Natural or Synthetic Reeds?

 

The subject of reeds is very common among saxophonists. As many baritonists asked me about it in different situations (talks, messages, emails, etc.), and I also had many doubts, I decided to write this post. I hope my thoughts will be helpful to you.

What do we like best of natural reeds?

The single reed that vibrates when blowing through the mouthpiece and produces the sound of our instrument, has traditionally been made of wood.

Most of us started playing the saxophone with a reed taken from a cane, usually the “Arundo Donax” species. Depending on the cut, shape and the amount of wood, these reeds offer a very wide range of sound qualities and techniques suitable for all kinds of playing. Furthermore, their texture also evokes something organic and natural.

Being a living matter, these reeds require a special care since the humidity level and the ambient temperature will make them react to our blow in one way or another. Some musicians do not take too much care and easily adapt to the qualities of each reed in any situation. Other musicians adjust and treat them in order to maintain their optimal state for as long as possible.

What do we like best of synthetic reeds?

I will simply say in one word: efficiency. Manufactured from treated polymers as poli-propylene, environmental elements don’t affect their performance. You can play with no problem in the Street or everywhere in different weather conditions.

Synthetic reeds don’t need the same care than the naturals ones. You won’t have to use any humidifiers or other products to preserve them in an optimal state. Furthermore, their cleaning and maintenance are very simple.

Depending on the use and care, every synthetic reed could last a very long time.

Remarks.

Is a box of 5 natural reeds a more cost-effective option than a single synthetic one? Maybe… or not! Anyway, take into consideration that each reed of a single box never works than the other ones, exactly. On the other hand, a synthetic reed will (almost) always perform the same way.

Does a box of 5 natural reeds last longer than one synthetic reed? Depending on the care and use. Normally, a synthetic reed doesn’t wear out quickly. On the other hand, you won’t use all the natural reeds equally because they don’t have the same strength, response, etc.

My experience.

I always played with different models and strengths of natural reeds and took care by “running in” them, keeping them with humidifiers, etc. However, I definitely changed to synthetic reeds after the recording of DREAMLOVER in Luxembourg in October 2021.

A few days before the recording, I did some concerts in the South and North of Italy and some rehearsals in Luxembourg. Only few natural reeds “chosen” in Barcelona worked well in those places. Temperature (weather is really variable in Europe in October) and location changes in such a short time made me suffer. Although the recording went very well, when I back home I decided to try the synthetic reeds.

I was looking forward to verifying that I heard about them from my colleague saxophonists and clarinetists. Anyway, I was a little bit sceptic, first. Some years before, I had already tried some synthetic reeds and felt that my saxophone sounded like plastic. But trials went better than I expected.

Surely, this strong motivation came from that uncomfortable experience made it easy. Next, I avoided comparisons between both kind of reeds. Obviously, mouth texture and sound produced was not the same. However, I progressively adapted my ear, my blow and my internal embochoure and now I play (and travel) much calmer. See how comfortable I feel that, in February 2023, I recorded my album SUITES with synthetic reeds!

Conclusions.

I am now very happy with the change. I know many musicians who play with each type of reed, and even who play with both. Listen to all opinions. However, the most important thing is you try them in a variety of situations. Everyone has their own mouth morphology, blows in his own way and doesn’t have the same dedication or goals with the baritone saxophone. Decide which type of reed suits you best, according to your activity and your repertoire. Fortunately, there is a copious amount of natural and synthetic reeds in the market.

Have you found this post interesting? Subscribe to my newsletter to receive other posts about the baritone saxophone.

Joan Martí-Frasquier
Barcelona, May 2024

 

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