What Can I Expect to Gain from the Quick Guide?
You will be able to hear when listening to a bassoonist what may be wrong with the player’s reed, bassoon, or tone production. This can be a blessing if you are working with your students or your own reeds where you can learn to quickly correct it, or a curse if you are listening to a bassoonist sitting next to you. It is surprising how many bassoonists continue to play certain notes out of tune, even professional bassoonists on recordings or sound tracks. Within this publication the problems encountered with tuning are identified, with several solutions presented. Examples of problem notes that bassoonists complain about are low D, middle D, half-hole F#, E and fork Eb, Bb, etc. All these notes and others can be played consistently in tune using the adjustment methods and suggestions found within this publication.
The Break-in Process
Gouge and Cane
Bassoons and Bells
To accurately test a reed you must measure its performance objectively. The reed tests presented measure the following:
- Pitch centering that is “true”
- Pitch stability and flexibility
- Ease of articulation
- Clarity of articulation
- Ease of register change
- Ease of response within registers
- Ease of pianissimo and fortissimo
If you can define the problem, you can fix it!
This method will also allow you to quickly evaluate a new reed or potential reed purchase to ensure that you are not wasting your time with a reed that will fail you. Evaluate it; modify it. A professional player can tell with two simple tests whether a reed has potential: it has a nice tip opening and it crows–dry!
The tuning method uses ear plug tests which show whether a note is true or false in its pitch and/or overtones. The method also includes comparisons of regular fingerings to harmonic fingerings to help define true tuning of the reed.
A simple test of whether the reed is true or false can be accomplished in a reverberant auditorium. Using the “bounce test” you can hear whether a note has the same pitch as you hear it leave the instrument as what bounces back from the hall’s reverberation. Simply play a very short full-bodied single staccato note and listen to what returns. Try this on different notes. This test will give you clues to the notes which are false, sounding out of tune to the audience vs. what you hear in your own ear as you play the note. It is best to perform this test on an empty stage so you can hear yourself clearly.
“You guys sound really great, but…”
We were rehearsing Mozart’s Haffner Symphony. The second bassoonist and I decided to play on some very light, older reeds to make the double-tonguing passages easier. During the break the guest conductor walked up to the bassoon section to say, “You guys sounds really great, but you sound sharp all the time.” We decided to change reeds because the comfortable reeds that we were playing were too old and worn out to produce a true pitch. They had become “false” in their overtones.
“But I am playing perfectly in tune!”
…but everyone else heard him as flat. This principal woodwind player was fired because he played out of tune, yet he could “nail” the pitch on a automatic tuner exactly at 440 on any note. The most likely answer is related to tone production using under-supported breath and a too-open vowel with no variation in breath or vowel shaping. It is common to hear bassoonists keeping a too-open vowel in the tenor range and sounding flat. The musician in the example above was a flautist. It is also common to hear brass players “over blow” their instruments with musicians perception that they are playing sharp. In auditions, a committee sitting in the audience can hear the sound coming from the brass player’s bell sounding lower in pitch than the reverberation in the hall due to “over blowing.”
The Break-In Process
Many bassoonists start scraping a reed and playing it before it is stable and settled. There is something about a new reed that can be intoxicating in its first few days of playing. In some cases, the reed will play very well in tune, surprisingly. However, after a couple of days or a week of playing it can turn suddenly on a dime to your frustration or embarrassment. As a longtime reed maker who also has sold thousands of reeds, customers prefer to have reeds that are not moving targets, that are stable from the beginning. Using a non-playing break-in process prevents mistakes often found in early reed adjustments to get a reed vibrating. Cane will continue to remind you of its shape memory until the forming of the reed has completely settled.
Back to Top
If you have over $1,000 to spend and do have a cane hardness meter and you make a lot of reeds, a tip profiler may be a worthwhile investment, especially if you are working from a thick initial profile. If you do NOT have a cane hardness meter ($600-$700), this would be a better investment to help eliminate unsuitable cane before you make it into a reed.
Tip profilers can also cause problems in their use. The hold-down lever that squeezes the blade to flatten it will often crack the cane. Another solution is to attach a springy piece of plastic or metal to force the cane down just behind the blade. Another problem is the mandrel that supports the reed may not line up properly with the profiler’s stationary “plaque”. This may also result in cracking the blade. Another solution to prevent this is to insert a short, stubby mandrel section into flexible tubing which is mounted to the profiler’s mandrel as shown below.
In the photo above, the amount of cane removed from the tip of the reed is approximately 5/16″ (8mm). If more cane is removed it can cause a severe ridge (drop-off) across the profile, and weaken the delta area of the blade. In some cases the ridge is only on one side of the blade and not the other which is an indication of a symmetry problems of several potential types.
The technique used in removing the cane can also cause a problem if the blade is sprung up slightly on either side. It is best to start in the middle with a very light touch, gradually moving right and left and increasing the depth of the cut with additional strokes (right and left).
Soak the reed in very hot tap water for 5 minutes prior to profiling. This helps avoid cracking the blade.
Besides the many sizes, lengths, shapes and other variables of reed designs another factor must be considered. Bassoonists fall into two camps: those who blow forcefully with greater air pressure and those who put very little air into the reed. The latter may do this because they don’t need much sound or dynamic range in their ensemble or their hall’s acoustics favors the bassoon and/or they play on a very free blowing bassoon. The former may find that to get a wide dynamic range and the sound into the hall requires bigger reeds, bigger bassoons, and more effort in blowing.
Components of the reed shape include:
- Tip width
- Upper blade flare
- Lower belly flare (concave, convex, or goblet)
- Waist: the narrowest point of the reed shape, which can be in front of the first wire (Garfield shape) or more typically is anywhere between the first and second wire. This narrowest point defines the reed throat dimension.
- Tube section and flare (a.k.a. Governor flare, Louis Skinner terminology). The tube section increases in width toward the butt.
The simplest reed shape is based on one single curved line (concave shape) commonly referred to as a Knockenauer shape. The next simplest shape is the straight line style where two lines intersect at the waist. The components of straight and curved lines can combine up to eight elements for compound shapes. The Eubanks/Maxym shape (not shown in the Fox Bassoon Shapers document, below) is one that combines eight elements. Some shapes including the E/M shape include a bulge in the tube section rather than a flare to the butt. One notable type is attributed to Klaus Thunemann possible experimental shape.
Reed shapers come in two designs: flat and folding. Flat shapers, also called straight shapers, are available from Fox Products, Rigotti, Prestini, and others. Folding shapers are available from Rieger and others. Each type of shaper has its advantages and disadvantages for the reed maker.
Click here to see a PDF of shaper designs from Fox: Fox Bassoon Shapers. Note: This catalog is out of date, but shows the scope of different shaper designs and dimensions. The included dimensions are tip, waist, and butt width, and distance from tip and butt to the shaper’s waist. For more information on the newest shapers available, contact Chip Owen at Fox Products.
Click here to go to the shaper page at the Rieger website: Rieger Shapers. Note: The only dimensions shown on the Rieger site are tip widths with no indication of shaper style. It is difficult to ascertain from the drawings what you are getting.
For more information, see the Introduction Q & A page.
Back to Top
In the woodwind family, the bassoon reed is the only one that does not have fixed elements in the throat and chamber that passes into the instrument. Therefore, it is very important in reed making and tuning adjustments to maintain consistency from one reed to the next in the size and shape of the reed throat and chamber leading to the bocal. Because reed cane shrinks and bocal insertion can distort the chamber the dimensions should be checked regularly by measurements with throat mandrels. To maintain these dimensions may require the use of specialty reamers to cover the area of the throat and chamber.
Initial Blade Profile
Some commercially available shaped and profiled cane is far too thick in the blade area to vibrate when the tip is clipped open after forming. This can be the case even with the use of a tip profiler. However, some profilers (called full blade profilers) are capable of reducing the thickness to produce a playable reed. For one prominent bassoonist the initial blade profile is played during the break-in period and then the blade is profiled a second time to its finished dimensions.
Irregular or Sculptural Blade Profile Design
The Cut Reed
How to save your “ass” (embouchure) for a really long blow: the cut reed (a.k.a. the continuo reed). If you are playing a long oratorio such as the Handel’s Messiah or chamber music basso continuo, this reed design is essential to save your chops. For some it may also prove helpful in big, long symphonies like Brahms, etc. This reed design is commonly used by Los Angeles studio players who must play long, sustained, soft parts in movie scores. Although the reed can play softly it also works at moderate dynamics and solos such as the opening of the Rite of Spring. This style of reed has been traced back to 18th century reeds.
Note: a cut reed can sound different in its overtones to the player, yet to the listeners there is no real perceived difference in the sound.
See also the article by Julie Feves, A Practical Approach to Reed Design.
Back to Top
Gouge and Cane
Isn’t it a shame that we buy gouged cane in bulk with no idea whether the cane will be hard enough to produce a viable reed. Single reed players can buy cane rated for hardness from multiple sources, with multiple blade styles. Hardness is one factor in gouged cane but there are several other considerations that will affect the outcome. How much would you spend on a piece of cane to guarantee that it not only met your hardness requirement but other measurable components as well?
Errata: The dimensions listed in Paragraph 3, sentence 3 state “A typical bocal opening is 9.65–9.75mm.” The correct dimension is 8.65–8.75mm. This dimension can be slightly larger on some modern Heckel bocals, up to 9mm. The authors bassoon bore opening is 9.1mm. Older bassoons can have a smaller bore opening and may not be well suited to newer bocal designs.
How to Test a Bocal
Bocals can confound tuning! In 35+ years of selling new Renard and Fox bassoons, I have never seen anyone pick the bocals that came with the bassoon when given a choice of trying several bocals of the exact same type (bore, metal type and plating, and length). Unfortunately, this means every bassoonist should be on the lookout for a bocal that plays with a balanced scale, a satisfying tone, and good tonal projection. It is easy to be seduced by a bocal that feels great to play but may be missing the essential ingredients.
As you can see in the graphic below, the notes D, E, and F can be at, above, or below the general pitch level of neighboring notes. Obviously, the ideal bocal would have all nine notes centered at equal temperament. For some bassoonists, high G (G3) is also a factor in bocal tuning with a preference toward Heckel B bocal bores over C bores. In picking bocals, also check low G (G1). A bocal that is extremely flat on low G should be rejected immediately. The Quick Guide shows a reed tuning method that helps adjust tuning of the middle register.
How to test a bocal using the test note sequence.
Another method of bocal tuning is modifications to the bocal tip. This is done by reaming the tip opening and/or swedging the bocal tip. Swedging is a method to reduce the tip opening diameter and is also helpful in rounding a damaged bocal tip. This can be accomplished with a hose nozzle (as shown on right). Be sure it is one made of metal. Rotate the tip of the bocal forcefully into the nozzle from the nozzle’s big end to reduce the bocal’s tip diameter. You may want to use your reed reamer in advance inside the nozzle to establish the same taper. If the bocal tip has a blunt thick leading edge, carefully ream the opening first. Reducing the diameter of the bocal tip will help raise the pitch of the middle register. The average diameter of the bocal tip opening is 4.0mm. Heckel bocals with the designation “E” as in CCE, CE, CDE, etc. are smaller in diameter (3.8mm or slightly larger).
Modifications to the larger end, the exit of the bocal, are described in the Quick Guide to Bassoon Reed Tuning, pg. 5. These modifications will move the pitch positions of notes in the middle register and increase or decrease blowing resistance depending on the adjustment made.
If the big end of the bocal exit diameter is bigger than the opening of the bore of the bassoon in the wing joint it will add unwanted resistance. It is common after years of playing for the opening to the bore to become frayed. In this case the bore opening is reduced. Removing the worn edge from years of abrasion at the bottom of the “well” where the bocal is inserted will effectively enlarge the opening of the bore, reducing resistance. This is more common in polypropeline bassoons with softer plastic in the well than wooden bassoons lined with hard rubber. It is possible to swedge and reduce the diameter of the large end using a special tool.
The Bocal Cocktail
Components that Contribute to Pitch Stability and the RRRR’s for metal bocals
For more information, see the Introduction Q & A page.
Back to Top