What are Synthetic Reeds?
Synthetic reeds are made from composite materials, which are designed to imitate the sound and quality of cane reeds. The natural variations in cane, producing reeds of different strength are duplicated in synthetic reeds. Because the materials in synthetic reeds are manufactured, the strength of each reed is identical every time. Companies such as Légère use polypropylene which is FDA approved for use in direct food contact applications.
Benefits of Synthetic Reeds
All woodwind players have experienced the stress of choosing the “right” reed for an upcoming performance, only to have the weather change by the next day, forcing one to hastily find a different reed! Synthetic reeds are not affected by temperature or humidity, making them invariable no matter how the weather changes, or where you might travel with them. This consistency is one reason why many performers have turned to synthetic as their primary reed choice.
Synthetic reeds are also cost-effective. Since every reed is identical, musicians no longer have to search through a box of cane reeds to find ones that are playable. Sometimes, you might only find one or two cane reeds, in a whole box, that work.
A synthetic reed may last from two to six months, depending on the frequency of use. The more reeds you have and can rotate, the longer they will last. The reeds do soften a bit over time, but one reed should last several months.
Please remember that while synthetic reeds are very durable, they are not indestructible. Just as with cane reeds, you need to have a reed case in which to store your reeds between uses. The tips of synthetic reeds can crack, making them unplayable.
Synthetic reeds do not need to be wet in order to use them. You will get an instant response from a synthetic reed, without the necessary soaking of cane reeds. This makes synthetic reeds a great choice for pit musicians who need to quickly switch between multiple woodwind instruments.
Easy to Clean
It is much more difficult for bacteria to live on synthetic reeds. However, they should still be cleaned from time to time, and should not be shared. Unlike cane reeds, synthetic reeds can be washed with mild soap and water. Some brands of synthetic reeds say that they can also be cleaned with toothpaste or rubbing alcohol.
How Do I Choose the Correct Synthetic Reed For Me?
The general opinion about choosing a synthetic reed strength is to choose a reed that is a little softer than what you would purchase in a cane reed. For instance, if you are currently playing on a #3 Vandoren cane reed, you might want to try a #2.75 or #2.5 synthetic reed.
Légère reeds have an exchange policy that allows you to exchange clarinet and saxophone reeds if they are not the correct strength for you. They do not allow exchanges with oboe and bassoon reeds.
Adjusting Synthetic Reeds
You can do a small amount of adjusting to your synthetic clarinet or saxophone reed. If necessary, you may take fine sandpaper and scrape from the top of the vamp to the tip. As with cane reeds, you should always sand with the grain of the reed. You should not clip the tip of a synthetic reed, as it will most likely cause the reed to split.
If you find that your synthetic oboe reed is leaking, you can use Teflon tape to wrap it, the same way you would wrap a cane reed. This should create a better seal without affecting the sound of the reed.
If you find that your synthetic bassoon reed is leaking, you could use coffee filter paper around the reed to tighten the seal. You may also wish to ream the inside of the reed with a diamond reamer. Neither of these suggestions should affect the sound of the reed.
Reliable Brands of Synthetic Reeds
The most reliable brand of synthetic reeds, used by professionals and amateur musicians, is Légère. Their reeds are available in a variety of different cuts and strengths. Saxophone reeds are produced in an American Cut, Classic Cut, Standard Cut, Studio Cut, or Signature Series. Clarinet reeds are available in European Cut, Classic Series, Standard Cut, German Cut, or Signature Series. Oboe and bassoon reeds are only available in one cut - Classic European Scrape for oboe and Classic Cut for bassoon.
Here is a concise explanation of the difference in cuts for Légère reeds.
- The Classic Series cut is based on the first Légère reed produced in 1998. This is the best cut for students, marching bands, and amateur players.
- The Signature Series cut is a bit thinner and stiffer than the Classic cut. It produces a warmer and darker tone and has a more flexible tip. This cut is a great choice for advanced players and professionals.
- The European Cut, available for Bb clarinet, is produced with a shorter, wider vamp, and an extra band of material on the spine. This provides extra stability and allows for consistent high register playing.
- The European Scrape reeds for oboe vibrate differently and require a different embouchure than what most American players are used to.
Bravo reeds, which were designed in California, have a strict non-toxic manufacturing process that is certified by the standards of the European Union. They are available for alto, tenor, and baritone saxophone, as well as Bb and bass clarinet.
Bravo reeds are one of the most economical synthetic reeds currently on the market. A box of Bravo reeds is comparable in price to a box of cane rees. This makes Bravo reeds an enticing choice for students, who are interested in trying synthetic reeds.
Harry Hartmann Fiberreed
Harry Hartmann designed his synthetic reeds to include all of the positive elements of cane reeds while excluding the negative qualities.
Harry Hartmann produces six different types of alto, tenor, and baritone saxophone reeds, five types of soprano saxophone reeds, and even one type of bass saxophone reed. They also produce five types of French-Boehm Bb clarinet reeds, two types of reeds for German clarinets, and one type for bass and contrabass clarinets.
Harry Hartmann reeds are produced from a variety of materials, described below.
- Natural Fiberreeds are made from white hollow foam resin compound fibers, which are layered and woven together.
- Carbon Fiberreeds have carbon fibers layered in with the other hollow fibers.
- Hemp Fiberreeds are made with 80% organic material, including hemp and hardwood. They feel, look, and play the closest to cane reeds of any of the Fiberreed varieties. Hemp Fiberreeds run a bit soft. It is suggested that you order one strength harder than your usual reeds.
- Carbon Onyx Fiberreeds are made from carbon and fiberglass. The overall tone of this reed is quite warm and full.
To Switch Or Not To Switch…
Ultimately, the decision to switch from cane reeds to synthetic reeds rests with the comfort level of the musician. While nothing can really duplicate or replace cane reeds, synthetic reeds continue to improve. Most musicians agree that clarinet and saxophone synthetic reeds are quite reliable and can produce a great sound. The oboe and bassoon synthetic reeds still have a bit of catching up to do in order to be comparable with their cane counterparts.
Today, many professional clarinetists and saxophonists are making the switch to synthetic reeds or combining the use of cane and synthetic reeds. Your decision about synthetic reeds may fall in the category of “try it, you might like it” or “if you never try it, you’ll never know!” The latter of which is absolutely true! Choosing the right strength and brand of synthetic reed for you will take time and patience.