How to find your instrument
Finding Your Instrument: A Systematic Approach

by Wolfgang Lohff

Introduction: New or used? Rent or buy? Best sound or best intonation? Do you have to compromise, or can you have it all? You stand in front of several choices when you begin the search for the instrument that is best suited for you! The right choice can save you time and money in the future. Based on our extensive experience as musicians and craftsman, we wish to offer some advice and show you how a systematic approach can help you find the right instrument for your needs.

What to look for: When you evaluate the instrument? you should be aware of:

• The instrument's overall condition: A leaky instrument does not show its true self, and intonation and sound will be unpredictable.
• Diagnose potential problems: Can unsatisfactory intonation be corrected? Can the sound be darkened? Can the pads be adjusted?
• Are there enough instruments to choose from?
• Your desired playing characteristics: sound, intonation, projection, pads, mechanics, etc.

Tightness/Seal: When comparing instruments - even the same model - you will often notice a big difference in sound and intonation. There are several reasons for this phenomenon with leaky pads being the underestimated, prime culprits. Pad density determines intonation, sound, projection and playing comfort for any woodwind instrument. It is not enough to be able to play the low notes. It is possible to play the low E (on the right) even when the F pad is leaking, but it will never be completely 'clean' without help from the left hand F lever. A tight, non-leaking instrument plays easily, is better in tune, and projects more. This especially applies to bass clarinets. (You should be able to play pianissimo and still be heard in the last row.)

Acoustics ... In Brief

Timbre is a combination of the fundamental tone and its overtones. All instruments, from a cello to a trumpet, have the same fundamental tone. But it is the intensity and quantity of the overtones that give each instrument its distinctive identity.

Each leak eliminates overtones and reduces the richness in sound and projection.

Each leak decreases the instrument's response.

A leak has the tendency to collect water, gradually damaging the wood and pads. It is not always easy to determine whether or not an instrument is sealing. You can try three methods:

1. First remove the upper joint. Cover all tone holes and the bottom of the joint then create a suction by sucking on the top of the joint. If you can produce a vacuum and hold it for 10 seconds it's probably tight and sealing well. Repeat this process on the lower joint. The vacuum will not be as strong as on the top joint, but it should last as long. The disadvantage with this method is that the vacuum pulls the pads against the tone holes which can create seating problems and damage the pad if done excessively.

2. A vacuum gauge (This method has the same drawback as No. 1).

3. Our preferred method is a WFL-meter (Magnehelic). This is a specially designed machine that controls how much air is flowing out of an instrument, when all tone holes are closed, with your fingers and the pads.

Even if the instrument is new or refurbished check it yourself! If the instrument is not sealing, leaks are the primary culprit. The acoustical aspects will change when the instrument is sealing correctly.

Tone Color: The instrument's overall sound should be your first criteria. Once you compare instruments that are tight, you will have a real opportunity to judge sound. Sound preference is always a very individual decision. Often classical players prefer a dark, warm sound, while jazz musicians prefer a more open, crisp sound.

New wooden instruments have more resistance than used instruments. The sound tends to be warmer and darker on these newer instruments. In time, the instrument will open up and play more freely. One reason for this is that the moisture in the instrument changes during the first year. (A new factory-made instrument is dried to about 6% moisture. Once it is played regularly it will raise to about 16%.) This can change the bore and affect the intonation. Most instruments will have a slightly higher pitch, but the basic sound will persist.

Evaluate the instrument's sound with a set-up you are comfortable with and in an environment, you know (eg, at home or in the orchestra). If there are individual notes with unwanted noise (eg, a rigid Bb or D/A) those can be adjusted and optimized. However, an instrument's basic sound is very complex and therefore cannot be changed. Conclusion: Do not buy the instrument if you do not like the sound!

Mouthpiece & Reed: When seeking a new instrument, consider that the instrument you selected has been chosen with a mouthpiece suited for your old instrument. Remember this new instrument might sound better with a different mouthpiece. It's time to try. (Note that American mouthpieces are often pitched lower than their European counterparts.) Make your decision based on sound and playing comfort? intonation will be addressed later.

Do not forget to test the new mouthpiece with different reeds.

Intonation: Intonation was formerly one of the most important criteria in comparing instruments. This still applies, to some extent, to flutes and saxophones, but for clarinets, oboes and bassoons we now have the ability to adjust intonation. By using different combinations of instruments, barrels, mouthpieces, pads and modern technology, we can adjust an instrument's intonation to fit individual and personal needs. It is a myth that one of these parameters alone can create a perfect result.

We are all physically different and have varying embouchures. Some would prefer mouthpieces that are either open or closed with either long or short facings. (Bear in mind that the choice of mouthpiece will affect intonation.) Add to this the fact that all manufacturers have their own "scale," which may not necessarily be one you like. If you've found your perfect combination of mouthpiece and reed (giving you the sound and playing comfort you desire), the instrument's intonation can be adjusted to your needs. Unfortunately this is not common knowledge. Most musicians are amazed at what can be done! If you play several instruments, and have them adjusted equally, there should be no need to worry about intonation when you play.

In contrast to the sound, intonation can be measured and therefore adjusted precisely. Choose the instrument with a great sound, and then have the intonation adjusted by an expert.

Material: Today, instruments are made of many different materials. If you play outdoors and are afraid of the instrument cracking, you can choose the Greenline material, a quality, professional grade instrument for this use. Wooden clarinets, however, still produce the best resonance. The most commonly used wood is grenadilla, but rosewood, boxwood and others are also available.

Unfortunately, all wooden instruments have the potential to crack. A properly repaired crack is no longer a problem and will not affect the quality of the instrument. It is recommended to take care of a crack as soon as you become aware of it. Good crack repairs can be expensive, so a long warranty is often worth the money.

(C) 2014 - by Lohff & Pfeiffer - Brøndbyvej 211 - 2625 Vallensbæk + 45 3535 8643 - SE DK 189 57 485