Woodwind musical instruments

The clarinet

Manufacturing a clarinet

A classical clarinet has 24 holes which are covered either with the fingers or by pressing keys. The keys are made of brass or nickel silver using the Lost wax process. The key, which can be a complex shape including pivot points, finger positions and pad locations, is first of all  molded in wax.  Several wax Moldings are attached to a central sprue. ( a sprue is where the molten metal is injected and feeds the motion fluid into the wax key Moldings.)

This ends up looking rather like a Christmas tree, with the Central sprue as the trunk of the tree and the keys, which are to be molded, as the branches of the tree.

The Christmas tree of Wax molded parts is encased in silica sand / ceramic, a very fine sand which sticks together too encase the wax parts.

Once the ceramic casing has hardened off , the wax is melted out leaving and empty shape which can be filled with molten metal. Molten metal is poured into the mould.  After cooling and solidifying the ceramic is broken off and a Christmas tree of metal parts remains. Individual keys are cut off the tree, polished and machines. This is a standard industrial process small metal  parts,  But at one time keys would have been handcrafted individually. In the industrial mass production process, the keys are electroplated.

Traditionally a clarinet body is wood, or in lower cost instruments, from a plastic resin. The 24 tone holes and more than double that number of post mounting holes for mounting the keys are machined with a CNC drilling machine. This can achieve accuracies impossible in a handcrafted instrument.

Metal posts are inserted into the instrument body, each with a drilled and reamed hole to take the bearing shaft off the metal keys.

Assembly of the keys into the instrument and the testing of the sealing properties of the pads against the holes is a manual process.

The whole instrument would be assembled, complete with its reed and tested by a musician. If a mass produced low cost instrument, this testing would be minimal and it would be the repeatability and accuracy of the manufacturing process that would result in a good instrument. In a more handcrafted and higher quality instrument, the testing and setting up and adjustments of the clarinet can take a considerable time.

In general terms a modern clarinet as an instrument that can benefit from a high integrity well engineered manufacturing process.  and rather like a motor car, a clarinet requires regular servicing throughout it's life with lubrication of the bearings, replacement of the pads (much like replacing brake shoes on a car) and realignment of the bearings and pads due to slight movements in a wooden instrument and possible overstressing of keys during a performance or after an accident with the instrument.

Here the synthetic bodied instruments have an advantage,  the material being more dimensionally stable in changing temperature and humidity conditions than the traditional wooden body. However the wooden body has superior acoustic properties and results in an instrument with a richer tone.

The parts of a modern clarinet

The clarinet is woodwind instruments in the reed family comma this instrument having a single Reed as opposed to the double reed of the oboe or bassoon. There are a number of different sizes or pitches of clarinet, from the bass clarinet which looks rather reminiscent of a saxophone, with its curved Bell, to clarinets in B flat and A and higher.

 Modern clarinets disassemble into five parts which can be stored in a compact music case, so it's much easier to carry around than a  double bass or a harp! The five parts are the mouth piece, the tuning section which is a short barrel section, the upper or left hand joint, the lower right hand joint and the sound Bell.

The flattened mouthpiece has a single reed normally made from Cane, although some synthetic materials are available.

The history of the clarinet

Archaeological evidence dates the first known clarinet type instruments around 3000 BC in Egypt. Somewhat similar single Reed instruments were used in the near East and related musical instruments being played in Spain, parts of Eastern Europe and in some Mediterranean islands such as Sardinia. Middle Eastern instruments of the early period were made from Cane type materials others were made from bone or hollowed out hardwood.

Clarinets in the modern form were first seen in Germany, from the instrument maker Johann Christoph Denner. This development took place around the 1690s. Denner was a manufacturer of other woodwind instruments such as flute, recorders, (which far more popular in that period they are today), oboes and bassoons.

Italian was the language of the musical world at that time and clarinet derives from the Italian word for trumpet, clarino  and means little clarino. Early clarinets were based on the designs of recorders, of which there is a whole family of instruments from the tiny alto recorders to big bass records that look more like small bassoons. They were made in three parts with only two keys to cover holes, the rest being covered with the fingers, as with the recorder. They would typically made of hardwood such as plum or more often boxwood. Occasionally showy pieces were made from  ivory with mouth pieces in ebony.

The fashion for clarinets soon took off, which isn't surprising as composers like Handel, Gluck and Telemann were the pop songwriters of their day and fashion was a big part of music at that time.

Although stringed instruments like the violin and cello had their perfect designs established by the violin makers of cremona in Italy such as Stradivari, Guarneri and  Amati in the mid 1600 to 1700s, many other instruments went through the Peak periods of development in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Instrument development, Virtuoso performers and compositions for the clarinet forged ahead hand in hand, much as the electric guitar for function and rock bands has developed rapidly in modern times. The number of keys was increased, the instrument was improved to give a larger dynamic range. Mozart wrote extensively for the clarinet, including a clarinet quintet for string quartet and clarinet.

As a piece of music it works best with a clarinet of the period and personally I don't like it when play with a modern instrument. The instrument of the period was much gentler and  more mellow sounding than the modern-day clarinet. As such it blended in with the violins viola and cello of the string quartet as an instrument of similar temperament, so that proper ensemble could be achieved. The modern orchestral instruments has been developed to give a very loud and penetrating sound so it's solos can cut through the sound of an entire Symphony Orchestra. As such, when played together with a String Quartet it's dominates and sounds quite raucous. Put that together with the current orchestral style of playing clarinet, which is quite different from someone like Acker Bilk with his jazzmen, and the situation only becomes worse.

You just have to listen to Acker Bilk's wonderful Stranger on the Shore to hear his rich tone and large vibrato. In orchestral playing comma vibrato in the woodwind section is completely out of fashion, so a more modern orchestral player increases the raucousness of their instruments compared with the Strings of the string quartet, which are naturally more mellow and where the musicians will use vibrato to give softness and richness to the notes. Because of this the Mozart string quintet can sound like two groups having a battle for Supremacy. For me the only way that this piece of music should ever be played is with a period Clarinet. Purists would say that the instruments should include string instruments of the period which would have sounded somewhat different because of the different violin strings that would have been used at that time. You can never win!

In the 19th century different materials were experiment with such as cocus wood from Jamaica, silver and brass but gradually by the 1850s makers standardised on the African Blackwood which is somewhat similar to Ebony.  Key systems also developed, and much like with the battle between PAL and Betamax in video tapes, there was a war of standards in the clarinet business with the Albert or simpler system used in Germanic countries and the Bohm system, with it's additional keys, being used in most the rest of the world.