The thought of a synthetic reed might scare some people – especially if you remember them when they first came on the market. Since then, a lot more time and money has gone into the research and development, but has it all been worth it? In a word…yes!
A common question with synthetic reeds is – why? Why would I want a synthetic reed when I’ve become comfortable with my trusted 10 pack of reeds? There are a number of reasons. Often, in a box of reeds, there are differences.
Despite the precision of CNC machinery (especially its development in more recent years), cane is essentially an organic material. So each reed is unique in its construction and can therefore respond differently to the other ‘peas in the same pod’.
By using a single reed with a synthetic construction, not only does the reed last for longer (in some cases as long as a 10 pack) but when you change synthetic reeds, they are more comparable in performance than natural cane.
Have you ever sat in a pit orchestra on the ‘Reed 3’ part, and juggled between four reed instruments to find the reeds have dried out? The advantage of synthetic reeds is that they don’t need to be moistened, meaning you can perform at short notice. That’s one less pressure when in the pit, so you can focus on making sure you’ve picked up the right instrument!
Humidity is another concern with natural cane reeds. To keep your reeds in tip-top condition, it is best to have a case with humidity controllers to make sure they don’t dry out or get overly moist. It can be a fine balance. Synthetic materials (which are essentially plastics) are more resistant to humidity changes, which is beneficial for travelling musicians or those who play in different environments.
Let’s break down the current synthetic reeds on the market and see what makes them so good.
VENN reeds are some of the newer synthetic reeds on the market, especially in Europe. Considering the European launch of these reeds is as recent as 2022, the challenge to create a synthetic reed was set by Jim D’Addario back in 2014:
“In 2014, I challenged our Woodwinds team to create the first synthetic reed to duplicate the properties and playing characteristics of natural cane. After numerous years and thousands of hours, we accomplished the task by creating a material matrix of co-polymers, longitudinal fibers, and real cane elements that have the physical and sonic properties of real cane.”
What does that actually mean? Essentially, it looks, feels and – more importantly – sounds like a natural reed. This is achieved by reverse engineering a reed and synthesising it with different polymer fibres, resin, and organic reed. The result? VENN.
So how does it sound? Does it sound comparable to a cane reed? Not only can we tell by our own perception, but D’Addario have used all the technology they can throw at it to measure just how closely they sound – the answer is very close!
My personal opinion is that it sounds a bit brighter compared to my standard set-up (which has been a Legere synthetic reed), as well as compared to the cane reeds I’ve used (which are numerous as I like to try everything). The reeds, in theory, can be modified using reed tools which might be an option if you want to refine your sound further.
In terms of the appearance of the reed, this is probably one of the more ‘realistic’ options, in that it has similar colouring to a more traditional reed cane and you can see the fibres.
Playing on VENN reeds has been a breath of fresh air. They are such an interesting concept in that they are reverse engineered. When we first heard about VENN a few years ago, we were excited and the years of anticipation certainly haven’t disappointed us!
Shop now | D’Addario VENN Reeds
Legere reeds have been around for quite a while now (since 1998 to be precise) and were born from the need to try and find a good reed.
The journey began when a chemist took up the clarinet as an adult and spent more time finding a decent reed than focusing on his playing. By looking at material science and teaming that up with a traditional reed’s look, the Legere reeds were created.
These reeds have gained popularity with so many iconic players on their roster – such as Gerald Albight, YolanDa Brown & Derek Brown on saxophone, and Andreas Ottensamer & Corrado Giufredi on clarinet. To command the attention of such players must show their worth!
The reeds themselves are made from a non-toxic polypropylene polymer (in other words, a plastic) which can also be found in food containers, for example, but with slightly different processing. The difficulty is in recreating the unique material of a cane reed and mapping this across to a synthetic material that has a low density and is longitudinally very stiff.
Over the years, the materials and the processes have been fine-tuned to take these reeds to the next level. The use of precision machinery creates the reed, but they are also individually strength tested, delicately sanded, and packaged by hand.
If you want to put yourself to the test and see whether you can distinguish the difference between a cane reed and a Legere reed, check out their quiz on their website – you might be pleasantly surprised.
Not only are the reeds available for a whole range of instruments (clarinets, saxophones, oboe, and bassoon), but they also offer a range of different cuts. Looking firstly at saxophone, the American Cut reed has a quick response, is free-blowing, and is clear in the low register with a vibrant altissimo.
Signature reeds are in the middle ground between a bright and a dark sound, offering a focused response that is ideal for versatile musicians playing jazz and classical.
The Classic reed is more focused and darker-sounding. The thicker tip gives more projection and is great for marching bands or playing in larger ensembles. If playing with vibrato, the Studio Cut might just be the reed for you. It’s a responsive reed but made of a softer material that makes it that little bit easier to play.
Clarinet-wise, the European Cut is the most flexible of the clarinet reeds, with a warm and clean sound profile. If you’re used to whizzing from the bottom of the instrument to the top, this reed will respond without question. Most of the Legere clarinet artists tend to play this cut.
The Signature reed offers a clearer and more focused sound. They’re cut thinner and are a bit stiffer, making for an easier playing experience.
The Classic Cut, similar to the saxophone reeds, are ideal for marching bands and larger ensemble playing. Having a thicker tip increases the projection of their darker sound. In addition to the standard or Boehm clarinet cuts, they produce variants for the German/Oehler system too.
Legere have been my go-to reeds for a while now. When speaking to fellow players in the numerous ensembles I’ve played with, they haven’t been able to tell I’ve been playing synthetic reeds, leading to much intrigue when I tell them more.
Shop now | Legere Synthetic Reeds
The origin of Fiberreed is similar to the story of the Legere reed, in that a player, Harry Hartmann, was trying to develop a reed that replicated the best traits of a cane reed and eliminated the flaws.
The main structural qualities that were identified to replicate, were the longitudinal feeding channels and the cellular structure around them. This led to the development of a material called HFC (Hollow Fiber Foamresin Compound), which replaced this structure.
The result is a synthetic reed that is 20-30 times more durable, and according to Fiberreed: “Years from now, your new Fiberreed will perform with the exact same excellence that you experience today”.
Over the years, a number of different reeds have come onto the market from Fiberreed. The Classic Fiberreed copies the structure of natural cane, and has a steeper cut to give the sound a dark, warm quality. This makes it ideal for a vintage jazz sound and teams up well with a Selmer C* mouthpiece, a staple of any saxophonist’s gear!
If you want an even darker sound, the Hemp reeds have an earthier character but still maintain the qualities of the other reeds.
Next are the Carbon and Carbon Classic reeds. The Carbon reeds have carbon layers alternating with the main material, providing a rich, low register and letting the higher notes ‘scream’.
Carbon Classic reeds have a steeper cut compared to the Carbon and so have a darker and warmer sound, contrasting with the brighter quality of the Carbon.
Onyx reeds deliver an easy attack, and are warmer in the lower register while powerful in the upper registers. These reeds show the culmination of tradition and innovation by using classic techniques and carbon enriched resins.
A more recent addition to the line-up of Fiberreeds are the Copper Carbon reeds, which contain short carbon fibres and ground copper. The heart of these reeds is reinforced and is comparable to playing traditional cane reeds.
The Fiberreeds are certainly built to last. Playing a Carbon reed myself, I can certainly appreciate the richness in the lower register and it certainly looks cool!
Shop now | Fiberreed Synthetic Reeds
Yamaha are new to the reeds market. The aim of their synthetic reeds is to provide a reliable reed for beginner players.
Cane reeds traditionally take some ‘breaking in’ and this can delay a player getting the sound they want. Synthetic reeds are the ideal solution to this as they play straight from the box without any wearing in.
A beginner’s embouchure (mouth position) is still in development, so having a stable reed can help eliminate one of the issues beginners experience.
These Yamaha reeds have an appearance of a cane reed (similar to the D’Addario reeds) and there are even ‘grooves’ in the cane to replicate the natural material. Having received some samples, we were intrigued to see how they play as they are aimed at more of a student player. The answer…very well!
Our team noticed that they are really consistent and just work! Especially if you’re gigging or doubling, you really don’t need to worry about the reed – just your playing!
Shop now | Yamaha Synthetic Reeds
The Silverstein Ambipoly reeds are made from what has been described as “the world’s first symphonic material, invented just for reeds”. The aim of this material is to produce a full and round sound across all registers of the instrument.
Unlike the other synthetic reeds, it is best to soak these reeds for thirty seconds prior to playing, but they can then last five or more hours without drying out. The material of these reeds does seem significantly different to the others. Crafted from a much more rubbery material, it is easier to use reed tools to craft them to your exact requirements.
Silvertstein claims that these reeds, in most circumstances, can last for 12+ months. This would depend on what sort of player you are, how often you play, and for how long. One of the reasons that people use synthetics is that they require a reliable reed that won’t change pitch.
The Ambipoly reeds retain this stability in a range of conditions, sure as different climates, altitudes, or temperatures. Using a precision double injection moulding process, these reeds are identical from reed to reed.
Shop now | Silverstein Ambipoly Reeds
Find Out More
Synthetic reeds have become a focus for many manufacturers, and the advances in technology have turned this dream into a reality. Who wouldn’t want a reed with all the pros of cane and none of the drawbacks?
All of the reeds mentioned have all got different qualities. D’Addario’s quest has seen them reverse engineer cane and use a combination of co-polymers, longitudinal fibres, and real cane elements to produce their latest opus. This approach is similar to that of the Fiberreed, in that they have tried to replicate the natural fibres with their HFC compound.
Yamaha might not be your first choice when it comes to reeds, but at a lower price point than the competitors and the consistency you get, they should be a serious consideration.
If you’ve got the chance to try a synthetic reed – go for it, you might be pleasantly surprised by how far they’ve come.