Q: You advocate for the use of 4 wires on bassoon reeds, with each wire made from a different type of metal. (The Arundo reed design uses the following: wire 1 = #21 gauge brass, wire 2 = #22 gauge nichrome, wire 3 = #19 gauge copper, and wire 4 = #20 gauge galvanized steel.)
“What makes each metal particularly suited to its function as each specific wire [position]? I would assume that there is a unique aspect of the material’s science for each metal…”
A: We will discuss each wire individually to address the unique aspects of each and why we have chosen to use them.
Wire number 4, the butt wire. This wire needs to be stiff enough and heavy enough to hold its shape. It also serves a secondary function of transferring the reed’s vibration and kinetic energy into the bocal.
I first became aware of the use of a heavier wire under the binding in looking at a reed made by Sherman Walt, who was principal bassoon for many years of the Boston Symphony. His reed was either #20 or #18 gauge copper wire (a softer and more flexible wire). The use of the steel wire requires much more strength in pulling and rounding the wire to conform to the mandrel than the copper and is less likely to distort its rounded shape.
In some cases an additional wire is placed at the extreme end of the reed usually of smaller gauge soft brass (#22 gauge) to help hold the reed on the bocal in the proper position or to seal leaks in the butt of the reed. In some cases in poorly formed reeds the end of the reed is not perfectly round or improperly beveled at the butt of the reed allowing air to escape.
Wire number 3, the chamber wire. I place a #19 gauge copper wire over the binding midway between the butt wire and the second wire. Heavier gauges of copper wire are easier to stretch and form over the binding than other types of metal wires.
I first became aware of reeds made with four wires from legendary bassoonist and reed maker Don Christlieb. His third wire was covered by a plastic binding similar to what is used in toothbrush or tool handles and that is soluble in acetone. The stiff plastic binding I’ve used is similar to what Christlieb used. I prefer putting the wire over the binding so that it can be tightened, easily removed or adjusted. It can also function (by rounding and tightening) as a way to reduce the amount of bocal penetration if the bocal is going too far into the reed. Wire number 3 also functions the same in tip opening adjustments as wire number 2 and can also add strength to a weak reed. I used to call this wire the “resonance wire” but I believe that it actually helps focus the tone and also adds to the transfer of vibration to the bocal. In some cases on my own reeds I omit this wire if I want a more spread tone when I’m playing second bassoon. This added wire became the standard in all Arundo bassoon and contra bassoon reeds of my design.
Wire number 2, the throat wire. This wire should be as stiff as possible and rounded in forming the reed. The standard wire used has been #22 nichrome wire. Nickel Chromium (NiCr) is a known as a resistance wire used in heating elements and other uses. It has a ratio of 80% nickel to 20% chromium and is quite stiff. The stiffness of the wire allows it to hold its shape. This wire is somewhat expensive compared to other wire types.
A similar wire type is stainless steel wire. It is made up of a ratio of 10-25% chromium to 90-75% iron . This wire is more flexible, easier to use, and much less expensive than nichrome (and probably less expensive than brass). This wire type was used for decades on the commercial La Voz bassoon reeds, and current reed makers such as Emerald Reeds. Nichrome is one wire type along with stainless steel that can hold its shape and like steel it requires greater strength in rounding and twisting the wire to secure the wire to the tube.
The second wire should be tight and immovable. This wire essentially stops the vibration of the lowest notes and also can transfer vibration to the bocal. We believe that this wire should be perfectly round and it is a factor in measuring the size of the reed’s throat to produce consistent throat sizes and to produce the “fulcrum effect”, a teeter-totter relationship with the first wire. See Wire Adjustment Chart for the effects of squeezing the second wire from the top or sides. (The size of the reed throat is largely determined by the reed shape or by the reed maker’s personal preference.) It should be noted that many commercial reed’s soft brass wires are so loose even when brand new, they slip out of position and do not hold the tube together properly and are never rounded at the second wire. The shape, position, and tightness of the wires is such that normal wire function between the first and second wire (i.e., the fulcrum effect) does not function properly.
Roundness of the second wire was also recommended by Norman Herzberg, renowned studio bassoonist, teacher, and reed tool maker.
Wire number 1, the blade wire. Using #21 gauge wire holds its shape and adjustments better than #22 gauge wire. #22 gauge was the standard wire available for many years until #21 became readily available. #23 gauge has been used by some to create “pianissimo” reeds but is not strong enough to support the tube. #21 can also be tempered to stiffen this wire to hold its shape even better. (See below for more general information on wire.) In forming reeds, the Arundo method rounds the first wire to some degree but not necessarily always perfectly round. (Roundness is a constant that can be measured from reed to reed.) Soft brass wire is much easier to use when rounding and stretching the first wire in forming the reed. Some reed makers form the reed with softer wire and later substitute a different wire gauge or type for the first wire.
The sizing of the throat between the first and second wire is a variable that should not be ignored. Too rounded can make a reed inflexible, and not rounded enough can lead to an unstable notes especially if the wire is not snug on the tube. Rounding the wires provides a more arched blade and blade structural strength which better supports a nearly finished initial blade profile. While the second wire should be immovable, the first wire shouldn’t be so tight that it can’t be moved back using two fingernails otherwise it will choke the vibration of the reed. This is a very common problem with bassoonists that believe they should have their reeds soaking in water at all times. This causes “strangulation” at the first wire, deadening the reed’s vibration.
Stainless steel wire of #22 gauge is not uncommon on commercial reeds and will hold its shape better than brass wire, although it may be harder to use in forming than brass and may end up too loose.
Another type of wire that I have used in the past which I have found to be an exceptional type is “gold filled” wire. This is used in jewelry making and is brass wire that is clad in gold. This wire is expensive and comes in fairly short lengths and should be reserved for that special solo. It has a different feel and resonance than the types mentioned above. It is really only practical to use this as the first wire as a replacement after the reed is formed and you know you have a special reed that you want to make even better. Sterling silver wire of sufficient stiffness could also be used however we have no experience with this wire as yet.
General Wire Information
Christlieb used soft brass wire for all of his wires but advocated stiffening the wire through “work hardening.” This was accomplished by stretching soft brass wire between two pairs of pliers which makes the wire stiffer. In stretching the wire you can feel it move to a point where it stops stretching. It is possible to purchase brass and other wires which are not designated as soft but it is difficult to find. Most of us found only soft brass wire in spools at hardware stores until the 1970’s when #21 gauge soft brass wire became readily available.
Brass and copper wire are prone to corrosion and discoloration while nichrome and stainless steel are not. Wire is usually rated in tensile strength, resistance to corrosion, conductivity, and gauge (diameter). All these metals come with varying ratios of other metals added. For instance, brass is a combination of copper and zinc.
Everything attached to the reed tube will produce a unique set of variables that effects the way the reed vibrates and its feeling of resistance, resonance, and response to the player. It should also be noted that this includes the wires, their type, gauge, and the material used for the binding. The binding may be stiff, soft, plastic, thread (nylon, linen, or cotton), shrink tubing, hot glue but it should never be “naked” (without a binding) as binding provides stability for the tube. Some reed makers leave a naked space between the second wire and the beginning of a string binding. In every case the binding should be firmly attached to the tube and immovable just as the second wire is. The binding material should not absorb moisture. When using cotton thread, a base layer of cement should be applied to the tube and the thread itself should be waterproofed using a traditional glue or fingernail lacquer. Linen thread or waxed linen thread is commonly applied without any base or top coat and seems to be fine. The wire and binding combination is a significant factor that effects how a reed plays. What works for me personally may not serve your tastes.
Many of the inexpensive commercial (music store) reeds available have bindings that become loose almost immediately after the first few playings. They come with wires that are so loose and not rounded in forming that the blades will easily slip either side to side and the worst case front to back. It is recommended to remove these loose string bindings and replace them, rounding and tightening the wires and securing a new binding to the tube so it is immovable. Making matters worse, some commercial reeds do not fit far enough onto the bocal requiring forcefully twisting the reed onto the bocal. The result is often slipped blades as mentioned above and tuning problems that can only be corrected by reaming. But wait! There’s more! When the binding is not firmly attached to the cane, reaming forcefully can twist the entire reed out of shape. Commercial reeds made by at least one manufacturer are clearly designed to self destruct. As a reminder to reedmakers, never ream a reed until the binding is securely in place and always ream the reed when it is dry using the sharpest reaming tool that you can afford.