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On the path of innovation - the new Beltuna MATRIX

A couple of weeks ago, around the second week of July 2023, I got a call from an unknown number. Those who know me well, know that I don't answer to random numbers. Later I got a message from the same number asking to call them back whenever I'd be free and talk about a new type of accordion. Needless to say, I got intrigued. One phone call and some days later, I am trying out this new instrument.

It was the new Beltuna MATRIX, which I already heard about around 2021 and even wanted it to be the topic of one of the episodes of the Everything Accordion Podcast. The instrument was developed by Beltuna Accordions with the help of Ermanno Taboga, an Italian organ builder with decades-long experience.

I find it really cool that the creation of this instrument came from someone who works with the bigger "cousin" of the accordion and not from the well-known accordion brands in Castelfidardo. Beltuna was trying to tackle the "problem" of switching between free bass and standard bass systems and got Ermanno involved in this research. That's what I call thinking out of the box!

Not sure if any non accordionist is reading this post (it's quite niche), but for the sake of the argument I'll explain briefly the difference between the two systems. The standard bass system implies that the buttons in the left hand manual are arranged into two rows of basses (the innermost two rows) and the other rows are fixed chords, meaning that with the push of a button you get either a major, minor, dominant seventh or a diminished chord. The invention and expansion of the free bass system, around the 1950's and 1960's, was a true innovation. By pushing a bigger lever located in the left hand manual, each of the buttons that were fixed chords become single notes at a distance of semitone and can span over a range of 4 octaves. Basically it means that you have two manuals and can play single notes and different types of chords, allowing for a bigger range of repertoire, including transcriptions and original works. The fact that you could CONVERT from one system to the other by pushing the lever gave it the name of converter system. You can find more information on that in my composer's toolkit video series.

Getting this explanation out of the way, Beltuna was looking at ways to change from one system to the other in a completely new way. I will describe below my impressions of the instrument. I knew that it had an electronic component to it and, having tried a Roland digital accordion before, I was a bit skeptical. Ermanno assured me that it was 100% acoustic, so leaving all my biases aside I decided to give it a try. Mind you, I have nothing against the Roland digital accordions, in fact there are musicians I admire who do all sorts of creative work with it, like Pawel Janas and Michael Bridge (just to name a couple of examples), but I wouldn't dedicate my time towards exploring it.

Now back to Beltuna MATRIX, the next step in the innovation process of the accordion (in my opinion).

After about 10 minutes Ermanno starts introducing me to the different features of the instrument. On the right side there's a round dial which allows the accordionist to change between the three modes of playing the accordion: Classical, Sequencer and Free. I was on the Classical mode for the first 10 minutes.

The Sequencer mode allows the performer, with the use of an Android tablet provided together with the instrument, to set up, assign and save all the registers and sounds needed in a piece or in an entire concert. That way the accordionist can focus on the performance and not worry about the register changes. I am sure each of us has had situations in which we either missed the right register or had extra stress because of a change. This mode solves this problem.

There are two main ways in which you can change the registers in the saved sequence. The first way is through the chin registers. The first one (A) moves the sequence forward and the second one (B) moves the sequence backwards. The second way is by using a pedal board, which is also provided with the instrument. Unlike the chin registers, the pedal can only move the sequence forward.

There's also a second pedal on the board which adds a really cool effect. It's a sustain pedal. You can play a note or a chord on the accordion, press the pedal and that note or chord will keep on sounding, being sustained, until you let go of the pedal. This opens a whole new way of playing organ transcriptions on the accordion and exploring new sound possibilities, in my opinion. Oh, and you can also regulate via the tablet how loud should the two manuals sound. Maybe you need that the left hand sound less than the right hand. You can regulate that.

The third mode, Free, has also pleasantly surprised me and at times I was overwhelmed by the possibilities. After more than 20 years of playing the accordion it's not easy to leave me dumbfounded, and yet Ermanno and Beltuna managed it.

This mode allows the accordionist to create their own registers by combining and setting up the existing registers in the right hand, but also action the sounds in the left hand. It was very weird when Ermanno set up a double 16' register as an example and I was hearing the doubling coming from the left hand, feeling the valves opening and closing without me doing anything. The resulting sound was bigger, rounder and stereophonic in nature. Besides the doublings, the accordionist can choose to add an upper fifth, a lower fifth, a third, an octave or other intervals, just like on the organ, which will sound with the pitch they are playing. It opens up more than 2000 possible combinations for the registers!!!

Another interesting feature of the Free mode is the possibility of splitting the right keyboard and choosing how each of the two parts will sound. You can have, for example, the lower part of the keyboard sound 4' and the upper 8'+8', and you don't have to change any registers! There's also a Midi cable available for connecting the instrument to a computer and you could transcribe, with the use of a software, whatever you are playing on the instrument, very useful when composing or practicing with headphones.

I was honestly amazed at all the different sound possibilities of this instrument. Now I'd like to write a couple of words about the left hand manual before moving to my impression of what are the advantages and disadvantages of this instrument.

The left hand mechanics work in a fundamentally different way with respect to the traditional accordions. I view it as a hybrid system (I was looking into hybrid cars recently so I might have been influenced by that 😅). On a traditional accordion the performer would push a button, activating a valve which would go up and open the passage through which the air would pass and make the reed vibrate.

Well, Beltuna MATRIX has an electronic board connected to each of the buttons. When you push a button it sends an electronic signal via the electronic board for the valve to open. The result is that the instrument reacts much quicker to the push of the button and the sound comes out almost immediately. This is another parallel to the organs which use electronics. In order to activate and keep that system working, the instrument requires that three Lithium ion batteries be inserted in the lower part of the left hand manual. The batteries are rechargable and both the batteries and the charger are provided with the instrument. They can last for hours (about 10, if I remember correctly).

There's a downside to this hybrid system, in my opinion. The current version of the instrument makes the left hand operate in an On/Off mode. The On mode is operating on two "steps": when you push the button until half of it's length it plays softer and after that it plays louder. The downside I am talking about regards playing around the different pressures on the button in order to create micro variations of the sound intensity. This also means that you cannot make a pitch bending, also known as glissando non temperato, with the left hand. At first it bothered me a bit, but in all honesty it seems absolutely ridiculous to dismiss all the solutions the instrument has found to decades-long problems of our instrument only because you cannot do one of the techniques. Before you go wondering, you can do the pitch bending in the left hand without any problems.

Going back to changing from the standard bass to the free bass system in the left hand, you can switch between them by pressing any two registers together. I wanted to try it out as well, but was a bit lost because when I changed to the free bass system it was the C Griff. In a few words, for non accordionists, C Griff has the C note in the outermost row, going from low notes in the upper part of the keyboard to the high notes in the lower part of the accordion. It is mostly played in Western Europe. I play the B Griff, mostly used in Eastern Europe, which has the C note in the middle row and goes from low notes in the lower part of the keyboard to the hight notes in the upper part of the instrument. It's basically the C Griff system upsidedown.

When I told that to Ermanno, he looked at the tablet and said "wait a second". In a matter of moments the C Griff became a B Griff! It's mind-blowing that with one accordion you can have both systems in one. Moreover, for Italians there's also the Fifths system. Before this instrument, you needed to either look for the instrument with the "right" system or get it built for you. Here you could have three different accordionists playing completely different systems performing on the same instrument. Ermanno told me that there's also the option of getting only the left hand manual for your instrument (so no Free and Sequencer modes).

I see innovation as taking something that has existed for some time and treating it in a new, potentially better, way and solving underlying problems. Some of the characteristics, and at times limitations, of the accordion, which all of us are aware of, are:

  • the weight of the instrument

  • the dynamic levels (piano, forte, etc.) of the two keyboards are the same because of only one bellows connecting them

  • the balance between the higher and lower pitches. The higher will sound less than the lower ones because of the length of the reeds and the amount of air they require to start vibrating

  • the registers and changing them

  • the slight timbre difference between the right and the left hand manuals

I think that the new Beltuna MATRIX, although not perfect (NOTHING EVER IS!), finds viable and great solutions to some of the above issues:

  • Some parts of the instrument are made in carbon fiber, reducing the weight of the instrument. The amount of metal required for the mechanics of the left hand keyboard is reduced due to the use of the electronic board

  • The valves are calibrated in such a way that the sound is intentionally balanced and reacts immediately to the push of the buttons. By using the different modes of the instrument and the tablet app the accordionists can calibrate the keyboards in the way they think is best for the environment they are in

  • The registers can be changed with the pedal or two chin registers

  • With a careful exploration of the registers and doublings, the accordionists can better balance their sound inside an orchestra or when playing with other instruments

I am very enthusiastic about this new development and am looking forward to more and more accordionists adopting and exploring it. If you'd like to give it a try and/or have any questions, you can contact Beltuna.

Keep an open mind when trying it. If you expect the same feeling as with your own traditional accordion, you might get a bit stuck with some differences and get a bit dissapointed. After no more than 20 minutes I was feeling comfortable with the instrument. It's almost a new class of free reed instruments enhanced by electronics and new technologies. The possibilities are enormous and the ways to employ them virtually infinite. I plan on doing some exploring myself very soon.

A huge thank you to Ermanno Taboga for calling me and making me aware of this new instrument!

For non accordionists out there, our world is very complicated. If something is not clear, feel free to reach out to me or offer a coffee to your local accordionist and ask them to clear any doubts you might have.

Comment below if you tried it or if you have any thoughts regarding this post.

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