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.
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
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.