Are Harder Reeds Better Than Softer Reeds? (Woodwinds)


In the woodwind reed market, you'll find different reed strengths. For single reeds, the strength classification is numeric (from 1 to 5), while double reeds would carry the more self-explanatory labels “soft”, “medium”, “medium-hard”, or “hard”.

Are harder reeds better than softer reeds? Harder reeds will deliver a more focused tone, but they're not necessarily optimal for students as they're more difficult to play than softer ones. On the other hand, a reed that's too soft will suffer in durability. This largely hinges on the kind of tone that the player wants.

In this article, we'll review the pros and cons of having a strong (hard) reed as opposed to a soft one, also taking into account other metrics.


What Purpose Does A Woodwind Reed Serve?

Reeds are sold in a variety of strengths. Before going over the different reed strengths found in the woodwind reed market and their advantages or disadvantages, we must analyze the function of reeds in musical instruments, particularly woodwinds.

Reeds have been around for a very long time and have been employed for a plethora of musical instruments. The first reed instrument is arguably the memet. The memet is not just one instrument but is, in fact, a line of single-reed instruments made in Ancient Egypt in around 2700 BC, which fell out of existence due to their fragility, with only iconographic evidence backing up their historical integrity.

The reed's purpose within the structure of many woodwind instruments is not to be underestimated, as it's responsible for propelling the air we blow throughout the rest of the horn by way of vibration, either against a mouthpiece's tip or against another reed.

Seeing how vibration plays a crucial role in a reed's functionality, it would be only logical to conclude that a reed unable to vibrate would render the horn unusable. Our air would not be pushed with enough strength across the bore; hence, the instrument would not produce audible sounds with a specific tone, pitch, and timbre.


What Are The Different Reed Strengths?

The reed's strength is indicated, as mentioned before, by a specific number in single reeds (from 1 to 5 and measured in 0.50 increments) and by labels in double reeds (“soft”, “medium”, “medium-hard”, and “hard”).

These strengths would have their distinct advantages and disadvantages, and each would grant specific characteristics to the sound produced by the horn.

It should also be stressed that natural reeds may not have the exact same hardness even within a specific bundle or pack. To illustrate, a box of 3.5 reeds might contain reeds of similar strength, yet this doesn't mean that all the reeds will be exactly 3.5 but. Rather, there should be an expected error margin ranging between 3 and 4. This is due to the very essence of natural reeds and organic matter in general.

Manufacturers would market several models of reeds, and not all makers build their reeds with the same feel and response as those from other makers, even if their strength/thickness readings are the same. For this reason, players are encouraged to try out different brands and not just go by the alleged strength marked on the box or pack.

Filed Vs. Unfiled

Another feature – related to strength – present on some reeds is the “file cut” or “double cut” (typically referred to as a “French Filed Cut”). Filed reeds would have an extra strip removed from the bark in a straight line to allow for a faster response. An unfiled cut (also known as “American Unfiled Cut”) is identified by a “U” shape just below the vamp.

Filed reeds tend to be stronger than unfiled reeds and would serve those looking for a fuller and more sombre tone, while unfiled reeds feel softer and are catered to those looking for a brighter tone and more comfortable playing.

Thickness Vs. Strength

Another metric to look after is the reed's thickness, which is also expressed in numbers. A thin reed will vibrate more easily and elicit a brighter tone, making it much easier to play. A thicker reed, conversely, should deliver more wholesome notes but at the expense of ease of use.

Contrary to anyone's first impression, a thicker reed doesn't necessarily translate into a stronger reed. Rather, the strength of a reed is proportional to the cane's hardness, but there may be an overlap between strength and thickness in various instances.


Is A Strong Woodwind Reed Better?

A reed's strength is heavily correlated with the tone produced. Objectively speaking, you would be able to render a clearer and more pronounced tone with stronger reeds. Still, this fact does not make strong reeds the better choice, even when judging their tonal qualities and not just playability aspects.

Softer reeds would be “easier” to play. However, they could sometimes pose difficulties if you wish to achieve rich-sounding higher notes. In this regard, a strong reed would ultimately have the upper hand, for its high notes would be more powerful and defined.

Harder reeds have their own disadvantages. Apart from the already mentioned playability problems, harder reeds would play strong notes with more projection, but you could find them difficult to handle when aiming for a lower volume. Hard reeds would lack the ability to offer players the opportunity to play more nuanced notes, so they would be basically forced to play loud throughout their performance.

Adding to this, while harder reeds, as said before, have the capacity to deliver stronger high notes, there is no indication that you won't be able to achieve this with a softer reed. In a scenario where your current setup makes softer reeds more hampered in the higher registers, a hard reed could be deemed a “fix”.

Another benefit of harder (stronger) reeds is their more stable intonation. Nevertheless, while this could be a very sought-after quality for a myriad of classical musicians, jazz musicians, especially clarinetists and saxophonists, would appreciate the ability to bend their pitch and generate more microtonal variations with a softer reed.

One clear advantage of harder reeds is their durability. Reeds get softer as they're used because they're constantly exposed to moisture from our saliva and water particles from our breath. It should be no surprise that an already softer reed will have a significantly shorter play life.

Related My New Microphone articles:
How To Soften A Saxophone Reed
How To Fix A Saxophone Reed (Hard, Warped)

However, other than their endurance, stronger reeds are not objectively “better” than softer reeds, and some players will find soft reeds more suited for their particular playing needs.

For example, in academic circles, teachers normally encourage first-year musicians to start with a soft or medium-soft reed. That way, they can gradually strengthen their embouchure, making it easier to switch to a harder reed.

Too Hard Vs. Too Soft

That said, a reed can be too hard or soft. Normally, when this happens, you could apply corrective measures to bring the reed to its ideal strength, Nonetheless, keep in mind that a reed that's too soft would be a bit harder to fix in itself, and you would be required to employ workarounds.

For example, to compensate for a reed's softness, you may try moving the tip of the reed up and moving the ligature down so that the reed is more resistant to vibration.

Other players try to counterbalance this by biting harder on their reeds in order to bring the pitch up, which could result in embouchure fatigue in the same manner as when they play on a harder reed.

If a reed gets too soft and beyond a playable stage, you would have no other choice but to toss it and replace it. You would notice that a reed is soft enough to be discarded if:

  • It sounds too buzzy or honky
  • You find that it plays too flat
  • It feels evidently soggy to the touch
  • You find it extremely difficult to play notes on the higher register

On the other hand, a reed may be too hard if:

  • You find it difficult to play low notes
  • You feel compelled to blow harder to produce audible notes
  • You develop embouchure fatigue
  • The notes play sharper than intended

An excessively hard reed can be fixed through a variety of methods, including the following:

  • Soaking the reed in fresh water for various minutes (usually around 5-20 minutes)
  • Shaving or sanding the reed around the bark, the underside, and the vamp

Reeds would usually be too hard to play out of the box and have to go through a “break-in” process. Strong reeds could need more time to break in than softer reeds, but players who opt for harder reeds are more capable of fine-tuning their reed's strength through the break-in period.

Related article: How To Break In A New Saxophone Reed Step-By-Step


This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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