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.