Shand who inspired and part designed the instrument, together with Venanzio Morino, chief designer at Hohner at the time. Jimmy Shand had an idea for improving the response of the three row accordion and together with Charles Forbes (his employer at the time) and Morino they designed and built the Hohner Special in 1939. After the war, a design based on this instrument was mass produced by Hohner under the name “Shand Morino”.
As always, let use start from the outside. The Shand Morino went through a number of design perturbations during its twenty five year production run. Ian’s example is from 1954, making it one of the first Shands ever produced (the first four date from 1951). It is a three row accordion tuned to B/C/C# (this layout is known as the “British Chromatic Accordion”) with Stradella Bass. The treble side has four voices (LMMM) with five push button couplers, giving M, MMM, LMMM, LM and L as the reed configuration options (L reeds are pitched an octave below M reeds, with the three M voices tuned slightly flat of pitch, on pitch and slightly sharp of pitch). There are forty-six treble buttons, arranged 15/16/15, giving over four octaves of range, far more than most boxes. The bass end has 117 bass buttons, an unusual number. This is the maximum amount of buttons that could be fit into the smallest space, it means that there are orphaned bass on one end and orphaned chords on the other, giving a rectangular footprint. You can see this in the picture below. The two bass couplers give two voices or the full four voices, making this instrument one of only twenty made that did not have five voice bass.
What a pretty box that is. The instrument is built of celluloid covered plywood, making it surprisingly light (around 10kg), given the considerable size. It has bellows dimensions of 41cm by 21cm, which makes it as wide as my Preciosa is tall!
Let’s look at the treble end in detail. The Shand is a masterpiece of accordion engineering and every aspect of it is meticulously designed. This extends even to the grille. Whilst modern grilles are attached by screws or pins, the Shand has elegant little latches. Click on the photo to see the underside. Basically it is a simple lever which catches a hook when raised. This makes access to the underside of the grille for maintenance quick and easy and is a beautifully simple piece of design. There’ll be a lot of that sort of thing to come!
Inside the grille we can see Shand’s big idea. Most three row instruments, then and now, had three rows of buttons connected to three rows of pallets. This meant that one row of pallets was almost underneath the keyboard, making it muffled and indistinct. Shand’s idea was to instead connect three rows of buttons to two rows of pallets, making the response across the rows as even as possible (very important for semitone systems). I think that the treble pallets of a Shand Morino are a truly beautiful sight.
As you might expect though from this instrument, it isn’t the whole story by a long shot. Eagle eyed viewers will have noticed the quite striking angle of the fingerboard in the grille shot above. It turns out that the fingerboard encloses a large portion of the palletboard. Why? I will tell you. Believe it or not, the picture above doesn’t show all of the pallets on the treble side of this instrument.
Perhaps the picture on the right will give you a clue. Apart from the rather pretty ironwork, you should be able to see the tops of two rows of round pallets underneath the fingerboard (as it happens there are three, but you can’t see the bottom one in this photograph). Now where does this leave Sir Jimmy’s marvellous idea? To explain it I have to first introduce something called a ‘Cassotto chamber’.
The Cassotto chamber, or ‘tone chamber’ is something found mainly on high end piano accordions. Instead of the blocks being mounted on the palletboard as normal, they are instead mounted at ninety degrees to the palletboard, as in the picture to the left (from the Allodi Accordions website). I will talk about the Cassotto in an upcoming instalment of the Box Acoustics Primer, but the basic effect is to attenuate the higher harmonics of the sound generated by the reed. It does this through two different mechanisms. Firstly, in order for the sound to reach the listener, it must impact more surfaces, meaning that more of the sound will be absorbed. Because the surfaces upon which the sound will impact will most likely be made of wood, the absorption will mainly be of the higher frequencies. Secondly, the air inside the chamber itself has a ‘springiness’ and this can act as a treble cut filter, attenuating the high frequencies further.
How does this relate to our Shand Morino? Well although the blocks are mounted as normal, they are mounted below the keyboard. In order for the flow to reach the reeds it must first pass through the chamber comprised of the cavity between the fingerboard and backplate. The effect of this cavity would be similar to that of a true Cassotto chamber, through both of the mechanisms that I mentioned above. This arrangement is often referred to as a ‘pseudo-cassotto chamber’.
When an M reed is placed in a Cassotto chamber it takes on an unusual ‘muted’ quality, due to this attenuation of higher frequencies. This sound is much prized by some musicians, but is not to everyone’s taste. When an L reed is placed in the chamber however it becomes richer, sweeter and fuller, since higher frequencies can sometimes make an L reed sound harsh. So it is no surprise that the reeds placed in the Shand’s pseudo-cassotto chamber are the L reeds for all three rows. Shand’s big idea then is still whole – he succeeds in having uniformity across the rows whilst keeping the size of the accordion down by placing the L reeds in an acoustically-beneficial pseudo-cassotto chamber.
But what about these mystery pallets? They don’t appear to be connected to the other pallets at first glance. The mechanisms on the treble end of this instrument are worth a look, because they are rather different from most instruments. We have already seen the pallets for the M reeds, which are not unusual, but getting to see the L pallets is rather more difficult, as the keyboard casing obscures them.
Connected to the lever arm between each button and the axle is connected a rod, similar to that used for bass mechanisms in the melodeon. This rod passes through a guide and then comes in contact with the lever arm for the equivalent L reed. When it is pressed down, it causes the pallet to open. If you’re having trouble visualising that then click here for one of my Engineering Diagrams. This may seem a rather convoluted way of doing things, compared to, say, the mechanism for the Schweizerorgeli (which does something quite similar) but there is a reason behind it.
Most accordions with more than two voices have some way of selecting different reed combinations. The most common way of achieving this is to block the airway to the reedblocks, usually by some sort of slider. However, this instrument has a rather novel solution, as you might expect. Instead of blocking the airway, it prevents it from opening. For the guide, through which the connecting rods pass, is movable. When it is in one position, the end of the rods are in contact with the L reed levers. When it is in the other, they are not. I have never seen another box use a solution like this. The picture on the left shows the rods in contact with the lever arms. Click on the picture to find out what it looks like with the guide in the other position.
The guide is activated by the register mechanisms, which are broadly similar to those used by a conventional coupler box. The difference is that whereas the mechanism is normally mounted on the grille, where it obscures pallets and leads to a less crisp sound, this mechanism is mounted directly underneath the fingerboard. This also means that the couplers are pushed in to the fingerboard, rather than pushed in to the grille, which is arguably better ergonomically. The register switches themselves are quite straightforward and are exactly the same as most other boxes. Something to note however is that with the L reeds controlled by the guide, there only need be two other register linakages, one for the M0 reed and one for the M+M- reeds. This explains the two rods running across the instrument in the pictures above.
The only other thing to note on the treble end of the instrument is that there is a bellows lock, just like my Preciosa (Part 1) and like the Schweizerorgeli (Part 3). However, rather than a sprung lock, like the former, or a gravity lock, like the latter, this has a much more preferable lever lock. There is a lever underneath the keyboard, the fulcrum of which is inside the palletboard to minimise leaks. This moves a bar which hooks on to the bass reed block in a similar manner to my Preciosa.
On the bass end, things are rather more straightforward. A very pretty Stradella bass machine is paired with an elegantly shaped long air bar, reaching the full length of the case. This opens two massive pallets, one on either side of the box. The electronics that you can see is a LIMEX MIDI system, which allows the player to perform with (usually) a MIDI piano backing.
And so, after over 1750 words, we come to the inside. People tell you that blog posts should only be a maximum of 1000 words. To those people I say “Bah!”. The sort of people likely to read a blog post exclusively about the construction of the Shand Morino are the sort of people likely to not mind about length and detail. Don’t prove me wrong.
Let’s start at the treble end again. As you can see, it is pretty full up with reedblocks, the L reeds being mounted on the two shorter ones at the top of this picture. The bar running across it is the bellows lock (note that the top of one of the L blocks is scalloped to allow it to move). All is fairly conventional, with the exception of the register arrangements.
If you recall, we ended up with two levers, one for the M-M+ reeds and one for the M0 reeds. However, in the above picture we appear to only have one rod. This is because the rod for the M reeds is encapsulated within the rod for the M-M+ reeds. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it, I had to check with Ian that I had got it right, but it is so. This kind of thing is not technologically challenging, but I’ve never seen it in a box before. Another piece of truly beautiful design. Notice that the fulcrums of the levers to turn the voices off and on are inside the palletboard, again to minimise air loss from the system.
The reeds are pinned to leather, rather than waxed, which gives them a supposedly better response. People have told me that Hohner used Italian reeds on their Morino accordions, rather than their own, which would go some way to explaining the purity of their sound. I can’t confirm nor deny this though.
One of the things that a seasoned melodeon spotter will immediately notice on this instrument is the lack of bellows pins. The bellows on most modern instruments are held to the casing by metal pins, which over time wear away the wood until a vigorous squeeze will pop them out (I am told). Doug Briggs uses nylon bushings and brass inserts to combat this, but most makers don’t bother. Some early instruments used hooks on the outside of the instrument (which had their own problems), but other than that, alternative systems are few.
The Shand however has a clamp system which is efficient, long lasting and elegant. Under the grille are two levers, which when twisted, release the metal clamps. You can see the levers in the picture above and to the left and the other ends can be seen in the picture below and to the left. The bellows are then tilted to release the other side (see the picture to the right). The thing to note about this is that the metal will wear away less quickly than wood, meaning that the system will last a long time without losing air.
The last thing that I would like to draw your attention to on this end is the method of securing the reedblocks. The L reeds are secured in the normal way, by a simple swivelling clamp, however it has evidently been decided that compactness is too important to allow this waste of space for the longer blocks. Therefore they are instead pinned to the sides of the case, as you can see in the picture to your left (and in the picture of the reedblocks above). I’m not so sure about the longevity of this, nor the ease of adjustment, but it is another example of how this instrument does not follow the accepted normal practice. Notice that the picture on the left shows the date of the first tuning – the 12th of March 1954.
And so, drudgingly, we come on to the inside of the bass end. But fear not, for there are interesting things here as well. The reedblock for the bass and tersette reeds is worth a look. Firstly because we can see the register slide, which is inside the block, rather than running between the block and the palletboard. This apparently gives a crisper feel, although I’m not altogether sure why. Conceivably it prevents air loss. More interestingly though, you can see that the bass reeds are mounted tips down and that in order to get to them, the air must travel up a channel and then double back on itself, thus entering into the reedblock chamber at the root of the reed as normal. This is in effect, a mini Cassotto chamber inside the block (although the effect on the reeds will most likely be due to increased absorption, rather than the response of the air). I’ve never seen this before either. Again it will result in the reduction in the strength of the higher harmonics of the sound. I will leave the interested student to work out the details of the bass register mechanism, as it is very similar to those on more conventional accordions.
So finally we come to the sound. The Shand Morino has a sound which is never equalled, but ever imitated. It has a superbly rounded, constantly interesting tone, which musettes beautifully. The balance between ends is spot on. The sound is instantly recognisable and perpetually sweet.
To hear what I mean, here is Ian playing this very instrument, showing off the number of sounds available. The tune is “Welcome Home Fisher Lads to Pittenweem”, appropriately enough composed by the great Sir Jimmy Shand himself.
The Shand Morino is unquestionably the most advanced accordion that I have ever seen, and justly deserves its reputation. The sad thing is that as time went on, the construction of the Shand Morino gradually declined in sophistication. The bellows clamps, the push couplers, the 117 bass, the compact size, all gradually vanished. Along with them, vanished the unrivalled sound of the instrument. The earliest examples, such as this one, are still the most prized. The Shand Morino is no longer made, meaning that examples in good condition can fetch over £5000. Looking at this instrument, I can see why.
My thanks go out to Ian once again, for taking apart his instrument for my own ends about ten times, as every time he gave me a picture I wanted another five. His patience is frankly unbelievable and if I ever get up his way I will buy him a pint.
For those who are interested in the instrument, I can recommend “The Shand Morino Story“, written by Roy Magma, and the associated gallery. For those still with questions about the insides of these instruments then see my Shand Morino Gallery on photobucket, where there are many photos not shown here. If anything isn’t clear then please do comment. This post has taken a quite extraordinary amount of time to write, so don’t be surprised if there is another few weeks before the next one!