1. Fixing common reed issues using some tools
Purchased reeds will likely need to be adjusted to suit the embouchure and instrument of each player. Reeds may also benefit from being adjusted as they age. Reeds may also feel different in different rooms and as the weather changes.
While purchased reeds can have any problem, usually fully hand-made reeds arrive a bit stiff and hard, and need to be loosened up by some scraping over the heart into the tip. Often machine-made reeds start too vibrant and unstable, and need to have separation, often the tip from the heart and/or back to the heart, and then a clip, to stabilize the upper register.
Generally, reeds become stiffer and sharper as they get older, and will become more vibrant after being scraped through the heart. However, if a reed suddenly becomes flat and/or unresponsive, it has likely cracked, and therefore unfixable.
Soak the reed before scraping. Sharpen the knife frequently throughout.
If the reed is:
Too closed (poor response in low register, sharp pitch, soft sound)
- soak longer in hotter water to give it added strength.
- scrape more towards the center of the tip for more vibration and to open up the reed. Too much scraping in this area will make the tone too bright.
- when making from scratch, try smaller diameter cane if every reed is too closed. Open blanks right away after tying on, soaking them in hot water to get a bigger opening before putting them away. This may help the reeds remain more open.
Too open (unstable pitch particularly in the high register, unfocused tone, uncontrollable dynamics)
- soak the reed for less time and in cooler water.
- squish the back to close the tip, and slip the blades more.
- scrape cane out of the back of the reed first if the back is too thick and would crack if squished (leaving the rails and spine), then squish the back closed.
Too stiff and sharp
- scrape over the sides of the front of the heart.
- dust/scrape lightly over the channels of the heart, leaving the spine and rails.
- smooth over the back into the heart without nicks as much as possible.
Taking too much cane off the heart, and back into the heart, can weaken the reed too much (if it is older), and/or make it unstable or unfocused (if it is newer).
Too vibrant (unstable pitch, unfocused sound)
- define/separate the tip from the heart on the sides, thin the sides of the tip, and clip.
- separate the back from the heart with nicks.
- clip the tip on an angle.
Too hard (for the embouchure or air support)
Differentiate between a reed that is too hard to blow, and one that is too hard to hold together with the embouchure.
To make the reed easier to blow:
- try thinning the end of the tip first, then the channels of the heart. Then scrape lightly over the back into the heart, as scraping more deeply in the back can add resistance.
To make the reed easier on the embouchure:
- make the reed more focused and stable. See below.
Too unstable and/or unfocused and flat
- separate the tip and heart on the sides of the reed. Separate with a line or slice with the knife, or use short strokes to create definition.
- thin the sides of tip. A clip will likely be necessary to bring the reed back up to pitch.
- thin the back without losing rails or spine. Then squish and slip the blades.
Too hard and flat
- thin and loosen the reed, but to encourage it to be sharper rather than flatter, reduce the center of the tip and/or heart, and clip. Also try slipping the blades more.
- reduce the back by scraping if necessary (keeping the rails and spine), then squish. If the back becomes too thin and loses the rails or spine, the reed may have a beautiful tone, but will be flat and unfocused.
Too easy and sharp
- this is unfixable. Anything that makes it harder, will also make it sharper.
Too easy and flat (meaning that it feels too closed, the sound squeals and cracks too easily, and/or it seems too soft).
- clip the tip as much as necessary to harden and sharpen the reed. Multiple small clips allow for more precision than one large one.
Losing “body parts”
When “body parts”, i.e., the sides and ends of the tip, the rails or spine, are lost regularly while making reeds, it is usually because of a dull knife, and/or the reed maker is not paying attention and is catching the knife on unevenness in the cane.
- make sure the knife is consistently sharp enough all the time. Having to press too hard to get cane off leads to parts of the tip getting sliced off. Pressing too hard in the back, means the knife takes too much off side to side, losing the rails and/or the spine. Though sometimes a new sharp knife, pressed too hard as the dull old knife was, will take off parts of the tip until the maker gets used to needing to press less.
- feel the bumps in the cane through the knife. Learn to scrape gently over the bumps to not catch the knife and take off parts accidentally.
Big nicks between the heart and back, and the reed is too resistant
- lighten up the scraping at end of the stroke from the back into the heart.
- scrape sideways to reduce the ridges. Be careful to not lose the rails, particularly right where the back meets the heart. It may be prudent to leave some of the ridges rather than lose reed structure trying to get rid of them.
Reeds generally leak because of a shaping or scraping error. The former when shaping too slowly, unevenly or with a dull razor blade, the latter, usually because of a dull knife, leading to the loss of the rails and crushing the cane on the side.
- cover leaks near the thread with plumber’s tape. Leaks near the tip are often covered by the embouchure. Leaks in between may not be fixable. Sometimes using an emery board to sand the sides of the reed can eliminate leaks. Some embouchures cover leaks more than others, and so some oboists may be able to make a leaking reed work, while others may not.
2. General principles for balancing reeds
There are many different ways to successfully balance reeds, but there are some universal principles that apply to most variations of long-scrape reeds.
While Reed making
The consistency of materials and techniques is helpful for consistent reed making results. Cane should be the biggest variable. It is best to use the same tubes, shape, and gouge as much as possible. Try to scrape the reed as identically as possible on both sides and front to back. When testing out new shapes, gouges, scrapes etc., experiment with just one parameter at a time.
Tight sides or blades of the reed are important for stability. This is generally accomplished by slipping the blades to the right (or left if tying left-handed – in any event, opposite of the way the thread is wound).
The length of time a reed lasts is extended by making reeds in stages over several days rather than all at once. Taking a longer time to make a reed generally means less change in the reed after it has been made.
How the reed is soaked when it’s made (hot water versus cool water, and for how long) determines how much it needs to be soaked later, with some adjustment for the humidity, elevation, age of the reed, and room temperature.
Generally scraping on the sides of the tip will reduce the vibration of the reed, allow it to close more easily, and create focus and stability. A thicker center to the tip keeps the reed darker and flatter. Scraping toward the center of the tip (or heart) will increase vibration and flexibility, and reduce stability.
Closed reeds need to be, and can be, more vibrant than open reeds and still be stable.
More separation between the sections of the reed leads to more stability and focus. This tends to be good for the higher register. More blend between the sections of the reed leads to more flexibility and response. This tends to be good for the lower register.
Clipping the tip strengthens the reed, and focuses and raises the pitch.
Scraping over the front of the heart on the sides into the tip increases vibration and warmness of the tone.
Scraping over the front of the heart in the center increases vibration and often brightens the tone. Too much, and it will affect stability and tone colour.
If the shape of the heart into the tip is more curved (showing the distinctive “V” or “U” shape), the reed will tend to be darker. If the shape of the heart into the tip is straighter, the reed will tend to be brighter.
If there is more similarity in thickness between the sections, the reed tends to be more vibrant. If there is less similarity in thickness between the sections, the reed will most likely be more resistant, stable and focused.
With Reeds and Cane
A reed with a larger opening likely has more of a dynamic range, and it may take some embouchure pressure to play softly. It also may be flatter (or more unstable), harder in the high register, and require more air support.
A reed with a smaller opening will likely to be easier to blow. It may have a smaller dynamic range. If the opening is really small, it may have response problems in the low register.
An unresponsive, stiff reed will likely have stable pitch, though it may tend toward sharpness. Downward slurs and low notes may be difficult. The reed will take more air pressure. It may have more “hiss” in the sound and inconsistent soft attacks. The tone may be pinched or shallow. There may be only one note in the crow.
A reed that is too responsive will likely be more flexible and easier to play, needing less air pressure but may need more embouchure pressure to keep the tone focused and the pitch stable. It may be hard to hold the pitch steady through dynamic changes and in the high register. The third octave may not speak well. There may be more than two or three clear notes in the crow, and the lower notes of the crow may be louder than the upper ones.
Longer reeds tend to have smaller openings.
Shorter reeds tend to have larger openings.
Hard cane makes reeds that are usually more brilliant, sharper, and more focused. Generally, more cane needs to be scraped off to make the reed balanced and easy.
Soft cane tends to make easier, darker, duller, flatter reeds with less tonal focus. Generally, less cane needs to be scraped off for a balanced reed.
Cane Diameter size:
Smaller – more open reeds
Larger – more closed reeds
Shape of Cane (shaper):
A wider shape tends toward darker, fuller, flatter reeds.
A narrow shape tends toward more brilliant, focused, sharper reeds.
Grain (vascular bundle) size:
Smaller, tighter grains tend to make more focused, vibrant reeds. Most reed makers prefer cane with smaller, tighter grains.
Larger grains tend to make pithier, less vibrant, less focused reeds. So large grains are never a good thing.