Choosing a Clarinet
By Curt Altarac
If you’ve ever endeavored to select a clarinet for yourself, for a student, or for your rental instrument fleet, you’ve surely seen that there are a lot of choices available on the market. Some of them are so inexpensive it’s hard to believe you can manufacture a musical instrument for that amount, let alone sell one for that. Some have higher prices and tout professional features.
So, what separates a student clarinet from a professional one? Why are some clarinets so cheap? How can there be a brand-new clarinet for just $99? How can you tell which clarinets are high quality?
I gained my insight into the clarinet manufacturing world while visiting factories in Europe, Taiwan, and China, where I got to see a variety of methods being employed in dozens of factories. How the instrument is manufactured has a lot to do with its quality, serviceability, and playability. Familiarity with the instrument also has a strong effect. In the end, whether it’s a student, intermediate, or professional level instrument, there are many factors to take into consideration.
Manufacturing the Body
Most plastic and resin clarinets are injection molded. Most, many items that are manufactured using injection molding aren’t nearly as complicated because it’s difficult to maintain consistency. Although it’s done quite often, the idea of injection molding a clarinet risky and brave.
There are many ways to make any part, but the following is one technique I witnessed in Asia. During molding, little plastic beads or chunks are melted, and then the melted plastic is pumped into the mold. Each half of the press is clarinet shaped. The two halves come together and clamp around a stick which is the shape of the bore. The melted plastic is pumped into the mold, cools quickly and the mold is opened. What you have left is a clarinet which is stuck to the bore shaped stick. To remove the clarinet from its bore stick, the stick is pulled through a hole that is only big enough for it and not big enough for the clarinet around it. When that happens, you can imagine that the clarinet wants to hold onto the stick so a great deal of force is applied. You can watch the clarinet body expand like it’s going to break as the stick is pulled out, suddenly there is a pop and the stick pops out. The clarinet then drops into a bucket of molded clarinet bodies. And the process repeats.
One of the big problems here is that the clarinet body is still warm when it is popped off the stick and the body permanently changes as result. This yields a clarinet with oval tone holes that should be round and a bore that is misshapen. This is only the beginning of the manufacturing process, and already the clarinet is not off to a great start. This body is then given posts, keys, pads, and packaged up. The result plays alright at first, but the instrument is not repairable due the inferior materials used and the problems with the core of the body. What’s worse is that the people who decided it was ok to use this manufacturing technique are generally the same people that make all the decisions along the way of manufacture. The results are not great but there are buyers in the world that only desire to have the lowest prices on the instrument they buy. Thus, there is a strong market for these inexpensive and poorly made instruments.
A more precise way to manufacturer a clarinet is to take a stick of ABS with a hole in the middle and make it on a CNC machine. It is shaped on the lathe first, and then tone holes and threaded posts are cut on a CNC mill. This process is highly preferable but few factories use it due to the higher cost of machining. Some factories that use more advanced tooling and have tighter tolerances are still selling “student” or “intermediate” clarinets to the world, but they are likely not doing so for the lowest price. There are many buyers in the world who look for well-made inexpensive instruments.
Keys are made from many individual pieces of brass or nickel silver that is hard soldered together and then later bent into shape. This can be done a variety of ways. The most common yet least accurate way is done by hand quickly at a brazing bench. The level of Jigging (how the parts are held together during brazing) and the employee skills will dictate how well the parts are made and how consistent they come out. Keys that are made inconsistently are not going to be orientated correctly. Down the assembly line, this means more bending and general paradigm of ‘bend to make it fit’.
However, brazing with excellent jigs and robotic arms allows for absolute consistency and precision. This type of brazing is far less common but much more accurate. During a higher tech brazing operation, the keys are put into a tight tolerance and clean jig. An induction ring mechanically lowers over the key and centers along the joint to be brazed. The induction ring heats the metal through induction, a mechanical arm adds flux, it heats up, and braze is added. The braze cools as the key is held perfectly still and the joint is consistent and strong. The result is a key that is oriented the same way each time. Any problems during assembly that require a great deal of bending will be addressed back at this station and corrected. The result is an assembly line accustomed to parts that work together without excessive cutting or bending.
So how can you separate a professional clarinet from a student or intermediate clarinet?
Even knowing these things, it can be very difficult to tell a well-made clarinet from a poorly made one. There were several key areas that seemed to influence how a clarinet was marketed, but as you’ll find out, things were not so clear-cut.
In an economic sense, there are 3 types of clarinets: made cheap and sold cheap, made cheap and sold expensively, and made expensively and sold expensively. Therefore, the price is not necessarily indicative of quality.
Take the price of any given clarinet and cut it in half or by two thirds and consider that is the price that the factory sells it to the shop or the importer. Using a $99 clarinet as an example, that gives us a price from the factory of $33- $49.50. $40 in China these days is not that much: the equivalent of a couple cases of beer, dinner for three people, or a night in a hotel. It should come as no surprise that there is little care and precision in this $99 clarinet because it only has up to $20 worth of time and materials going into it. The workers in my experience want to do a great job, but there are high expectations for output. Further the factories that make the least expensive clarinets (or anything) are generally only interested in making the minimum quality necessary to be the least expensive. A fine line that they are happy to step over.
Next, there were clarinets similar in every way to the $99 clarinet, except they were being sold for $149, $199, even $399. Sometimes they were marketed as “professional” instruments, yet they had no fundamental differences from the instruments marketed to students and would have a very hard time satisfying a professional clarinetist. Generally, in the musical instrument world when an instrument says it’s a “professional instrument”, it’s not. Professional level instrument makers are putting a good deal of time into their instruments and don’t usually feel that they need to tell you that they are professional level.
In countries where clarinets are part of the culture, there is often a tradition of building that causes many correct decisions to be made throughout the manufacturing process. This often means that the clarinet is made better and plays better because the factory workers are more likely to know how the instrument should feel and play. Some of the factories are quite used to their ways of manufacturing, so you may see little to no innovation, but the production is consistent and of high quality. Imagine local players stopping at the factory, working with the factory, factory workers playing in bands etc.… it would be harder to really miss the mark with this type of input. It is also easier to desire to achieve greatness when there are great players giving input.
In contrast, some places don’t have a tradition with woodwind instruments, which might mean that the workers are unfamiliar with what a clarinet should look and feel like, and it might be the case that no one at the factory even knows how to play one. The factory is simply making a copy of a clarinet, and you just hope they make the correct manufacturing choices. Their main input will be from customers who are buying instruments and will give greatly different feedback depending on their background and influence.
Because these manufacturers don’t have an established tradition or rules, there may be innovative approaches being used, and potentially cutting-edge technology borrowed from other industries. This is the big upside to this, but in the end, the best possible outcome is a great copy of an instrument. Today, there are some factories in China and Taiwan that have a tradition in manufacturing clarinets, as some of them have been making them for decades, even though they don’t have a tradition playing them. Pride in craftsmanship can yield excellent instruments over time. All that said, judging your instrument strictly by the country of manufacture is not a great idea. Being mindful of where it’s manufactured is.
Often, the importer of the clarinets can make decisions on what type of materials and pads are installed in the clarinet. If the importer is looking for the lowest cost, then the manufacturer installs the very cheapest materials which expand with moisture, degrade quickly, and do not adhere well. If the importer has done their research, then they select appropriate materials which reflect the quality of the build. Because the manufacturer and the importer each have a say in what goes on the clarinet, here you find some oddities such as very cheap clarinets with expensive American or Italian made pads.
How I Approach Importing Clarinets
I realize that there is no perfect student clarinet. A student clarinet is a compromise between quality and price. In my travels searching for the highest quality instruments at a reasonable price, I found many levels of instruments and several instances when the finished product does not reflect that quality of production. That is, I would find myself in a factory that is truly terrible in its working conditions. The instruments being made are cut, ground, and needlessly abused through the entire manufacturing process but to my surprise, the end results are consistently instruments that play very well. It’s unbelievable when you see it. I have also found clean, well run, and well-tooled factories that produce consistently bad instruments day after day. Of course, there is every combination in between.
Figuring out where the factory is coming from, what are their paradigms that will help them and what will hold them back, how they approach their trade and what their goals are is just as important as assessing their tooling and their finished product. To achieve this, I needed to develop relationships with the factory to move further. I went to the factories, had dinner with the owners and workers, talked with them about their lives and their kids, found out their aspirations, looked at their factories and equipment, and learned everything I could.
Armed with this information, when I asked for changes in manufacturing to make improvements, I understood their traditions, why things were set up the way they were, and how to explain what I needed. If one is astute, it’s possible to know the answer you will get before you ask the question. The scope of the question should never be a mystery.
After developing a good relationship, I could make fundamental changes as well as more superficial ones in order to develop a line of clarinets that were serviceable, reliable, and sounded great. These additions were things like undercut tone holes on all models, adjustment screws, locking posts, stainless steel rods, and screws, and using high-quality materials, pads, and lubricants. These features blur the line between “professional” and “student” because they are considered high-end features on an economical instrument.
Once I receive a batch of The Wilmington line of clarinets, they are inspected, play-tested, and adjusted before shipping out. This not only ensures that they play well, but it also allows me to see if there are issues in the manufacturing process. If something comes up, I can immediately address it in my shop and then also contact the manufacturer to have them make changes.
The factory that makes The Wilmington line of clarinets is what I consider to be a perfect balance. They are advanced and precise in their manufacture and their assembly and finishing work are excellent. They produce consistently good quality instruments using good materials and proper CNC equipment.