Author Topic: The User-Friendly Clarinet: Free-blowing, wood-free, and sax-player friendly  (Read 257 times)

Offline windydankoff

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The User-Friendly Clarinet
Free-blowing, in-tune, wood-free, and sax-player friendly
Bb and C

By Windy Dankoff      Black • Hole Clarinets      September 2020

Background
Eastern European music got me hooked on the clarinet’s fluid and soulful sound. That was in 2016. I had switched from clarinet to sax in 1964. But now, to my amazement, I craved a clarinet. But I have a weak jaw joint. Playing a reed hurts my head if it isn’t extra-easy to blow (low resistance). So, I bought a new clarinet, and asked for the easiest-blowing mouthpiece. It wasn’t. I asked distributors, makers, famous technicians, Google past midnight … I couldn’t get a straight answer. I had to figure it out for myself. I soon discovered that it’s not about the mouthpiece. The instrument is a synergistic system in which everything matters.

Over a four-year period, I found ways to optimize the clarinet for less blowing resistance and less fatigue, while maintaining and even improving its sound. I also developed modifications for some sax-like fingerings. My clients include beginners, re-beginners, and advanced players, from nine to eighty years of age.

We don’t want to feel like these sax players at the bar:
1    Somebody stole my clarinet
2    I wish somebody would steal MY clarinet

Here’s proof that blowing resistance is a product of the whole instrument. If you remove your mouthpiece, then blow only into your clarinet, you feel no resistance. You may deduce that the resistance is all in the mouthpiece. But, try your mouthpiece on other clarinets. You’ll find that some resist more than others. It’s because the clarinet resists vibrating air. This is called impedance.

Four years of research
Can the impedance be reduced, and still maintain good performance? It took me two years to find the answer – YES. I took two more years to understand the instruments hole-by-hole, and as a whole, so I can repeat my results. Surely others have explored this, but I found nothing written about it, nor anyone offering to supply low-resistance clarinets to people who have trouble with normal ones.

Soft reed, large bore, and low-impedance
Low impedance starts with a soft reed BUT it plays flat and lacks focus and control. A soft reed wants to pass abundant air at low pressure. A typical clarinet wants to receive less air at greater pressure. The energy coupling is inefficient, like a bicycle with the wrong gear ratio. This is called an impedance mismatch. For the horn to accept the action of a soft, low-impedance reed, the entire instrument must match the lower impedance, top to bottom. A free-blowing clarinet has a low-impedance energy path, with few speed bumps, and smooth exit ramps.

Some clarinets have a bore (inside diameter) that is larger than average. That helps reduce impedance. But equally important, some tone holes must be larger and/or undercut, and some pads need to open wider. Large-bore clarinets were common before the 1960s. Then, Buffet refined their smaller-bore designs, which were favored for classical music. They gained market dominance as the “best” path to advancement. Other manufacturers followed their lead. Older designs, bad and good, went out of production. The ones that remain famous, tend to be expensive. Even then, not all have low-impedance overall. And, they are made of wood, and old wood can be risky.

Discovering low-impedance Bb and C clarinets
I found some non-wood large-bore clarinets from the 1940’s that are easy to blow, well-tuned, and sounded amazing. I kept collecting and studying them to see if I could make them better. They are made of ebonite (hard rubber). I also bought an ebonite C clarinet from China, and I was amazed. I’ve collected mouthpieces and barrels, calipers, reamers and other tools. I draw on my experience designing and making flutes and repairing woodwinds, plus a lifetime of shop experience. After two years, I optimized a free-blowing Bb and a C. I can play them for hours without hurting my weak jaw. I found them to be user-friendly in other ways too.

Harmonic integrity = simpler intonation AND easier blowing
Accuracy of pitch is called intonation. The intonation of large-bore clarinets (the good ones) comes naturally, using simple fingerings. Complex “resonance fingerings” used by classical players are less helpful and not necessary. The overtones are well tuned naturally. Tuned overtones reinforce the sound, so less energy is lost. So, it is easier to blow and easier to play in tune. Your embouchure can stay nearly constant throughout the range. It is a blessing for players without much formal training, sax players doubling on clarinet, folks with physical limitations, and anyone who wants to ease the journey.

More sax-like
The large bore strengthens the throat tones (top of the low register). I expand on that capacity in several ways. I refine the “trill keys” B and C to work as primary notes, like the left palm keys on a sax. They sound beautiful because they extend the delicate expressive quality of throat range. They often liberate you from jumping to the 2nd register (over the break) where you lose tonal flexibility. I enable another alternate fingering that’s familiar to sax and flute players – the Eb/Bb using the right forefinger. On most clarinets, that fingering is very sharp. I correct it so you can use it routinely.

Expansive and expressive
An optimized large bore clarinet has a wide dynamic range; you can play loud, but also soft without losing quality. You get a wide range of color and expression that’s great for traditional and modern jazz, Balkan, gypsy, klezmer, you name it. If a modern clarinet sounds like a Hersey bar, this is more like artisanal 85% cocoa. Again, user-friendly qualities and great sound require more than just a large bore. The whole instrument needs to be optimized.

Hard rubber (ebonite) instead of wood
I’m lazy, so I eliminate the maintenance and risk of wood. Hard rubber (ebonite) was the alternative before the age of plastic. Unlike plastic, it sounds great, even amazing. After all, it is the favorite material for great mouthpieces. An ebonite clarinet can be left wet in a hot or freezing car, and it won’t crack. And, it’s making a comeback. (Reference:  Ridenour, The Grenadilla Myth).

The C clarinet
A clarinet in key of C (concert pitch) is user-friendly because you can read C music. And, it’s easier in many keys that are common in string music. The modern C clarinet is a low-impedance design because it use a standard Bb mouthpiece. The bore is sized to the mouthpiece even though the horn is shorter. It approximates the proportions (and behavior) of a seriously large-bore Bb. C clarinets of ebonite are only produced in China. They are well made, but they need finish work to refine them. I play one that I fine-tuned to concert quality. I enjoy its bright bouncy sound, and play it more than my Bb. My clients and I enjoy accompanying other instruments, with no need to transpose.

The Pruefer Silver Throat, 1940-55
My favorite large-bore Bb is the vintage Pruefer Silver Throat (PST). It’s ebonite, and the upper joint is lined with metal. It has a very large bottom bore with extra-large, tone holes. It’s a unique instrument, designed to carry power in a field of brass. Pruefer was one of the best American clarinet makers before 1960. It was a high-end instrument in the school band market (in 1942, it was priced at today’s equivalent of $1700). It’s said to have a cult following among jazz musicians. I resurrected one, and I was hooked. I have a stock of PSTs, some of which sat in the closet for 50 or 60 years.

The internet reveals opinions of the PST ranging from useless to the best jazz horn ever. I studied nine PSTs made between 1940 and 1960, and found reasons for the mixed reputation: (1) The PST needs extra-wide valve openings at the bottom. Repair technicians would rarely see this, so most overhauled ones were degraded. (2) Versions made after 1955 have a smaller bottom bore. They play best only with harder reeds. (3) Only those late versions carry the Silver Throat inscription, and most are inferior. (4) Many barrels were not bored optimally. Knowing all this, I have learned how to bring out the best in a PST. The vintage PST and the Chinese C seem like the “odd couple”, but they are well-matched in playing characteristics.

User-friendly optimizing for Bb and C clarinets
Optimizing starts with a large-bore Bb or C, and may include any of the following changes as needed:
    Enlarging the bore in the barrel and at top of upper joint
    Some modified tone holes, pads, or action, especially to tune top and bottom
    Trill keys B and C optimized to use as primary notes
    Optimized thumb-key Bb
    Improved Eb/Bb when using right forefinger
    Fine synthetic and/or leather pads, resilient and reliable

Ergonomic improvements
    Springs adjusted for light and balanced action
    Keys may be adjusted to small or large hands
    Luxury thumb rest option
    Custom requests

Barrel modifications and tuning
Barrels are usually bored to match the upper joint. On the large-bore Bb and C clarinets, I discovered that a further enlargement of the bore can be transformational. I use reamers to remove about a hair’s width of material. I continue the cut tapering into the upper joint. The horn goes a bit flat. When I correct the pitch, it breathes easier and comes fully to life. Throat tones are greatly improved, including thumb-Bb.

A player will often pull out a barrel for tuning. This produces an internal gap that can dull certain notes. But in large bore clarinets, the pull-out gap does not have such side effects. Most players won’t need a second, longer barrel. My tunings tend slightly sharp, for flexibility while playing, and to allow adjustment. Tell me if you play outdoors in high/low temperatures, and I may include a second barrel.

Standard mouthpieces are fine!
Here is a fortunate twist of history – Today’s mouthpieces still follow the design standards of the 1950s. They are native to large-bore instruments! Modern clarinets use a reverse-tapered barrel that adapts them to the modern bore. (Reference: Clark Fobes, Tuning and Voicing the Clarinet.) So, your favorite mouthpiece will work fine. But, don’t use a modern barrel. I find good, normal classical mouthpieces to be just right. So-called “jazz” pieces are too wild.

Availability
Occasionally, I produce a user-friendly PST or C clarinet for sale. Some clients have bought both. They join me in being twice as happy. I also have a select stock of my favorite vintage mouthpieces, for easy blowing and amazing tone.

A review of my Black • Hole Pruefer Silver Throat
With any strength reed, the Pruefer clarinet played very well in tune throughout the lower register and the throat tones. I was impressed as to how well in tune the throat tones were.  Those are usually the hardest to keep in tune on most clarinets.  As with most clarinets, it wanted to go sharp on the altissimo notes above high C (2 bars above staff), however opening my throat more while blowing easily, brought them right into tune.  I am impressed with the Pruefer clarinet.  Other than playing a little brighter it holds up well against my Buffet R13. I was amazed at throat Bb and A. They’re usually crappy, but they come right out good. — Dave D., Santa Fe

INCREDIBLE synthetic reeds
Many serious players use synthetic reeds, some exclusively. They hold constant under all conditions. Some players get more than a year of regular use. Fiberreed Carbon Classic S is my choice. It vibrates most efficiently, with reduced effort, and sounds rich and expressive. It is thinner than normal, but the composite structure is extremely stiff.  It acts like an efficient spring, absorbing less energy than other materials. But strangely, it sounds amazing! The soft S grade produces wonderful tone and expression on my instruments. Info: https://www.fiberreedusa.com.

Mouthpieces, and MATCHING to the reed
When switching to Fiberreed, I tried a mouthpiece that was a previous favorite, and it was better than ever! So, I don't just pick a favorite MP, and then a favorite reed. I pick the best PAIR. The curve of the MP facing should match to the curve of the vibrating reed. You can’t see it, but you will feel it! I collect vintage MPs so I can experiment. Now, my clarinet sales usually include a soft synthetic reed and a select MP to match. I’ve have had no returns in the last two years.


References and acknowledgements

Thanks to Phil Pedler (The ClarinetPages.info), Jared De Leon (Wind Instrument Repairs) and Clark Fobes, and others on The Clarinet Board and Sax-on-the-Web, for sharing their experience. For a historic comparison of bore sizes: http://www.clarinetpages.net/info-on-model-comparisons-and-bore-sizes and http://www.clarinetpages.net/stuff-phil-recommends/bore-sizes

« Last Edit: September 24, 2020, 08:35:03 PM by windydankoff »
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"User-Friendly" clarinets in Bb and C
http://www.windydankoff.com/black-hole-clarinets.html

Offline GrumpyMiddleAgedMan

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Definitely interesting and something I am going to have to follow up on. Looks like I am going to have to learn tone hole manipulation. I don't think I am going to be attending any trade school for this but are there any good books that can recommend for this sort of thing?  I don't know if basic repair books cover and I'm sure there is a super thick complete tomb on everything you ever wanted to know and then some. Maybe a website, I don't think I have seen anything about advanced clarinet repair on the net.
Thanks that was an excellent background bit , much appreciated. 

Post addendum
What would you use to fix cracking, meaning glue. I was thinking CA but am kind of leary of using it as it may be to hard/brittle. Gorilla contact cement is rattling around in my head.as it is more flexible but not sure if it will bond well.
« Last Edit: July 22, 2020, 07:33:01 PM by GrumpyMiddleAgedMan »
Only happy mistakes here.

Offline windydankoff

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The Pruefer clarinets already have large undercut tone holes as part of the overall large bore / low impedance design AND they are well-tuned. You don't need to manipulate them, in general. I was referring primarily to the Chinese C as needing numerous tonehole adjustments.

I got the feel for woodwind tuning by making bamboo flutes and Native American flutes. There are books on that. Clarinet techs warn against overly undercutting tone holes and "ruining" the instrument. I believe that advice is based on modern small-bore horns. Perhaps the large-bore cl. is less fussy. I have not had such a problem. On the Pruefer, the only holes I am likely to work on are the C#/G# L4, and the top 2 trills.

Hard rubber (HR) repair:  I use CA "superglue" to bond hard rubber IF the parts fit tightly together. I've tested on scrap, and only a heavy hammer blow would separate the joint. The Locktite gel CA is excellent and has the best applicator bottle. CA is good for filling gaps ONLY if you apply a powdered filler, then saturate it with thin CA. Never use CA alone to fill gaps. It's brittle. Epoxy also adheres very well to HR, whether it's clear liquid or putty type.

My PREFERRED way to fill gaps and replace chipped off  is epoxy putty. I use standard JB Weld with great success. Once that's set, I may use the Quick version to attain final shape. Black nail polish makes a good final finish.
« Last Edit: September 10, 2020, 08:44:26 PM by windydankoff »
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"User-Friendly" clarinets in Bb and C
http://www.windydankoff.com/black-hole-clarinets.html

Offline Airflyte

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Windy, are you equating to the acoustical standing wave to alternating electrical current?

So impedance equals resistance?

It's natural to think that a large bore instrument will be free-blowing ( the B&H Imperial 1010 may an exception to that logic).

The mouth piece / reed combo probably has the most effect to the player on how the clarinet takes the air.

Do you know if the "pre-R13's" have a larger non poly bore? I think it's referred to as the "Master bore".
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Offline LarryS

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Very interesting post Windy! I had no idea you had a weak jaw, a wide bore would certainly help there. It would help me too. If I play clarinet, then switch over to recorder, as I like to do, I find I automatically over blow and it sounds awful till I readjust my air stream.
Interesting that you can use a Bb mp on a C horn. I would quite like a C clarinet. Would make it a lot easier when playing from sheet!
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Offline windydankoff

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Airflyte, in response to your questions, I am comparing oscillating air motion to electrical alternating current ... or rather, I'm making an analogy on an intuitive basis. Impedance is resistance to oscillating energy, in whatever form it may take.

I again emphasize that "large bore" alone is a minor factor in reducing impedance. We're only talking about a diameter differences of a few percent. Impedance creates resistance (more or less) at EVERY boundary or change in the medium -- from mouth to reed to facing to chamber to barrel to main bore through tone holes, undercuts AND pad openings. So one cannot characterize an instrument from a few simple measurements.

The bore of any clarinet has near-zero resistance to "direct current". Observe by breathing through it without a reed. Add the dynamic element of oscillating (vibrating) air, and THEN impedance appears.

A mechanical example of impedance MATCHING is being in the correct gear on a vehicle. The gears alter the ratio of speed to torque using leverage. In the wrong gear, with mismatch, some energy is blocked. In a wind instrument, the ratio is air pressure to flow rate. In electric power, audio and radio circuits, it's voltage to current. Impedance is everywhere.

It's fascinating to ponder. I struggled to understand it as a radio ham in the 60's, and I'm still discovering its relevance. I was surprised at first, to see how it relates to the energy-efficiency of a clarinet. Now it makes complete sense.
« Last Edit: September 10, 2020, 08:50:09 PM by windydankoff »
Windy at BLACK • HOLE Clarinets
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http://www.windydankoff.com/black-hole-clarinets.html

Offline windydankoff

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I posted a Summertime demonstration of my "user-friendly" Pruefer Silver Throat and C clarinets at https://youtu.be/KLdry9KeOFc

I hope it demonstrates that a #2 reed can perform delightfully on instruments of low-impedance.
« Last Edit: August 13, 2020, 08:02:08 PM by windydankoff »
Windy at BLACK • HOLE Clarinets
"User-Friendly" clarinets in Bb and C
http://www.windydankoff.com/black-hole-clarinets.html

Offline Windsong

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Nice, Windy.  I enjoyed that.

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Offline LarryS

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A player I know, Adrian Cox, just got a wide bore Luis Rossi clari complete with Vandoren wide bore mouthpiece. I just assumed a wider bore = more volume, as it does with recorders.
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Offline windydankoff

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Larry, again I have to stress that tone hole sizes, undercutting, and pad heights are also critical determinants of impedance.

Airflyte gives an example above, saying that the B&H Imperial 1010 has a large bore but is NOT free-blowing.

The difference of inside diameter between a typical normal modern (medium) bore and a "large bore" is only 2-3 percent! And incidentally, the entire horn is shorter by a few percent, because a larger bore lowers the pitch.
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Offline windydankoff

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Re: The User-Friendly Clarinet: Free-blowing, wood-free, and sax-player friendly
« Reply #10 on: September 11, 2020, 09:33:43 AM »
For those who are following this topic, I revised the initial post, so it explains things more clearly. Please go back to the top if you wish to read the new version. Thanks!
Windy at BLACK • HOLE Clarinets
"User-Friendly" clarinets in Bb and C
http://www.windydankoff.com/black-hole-clarinets.html