The Ultimate Harmonium Buying Guide: What's right for you?

May 11, 2017

The Ultimate Harmonium Buying Guide: What's right for you?

So you want a harmonium and you're not sure which one is right for you?

I can help with that.

If you're looking for a quick and easy recommendation, you might appreciate this video:

If alternatively, you're really interested in exploring and learning about all the options, features and other factors you might consider in your purchase, this article is for you.

 

Introduction to the Author: Nic Dillon

I started importing harmoniums in 2010. Prior to that I toured a lot as a musician. A lot of the people I work with are in the yoga world, or have interests in ethnic musical traditions, but my background is more that of a general music nerd.

While touring throughout my twenties, it was the interest of other musicians and fans that gave me the idea to start importing, but the technical part of the job - tuning reeds, nudging and refining this and that - is really what captured my interest. I find this kind of "tedious" work to be pretty meditative.

For a short documentary version of my story, you can check out this PBS video -

 

All and all, it has happened that my life's journey has led to this -

My full time job is to find the people who are still building great traditional instruments (like harmoniums, sitars, and such) in India, nurture quality relationships with them, and know their instruments sufficiently that I can set them up properly and be a valuable resource to my customers.

My answer to the question, "What do you do?" gets a lot of funny responses. And you can probably imagine how much stranger it is to my Indian friends when I show up and tear into their instruments to show them all the crazy ways I have learned to modify them...

 

 

 

So, I'm a bit of a tinkerer, I'm a Midwesterner, and I'm a musician. And for this article, I will be your guide through this instrument that I know just about as well as anyone else you're going to meet.

Should you make it through this article, you can have confidence that while you may still have some questions, you will know more than most and be adequately prepared to make an educated decision.

Enjoy.

 

1. STYLE: Delhi vs. Kolkata harmoniums

While the origin of the harmonium is in Europe, modern harmoniums are almost exclusively built in India. In India, there are two primary and very distinct regional styles of harmonium construction. These originate in Delhi and Kolkata.

 

Delhi Style:

Delhi harmoniums are where most people start, and in general, from beginner to professional, they are what you'll see most most people playing.

  • Design - With simplified construction, these are light-weight, ideal for travel, and easy to maintain.
  • Sound - This style of harmonium is common to Kirtan, but you'll also find it's dynamic, organ tone easily integrated into all types of modern folk, indie, ambient, and other styles of music.
  • Budget - Even the very best Delhi style harmoniums are relatively inexpensive when compared with other musical instruments. Their simple construction equates to lower cost.
  • General Technical Specs -
    • Reeds: Punjabi; various levels of quality
    • Reed banks: 1 or 2 (Bass, Male)
    • Reed orientation: Horizontal
    • Scale changer: Not available
    • Key construction: One-piece
    • Coupler: (optional) right action, activated by wire mechanism located under keys
    • Length of Scale: 2 to 3.5 octaves (25 to 42 keys)
    • Exterior Construction: Traditionally softwood (pine or kale); sometimes teak
    • Interior Construction: Softwood; sometimes composite or particle board
    • Box Types: Standard and Collapsing (traditional and "safari")
    • Weight: Varies; 13-28 lbs.
    • Cost: $500-1000 USD will get you a good quality instrument

 

    Kolkata Style:

    In almost every way possible, Kolkata harmoniums are fundamentally different from those that are produced in Delhi. Not surprisingly, they also look, sound, and feel very different from their Delhi style counterparts.

    • Design - These boxes are solidly constructed, ornately designed, and detailed in their engineering.
    • Sound - With three-to-four reed sets playing across a wide range of octaves, these produce instruments a very full, somber tone. They are common to Ghazal, Classical Indian, and other traditional Eastern musical styles, but also very easily integrated into Western musical composition.
    • Budget - Complexities in engineering, and higher material and labor costs equate to higher overall costs for these boxes. A respectable Kolkata style harmonium will cost no less than $1200 USD.
    • General Technical Specs -
      • Reeds: Palitana; various levels of quality
      • Reed banks: 3 or 4 (Bass, Male, Female)
      • Reed orientation: Horizontal / Vertical
      • Scale changer: Available
      • Key construction: Two-piece
      • Coupler: (typical) left action, activated by wooden bars under the keys
      • Length of Scale: 3 to 3.75 octaves (37 to 44 keys)
      • Exterior Construction: Teak; quality varies
      • Interior Construction: Solid teak
      • Box Types: Standard and Traditional Collapsing
      • Weight: Varies; 32-48 lbs.
      • Cost: $1200-3000 USD for anything worth buying

     

    Summary:

    Most people start with a good Delhi style box. On a budget of $500-700, you can get a good Delhi style harmonium that will play well, sound nice, and with proper maintenance, last you a long time.

    Beyond that, it's not uncommon for harmonium players to begin to collect instruments. Some are purchased to achieve a specific tone, others for travel - they all serve different purposes. And if you get there, a good Kolkata style harmonium is certainly something to consider adding to your collection.

     

    2. SIZE / WEIGHT: Big, small -- What's the difference?

    More than not, harmonium buyers tend to be at least a little nomadic. They take their harmoniums to yoga class, sound therapy sessions, on vacation, on tour, etc.

    With all this moving around, "small" and "lightweight" may seem or even be ideal / necessary. But since this is an acoustic instrument, there are a few things you'll want to consider before shopping exclusively for a "small" harmonium.

     

    #1 - Air Capacity:

    Harmoniums breath. Air is drawn into the instrument through a primary set of bellows that are generally played with the musicians left hand. The air that is drawn into the instrument is retained inside a secondary set of bellows, acting like the instruments lungs, and then steadily through the reeds.

    Since this relationship exists, and the depletion of physical size correlates to LESS air capacity inside your harmonium, which is not optimal.

    Does this mean you should not buy a smaller harmonium? No. It doesn't, but it does mean that you are making a sacrifice in sound quality and sustain when you do so.

     

    #2 - Air Retention:

    It's not uncommon for a harmonium to loose air somewhere between the external bellows and the reeds. Big or small, your harmonium needs to retain air without leaking.

    A cheap harmonium is almost always a leaky harmonium. Spend your money wisely and buy from someone who will sell you something that isn't leaking. If you don't, you'll regret it.

     

    #3 - Read the fine print:

    If a smaller harmonium is definitely for you, be sure you know what you're getting and read the fine print.

    "Small" does not necessarily mean "light," and "collapsing" does not always mean "easily portable."

    Here's what I mean -

     

    Example 1. The "Laptop" Harmonium -

    These instruments are neat in concept, but if you absorbed what I wrote about air capacity, you'll note the secondary bellows are pretty limiting. Further, if you read the specs, you'll see they weighs in around 24-25 lbs., which is more than Delhi harmoniums.

    It's a neat idea in theory, but really disappointing in reality since it's actually pretty heavy and a lousy performer.

     

    Example 2. The "Portable" Scale Changer

    The Paul & Co. 13/4 Scale Changer shown above is an awesome instrument, but to call this collapsing harmonium "portable" is misleading. It weighs 48 lbs. and is an absolute monster to carry.

    By comparison, the heaviest standard, non-collapsing Delhi style harmoniums I stock are roughly half the weight of this "portable" Paul & Co.

     

    Summary:

    Big or small, make sure your harmonium is built squarely, well-sealed, and properly set up by the seller to ensure optimal performance.

    If that's all done and all things are equal, a larger harmonium is going to outperform a smaller one because of improved air capacity. Full-size instruments are almost always what you'll want for recording or performance purposes.

    If you do decide to go small, buying a good one that retains and moves air effectively (not too fast) is critical.

    Whatever you're looking at, read the fine print to confirm what you are buying is actually something you can handle. Not everything that is designed or advertised as "portable" is really that easy to get around, and there are actually a lot of very portable non-collapsing harmoniums that sound great and will generally be more reliable since they have fewer moving parts.

     

    3. SHAPE: Stationary, Folding, and beyond...

    Modern Indian harmoniums are primarily built in two shapes - Standard and Collapsing. Within these categories, there are some variations, and beyond these categories, there are of course some options. Since this is a fairly exhaustive article, many of these will be explored in this section.

    To keep things concise, I will simply list the advantages and disadvantages of each common box design.

     

    Standard Harmoniums:

    Standard harmoniums are characterized by a solid shell, stable design, and great tone. They are generally ideal for everything but air travel.

    Advantages:

    1. Durability - With fewer moving parts, standard boxes are inherently more reliable than collapsing harmoniums.
    2. Full Resonance - Because the box itself is solid (not split for collapsing), these instruments benefit acoustically from uninterrupted resonance across the wooden shell.
    3. Stability - These boxes won't rock back and forth on their base like collapsing models.
    4. Return Bellows - Full size, for optimal air retention and performance.

    Disadvantages:

    1. Bulk - While the weight might be the same as a collapsing harmonium, these can be a little more difficult to carry around because they don't break down for transit.
    2. Air Travel - Very few standard harmoniums meet the 9 inch height requirement for overhead compartments on airplanes.

     

    Collapsing Harmoniums (Traditional):

    Traditional collapsing harmoniums have a fixed bellows and a removable lid. While bulkier than the folding "safari" models, they are generally more reliable.

    Advantages:

    1. Fixed Bellows - Like a standard model, the bellows you play on these harmoniums are permanently adhered to the instrument shell, meaning there is very little possibility for leaking.
    2. Easy Open/Close - Unlike the "safari" models, these are relatively easy to open and close.
    3. "More" Reliability - While they do have a few more moving parts than a standard harmonium, these are by comparison more reliable than the "safari" models.
    4. Return Bellows - Full size, for optimal air retention and performance.

    Disadvantages:

    1. Rocky - These tend to rock back and forth on their base as you pump, and are not anchored by the base like folding "safari" models.
    2. Sometimes Bulky / Heavy - These are more bulky than the popular "Safari" models, and the Kolkata builds are especially heavy.

     

    Collapsing / Folding Harmoniums ("Safari" style):

    Folding "safari" style harmoniums are absolutely our best sellers, and the concept is great. They fold small for travel and perform better than other small harmonium concepts such as the dulcetina. Sadly, the same components that allow them to fold up small are also clunky and prone to failure.

    Advantages:

    1. Ease of Transport - These things fold up as small as possible. That doesn't mean they weigh less, but it does mean they are less bulky.
    2. "Not As" Rocky - The clips on the sides of these commonly break, but they also stabilize the box from rocking as badly as the traditional collapsing harmoniums.
    3. Return Bellows - Full size, for optimal air retention and performance.

    Disadvantages:

    1. Clunky Open / Close -
    2. Many Points of Failure - There are a lot of moving parts, and every single one of them can break, jam, or otherwise fail.

     

    Dulcetina / Compactina Harmoniums

    On a typical harmonium, the secondary bellows are inside the instrument. On a Dulcetina, sometimes referred to as a Compactina, the secondary bellows are located outside the instrument, just like what you see on a Shruti box.

    Advantages:

    1. Size - These are smaller.
    2. Weight - They don't weigh a ton.

    Disadvantages:

    1. Limited Sustain - These do not hold as much air as a typical harmonium, and have below average sustain.
    2. Little Dynamic Range - For the same reasons these have little sustain, they also have limited dynamic range. They are either all on or off, with limited breath to support subtler tones.
    3. Maintenance - These tend to have more issues with keys slipping, and are more difficult to pull apart and repair than a typical Delhi harmonium.

     

    Compact / Harinam Harmonium

    These unique and very simplified boxes give you the ability to pace the room, studio or stage while playing a harmonium...or you can sit down with it just as easy. Your choice.

    Advantages:

    1. Travel Friendly - These are some of the very lightest boxes you'll find.
    2. Flexible - Stand up, sit down - they work either way.
    3. Simple - Very easy for maintenance, and not much to go wrong.

    Disadvantages:

    1. Limited Sustain - The Bhava Harinam's are decent, and the rest are pretty terrible for sustain.
    2. Little Dynamic Range - Again, the Bhava Harinam is decent, and the rest are pretty much all on or off, with limited breath to support subtler tones.
    3. Awkward - Whether you're sitting or standing, these can take a little getting used to.

     

    Laptop Harmoniums

    These fold down to be very thin, but don't confuse thin with lightweight - they are deceptively heavy.

    Advantages:

    1. Thin - That's it...

    Disadvantages:

    1. Limited Sustain - Not enough air reserve.
    2. Little Dynamic Range - For the same reason they don't have good sustain.
    3. Awkward - Your playing hand is below the bellows?
    4. Heavy - At 25lbs., are you sure you don't just want a real harmonium that might weight less??
    5. Maintenance - Difficult to service. Many points of failure.
    Shruti Box

    This is not a harmonium, but it's closely related and similarly constructed.

    Advantages:

    1. Drone - A good shruti is a superior drone instrument. Engage a single note or set of notes and then play, Om, or sing a melody / raga over the drone. Beautiful!
    2. Size - These are very compact and lighter than any true harmonium.
    3. Maintenance - Not much to it; not much to go wrong.

    Disadvantages:

    1. No Keys - It's not a harmonium.

     

    Foot Pedal Harmonium

    Whether an old relic or an even more rare modern collapsing build, these harmoniums can be played with two hands.

    Advantages:

    1. Foot Pedal Bellows - They allow you to play with two hands.
    2. Playing Range - With two hands available, you can take advantage of the long octave range, play traditional organ music...oh, the possibilities!

    Disadvantages:

    1. Portability - Collapsing or not, these things are huge, heavy, and strenuous to transport.
    2. Limited Production - I travel to India. I know many, many harmonium makers. And I only personally know one who makes these harmoniums. He produces maybe 4-6 instruments annually, and when he dies, there is no one else waiting to take up the trade.
    3. High Cost - It's a big, beautiful, exceptionally rare and nearly extinct instrument. They're expensive.

     

    Summary:

    There are a lot of different harmonium concepts. The most standard and the most common styles are typically what I suggest for beginners or people looking for versatility. From there, feel free to explore these other options.

     

    4. BELLOWS: Top Fold vs. Multi-fold

    I tend to think of this as a "non-issue" issue. The important topic that gets less discussion is air retention, which is critical. The secondary issue of the bellows style, because it is visible, gets a lot of discussion, but it's not that important.

    Whether the air is brought in by a mechanism folding down from the top or alternatively opening from the side of the instrument impacts very little when it comes to playing, because most people play with their left hand on the top or side of the bellows, which you can do with both style bellows.

    The only note with that is for side fold bellows to be played with the right hand, which is non-traditional, a spring needs to be modified internally. If you would like this adjustment made, it's fairly easy to do yourself or on a new instrument, feel free to reach out to us and request this modification be made.

    Top Fold Bellows

    The harmonium in the video above has top fold bellows. They are opened from the top and can be pumped on the side or in the middle with either hand.

     

    Side Fold Bellows

    The harmonium above has side fold bellows. These can be (and are typically) played from the top as shown in the video above.

    Alternatively, they can be played from the side. It's not common, but KD does it, so I guess it's cool... :-)

     

    Summary:

    Get a harmonium that holds air. That's the main thing. It's not a rule, but more than not, you'll find side fold bellows on the more expensive harmoniums.

    Bellows are generally played with your left hand. If you wish to play a side fold bellows harmonium with your right hand, there is a modification that should be to the bellows spring. You can make this modification yourself, or if you are buying from our store, just let us know in advance and we'll make that change for you.

     

    5. KNOBS & LEVERS: What do they do?

     

    I'll begin this section with a tip.

    If an online seller (see eBay) refers to the knobs shown above as "stoppers," that's a HUGE red flag.

    Their use of this term "stopper" means they know less than you will know after reading this section.

    Let's discuss now what those knobs, buttons, slides and levers actually do.


    Stops:

    With your stops, you can determine which sets of reeds get air and how much air. The following video explains the basic functions of different stop settings on a traditional Delhi style harmonium:

     

    Drones:

    Drones perform a single note constantly underneath the primary notes you are playing with the keys. You can make a drone using a factory installed note attached to a knob or on Delhi style harmoniums, you can set any note to play as a drone, as shown in the following video:

     

    Octave Coupler:

    An octave coupler allows you to double the note you are playing with an additional note one octave away from the note you are actually playing. In the following videos, I illustrate how this works:

     

    Scale Changer:

    This function is only found on Kolkata style harmoniums. It allows you to modify the key you are playing in up or down (higher or lower in pitch) without changing your chord shapes or note patterns. The following video shows you how that works:

     

     

    Summary:

    A "eleven stopper SUPER scale changer" doesn't have 11 stops. It likely has 4 stops and 7 drones, a left action coupler, and somewhere between 5-13 scale position options. Anyone you want to buy from is going to understand this.

    In short, never grade a harmonium only by how many buttons it has.

    Consider first whether it's built well and will be capable of using it's air optimally. Then consider tuning. If those things are good and you're buying from someone who will make sure that's all in check, consider how many stops, drones or other features you want.

     

    6. SHIPPING: Can you successfully ship a harmonium?

    The short answer. YES!

    I've personally done it thousands of times.

    Q: But aren't they fragile?

    A: Somewhat. But if you pack them right, they do just fine.

    Q: But wouldn't it be better to just pick one up locally?

    A: It's an idea, but I actually buy my guitars from a guy in Montana because he's an expert on the guitars I'm interested in and the guys at the music shops just don't know how to set them up properly...

     

    Old Delhi Music Harmonium Shipping Stats: 2010-2017

    Along with harmoniums, I'm a bit of a number nerd.

    • One number I crunched recently showed me that the amount I had paid for shipping insurance was over 4X what I had actually claimed in shipping damage losses dating back to 2010
    • Another confirmed that over 99% of the harmoniums we have shipped in that time period have arrived unbroken

     

    My conclusion:

    It probably sounds strange, but unless if I am shipping something internationally, I no longer buy shipping insurance. 

    To be clear, if you're our customer, and I ship something to you domestically, you are covered in the case of damage. We'll take care of you.

    The bigger point here is that the likelihood of a harmonium being broken is low. We pack things well and have a good track record.

     

    A final disclaimer:

    I do want to note that the damage I am describing above is "breakage" of parts or an entire instrument. In terms of something arriving shaken or otherwise disturbed, that's more common, but typically, it's only a minor adjustment that is needed, and again, whatever is needed, we have you covered.

    Learning how to make small adjustments on your instrument is part of owning a harmonium or any other acoustic instrument. Since you'll probably be intimidated at first, please know that I am always available to help with troubleshooting and that we even have a YouTube channel where we post a lot of videos on common troubleshooting topics.

     

    ARTICLE SUMMARY

    If you have just skipped to this section, you have missed a lot.

    Here's the basic stuff you need to digest --
    1. Not all harmoniums are created equal - these are living, breathing machines that require manipulation after manufacturing in order to achieve their full potential. No brand, manufacturer, component or style will ensure optimal performance - this can only be coaxed into your harmonium by a careful hand.
    2. Old Delhi Music, my shop, and a few other similar specialty shops do this work well and support their customers even better. Staying away from eBay or Amazon and choosing one of these specialists is step one.
    3. Beyond choosing a good retailer, your decision on what kind of instrument you purchase will depend largely upon what is most valuable to you right now.

    For the purpose of narrowing your search, I will categorize and highlight some great options below.

    Category 1: Kolkata Sound

    Kolkata harmoniums are complexly engineered, always heavy, and without fail, a significant investment. But if that sweet, whispering Palitana reed tone is what you're needing, these classic Kolkata builds are some of the best:

    1. Paul & Co. 9/3 Scale Changer
    2. Paul & Co. Fixed 3 Reed
    3. Bhava 9/3 Scale Changer

    Category 2: Delhi Sound

    A Delhi harmonium is a simple machine, but tone quality can range from gross to gorgeous. For the recording studio or live stage, not much can beat the sound of a quality constructed, well-adjusted standard Delhi style harmonium. Here are some examples:

    1. Bhava Studio
    2. DMS Select 18 Teak
    3. Bhava Basic

    Category 3: Travel Friendly and Great Sound

    While a choice to size down or compact will invariably change the sound and sustain an instrument produces, there are definitely some travelers that beat out the competition. Here are some examples:

    1. Bhava Travel Pro Teak
    2. Bhava Mini
    3. Bhava Classic or Classic Teak

    Category 4: Give me SMALL or give me death!

    Gotcha. Keep a real harmonium at home and take one of these to yoga class:

    1. Bhava Studio Mini
    2. Bhava Compact Harinam

     

    To those who read this entire article

    Good for you! You know a lot now, don't you?

    Reach out to me with your remaining questions. Again, this is my job, and working with customers like you is the best part. 

    I am most reachable during normal business days / hours (CST) --

    P: 312.869.9092

    E: olddelhimusic@gmail.com

    Hope to hear from you soon. - Nic

     




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