Two Great American Oboe Makers Into One; A Review Of The New Fox-Laubin Professional Oboe
I recently had the opportunity to try a couple of the new Fox-Laubin oboes. I have been wondering about these instruments since I saw the release on the Fox website months ago. Being a long-time fan of everything Laubin since I was twelve years old, I wanted to get my hands on one of these new oboes. My first teacher played on Laubin oboes and I knew the name from an early age. They have always been the gold standard of oboe within my mind and for good reason.
I have a long and wonderful relationship with Fox products as well. I grew up playing a Fox Renard 330 intermediate oboe from the time I was 14 until well into my third year of college. The 330 is the best intermediate oboe on the market in my opinion. Whenever I am asked by band directors or students what they should purchase I without hesitation advise them to purchase Fox 330s. They sound good, have a good scale, are very durable and hold a very high resale value.
I am a total “gearhead” when it comes to oboe related products. When presented with the question “What would you do if you were rich” my answer is, exactly what I do now, but I would have hundreds of oboes and reed making machines, ohh and I would probably buy a new car. I love trying new toys and I like to see what new developments are happening in the oboe world in terms of instrument design or reed making tools. When two of the great U.S oboe makers came together in collaboration I knew I wanted to see and hear what was happening.
I was very excited to hear that two of the companies with the greatest influence on my oboe education were going to collaborate on a project together. I wanted to know a bit more about this instrument, and I wanted to try the Fox-Laubin oboe myself. I reached out to Fox in an attempt to have them send me an instrument to try and review. Sarah at Fox and Alex Laubin worked with me to try the oboes and share my thoughts with the oboe community. I am grateful for the generosity of time and resources provided by both companies.
An introduction to Laubin and Fox oboes
I am sure most oboists will be familiar with both Laubin and Fox. They have both been making high quality products for the better part of a century. For anyone new to either maker let me share a little history and my thoughts about the individual makers.
“The story of A. Laubin, Inc. began in 1931 when Alfred Laubin, a professional oboist and instrument repairman, dissatisfied with the quality of professional oboes available at the time, built his first oboe. After several attempts, Mr. Laubin was able to make an oboe which met the demands of his own playing career.
The intonation and reliability of his instruments impressed his professional oboist friends, many of whom began requesting and playing his oboes.
By the 1950’s, oboe-making had become a full-time occupation, and more musicians had the opportunity to own Laubin instruments. Around 1956, Alfred’s eldest son Paul joined the business, doing repair work and eventually learning every aspect of oboe-making before taking over the business when Alfred died in 1976.” (taken from http://www.alaubin.com/about.html)
The two most important oboe makers in the united states historically are Loree and Laubin. Loree became the choice instrument for many oboists due to the influence of Marcel Tabuteau. He brought the American school of oboe playing to the United states and along with it the Loree oboe. Loree was prominent within most professional orchestras until Laubin started making oboes to compete with the French maker. I have heard and read on several occasions that until recently (1990’s or so) it was said that 80% of American players used Loree instruments, and the 15% played on Laubin oboes . Laubin’s smaller market share being limited to their output of only a few instruments being produced every year.
I currently play a rosewood Laubin made in 1985. The instrument I play is actually the first oboe I ever heard played in live performance. It was my teacher, Tamara Field’s instrument, she gave it to me as a gift several years ago. “Rosie” as it has been named, was the instrument that brought a tear to my eye and made me understand that I was going to be an oboist.
The Laubin oboes I have tried over the years have a certain difficult to describe characteristic within the sound. The sound is complex and resonant within the whole overtone spectrum. To my ears I describe the quality like this; Laubin oboes do not filter overtones out of the sound, which I find to be the case with some other makers, which I feel leaves a stuffy feel and sound. The Laubin oboes I have tried seem to resonate within the core and center of the sound not filtering out undesired sound but amplifying the desired sounds. The oboe unifies the whole overtone spectrum within the sound into one homogeneous sound. The sound has more dimensions to it than simply “dark” or “bright” two terms I attempt to avoid when I describe sound. Where I would describe some sounds to be flat or two-dimensional in terms of depth of sound, Laubin oboes always seem to have a third dimension in the sound that is difficult to describe in words. This is an ill-articulated description of my own perception of the sound I hear, every oboist may hear and describe it differently.
The other characteristic I have always admired in Laubin oboes is the is not just the sound and even scale, but the connection between notes. How fluidly an instrument connects one note to the next, is a quality I always listen for whenever I am trying any oboe. I find Laubin oboes have a very fluid connection from one note to the next. I understand this quality has a lot to do with with the undercutting of the tone-holes and bore design in the production of the instruments.
“Fox Products Corporation is an American manufacturer of bassoons, contrabassoons, oboes and English horns. The founder of the company, Hugo Fox, was an American bassoonist. In his time as principal bassoon of the Chicago Symphony (1922-49), he conceptualized the possibility of world-class bassoons made in the United States. During the summer after his retirement in 1949, Mr. Fox returned to his hometown of South Whitley, Indiana, where he opened shop in pursuit of this goal. After two years of arduous tuning and acoustical work, he finished the first Fox bassoon in 1951
In the 1960s Hugo’s son, Alan, began to learn the art of instrument manufacturing. Alan led Fox Products Corporation for more than fifty years and oversaw developments in both the company’s acoustical and manufacturing capabilities. In the years since its initial offering of bassoons, Fox Products has developed a contrabassoon (1970), a complete line of oboes (1974) and English horns (1999)”. (Taken from the Fox Website http://www.foxproducts.com/history/)
I will admit that I have not played on too many professional Fox oboes. I did try the new Sayen professional oboe a couple years ago and I was very happy with the quality. I found them to have a rich sound, be very comfortable in the hands, and visually appealing with their gold posts. I was trying them at the University of Massachusetts double reed day, so I did not have a chance to give them the full run down. I recently had a short conversation with Pedro Diaz about the Sayen oboe and he said “ The tone is robust, even, the scale is easy. It has just the right amount of resistance for me.”
The Fox-Laubin oboe
I took a trip to the Laubin shop recently with Basil Reeve and had an opportunity to talk about the Fox-Laubin oboes with Paul and Alex Laubin. Alex told me a little about the collaboration between the two makers. The initial woodwork and keywork are done by Fox. The Oboes sent to Laubin have a smaller bore than a finished oboe . The instruments have the tradition cork and skin pads that all Laubin oboes are made with. Unlike the standard Laubin oboes, the Fox-Laubin has a third octave key, a feature many oboists have come to expect from elite level instruments.
Laubin then finishes the bore and tone holes with their tools and machines, a process that takes many hours of precise work. The result is an instrument that feels and looks like a professional Fox oboe, but has a sound and playing quality more similar to the Laubin oboe.
There were not any finished Fox-Laubin oboes at the Laubin shop when I visited , but Alex kindly agreed to send me a couple upon completion in a few weeks. 6 weeks later I would receive the instruments for trial.
Arrival of the Fox-Laubin oboes
I heard the knock on my door, signaling the arrival of my new toys for the next week. I order and receive supplies for my reed making business nearly every day, but I still get excited opening those packages up and pulling out the contents. I sometimes joke that the only reason I make oboe reeds professionally is to support my oboe reed making habit. Sometimes I feel as though I play the oboe to support my oboe reed making habit, I am not sure my priorities are straight. I was looking forward to receiving this package from Laubin all day and I quickly skipped into my home and opened it up.
I pulled the two cases out from the sea of packing peanuts and examined the sleek french style cases. I have seen the Fox-Laubin logo several times up to this point, but it still surprises me to see the two companies marked as one on the case cover. There is a fresh turkey feather nestled between the case and case cover, a tool Paul Laubin swears by in the cleaning of oboes.
I open the cases to see a couple shiny brand new oboes in front of me. The fresh silver keywork against an ebony and red back drop is a beautiful sight to my eyes. I can’t help but think “ahhh pretty”. I had a few colleagues over to try the oboes over the next week and their reactions were similar. What is it about those new, untouched keys that are so visually appealing, Something lodged within our psyches saying “shiny is goooood”.
The oboes rise from their slumber to play a few minutes of long tones before I need to leave to teach a lesson. I bring one of the oboes with me. I arrive at my student’s house and rush inside to have him try my new toy. I explain why I have the instrument and let him try it. He plays a few notes and expresses that he likes it. I sit and listen for a couple minutes and get a sense of the resonance as an observer.
This student is an advanced high schooler and he currently plays on a Fox 330. He plays beautifully on that instrument. We talk a bit about the instrument and compare it to his oboe. He expressed that it feels very similar to his ergonomically, but is heavier due to the grenadilla wood body. I try both oboes and agree that that do feel very similar, which I would have expected since the keywork is made by the same maker. I find both oboes to be very comfortable to play ergonomically. There is not too much reach for the pinkies, a characteristic that can vary a lot between different oboes.
The student asks about the third octave key, and I explain that it is an option that is standard on most professional oboes and is expected by many oboists .The recent Fox Renard 330 oboes also include a third octave key but his does not. I explain to him that Laubin does not usually install a third octave key due to the impact it has on the bore of the instrument, but in this collaborative effort they agreed to include it since it is something many oboists expect. I pry the oboe from his hands, we finish the lesson and I return home
I play the other instrument at home and leave them both for the next day. Over the next week I play both instruments for small amounts of time each day, listening and evaluating them against my own taste, but also what I might expect from the two makers.
I also made a few reeds for each instrument, trying to figure out what type of oboe reed works best for these specific instruments. I sent these along with the instruments when I returned them, so you may receive one of these reeds with your trial of the instruments from Laubin. ( oboe reeds available at ALakotareeds.com)
My Evaluation of the Fox-Laubin oboes I received.
The tone of both instruments was very rich, complex and beautiful. I would describe them to have the quality of depth in the sound I hear within the other Laubin oboes I have tried. Neither of the Fox-Laubin oboes I tried felt stuffy or had a “dead” sound. The sound was even and balanced within all octaves. I thought the overtones blended nicely allowing a lot of flexibility in tone color.
Both instruments played right at pitch for the reeds I use on my Laubin and Loree oboes. I did not need to adjust my reeds for the overall pitch of the instruments.
When I first received and tried the instruments there were a few notes that did not seem to “lock in” in terms of the scale with my reeds. The scale observations are to be expected to some extent with any variation in oboe and reed. Over the week I made a few different reeds for the instruments and I was able to find a solution with just reeds. The reeds I settled on were a bit thinner on the side integration of the tip to heart with slightly less taken from just behind the heart an area I like to really dig out for depth of tone. This is a reference to my own reed making so your results may vary. There are likely as many ways to a similar outcome as there are oboists.
As I reflect on the oboes and how they felt I think I would try using a shape with slightly narrower throat and more flare at the tip. A Pfieffer/Mack shape comes to mind… don’t mind me, I am thinking out loud.. well in text.
Body and Keywork
The keywork is very comfortable. I would describe it as having a slightly lower profile than Laubin oboes, meaning the keys feel slightly closer to the body of the instrument. This a professional level oboe with all trill, third octave and alternate keywork (no left C# just in case you were wondering). The Grenadilla wood was very smooth and tightly grained.
Connection of notes
I had no problem phrasing from one note to the next with either oboe. The oboes allowed subtlety of phrasing and smooth core sound connection between notes. The low profile keywork adds a great feeling of connection with the sound for me. Smooth fingers and keys equal smooth sound within my mind.
I have my theories that this quality has to do with the undercutting of the tone holes bore design and the skin pads. I feel the skin pads may offer slightly more cushion in contact which transfers into the sound quality. I am hypothesizing here and may be outrageously wrong. I am interested in experimenting on my Loree oboe (blasphemy?!?)
I think these oboes are worth a look for anyone in the market for a new professional level oboe. They are expertly made inside and out. With a price tag under $7000 they are slightly more affordable than some other makes of professional level oboes.
Laubin oboes currently have an 8-10 year wait and cost over $12,000 each. I have been on the list for a few years now and am currently looking for a buyer for one of my kidneys on the black market for the time when my name finally comes up. Private message me if you are interested in a slightly used organ. (This is a joke please do not message me about black market organ sales).
These instruments will provide a great upgrade to any student playing on the intermediate Fox Renard instruments. They feel very similar ergonomically and will provide a very smooth transition.
These oboes are available in limited quantities through Laubin and Fox Dealers. Please find more information on the website links provided.
If you have tried the new Fox-Laubin oboes and care to share your own impressions please feel free to do so in the comment section below. Also feel free to share your thoughts on the other Laubin and Fox products you have tried if you feel so inclined. I am always interested to hear everyone else’s thoughts and opinions. Happy oboe-ing.