Sunday, July 15, 2012

Pre Blog: Music: I want to buy an accordion, now what?

[Copied from my old Blog]

What to look for in an accordion
A guide to finding the right instrument for you.
Someone recently asked me what to look for when purchasing an accordion and it suddenly dawned on me that i'm somewhat knowledgeable on the topic. Having learned a fair deal of the instrument's intimate secrets (I know all the buttons, speak "Converter Bass", and have successfully crowed surfed while playing an accordion) and played for the last 8+ years here are my thoughts on someone wanting to "pick up" the instrument. Keep in mind that this guide only covers "Accordions" no "Concertinas".
Have you ever seen Cowboy Bebop, Vampire Hunter D, Warhammer 40k, Fallout, or Lord of the Rings? These worlds have a kind of scavenger mentality of "oh, they don't make 'em like they used to", whereby the amazing technology of old has been lost and needs to be sought after, recovered, repaired, and cherished. Well, looking for a good accordion is kind of like that. You can certainly buy a new accordion if you know where to go (I've been through a lot of places in the South-East U.S. searching for a quality accordions), but you'll generally find the models at your local music store sorely lacking and overpriced. It's also important to note that like in Harry Potter, every person has an accordion that's just right for them... It won't be as easily apparent as casting a spell but what I mean is that every person has to make some very personal decisions that decide what they are looking for when choosing an accordion that's right for them.
My accordion of choice, the one I play at shows and use for everything (except studio recordings) is a forty year old Titano "Combo Cordion". It's small, light-weight, has a decent sound, an amazing microphone system, and a unique "quint-reed" switch which automatically plays fifth notes every time I hit a key (only when activated).
Titano Combo Cordions are generally eccentric in color (bright orange, yellow, pink, or green) but I've given mine a fairly nice paint job that matches my band's color scheme. It's everything I want in an accordion with the exception of reed diversity, which is why I don't record with it.
The First decision is Size: A larger accordion generally has more keys (a greater range of notes), different reeds (Aka voices or sounds you can produce) and other features (some have midi, converter bass, a quick-reed switch, etc, [covered later]) but weigh more. I have scoliosis and play hour long shows where I jump around a lot, so I play with a small accordion (20-30lbs as opposed to 35-60lbs).
The Second decision Key Size: Look at a keyboard, piano, or accordion with keys (some have buttons on the "right" side which act like keys). You will notice how thick or "wide" the keys are when you put your finger on top of them. A traditional piano or keyboard uses regular sized keys. A kid's piano or keyboard uses smaller keys because kids have smaller hands. A women's piano or keyboard uses slightly smaller keys than "full sized" ones. All of this translates into an accordion. Smaller keys means you can fit more notes or keys on an accordion. Most small accordions generally have two and a half octaves, larger ones have three+ octaves but it's all relative. I've even seen a sad full-sized accordion with only one octave of notes. More is generally better, but only if you'll use them. Most people don't use the highest or lowest notes on a piano, so just be aware of the range you'd like to be able to cover.
A smaller key size also means that you can play a larger range of notes because the keys are less wide, allowing your hand to stretch over more of them. It's pretty nifty when your hand can cover the range of almost 2 octaves, but it's suddenly less awesome when your fingers are fatter than the keys and you can't play the notes you want to (e.g. children's sized keys).
If you can't tell the difference in what you're looking at ask your sales associate. If they don't know, like the harry potter wand principle this is all about "what feels right" to you.
Sub-Topic to be aware of: Key Click:
I bought an accordion from Sam Ash, a Carlo Robelli [ ] that miraculously produced some of the best (keyboard-side) reed sounds I've ever heard. I picked it up as a joke at first but now record pretty much everything I do with it (for the keyboard side). This is in spite of the fact that I dislike that it's a 72-bass and that it's horribly notched in the wrong places on the bass side (see below), I traded in my live-performance accordion at the time (a full sized 120-bass Scandelli with Midi modifications) in favor of it because the sound is incredible.
Thinking the Carlo Robelli would translate well to our live show "rock environment" because of the size and sound I tried to attach an external microphone but it gave me too much feedback. So I paid for the surgery to get it an internal mic. The accordion itself held up fairly well (though I broke 2 reeds over 4 months which is kind of bad considering I haven't broken any before or since), but the mic kept picking up a slight poping sound every time I played a note. It turns out that the keyboard produces a "squeaking" sound every time the keys are depressed (let go of), which the mic picks up and amplifies. This isn't found as prominently on high-quality accordions but should be something you're aware of. Incidentally the internal mic I picked wasn't the best so the translation from "uber-sexy amazing sound" to "this is what the audience hears" didn't work out too well. So I switched to the Titano I found while browsing 'Accordions and Keyboards' in Clearwater, FL.
It's also worth mentioning that the clicking sound is in many of my recordings (I still use that accordion for recording) and will be for a long time until I can find an accordion capable of producing a better sound that doesn't click as much. I occasionally use it as a "proof" for people who think we're using midi accordion.
The Third decision is the number of Buttons:
My accordions need to have 120 buttons because I intend to play songs with complex bass jumps (aka anything except traditional polka).
In simple terms: If you intend to play songs from your favorite rock band, or video game music, or anything that reads "B Major(or minor), F# Major(or minor)" you should not settle for a 72 bass (or less) unless you want to limit your abilities. Accordions come in all numbers of buttons, regardless of size. I've seen 4, 6, 12, 42, 72, 90, 120, and 160. I highly recommend that you go with 120 unless you're a polka master (who doesn't intent to play anything else). Again, I can't stress enough that if you're going to pay $300+ for a "starter accordion" you might as well get one that you can play well. The button side is all about playing different "chords" (each assigned to a button). The convenience is that you play an entire chord at the push of a button. It seems counter-productive to place the buttons you want too push far apart or you will decrease your chances of being able to play a song. For instance, the Legend of Zelda theme, when played on the 72-bass Carlo Robelli requires you to push the button at the very top of the accordion, then immediately jump to the very bottom.. and back... twice in a row. On a 120-bass you simply move over to the next button above where the top button on a 72 would be.
What's a 160? It's simply a 120 with an extra row or two of "bass notes". If you don't mind the extra weight and like playing a counter-melody on that side it can be worth your while.
Sub-Decision: The Grooves:
Your 72+ bass accordion should have "grooves" or "notches" carved, indented, or protruding from the "Ab" "C" and "E" buttons that make playing a lot easier. If it doesn't, you can always add this with a dremmel, knife, or drill, but it's generally easier if they come with the grooves. If the grooves are on the wrong buttons just be prepared to be somewhat confused if you pick up another accordion. This is another flaw of the Carlo Robelli who has grooves in the "Eb" "C" and "E" buttons. These groove are designed to help your fingers jump from button to button and keep you orientated. You can certainly play without them but they're just a nice thing to have in the same way frets are nice to have on a guitar.
Sub-Decision: Converter Bass:
"Converter Bass" this means that the accordion bass side has a secondary mode of playing that I've personally never found useful where each button is now a specific note within a 3 octave range, as opposed to a chord. I own a very fancy "Converter Bass" Pan Italia and find it somewhat dull and inferior to the Chordal sound I associate with the instrument. Converter Bass seems to lack power in all models I've seen it in and I've never seen a "Converter Bass" in use by any live performing musician or recording beyond obscure accordion solo artists. It might have seemed like a really cool idea when they started making them but if someone is charging you extra for this feature you may want to mention that it's not that important to you and see if there's anything similar without it. I'd also like to add that every extra reed-feature you add to an accordion adds weight to it, which is a huge factor for me.
In short: If it's a good accordion that features a "converter bass" switch, you should get it because it's a good accordion and not for this feature.
Now that we know what your accordion should LOOK and FEEL like, it's time to decide what it needs to SOUND like.
The Fourth decision is Reed Variety:
This one is fairly easy and broken down into two sub-questions:
What do you want your accordion to sound like? How many different sounds do you want it to be capable of producing?
To pick a sound you like simply pick up the accordion and start playing each side respectively (The button side, the keyboard side) until you find something you like. Don't just hit a single key on the keyboard side, try playing a few chords, maybe tinkering around with the high and low notes too. If you're unable to play chords let someone else play on it and listen to them play.
Many accordions also have multiple reeds (voices/sounds they can produce) apparent through switches/buttons/knobs above the keyboard so it's important to test them all out... After all, some poor Italian guy put countless hours of hard labor for your instrument to produce each one. The least you could do is show the guy some respect by trying them all out because one of them might be truly spectacular.
On the button side you should also try playing different chord buttons and root-note (bass) buttons. Same principle as with the keyboard side. Some accordions also feature multiple reeds (voices/sounds) on the bass/button side. Keep in mind that each extra reed/sound adds noticeable weight to the instrument. Even so, all of the accordions I own have at least 4 or 5 different sounds it's capable of producing.
While you're testing the keyboard side, (if it has multiple reeds) make sure the accordion you're getting is capable of producing more than one sound you are fond of so you can switch from maybe something light/delicate to something French sounding (Generally labeled "French/Musette") to maybe something deep (generally the "Master" Reed). Those are the three sounds I generally shoot for because they are the 'quintessential sounds' people associate with the instrument, but again it's all about what you like.
An accordion with just one sound is fine so long as it's a sound you like. Extras are just a perk.
The average small sized accordion has one sound (no switch) for the bass/button side, and a full sized accordion will generally have between one to five.
Once you've found some sounds you like, do yourself a favor and MAKE SURE ALL OF THE KEYS & BUTTONS WORK. I can't stress this enough because you can easily drop an extra $200 or $500 trying to repair something once it's broken. Do yourself a favor and spend the extra few seconds on each reed and make sure it works. Also, the accordion shouldn't produce sound unless you're pushing a button or key... That's a sign that repairs are needed. While you're focusing on the keys you should also make note of any sticky buttons or keys and see if those can be fixed prior to your purchase.
Now that you have the basics, here are some perks you should be aware of:
Color and style: I can't help you here. Get something you like to look at if possible. Otherwise it should at least sound good. Some accordions (Like my Titano) have inverted key colors, which is cool but doesn't affect how it's played at all.
Keyboard Orientation: Some accordions have the keyboard facing at a right angle to the rest of the accordion. While this might seem cool at first first verify that it won't dig into your side before purchase.
Some accordions have a switch on the bottom, top, or right side of the keys that is a quick-switch to the master reed. It's actually a really useful feature, though it isn't found in most accordions.
Conversion Bass: (See above)
Quint-Reed: A somewhat rare feature that automatically plays fifth notes every time you hit a key (only when activated). It can make for a more full sound at times. It's a cool perk if you have a use for it, and its something most people can make good use of.
Dual keys: I'm told that 8 accordions in the world have keys on both sides of the accordion (as opposed to buttons). I've not verified this but had the fortune of being close to one of them. They are very rare and play almost identically to a piano.
Dual Buttons: The buttons on the keyboard side are basically a substitution for the keys. It sounds the same, it's just a different way of playing.
Bonus Stuff:
Internal Microphone System:
My accordion has a really good internal microphone system that it came with (from the 70's(!)). If you want to amplified sound I highly recommend going with an internal system. It's pretty awesome when you can amplify yourself with no feedback on an acoustic instrument because the mic is inside, protected by the instrument's hard casing. I've tinkered with attachable external microphones and they don't work well if you move around a lot on stage, play in a windy environment, or play in a rock environment. They work really well for acoustic sets though.
Also, don't just take someone's word that an accordion is mic'd well, ask them if you can try it out because you might find that it needs some repair, or has a pop, or is an extremely low quality mic that needs to be replaced. It's around $700 for an internal mic so if it's broken you should ask for it to be repaired/replaced before you buy it. For optimal results in your test, turn down the "high" frequency and treat it like a keyboard with whatever amp you're using (Aka, don't use a "guitar amp" if possible).
Midi is also a somewhat common feature in accordions. It's pricey and some of the older stuff (year 1999 and older) has really low quality audio samples stuck and built into it. I don't currently use midi because of the weight factor (I put my accordion on top of my head so every pound is important to me) and because I strive for a real accordion sound being made by a real accordion. However, I have seen (and own) a number of accordions that produce really nice sounding midi. Being able to practice quietly with a headset is nice. It's also cool to be able to replace a bass guitar, rhythm section, and lead instrument (and a drummer if it's a really nice midi set) on your own. Many years ago I was able to perform as Random Encounter with just myself and one other person, sounding like a full band. Some accordion midi sounds also sound better than real accordions and can help you avoid using a microphone, and can be significantly lighter in weight than a regular accordion of the same size. As always, test this feature before purchase for sound quality and bad connections or wiring. Midi is powerful and it's an option you should be aware of.
I hope this has been a somewhat useful read and help you on your path to the sacred and mysterious art of accordion playing.

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