Marion Harrington Clarinet

For Clarinettists Only – The Great Reed Experiment

One of the positive aspects of being temporarily sidelined from public performance for 6 months is the opportunity to explore and discover.

Back at the beginning of April, with my embouchure still a bit weak from a nasty cold sore attack on my upper lip muscles and some intensive double-embouchure re-building work on the agenda, the fact that I was due to put in a multi-box order for reeds anyway gave me the perfect excuse to get my hands on several types of cane for a spot of detailed analysis – something I don’t have the time to do very often.

My Reed Storage System

Our current home base in Southern Spain means that while we enjoy a dry hot climate for most of the year, unfortunately this is not a very favourable environment for reeds!

Coming back into the profession back in 2008, I learnt very quickly that storing cane in simple largely flat bed cases – as I did before when I lived permanently in the UK – was not going to work. Reeds dried out so quickly between playing sessions that they often became very brittle.

My answer was to invest in a Vandoren Hygro reed case HC200 which allows me to the control the conditions within the box. I haven't looked back – it's simply brilliant and does the job perfectly.

I let the reeds sit in an atmosphere of between 55%-65% humidity all year round with the actual range oscillating within 5 points – nice and stable which is what cane needs.

The Contenders

I chose x2 reeds from each of the following boxes, all 3.5 strength:

Vandoren Tradtional

Vandoren V12

Vandoren Rue Lepic 56

Gonzalez Blue Box – this was a complimentary offering from the company along with a few Grey Box 3.5 and 3.1/4

Breaking In

Each reed was played for 5 minutes each day for 6 days. At this stage no adjustments of any sort were made.

Initial Impressions

All Vandoren reeds come individually wrapped within a plastic sleeve wrapped in a flow-pack. This ensures that when you open an individual reed you can be confident that it's been kept at the same ideal humidity conditions as when it left the factory.

I also noted that the V12s each came with a unique serial number – presumably to combat fraud. Comforting and impressive.

On the other hand, the Gonzalez only offered a cardboard sleeve with no other protection in the sealed box.

Call me a reed snob if you like I couldn't help myself – I automatically made a value judgement – OMG this looks cheap and nasty. I can't imagine what this is going to play like. Hmm – I was given a reason for bias right from the start. Maybe Gonzalez should look into this – they're not exactly inexpensive compared to the price of Vandoren Traditionals and you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

All apart from the Rue Lepics – which played beautifully straight out the wrap after a good moistening – had a slightly breathy quality the first week but I was expecting this anyway.

1 Week Into the Test

Playing time for each reed was stepped up to 15 minutes every other day 6/7, 4 reeds one day, 4 the next and a day off for all of them – including me on Sunday!

Trads -

The strength of the Trads I used as the benchmark.

Reed 1 remained blurry in tone but I solved that with some judicious scrapping.

Reed 2 was ok and both usable in practice but neither graded for a rehearsal session or performance.

Thinning of tone noted in upper registers which I didn't like one bit.

V12s -

Strength slightly less than the Trads and with an overall rounder quality.

Reed 3 was fabulous and of performance grade although overweight to the left. I easily solved that with a shift of position to the right on the mouthpiece.

Reed 4 was more than adequate for rehearsal although initially it wasn't very free blowing and again overweight to the left. Repositioning rectified the problem once more without the hassle of scrapping - something I personally find a time consuming pain in the derriere even though I was told I was good at it when a student.

Rue Lepic -

Even softer than the V12s but only slightly.

Reed 5 blew in very quickly after a couple of days.

Both had a roundness of tone in all registers – lovely and clear. Easy on the embouchure too with no hardness of closure!

Wunderbar! Another 2 reeds for performance and rehearsal.

Gonzalez

The hardest 3.5 of them all.

Even after a week both had a rough quality as if they needed more gentle blowing in. Well, ok but if you're under performance deadline pressure that's not very practicable.

Upper registers produced an ugly thin scratchy tone from the get go which didn't exactly enthuse one to hit the practice room.

Balance and breathiness were problems too and at a greater extreme than the Vandorens which left no other choice but scrapping.

Reed 8 failed to respond to any TLC that I offered. Any gentle removal of cane resulted in successive deterioration of quality and in the end I binned it at the beginning of Week 3.

Its replacement was a Gonazalez Grey Box 3.1/4.

Staying Power

I can usually get a minimum of 20 hours worth of work from each reed cycling them through any series of 4 although obviously that can vary depending on the type of practice work I'm doing.

As the weeks went by in the experiment I extended my overall playing time to a maximum of 2 hours as my embouchure strengthened.

Trads -

Reed No 1 survived 2 months before becoming unresponsive and Reed No 2 lasted 6 weeks, at which point the tone in the upper registers deteriorated to the bin stage.

V12s -

Reeds number 3 and 4 were still going strong at 8 weeks although I did notice breathiness creeping back in on both.

Rue Lepic -

Reed 5 remained in a perfect playing state slightly better than Trad reed 1.

Reed 6 went very hard and then became unresponsive with articulation so was binned at 6 weeks.

Gonazalez -

Reed 7's tone and breathiness continued to grate on my nerves to the extent that by week 6 I'd had enough.

Reed 9 – the 3.1/4 Grey Box demonstrated the same shrillness of tone in the upper register, was not very responsive and 2 weeks in collapsed completely. It was as if the gap between tip and mouthpiece had narrowed.

Conclusions

If you have the space in your performance schedule, I highly recommend running your own Great Reed Experiment. It's quite an education when your focus is 100% on reed quality!

Don't forget that whatever my own conclusions, reeds – just like mouthpieces – are a very personal matter. It doesn't necessarily follow that if you have exactly the same set up as a player you admire, or even the same instruments, that you'll produce the same sound.

Neither does it mean because I've decided not to use Gonzalez or Vandoren Traditionals with my current mouthpiece that you should avoid trying them.

I strongly encourage you to experiment from time to time and be guided by your own experiences.

My choice: unfortunately for my pocket, I selected the Vandoren Rue Lepic 56s and, having started working my way through the rest of the box, so far I haven't been disappointed.

Quick to break in within a couple of days, unlike the Vandoren Trads and Gonzalez, I didn't find they went soggy and fuzzy like the V12s with extended playing time. As a bonus, the Rue Lepics seemed to last longer before deteriorating – well worth it when you come across an ideal performance reed!

So what cane do you use and why?

Next Post: Discovering the Transition Movement and how it can teach some valuable lessons to the Classical Music community.

2 Responses to For Clarinettists Only – The Great Reed Experiment

  1. koen says:

    Thanks for this post Marion! Thinking about reeds I’m always glad that I didn’t take up the oboe, those double reeds seem to mean double trouble.
    Back in the day, when I still played French cut reeds on Boehm system clarinets I really liked the V12 Vandoren reeds. Their and other Vandoren reed packaging sure sets an example for the rest of the reeds manufacturers. Although plastic sleeving every single reed doesn’t seem all that sustainable for an otherwise natural product. Keeping the humidity inside the box equal over time does make sense however.

    Personally I was really happy to read that you bought a Hygro reed case! I did the same a month back. The Dutch climate hasn’t been itself the past few years (summer seems to last a week, as does winter with 50 weeks of fall weather in between). So I was happy to read that although manufacturing a hygro case yourself is quite easy for a tenth of the cost, I wasn’t the only one who finally caved and got a Vandoren HC200 – which has reminded me of Dexter’s slide box every day since.

    Perhaps as a small addition I can mention Steuer Reeds for German cut clarinet players. Although they come in a cardboard sleeve I have found the S900 to be of far superior quality and consistency than their Vandoren Black and White Master counterparts, with characteristics similar to your description of the Rue Lepic 56s. The S800 is comparable to the V12′s, at least to me.

    Thanks again for sharing! And although I don’t comment that often please know that I genuinely enjoy reading about your adventures and endeavours from time to time.

    Cheers,
    Koen

    • Mazza says:

      Many thanks for taking the time to write Koen and your comments on Steuer German cut reeds. I hear you on the double reed issue and also the non-eco plastic Vandoren sleeve – something I’d never considered so slapped wrists to me as I’m really on board with the Transition Movement :/

      I think the question here is finding the balance between totally eco and practicality. I can’t think of anything fundamentally wrong with plastic per se – my objection is that it’s used in too big a quantity in every day life and in in situations where it could pose a threat to our health. I throw my old plastic sleeves in the recycling bin and old reeds are used in the garden for ID tags. That’s the best I can do as I honestly believe the plastic sleeve does its job well unless of course somebody else can think up a more eco alternative.

      Appreciate the compliments. So long as it’s a good easy read (pun not intended – lol!) as well as being informative, that makes me happy.