How can you distinguish a professional-quality oboe reed from a machine-made low-quality slab of wood? Look for the windows! Oboe reed windows impart darkness, focus, and stable pitch to the reed, but they need to be balanced to the rest of the reed — this takes much time and expertise.
Here’s how to identify this important feature, weed out bad reed choices, and balance your reed’s windows.
For the best results, start out with an excellent handmade reed. Check out Tiger Reeds — they’re not ‘cheap’; they’re excellent value.
Avoid machine-made, mass produced 2×4, buzzy monstrosities — check out the reed options and try one! Visit the Reeds page to purchase.
Oboe reeds from around the world come in many shapes and ‘scrapes’. The American scrape features one prominent section that others don’t. Referred to as a ‘long-scrape’ reed, the American scrape features blades thinned almost to the string, whereas many other scrapes (French and German, particularly) usually scrape only the first third or half.
American-scrape oboe reeds feature windows in the ‘back’ near the string, roughly the back third to half of the reed, on either side of the spine (the center). Notoriously difficult to photograph, these areas should appear much lighter under bright light than the surrounding features. If the packaging allows, look for a defined spine and triangular shapes like this. If you see them, the reedmaker has invested time in balancing the tone and pitch of your reed. Otherwise, your reed will be less stable, potentially louder and buzzier, and will be more difficult to play. It won’t have the “je ne sais quas”, the lovely mouth feel, or the singing quality of nicer reeds just a few dollars more.
Most if not all oboe reeds available in stores in America are long-scrape reeds, but not all feature balanced windows.
Reeds without deeply-cut windows vibrate differently. Wedge shaped blades (thin tip, thick back) bring out the high, buzzy partials, making your sound piercing and difficult to blend. Windows counteract this — they make the spine relatively thicker, stiffening the reed’s back, dampening this buzziness. They also add a small amount of resistance to your reed (yes, actually desirable in small doses), allowing your lips to fine-tune and your air to do the grunt work of support.
Bad reeds will have a somewhat defined tip, windows that are too symmetrical (finished by machine, not hand-tuned), and maybe scratches side-to-side across the blades — a machine did most of the work, not tuned ears and trained hands. If your reed sounds a bit thin and buzzy, you could try adding these features, but it’s better to invest in higher quality for a few more bucks.
Take into account your reed’s general makeup. All features need to be in balance, and only study and experience will teach you what this is. Windows should be slightly thicker towards the string and slightly thinner just before stopping at the bottom edge of the heart. The spine should not be severed or thinned at any part — it should be a continuous dark line from the back up through the heart.
I’ll spend 15-30 minutes on each reed tuning, balancing, and enhancing the resonance through thinning, sanding, reforming the profile, and lots of tricks, including employing various aspects of well-adjusted windows.
A novice once asked a great reedmaker how to become an expert. His answer: “It is simple. First, you must fill a barrel with reeds. Then you are an expert.” Get started!