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 Do plastic clarinets have better tone?
Author: Kontragirl 
Date:   1999-07-20 20:09

I was talking with a friend about plastic clarinets and wooden clarinets. She said that theoretically, plastic clarinets have better tone than wooden ones, or they wouldn’t have started making them. Could this be true?

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 RE: Do plastic clarinets have better tone?
Author: paul 
Date:   1999-07-20 22:19

Nope. Well, let's qualify the answer to a "definite maybe" instead of a clear-cut "no".

There have been raging arguements (okay, politically correctly put "extensive discussions") about the materials for a clarinet. Generally speaking (there are some exceptions, so let's be careful), you will find totally ABS, or polyresin, or some other name for the type of plastic used in clarinets that has gotten a lot of bad press. Typically (there I go again by lumping everything together in one pile, shame on me!) the plastic horns are student grade. The workmanship isn't all that great, but the price is right and they sure are rugged. I used a plastic horn in marching band decades ago. It took a beating and played like it too. I can still remember tripping in the middle of an intersection, spilling the horn out into the street, right in front of passing cars. I quickly collected all of the pieces before a car ran over them and stuffed them into the case as fast as I could. To my shock, the horn still played the next hour in band class. It played just as bad as it did the day before, but at least it played. Now, that's a good definition of rugged. Cheap, tough, and it sounded and played that way. There are wood student grade horns that are just as bad as the plastic student grade horns, so one must be careful in telling the difference in the material versus the workmanship. Personally, I'd vote for the workmanship over the material. Typically (watch the caveat, of course) the good intermediate and pro grade clarinets are made out of wood. However, that's slowly changing. If the workmanship is done to world class performance standards, you can get what initially looks like a beater of a plastic horn to play very well in Carnegie Hall. You see, it's all in the workmanship that's put into the horn, and not necessarily in the wood/plastic base material of the horn. I've heard of undercut plastic horns that have been reconditioned by some great world class techs. The results were outstanding. So was the price. I've heard cheap wooden student grade horns that tortured my ears.

Now, there is a relatively new wood/plastic mix in the Greenline horns that is supposed to be the best of both worlds. The manufacturing workmanship on the horn is first-rate. The quality and durability of the horn is apparently top notch on both fronts. You could play the same horn in an outdoor marching band environment, then wipe it down and clean it up for a professional symphony performance right after that with no problems at all. However, be prepared to pay pro grade prices for these horns, because the workmanship was invested in them to make them that good.

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 RE: Do plastic clarinets have better tone?
Author: William Fuller 
Date:   1999-07-20 22:34

Your mouthpiece and reed set-up is more of a factor in the quality of your sound than the material a horn is made from. Also, your inner-concept of what a clarinet should sound like is important for you will alwasys strive to sound that way no matter shat you happen to be playing on. Good mouthpiece+good reed+concept="sound". The big advantage of a wooden clarinet over "plastic" is in more careful workmanship at the factory and the resulting eveness of scale and consitancy of intonation. Also, they can be "Tweeked" by accousticians for even better results. On the other hand, my old Bundy clarinet never cracked and always played--even after being dropped down a flight of cement steps in high school. Good luck!!!!!!

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 RE: Do plastic clarinets have better tone?
Author: Don Berger 
Date:   1999-07-20 22:37

Probably not, considering the psychological factor, the better the cl, the better I play it. It is true that a good player can make even a poor cl sound good. My feeling is that half of the "sound" is due to the person, 1/4 each to mouthpiece and the cl itself. In the pro world, there is the concept of "resonance" prob. related to the overtone spectrum of the sound. {Acoustics} Don

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 RE: Do plastic clarinets have better tone?
Author: Gary Van Cott 
Date:   1999-07-20 23:29

It sounds inane but there is probably a tiny bit of logic in what your friend said (I doubt she is aware of it, however).

I suspect that if the objective is to make a very inexpensive (student) clarinet, a better one can be made of plastic then wood for the same amount of money. The plastic is less expensive than the wood and probably less labor is required. Therefore, more can be invested in the keywork and other features.

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 RE: Do plastic clarinets have better tone?
Author: Ken Shaw 
Date:   1999-07-20 23:41

Kontragirl wrote:
I was talking with a friend about plastic clarinets and wooden clarinets. She said that theoretically, plastic clarinets have better tone than wooden ones, or they wouldn't have started making them. Could this be true?

Kg -

Not better overall, but better for specific purposes. A plastic instrument can play very well -- superbly well if you count the Buffet Greenline as plastic (which of course it is). Plastic is cheaper and more uniform than wood, and it is also more uniform from batch to batch. It can be molded rather than drilled. It's more resistant to young players' clumsiness and abuse. It doesn't warp or crack. It can be machined to finer tolerances.

The problem, of course, is that with the exception of the Greenline, there have been few first class plastic clarinets made. The situation is quite different with other "wood"winds. The top oboe makers often charge more for plastic than wood, and Heckel bassoons have been lined with plastic for 100 years.

Wood feels and looks wonderful, and great instruments are made of it. However, acoustically it has no inherent advantage over plastic, at least on instruments like the clarinet where little or nothing is contributed to the sound by vibration of the body of the instrument.

Nevertheless, it's harder to get a really fine plastic clarinet than it is to get an equally fine wood one. The problem is that the best repair people are used to working on wood. Plastic requires different skills and different tools.

Also, since plastic has no grain (or at least a much finer grain than wood), the surfaces tend to be shiny and the tone holes have clean, smooth, sharp edges. This is actually a bad thing for the clarinet. Scientific experiments, particularly by Arthur Benade, showed that a clarinet sounds more "clarinetty" when the bore is not perfectly smooth, and in particular where the transition between the tone holes and the bore is slightly rounded off. This happens more or less automatically with wood, but not nearly so much with plastic.

Nevertheless, it can be done. Listen to the contrabass clarinet playing on the Stoltzman CDs. Of course the player (Dennis Smylie) is the best contra player there is, but he has to have a horn to play on. That horn is an el-cheapo plastic contra that Kalmen Opperman told me he spent months working on to get exactly the right surface texture in the bore, to flare (undercut) the tone holes and to round off the edges of the tone holes. Kal says it's the only "artist" contra in the world.

And of course, the most sensitive part of the clarinet, the mouthpiece, has been made from hard rubber for years. In fact, Henry Lazarus, who was the finest player in London around the turn of the century, had his instruments made entirely of hard rubber.

The mpingo tree (the source of what we call grenadilla) grows very slowly, and the demand for it far exceeds the supply. Sooner or later, it will be too hard to get good quality grenadilla, and the clarinet makers will switch to plastic. A sign of the times is that Pedro Morales is now playing a Greenline.

Now if Luis Rossi would only start to use the Greenline material, or the material that Loree is using for its oboes. . . .

Best regards.

Ken Shaw

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 RE: Do plastic clarinets have better tone?
Author: Jeff 
Date:   1999-07-25 17:32

I have a plastic clarinet, and personally, I don't like the tone. But I will admit that my tone has been significantly changed since I got a new mouthpiece and switched to better reeds

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 RE: Do plastic clarinets have better tone?
Author: angella 
Date:   1999-08-11 03:26

i've never found that to be so- and if it were, maybe the symphony players and other pro's would be playing plastic! no way. good if you play outside. and mouthpiece set up does matter, but the horn matters a lot too. i've played a good mouthpiece on a not good horn, and the mouthpiece didn't transform the bad horn into something good. go for the wood. like every one has said- the workmanship also is much better

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 RE: Do plastic clarinets have better tone?
Author: Dee 
Date:   1999-08-11 04:32

Workmanship and acoustic design are what affect a clarinet's sound not the material. Please always keep in mind that right now, with the exception of the Buffet Greenline series, that all plastic clarinets are student grade and thus do NOT have the workmanship and advanced acoustic features of the pro horns. The old wooden beginner student instruments were no better and often worse than today's plastic student horns.

While people have posted their personal experiences, if you read them in detail, you will find that they are comparing two different levels of instrument. The wood ones that they list as having compared their plastic ones to have invariably been intermediate and higher grade instruments. No one has compared a beginner wood to a beginner plastic (I'm not sure anyone even makes a beginner wood anymore). There have been no postings on this board about say a plastic Vito Reso-tone 3 versus the old student grade wooden Pan American. Well guess what, I've played both and I'll take that Vito any day of the week. It sounded better and played better than the Pan American. While my pro grade Leblanc played better than either, the Vito was nothing to be ashamed of and was certainly a far better instrument than the wooden Pan American.

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