Saturday, December 26, 2009

Pitch problems?

From the mailbag I just got this question about tuning on the bass clarinet

Hello Michael,

I want to ask you a question about the tuning topic on the bass clarinet. I'm playing a buffet bcl and a realtively open Schreiber 7* mouthpiece. My first problem is that I can barely get above 440 pitch with this setup. (Especially a problem with classical tuned pianos in Vienna) My second problem is, that b, c, c#, d, and d# in the second register are far low-pitched and it's very difficult to get them higher.

Do you have any tips for me what I can do to get rid of this problems?
Thank you very much and all the best from Vienna,


So, I should first mention that I don't know that mouthpiece. But the first question should be, with any problems with stuff like this: is it the instrument, or is it me? First troubleshoot your equipment: Try a different mouthpiece. Borrow a friend's bass clarinet and try it with your mouthpiece. What do you discover? If it's the mouthpiece or instrument that seems to be the problem, the answer becomes one of making a decision: Should I have my instrument worked on? Should I get a different mouthpiece? (Not easily answered questions, mind you. But at least you know where the problem is).

That all said, generally speaking, if the problem is minor, you can handle pitch issues with your sound production and adding/removing fingerings to certain offending notes. Obviously, no instrument is ever perfectly in tune. None. Some are worse than others, and my observation has been that the newer the model, the more tuning issues have been addressed by the manufacturer.

Ok, so how do we adjust pitch on the instrument note-by-note? Well, on notes that are sharp, you can add keys to lengthen the tube without changing the fundamental pitch. Example: if your open "G" is sharp, you can add a keys on the right hand to bring the pitch down. If it's flat, you can open up the side D# and/or F# trill keys. But it becomes more of a problem when you're already using most of your fingers (like on the notes you describe, Leo) -- there's not much you can do about using fingerings or opening up vents when those notes are flat. (If they were sharp, you could handle the problem with your sound production in your mouth. It's easier to make notes lower with your embouchure than to make them higher).

But, what do you do if their instrument is flat? Well, I have a pair of Selmer Signature Bb/A clarinets, and I have a really nice Kaspar mouthpiece that I picked up. Together they sound amazing, but very, very flat. So, I call Morrie Backun and asked him to make me some VERY short barrels (For example, I now have a 59mm Bb barrel). I also have a bell that has a hole cut in it. The combination of these bring the instrument up to pitch (but create more minor issues with the scale that I manage with fingerings like I describe above).

With the bass clarinet, you could get someone to make you a short neck. Martin Suter from Switzerland makes necks for the bass clarinet that are really, really good. And I bet he could manufacture you one that's a little bit shorter so that your instrument is altogether sharper. Here is the page showing all of the bass clarinet neck options. (This whole site is in German, but can be translated with Google Translate and it becomes fairly readable).

Martin also does bass clarinet work that can help you with intonation problems. I've never had him do any work on my instrument, but I have heard good things, and he's worked closely with Ernesto Molinari, which bodes well for the quality of his work.

Another option is to work with a mouthpiece craftsman to have him/her adjust your mouthpiece (or make you a new one) that offsets the intonation problems of your instrument. This is likely the most cost-effective measure you can take, and probably the one I'd recommend you begin with.

Finally, if it seems to be you and your sound production, take some time to experiment with your tongue position in the back of your mouth. Is the tongue to low? Say "LLLL" -- feel the back of your tongue? That's what a low tongue position feels like. Now say "EEE" (or in german I think it would be "IE"), that's a higher tongue position. If you're more LLL and less EEE, start experimenting to see how that affects your pitch.

So to summarize:

If it's the instrument as a whole: try to change out your neck or have a mouthpiece made to correct the problems.

If it's just a few notes (this is normal): correct with embouchure and/or fingering adjustments

If it's you: practice your tongue position. Or, work with a teacher to have him/her help you with this.

Hope this helps. And, anyone with other tips, please leave them in the comments!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Where to start when you're starting

I got this email from a gentleman who (understandably) fell in love with the bass clarinet... I'll let him tell it:


I am a 51 year old amateur pianist who has become addicted to bass clarinet music
and want to attempt to learn how to play it. I have no woodwind experience.

Should I rent a "good" wooden instrument or settle for a plastic or hard rubber model.

Are there different reeds/mouthpieces that are easier to learn with ?


Well, I think that the best way to start would be to check out a decent rental Bass Clarinet to make sure you feel compatible with the bass clarinet in general. Go with your gut regarding wood/plastic. Take it for the month -- you'll get to know very quickly whether wood (or plastic, whichever you chose) is the right fit for the sound you want to get. Of course, given that you're new to the instrument, it'll be harder to determine, but with the help of someone who plays the instrument -- and this might be the same "someone" who will help you pick out your final choice -- you will probably be able to make some preliminary decisions.

Regarding reeds/mouthpieces. This is an easier decision: first off, check out the "mouthpiece" video on the site for a primer. I'd recommend something a little "closer" (you'll know what that means after the vid) to begin with. I'd say check out McClune's S1 instead of the S2 I usually recommend. ( Grab some Rico reeds of various strengths (1, 1.5, 2, 2.5) to see what works to begin with. Rico reeds are known to play pretty much right out of the box, but they'll die an earlier death than a sturdier reed, like, say, Vandoren. But right now you'll need some early successes to stay with it, so I'd go with the Rico.

Hope this helps!

What to do with sensors

I have been trying for about 3 years now to come up with something interesting I can do with sensor-based instruments as an addition to my regular show. What's difficult about them is that I would like to somehow use them to engage the audience directly in the music-making going on, yet opening up this huge variable has made it difficult to control the form of each piece. Imagine that you've been handed a box with a bunch of sensors all over it during a concert. Well, you start to push buttons to see what they all do. My job is to make the experience clear to the user (in other words, they need to understand right away what each button or slider or whatnot does aurally). My job is also to make the resulting music interesting and cohesive for the rest of the audience. And, my job is to make the whole thing bulletproof, regardless of what the user does.

For me, this task is nearly impossible.

Most often, people remark that they can't really tell what's going on when they interact with the box (because I've made the musical response too subtle, like changing the reverb time or something). So, I figure, in order to make the action have a more clear effect, I need to make the rest of what's going on musically much more sparse. This will probably be what I try next -- more like a duet between me and someone in the audience. Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Playing Electronic Music, part 2

Computer Music, once limited to universities with large budgets, has become much more prevalent in the past fifteen years, mainly because of the development of low-cost and mass-produced microprocessors.

Needless to say, to begin, you'll need a computer. Up until about eight years ago, the issue of "PC vs. Mac" was a real one. Nowadays, most software is available cross-platform. Still, I use, and recommend the Macintosh platform, using OSX.4 or OSX.5.

So, what do you need hardware-wise? There are many answers to this, but the most popular (and in my opinion, correct) is "As much as you can afford." This is true in most cases - not just with computers. Buying a lower-priced (and lower powered) computer just means that you need to upgrade sooner, so essentially, it all evens out in the wash. I recommend buying a Macbook Pro for live concerts for obvious portability reasons. Why a pro? Because, as of this writing, the non-pro version does not have a separate video card, but rather shares the processing with the main CPU. If you have any interest now or in the future to do anything with video, you'll pretty much be out of luck for anything but the most rudimentary video processing. Other considerations are getting as much RAM as you can (within reason), a large, and fast, hard drive (5400 RPM minimum, but most people go for the fast 7200 RPM drives for live audio), and if you need it, Firewire ports. More on that in a sec.

The main software package I use is Cycling74's Max/MSP ( -- download for a free 30-day trial). Currently this software package is about $500, and it is by far the most flexible computer music program I've ever used. If you are a composer, you can create looping devices, effects plugins, samplers, synthesizers, interactive video, you name it. The downside: it's pretty heavy math- and programming-wise. Nevertheless, many composers have created pieces using this software that don't require you to purchase it, nor how to program in it. But, if you have any interest in computer music composition, you'll definitely want to check this software out. Other software you'll want to consider is Ableton Live for looping and loop processing, effects processing and improvisation-based pieces. Since the mac comes with Garage Band software, you'll have a simple recording/editing suite available to you, which you can upgrade to Logic if you need more power -- and the skill set pretty much transfers because Apple has based Garage Band on Logic, so they operate with the same basic paradigm.

OK, so back to the hardware. In order to get sound in and out of the computer, you'll likely want to have a sound interface of some sort. Many popular - and less expensive - of these interfaces are USB-based. They are often under $200, and they allow you to plug in a microphone to get sound in, and an amplifier to get sound out. USB interfaces used to not have the same throughput as Firewire interfaces, but that is no longer the case. Indeed, as Apple begins to abandon Firewire on their non-pro models, your computer will likely make the decision for you in terms of which to go with. Format aside, the most important feature you'll want to look at is high-quality microphone preamps. The lower-end interfaces have, well, lower-end preamps, and your sound quality will really suffer. You will notice that the "bass" end of your instrument sounds thin, and the midrange notes will sound strident or bright and tinny. I had one and I had to get rid of it. I sold it to a flutist... A popular unit is the Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) Ultralite (firewire) This interface is about $400 or so, and has a good balance between size (it's a 1/2-space rack unit) and quality. Personally, I use the German-made RME Fireface 400 which has superior specs in terms of sound quality and noise. With this unit, I have 36 channels of input/output (8 of them via ADAT optical) with 2 mic preamps. It sounds great. These days you can find a Fireface for about $1,000. But like I said, there are MANY interfaces and your mileage will vary, both in terms of cost and quality.

Now, when you do a piece of computer music, how does the computer know when to do what - e.g. start the piece? Well, you need to have some means of communicating with the computer, and for that you have a number of choices. For me, I have a touch-screen monitor (thanks EBay!) and a footpedal that I made myself (I wanted something small and light). Others use off-the-rack footpedals or footswitches which are also cheap, plentiful, and good. Still others use mini keyboards (that usually plug in via USB, so you don't need MIDI). There are numerous options, but they all share one thing in common: they are controllers, not sound-creation devices -- i.e. they are not sound generators themselves. Regardless of what you get, suffice it to say, you're going to need something like one of these pieces of gear, or else you're going to have to be in constant contact with your computer with your toes. Of course there are exceptions to this (pieces which don't need user input in the way of "commands" and which just respond to the instrument). But, if you plan on doing any of the majority of works, you're going to need to invest in either a MIDI controller or USB controller. Fortunately, these are not too expensive - many under $150.

Finally, there are specialized pieces of gear that will be required for many pieces. Namely, outboard (i.e. not-inside-the-computer) effects processors, synthesizers or controller devices. Usually, though, the composer will either provide you with this gear, or you might be able to borrow it, or you might be able to replace it with a similar piece of gear. Or, you might just be able to program it into Max/MSP yourself!!

So, to summarize (this is for a decent setup):
Computer $2500
Audio/MIDI Interface: $500
Microphone(s): $800
MIDI controller: $150
(Sound) Monitor: $200
TOTAL: $4150

Since this is a large sum, you can get by without the monitor. That will bring your total to about $3950. A stationary microphone will bring the total down to about $3150. Etc, etc, etc.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Playing Electronic Music, part 1

These days, tape pieces are relatively low-tech. Just about everywhere you go there is at least some sort of PA system with a CD player. At the very least there will be a stereo system. I've chosen to go the route where I bring everything along with me but the amp and speakers, though many others simply bring a CD that they can provide the sound guy. The reason for my preference is simply that I want to be able to control when the tape starts, to control the balance between the bass clarinet and the tape (I use a microphone -- more on that later) and the volume of my monitor.

A bare minimum: CD or iPod and cables to plug it in. The cable you'll need is one with an 1/8" plug at one end (for the ipod) and a stereo RCA (or better, 1/4" plug) on the other. Most venues don't have the adapters. This cable is less than $10 at Radio Shack. Total cost: $10 or less.

From there, you might want to have a decent microphone. Why? In order to mix your sound with the CD/iPod, you need to amplify yourself. That way, you can boost the tape part without drowning out the live part. It also blends your acoustic sound with the tape before it goes into the hall. It should be one of your first purchases. My personal favorite is the bass clarinet model form AMT ( Those run about $800, but there are others, including stationary mics (i.e. not clip-ons) which are less expensive. Fortunately great microphones -- especially ones built in China like SE Electronics -- are amazingly cheap: less than $500. Many are even cheaper. But you'll want to get one that has a "cardioid" or "hypercardioid" pattern, since those are more appropriate for live contexts; omni pattern microphones will feed back much more easily. You might also need a cable and a mic stand, though those are ubiquitous in most venues.

Microphones that attach to the bass clarinet are, for me, more appropriate because I tend to be more, uh, "active" onstage. Since I stand when I play solo, I don't want to have to be tethered to one location because of the position of a stationary microphone. Just something to think about for yourself: do you want to always stand in the same place, or do you want the freedom to move about - say if you're playing a piece which requires multiple stands and you need to progress from left to right.

A small mixer is becoming less important, especially if you are planning to purchase a computer and audio interface, since much of the mixing can happen inside the computer nowadays. If you choose to get a small mixer, a Mackie 12-channel ($369) is the one of the more popular. They are inexpensive, sound good and are built like a tank. If you choose to go smaller and a bit lower quality, you can get one from Behringer or Alesis for as low as $100. You would plug the mic and CD player into the mixer, which would plug into the PA system. You could add a small monitor so that you can hear the tape part better. A good monitor should be small, light and self-powered. The Yamaha MSP5 is great, but heavy. ($250). Another choice is the Yamaha MS101 ($130) which is much lighter but is not as powerful. Often a venue will have a dedicated monitor for you to use, but just as often, they don't (or it sounds dreadful). For me, it's better to be on the safe side.

Summary (these are minimums):
CD player or iPod: $100-200 (but you probably already have one, right?)
Microphone: $200
Mixer: $60
Monitor: $130
TOTAL: <$600

So, these are the basics.

If you want to go all-out, check out the main site to see what my current rig looks like.

Michael Lowenstern
Earspasm Music

Buying a Bass Clarinet in 2009

So you're ready to buy a new bass clarinet. A huge expenditure. Probably the most expensive clarinet you'll ever buy. Kind of nerve-wracking, no?

With bass clarinets, even more than with clarinets, there are so many questions swirling around: Which brand to get, Buffet or Selmer (or Yamaha or Leblanc)? Low C or Low Eb? Student variety or Pro? eBay or Mail Order or Local Store? Used or New? Boxers or Briefs?

Well here are my unvarnished opinions. (What else would you expect?) I'm a Selmer man. I've always been a Selmer man, though I have recently tried a couple of Buffet horns that weren't bad. Yamaha and Leblanc aren't even in the running as far as I'm concerned, so I won't spend any time on them here. Sorry. Buffet horns are, in my opinion, designed for clarinetists who need a bass clarinet to FEEL more like a clarinet. Just look at the neck angle, and you'll see what I mean. A Buffet neck curves up at the mouthpiece to enter the mouth at more of clarinet-like angle. The Selmer necks enter at more of a Saxophone angle (though, now that I'm updating this post, some Selmer necks are available that also curve up). I believe that the proper angle for the bass clarinet is the latter. One (of many) reasons being that at the clarinet angle, the focus of the lip pressure is too low on the reed, and that there is too much opportunity to "bite" on the reed. The Selmer angle keeps that from happening. There are MANY other acoustical reasons I feel the Selmer angle is preferable, but I don't want to get into it, since that really isn't the focus of this article. Buffet horns also offer a little more resistance (more like a clarinet), which limits the amount of volume you can potentially get out of the horn. It also makes it easier to play, but ultimately it's better to have a horn with more "headroom." Plus the Selmer factory is in the heart of Paris, but I'll get to that in a moment. At any rate, if you're interested in all of the differences, GO TRY ONE. Don't listen to people on the Internet (including me); see for yourself. It's a HUGE difference, and one that you have to try to really appreciate. But for the sake of argument here, let's say you're going with the Selmer.

Next, do you want a student-level horn (sometimes appropriate) or do you want to go all-out and get a horn that will likely last a lifetime? I've tried just about every horn out there, and I've never found a good student level (~$2,000) horn. I REALLY wanted to find one so I could recommend it to people, but I haven't yet. I'll keep you all posted. My recommendation: if you are looking for a horn for doubling, you might be able to get away with one of these...otherwise, probably not.

The next choice is a simple one: Get a Low C bass. A low Eb bass is less expensive, but you'll make the difference up on your first gig.

Used or new? Again, there are many opinions floating around this point. There are those who believe that an old bass is intrinsically and sonically better than a new bass. I think that's hogwash. Old bass clarinets are notoriously OUT OF TUNE (and you will NEVER be able to make them inherently play in tune, no matter what you do to the tone holes). How about struggling to play an out-of-tune bass IN tune while trying to get a lovely attack in the upper clarion register at, oh say, mezzo-piano. Good luck. Sure, there is a certain "played-in" feel of a used bass, and of course they're less expensive. But if you can, try a new bass and an old bass side by side with both a tape recorder and a tuner. Then go eat dinner. Then, give the tape a listen. See if the used bass has a nice tight core to the sound. See if it's (relatively) in tune. See if it has a clear articulation in both the clarion and chalumeau registers. If so, by all means buy it. But please, don't let someone tell you that it's better BECAUSE it's old. Listen for yourself. Or bring a friend along who's not afraid to tell you the unvarnished truth if need be.

Now for the real $9,500 question: how much will it cost? The secret answer is about $7,000-$8,000, but you have to go to Paris. Here's where it gets fun. You can, of course, buy a bass from the Woodwind and Brasswind, a great store with a huge inventory of instruments. And you'll get a really, really good horn. And you may even be able to get free shipping, but that's probably pushing it. The price tag? About $9,000-10,000 as of this writing. Here's how I bought both of my horns, one in 1996 and the other in 1999. I bought a ticket to Paris and made an appointment with Richard Scotto of Quintette Musique. (He is, as of this writing, no longer in business, but there are other dealers around, so find one and make contact). Have them help you to make an appointment with Selmer for you to go try instruments. Then, book your flight around a production cycle at Selmer.

Get to Paris, eat at "Pain, Vin, Fromage" right behind the Pompadou Centre (sp?). Make contact with your dealer and with Selmer. Show up at Selmer at the appointed time, and they will set you up in a room with as many as 10 (!) bass clarinets (Again, you have to make sure Selmer is in manufacturing mode and that they have stock on-hand. As I mentioned, you can often do that with your dealer.) Once you're in the factory, you're about 20 feet from the guy who just made your horn. It hasn't been on a plane, in a box, in a warehouse, on a truck to the dealer, in another warehouse, and on a plane and UPS truck before you try it. It was 20 feet from where you will be at the factory. Not bad. "Factory Fresh" as they say. Another plus you'll only get at the factory: you can try up to 100 necks, and pick the one that you like best. Try that at a music store here in the states!

Time passes, and you've picked the perfect horn – or two. Write down the serial numbers and go have a coffee, or lunch. Then come back and try them "blind" – i.e. have a friend (hopefully you've traveled with one!) give you the horns without your knowing which one you're trying – and play it. Take notes. Then try the other (or others) and do the same. It should be easier to decide at this point. So, once you've picked the horn that you like best, you can have one of the instrument makers make any alterations to it (I had one install a new tenon cork, for example), for free. Then, you take the horn to the dealer's shop, who then writes you up a bill. If the exchange rate is favorable (it was MUCH more so when I was there in the late 1990's), you can get the horn for about $7,500. Another suggestion: if you have a mouthpiece, you don't have to buy one with the horn, which will take another $100 off the price. Likewise, if you can get a cheap case here in the US and bring it over, you can save the cost of the case. With this in mind, I was able to get each of my horns for about $4,000 (in 1999). However, you might want to consider buying an extra neck (I did) – they are about $200, and well worth the price. So, my tally: Plane ticket on Air Bangladesh (not recommended) from New York to Paris: $325. Housing (I stayed with a friend): $0 (but hotels are not unreasonable, especially off-season). A lot of great wine and cheese and food and coffee: $200. Bass Clarinet: $4,000. Total cost: $4,525. Buying a bass clarinet at the time: $5,600. I saved over $1,000, got to go to Paris for three days and got a MUCH better horn than I think I would have here.

So, while your mileage may vary price-wise, I think the difference in cost is comparable: you'll stand to save about 20% going to Paris to pick out your horn.

Oh, and I recommend Boxer-briefs.

Michael Lowenstern
Earspasm Music

Friday, March 20, 2009

Site nearly finished (nearly)

For those interested in being all beta-tester-ey, the new site is here: Depending on when you go, you'll notice varying degrees of functionality and/or bugginess. But I would love to hear from you if you do choose to check it out. Some bugs I'm aware of, but many more I'm sure I am not. (Obviously if you click on something and it simply doesn't respond, then it's there just for show for the moment, so you don't need to tell me about that...)

Anyway, the focus is going to be on a dashboard sort of style and layout. Lots of feeds from facebook and what I'm listening to on itunes, this blog, you know. Stuff.

Should be ready in a few weeks (or month or two, depending)

Have a look!