Synthetic reeds are probably the future

crop chemist holding in hands molecule model

I was pleased to receive recently some samples of D’Addario Woodwinds’s new “Venn” synthetic clarinet and saxophone reeds. In an upcoming post, I’ll share some thoughts about and demonstrations of the specific products. But here are a few thoughts to set the stage:

  • I’m thrilled to see a major cane reed manufacturer like D’Addario take on this challenge. My hunch is that other major reed makers are either close at their heels or betting on musicians’ provincial thinking about modern materials. Let’s hope it’s the former.
  • I am a strong believer that synthetic reeds are the future. Modern science has invented amazing materials for clothing and smartphone screens and space travel; we can invent something that works great for reeds. Natural cane isn’t sacred or magical—it’s a material with upsides and some very clear downsides.
  • It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying something like a synthetic reed and asking the question, “does this synthetic material sound as good as cane?” And, if the reed doesn’t play as well as one’s usual cane reeds, to answer the question with a no, and perhaps to further opine that nothing can ever sound as good as “real” cane. But that knee-jerk reaction fails to take into account all the other things we already know about reeds, such as that their geometry matters a great deal, and that their match to the mouthpiece is equally crucial. We’ve all found the reed-plus-mouthpiece combinations that work for us, and introducing any random new reed (cane or synthetic) isn’t especially likely to improve the situation. The better question to ask is, “Is this a viable reed?” In other words, does it function like a reed should, when paired with an appropriate mouthpiece: with appropriate response, stability, and characteristic tone, regardless of whether it is my new personal favorite?
  • Assuming there are viable synthetic reeds available, it may make sense to adopt them and claim all the potential benefits (consistency, longevity, resistance to warping, reduced waste, cost savings), and, if necessary, seek out new mouthpieces that are well suited to them. I have mouthpieces I like, but if I can replace them and never have to deal with the problems of cane again, that seems like an option well worth considering.

Zealous loyalty to “traditional” materials isn’t a virtue. (If you’re a woodwind player like me, there’s a good chance your equipment already includes materials that are “new” since the instrument’s invention anyway.) Keep an open mind!

Review and blindfold test: Légère Signature Series clarinet reeds

A few months ago, I posted about plastic reeds, and reported some of what I had read on another woodwind blog about the Légère Signature Series and Forestone clarinet reeds.

For reasons unknown to me, the post from which I originally quoted has been removed, but there are similar thoughts expressed in a more recent post.

Anyway, I got a kind offer from someone at Légère to send me a few samples.* They asked about my current cane reed preference, and sent three reeds in different strengths close to what I currently use.

Goodies via Canadian mail

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Thoughts on plastic reeds

I have been following with interest the discussion on the web of the new synthetic clarinet reeds by Forestone. A few days ago, the distinguished Sherman Friedland posted an absolutely glowing review:

The Forestone reeds marks the beginning of a totally new era in the development of reeds, all reeds. It is a new beginning because these reeds are reeds which totally duplicate the feeling and response of cane. It  surpasses any reed currently being sold which is not made from cane which has been grown, harvested and then cut. It does have a tremendous advantage in consistency in that it does not have to  be warmed up and soaked. . . .

What this means is that it is just a matter of time before cane reeds as such, become obsolete.

In the same post, Mr. Friedland discusses the new Légère “Signature” reeds, which he finds to be an improvement over the standard Légère, but still not as good as the Forestone. [Update: see my review of the Légère Signature Series clarinet reeds.]

I have not yet tried the Forestones myself, but have used the standard Légères at times, especially for contrabass clarinets. For the very large clarinets, I had a great deal of trouble keeping cane reeds from warping, even during the course of a two-hour rehearsal; the plastic reeds have a clear advantage in this department.

Forestone, Legere, and a bad-news cheapie
Forestone, Légère, and a bad-news cheapie

In my high school marching band days, I was required to use an inexpensive, brittle plastic saxophone reed. In my opinion, these are not suitable for professional playing. Neither are the plastic oboe or bassoon reeds currently on the market.

I do think it likely that, within my lifetime, I will see plastic single reeds take over in a big way. I expect there will be a few purists who will insist on cane, despite its obvious shortcomings, claiming that nothing sounds like good, old-fashioned cane. I think this blindfold test from Légère shows that plastic definitely can sound very much like cane, and will likely be indistinguishable very soon.

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