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Bassoon Reeds: How do I wade through the choices?

Posted by K.C. Chai on

Bassoon Reeds: How do I wade through the choices?

I am the new bassoon expert at Hodge Products. One aspect of this responsibility is to evaluate our bassoon products to see where updates might be made. I decided that reeds would be the most useful place to start. So where possible, I played eight reeds in every line of reeds that we sell. This was to determine what were the best and most consistent qualities across each line. My hope is that by going through this process, I can guide you to the reed that you feel could be the best fit for your needs or those of your students. Included is a chart to help you identify the traits you are looking for with as much information as I can give you.

I play on a Fox Model 1 bassoon (which is the same long bore, thin wall design as Fox’s Model 2 but with more rollers, and similar to the Renard 220 and 222). I have paired my bassoon with a pre-war Heckel CC2 bocal. An important detail: the tip opening of Heckel bocals is typically smaller than that of Fox bocals. My Heckel bocal is the standard tip opening. In some cases I had issues with the fit of the reed on my bocal, which is noted in the paragraphs about each reed. You will then know that reaming the reed might be necessary if you or your students play on Fox bocals and possibly those of other makers. If you have questions as to equipment, please feel free to email me at kc@hodgeproductsinc.com. For more information about me and my background, and if I can be of help to you about anything else related to the bassoon, find me on our biographies page.

Definitions

Reed Characteristics

  • Articulation - How easily notes can be tongued in quick succession; sometimes called "attack." The articulation is what, with the tongue, begins the tone. Styles of articulation include legato, tenuto, staccato, and marcato. These are advanced terms and concepts. I prefer the term "articulation" because it is specific, and "attack" sounds harsh and angry: young players sometimes think all attacks should be hard because of the other associations of the word.
  • Consistency - How consistent all the reeds of a particular maker are compared to each other.
  • Hardness - How hard the reed is to blow and get it to vibrate.
  • Intonation - This is based on an A being at 440 Hz and refers to how all the notes sit relative to that.
  • Opening - How open the tip of the reed is while playing. This affects articulation and response. A tip that is too open (hard to make vibrate and sluggish response) can be closed with lip pressure temporarily, but it is often better to squeeze the first wire (nearest to the blade) top to bottom as oriented to play. To open the tip, squeeze the first wire side to side.
  • Response - How quickly the reed begins to vibrate with sound when it is blown at a normal rate.
  • Tone Color - a full spectrum of harmonics available in the tone which the player can manipulate as desired.

Tone Color Terms

  • Bright Tone - The higher overtones are more prominent. Though this can sometimes sound harsh depending on the different overtones present, it often penetrates into a concert hall better.
  • Buzzy Tone - Excessive vibration, often heard as reedy, and usually uncontrolled.
  • Dark Tone - The opposite of bright, this refers to a sound containing more prominent low overtones and less high. Depending on what other qualities are in the tone, dark sounds can sometimes get lost in a large hall although it is usually considered highly desirable.
  • Round Tone - A sound often described as full. It has a full complement of overtones, low and high, above the principle note. It sounds rich.
  • Strident Tone - Harsh, grating, rough, or jarring quality. Sometimes the sound feels pointed, aggressive, or one-dimensional.
  • Warm Tone - Technically, it’s containing more prominent low and mid-range overtones and slightly softened mid and upper overtones leaving a less sharp attack or articulation on the notes.

A sound (or sound spectrum) is a combination of the principle, or fundamental, note (or pitch) plus overtones (or harmonics). Overtones are additional tones or frequencies that are related to the fundamental or principle. They come in predictable patterns, called the overtone series. Often one octave above the fundamental is the most active overtone. Overtones add richness and complexity to the sound as well as enhancing the projection.

The above list of terms and definitions relates to sound and reed characteristics. Though by no means complete, this will explain what some professionals mean when they use these terms, and you will also understand what I mean in some of my evaluations. These terms often have slightly confusing meanings based on one’s personal experience.  First, “dark” sounds/reeds are thought to be better in tune than “bright” sounds/reeds, but bright reeds can also play in tune. Second, how much “darkness” or “brightness” is in the sound or reed is often misunderstood as pitch, but could be how much blend (dark) or assertiveness (bright) the player or reed produces. My understanding is that “dark” sounds are those that have dampened, to some degree, the higher overtones or partials in the sound. This is where music overlaps with physics and the sound frequencies.

One’s sound is personal. It is often based on your physiology, or how your body is built. By this I mean details beyond your control: the size of your oral cavity (inside the mouth), the size and flexibility of your tongue, and the size of your lips. The lips are effective at dampening the sound for a darker tone. I happen to have thicker lips, so more of my lip makes contact with the reed relative to someone with thinner lips. This extra contact is one way my reeds are dampened, and it happens naturally. The problem with this is that when the sound is dampened too much, or becomes too dark, and projecting your sound in the concert hall becomes more challenging. Many factors can affect this, but each can be addressed in its own way. Because of this I tend to choose reeds that have a bit more brightness or buzz so that when my lips dampen the buzz, I am left with a sound that is still characteristically “bassoon” in nature but projects well in the space I am performing in (I consider this "liveliness" or life in the sound - it's interesting to hear). So I try to make a sound that has some darkness or richness while having enough buzz or brightness to project for my needs. Others will need less buzz in the reed and more darkness built into it. The following chart may be useful. Remember that each pair is a spectrum, and that every reed is a balance of each spectrum combined with the others.



Desirable Undesirable
Dark Bright
Focused Spread
Round Buzzy
Full Strident



Reed Discussion

Reeds played in these videos have not been adjusted or manipulated in any way. I simply soaked them, and played them. This is intended to reveal all aspects of the reeds. One reed in particular gave me problems with articulation and response: it was not clear nor was is fast and light. Such is a critical factor to understand. If you like reeds on the heavier or harder spectrum, you or a teacher may need to do some adjusting to your reed. While I could adjust that reed and play successfully on it, it would take work and time. So clearly that reed is not my preference, especially upon first playing it, but I want you to make up your own mind. Again, I like reeds medium to medium-hard in strength with a very thin tip. 

If you'd prefer to just listen to the reeds without being distracted by watching me, click on the "Audio" link at the end of each description. You are always welcome to call me at the store for a personal consultation. I will try to guide you to a reed that you will be happy to play.


Angry Duck Black 

Angry Duck reeds are made by Jinju Carlson. The black-wrapped reeds are made from Donati cane on a Rieger 1A shaper. The only difference in the construction of her reeds is the brand of cane used. However this choice brings about other differences. Made with a medium thick profile, I found these reeds to be very consistent across those I played, with fast response, and a rich and malleable tone color. The scale is very even, but there is enough flexibility that the pitch can be placed where the player wants it to go. This cane has a bit more buzz than her Rieger cane reeds, so the projection is quite good, with a good presence of overtones in the sound. Their fit on my Heckel bocals was very good and stable. Tone color is also quite flexible for blending with others and for solo capabilities. The strength is medium. The high range is especially easy and responsive. I find these reeds to be quite good for high school players and up. Audio


Angry Duck Blue 

Angry Duck reeds are made by Jinju Carlson. Her blue reeds are constructed from Rieger cane on a Rieger 1A shaper. The thickness of the profile is in a medium range. These reeds have a great sound, but they consistently have some buzz, though it’s not excessive. This leads to easier projection. These reeds have a great scale in terms of evenness across the range, but more flexibility in pitch choice, and a medium articulation speed. The blue reeds are medium hard in strength. I found that these reeds consistently fit further on my Heckel bocals than anticipated, so they might be a great fit without any reaming for Fox bocals. The sound has a great core but with more higher overtones in the sound, producing a more lively sound to my ear. Of particular note is the ease of tuning in the lowest register (low F and down) with clarity and power in the sound. The tone color is quite stable but that means a bit less flexibility to adjust the tone color. With the ease of response, I recommend these reeds for players in high school and up. I found the pitch to be slightly low overall (though I have a VERY relaxed, loose embouchure), across the range of these reeds, but they could be a great fit for short bore, higher pitched, instruments, or for those with a firm embouchure.


ArtistReady

The ArtistReady line of reeds is new to Hodge Product. At our suggestion, reed maker David Colborn has introduced these reeds as a line of student reeds. These reeds are intended for beginners. Often beginners need a reed that is in the medium or even medium-soft range of strength. Beginners are still learning to form a good embouchure, to hold it consistently, and to determine how their air streams work and to blow their air fast enough to make reeds vibrate. These reeds should, even for beginners, produce a good sound consistently. These reeds have a sound on the darker end of the spectrum. The articulation speed is fast for beginners, though slower than what more advanced players would desire, and the corresponding sound also response quickly. A teacher may wish to thin the tip out just a bit more on a case by case basis. I found these reeds to be very consistent and playable from low Bb all the way up to (Rite of Spring) high C with a slower air speed and up to really high E with a stronger air stream. The scale of these reeds is stable and even. These reeds are a medium strength overall. Overall these reeds are a fine new entry to our line, and work well specifically for those players with the least experience.


Bassoons.ch Herzberg-Style

Our new line of reeds from Bassoons.ch are made by Canadian-born Andrew Burn, now living and working in Switzerland. Andrew specializes in making reeds for historical instruments. The reeds we carry are those he makes for the modern bassoon. We are the exclusive distributor of his bassoon reeds. These reeds are made with equipment that is modeled from the legendary reed tools of Norman Herzberg and using his methods, though not tools made or distributed by anyone affiliated with Herzberg's family or estate. Across the reed line from Mr. Burn, his reeds have a fast articulation and a responsive sound. The sound is medium dark, with a just a little buzz, and rich. The scale is even from bottom to top of the range. The strength is medium hard. I experienced some of the reeds opening quite a bit upon initial soaking. The player may need to close down the tip opening a little until repeated soakings and dryings stabalize the reed. Across the line these reeds fit well on my Heckel bocal, but they may need to be reamed to fit on Fox bocals. These reeds are a great find and a terrific addition to our line of reeds!


Brundage 

Reeds by David Brundage are a best seller at Hodge Products. David is a retired military-performing bassoonist. The trait of reliability from his military background comes through in his reeds. The consistency from reed to reed is fantastic! Made from hand-selected cane from a variety of brands, shaped on a shaper that Brundage designed himself, and play tested for reliability, I find these reeds to produce an incredibly dark sound, with no buzz. They have a thicker profile. These reeds have a fine articulation speed. These are not student reeds due to the medium hard to hard strength of the cane. The evenness of the scale is great, but moving the pitch where needed will be a little difficult, possibly due to the stiffness of the cane. This also means the reeds have a very even tone color, but it’s hard to adapt the colors for different sound choices. A very stable and firm embouchure will be needed for the best use of these reeds. All of these reeds fit great on my Heckel bocals, but they will need to be reamed to fit on Fox bocals. These reeds are best suited to those who want a harder reed. Some advanced high school students may find these reeds to work well for them, though I feel they are intended for university and higher level players. They have a really good core sound, and for the stability, they have a good dynamic range. All in all, this is a fine product.


Danzi Standard (blue) 

The Danzi Standard reed is different from the Danzi Professional reed in terms of reed strength. According to their website, this is the only substantial difference. The student reeds are labeled by the Danzi company as medium strength, but I found them to be medium hard in reality, just a little softer overall than the professional reeds. These reeds were longer in the blade length than is standard in the American style of reeds, tending toward flatness. They also consistently did not fit on my Heckel bocal. This requires reaming and possibly adding a 4th wire to increase stability in the fit, which is also likely to be necessary for those playing on Fox bocals also. This combination also means that they will be better for advancing students who have a great quantity of air or very fast air, and the player will need either a very strong embouchure or to place the lips almost touching the first wire, to play them up to pitch. I suspect that embouchure placement to be more traditional in the European schools of bassoon performance, but I have limited knowledge and experience in that matter. I found these reeds to require soaking for close to 10 minutes before I could make sound on them, but this also allowed the tips to open to an extremely wide measurement. The first wire may need to be squeezed with pliers from top to bottom to address this point. The reeds have a medium fast articulation speed. The sound happens to be consistently dark, with a solid core and few noticeable overtones, and with good projection. The scale of these reeds was not perfectly even, but it was also not problematic. The overall consistency from reed to reed is good. Danzi reeds are made by the company from Danzi cane, the shaper has not been identified. These reeds are suitable for players high school and up, if the embouchure is strong enough.

I accidentally called this reed the "deluxe" model in the video. That is terminology from a line of reeds to be discontinued.


Danzi Professional (red) 

Again, the Danzi Professional reed differs from their student reed primarily in terms of strength/hardness. These reeds are also built in the European style with longer blades and a shorter distance between the first and second wires. These reeds also tend toward flatness unless the player has a very strong air supply. Much like their student reeds, the strength is marked medium hard, but I found them to be hard. These also require a longer time to soak, which results in wide tip openings, but again, that can be addressed by squeezing the first wire top to bottom. The articulation speed on these reeds is medium. These reeds will also likely need to be reamed to fit bocals. The overall consistency of these reeds is quite good. Like the student line, the scale of the reeds was not perfectly even, but it also was not problematic. The tone color is quite dark. Danzi reeds are made by the Danzi company on Danzi cane with an unidentified shape. As it is so hard, I recommend this reed for collegiate players and up. These could be great reeds for recitals if you like these overall characteristics.

I accidentally called this reed the Danzi "Standard" reed in the video. Red is the professional reed, and blue is definitely the standard reed. Among some reed lines, "professional" reeds are left thicker and thus harder than the "student" reeds, as professionals have more skills in place for adjustments. These reeds may also be made from more expensive, and in the maker's mind, higher quality cane. Student reeds are not made from bad cane, just cane that may be cheaper or a bit less consistent from piece to piece. Often student reeds have had more finishing work done to them, so they blow easier and need less in the way of adjustments to meet the player's need.


Hunter, Cody 

The Cody Hunter reeds are also remarkably consistent. They are medium hard in strength. These reeds have a very reliable and consistent scale in terms of pitch and sound quality, but they have some flexibility to be able to move the pitch where necessary. They have little to no buzz, so they produce a dark sound. I found that these reeds have a very good core sound with a big dynamic range, and a medium fast articulation speed. Cody Hunter reeds fit very well on my Heckel bocal, but they might need a bit of reaming to use on Fox bocals. I find these reeds to be suitable for advancing high school level players and up, but that a stable embouchure is important. The overall stability of these reeds increases as they are played on and broken in. A thicker profile is found on these reeds. They are made from Gonzalez cane on a Fox number 2 shaper. If you are looking for stable reeds overall with some flexibility, these reeds might be a great option.


Légère Medium

The Légère reed is an interesting and fascinating product. Made of a proprietary synthetic polymer (some kind of plastic), I tested these briefly over five years ago. My impression of them was not good back then. They have gone through two or three design modifications, and at each design some people love them while others do not, and some agree that the improvement is continual. I recently had the chance to play one for an opera rehearsal (four hours). The reed needed no soaking as it’s not wood. It does not change with the temperature or humidity. It had a faster articulation speed than my best cane reed at that time. The pitch was good and consistent across the range of my bassoon. There are two drawbacks, professionally, that I can find. The first is that while it has a good tone color and sound, it seems to not allow much flexibility of choosing different tone colors, as available with cane, though I am able to bend the pitch when it’s called for. This is likely only noticeable for very advanced collegiate and professional players. The second drawback is simply cost. One of these reeds is equivalent to 6-7 cane reeds in price. A third, very minor, detail is the the blade edges are thin and sharp, especially at the tip. Be careful in your articulation.

We currently have three medium reeds in stock. I have played all three. They are very consistent in tone color, pitch, and response, including a fast articulation. A Légère reed should last a few months to over a year, depending on how heavily it is used and maintained. There is a bit of maintenance and adjustment information online that you should read if you buy one. Only you can decide if this is worth it, but I do know of several professional players who keep a Légère as a backup in their bassoon or reed case.

Update: In the last month (Oct. 2018) Légère has released new bassoon reeds in a Medium Hard strength. We have a couple of them in stock along with two more in the Medium. What are the differences? Not many. They seem to be designed after the same shape, which is slightly narrower than a Fox 2. Because the proprietary plastic formula can be controlled more exactly, these reeds seem to be thinner than most cane reeds and shorter as well. That being said, the Légère reeds average 54 mm in length, but there is a range of 53-55 mm. The width across the tips are very similar across both strengths, 14.7-15.0 mm. These differences may be due to play testing and individual adjustments at the factory. Much like each bassoon and bocal plays differently, each reed is still subject to individuality and slightly different playing characteristics. I believe someone is accounting for this. All of these reeds played with good pitch on my equipment, with an even scale and stable core sound, with some flexibility in color choices. As expected, the medium hard reeds are harder. They produced a slightly darker sound than the medium for me and had noticeably more resistance in the high register (think Rite of Spring high C). It was noticeable to me because I prefer a light, free-blowing reed. My preference aside, there is nothing wrong with the medium hard reeds. They play consistently and well within the spectrum of an acceptable and characteristic tone. Be aware that they are only made in medium and medium hard at this time. Highly recommended but with the reservation of price.


Légère Medium Hard

Légère Reeds has just released a reed in the medium hard strength. These reeds have the same basic feel and sound as those of the medium line. Understanding that I prefer a lighter reed, for my playing and observations on these reeds, they are a noticeably stiffer or harder in strength than the medium. The articulation speed is fast, but the plastic material tip is cut quite sharp, so I suggest learning to articulate with tongue to underside of the bottom blade. Repeated fast articulation to the tip of both blades of the reed may cause cuts into the tongue. The sound is dark and rich, but I found that it took such effort of air and embouchure to make a good sound that I would be limited in controlling tone colors. By comparison the medium reeds allow me more tone colors. If you prefer a harder-end reed, this reed may be just want you like. It has all of the advantages of not needing to be soaked, not being affected by the weather, much longer length of stability, and a good sound. Many of the characteristics of the medium reeds apply also to the medium-hard line. They are worth a try if you're interested in these reeds as a concept, and especially if you're leaning towards a purchase. But do compare them with the medium reeds to make sure you find the reed that really works for you.


ProReady 

ProReady reeds are built by reed-maker and freelance bassoonist David Colborn, who was an engineer in his earlier life. This engineering mind applied to making reeds produces reeds that are very consistent from reed to reed and have an overall great sound. With a slightly medium thin profile, these reeds have a fast articulation and response. They have a medium amount of buzz for liveliness and projection without seeming overly buzzy in tone color. This combination of factors yields a reed with a great core sound, but with plenty of overtones, and a rich sound across the bassoon’s range. The fit on my Heckel bocal was consistently good and stable across the line of reeds, but they may need a slight reaming for Fox bocals. The scale was nice and even across the range and from reed to reed. These reeds are not listed as student reeds, and they are certainly capable of more, but with a medium soft to medium hardness, these reeds can be very effectively used by students even in the beginning stages, while many professionals could be quite comfortable playing them, along with everyone in between. Heartily recommended for all, especially if you like a free-blowing reed.




Reed Comparison Chart


Reed Sound Control and Buzz Pitch and Scale Tone Color Bocal Fit (Heckel and Fox) Performance Level Strength or Resistance Articulation
Angry Duck Black (Donati cane, Rieger 1A shape) Good, flexible, med buzz Stable, easy to bend Rich, dark, many overtones Good on Heckel, slight ream Fox HS and up Med Med Fast to Fast
Angry Duck Blue (Rieger cane, Rieger 1A shape) Flexible dynamics and projection, strong low range, little buzz Stable, somewhat hard to bend Many overtones, dark, good core Deep on Heckel, good on Fox HS and up Med Hard Med
ArtistReady (custom cane, Herzberg shape) Good projection, stable, minimal buzz Stable, some flexibility Dark, some overtones Good on Heckel, poss ream for Fox Beginner and up Med Med Fast
Bassoons.ch 
Herzberg-Style
 (variety of canes, Herzberg shape)
Good projection, stable, some flexibility, light buzz Stable, some flexibility Dark, rich, nice overtones Good on Heckel, ream for Fox Advanced HS and up Med Hard Med Fast
Brundage (custom cane and shape) Good projection, very stable, no buzz Very stable, hard to bend good dynamics, one core color Good for Heckel, ream for Fox Advanced HS and up Med Hard to Hard Med Fast
Danzi blue (standard/med, Danzi med shape) Little flexibility, med buzz Stable, somewhat hard to bend Good core, few overtones Ream for Heckel and Fox HS and up Med Hard, Danzi labels as “med” Med Fast
Danzi red (pro/med hard, Danzi med shape) Little flexibility, much buzz Stable, difficult to bend Good core, few overtones Ream for Heckel and Fox College and up Hard, Danzi labels as “med hard” Med
Hunter, Cody (Gonzalez cane, Fox 2 shape) Some flexibility, good dynamics, little buzz Stable, somewhat hard to bend Some overtones, stable core Good for Heckel, ream for Fox Advancing HS and up Med Hard Med Fast
Légère Medium Good control, good flexibility Stable, easy to bend Good core, few overtones Good, *see note below College and up, **see note Med Fast
Légère Medium Hard Good control, some flexibility Stable, some bending Good core, few overtones Good, *see note below College and up, **see note Med Hard Medium Fast
ProReady (custom cane, Herzberg shape) Good control, good flexibility Stable but easy to bend Good core, many overtones Good fit on Heckel, slight ream possible for Fox MS and up, due to ease of blowing Med Med Fast to Fast


Regarding Légère reeds:

*The fit on my Heckel bocals is good enough, but there is a possibility leaning toward tendency for the reed to fall off the bocal unexpectedly if you move your mouth off the reed to breathe or if your lips maintain contact longer than you are aware of. These reeds, though made of a synthetic material, are subject to breaking or cracking if they hit the ground at the wrong angle. A new product is now made to tighten it to the bocal, sold by www.forrestsmusic.com. I have not tested this product. Reeds were not tested with a Fox bocal.

**The Légère reed, especially if you can find one on the softer side, could be soft enough to be of use to even middle school players. I would try them before committing to a purchase, as each is different, so that you can find a good reed for your setup. They are cost prohibitive to many, though, so I do not recommend them to players below the college level.


Hardness and Price Comparison Chart


The following chart, I hope, will be useful as a quick glance comparing hardness. It is arranged by price. None of these lines of reeds, other than Légère, comes with a choice of hardness. Of the Légère reeds, we stock the medium and medium hard. These are their only two options for bassoon at this time. Cane, however, is a living thing, and it varies piece to piece even from the same grower and the same harvest season. I have provided what I think is a hardness range based on the reeds I tested. The Danzi Standard reeds are all listed on their packaging as medium, and their Professional reeds are identified as medium hard, but I found them to feel one level harder than listed across the board. Reeds can vary in their hardness even when you can’t order a specific strength, so you may get different hardnesses even within one line of reeds. Price is not an indicator of quality in this chart, as I found quality reeds in each line, and I did not find unacceptable reeds in any of them. All of these reedmakers are producing good reeds and consistent reeds. What is best depends on what you are looking for in your reed.

     Reed      Medium Soft    Medium    Medium Hard       Hard            Price     
ArtistReady X X $19.00
Danzi Blue (Std) X $20.00
Brundage X X $21.00
Bassoons.ch
X X $21.00
Angry Duck Blue X X $22.00
Angry Duck Black X X
$22.00
Hunter, Cody X $22.00
ProReady X X $24.50
Danzi Red (Pro) X $25.00
Légère X X $145.00


Conclusion

Every player needs a slightly different reed. Each player is different, as is every bassoon and bocal. Environment and elevation also affect reed performance. Drier climates and higher elevations need thinner reeds to perform well. You or your teacher can tailor them to suit your specific needs. Your reed is a tool to help you achieve your musical expression, so it is important to find reliable reeds unless you choose to make your own. The search for a good reed will continue as long as you choose to play, so embrace the challenge and rise up to it!

Head over to our bassoon reeds page to place your order.

If you have questions on any of this information, or want to know which reed might be good for your needs, please feel free to call 434-361-1945 and ask to speak to K.C. I am always happy to help! Or email me directly at kc@hodgeproductsinc.com.

  • bassoon reeds
  • reed
  • Brundage
  • Angry Duck
  • Danzi
  • Cody Hunter
  • ProReady
  • Legere
  • ArtistReady
  • Bassoons.ch
  • Herzberg-Style

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