2002 P.Missin - Details

Why do I get those squealing/ringing noises when I bend/overblow notes on my Lee Oskar/Huang/Suzuki harmonica and how do I get rid of them?

There are many different unwanted sounds that harmonica reeds can produce. One of the commonest sounds like this. This is the sound of a reed that is not correctly centred in it slot and the reed itself is catching on the side of the slot. Not surprisingly, this is cured by centering the reed properly. Remove the reedplate that contains the offending reed and hold it up to the light. If you gently push the reed towards the plate, you may be able to see where the reed is catching. You can align the reed by using the small reed wrench that comes with the Lee Oskar repair kit (although be warned - this is too large to fit the heel of a Hohner reed), or you can lever it sideways by inserting a thin feeler gauge along the side of the reed that is catching. With a little bit of trial and error, you should be able to get the reed set so that there is a nice small margin of daylight visible along both sides of the reed when you hold it up to the light. Sometimes similar sounds can occur as a result of a small burr of metal on the edge of the reed, or a tiny bit of debris caught in the slot. Gently plucking the reed should be enough to cure the latter and the former can be removed with some careful scraping with a scalpel or sharp craft knife. One tip - if you get a this sort of noise when bending a draw note, but not when playing the unbent draw note, check the blow reed. Likewise, if a blow reed only misbehaves when you bend the note, check the draw reed.

If there is a rattling noise when you play the lowest draw notes of a harp like this, this is caused by the reed actually hitting the lower cover. There are various cures for this. The most obvious is not to draw to hard or too sharply! You may also be able to reshape the cover to give a little more clearance. In fact, Lee Oskars in the lowest keys have recently been given an extra lower cover to give the reeds more room to swing freely. On low C instruments such as the Hohner 364 and 365, the lowest draw reeds swing so far that a slight reshape of the cover is not going to help too much. One way to reduce the travel of the draw reed is to place a valve over the outside of the corresponding blow reed. (Read more about making and fitting valves here.) Adding a valve does prevent you from being able to play the typical blues-style bends (dual-reed interactive bends), but as these tend to be impractical on the lowest notes of a Low C harp, that's not too much to lose. In fact, adding the valve enables you to get a single-reed bend (like on a chromatic harp) that may actually be more useful on the extremely low harps. You will probably need to raise the tuning a little on the draw reed, as well as widening its gap, to prevent it from stalling under sharp attack. The good news is, fitting the valve, retuning and adjusting the draw reed do not require you to remove the reedplates from the comb, so it's a nice easy modification to try for yourself to see if you like the results.

Speaking of valves, if you are playing either a chromatic or a valved diatonic (such as the Suzuki ProMaster 350V), you may encounter buzzing noises like this. This is caused by the valve and is cured either by adjusting or replacing the valve. See here for more info.

Finally, there is a reed noise which commonly affects the Lee Oskar, Huang and Suzuki harps, although Hohners are not totally immune to it either. Often when you play a bent note or an overblow, you will get a high pitched shrieking along with the normal note, sounding like this. Sometimes, particularly when attempting to produce an overblow, you will get that high pitched noise by itself. There are various remedies, but first of all, let's examine what is happening.

When you play a note normally, you may be surprised to learn that what you are hearing is not the sound of the reed itself, but the sound of a column of air set into motion by the action of the reed swinging back and forth in its slot, the sound of the reed itself being drowned out by the sheer volume of the air column. However, under certain circumstances, the reed can be set into motion (sometimes even when it not actually sounding normally) and starts to twist diagonally, causing a higher harmonic of the reed itself to be sounded. These "notes" can also be produced by bowing the reed in the manner of a musical saw, but unfortunately for us, they are rarely harmonically related to the pitch we are trying to play, so the results can be very unpleasant to hear.

The first place for improvement is in the player. Better technique will result in less wild screeching from the harp. You can also try to help this along by gapping the reeds optimally for your playing style - by and large, reeds with lower gaps are less prone to this diagonal torsion. There are also some modifications you can do to the reeds themselves. One treatment I stumbled across totally by accident, involves adding something in the corners of the reeds to damp these unwanted vibrations. I originally used nail varnish (AKA nail polish), but around the same time, Bobbie Giordano was working with a similar treatment using beeswax, although my personal preference would be the orthodontic wax you are able to get from most pharmacies. If you are getting this noise when you are drawing a note, then the offending reed is the draw reed; likewise, if it is happening during a blow bend or an overblow, then it is the blow reed that is to blame. All you need to do is to place a tiny blob of either nail polish or wax right in the corner where the upper surface of the reed widens to form the heel of the reed, as in picture:

This shows the 4th, 5th and 6th blow reeds. The 4th reed has been treated with nail polish; the 5th reed has also been treated with nail polish, but the overspill has been cleaned up; the 6th reed has been treated with wax, although that does not show up quite as well in the picture.

An alternative treatment was developed by Prof James Antaki, alias Turbodog. He found that placing a small piece of adhesive tape on the surface of the reed was enough to damp these unwanted vibrations. Not surprisingly, the inventor of the TurboLid, the TurboLiner and the TurboHarp refers to this as TurboTape! Pretty much any tape will do - Micropore, Scotch Tape, etc. can all be cut into the right size, but I prefer 1/16" masking vinyl masking tape as it does not need to be cut to the correct width, merely cut to length. You should be able to find this product at your local hobby store, but as I said, almost any sort of adhesive tape will do the job. I prefer to place it on the underside of the reed (ie, the bit that is visible through the slot), but it seems to work well enough on both sides. The placement of the tape isn't too critical either, but if you place it somewhere near the middle of the reed, it will affect the tuning to a lesser extent. This picture shows TurboTape (somewhat larger pieces than I would normally use) applied to the upper draw reeds of a reedplate:

All of the above methods have advantages and disadvantages. Nail varnish (polish) tends to make the reed slightly sharp - in fact I've noticed that treated reeds tend to become increasingly sharp as the nail varnish ages. Often a reed will be much sharper when cold, then start to return to its correct pitch as you play it. Apply too large a blob to it and the reed response can be ruined. Wax treatment tends to have less effect on the pitch, but leave your harp in a car on a hot day and the wax can melt and run along the edges of the reed, sealing it into the reedplate. Also wax seems to be a shorter-lived cure than nail varnish, although both treatments will require reapplying from time to time. TurboTape alters the tuning slightly on application, but after retuning it should stay constant. However, if you use Micropore tape, it can absorb moisture from your breath, causing the notes to flatten as you play. Also, adhesive tapes can often "bleed" over time, allowing sticky stuff to lurk on the surface of your reeds ready to trap all manner of unwanted debris. However, being forewarned about these problems can help you to avoid them.

In addition to the above, there are also some more dramatic modifications to the reeds that are a bit beyond the scope of this article, but hopefully the above remedies will get rid of most of those annoying noises that plague reeds from time to time.


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