Tuesday, March 31, 2009

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


elewhale said...

what a great blog! thanks so much. and funny too.Can you recommend a present dealer in Paris? Who do you write to find out the cycle when the low c horns are produced. I love that 20 feet away thing. It helps too, to hear about the free or louder blowing quality of the selmer. i love my buffet sop. clarinet though. It Sounds Good! I do a lot of special effects, multi-phonics, chords, etc. You think Selmer would be better for that as well? More lively resonating air column perhaps. Thanks again. I had been thinking of going to Paris, but lately feeling more discouraged. Now you've given me the bug again.

ear said...

You're welcome. I do not actually know the cycle any more (I've got two horns -- can't see buying a third), but truthfully, you could simply give them a call (with a french-speaking friend, if necessary) and try to find that out. In terms of dealers, they might be able to steer you in the right direction as well. I'm sorry my information is so old, but the theory is still sound I think. (Pun intended)

dougR said...

THi Michael. I imagine I'm not the only clarinetist who would be interested in any new information you have on this particular topic. The post is ages old, the Privelege has been introduced since then, Buffet basses have gotten better (? I think?). Of course since I read your original article, this topic has become one of my "bucket list" items (go to Paris, buy a bass), since I'm playing on a Series 9 low-Eb bass which is awfully nice-sounding but has many of the issues you mention wrt "vintage" basses. So, a plea: anything new to report that you know of? Does the Privelege interest you any?

And thanks for a terrific website.

Mitchell Fadem said...

I have dealt with this as well. Back in the day when I was a professional musician I had the opportunity to buy any horn I wanted. In the early 1970's a good Selmer and Buffet were about the same price - $550 and if you wanted a low C it was a couple hundred more. I went with a Selmer back then even though my A and B flat were both R13's. The Selmer just had a fuller and better sound. Obviously not much has changed in 40+ years. Of course at the time I was living and performing in Europe so it was not such a big trip. I agree with Michael on all points except for one - just go with boxers, not boxer briefs.