Thoughts on plastic reeds

July 25, 2009

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.

The advantages of quality synthetic reeds could be many:

  • consistency from reed to reed
  • consistency of one reed from day to day
  • no need to soak
  • longevity
  • significant reduction in long-term reed expenses

While the advantages of good plastic reeds could be huge for clarinetists and saxophonists, the stakes are even higher for oboists and bassoonists—but the challenges are also much greater. As I see it, there are two major reasons why quality plastic double reeds are still a long way off:

  1. Double reeds are too individual and personal. Single reed players have mostly adapted to using a few major brands of mass-produced cane reeds, but serious double reed players always make their own. One bassoonist’s reeds are very different from another’s, but it’s not at all surprising to find two clarinetists who use the same make, model, and strength. What this means is that synthetic single reeds can, theoretically, be manufactured to feel and sound very much like a reed that is already popular among a large number of clarinetists or saxophonists, but even a very good plastic double reed will likely feel foreign to an oboist or bassoonist. I think oboists and bassoonists could successfully adapt to using these (so-far-imaginary) reeds, but widespread acceptance would be slow.
  2. Soaking plays a different role with double reeds than with single reeds. With a single reed, the object moisture-wise is to get the reed soaked while changing its shape as little as possible—so a reed that is flat on the back stays flat on the back. This is one reason that a plastic single reed is a great idea. Double reeds, though, need to “warp” a little when soaked; a reed that is too dry will have an opening that is too small. So the mechanics of a plastic double reed, which presumably does not respond to soaking, are a little different. Perhaps not impossible, but surely more complicated.

Comments

  1. Geoff Allen

    I’ve been playing with Fibracell, for many of the advantages you list. While not as good as a good cane reed, it’s not as bad as a bad cane reed, and it’s ready to go, even if the clarinet or sax has been sitting idle for an hour when I’m doubling.

    Looks like Forestone doesn’t make sax reeds yet, but I’ll definitely keep these on my radar screen.

    Reply

  2. Neal

    Interesting… I hadn’t tried Legerre or Forestone. I am mostly playing sax these days.
    On clarinet, I thought Fibracell was very good. And for sax they’re decent- I agree with Geoff’s statement.
    What do you think of Fibracell Bret?

    Reply

  3. Bret Pimentel (Your host)

    I think “decent” is a fair evaluation. Thanks for your thoughts, Geoff and Neal.

    Reply

  4. Fred Richardson

    I have been playing clarinet for 36 years and just decided to try a couple Legere reeds after a year of terrible luck with reeds. I have to say – the are bright, play easier than their strength, have very good high range. Not my most favorite in the very low range. Bottom line, I have had better cane reeds occasionally, but these are better than the last 20 reeds I have tried. Double C pops right out. Good attack as well.

    Reply

  5. Hart Linker

    After learning about the Legere reeds back in 2006, I have been playing them for both classical and contemporary styles on tenor and baritone saxophones.

    If you are thinking about experimenting with a Legere saxophone reed, I would recommend that you purchase one reed at the same strength and one reed at one strength above the strength you are playing on for a traditional wood reed (A Player Performing on a Strength 3 Vandoren/Rico should try both a strength 3 and 3.25 Legere Synthetic Reed).

    While equipment (saxophone/ mouthpiece/ reed/ ligature) contributes to just a small portion of the overall equation, I’ve found that making the switch to Legere reeds for tenor/baritone saxophones not only saves me a tremendous amount of money (each reed usually lasts me between 2-3 months of practicing 3hrs or more per day) but also allows me to easily transition between soprano (playing a traditional wood reed), alto (playing a traditional wood reed), tenor, and baritone saxophones in the shortest amount of time possible.

    Reply

  6. Dirk Bretschneider

    I’ve got one of those legère bassoon-reeds, and I’m really glad I have it!
    As a selftought doubler on bassoon, I never got into making or tweaking my own reeds. The legère bassoon reed simply plays, and this helps me a lot. It’s a long time, that I put a cane reed on my bocal. Perhaps there have been better sounding cane reeds, but it always was a struggle.

    On saxes and clarinets, I have cane or legère signatures, depends on the mouthpiece.

    Reply

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