The Great Reed Debate
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cane which is made into reeds
Here's a sample of
what cane looks like
as it is made into reeds
These little guys are very important to a lot of wind players - from clarinetists to bagpipers. When the player blows air past the reeds at the right pressure, they vibrate to make the sound which is heard. The air inside the instrument also vibrates and amplifies the sound and gives it a certain tone, and the instrument itself allows the pitch to be changed. The material of which the instrument is made also adds some quality and complexity to the sound. Double reeds consist of two reeds vibrating against one another, while in a single reed instrument, the reed vibrates agianst a mouthpiece, as in a clarinet or a saxophone.

clarinet reeds
These are single reeds like what
a clarinet or a saxophone would use.
Generally reeds are made from cane, a plant which grows in various types all over the world (A typical example is bamboo). Cane is hollow like a tube, with long, woody fibers (cellulose) which grow straight and parellel to each other. The number and density of fibers can have quite an effect on the sound. Reeds with too many fibers can produce a tone that is too complex or rough... while those with not enough fibers can have a flat sound which is too soft and muted.

Not only does a reed have to be grown, aged, cured and cut just right for playing before it can be sold, it must also suit the individual instrument. The problems of reeds and instruments having personality clashes is an age old one. A good reed and a fine instrument may simply refuse to agree with one another. Manufacturers have recently tried to solve this problem by researching and creating synthetic reeds which mimmick the properties and reactions of natural cane, but with greater predictability and reliability, not to mention extended reed lifespan. Since natural cane reeds are formed from the polymer cellulose, it only stands to reason that synthetic polymers with similar characteristics would be the solution.
double reeds
These are double reeds
used on oboes, English
horns and bassoons.
a fibercane oboe reed
Of course there are several companies marketing synthetic reed designs, all of which rely on synthetic polymers as their basis. One of the earliest was in the 60's with the invention of Fibercane®, a material which is still used to make woodwind reeds. It is a composite made from Dacron® polyester fibers and epoxy resins. The oboe reed on the right is made of Fibercane®.

Yet other reeds have been made from injection molded plastics. The earliest were made from styrene during World War II when there was a shortage of reeds from France, where they were using cane for hiding soldiers instead of making reeds.

Fibracell single reeds
Most of the newer synthetic reed materials are composties made from fibers held together by resins. These nice-looking Fibracell® reeds actually imitate the visual appearance of cane. They are made from Kevlar® fibers spaced apart in a lightweight resin. The material is produced in segments much the shape of cane, and is machined, cut, and shaped the same way cane is, to produce the reed.

double reeds
synthetic bagpipe reeds
Synthetic bagpipe reeds have been made out of everything from injection molded plastic, to polystyrene to clear polycarbonate, to carbon fibers or fiberglass filaments which imitate the fibers of cane. The bodies of these Wygent drone reeds are made from a syntheitc cellulose material, so they retain many of the properties of wood. The Wygent company also makes reed tongues from fiberglass filaments suspended in a silicone resin which is thermoset to retain an optimal tongue angle under just about any temperature condition.
cane bagpipe drome reeds
natural bagpipe reeds
These are much less troublesome and temperamental than natural cane reeds, which are literally made from a single tube of cane with a tongue cut out of the side.

Besides the fact that synthetic reed fibers are uniform and predictable, they are also much less subject to wear and tear, especially that caused by moisture from the player's saliva or lung vapors. Though some of the newer materials used for clarinet, oboe, or saxophone reeds absorb some liquid the way a cane reed does, they remain much more stable when conditions change. Another condition to which synthetic reeds are much more immune is weather - namely temperature and humidity.

Not surprisingly, the battle rages on about whether the synthetics can live up to the sound stadnard of the real thing. Many players have been willing to make the tradeoff of sound quality for ease of use. But this sacrifice is growing less and less due to the recent development and patent of several new materials and production techniques. Some players report hearing no sound difference at all between natural and synthetic, and, after having to spend so little time on reeds now (more time to practice), they may never go back to the real thing again.
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Special Thanks to the University of Southern Mississippi
School of Music for their assistance in gathering information
and photos for The Polydelphia Conservatory