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My clarinet is always out of tune. What can I do about it?

Older clarinets may have H or L stamped by the serial number; L indicates pitched at a'=440, H is a'=452. Buffet clarinets may have F stamped in front of the serial number indicating a higher pitch (ca. 442-444?) intended for European use.

Other intonation problems can result from a mismatch between the mouthpiece and clarinet. Try several different makes of mouthpiece - there are many mouthpiece makers besides Selmer and Vandoren. Try mouthpieces with different tip openings and try different strength reeds.

Clark Fobes, reedman@ix.netcom.comwrote the following about his experiences with Buffet Clarinets,

"In the case of Buffet R-13 clarinets, I have noticed changes in general playing characteristics of serial number groups, particularly in the area of tuning parameters. The groupings as I have perceived them are based on my experience only and is not meant as a definitive statement about Buffet clarinets. Also I very rarely work on instruments with serial numbers earlier than 85,000 so my list starts there.
85,000-110,000 very flexible, but twelfths are wide
111,000-224,000 great sound especially around 145,000. Tuning parameters better. C#/G# key spring changed to needle spring from flat spring.
225,000-300,000? Definitely a new bore design around 225,000. These instruments have a different resistance, but play better in tune. B natural still sharp.
300,000?-present I have not been able to definitively place the change, but the middle B is much better in tune on these new models."

The following articles on intonation are based on two messages Clark Fobes posted to the Klarinet list on the subject of intonation.

The first part is a general article on intonation and performance posted to Klarinet in August 1995. This article also has, as footnotes, two postings (from Adam Pease and David Borque) that Clark Fobes references in his message.

The second part is specifically about intonation on Buffet's R13 clarinets, and was posted to Klarinet in February 1997.


The following comments are presented as thoughts I have regarding intonation and performance that have developed over 20 years of performing and working on the acoustical problems of the clarinet. As with all aspects in learning, some of my ideas have changed over the years and may continue to change. Intonation is an area that requires a good musician to keep his mind and ears open.

Tuning: or Not-so-perfect pitch

The subject of intonation is always an interesting one. Although we attempt to test ourselves against a rather arbitrary standard (A=440 in tempered scale) we realistically perform by a method that consists of some tempered tuning and some "just" intonation. "Just" intonation is the development of the scale based on the organic generation of tones as they occur in the natural harmonic series.

A good example of the problems associated with playing "by ear" or using "just" intonation is the interval of the major third. In the overtones series the major third is the fifth partial and to sound "consonant" or without beats it must deviate 16 cents flat from the evenly tempered scale. Now, remember your first year harmony. In the key of C major, for example, B natural is the leading tone and melodically wants to be heard "sharp". But when we play the dominant chord in C major (G-B-D), B natural wants to be heard as the major third and to be consonant must be played 16 cents flat. This contradiction in where to place the B is part of the instability of the dominant chord that makes us want to resolve it to tonic.

Another short example of how we perceive pitch can be demostrated by playing octaves. Because octaves are an easily heard ratio of 1:2 the sound of perfect octaves between two players is not as subjective as that of the major third or minor third. However, play or sing an ascending octave without looking at your tuner. Play it several times so that you get the sound well in your ear. Now play it the same way and look at your tuning device. Invariably the rising octave will be sharp!The short lesson is that sometimes we must listen vertically (harmonically) and other times we listen or play horizontally (melodically).

I consider the use of just intonation in the ensemble to be absolutely paramount to tempered tuning, but the extent to which one alters pitch can be an issue of taste.

This is a very simplistic overview to a very complicated issue. When we throw in the inherent acoustical problems generated by our instuments we can begin to see that intonation in ensemble is a very difficult and often subjective area.

The Instrument

The clarinet inherently has an aberrant scale and choices are made by manufacturers in how to deal with these idiosyncracies and preserve a good sound. Adam Pease brought up some very pertinent points about the tuning of his Selmer series 9 clarinet. The problems he expressed are exactly those that Selmer chose in the design of the Selmer 9. The Selmer philosophy up to that point was to use a large diameter tone hole with no undercutting.(And, I believe, an almost purely cylindrical bore). The 9* was a move toward reducing tone hole diameters in some areas and introducing undercutting. The Selmer series 10 was a radical move toward a polycylindrical design. The 10G was the result of work with Anthony Gigliotti and a move even closer to the Buffet design.

The larger tone holes do produce a more robust tone, but the twelfths are "short" and tend to be very sharp in the fundamental when playing pianissimo. Adding keys to bring down pitch in the chalumeau is a good solution and one that I use some times when playing my Selmer bass clarinet. Another option is to pull the center tenon about .5mm.

The great innovation by Robert Carre (Buffet) in the 1950's was the use of a polycylindrical bore design and smaller, but undercut tone holes. The reduction of the bore size in the lower 2/3 of the upper joint greatly improves the twelfths in that area.

The recent push by Leblanc to compete with Buffet as a major force in the clarinet market has produced some very fine results, and as I have stated before, I think that competion in the market place is very healthy. We the consumers will only gain.

Another innovation for clarinetists, attributed to Hans Moennig, was the introduction of the reverse cone taper in the barrel joint. My experimenting in this area and the subsequent use of a reverse cone in my barrels is that not only is the intonation positively enhanced, but there is an increase in tonal center. It also interesting how varying the taper slightly can create fairly significant changes in the resonance of the "bell" and "throat" tones in particular.

The next step in acoustical adjustment that has been almost ignored by player/makers is the bell. I am working on a new design for bells right now that has some very interesting qualities. Most of us are used to exploring barrels for a better sound, but the availability of a variety of bells to try is usually non existent. Try just switching bells with friends and you may be amazed at the differences from bell to bell.

Quality of Sound

I was very grateful to read David Bourque's comment that tone is inextricably tied to intonation. As a maker of mouthpieces I am very sensitive to the issue of tone and intonation. Players come to me with a wide variety of needs, but paramount is the desire to play in tune. If a mouthpiece has a beautiful sound, but one has to do any manipulation (embipulation? oralipulation?) of the embouchure for reasons of intonation the sound is compromised.

Let's disregard any talk about dark, light, bright or puce sounds and concentrate on the concept of projection. I have always insisted that projection of sound is a function of QUALITY not QUANTITY. Have you ever noticed that when your ear hears what you may qualify as a beautiful tone rising above the ensemble you have the sensation that it is "riding" on top of the ensemble? I believe this has everything to do with how the presence of overtones in that given sound are consonant with the prevailing harmonic context. This is very dramatically demonstrated by good vocalists, particularly operatic singers. I just performed a concert with some very fine young singers in the San Francisco Opera's Merola program. During reheasal I was sitting in front of a baritone whose sound was so filled with overtones that I had to cover my ears. Later, in Davies Hall, he was in front of the orchestra singing towards us and I heard only a beautifully homogenous and rich sound that carried to the rafters!

This theory of resonance and quality of sound was discussed by Jim Pyne at the clarinet conference this summer. Very simply he states that resonance is reliant upon the abundant presence of overtones in the area of the series that roughly describe a dominant 7th chord.

A well centered sound has a balance of all partials (including the fundamental) and enough presence of overtones that not only projects, but allows a sensitive ear to hear the harmonics lining up in the ensemble. Have you ever played a mouthpiece that just did not seem to play anything in tune? A mouthpiece like this may acoustically be well within parameters on your tuner, but playing in ensemble is a nightmare. Usually the problem is that the mouthpiece is not "centering", that is, there are insufficient overtones to allow the ear to discern pitch in the ensemble.I have also found the reverse to be true. Occasionally a mouthpiece is all "surface" (too many overtones). I have had players describe this is not being able to get "into" the sound.

The problem in achieving a balanced clarinet tone for a mouthpiece maker is that acoustically the clarinet is a closed pipe system and tends to sound "hollow". This is due to two factors. One is that in the regime of oscillation of a closed pipe system the fundamental is the most present.( This is why we can out do any woodwind in a test of "pianissimo" playing. As energy is removed from the system only the most prominent partial remains. Conical bore instruments like the saxophone and oboe have their 2nd partial or octave as their most present partial and want to jump to the octave when playing pianissimo in their fundamental register). The second reason that closed pipe instruments sound hollow is the relative lack of even harmonics in the sound. (They do exist, but very weakly)

The conundrum, then, in clarinet mouthpiece design is to retain sufficient fundamental (core) in the sound while bringing out a well balanced set of overtones.(And to make it play in tune, take a wide variety of reeds, reduce pratice time, increase your life expectancy, and make you the most popular person on your block). But, that's my problem and the work continues.

Clark W Fobes reedman@ix.netcom.com
Posted to Klarinet - Mon, 28 Aug 1995

Adam Pease's intonation question

I am becoming more aware of the notes on my clarinet which are less in tune than others. I'm playing a Selmer series 9. Low soft notes are very difficult to keep from going sharp. B and A are especially bad. My throat tone A and the second register F are both a bit flat. I can lip these notes into tune but then my tone is not quite what I want it to be. My solution has been to alter fingerings. For the low B and A I add the low F key. For the throat A I add the side F# trill keys. For the second register F I add the E flat key. With these keys I can achieve a normal and consistent embouchure. My questions are: is adding keys a normal solution that others employ or is it potentially a bad habit? Do others playing similar equipment have problems on these notes? Is it possible to "fix" these notes without affecting tone quality or the pitch of other notes by tone hole undercutting or some other method?

I also have a subjective perception that it is extremely minor pitch differences which cause a degradation in the quality of sound of an ensemble. This means that the listener does not perceive an intonation problem but only a less beautiful timbre. Does anyone else have this impression?

Adam Pease r_adam_pease@qmgate.arc.nasa.gov
Posted to Klarinet: Fri, 25 Aug 1995

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David Bourque's comments on intonation

(Written in reply to Adam Pease's question)

Although you describe more difficulties than what might be considered acceptable, putting keys down/opening them up is de rigeur in order to play well in tune. Contrary to what some brass players might think, you don't just press the button and the right note comes out.

Intonation problems such as you describe can be the result of a few things. In my experience, minor leaks spell big intonation trouble. Perhaps the bore at the tenons is compressed/not round making a choke. Any thoughts on this, repair guys? Opening up the A-G# keys or some tone-hole work up there may be a solution. If you were playing Buffet (with which I am more familiar), I'd suggest that you try different barrels (Moenig Barrels, etc.)

Intonation is an organic and not an absolute thing. I am always listening, always adjusting pitch either consciously or subconsciously. In section playing, good intonation is more important than good sound quality (although generally speaking these two things are inextricably linked). If I was playing second clarinet, I wouldn't think twice about making a top space E sound dull, flabby or unfocused if doing so brings the pitch down so it's a good major third in B flat major (concert) chord.

There is no question that a group that is playing well in tune has a different sound than a group with minor pitch difficulties. There is a fullness & a richness evident in these groups -- a real 'ring' in their sound.

David Bourque bassethn@afm.org
Posted to Klarinet: Sat, 26 Aug 1995

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R-13 Intonation

I apologize for not quoting all of the many interesting parts of the string in this discussion. I will try to incorporate previous thoughts as I go.

The Buffet R-13 does indeed have some problems with the overall tuning schema, particularly the R-13 A clarinets. The fact of the matter is that Buffet and Boosey & Hawkes (the parent company of Buffet) are so nervous about doing anything to disrupt their highly profitable line of R-13 clarinets that any improvements are usually reserved for other models. The most significant change Buffet has made in recent years was to move the register vent up toward the mouthpiece about 3mm. This change was first used, I believe, in the RC model clarinets and much later in the "Festival" clarinet. The RC model clarinets have a slightly larger upper bore and have two reversed cones in the upper joint rather than the three of the R-13.Common designs prior to 1950 were either a pure cylinder or a constantly reducing upper joint.

(RC, BTW, stands for Robert Caree and was designed by him shortly before he died. Robert Caree was also the designer of the R-13 Clarinet which was introduced in in 1950. Mr Caree's inovative design became known as "poly-cylindrical".)

However, it is precisely the bore design of the R-13 that gives it the unique tonal character and resistance that so many of us have come to enjoy over the years. I find that overall the modal parameters on the R-13 are very manageable, particularly in the case of a good Prestige model, which I play.

Because I play an R-13 I have designed my mouthpieces and barrels to accomodate some of the inherent tuning problems. The original design of the R-13 Bb calls for a barrel with a nominal bore of 14.95mm with no linear reduction (taper). This usually translates into about .589"- .590" on most new Buffets. The reason for this is to compensate for the flattening in the third mode (tones above high C, known usually as the "altissimo"). This probably works with the Buffet mouthpieces that have a small bore (about 53mm in length).

For several reasons most players have come to prefer mouthpieces that represent the Kaspar paradigm of a large bore (55mm) with a significant taper. This really compounds the problems of the lowered third mode and so most of us who like these larger bore mouthpieces need a reduction in the upper bore vis a vis the barrel. Welcome Hans Moennig and the reverse cone taper. This was not a unique idea. It had been in place with German clarinets for many years, but we must credit Mr Moennig for introducing the use in this country.

Over years of experimenting I have come up with a model that I like very much and has extremely good modal parameters for the Buffet R-13. My mouthpiece bore actually has TWO tapers and so is not completely linear. I have also settled on a bore for my Barrels that is slightly smaller at the top diameter than Moeenig barrels and does not reduce as much over the length of the taper.

An excellent discussion of Clarinet bores and design can be found in:

O. Lee Gibson. "Clarinet Acoustics". Indiana University Press, 1994

Clark Fobes, reedman@ix.netcom.coms,
Posted to Klarinet: Mon, 17 Feb 1997

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