BY PAUL HAAR
So you want to venture into the world of synthetic reeds, huh? Well, after spending the past four months reviewing five of the leading brands of synthetic reeds, we have some advice to make your adventure a bit more enjoyable.
ASK YOURSELF QUESTIONS AND CREATE A PLAN
It is important to define your objectives and to set goals when trying out synthetic reeds. For example, how much are you willing to spend during your trial period? It is not unusual to spend a few hundred dollars during the trial phase. Look for other players who might be interested in going in with you on a purchase to help lower the cost. I know a group of tenor players who shared the expense of a large order of synthetic reeds and then used each other as the judges during the testing phase. Since synthetic reeds can usually be cleaned and disinfected, so the prospect of sharing reeds isn’t nearly as horrifying as it would be with cane.
Next, ask yourself, "What is the purpose in switching away from cane reeds?" Are you looking for a better sound, more consistent play or to minimize costs? Would you be willing to sacrifice a bit of your sound for longevity? Are you willing to spend more money in the testing phase to save money once you find the right reed? In the end you need to be realistic. Like any major purchase, it takes time, effort and education to make an informed purchase.
SYNTHETIC REEDS COST MORE PER REED
A lot of people are taken back by the initial cost of a synthetic reeds. Depending on the instrument and brand, a typical synthetic saxophone reeds can range from $20-30 per reed. As they are designed for longevity of play, a single synthetic can equal a box of cane reeds. Considering the typical player seldom finds every reed in a box of cane reeds to be playable, it can actually be more cost effective to play a synthetic reed. That being said, the initial investment can be more costly. So, it is important to be educated about the various products on the market and to budget accordingly.
IT’S ABOUT TRIAL AND ERROR
With any piece equipment for saxophone, there is a period of trial and error before you find the right fit for you. So, you should plan, both financially and time-wise, to try a variety of products. Remember, just because it doesn’t work today doesn’t mean it won’t work tomorrow. Just like cane it takes time for the player to adjust. Test your reeds in a variety of rooms and in as many “real-world” performing situations as possible. What sounds good in the practice room may sound horrible the bandstand.
NOT ALL REEDS ARE CREATED EQUAL
Naturally, you will find differences between the various brands of synthetic reeds, but you may be surprised to know that no two synthetic reeds are created equally. Yes, the consistency from one reed to the next is often better than cane. But there are differences, often subtle ones, between any two reeds. Thus, it is wise to purchase a few of your chosen size and brand to find the ones that are the most equal.
SYNTHETIC REEDS ARE NOT INDESTRUCTIBLE
There are many benefits to using synthetics. They do not need to be wet and can be played with little or no break-in period. Also, they are not affected by temperature, altitude or barometric pressure like their cousins in cane. That being said, they are not indestructible Like cane, the delicate tip of the reed is susceptible to damage. So, you shouldn’t plan to throw that reed case away quite yet. Synthetic reeds perform well if they are stored in a reed case that has an even, flat surface that will protect the tip from damage. Additionally, some synthetics can be cut, clipped or altered, where others cannot. Before you go grabbing a reed trimmer, remember that, just like cane, you can remove it but you can’t put it back on. To extend the longevity of your synthetics, we recommend that you purchase 3-5 reeds and alternate them with each play. We found that doing this can prolong the life and playability of your reeds. We know some people who have averaged a year or more of use by doing this. In the long run, it makes for a more sound investment and a more consistent playing experience.
THERE IS AN ADJUSTMENT PERIOD...OR NOT
Like any reeds, there is an adjustment period. For most people, this comes with adjusting to the physical feel of the reed in their mouth. Synthetic reeds are generaly much smoother than cane. After years of playing cane, a synthetic will feel strange to the player. Also, the smoothness of the reed may affect the way your ligature works. With a few brands of reeds we found that the profile didn’t work well with some specialty ligatures. Also, because there isn't a textured service to work with, some ligature will slip when adjusting the mouthpiece. No matter how long you play them, you will find yourself trying to wet your synthetic reed. Even after four months testing, I found myself sucking on the reeds. I guess after thirty-five years using cane, old habits die hard. All in all, you will be surprised how well the modern synthetic reeds plays. With some brands, we found little to no adjustment.
TEST REEDS WITH A VARIETY OF MOUTHPIECES
If you can, try our your synthetic reeds using a variety of mouthpieces. We realize that for some of you, this may not be your desire or an option. If you can, it is to your advantage, as each reed will respond differently. In our review, we generally found that synthetics performed better on mouthpieces with some baffling. That being said, we did find a wonderful combination of synthetic reed with a popular classical saxophone mouthpiece. Like anything, it depends on the player and the product. The more options you have, the more choices you will discover.
THE SLIGHTEST MOVEMENT MAKES A DIFFERENCE
Most players know that by adjusting the reed up or down on the mouthpiece will change the response. Typically this will only produce an 8th or a 16th worth of change. However, the sensitivity to movement is dramatically greater with synthetic reeds. So much so that the slightest amount of movement can affect the playability of the reed by as much as a half size. Before you dismiss a reed, make sure you try it in different positions.
DON’T PAY MUCH ATTENTION TO NUMBERS
You will discover many things when you start playing synthetic reeds. Mainly, that some companies do an accurate job of sizing their reeds and other will not. If possible, try to consult reputable music stores and professionals who have used the products. Also, be aware that synthetic reeds behave differently than cane. You might have to use a much soft synthetic reed than you do with cane. So, don’t get to locked into the strength number. If it works, let it.
Did we mention that synthetic reeds behave a bit differently than cane reeds? As such, the feedback the player gets from a synthetic reed may not be what they are used to. It is important to record yourself to get a true sense of the tone you are producing. We often found the reeds that felt too bright, from the player’s perspective, sounded just fine from the audience’s perspective.
We hope these tip will help you as you navigate the waters of synthetic reeds. If you are patient and do your homework, you can find them to be just a viable, if not more so, than what you are used to.