The Inside story of the double reed. Understanding how the internal dimensions of a double reed affects its playing qualities.
An oboist recently wrote to me with some questions about shaper tip dimensions and what qualities different shapes affect. I watched my mind start chattering away about how the shaper tip affects different qualities of the oboe reed, and before I knew it I was writing a book via email to this oboe reed customer. I came back to a place of thinking “slow down Aaron” if this person is not familiar with oboe reed shapes and how they affect playing qualities within a double reed they likely need a simple answer. I gave them the standard “double reed width affects A,B, and C” and kept it to the qualities in themselves. I think about reeds and oboe a lot, perhaps to the point of having a problem, so I can forget the overall complexity of the subject for someone at a different stage.
This brief interaction got me thinking about reed width and that I need to get some ideas in print. I think that when talking about the reed width we are essentially talking about something correlating to the volume of the space within the reed. The wider the shape, the more volume of space within the reed if no other variables are changed.
We can also make a wide shape that plays very much like a more narrow shape but only after other variables compensated for the change in internal dimension. There are many variables in making double reeds, so as a general rule, what I am speaking about is a change in one variable at a time. This article is very much related to the shape of cane being used, but I think it is of some advantage to first understand why the double reed cane shape affects the reed’s playing qualities. Ultimatly I understand the reed’s shape to be a characteristic affecting the internal dimension of the double reed. The width of the shaper tipe will affect the volume of space within the reed.
Two Dimensions of double reeds; Internal and External
I generally think of oboe reeds and double reeds in general as having two dimensions that should be considered. The external and the internal dimensions.
- External. Cane thickness at different points. This is the scraping and clipping that is done on the outside of the cane. I also include the gouge since it is the initial thickness at different points. (the gouge will affect the internal dimension in ways, but let’s not go there right now).
- Internal. The internal dimension is the space between the two reeds. This is going to be things like how open the reed is at different places, the size of the staple opening, the width of the shape at different points, reed length, the overlap of the blades for oboists and (I don’t know if bassoonist do this).
The astute reader may notice overall length of the double reed is something I include in both categories. I suppose I would put it into the “internal” category if I needed to choose.
This article will focus on the internal dimensions of double reeds. Hopefully, I can provide the student with some insight into what qualities the internal dimensions are going to affect.
I should disclaim to any bassoonists or other double reed player (bagpipe, shawm, Duduk, etcetera) that may come across this article that I am an oboist. I am making the case that all double reeds are going to show similarities due to my experience with the oboe family, and my limited knowledge about bassoon reeds. I welcome comments and the sharing of your own understanding in the comments. I will not be offended if I am deemed totally ignorant of my understanding of Bassoon or other double reeds. I do believe it will apply to all reed types, but do not take anything I say as absolute. I would bet that bassoonists likely have a better understanding of this topic than most oboists since y’all deal with adjusting wires reamers, and the internal shape more than oboists.
The Big Three and The internal Dimensions of double reeds. Oboe reeds, bassoon reeds and bagpipe reeds too.
I have written about “The Big Three” qualities of oboe reed making in several other articles. The Big Three are Response, Resistance, and Intonation. I believe these are going to be relevant criteria to evaluate any double reed against. I stress in my overall philosophy that every oboist, and perhaps bassoonist too, needs to find the balance of these three qualities in their reeds and reed making. There is not one reed that is going to work for everyone, but we can all gain more awareness of how to grow as players by understanding how our reeds can be better by striving to find the balance that works for us. Finding the balance will allow the musician to make music without being limited to their tools, in this case the reed.
Everything I discuss is again to be treated as a variable which is changed without anything else being changed. It is not my point to say a reed should be A, B and C, but that if the internal dimension changes it will likely affect the reed in such a way.
The internal dimension of the double reed related to intonation.
The internal dimension of any double reed is going to affect the pitch of the reed. We can think of double reeds as a little instrument. The larger the space inside of an instrument (without changing other variables again) the lower the pitch is going to be. This can be thought of on a large scale as the difference between the tuba and the piccolo. A smaller internal dimension will have a higher pitch, a larger internal dimension will have a lower pitch.
When we have all the same variables and we change the internal dimension of the reed the pitch will also change slightly. Now this is not going to be the difference between a tuba and piccolo so the change is not drastic, but it is noticeable.
A wider shaped reed made exactly like a more narrow reed will play flatter. There are ways to adjust it to play higher, so it is not to say wide reeds will play flat, but we must compensate for the increase in internal volume in some way.That is either going to happen in the body by changing the air or in the reed itself. We can adjust the reed’s internal or external dimensions to compensate so we don’t need to change the internal bodily sensations.
The internal dimension of the double reed related to resistance.
I tend to define resistance as the amount of energy needed to make the reed vibrate and continue to vibrate. It is a transfer of energy from our bodies to the reed. The more resistant a reed is, the more energy we must transfer from our bodies to the reed to make it work.
The larger the internal dimension of the double reed the more air that will flow through the reed. The increase in air flow will drop the pressure within the body/instrument system and require the body to increase the pressure by exerting more energy.This energy increase can present itself as discomfort in the body if the player is not using proper support.
We should always remember that reeds vibrate to create sound, they vibrate when the pressure inside the system is high enough to make them vibrate. We can either adjust the energy we apply to them (more air pressure) or reduce the amount of energy that the reed needs to vibrate. This is a balancing game like everything else in reed making. We must be in tune with the bodily sensations, but also develop proper breathing and support habits. Developing a comfortable internal pressure system and balancing reeds to match that is the key as far as I am convinced.
You will notice that the first thing you will do while playing on a reed that is too resistant is to bite it with the embouchure. This is sometimes to the point of being unconscious, but it is like your body’s way of saying “ohh gheeze, close this reed down so I am not working so hard!”
When the internal dimension is too small it can lead to overblowing, which is when more pressure is created within the body system than the reed can accept. This will also lead to tension within the body. Find that balance, make life happy… mmmmm.
The internal dimension of the double reed related to response.
Response is a measurement of how easily the reed starts to vibrate. This is going to be the most difficult to express in terms of the internal dimension of the reed alone. Certain qualities of the internal dimensions of the reed will increase the responsiveness of a reed, where others will decrease it.
A wider tip opening is going to positively affect response in the lower registers of the instrument. A more narrow tip opening is going to positively affect response in the higher registers of the instrument. I tend to relate this to the vibrational frequencies of the pitch. Lower pitches vibrate at lower frequencies, so a reed that is wider will favor the lower frequencies. I believe this to also be why wider shaped reeds tend to favor the lower overtones within the sound. Those frequencies vibrate more easily with a wider reed, and less easily on a narrow reed. This is my own conjecture or intuition, call it what you like.
The height of the reed opening is going to affect the response in a different way. The higher the opening (distance between the two pieces of cane at the center) the less responsive the double reed will usually be. This does change when the reed becomes so closed that it will no longer speak. That is the point when the pressure within the body is too great and the external pressure in the mouth closes the reed.
We may then infer that a reed may become less responsive when the pressure within the body is greater than the reed needs to vibrate optimally. Someone may need a more resistant reed and so they like the resistance a more open reed allows them without overblowing. The same reed may close up for them if they were to try to adjust the internal dimension. They would be increasing the pressure in the body too much and the reed may no longer function properly for them.
I personally like to make my reeds have a fairly closed opening because I feel it gives the reeds more depth of tone, pitch stability, and greater response for my style of playing. I prefer to open up my embouchure and not have too much pressure on the reed. I change the width of the reed and not opening height for desired resistance, This way I am not trying to control the reed with my embouchure too much.
Summery up to this point.
- The greater the internal volume of space within a double reed, the more resistant the reed will be. <OR> The larger the internal volume between two blades, the more energy that must be transfered from the body to the reed via the air.
- The lesser the internal volume of space within a double reed, the less resistant the reed will be. <OR> The smaller the internal volume between the two blades, the less energy that must be transfered from the body to the reed via the air.
- The greater the internal volume of space within a double reed, the lower the pitch will be
- The lesser the internal volume of space within a double reed, the higher the pitch will be
- Wider shapes will respond better in lower registers.
- narrower shapes will respond better in higher registers.
- The greater the distance between the two blades the less responsive the reed will be. I am going to leave this as that.
How do I use this information?
Send me a check for $300 and I will tell you…. Just kidding… well unless you want to. Aaron Lakota 10 mer………
I am trying to provide students with a conceptual framework to think about double reeds and reed making. Essentially I aim to help interested readers to develop a vocabulary of “if, Then” statements, A logical approach to oboe reed making if you like.
- The first step is Assessing the qualities of the oboe reed or double reed in general. The students need some objective criteria to evaluate reeds. I have written about some strategies in past articles. Start with the Big Three Qualities and move from there. “Oboe reeds for beginners” may be helpful for someone just coming to the blog.
- The next step is asking “why are my oboe reeds too resistant, flat or unresponsive “.
- Then “how do I change that?”
- “What variable should I change?”
- “How will changing this variable affect other variables?”
- find the balance, be happy oboe-ing ….. or bassoon-ing or whatever you please.
Understanding the workings of double reeds is not an impossible task with some knowledge and curiosity. Nothing I write is a replacement for experience, but having some conceptual understandings may take away from some of the mystery of the elusive double reed.
A couple example of how this double reed information may help students.
A person may have flat, resistant and unresponsive reeds. The problem may have a very simple fix which is to adjust the internal dimension of the reed slightly. Many beginner and advanced oboe students would benefit from just experimenting with trying to adjust the internal dimensions of their reeds slightly. I wrote a short article on adjusting flat oboe reeds without any tools. The same concepts will hold true for any of the qualities affected by the internal dimensions of the double reed.
A more advanced reed maker may decide their reeds are too sharp for their needs and decide to change the shaper tip dimensions and not their air. They are matching the reed to their body and not trying to compensate for a reed. Having a holistic understanding of every variable will ultimatly lead to better reeds. Better reeds mean better music making, better music making means happy musicians, happy musicians mean happy people around the musicians, happy people means a better society… great reeds.. helping the world to be better one musician at a time. See its all connected. Happy double reed-ing
Happy double reed-ing