Review: ClariMate digital clarinet mute by Buffet-Crampon

Bottom line: the ClariMate is an interesting gadget with potential for various uses, but it’s a little rough around the edges. Consider buying one now as a tech toy if you’re an early-adopter type, or wait for a new-and-improved iteration if you need something that just works.

I recently got my hands on the “ClariMate,” a new electronic device from the venerable Buffet-Crampon, clarinet maker of choice for most Boehm-system players worldwide. “Play anywhere, anytime,” its marketing materials proclaim, “the gateway to silent practice and digital music.” It’s a surprising and intriguing offering from a company more associated with tradition and history than innovation.

Players of electric keyboards and guitars have long had the option of using headphones, and Yamaha’s “Silent Brass” digital practice mutes were introduced in the 1990s. But woodwinds are much more complicated to silence, since sound waves don’t just emanate from the instrument’s end—they come from the instruments’ many toneholes. Enterprising folks have marketed a number of questionable solutions, ranging from pieces of foam stuffed inside the instrument to molded containers that completely encase it.

Buffet is betting on a more sophisticated approach. The ClariMate plugs into your clarinet’s barrel on one end and accepts your mouthpiece on the other, and does some electronic trickery in between. Buffet’s sales pitch is that you can play on your own clarinet silently, without substantially changing the instrument’s feel and with a convincing clarinet sound in your earphones. Does it fulfill this promise?

Yes, kind of. But it’s a new technology with a lot of real-world variables to deal with, and it’s marketed to some of the most sensitive and finicky customers there are: musicians.

So, at a current price of $425 USD, as much as a handmade mouthpiece, is it worth it? Let’s take a closer look.

What’s in the ClariMate box

  • The ClariMate unit, a black plastic thing with buttons and lights. The tube part adds about 1½” (38mm) of length to your clarinet. The perpendicular part with the buttons is about 2″×2½” (51mm×64mm). The unit weighs about 1½ oz (45g).
  • A nice black nylon carrying case, about 6″×6″×3″ (15cm×15cm×7.5cm).
  • Two “active reeds,” like plastic clarinet reeds with some additional attached mechanism that fits inside your mouthpiece
  • Some spare O-rings for the ClariMate’s tenon, where it connects to your barrel
  • A few rubbery plugs that can be inserted into the end of the flexible tube, for customizing the blowing resistance to your liking
  • A fabric-jacketed USB cable, for charging the ClariMate and for connecting to a computer
  • A flexible tube that connects to the ClariMate and dangles inside the clarinet
ClariMate and accessories
ClariMate device in closeup
ClariMate installed on clarinet

What the ClariMate sounds like

There are a couple of questions to address here: what does the ClariMate sound like in your earphones, and what does it sound like to someone else in the room?

The ClariMate does effectively silence your clarinet (almost), since the “active reed” assembly does not vibrate. Instead, the ClariMate detects what pitch your clarinet would be producing, based on the fingering you’re using, and replaces that with an electronic clarinet sound in your earphones.

The electronic clarinet sound is a garden-variety synthesized clarinet, like the one from your electric keyboard or music notation software. You wouldn’t mistake it for a real instrument, but it’s recognizable as a clarinet. A contact at Buffet tells me an improved, acoustically-modeled sound is already in the works for a future software release (which will be installable on already-purchased ClariMates).

Here’s a short demonstration. I play two excerpts from the Rose 32 Etudes, first on “real” clarinet and then with the ClariMate (with the Windows app). The final part of the video shows the sound in the room (which is virtually silent).

The ClariMate unit does produce a very quiet but audible hum (Buffet calls it the “chirp”), which changes as you open and close toneholes. Here’s an up-close recording of what it sounds like. I’ve got the microphone right at the bell, and I’m playing some notes down to low E. The thumps are the pads closing, and should give you an idea of how much I boosted the recording volume.

In reality the chirp is quiet enough to be masked by typical room sounds like air conditioning.


The ClariMate can be used in “standalone” mode, in which you just plug in some wired earphones (not included) and play. It can also connect to computer apps via USB cable or smartphone/tablet apps via Bluetooth for additional features.

It can’t be used with Bluetooth earphones due to latency, a delay between when you play the note and when you would hear it in the earphones. The technological issue here is real and probably currently unavoidable at this price point, but it’s a shame to see this device hit the market just when many people are discarding their wired earphones and living in their Bluetooth ones.

The ClariMate website suggests the USB mode can be used for MIDI, but the user manual doesn’t provide any information about this, and Windows did not detect my ClariMate as a MIDI device. A Buffet representative confirms that although this functionality is mentioned on the website, MIDI features are “not publicly available yet.”

Operating the ClariMate unit

The ClariMate has four buttons and four LED lights. Two of the buttons operate as simple volume-up and volume-down buttons, but you have to use an app to get any visual feedback on how much of the available volume you’re using.

There’s also a power button for starting the unit in standalone mode, or you can turn the power on while holding any of the other three buttons to start in USB, Bluetooth, or reed calibration mode. I find this a little fussy and non-intuitive; you have to read the manual to figure out how to turn the device on correctly. (Although I will allow that a clarinetist ought to be able to handle pressing more than one button at a time.)

Playing the ClariMate

Playing a clarinet with the ClariMate feels pretty natural to my embouchure. The non-vibration of the reed, which feels shiny-smooth but otherwise pretty reed-like, is different but not difficult to deal with.

The latency of the note tracking is slight and mostly manageable, but noticeable to an experienced clarinetist.

A contact at Buffet explained that the ClariMate requires a fair amount of finger precision, maybe even more than actually playing the clarinet, in order to correctly recognize the pitches you want. This was a purposeful choice, as the ClariMate team wanted to make sure the device was useful as a practice aid, and not something that would allow you to develop bad playing habits. I found the ClariMate mostly identified my intended pitches without difficulty.

Failure to detect the intended notes can be due to imprecise finger placement, or due to differences between your clarinet and barrel and those used in developing the ClariMate (apparently a Buffet E11). This can be fixed by “training” the ClariMate to recognize your individual instrument’s quirks. My Buffet Festival B-flat mostly worked pretty well without any training for playing simple things, but I did do a full training regimen, which took about 5 minutes, to get the device to respond well to faster passages and short staccato notes. The training consists of the app showing you a sequence of notes, which you play on your instrument.

You can adjust the ClariMate’s breath sensor “threshold” to match your accustomed reed response (in other words, will the ClariMate start playing with the slightest breath, or will there be a bit of cushion to blow against?).

The “active reed” has a simple non-electronic device that sits inside the mouthpiece to detect pressure on the reed. As I understand it, this pressure is supposed to affect pitch, but I was unable to get the reed properly calibrated, so I wasn’t able to test this. I got an error message from the apps over and over during the calibration process. A Buffet representative kindly walked me through several potential solutions, including trying ligatures other than the one I usually use, but we were unable to solve the problem.

I’m not convinced that mapping volume to breath pressure and pitch to reed pressure accurately reflects real clarinet playing. Intentional adjustments to pitch on the clarinet are best accomplished with voicing rather than changing the pressure on the reed. Pressure on the reed is, however, tied to volume in “real” clarinet playing, and breath support should generally remain constant. In this way, the tone-production aspects of the ClariMate may not be a direct match to real-world clarinet playing, though they will be familiar to players of electronic wind controllers.

The extra length and weight added to the instrument by installing the ClariMate is not bothersome. It’s not much more than the difference between playing a B-flat clarinet and an A clarinet.

Use cases

Buffet’s primary push for the ClariMate seems to be as a device for practicing silently. After fully “training” the device to recognize notes on my instrument, the note tracking is probably good enough for most practice applications, but still has a just-noticeable lag that would be problematic for artist-level playing.

And, of course, the tone production aspects of practicing (tone, intonation, response) are lost or substantially changed when using the ClariMate. This may limit its usefulness to developing players.

Buffet’s marketing materials also suggest the device can be used for digital music-making. It does at least theoretically provide a way for a clarinetist to control MIDI devices or other electronics using their own instrument, pending future software releases.

A Buffet representative described their conception of the ClariMate-plus-clarinet as wind controller as a “Reversible Hybrid Instrument (RHI).” I do think the addition of electronics to a woodwind instrument suggests some future possibilities for digitally-augmented performance, perhaps blending electronic sounds with live instrument sounds. But this isn’t possible with the ClariMate, which prevents the clarinet from producing its natural sound.

And if you want to play a wind-controlled synthesizer, then I still think the best way is to make the effort and learn to play a purpose-built one, my favorite being the Akai EWI series. Some other instrument makers (Roland, Yamaha) have introduced digital saxophone-style instruments, which are easy for saxophonists to play out of the box but which fully embrace the problematic aspects of saxophones, like palm keys and pinky rollers.

Digital saxophones at least have the ability to expand their tessitura with relatively intuitive solutions like additional octave keys, but this would be more complicated on the clarinet (whose registers aren’t an octave apart). The ClariMate brings to the table the possibility for clarinetists to play an electronic instrument without learning new fingerings or significantly new tone production techniques, but, like the digital saxophones, brings the limitations of an “acoustic” instrument into the digital world.

The apps are able to provide some real-time visualization of aspects of your playing, such as breath pressure and reed pressure, and there is potential for these, used judiciously, to become useful diagnostic or pedagogical tools.


My ClariMate worked upon first opening the box, but I quickly ran into some issues that made the device inoperable. With assistance from Buffet’s support staff, I was able to resolve these. An ongoing problem is that I am unable to complete the reed calibration process, getting a persistent error message in the apps. That means I can’t alter pitch by applying pressure to the reed.

I experimented with the Windows and Android apps. There are also apps for Apple devices. (As a Linux user, I’m experiencing the familiar disappointment that my preferred platform isn’t supported.) The apps feel buggy and unreliable—I find myself often restarting them and the device to try to solve various technical issues. My conversations with Buffet suggest that they are hopeful about frequent and significant software improvements, including updated firmware that you install on the device itself to improve its future functionality. (Long-term software development will no doubt depend on the financial success of the ClariMate project.)

It’s worth bearing in mind that this is in some ways a whole new class of device, so some birthing pains are to be expected. If you enjoy tinkering with the newest gadgets and have the patience or tech savvy to work around some bugs while waiting hopefully for software updates, then I think the ClariMate is usable. If you are a more reluctant tech user, it may be wise to wait for the ClariMate’s software and/or hardware to mature more fully.

How the ClariMate works

I’m not a scientist or engineer, but here’s what I can gather:

The ClariMate uses an air pressure sensor to detect how hard you’re blowing, and translates that into volume (or silence if it detects you aren’t blowing).

The reed bite sensor works by way of a small mirror, a light, and a light sensor. The light shines on the mirror (part of the “active reed” assembly) and reflects back to the sensor. Biting on the reed moves the mirror and affects how much light is reflected.

The ClariMate unit produces a quiet hum (the “chirp”) inside the bore of the instrument. Opening and closing toneholes affects the pitch of the chirp. A microphone detects the pitch of the chirp, compares it to a stored database of pitches, and plays back the corresponding note from the electronic clarinet sound.

As a side note, the pitch of the chirp isn’t necessarily the same as the pitch of the note that is produced in the earphones. You can hear it change, and the device can match that pitch to the intended note, but you can’t necessarily hear the tune you’re playing just from the chirp.

Also, the ClariMate doesn’t directly detect your fingerings—for example, it can’t tell if you are playing low E with the left or right hand pinky. But it can recognize some alternate fingerings that produce detectably different chirp pitches.

The flexible tube allows for drainage of condensation, and also directs your breath out the instrument’s bell rather than letting it linger inside the instrument’s bore, where it would affect bore temperature and interfere with the ClariMate’s pitch detection.

Additional observations

The name “ClariMate” is cute but fails to describe the product in a useful way. I imagine “ClariMute” must also have been discussed, but another product with that name already exists. Here’s how the packaging justifies the name:

The box reads: 
Mute: Play silently
Acoustic: Hear your instrument digitally
Technology: Use your clarinet for digital projects
Easy-to-use: Switch from acoustic to digital and back again

I have heard rumors that the ClariMate has been in development for 10 years. If that’s true, it’s odd that the release of the product feels like it was kind of rushed. There are some rough edges on the technology, and also on the product release. The demonstration video on the product website failed to actually demonstrate the product being used. It didn’t include any audio of the instrument’s sound in the earphones or in the room, the two things that I wanted and expected to hear in a media clip. (I’ve hopefully helped rectify that with this review.)

I was provided by Buffet-Crampon with a ClariMate unit at no charge, with the possibility but not the promise of a review. I have done my best to keep my review unbiased. I use some other Buffet products but have no official relationship with the brand.

Review: Griff Musical Products EWI Stand

A few years back I posted my attempt at building a stand for my Akai EWI4000s. That stand has served me reasonably well since then, but I’m pleased recently to have found a much superior solution.

The EWI Stand from Griff Musical Products’s Etsy store is a 3D-printed product (of durable PETG plastic) at a reasonable price (less than a couple of boxes of reeds).

To be clear, it’s something more like a “peg” than a stand per se, since it has to be installed on a Hercules stand purchased separately.

Like my homemade stand, it works with my inexpensive and sturdy Hercules stands, doesn’t interfere with power/line/MIDI cables, and allows the EWI to be quickly retrieved without clips or straps to unhook.


Superior to my homemade stand, it holds the instrument straight upright (not leaning at an angle), doesn’t require any fuss or fasteners to hold it in place (it simply slips over an existing Hercules flute/clarinet peg), and is far more compact.

In other words, this solves all my EWI stand problems. Kudos to Griff Musical Products for an elegant solution. Get yours here: EWI Stand

(I paid full price for the stand, and offer this review as a satisfied customer.)

Review: Multiple-woodwinds works by Darren Lord

I heard recently from Paul Saunders, whose compositions and publications for multiple woodwinds I have previously reviewed. He called my attention to an astonishing number of recent multiple-woodwinds compositions by Darren Lord, a musical director, keyboardist, and more who has worked on London’s West End theater scene.

At the time of this writing, Lord’s music for multiple woodwinds includes:

  • Five volumes of mostly musical-theater-style pieces for multiple woodwinds soloist, with piano or downloadable fully-orchestrated backing tracks (with synthesized orchestra). Most or all of these pieces can also be purchased individually. (I got to look in detail at volume 2 for this review.)
  • Five recital-type pieces for multiple woodwinds soloist with piano.
  • Six pieces for quartets of multiple woodwinds players.

All can be purchased on Lord’s website. There are also extensive audio demos, some played by Saunders and some synthesized.

These are high-quality, worthy additions to the multiple woodwinds repertoire. And the sheer quantity and variety of available material should make Mr. Lord’s website a certain stop for anyone looking for pieces for study or performance.

I’ve made a substantial update to my Music for woodwind doublers page to include these pieces. Please continue to keep me updated on new or rediscovered multiple woodwinds repertoire!

Review: Characteristic Etudes for the Woodwind Doubler by Gene Kaplan

I’ve previously reviewed a couple of Gene Kaplan‘s publications, sets of duets for woodwind doublers. Recently Gene was kind enough to send me a copy of his latest, Characteristic Etudes for the Woodwind Doubler.

Unlike his previous doubling-duet books, this is intended for a lone woodwind doubler to use in developing his or her doubling skills on flutes (including piccolo and alto flute), oboe and English horn, clarinets (E-flat, B-flat, and bass), saxophones (soprano through baritone), and bassoon and contrabassoon. (Gene suggests that substitutions can be made, so, for example, oboe can be used if you don’t have an English horn.)

The book includes short etudes in a variety of formats, including ones to strengthen instrument switches within familes (e.g. piccolo to flute to alto flute) and switches between families (e.g. flute to clarinet to…). It also has a section of “Difficult Woodwind Pairs” etudes, plus some slightly longer and more advanced etudes for each of the single instruments addressed in the book.

The etudes are in varied styles and not overly technically demanding, sticking mostly to moderate tempos and comfortable ranges. The focus here is on the switching, which happens frequently and in short but mostly manageable windows. (Unlike Gene’s duet books or Paul Saunders‘s books with backing tracks, there’s no built-in mechanism to enforce the quick switches, so you’ll need a metronome to keep yourself honest.)

Here’s a video demo with a couple of sample etudes:

This is the only doubling book I’m aware of that covers such a broad woodwind family. It’s unusual to see books that include the double reeds or even complete-ish flute and single reed families, much less both. If you are interested in improving your skills on a large number of instruments for Broadway-style doubling gigs, this makes excellent sightreading, or more in-depth work for instruments or switches that you find difficult.

Get your copy from Gene’s website.

Thanks, Gene!

Review: NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1

I don’t typically do reviews of new sheet music publications unless they have a specific woodwind-doubling focus, but I’m making an exception here because I think this is a project that is especially useful and has potential to change the landscape of “classical” saxophone repertoire (and other instruments, too).

I have a repertoire problem. My file cabinet is full of wonderful, important music that is written almost exclusively by dead white men. I would like to change that—to perform and teach music representing a greater diversity of composers, and particularly living composers.

But it’s hard to escape the inertia of the “standard repertoire.” And sorting through mountains of new pieces by composers I haven’t heard of (yet), to find the best ones, the ones at the right difficultly level for my students, and so forth, could cost me thousands of dollars and thousands of hours. It’s daunting, and so I fall back on the same pieces I’ve taught over and over.

NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1 is an elegant solution. For the price of a standard-repertoire concerto, it contains 16 works composed (or at least revised) within the last 20 years. The composers (listed on NewMusicShelf’s website) are diverse and distinguished. Many are young.

The collection is curated by Alan Theisen, a composer and saxophonist well-positioned to accomplish this task due to his interests and connections in the world of new music. (One of his own compositions is included in the anthology.)

For me as a performer and educator, this anthology helps solve several problems: the pieces are thoughtfully selected for quality and variety, the publication is very affordable, and its presence in my studio is a strong step toward currency and representation in concert saxophone music. All are for solo alto saxophone or saxophone and piano, so the performance logistics are simple (no large/unusual ensembles, electronics, or other potential barriers). The pieces are playable by undergraduate-level students (but, as Theisen points out in his introduction, “absolutely suitable” for more advanced players as well). It’s an easy, cheap, and practical way to grow my performing and teaching repertoire. (This is an unsolicited review of a copy I purchased myself.)

A couple of small complaints: the saxophone and piano parts are “perfect bound” (like a paperback book) and thus don’t lay flat on a music stand. NewMusicShelf indicates on their website that this is to facilitate library shelving (and points out that, hey, you can disassemble and re-bind it yourself if you want), but I’d rather see a more performer-oriented solution. And the books contain a web link promising composer headshots and program notes, but the link is currently broken and I couldn’t locate the content on the website. Still, a very worthwhile purchase.

The “Volume 1” label is hopefully indicative of more to come. A flute volume appears to be in the works, and calls-for-scores for clarinet, bassoon, and some other instruments are currently open. Collections for voice and for viola are already available. Kudos to NewMusicShelf and Alan Theisen for this extremely valuable aid for teachers and performers.

NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1

Review: Duets for the ‘Double-Reed Doubler’ by Gene Kaplan

A few years ago I reviewed Gene Kaplan’s Duos for Doublers, a set of duets for woodwind doublers playing flute, clarinet, and saxophone. I was pleased to hear from Gene again recently about his new Duets for the ‘Double-Reed Doubler.’ It contains seven duets in a variety of styles, with one doubler playing oboe, clarinet, and alto saxophone, and the other playing clarinet, bassoon, and tenor saxophone. (No flute in either part.)

The books (a set of two, one for each player) are neat and easy to read, with well-placed page turns and spiral binding. Like the Duos for Doublers, this set currently costs $30.

I’m pleased to see more materials making their way into the world that address the growing pressure on woodwind doublers to be skilled double reed players. The idea of “doubling” meaning just flute, clarinet, and saxophone is increasingly a thing of the past. Working on doubling in a chamber music setting, like these duets, is a useful way to improve your skills as a soloist-level player of multiple instruments.

Here’s a demo of one of the duets, called “Machinations:”

I wouldn’t call these duets easy, exactly, but they aren’t overwhelming for doublers with a little background in each instrument. All the instruments stay mostly in their lower and middle registers. The oboe rarely ventures outside the staff, and the bassoon stays squarely in bass-clef range. There are some fast switches (catch me trying to play bassoon with the tenor in my lap in the demo video), some tricky navigation of the clarinet’s throat-to-clarion break, some articulated low notes in the saxophones, and other real but not unusual challenges.

These duets are a fun an interesting challenge if you have a doubler friend to practice with. Head over to Gene’s website to get your copy.

Review: D’Addario Evolution clarinet mouthpieces

D’Addario was kind enough to send me a couple of their new(ish) Reserve Evolution clarinet mouthpieces to try out.

The Evolution currently comes in a single opening/facing, but the two Evolution mouthpieces I received are different in appearance: one is the standard black, and the other is what’s called “marble” on D’Addario’s website, or “sandstone marble” on the box. I usually don’t care to have equipment that calls too much attention to itself, but this is pretty cool and subtle enough not to be gaudy on stage.

I can’t definitively say that there is a difference in how the marble/non-marble play or sound. For the two I have in hand, the marble is possibly very (very) slightly more dark/muted, and the non-marble has very slightly more brightness/presence. But this doesn’t match my experience trying the mouthpieces back-to-back at the ICA conference (“ClarinetFest®”) over the summer. In any case, if there’s a difference, it’s trivially small, and I think you can pick the one that you think looks nicest.

As I’ve pointed out in my reviews of D’Addario’s other clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces, these are made with very, very high consistency, which finally brings mouthpieces into the online shopping age: you can just order one from wherever you find the lowest price, and count on it to play just as well as any other. No need to order a bunch of them, put a deposit on your credit card, ship back the ones you don’t want, pay a restocking/sanitation fee, etc. And if you lose or break yours, you can get a replacement quickly and probably not notice any difference. They are great-playing, affordable mouthpieces, but the consistency is the unique, killer feature. I’ve personally adopted each new clarinet and saxophone mouthpiece as it has hit the market.

(I don’t have a formal relationship, endorsement deal, etc. with D’Addario. They do sometimes send me products to try, presumably with the hope that I will review them favorably, but there’s no advance agreement. And I think that the consistent quality is a significant development in the mouthpiece market, and worth comment.)

What I’m looking for in a mouthpiece is a good balance between response and stability. To some extent these may be two sides of the same coin. A very responsive mouthpiece “speaks” immediately, even on resistant notes or at softer volume. But sometimes the tone and/or pitch are too flexible, and keeping them in check takes a lot of work. A very stable mouthpiece has consistent tone and pitch, but may take more work to get notes to respond as desired.

The particular quality of tone is my third consideration. I don’t make this my first priority for a few reasons. One is that a mouthpiece that strikes a good responsive/stable balance is already likely to have an appropriate, middle-of-the-road, versatile tone. (Often, within that middle-of-the-road zone, more “responsive” mouthpieces tend toward “brightness,” “presence,” or “liveliness,” while more “stable” mouthpieces lean toward “darkness,” “warmth,” or a “covered” sound.) Another reason is that tone quality is one of the more malleable aspects of a mouthpiece’s playing characteristics. If it functions well on the response/stability axis, then with a little time I will probably adapt my embouchure in minute ways (even without realizing it) to find the tone I want.

For the last seven years I have been using D’Daddario’s Reserve X5 clarinet mouthpiece, so I’m using that as my frame of reference. The Reserve and Evolution mouthpieces are both good, solid choices, and I can’t really say broadly that one is better than the other. But they have some differences in response, stability, and tone, which I’ll outline here in case it helps you pick one that best suits your preference.

Basically I find the Reserve to lean slightly toward responsiveness, with the expected tinge of brightness/presence, and the Evolution to tend more stable, with the darker/more covered sound. It’s subtle.

(Besides the mouthpieces, D’Addario also makes Reserve and Evolution reeds, which I find to have those same characteristics: Reserve = more responsive, Evolution = more stable. A D’Addario representative tells me the similarly named mouthpieces and reeds are “not meant to be exclusively paired together.”)

The following audio clips are all played using the same reed, a D’Addario Reserve 3.5. It’s just a little softer than I prefer for the X5, which accounts for some of the responsiveness and brightness but not all of it. Using a 3.5+ brings the sound and response just slightly closer to the Evolutions.

Evolution (black)
Evolution (marble)
Reserve X5

These photos are of the packaging for the X5 and Evolution mouthpieces. The measurements, oddly, are mostly in inches. (The X5 packaging is several years old, from when these were still sold as “Rico Reserve;” I don’t know if the box otherwise still looks the same.) The side view diagrams seem to indicate that both have a tip opening of ~.042 inches, which seems like a possible typo. Assuming the openings are precisely 1.05mm and 1.08mm (as also indicated on the packaging), these might be better expressed as .041 and .043.

I like both the Reserve X5 (my current favorite of the Reserve options) and the Evolution, and currently they are both living in my clarinet case. If forced to choose, I think at the moment I would fall back on the X5, because responsiveness feels important to me right now. But I can easily see myself switching to the Evolution at some point, perhaps depending on repertoire and performance situation.

In any case, the Evolution is another strong addition to D’Addario’s line of mouthpieces, and worth checking out.

Review: D’Addario Reserve alto saxophone mouthpieces

If you have read my reviews of the D’Addario clarinet and jazz alto and tenor saxophone mouthpieces, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a big fan of their new classical alto saxophone mouthpiece, too. (As with the last several reviews, D’Addario sent me some mouthpieces at no cost, with the possibility but not the promise of a review.)

I’ve been hammering on one point with all the D’Addario mouthpieces, but it’s worth bringing up again because it’s an important innovation in how mouthpieces are made and bought. D’Addario’s manufacturing process (precisely milling mouthpieces from solid rod rubber) produces mouthpieces that are extremely consistent, much more so than other mass-produced professional mouthpieces, which are generally finished a little by hand. The old system is that you try out a bunch of mouthpieces that are the same make and model (by going into a store or putting a big deposit on your credit card), and pick out the one that plays best. The new system is that you order a D’Addario mouthpiece from your favorite retailer, and know that it plays just like all the others. This is a game-changing development in the sub-$200 mouthpiece market.

And, of course, like the other mouthpieces in D’Addario’s lineup, the new Reserve alto mouthpiece plays great.

I’ve been playing on a Vandoren Optimum AL3 for the last 8 or 9 years (and used an AL4 for a few years before that). What I like about the Optimum is that it’s very easy to play, with good response in all registers, good dynamic range, a lot of stability (so pitch and tone are very consistent, without much effort from the player), and tone that tends toward a warm, almost muted quality (in a good way). It’s a mouthpiece for a 21st-century classical saxophone player.

The D’Addario mouthpiece has these same qualities, with some subtle but important improvements. When I started playing on the AL4 I liked its richness of tone, but ultimately decided I needed to sacrifice that a little to embrace the AL3’s superior high register. The D’Addario Reserve does an impressive job of blending those qualities, and even improving upon both.

In particular, I have been impressed with scalar movement in the altissimo register, which on my Vandoren mouthpieces could be just a little lumpy as I crossed from one partial to another. The D’Addario mouthpieces make this feel really smooth, effortless, and secure.

I have been using mostly D’Addario Reserve reeds for classical saxophone playing, and with my Vandoren mouthpieces I sometimes wished I could get a reed strength between 2.5 and 3.0. I did hope that switching to the D’Addario mouthpiece would eliminate that need, but after trying them I still feel like a 2.5+ would be a useful option. (D’Addario does make some “plus” reeds, such as the Reserve alto saxophone 3.0+.) If I have one complaint about the Reserve mouthpiece, it’s that I don’t get quite the ease of low-register response I would like with the 3.0 reed. A 2.5 helps that but plays a little brighter than I want.

The Reserve mouthpiece comes in three flavors at the moment: D145 (1.45mm tip/medium facing), D150 (1.50mm tip/medium-long facing), and D155 (1.50mm tip/medium facing—yes, it is the same tip opening as the D150). The mouthpiece has what D’Addario touts as a “unique oval inner chamber.”

I’m really quite impressed with all three of the Reserve options, and not 100% settled yet on which will be my go-to. But I recently used the D150 (with a Reserve 3.0 reed) for a concerto performance with band that involved some double tonguing and plenty of altissimo. The D150/3.0 setup worked well for that situation—just the right amount of resistance to make the double-tonguing comfortable and easy, good security in the altissimo, and enough guts to be heard over the band without getting spread or edgy.

Here’s a quick comparison between the D’Addario Reserve D150 and the Vandoren Optimum AL3. I’m using the same ligature and reed in both clips.

D’Addario Reserve D150:

Vandoren Optimum AL3:

To my ear, the D’Addario has a richer, fuller, and more even sound, and also responds better to dynamic changes.

So far D’Addario is scoring 100% with me on their mouthpieces: each new mouthpiece they have released has replaced my former setups (clarinet, jazz alto, jazz tenor, and now classical alto). I look forward to whatever is next.

Review: “Double Troubles” by Paul Saunders

A few months ago I wrote a review of So You Want to Play in Shows…?, a book of woodwind doubling etudes by Paul Saunders. Recently Paul sent me Double Troublesa new collection of etudes. Like So You Want, the new volume includes a piano part plus access to downloadable backing tracks. As I said in the previous review:

This is an elegant solution to one of the problems of woodwind doubling etudes: how do you enforce quick instrument switches? … Saunders’s book, used with the recordings, provides a simple way to work out quick switches alone in a practice room.

Like in the previous book, these etudes are musically interesting and in styles typical of contemporary musical theater. Double Troubles is overall somewhat more challenging, including some saxophone altissimo and flute third octave up to C (though most of the extreme high register playing on both instruments is marked as optional—Paul clarified to me that the upper register is preferable, and the optional 8vbs are to make the etudes more approachable if needed). The book also incorporates soprano and tenor saxophones on some etudes, in addition to the flute/clarinet/alto used in the first book.

Two of the etudes are by guest composers, Darren Lord and Jennifer Whyte. Here’s a quick-and-dirty demo of the tune “Disco Nap,” which is Darren Lord’s contribution:

I had fun playing through these, and recommend Paul’s doubling etude books as one of the best sources of practice material for the flute/clarinet/saxophone doubler.

Review: D’Addario Select Jazz tenor saxophone mouthpieces

I’ve already done thorough reviews of the D’Addario clarinet mouthpieces (twice) and alto saxophone jazz mouthpieces, both of which immediately replaced the competing Vandoren products I was previously using. So, naturally I’ve been very anxious for the release of the hard rubber tenor saxophone jazz mouthpiece, and I got my hands on some samples earlier this week. (Full disclosure: D’Addario sent me the mouthpieces for free, but with no strings attached. This is my best attempt to give an unbiased review.)

I’m pleased to report that everything I like about the clarinet and alto mouthpieces is true of the tenor mouthpieces as well: these are well-made, utterly consistent, easy-to-play, affordable, versatile mouthpieces. Like the clarinet and alto pieces, the Select Jazz tenor mouthpiece is going to be my new mouthpiece for the foreseeable future.

I like to be as low-fuss as possible about my gear. This is a sub-$200 mouthpiece, fully machine-made to fine tolerances, by a major woodwind accessory company. That means if I break or lose mine, I can quickly and easily get another that plays virtually identically from just about any online or brick-and-mortar music store. (Soon; the tenor mouthpieces don’t seem to be in many stores yet.) Check out my previous reviews for more in-depth discussion about that—in short, the days of having to order a half-dozen and pick the best one are gone.

The Select Jazz tenor mouthpiece is currently available in a medium chamber and medium facing, with tip openings from 6 (2.54mm/.100”) to 9 (2.92mm/.115”). I’ve been wanting to move to a little smaller tip opening, and the 6 is just what I was looking for.

The tip openings differ in the ways you would expect. The 6 likes a medium- or medium-soft strength reed, and the 9 needs a medium-soft or soft. The smaller openings are very slightly mellower in tone, softer in volume, and oriented toward stability rather than flexibility, while the larger ones are brighter, louder, and more flexible/less stable, but the differences really are pretty minor. The 6 is my favorite, but I could use the 9 on a gig in a pinch. Choosing your tip opening will probably be more a matter of comfort zone than a question of differences in sound or application.

My previous mouthpiece was a slightly older model Vandoren V16 metal mouthpiece, the T75 (2.67mm/.105″, I think). It served me well for quite a few years, but recently I’ve been less satisfied with its difficult low notes and overall edginess. (After having it for a few years the gold plating started to get some discolored spots, and ultimately got some pitting on the table, so it may not be playing as well as it once did.) Playing hard rubber for jazz on tenor is actually new for me—I’ve played a string of metal mouthpieces since high school—but the transition to the Select Jazz has been seamless. Eyes closed, I don’t think I could tell the difference material-wise.

For tenor in particular I want a mouthpiece that can do lots of things—a sweeter, mellower sound for small-group cocktail gigs, a punchier, gutsier sound for amplified rock and blues, precise articulation and rock-steady intonation for studio playing. The Select Jazz has a nice middle-of-the-road quality that moves easily between straight-ahead jazz and funkier sounds. I find that at a scream I don’t get quite as much bite in the tone as I do with the V16, but I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of bottom end in the sound at maximum volume. In other words, the V16 gets bright and aggressive when I push it, but the Select Jazz just gets big and powerful. I’m liking the tradeoff.

The Select Jazz also wins hands down for ease of playing (against the V16, which I originally selected for its ease of playing). I could just about play a classical recital on the #6 if I had to—the articulation and response are easy from low B-flat up into the altissimo. Like the V16, it strikes a nice balance between stability and flexibility. It’s easy to play in tune, but there’s also plenty of room to bend the pitch around when I want to.

I’m not going to do a thorough play-test comparison this time, because I don’t think it’s really necessary. My V16 is an old model, in poor shape, and metal, so the comparison isn’t really fair and they are perhaps somewhat different animals anyway. But here’s a quick demo of the 6, moving through a few different styles. (It was supposed to be one uninterrupted take, but I ended up having to re-record the last segment standing a little farther from the mic.) First a snippet of Body and Soul, then a few bars of a Brecker tune that I can never remember the name of, then Night Train, then the horn break from Sir Duke.

I don’t see myself as a guy who gets snobby about brands, but D’Addario’s pro-line mouthpieces have hit the mark for me 100% so far. Looking forward to what’s next.