by Winslow Yerxa
In this issue we'll look at windsaver valves, those little plastic flaps that are both a godsend and a pain to chromatic players (though you can also find valves in some diatonics).
Next issue, I'll also look at how windsaver valves and note bending interact, and how you can customize both chromatics and diatonics with valves to changes their bending capabilities.
What They Are and Why They Exist
Windsaver valves (I'll just call them valves) are little flaps of springy, pliable material that are mounted on the reedplates of chromatic harmonicas, on the other side of the plate from the reed itself. You can see them if you peer under the covers of your chromatic (or unscrew and remove the top and bottom covers). They'll be the white things (or maybe white and tan) that look like reeds. You may see a white valve, then beside it a brass reed, then a valve, then a reed, etc. You can see them clearly in Figure 1 below, a photo of a chromatic with the covers removed.
You'll also find valves on chord harmonicas; octave harmonicas such as the Hohner Auto Valve and the Seydel Concerto; on a few models of diatonic such as the Suzuki Promaster Valved; and on most accordions.
What They Do
Valves exist to direct all the air to the reed you're playing. If you inhale through a hole that contains both a blow reed and a draw reed, your breath will activate the draw reed. But a certain amount of air leaks in around the edges of the blow reed as well. Likewise, when you exhale into that hole, your breath will activate the blow reed, but a certain amount of air will escape around the edges of the draw reed.
In standard single reed diatonic harmonicas this leakage isn't a problem. In fact, it enables the characteristic sound of note bending on diatonics. But leakage can be a big problem on chord harmonicas, where you're often playing 8 reeds at once, and on chromatics, where air leakage through the mouthpiece creates a strong need to conserve air by preventing leakage around unplayed reeds. A chromatic without valves is usually too leaky to play. Even the slide chromatics designed to work without valves are far leakier than valved chromatics.
How They Work
Valves are mounted on the reedplate, over each reed's slot, on the opposite side of the reedplate from the reed. Blow reeds are on the inside, so their valves are on the outside, as shown in Figure 1. Draw reeds are on the outside of the reedplate, so their valves are on the inside.
Figure 2 shows how the player's breath stream moves both the reed played (black lines) and both the blow and draw valves (crosshatched lines) and how the one valve shuts off air flow to the unplayed reed and instead directs air only to the reed that is played. (Note that for ease of illustration, Figure 2 shows the blow reed on top and draw reed on the bottom, as in a diatonic. In a chromatic, the blow and draw reed are side by side, but the effect is the same.)
Why They're a Pain
While valves make it possible for you to play a chromatic without constantly gasping to get a thin, weak sound, they are also temperamental. They tend to stick, buzz, rattle, and bray. There are several things you can do to prevent these problems, and to fix them when they crop up. You can also buy various types of valves that are supposed to be less troublesome than the usual stock valves that come with chromatics. I'll get into all those things later in the article.
Valves help make chromatic harmonicas playable, but in addition to their main purpose of air conservation they have a number of additional effects:
- Louder play: Because all air is directed to a single reed, notes are louder and fuller sounding when valves are used.
- More responsive to strong attacks: A reed has a limited ability to respond to the initial attack pressure when you begin a note. Because the airflow is concentrated on a single reed on a valved hole, you may find that you can't play it as hard as you're accustomed to doing on a diatonic. This is one reason that diatonic players sometimes have a hard time getting the feel of playing a chromatic.
- Greater sensitivity to note bending: On a diatonic, half the notes won't bend at all, and the notes that do bend within strictly defined limits. On a chromatic, all the notes bend, due to the valves, and you may find yourself pushing the notes flat without meaning to. You have to adjust your embouchure and attack, but the good news is that on a chromatic, you can bend notes much farther than you can on a diatonic.
- Tuning: Because of the greater concentration of air pressure on each reed, playing pitch may be depressed slightly, resulting in a need to tune notes slightly sharper when you add valves to previously unvalved reeds.
What Makes a Good Valve?
A valve needs to be pliable enough to alternate between bending upward to let a reed pass and lying flat enough to seal a reed slot. For instance, when a blow reed is played, the valve on the blow reed slot needs to bend away from the reedplate to let the blow reed vibrate without hitting the valve. But when the draw reed is played, that same valve needs to lie flat and be pulled tight to the reedplate to seal off the blow reed. And if the player alternates between blow and draw at high speed, the valve needs to react quickly enough to alternate between these two states. So the valve also needs a certain amount of springiness and stiffness to move quickly, and a certain amount of pliability to allow it to seal to the shape of a slot.
In addition, the valve should not easily get sticky. The two layers of a valve can stick together, causing buzzes, braying, and rattling sounds. The bottom of the valve can also stick to the reedplate, causing popping sounds when it finally unglues from the plate in response to the player's breath pressure.
Over time several different materials have been used for valves, using either one-layer or two-layer designs.
- Leather valves are pliable and create a good seal but aren't always springy and can droop in whatever direction gravity happens to pull them. Valve makers compensate for this problem by attaching a thin reinforcing wire to the valve to keep it straight and flat. Leather valves are seldom found in harmonicas anymore but are still used in some accordions (you can see some leather accordion valves in Figure 3).
- Mylar valves with one or two layers combines a pliable lower layer and a stiffer, shorter upper layer. This is standard on most modern harmonicas.
- Micropore valves with Mylar stiffeners use 3M Micropore surgical tape as the base layer. Some players feel that the extreme pliability and moisture wicking properties of Micropore make it a better valve base than Mylar.
- Dimpled Mylar is now used by Seydel, as shown in Figure 4. The dimpled lower layer is intended to reduce sticking by preventing full contact between the valve and the reedplate while allowing enough contact to seal against air leakage.
- Ultrasuede is a synthetic fabric first used by PT Gazell on his valved diatonics. This material is pliable, fairly stiff, and absorbs moisture. Recently Vern Smith has come up with a pressure treated Ultrasuede valve that possesses greater springiness than the untreated form.
- Teflon is the non-stick coating used on some bakeware. Some players use baking sheets made of Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric for valves.
Maintaining Your Valves
Valves are prey to a number of malfunctions that can affect your playing – they may stick to the reedplate, sealing off the reed or making it start with a sudden pop. Or they may curl up away from the reedplate and fail to seal the air channel. They can also buzz, rattle, and bray. How can you deal with these problems?
Your first line of defense is to take care of your harps properly.
- Don't expose your harmonicas to excessive heat that could cause the valves to curl or melt. Don't leave them on or near stoves or heaters or expose them to direct sunlight for extended periods, or leave them in hot cars on summer days.
- Don't play with food or drink residue in your mouth. Solids, pasty matter, and oily or sticky residues can coat the reeds and valves, making the valve layers stick to one another or to the reedplate. At a minimum, rinse out your mouth before playing. Never play while eating or while drinking anything other than water.
- Dry your harps before putting them away. Tap your harmonica, face down, on your hand to knock out residual moisture. Do this with the slide out and also with the slide held in to remove moisture from both sets of reeds. You can also lodge the slide halfway open with a toothpick to let both sets of reed chambers air dry.
A clean valve will be less likely to stick and cause unwanted noises. To clean a valve you need to clean both between the layers and the bottom layer that touches the reedplate. Use a small piece of rough-surfaced paper that can hold moisture, such as paper bag material. Wet it, then place it as far as you can under the valve or between the layers, apply light pressure from above with a finger, then pull the paper out from under the valve. The surface of the paper will moisten and carry away any sticky residues.
Straightening and Flattening Valves
Valves can curl up and lose effectiveness. They can also be creased and bent in an unwanted way through careless handling.
You can de-curl a valve by placing a thin rod—such as a straightened paper clip under the upper or lower layer of a valve at right angles to the length of the layer. Applying pressure from above, slide the rod from the base of the valve to the tip. This takes a little finesse but can help reverse the upward curl of a valve by curling it in the opposite direction. However, if you curl it too much, you may find the opposite problem—the reed will curve downward sharply and touch the reedplate only at its tip.
You can also run a pointed edge (such as the end of the paper clip) down the underside of the middle of the valve along its length to stiffen it. This will arch the valve into a sort of V-shape. However, if you do this too much, not enough of the valve will contact the surface of the reedplate.
A modification that some players make is to kink the tip of the upper layer of the valve sharply downward so that it exerts extra pressure on the lower layer to help keep it in contact with the reedplate.
A leather valve without a stiffener can be reconditioned by removing it from the reedplate, scraping off the adhesive, and then coiling the valve tightly into a ball, starting by rolling the tip into the bottom side of the valve, then letting it uncoil and working the leather until all but the base of the valve is straight. (A slight downward curve at the base helps exert downward tension along the length of the valve.)
Replacing and Reattaching Valves
Valves are held in place by a small dab of glue. You glue the base of the valve to the spot where you can see the rivet holding the base of the reed to the opposite side of the reedplate. You have to be careful not to use too much glue, or it will get into the reed slot and interfere with the reed.
Suitable glues should be suitable for bonding plastic (or leather) to metal, waterproof, not toxic after drying, and not prone to forming long strands as you pull the glue and an object apart—as these strands can stick to valves and reeds in unwanted places. All-purpose glues such as Duco cement are widely used and recommended, but cryanoacrylics (Super Glue) and contact cement are also used by many. Nail polish allowed to thicken through evaporation (with convenient applicator brush built into the bottletop) is another possibility. For leather, the traditional adhesive is shellac thickened through evaporation, and knowledgeable technicians still insist this is the only suitable adhesive for leather.
Here are the steps for replacing or installing a valve.
- Prepare the reedplate. Before attaching a valve, you should scrape off any residual glue from a previous valve, and rough up the surface of the reedplate where the valve will be glued with medium-grade sandpaper to promote a good bond.
- Apply the glue to the base of the valve. You can dab it on with a toothpick, wipe it on with a applicator brush (for nail polish), or wipe the underside of the base of the valve on a bead of glue.
- Apply the valve to the reedplate. Apply the base of the valve to the reedplate just below the slot, where you can see the rivet holding the reed to the opposite side of the plate.
- Align the valve. Make sure to align the valve so that it covers both edges and the tip of the slot. If the slot will be inside the harmonica, keep it close to the reed that goes in the same hole, to help prevent the valve from brushing the wall of the reed chamber once the reedplate is installed on the comb.
- Firm up the seal. Once the valve is aligned, hold down the glued area with light finger pressure for a few seconds, making sure that the valve also lies flat on the reedplate.
Sources for Valves
If you need to replace existing valves, or if you want to add valves to a harmonica, you can get them from harmonica manufacturers or from custom valve makers. Here are some good sources.
Hohner makes and sells two-layer Mylar valves. Visit http://www.hohnerusa.com/, then choose service, then harmonica parts. You can read about replacement parts and download a price list. Hohner currently sells sets of 14 sizes of valves, with about 25 of each size. This gives you enough sizes to valve all but the shortest reeds (which are usually unvalved) on a 16-hole chromatic, or on any smaller harmonica. (you can cut valves to shorter sizes if you want to valve the smallest reeds.)
Seydel currently offers full valve sets for specific harmonica models, or for projects such as half-valving a standard diatonic. Their new dimpled valves are now used on both the Saxony and Chromatic Deluxe models. Unfortunately, there seems to be no clear path to valves in their website. Do a search on “valves,” then use the results to find what you're looking for, or just contact their representatives directly from the information on the site.
Betty Romel continues to make and sell the valves designed by her late husband, harmonica customizer Bill Romel. Romel offers self-adhesive valves made of a Micropore base with Mylar stiffener, and Teflon valves.
Harponline, based in Germany, sells off-the-shelf harmonicas, customized harmonicas, tools, and parts. They have both dimpled and smooth Mylar valves, along with appropriate glues and tools such as tweezers. Valves come in sets of 14 sizes, with 10 off each size.
http://harponline.de/ (Navigate to Tools, then Chromatic)
Next time, I'll get into how valves affect note bending, and some ways to customize harmonicas by adding or altering valves.
Recommended Book—Basic Blues Chromatic