Oboes, Clarinets and Pipes

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ausdag
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Oboes, Clarinets and Pipes

Post by ausdag » Tue Jul 02, 2013 5:23 pm

During discussion on pipemaking and the challenges faced by makers in getting round many of the finer difficulties of obtaining satisfactory intonation, balance and playability, sometimes the discussion will turn to the precision of other woodwind instruments such as oboes and clarinets, as if they have somehow reached a zenith in manufacturing that pipemaking is yet to attain.

I've been reading a bit on oboe and clarinet manufacture for this very reason, wondering if there is anything to be gained from an understanding of those two instruments, the challenges faced by manufacturers, repairers and the musicians themselves. As I read, I am increasingly comforted by the fact that oboes and clarinets too, suffer very similar challenges as the pipes and that in reality we are all on a similar playing field when it comes to the fluid and less-than-exacting nature of woodwind manufacture. The following are some extracts taken from the web site of A. Swiney who studied woodwind repair under renowned woodwind specialist Hans Moennig:

"Hans Moennig once told me that, “A great oboe is a fluke of nature.” In other words, something goes wrong in the manufacturing process that makes a given instrument play immensely better than similar horns made in the same production sequence..." (A Great Oboe is a Fluke of Nature - http://www.newcorkpad.com/Articles.html)

"During my apprenticeship, I asked Hans Moennig how today's oboe wood compared to the wood used during Marcel Tabuteau's era. Mr. Moennig laughed and said, “There is no comparison”. He then explained, “In 1929 the great French makers allowed their wood to cure for 20 to 25 years before it became an instrument. In 1946 the wood was cured for 15 years. After the war more and more wooden clarinets were being produced and the demand for grenadilla increased. By 1960 the wood was being cured for 10 years. During the 70's the curing time of the wood went to 7 years. Now I understand that it is 3 years of curing time and it is pretty obvious too. Ninety percent of my new oboes crack. In Tabuteau's time only forty percent of the new oboes cracked. I recently sold two new oboes to an oboist here in Philadelphia. He put one in the closet and played the other. They both cracked the same week.” (Disposable Oboes - http://www.newcorkpad.com/Articles.html)

"I would like to share with you a brief chronicle of oboe bell designs and their tuning tendencies as discussed in my lecture. Please keep in mind there can always be exceptions to the rule.

1930 Bell was small overall and resistant in the lower register. Stuffy low D

1940 A series: Mid section too small. Unstable Middle E and F, Sharp Middle G

1950 A & B series: Small Mid section Stuffy E's, Large lower section Wild F’s, Stuffy low B’s

1960 C series: Bells were much better, very consistent. Middle E’s Sharp

1970 D & E series: Bells too large at bottom, wild F’s and churpy E’s, Sharp C#’s

1980 F & G series: Bells too small at middle, Stuffy Sharp E’s and Forked F’s and C#’s

1980 H & I series: Bells too Big at top and too small at the middle, Unstable E’s, F’s, Stuffy Forked F’s and Sharp C#’s

Today, Bells are too big at the top, Too much undercutting on Tone holes. Added Bell volume causes saggy flat left hand octave notes. Middle F# and G Flat, Flat, Flat, Flat. F’s are wild, E’s are churpy, C# Hissy, High D Slurs unresponsive. (Understanding Oboe Bells - http://www.newcorkpad.com/Articles.html)
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Re: Oboes, Clarinets and Pipes

Post by outofthebox » Wed Jul 03, 2013 4:51 am

Very interesting. I think it is important in terms of comparison to consider that oboes and clarinets - as orchestral instruments have had a much more concentrated development over hundreds of years than union or uilleann pipes. I can see that the pipes are developing at a faster rate now, due to the greater number of specialist makers focusing on the instrument than in earlier times. One issue that may have held things back was the tendency to focus on reproductions of older instruments - the 'traditionality factor'. But I think that this is receding as more makers are facing head on specific tuning problems. Perfection may well be unattainable in all musical instruments, but innovation to improve is certainly the way in which the pipes will move ahead 8)

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Re: Oboes, Clarinets and Pipes

Post by djm » Wed Jul 03, 2013 5:34 am

I think ootb is quite right about the need to advance design beyond the limits of what is "traditional", but I also think that the same sort of open thinking is required to go beyond traditional materials as well. The examples provided by ausdag above show that this is much needed across the board for "wood"winds. I doubt that any real effort has been made to explore the world of alternate materials. It seems to me rather wasteful that a clarinet maker would still invest his time and effort to produce an instrument with a 90% failure rate.

It is also rather telling about us that we have already figured out how to make a hand gun and a submachine gun at home on a 3D printer but can't figure out how to build some sort of composite material that would sound just as good or better than natural reed material but is consistent in its tone production regardless of temperature or humidity (at least within a range that humans would perform in) and would be safe and reliable for reed instruments where prolonged oral contact is required (oboe, sax, clarinet, bassoon).

There is a tremendous potential for new materials science, here, and with the capacity to now experiment at home (Staples is now offering a hobbyist's 3D printer for only $1300) I think there is a lot of room for more people to dabble in this stuff until we find something better.

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Re: Oboes, Clarinets and Pipes

Post by ausdag » Wed Jul 03, 2013 6:43 am

outofthebox wrote:... but innovation to improve is certainly the way in which the pipes will move ahead 8)
I'm working on the assumption that the pipes as we have had them handed down over the past 150 plus years don't need to move ahead.

The point is that although oboe and clarinets may have had concentrated development over hundreds of years, it would seem they are not streets ahead of the pipes. And innovation in pipemaking is not going to drastically improve anything if the oboe/clarinet experience is anyting to go by, as evidenced by the articles: a) "a great oboe is a result of a fluke of nature"; b) The bell issue demonstrates that it is about discovering acoustical aspects of traditional designs that still confronts the modern woodwind manufacturer. The article states further on that, "

Many potentially great oboes are destroyed each day by "Repairmen" who ream the bores of upper and lower joints, drill out correctly sized tone holes, and undercut tone holes excessively to compensate for an internal bell distortion. The lack of acoustical knowledge about the oboe bell has been historically a true obstacle for both the manufacturer and player. (emphasis mine)

Sound familiar? Now, of course, there could be elements of bias here for commercial reasons on the part of Mr Swiney, but I think the point is clear - that in the Irish piping world, the traditional designs that many makers strive to reproduce, were and are pretty darn good, and basically as good it it can ever get, yet, just like the modern oboe, continue to present makers with head-scratching acoustical enigmas which we are slowing unravelling bit by bit.
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Re: Oboes, Clarinets and Pipes

Post by outofthebox » Wed Jul 03, 2013 6:46 am

There is another point to consider that may be missing from the world of pipemaking and that is the process of peer review. From time to time we will read that certain makers have been able to achieve tuning refinements in chanter bore design - for instance I've mentioned the work of Thomas Aebi in relation to A=440 D chanters. But how can it be ensured that such innovations can be properly assessed - so that advances in design can gain some general acceptance? I think the only organisation that could sponsor such an approach is NPU. My fear would be that 'traditionality' at an institutional level might act as a brake on the progress toward improvement.

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Re: Oboes, Clarinets and Pipes

Post by LongHairedLuthier » Sun Jul 07, 2013 10:20 pm

It occurs to me that, to a point, no matter what 'advancements' are made in an instrument's design/manufacture/playability/what have you, there will always be two camps: one that cherishes the old, clings to tradition, and doesn't see a need for change; and one that welcomes the new with open arms, loves innovation and believes the ceiling for instrument development and 'improvement' is nearly infinitely high (I suppose who says it's not?). The flute is a great example. The Boehm system of keywork/'silver flute' completely changed the instrument, how it was played, and what it could do. But not everyone dropped their old wooden 1-8ish key flutes to glom on to the new development. Yes, the 'silver flute' has become the standard for some types of music, mainly orchestral, but most Irish trad musicians still don't use them. Is the Boehm system flute really 'better' than the old wooden flutes? It could be argued for a lifetime either way.

I think it depends what one wants an instrument to do for them, and what he perceives an instrument to be in all aspects of its being that sets the mind pro or con on 'advancement'. If one wants a chanter that is spot on in tune with itself, easily reeded, easy to play, will not crack, more ergonomic keys, more power, more tone, more...whatever, he will be of a much different mind than someone who reveres the instrument as a centuries-old piece of culture, with a sort of mystique or magic about it, who loves the work and recordings of past craftsmen and musicians and gets goosebumps when handling a stick made 50+ years ago. I don't believe either of these viewpoints are wrong or less valid, but only to show that that will almost certainly never be a universally accepted and cherished form of the pipes, or any instrument for that matter, and this is part of the richness of musicology which first drew me to pursuing my degree in it.
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Re: Oboes, Clarinets and Pipes

Post by Ted » Mon Jul 08, 2013 7:56 pm

You think the oboe has tuning issues, check out the bassoon. Concerning uilleann pipes, as far as innovations go, what needs fixing? A top pipe-maker checked out a chanter made by another top pipe-maker, which he deemed the most in-tune chanter of modern make that he had ever seen. The chanter had a different tonal quality than what is to my own taste. Close examination disclosed that techniques were applied to the bore to correct certain tuning issues. These same techniques had been tried for the same reasons by the examining pipe-maker. He found they altered the tone, particularly of the notes tuned, in the manner in which the in-tune chanter was presenting. The in-tune chanter came from the approach of trying to solve the tuning issues as the primary objective in what makes a good chanter. The opposite, yet complimentary approach is that tone is primary. This tries to preserve the voice of the chanter by working with techniques that may only help, not solve, tuning issues. It is to keep the voice intact as the primary objective, while applying tuning techniques that do not significantly alter the voice.

Tuning and voicing are an art and they are both required of the pipe-maker. To do it requires an aural concept of what a chanter should sound like. The other elements are sharp proper tools for the job and the knowledge of what to do to get the desired effect. What defines the sound of an uilleann pipe are the historic examples we have. Copying old instruments is the first step in making good pipes. There are several examples of great sounding pipes and a good pipe-maker's goal is to make instruments that sound and play as well as the originals. There is still a lot to be learned from the old master-made instruments. We are getting better at it and some very good instruments are being produced. To say that we are being held back by copying great old instruments is a misunderstanding of the process. There are lots of proven methods to tune a chanter. To tune one without altering the voice of the chanter is more difficult. We are moving forward by copying and learning from the historic examples, not being held back. There has been a lot of experimenting to see what the changes produce, but I don't know of a maker who thinks we have exhausted what the old pipes can teach us and must strike out into virgin territory. Again I ask, what needs fixing? The old pipes produce the sound I am after, as do the copies by the best makers. Reproducing the older instruments is not holding anything back, it is the way forward. Where else are we to go?

The one area that is new is making pipes in pitches. The old instruments did not have the modern A=440 as a pitch standard . They are in tune with themselves. The last 25 years has seen a shift in demand for pipes in the keys of Bb, B, C, C# and D all to an A=440 pitch standard. This is being slowly accomplished. The best can change the scale of instruments they make to be on modern pitch, yet retain the voice and character of the originals. Many less skillful have produced sets that produce tone that is off to my ear, and they don't play as well as the originals. To me, to make sets in modern pitch is the direction we are going. The pipes that do this, while still sounding like uilleann pipes, are the ones which will sell and be played by the better pipers. The others will fall away due to lack of demand. Many copies of historic instruments are being produced that don't tune to modern standards and are played by pipers that like the old sound. To play with other instruments is not always the goal. These are great solo instruments.

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Re: Oboes, Clarinets and Pipes

Post by ausdag » Mon Jul 08, 2013 10:27 pm

Ted wrote:You think the oboe has tuning issues, check out the bassoon. Concerning uilleann pipes, as far as innovations go, what needs fixing?
Exactly, and the point of my second post above. What needs fixing, and why the need to try and be innovative (as far as acoustics go; I'm not interested in novel gadgety innovations such as sliding tuning devices etc) when we still have so much to learn from what has come before us, in the same way the oboe makers I refer to are still discovering things about traditional oboe design?

My intitial motivation in my OP was to try and dispell any notion that I've seen bandied about in places that clarinets and oboes had reached some almost ideal point where tuning issues and such were no longer as much of a concern as in pipes and that therefore pipemakers are lagging behind in that respect.
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Re: Oboes, Clarinets and Pipes

Post by outofthebox » Tue Jul 09, 2013 5:35 am

Ted's points are very good - and I can agree with a lot of what has been said by ausdag about the distinctive character and sound of the union/uilleann chanter. I have my own D chanter playing at A=436 because I prefer this lower pitch to A=440 or 442 or whatever most D chanters are made to play at.

As I see it, continuing and imaginative innovation will eventually solve certain problems of tuning specifically concerning intervals within the scale. In theory UP chanters are made to play to a Just Intonation scale - and this is often stated as if Just Intonation is a less precise form of tuning, allowing more latitude than, say, Equal Temperament. In fact Just Intonation is a very precise mathematically based system which sets out the intervals for a given scale very precisely - because Just Intonation always aims to achieve the best harmony. The chanter makers have always tried to get as close as they can with bore design, but they are not there yet. The old guys didn't get there and although some of the new guys might have got closer there is still plenty of scope for improvement 8)

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Re: Oboes, Clarinets and Pipes

Post by ausdag » Tue Jul 09, 2013 6:22 am

on any woodwind instrument, playing in tune is 10% instrument, 90% performer. With a little experience, exploration and innovation on the part of the performer, any good chanter/reed combination can be made to play in tune (with the drones, IOW Just Intonation a-la piob uilleann) with the aid of alternate fingering, variances in bag pressure, and other things that once again oboe and clarinets players also are required to employ to also play in tune.
The problem is many learners think their fingering must conform to a 'standard' fingering chart from a tutor book.
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Re: Oboes, Clarinets and Pipes

Post by Mr.Gumby » Tue Jul 09, 2013 7:19 am

As I see it, continuing and imaginative innovation will eventually solve certain problems of tuning specifically concerning intervals within the scale. In theory UP chanters are made to play to a Just Intonation scale - and this is often stated as if Just Intonation is a less precise form of tuning, allowing more latitude than, say, Equal Temperament. In fact Just Intonation is a very precise mathematically based system which sets out the intervals for a given scale very precisely - because Just Intonation always aims to achieve the best harmony. The chanter makers have always tried to get as close as they can with bore design, but they are not there yet. The old guys didn't get there and although some of the new guys might have got closer there is still plenty of scope for improvement 8)


Any credible sources to quote for the statement just intonation is less precise?

Have chanter makers really tried to introduce a perfect just intonation scale and if so, do you have any credible sources to support that idea?

Do you think nobody has managed to make a chanter/reed combination capable of playing the full range of the chanter with each note playing a perfect harmony with the drones?
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Re: Oboes, Clarinets and Pipes

Post by Ted » Tue Jul 09, 2013 3:36 pm

While we are at it I would like to say something about peer review, since ootb brought it up. Peer review is accomplished by pipers who try the pipes. If something works and sounds good or not, word gets around. There is no need for NPU or anyone else to say whether one makers pipes are good or an others' are rubbish. A good maker can see by close examination what another maker has done that is an improvement. There is no need to try to standardize things. One maker uses certain techniques to tune and voice, while another may use others. It is up to pipers to judge what is good or not.

I agree with Ausdag. Many pipes made today can be played well in-tune throughout their range by an accomplished piper. Many antique pipes as well as some new ones are great, just as they are. What needs fixing? They are not tin whistles. You don't just blow and lift your fingers and an in-tune note results. Small improvements are constantly being made. More will come but not because NPU or any other organization says so. It is pipers trying out the improved products who tell us what works and what doesn't.

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Re: Oboes, Clarinets and Pipes

Post by outofthebox » Wed Jul 10, 2013 10:15 am

Mr.Gumby wrote:


Have chanter makers really tried to introduce a perfect just intonation scale
I think that a Just Intonation scale (to use the term 'perfect' suggests that such a thing as an imperfect Just Intonation exists) is what all chanter makers should, in truth, be aiming to achieve. I don't expect them to achieve it - but I'd like to believe that they will continue to aspire toward that goal, just like the old guys did 8)

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Re: Oboes, Clarinets and Pipes

Post by Mr.Gumby » Sat Jul 13, 2013 5:36 am

But a perfect just intonation scale for which key then?

Don't you think the reality is pipemakers are not trying to do that at all? Instead they are trying (and if they don't they probably should) to make a chanter that is capable of playing various intonations for each note appropriate to what the situation, context, scale/mode calls for? Out of necessity compromises will have to be made that deviate from the one just intonation scale. Flexibility to cope with the demands of different pieces of music and different contexts, in other words.
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Re: Oboes, Clarinets and Pipes

Post by outofthebox » Sun Jul 14, 2013 11:45 am

That's a good observation Mr G - which key indeed? My view on this is that on this instrument the key is set by the drones. So in the case of a D set of pipes the intonation of the chanter should ideally be set to harmonize with the D drones - that means a Just Intonation running all the way along the scale of D. It is true that when playing in the key of G the intonation of the chanter will not then be in perfect harmony with the drones, but because the keys of D, G and A are so closely related the harmonies, though not perfect, should still sound pleasing to the ear. There is more scope, I think, for variation in the tuning of the regulator notes - so that they can blend better with the intonation of the chanter. But the intonation of the chanter has got to be the kingpin - and if it is all over the shop then those sweet harmonies are always going to be elusive - despite all efforts of reed wizardry and player finesse.

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