I’ve been having fun with woodwinds enhanced with pickups or microphones. (If you’re interested in natively-electronic instruments like wind controllers, I’ve written about those elsewhere.)
I still have a lot to learn about working with electronics. But here are a few observations in case anyone finds them helpful.
Which instrument(s) to use? I find lower-pitched instruments to be more fun, since they can provide convincing bass lines. Electronics can pitch a high instrument down, of course, but I haven’t had the success I would like making this sound good. So far I’ve installed pickups into a bassoon bocal, a bass clarinet neck, and an English horn bocal. I’ve used microphones for other instruments.
Which gadgets to use? I’m personally using the Little-Jake pickups, a looper, and a multi-effects unit. When I started getting into effects pedals, I found it alarmingly easy to accumulate quite a few. This was a good and inexpensive way to get started. But I quickly discovered that it was becoming unwieldy to try use use more than a few in performance (I literally had to walk back and forth across the stage to get to them all). A multi-effects unit turned out to be much more practical, with a few foot switches I can configure to operate a large number of effects. (I’m currently using one by Boss.) It takes a little more advance setup than individual pedals, but greatly simplifies the onstage footwork. And I was pretty easily able to sell off the individual pedals to fund the purchase.
Which effects to use? I think the best-known guitar-type effects are distortion, delay/echo, and reverb. Those are fun to play with, but I’ve become more interested in ones I can use to give my instruments new capabilities, rather than just give their sounds a little grittiness or echo. For example, smart harmonizers (which add harmony lines based on a selected key) and pitch shifters (which add harmony lines based on selected intervals) make my instruments polyphonic, a significant upgrade for a woodwind player. And a looper, or even a cleverly-used delay, can create counterpoint.
Switching between any two instruments, even two closely-related ones, is a challenging prospect. You must practice for many hours to do it well. But often people switching between clarinets (such as between B-flat clarinet and bass clarinet) are making larger changes than necessary.
The fundamental concepts in clarinet tone production are breath support, voicing, and embouchure. These should remain basically the same whether you are playing the largest or smallest members of the clarinet family.
Breath support should, in all cases, be powerful and constant. Voicing, even on low clarinets, should be high (think “cold air”). You may find the lower clarinets are somewhat more forgiving of lower voicings, and even that some pleasing effects can be achieved. But a consistently high voicing across the clarinet family pays off in intonation, evenness of tone, and ease of response.
Embouchures must adapt, but really only to accommodate different sizes of mouthpiece. In general, the larger the instrument and mouthpiece, the more mouthpiece you will take into your mouth. However, this amount can vary even between two B-flat clarinet mouthpieces. To find the correct position for each of your mouthpieces, insert a piece of paper between the mouthpiece and reed. Where the paper stops is approximately the place where your lip should contact the reed.
Beware advice suggesting that larger clarinets use a “looser” embouchure. Embouchures for all clarinets should be airtight, but not tight.
The angle of the embouchure is also important. Clarinet mouthpieces of any size are best played at a relatively steep angle (compared to, say, a saxophone or oboe), around 30 degrees from vertical. Some larger clarinets, depending on their neck curves, seem to lend themselves to a more-horizontal angle. But bringing the bottom end of the clarinet closer to you helps to achieve a more optimal position.
Fingerings are mostly the same for members of the clarinet family, but there are some exceptions and adaptions. Advancing players should consult a good fingering chart (such as Stefanie Gardner’s bass clarinet chart) for differences. (Or even better, get a private teacher.) Note in Dr. Gardner’s chart some differences from B-flat clarinet: the use of the left hand index finger vent for C-sharp6 through G6, and the special fingerings for the extra keywork for notes below E3, if available on your instrument.
There are few more coveted clarinet techniques than the smooth glissando, as heard in the famous opening to Rhapsody in Blue. But the technique isn’t intuitive, and lots of questions persist about how to do it.
(Incidentally: the Rhapsody in Blue score doesn’t call for a smooth portamento-type effect, but a scale with discrete notes. But the portamento became tradition early in the piece’s life and is now more or less required.)
How the clarinet glissando is done, technique-wise
One key thing to understand is that finger movement is the smallest part of the clarinet glissando. It’s not possible (or at least I’ve never seen it done) to achieve the full effect by simply uncovering toneholes gradually. The real work here is done with voicing.
Let’s break the technique down. We’ll use Rhapsody in Blue as an example, but the principles can be applied to other repertoire (or improvisations).
First, let’s look at what’s called for in the score:
Glissandos that cross register breaks are a particular challenge, so most clarinetists avoid that, opting to play a scale in the lower register, and beginning the glissando at the lower-clarion B or C.
High C is the destination note. Start by playing that note and using your voicing (think of blowing warmer air) to bend the pitch downward. Resist the urge to “lip” it down with your embouchure muscles or to let your breath support sag.
Bend it down absolutely as far as you can, until the note quits. It can take some practice to get a wide pitch bend range. Don’t strain; play around with it for a few minutes, then try again tomorrow.
Once you’re able to bend it fairly far, try kicking in some extra breath support. The air column is reluctant to vibrate when it’s bent too far (I’m fudging a little here on the acoustics). Use powerful air, even more powerful than usual, to make it keep vibrating, and see if you can bend even farther.
Now go to the lower part of the glissando, B or C in the staff. Try to bend it. You probably can’t bend this long-tube note, with lots of closed toneholes, nearly as much as you could bend the short-tube high C.
Now play the note, and gradually let your fingers lift, just a little bit, off the toneholes.
Notice that with the toneholes just slightly vented, the note becomes much less stable—or more bendable. Play around with the pitch to get the feel of it.
Now play the lowest note of the glissando (I’m using C here for simplicity). Move the fingers a little off their toneholes (all of them, except the left thumb, which stays in position for high C) while simultaneously bending the pitch down hard with voicing. (Remember to keep breath support strong.) While gradually moving the fingers farther off the toneholes, bend gradually upward with voicing. As the fingers finally completely clear the toneholes, the voicing arrives at its standard high position, and the pitch settles in on high C.
It takes practice to get the fingers and voicing coordinated, and to gain enough control to shape the bend just how you want it.
To execute the Rhapsody in Blue opening, play a scale in the lower register, then switch as seamlessly as possible to a glissando just above the register break. Some players play the scale portion as written, but some attempt to make it sound more glissando-like by turning it into a chromatic scale. Sometimes they also start the scale on chalumeau F-sharp rather than the written G.
How the clarinet glissando is done, taste-wise
Mastering the technique of the glissando, like mastering any technique, is only the first step. The next and perhaps more important step is to learn to do it with good musical taste.
When performing a glissando, carefully consider the shape of the pitch bend. How long is the bend overall? Should the pitch move in a straight line from one pitch to another? (Unlikely.) Should it have more of a curve, staying low at first and then rising at an increasing rate? Should there be a moment at the beginning or end at which the pitch remains stable, or is it constantly in motion?
These are fine distinctions, but important to the character of the glissando. Careful, detailed listening is crucial to the process—be sure to check out as many good recordings as you can, and note the differences in approach. If your intention is for the glissando to sound jazz-like, make sure you are listening to jazz players who use that effect, not just classical players who may or may not have done their homework.
Why it’s a clarinet-specific effect
The clarinet, unlike any of the other major modern wind instruments, uses a very high voicing for general playing. This leaves room to lower the voicing considerably for this special glissando effect. Flutes and double reeds (and brass instruments) use a very low voicing, which theoretically can be raised, but a raised voicing on a low-voicing instrument doesn’t cover as much territory pitch-wise; in other words, it’s harder to raise the pitch with voicing than it is to lower it. The saxophones, with an in-between voicing, have some flexibility here, but also have to contend with large keys on large toneholes, which are not as precise for hole-uncovering as fingertips on small clarinet toneholes. (The keys situation also explains why the larger clarinets aren’t nearly as agile with glissandos, even though those instruments are properly played with a high voicing.) In short, the technique lends itself particularly to the high clarinets, and may be much more difficult on other woodwinds.
Young woodwind players often have trouble playing elegant, well-controlled accents. Accented notes are too often thumpy and out of tune. The most common manifestations are accented notes that are too flat, or that scoop up to pitch.
This is usually a side effect of the mistaken idea that accented notes should be tongued “harder.” The underlying misconception here is that the tongue “strikes” the reed in some way to kickstart its vibration. But the tongue merely releases the air that does the real work of starting the note, and releasing the air… harder?… doesn’t make a lot of sense.
In a misguided attempt to tongue harder, less-experienced players end up moving more of the tongue than is necessary. In good woodwind playing, the tongue serves at least two separate functions: the tip of the tongue releases the reed/air for articulation effects, and the back of the tongue controls the space in the oral cavity for voicing. Tonguing “harder” often involves the back of the tongue in the articulation process, which means the voicing changes, and thus the pitch changes.
Solve this problem by teaching a correct conception of articulation. Treat accents as note shapes, a dynamic effect.
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
I’m a music professor, and I find there are sometimes disconnects between the music faculty and the faculty in other departments. Of course not every institution is the same, and even areas of concentration within music can have differing roles and expectations, but here’s what sometimes surprises my non-music colleagues about my particular job:
Most of my teaching is one-on-one. In my “applied” music teaching, students (mostly music majors) come to my office weekly for private lessons in playing their instrument. One side effect of that is that I put in a lot of contact hours with students for the amount of teaching load credit I get. (I once had a colleague in another department ask to schedule a meeting on one of my “non-teaching” days, a luxury I do not have.) A flip side is that I’m grading these lessons as they are happening, so I rarely have stacks of papers or assignments or exams to grade.
I’m pretty specialized. I have the expertise to teach an instrument (actually, in my individual case it’s a few, but that’s unusual), and I wouldn’t be a very effective teacher of most of the other instruments, which I can’t play much or at all. Well-staffed music departments often have a separate teacher (or even more than one) for every instrument (including voice). For that reason, music departments tend to have a fairly high faculty-to-student ratio.
Much of my value to my department has to do with my “studio,” the group of students who I teach one-on-one. To be seen as contributing appropriately, I need to maintain a full and vibrant studio. At a small school like mine, that means it’s an ongoing priority to find and recruit prospective students, often by traveling to high schools and community colleges in the region. I’m not just looking for music majors in general, but particularly for students who play what I teach. Failure to keep my studio full could ultimately result in the value of my position being called into question.
The students in my studio take lessons from me not just for a semester, but for the duration of their degree programs. That means I get to know them well, see them at their best and their worst, and see their development in detail over the course of several years. It can be a close teacher-student bond, or sometimes a more strained relationship. Since at my institution I’m also the academic advisor for my studio, I’m monitoring most aspects of their academic progress, professional development, and even personal wellbeing pretty closely.
I don’t work directly with some of the most publicly visible aspects of the music department, such as the marching band. The musical groups that have broader audiences (especially because of their association with university athletics) sometimes seem to take on outsized importance in the public’s minds, relative to the arguably more academically important performances by student soloists and concert-hall-type ensembles.
Publishing scholarly papers isn’t how I prove my academic bona fides. Music professors with some more academically-oriented specialties like musicology or music theory might do that. But since my area is music performance, I build my reputation by, well, performing. My annual faculty recitals, presented on campus, are a major component of that. Things like playing in a nearby symphony orchestra count, too.
Performance is a serious, rigorous academic activity. I spend months practicing for multiple hours a day before putting on an hour-long solo recital. To make it a worthy academic achievement requires playing challenging music, generally mostly or entirely music I’ve never performed before. Even selecting the music requires a great deal of expertise, including consideration of factors including overall theme, variety of styles and historical periods, pacing, performance factors like fatigue, and inclusion of music by a diversity of composers. And the printed sheet music provides only skeletal instructions for performance—I will have to make thousands of interpretive decisions, weighing historical performance practices, traditions specific to the instrument and to the individual pieces being performed, the interactions and balances between separate pieces of music, the approaches of any collaborating musicians, the response of the audience, and my individual performing strengths and weaknesses.
Similarly, the music and performance opportunities I select for my students and student ensembles are part of a larger educational purpose, which doesn’t always align with public tastes. (I direct the university jazz ensemble, and I have gotten comments from audience members who want to hear Glenn Miller on every concert, and who are unflinchingly candid in their opinions of the “modern” big band music that I also generally include. For educational reasons, I want the students to study and perform in a variety of styles.)
I work a lot of weekends and evenings. Not so much grading papers, but performing, and attending and evaluating my colleagues’ and students’ performances.
And, finally, because what we do in the music department is so different from what our colleagues in other disciplines do, we spend a fair amount of time justifying it. Administrators, tenure and promotion committees, and others might look at a spreadsheet of academic journal publications or credit hour production, and assume we aren’t getting much done, or might view a recital performance as just playing some music for fun. There’s an ongoing need to explain the importance, value, and academic rigor of our work.
Check your music department’s website, and stop by to hear a colleague perform or teach!