Légère Reeds: The Recipe, Part 1

By Mark Kortschot, President

Many players want to know why our reeds work so well, while others are simply happy with the sound.  But knowing a little about the science and how reeds work is probably a good thing, so this month, we thought we would provide a bit of technical background on Légère reeds. Materials scientists try to understand how to make materials with desirable properties, and the Légère reed is a textbook example of a materials science success story.

There are two material properties that have a big effect on the sound of a reed: a) stiffness, and b) density.  The strength of a reed, usually graded from 1-5, is a simple measure of how hard it is to bend.  Reed strength depends on how stiff the material is (steel is very stiff, rubber is very flexible), and how thick the reed is (thicker reeds are stronger)  Density is a measure of how much a fixed volume of material weighs.  Lead is dense; cork is not.  Cane in your mouth is damp, which makes it denser than dry cane.

Reed cane is a remarkable material that combines high stiffness with relatively low density.  To replicate a cane reed, it would be great to find a synthetic material that matches both the stiffness and density of damp cane, but this has proven to be very challenging.  Aluminum is much stiffer, and about three times as dense – aluminum sinks!  Ordinary plastics, like the plastic that is used to make yoghurt tubs, are a bit denser than cane, but usually much less stiff.  To make a reed from such plastics, you would have to make it much thicker to get the strength right, and then it would be much too heavy.

It is possible to make plastics stiffer by adding reinforcing fibres, like glass and carbon fibres.  Skis, tennis racquets, surfboards, and even some synthetic reeds are made out of these “composite” materials. 

We will leave it to others to discuss the merits of the various composite and plastic reeds on the market, but in 1997, a young scientist named Guy Légère was not satisfied.  He searched for a suitable alternative and decided to try a very special version of a common plastic named polypropylene or PP.  PP is a simple non-toxic plastic that floats and has a density similar to that of damp cane. In its normal state, it is not nearly stiff enough, but materials scientists (like me!) have a trick up their sleeves.  We can modify the molecular structure to line up the molecules, and when this is done, the material can be made as stiff as cane.  As a bonus, we can control the stiffness, so can we target the exact strength of reed by producing the appropriate material on demand, and cutting a conventional reed shape from it.  And we can do this reproducibly, year after year.

When Guy and I first met in 1997, I was skeptical that the reeds would work, but the basic principle made sense to me, so I agreed to help with materials science, and I gave the project a year to see if there was any hope.  Our target was to make reeds for the 1998 Clarinet conference in Columbus, Ohio.   Our workshop was 100 square feet in Guy’s basement, and the reeds took 20 minutes each to cut – if everything went well, which was not usually the case.  However, we persevered and after much effort, we had 60 reeds to take with us.

When we set up our booth at the show, nobody paid any attention to us for the first few hours, and I wondered if I had been wasting my time. Then one of the many pros in attendance, Richard Hawkins, gave the reeds a serious try, and Guy and I got our first look at the face of a player who can’t believe what they are hearing.  It is always the same:  5 or 10 notes, then stop, stare at the reed in disbelief, then another 15 or 20 notes, then stop and stare at it again, and so on. Soon other professionals flocked to the booth, including Ricardo Morales and Larry Combs. We sold out our stock of 60 reeds on the first morning, and we knew we had something remarkable on our hands.   In the intervening years, we have seen the shocked look of a new player trying our reeds thousands of times.

Today, Richard, Ricardo and Larry are amongst our many Légère artists, along with pros like John Moses, jazz greats like Gerald Albright, and rising young stars like Derek Brown and YolanDa Brown.   They are not too concerned with the materials ence, they just want the freedom to perform, and we are happy to deliver.