Monday, December 08, 2008

Will The Real Accordion Please Stand Up?

Here's a photo of two of the accordions currently at HWSRN's house:

The black one on the left is the one he's had for many years. It's the one he plays with BFB. It has appeared on numerous recordings, travelled to the east, to the west, to the south, had its keys broken by luddite airline employees, and been to more than a few late night parties.

The red one on the right is one that he's had on loan for the last couple of weeks from the Lunchbucket Music Store. Here's a closer look.

As you can see, it's made by Roland. It's called a V-Accordion. This model, the FR-7 is the top of the line.

It's very sparkly, isn't it?

The thing is, it's not an accordion. At least, it's not a "real" accordion. The V-Accordion is completely electronic. There's not a single reed in the box.

It runs off a battery, (or optionally plugged in to a pedal board which plugs into the wall.) The sound emanates from speakers inside the accordion. But in order to make the speakers go, you have to play it just like a real accordion, pulling and pushing the bellows.

The accordion sounds in the V-Accordion are not digital samples. They're created by what Roland calls Physical Behavior Modeling. Now, HWSRN is not a techie. He still doesn't know the difference between a Low-Pass Filter and an Amplitude Modulator. And if he doesn't know, why would I? But it would appear that what Roland has done is created digital models of what the accordion reeds do physically when you pass air over them, and it's these models that are the templates for the sounds you that? They've come up with their best electronic examples of how an accordion actually works and translated them into the V-Accordion. (V for virtual I presume...) So the V-Accordion, rather than playing back someone's digital recording of an accordion, emulates the physical characteristics of the accordion sound. Physical modelling is not a new idea. It's at least ten years since the first synthesizer based on modelling appeared. But the idea to use it for an accordion is only about three years old.

However, the V-Accordion is not just an accordion. Out of the big cardboard box, it's actually about 35 accordions! The V-Accordion packs 35 "sets" and about 5 empty "sets" so you can program your own and put them into memory. A "set" is essentially a group of accordion registers ranging from Bassoon to Piccolo, the reeds of which are tuned to a specific style of accordion. The sets include Concerto, Classical, Studio, Italian, French, Tex-Mex, Cajun, Scottish, Irish, Celtic and a few variations of these.

See, for all you accordion non-afficionados, not all accordions are equal. Every culture seems to have its own characteristic sound. The Cajun sound, for example, is based on small but powerful diatonic button accordions. The Parisian sound is typically based on a chromatic button accordion tuned in a specific way. The V-Accordion has 35 different accordions, each tuned to emulate the characteristic sound of whatever style you're working in.

So what does HWSRN think of the sound? Well, let's put it this way. When he plays Under Paris Skies on the OldParis set of reeds, he wears a beret and smokes Gauloises. When he plays Come Back to Sorrento on the CiaoRoma set, you get pasta and prosciutto for sure. When he plays Laissez les bon temps rouler on the Cajun set, you know the crawfish got soul. And when he plays Misty on the Jazz set, it's so cool even the most jaded hipsters start snapping their fingers.

"On the other hand," sez HWSRN, "Do you remember the debate about the sonic differences between vinyl and CDs? The V-Accordion is something like that. It's disconcerting to hear the sound coming from little speakers in the accordion, and the quality of the sound is just a little harsh and the difference between the "warmth" of vinyl and the crystal clarity of digital..."

The V-Accordion's features don't end with offering just 35 accordions, though. The next thing you discover is that it's convertible from a Stradella style accordion to a Free Bass accordion.

What does this mean? Well, OK, again for accordion non-afficionados, the type of piano accordion most people are accustomed to is one which utilizes the Stradella configuration for the left hand. This means that the first two rows of buttons on the left hand play single bass notes. All the other rows play chords -- major in the third row, minor in the fourth, seventh in the fifth, and diminished in the sixth. It is this configuration of bass and chords that gives the Stradella accordion its characteristic "oom-pah" -- bass-chord, bass-chord, bass-chord -- which has marred the reputation of this venerable instrument for decades, but which, it must be said, also provides it with considerable versatility because it essentially comes with its own rhythm section.

When you turn on the V-Accordion, its default mode is the traditional Stradella configuration. But even here, it has some surprises, because the V-Accordion has four Stradella configurations -- the standard two bass row setup, and three others that provide three rows of basses (and consequently fewer rows of chords.) This allows a bit more flexibility for playing bass runs.

And then! With just the flick of a few switches, the V-Accordion can be transformed into a Free Bass accordion. This is a whole different accordionish animal! Free Bass is what it implies. All the buttons on the left hand are transformed into single-note buttons. No chords. In other words, you can play melodies, counterpoint, or harmonies with both left and right hands. Free Bass is what has made the accordion a legitimate classical, orchestral, contemporary chamber music instrument.

But it's a whole different study for the player. The V-Accordion provides five different Free Bass configurations, where the individual notes are in a different order. (These, again, are cultural or ethnic variations...) Just like the Stradella mode, it's a system the player has to learn. (But it certainly makes for hours and days and months and years of happy squeezebox exploration!) HWSRN has not experimented much with the Free Bass section. He has more immediate practical considerations for the kinds of gigs he might be playing with this accordion...)

After you get tired of messing around with the accordion combinations (sometime around the year 2020...) you can start adding the built-in synth sounds. Trombone! Trumpet! Clarinet! Alto Sax! Tenor Sax! Scat Voices! Two kinds of bagpipes...with drone! Four organs! Flute! Violin! Pizzicato! Mandolin! Acoustic Guitar! Piano! All with velocity sensitivity and aftertouch! And that's just on the right hand keyboard! Plus, you can link these sounds to a specific accordion sound, so that when you want to play Come Back to Sorrento with mandolin in the background, all you have to do is call up that good old CiaoRoma musette accordion and the mandolin comes right along with it!

And by the way, the V-Accordion has the cheesiest trumpet you've ever heard! Did I say "cheesy"? Well, yes! What it is, is Mexican style trumpet with that over-the-top vibrato! It's unbelievably cheesy, but it's also the perfect trumpet sound for Tex-Mex, Tejano, and that perennial Johnny Cash favourite, Ring of Fire! If you want to know what I mean, listen to Ring of Fire. That's the Roland trumpet sound!

All right, have we had enough exclamation marks?


The left hand has its own synth combos! Acoustic Bass! Bowed Bass! Fingered Electric! Picked Electric! Fretless! Tuuuubaaa! Tuubaaa and Acoustic Bass together! And that's just the bass rows!

Done yet?


The chords have their own synth sounds too! Trombones! Saxes! Voices! Organ! Acoustic Guitar! Piano!

OK, enough exclamations...!

Back to the accordion for a sec. There are a large number of programmable features on the accordion side. For example, you can take each set of reeds and tune them as you want. There are seventeen sets of reed types -- classic, Italian Folk 1 & 2, French Folk 1 & 2, Bandoneon, German Folk, Jazz, etc. etc. You can program up to 7 sets of reeds to create a sound. You can adjust the amount of valve noise. You can detune or mute certain reeds. You can adjust the volume of the reeds. You can change the octave. It has on-board programmable effects: Delay, Chorus and Reverb! You can change the type of scale the right hand plays because there are eight different scales, plus 3 you can program yourself! You can set the timer, and when the roast is done, a little bell goes off! (Well no, not really...)

So what does HWSRN think of all this?

Here's the thing. Everybody who has seen and heard it...his bandmates, audience members, friends and foes alike...all seem to like the V-Accordion better than he does. They love the colour. They like the sounds. What sounds a little harsh to HWSRN sounds "bright" to someone else. Everybody's entranced with the plethora of features and the versatility.

But to HWSRN, there are some drawbacks. It's 35 accordions plus, yet it's not quite an accordion. The bellows response isn't quite what you get from a real accordion. HWSRN finds that sometimes when he wants to pull just a little harder to get an accent, there's nothing there. Or, to be specific, nothing more. He finds he has to set the accordion at maximum volume to approximate the dynamic range he wants. The key action is pretty good, a little spongier than he's used to, but this is because the keys require that extra little bit of movement for aftertouch.

The thousands of functions and features are what make it so versatile, but they also mean a good deal of time spent programming so that you get it just the way you want it. And this programming has to be done by means of a dinky LCD display on the top of the accordion. This means basically that you have to be wearing it to program it. The LCD display also informs you of what settings you are currently using, but it's so dinky you can hardly read it, and HWSRN finds that he needs his reading glasses to see it clearly, which is a pain in the butt...until he memorizes the screen options and doesn't need to see them clearly...

For HWSRN, the major drawback is that the instrument is always on. In order to play most of the sounds, you have to pull the bellows, just like an accordion. But there is no Treble Cancel switch, which means that when you pull the bellows, you inevitably get both left and right hands. HWSRN has a little secret. He doesn't always want the accordion to sound, even if he's playing something on the accordion keyboard (like, for example, one of his two MIDI keyboards...) So far, he hasn't found a way to "disconnect" the accordion. Also, because you have to pull the bellows, if you use one of the synth bass sounds on the left hand, the volume increases the harder you pull. Or if you forget to pull, the volume decreases. That's all right in one way. It's sort of more authentic and allows for dynamics. But HWSRN would dearly love to see a setting that allows constant volume. There actually is one, but it applies to the entire instrument. In other words, you don't have to pull the bellows anymore, but the accordion plays and the bass plays and it's all one volume and sounds like HAL on Ritalin.

Then there's the question of reliability. This sort of has no answer because the instrument is too new on the market to have much in the way of reporting. But if it breaks down, how fast can you get it fixed? And of course, on a gig, because it's completely electronic, if it breaks down, you got nothin'! Not even acoustic accordion.

Finally, there's the price. It lists for $5,500 Canajun. That's a lot of money, even for a high-end synth. But it's actually not a lot of money for an accordion. The electronic/acoustic accordion he's played for the last twenty years cost about the same...twenty years ago.

He's played it in several performance situations now. With a band it's virtually indistinguishable from a real accordion. To most listeners it's an accordion! It's in the playing that the fine points are revealed. HWSRN hasn't decided yet.

If you're interested in seeing or reading more about the Roland V-Accordion, check out the website.

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Anonymous said...

I would say, "Stick with your old one. Who wants to part with a dear friend? I think I would hear the difference. Why does an instrument have to be everything? Like those electronic organs. They never have the quality sound of a classic organ. Reading all the possibilities of the Roland, I get dizzy.

I am usually not fond of electronic music. It has its place in the lighter genre. But I must say, some weeks ago, I got to listen to a woman playing a plugged in violin, a very tiny instrument, and it sounded wonderful. It was played by a very talented, sensitive musisian. You think that too can make a difference? We had a saying that a bad writer blames the pen. True talent will come through, no matter what the means?

Do we lose somthing when everything is packed in one instrument? Do we lose individuality? Are we more and more heading for conformity? Sure there are the many possibilities, but I think Larry, by how I read you, you too think the very induvidual accents that can only come from the heart of the player, may be missing?

Anonymous said...

How could one resist that epitomy of perfection, modern ingenuity dressed in shiny red?

Help! I've written and I can't get up!