I was pleased to hear from a representative of Rico about their new “Reserve” clarinet mouthpieces, which they seem to be promoting very heavily and which are generating some buzz (no pun intended) among curious clarinetists. She was kind enough to send me a few to check out for myself and to review here, and to put me in touch with Robert Polan, Rico Product Manager, who answered some of my questions during the process.
Initial observations and thoughts
The mouthpiece is currently available in three models. Rico sent me one of each:
- X0 (which has a 1.00mm tip opening)
- X5 (1.05mm)
- X10 (1.10mm)
I’m a fan of connecting model numbers to actual relevant measurements, as Rico has done here, rather than assigning seemingly arbitrary codes (take note, Vandoren), though of course the tip opening is only one of many measurements that affect a mouthpiece’s playing characteristics. Dave Kessler speculates that we might see some larger tip openings from Rico in the future, but it does seem that Rico has boxed themselves in on any smaller openings with this naming scheme; naming the mouthpieces something like X100, X105, and X110 might make more sense if future offerings were to include a sub-1.00mm tip opening (X095, etc.). Mr. Polan responded noncommittally to my question about future offerings:
Since the product is so new, it’s too early to know which additional models clarinetists will want. We are carefully evaluating the response to these three models in order to determine what is next.
The boxes’ design includes some faux-technical-drawings of the mouthpieces—which I initially thought was a cool touch, showing the precise dimensions of the mouthpieces—but the drawings are actually identical on the different models’ boxes, so they are probably mostly decorative.
The mouthpieces themselves are etched with the text “Reserve Rico,” a six-digit serial number (the first three digits are zeroes at this point), the model number (such as “X5”) and additional numeral 2 (I don’t know what the 2 means, and I couldn’t seem to get a response to my question about it). It seems a little unusual to see a serial number on an inexpensive, mass-produced mouthpiece (the Reserves seem to be going for a street price of about $100). I asked Robert Polan about this, and his response was:
Adding a serial number was an important feature for us. We are planning to offer online tools and future promotions for Reserve mouthpiece owners who register their mouthpieces on a soon-to-be released “Owners Area” on our website. Again, more to come on this in the coming months.
The mouthpiece is also bedazzled with a painted-on dullish-silver “R” logo on top, which I expect will wear off quickly; I think it would be a classier (and more permanent) touch to etch the logo. I am pleased to see the other identifying information etched into the mouthpiece; my old Vandoren mouthpieces get difficult to tell apart once the painted model numbers wear off. The Reserves also have the usual latitudinal lines which can be used to gauge ligature position.
One of Rico’s big claims about the Reserve mouthpieces is the extreme precision with which they are made, using a process of milling, or carving, the mouthpieces out of solid material, rather than pouring liquid material into a mold. In fact, Rico touts “Zero handwork for maximum consistency” as a feature of these mouthpieces. This seems like a daring choice; in the past, I’ve always seen mouthpiece makers anxious to point out the hand-finishing of their mouthpieces. Rico’s implication seems to be that other mouthpiece makers use hand-finishing because their manufacturing tolerances aren’t exact enough without it, and that Rico has found a way to improve those tolerances to the point that they can eliminate the extra step, cut costs, and take potential human error out of the picture. Mr. Polan clarifies:
Using the CNC technology to fully machine the Reserve mouthpiece allows us to control consistency to a very high level, resulting in greater repeatability than with hand-finishing. This is especially true with high volume production. One of the smartest operations experts I know once put it to me this way: “When you ask a human being to perform a task repeatedly, he or she will get it right on average about 80% of the time.” While a mouthpiece craftsman like Lee Livengood can no doubt produce results that rival our machines, finishing hundreds of mouthpieces a day would make maintaining repeatability challenging for even the most skilled hand-finisher. Considering that many competitors’ mouthpieces in the Reserve price range are finished by factory workers, most of whom do not even play clarinet, the attention to detail with the finishing steps is not the same as it is with someone like Lee Livengood, nor does it come close to matching the consistency we achieve with the Reserve mouthpiece.
[Ed. note: Lee Livengood is a clarinetist with the Utah Symphony, a mouthpiece maker, and a past president of the International Clarinet Association, and a technical consultant to Rico on the development of the Reserve mouthpieces.]
Rico claims that they can machine-mill mouthpieces to tolerances of 0.0005″. Kessler suggests that Rico is perhaps stretching the truth with this claim; when I mentioned this, Robert Polan responded:
Regarding the question about our machining tolerances, we are indeed holding tolerances as tight as .0005” in areas of the mouthpiece that require that precision. We do not claim to hold .0005” with every dimension; that would be both costly and unnecessary. But we are holding to that tolerance where it counts. Ultimately the player will judge any claims about tolerances and quality. We did our homework with the Reserve mouthpiece and we are confident it stands up to the most discerning players.
It’s fair to point out that I don’t really have a concept of what kind of tolerances are necessary for mouthpiece making, but, on close visual inspection, the precision of these mouthpieces does indeed appear very impressive. The rails and tips appear to my eye to be very, very symmetrical and even. This is something that I definitely haven’t seen in mass-produced mouthpieces before. Held in the right light, the tables reveal some visual evidence of the tooling process: some subtle lengthwise lines. However, the tables feel glassy-smooth to the touch.
I mentioned that it would be interesting to compare several of the same model and see if any variation could be spotted with the naked eye (my bet is: not much). Mr. Polan immediately offered to send me several more to compare, commenting:
We don’t claim that every mouthpiece we make is identical; offering identical measurements is impossible. We do, however, feel confident that there is a noticeable similarity between every mouthpiece we make, thanks to the control in our process. As Richie Hawley put it when we had him test our consistency, the Reserve mouthpiece has a “comfortable and predictable similarity” from one to another.
Though demand for the mouthpieces has delayed getting the additional mouthpieces to me (I understand Rico is currently backordered by 5oo units), I think it speaks to Rico’s faith in their product that they are willing to offer samples up for side-by-side scrutiny. I will post a follow-up when the additional mouthpieces arrive. [Update: read the follow-up here.]
The proof is in the playing
But of course the real question on everyone’s mind: how do they play? I’ve been playing the Reserve mouthpieces over the last few weeks.
I don’t usually like to talk much about what equipment I’m using, but I think it gives useful context to this review if I tell you that my point of comparison here is the Vandoren M15 (13-series) mouthpiece. I used my usual ligature (a common make and model) and my current favorite Rico Reserve Classic reeds.
The X5 is my personal favorite. According to a chart from Rico, it is the model most directly comparable to what I have been using (and to quite a few other popular mouthpieces), and I expect that is why it seems like the most comfortable match for me. Since it is currently the middle-of-the road Reserve offering, and has a similar tip opening to so many popular mouthpieces already on the market, it is probably the one that most clarinetists should try first. The X5 is what I am comparing to the Vandoren here.
What I noticed most in the first few minutes of playing was a difference in tone from the Vandoren. With the Reserve, I liked the richness of the chalumeau register, but my first impression was that the clarion was harsh and the altissimo was shrill. I did some experiments with recording, though, and found that it was much less noticeable even on a close-up recording, and was even coming across as a nice “ping” and presence. As I continued to play it over several days, I found that the harshness and shrillness cleared up considerably as I got more used to the mouthpiece. Beware snap judgments.
Another thing that I disliked initially was the way slurs responded, especially on upward leaps into the altissimo register; I found the Reserve to be more risky in this area than my familiar Vandoren. I also found the Reserve at first to be more prone to heavy, thumpy tonguing, if I find myself slipping in that direction. However, I have discovered that if my embouchure, breath support, and tonguing technique are at their best, the Reserve responds beautifully, perhaps a bit better than the Vandoren.
My conclusion after a few days of playing and experimenting is that, in terms of the tone and response differences that I observed, my Vandoren M15 is a bit more forgiving of faults in my playing than the Reserve mouthpiece, even taking into account that I am accustomed to the Vandoren. However, when I am more conscious of good embouchure habits and other elements of my playing, the Reserve reveals a richer tone and better response. I do think that there are more highs in the sound of the Reserve than in my Vandoren, but when I listen back to recordings I hear that as presence, richness, and projection that the Vandoren can’t quite match. The Vandoren is still tempting because it does more of the work for me, but I think the Reserve has more to offer if I am playing at my best.
Here are some audio clips contrasting the Rico Reserve X5 with the Vandoren M15.
Vandoren M15 #1
Rico Reserve X5 #1
Vandoren M15 #2
Rico Reserve X5 #2
I also wanted to test how far I could push the mouthpieces dynamically. I recorded a two-octave C-major scale (played on clarinet in A), playing as loud as possible and refraining the best I could from interfering with the mouthpieces’ natural responses. It’s not pleasant to listen to, so I will spare you the sound clips, but a couple of things caught my eye about the waveforms:
The mouthpieces seemed to respond similarly volume-wise in the chalumeau register and across the break. But there was an odd phenomenon in the clarion register. A little past the halfway point, you can see that there is a sudden increase in volume in the M15 recording (shown on top) when I reach clarion F. The X5 seems to tame the F, matching it quite well to the E prior, and allowing the volume to step up more smoothly to the loud B and C; this result was consistent through repeated tests. The Reserve also felt more stable volume-wise; I consistently got the sort of pear-shaped high C on the M15, and the more rectangular one on the X5.
I tested the Reserve mouthpieces primarily with Rico Reserve Classic reeds in strengths of 4.0, 4.0+, and 4.5, and I find any of those to be within acceptable parameters for the X5, leaving some room for individual preference on stiffness; the 4.0 and 4.0+ worked fine with the X10. I actually had a little trouble matching the Reserve Classic reeds to the X0, with the 4.0+s being too soft and buzzy, and the 4.5s being too stiff.
I like the idea of my reeds and mouthpieces coming from the same manufacturer, as it seems like they will be especially well suited to each other, but I switched away from Vandoren reeds to Rico reeds on my Vandoren mouthpieces a while back and have been pleased with the results, and I don’t find a real difference in reed-friendliness between the X5 and the M15. I tried the Reserves with Vandoren V12 reeds of comparable strengths (4, 4.5) and found them to work just fine.
According to Robert Polan, the mouthpieces are made with a pitch standard of A = 441Hz in mind. I wasn’t able to observe any differences in intonation between the Reserves and the Vandoren.
The fully-mechanized production presumably means that these mouthpieces can be made quickly, consistently, in quantity, and cheaply (though not quite quickly enough to avoid some backorders, at least during this period of initial interest; I understand Rico sold out their entire stock at last week’s ClarinetFest). For a clarinetist like me, such a reproducible mouthpiece is a very attractive proposition. I don’t want my equipment to be irreplaceable—if my mouthpiece suffers an accident or just wears with age, I want to be able to replace it easily and cheaply with something that plays just like it. I don’t want to be stuck on a mouthpiece maker’s waiting list, scrambling for funds, or frantically trying to get used to something new because my old mouthpiece took some unexpected damage. I’ve always avoided expensive custom mouthpieces for these reasons, and the Reserve line seems to me like a good intersection between quality and accessibility. With the Reserve as my main mouthpiece, it should be a relatively small matter to replace it when necessary. Robert Polan says:
The statistical repeatability from the CNC process offers a key benefit: every mouthpiece we make feels similar to each other, especially when compared to what is currently commercially available. So as you point out, if you lose your favorite Reserve mouthpiece, the process of finding a replacement will be very simple. More importantly, clarinetists will not need to play through 10 mouthpieces of the same model to find “the good one,” as has been common practice heretofore.
I’m anxious for the additional mouthpieces to arrive, and I’ll let you know if I find a “good one” among them.
I think there will be some detractors (most of whom won’t have actually tried the Reserve) who will insist that the hand-finishing touted by other mouthpiece makers is a crucial part of the mouthpiece-making process, and that a machine can’t make a great mouthpiece. My feeling is that there’s nothing magical about the “human touch,” if a machine can be built to carry out the same procedures. Skilled, sensitive craftspeople are definitely required, but I don’t see why a computer-controlled milling apparatus can’t be as good a tool as sandpaper and files. Progress is a good thing.
At the moment, the Reserves have a street price of about $100, while the Vandoren M15 and similar models go for $85-100. The newish Vandoren Masters series competes more directly with the Reserve in terms of price, and I wonder if Reserve vs. Masters might be an interesting comparison. (It is worth noting that the Masters apparently requires a specially-fitted ligature that sells separately for $40 and up, or in a package deal with the mouthpiece for about $125. The Reserve mouthpieces use standard ligatures.)
I asked some questions about the future of the Reserve mouthpiece line, including whether the line would be expanded to other instruments (I mentioned bass clarinet and saxophone specifically). The response from Robert Polan was about what you would expect:
We do have plans to expand our mouthpiece offering beyond clarinet. We are still evaluating the next steps so stay tuned!
Rico promotional materials
The Rico representative who first contacted me sent some promotional photos and a video link to use in my review. Here they are: