Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Expensive Profilers -- A Waste Of Money?

As someone who has a good job and salary, I'm sometimes asked why I don't own a fancy profiler.  I've certainly sampled cane profiled on the Herzberg, Van Hoesen and other fancy profilers ($2000+), but always go back to my old Pfeifer SINGLE barrel profiler or my new MD Reed Products profiler ($600).

Why do I settle for a simple profile that requires more work after forming the blank?  Why not use a machine that gets me closer to a finished reed so I have less scraping to do per reed?

I have several answers.

First, if you set one of these expensive machines to profile at finished reed blade dimensions, you get  fewer usable, good reeds.  Profiling the blades down to finished reed measurements results in lots of the reeds that are too flimsy to use.

Most reeds stiffen as they are played in, thus leaving a little cane on throughout is a good idea.

Thus, most people who use these machines actually set them to profile thick enough to allow for variation in the cane hardness, etc. Then they do nearly as much scraping as I do after forming, etc.

It makes me wonder why you would set such an accurate machine to leave on so much cane, when that's pretty much what I do with my simple, cheap single barrel models.  You're not getting your money's worth out of your fancy model!

Above is a chart with my measurements for a profiled blank (New Reed) and a finished reed. These are measurements taken on the spine of the blade.

As you can see, except for the area by the collar and the very tip, I remove very little cane from the spine.  Most of my reed work comes in the channels and rails.  More about that later.

Second, what you play tends to drive your reed making.  My job in the orchestra contains a lot of variety, thus, I need to demand a lot of different things from my reeds.  Sometimes, one reed just won't do everything I need it to, so I must rely upon two or three in a concert.

In one concert, I may go from playing first bassoon on the concerto to playing 3rd bassoon on Don Quixote.  I would not usually want to use my first bassoon reed (very focused and projecting) for that last page of the Strauss!  For that I need a mellow, soft reed with a great low register.

I also play a lot of chamber music.

So, making reeds from blanks that have almost all of the cane removed across the blade tends to result in a smaller number of usable reeds and they tend to have very similar in playing characteristics.  Cane that is a little too hard or soft, too vibrant or dark, tends to be winnowed out leaving fewer good choices.

This can be OK if you are looking for a more narrow tone profile for your playing.  Many players like the convenience and consistency resulting from this narrow selection.

Above are photos of two reeds I made recently. Each was made from the same cane, using the same shape, same profile, etc.  The basic beginning scrape was the same.

However, after initial testing, I noticed each reed had potential, but neither fell under the "Bell curve" of usual acceptable reeds.

The reed on the left (on the right in the middle photo, though), was inherently bright, very resonant, but still with a full sound and lots of core.  Since I sensed it had possibilities, I made several adjustments in order to counteract the brightness.
  • I filed down the rails all the way to the back of the blade.
  • I rounded the second wire (you can see this in the second photo) more than usual.  The second wire of this reed is almost oval in the "wrong" direction.
  • I moved the second wire closer to the first to dampen some of the vibration and lessen the brightness.
  • I sanded the blade near the tip and thinned the "wings" of the blade more than usual.
  • I avoided my usual channel scraping with this reed, fearing the brightness would return.
The reed on the right (on the left in the second photo -- sorry for the confusion!!) had a warm sound and good response, but was muted and dull.  For this reed I
  • Scraped the channels thinner and farther back towards the collar than usual.
  • Left the second wire oval to help projection and bring out lows in the sound.
These are two VERY different looking reeds that I brought into the "Bell curve" of acceptability by making some adjustments I don't usually have to make.

I believe that, with a complex, double barrel style profile, cutting to near finished thickness throughout, neither of these reeds would have been available to me.

The bright, resonant reed mellowed nicely while keeping its depth and easy response.  It is now going on its 5th week of use!

The other reed maintained its mellowness, but never developed the vibrant sound I was looking for.  It was a good low note and "pp" reed, however.

Third, I'm becoming convinced that it may be a good thing to finish profiling the reed AFTER forming. Reeds-N-Stuff and Rimpl are two suppliers that offer a total reed profiler.  Initial reviews of these machines have been mixed, but the concept is a good one.

I'll need another couple of blog post to explain fully what I'm after here (stay tuned!), but, in a nut shell, I think it's best to form the reed keeping the internal dimensions of the space inside the reed as consistent as possible. Thus, my rubber bands and fancy forming mandrel tips.

Along with that, I like the idea of taking the initial concave curve of the blade (from left to center to right) and having the luxury to customize how much that curve degenerates into a near letter "S" through scraping and wire shape.  Too much profiling at the outset give you an immediate "S" curve.

Here is an example of what I'm talking about.

Too much already missing from the sides and channels for my taste.  The sides are already cratering in. See how on about a quarter of the tip's width on each side the blades are nearly parallel?  The taper ends at the channels or just the middle 1/2 of the tip width.

A reed tip opening should start this way:

Fourth, very few young bassoon players can afford these expensive machines!  Most have just bought an expensive bassoon, will graduate or have graduated with lots of debt, and have little money left for a fancy profiler.

Schools that have these machines give students an upfront advantage by allowing them to produce good reeds pretty easily, but no one really learns how to scrape a tip or why a reed works or doesn't based upon what's been done to it!  They graduate and leave the school machine with nothing to replace it and no knowledge of how to compensate!

Also, if they move on to another teacher, grasping a new reed style may be more difficult, because they have no real knowledge of characteristics common to all German style reeds.  The machine did it all for them!

I understand these thoughts may be controversial to some, but they are my own and the methods I describe work well for me.  I would welcome others' comments about their experiences with profilers.


  1. Hi Mr. Stees,

    I hope the blog allows me to post my comment this time. I had a lengthy comment to your "10,000 Hours" article, but it wouldn't post it. Have others had problems with this?

    This issue is an interesting one, and one that I've been thinking about a lot lately. My Army unit purchased a VanHoesen profiler about a year ago and I've a lot of time to experiment with it. Some comments regarding some of your points.

    1) The collapsing tip is a problem, but it can be at least partially helped by using a narrower shape. I think any tip width over 15mm is going to have collapsed wings on this profile. Also more aggressive beveling can help keep the tip open.

    2) Yes, you do get some reeds that are too flimsy right off the bat due to variations in cane, but can't this be helped by buying cane from a vendor that presorts for hardness (Miller, West) or by testing it yourself for hardness and flexibility as advocated by Jim Poe.

    Ultimately, I think it's a difference in philosophy of reed making. Some people like to tweak and tweak and scrape and try to make every reed play through adjustment. Some people like to make dozens and dozens of reeds and are quick to discard them after initial impressions - easy come, easy go. A high-precision profiler may work for someone with the second philosophy, but not the first.

    Another thing with this profiler is that symmetry becomes absolutely essential. It the cane is not placed in the exact center of the barrel or if the fold is not exactly center, the spine will be off-center and the reed will most likely not play. In this way, the Herzberg machine with its mated shaper would seem to work better.

    As for your other point about students using these fancy machines, I understand your point, but at what point do you draw the line? Hugh Cooper made the same point, but took it a step further and demanded that his students all hand profile. If your concern is "what will my students do when they're not my students any more," it seems like there's a spectrum. On one end is "Hand Profile" on the other is "Buy commercial reeds" and then arbitrary points in between such as "buy GSP cane" or "buy a shaper but not a profiler" or "buy a profiler, but set it thick."

    I had a chance to try out a Rimpl machine at the Frankfurt Musikmesse this year and I am intrigued by it. I hope to get to use one again at IDRS. At this point in my life with a full-time job and two kids under 2 years, I think I can "cheat" a little bit. :-)

    Warm Regards,
    Derek Bannasch

    1. Derek,

      Nice to hear from you! If you send the reply to the "10,000 hours blog post" I'll post it myself. I don't know what's causing the trouble.

      Here are some replies that may clarify and fill in what I've already said.

      1. Re: the collapsing tip. I use a rather aggressive Herzberg bevel, so even with that tips still collapse when so much is removed in the profile. My tip width is just under 15mm. You're right to point out that the width is crucial here.

      2. I test ALL my cane for hardness, using only that that falls in a narrow range, so even with that you can still get the collapsing tip with so much removed.

      Like you, I'm very busy and don't like to spend free time "tweaking" reeds that ultimately won't work.

      Check out my website for reedmaking short cuts. These can save a lot of time.

      I think that I may spend an average of five to ten minutes more on a promising reed than someone who has a double barrel, fancy profiler, but given a few clues about a reed's promise, the time is usually worth it. I also think I get a bigger palette of colors in my reed box.

      I remember that you learned to hand profile originally and admire that! You must have a real feel for what you're doing when you put a knife to a reed.

      I believe it's very important to know how to scrape a tip to your liking by hand and thereby to understand more intimately how that part of the reed works.

      In transitions (leaving school, buying a new instrument, changing jobs, etc.) your knowledge of how to adjust a reed BY HAND will help you adapt to the new situation. Your particular machine's cut may no longer work so well on the new instrument for instance.

      Regarding symmetry (the most important concept in reed making, I think) the MD Reed Products profiler also has a mated shaper that goes with it, so no problem with symmetry using this inexpensive machine.

      My advice to my students is get an inexpensive single barrel profiler, then when you can afford it, buy a tip finisher. I believe it's best to finish the reed after forming. I'll explain more about this in a forthcoming post.

      I will try out a Rimpl this June sometime and let you know what I think.

  2. It's refreshing to see you endorsing a cheaper machine...it's definitely on my radar. Up to now, I've been using gouged and profiled cane for the following financial reasons:

    1. Let's say a profiler between $2000-$2500 is available and I like the work it does (granted, a big assumption). Let's be generous and choose $2000 as the total cost. Let's be even more generous and not consider any maintenance cost (sharpening/replacing blade, etc.).
    2. My gouged cane costs about $3/stick and gouged & profiled for $4. So I'll save $1/stick by purchasing a $2000 profiler.
    That means it will take me 2000 reeds before it becomes financially smarter to buy the profiler. I don't think I make more than 100-150 reeds a year...even if I increased that to 200 (I DO hope to get more work), it would take me ten years to make that a worthwhile investment. There are, of course mitigating factors, such as my level of accuracy and success versus the ratio of good cane:bad cane I purchase as GP. I'm not convinced that would increase if I profiled myself, and I think that increased repetitive motion is an issue, as is being "compensated" for the time I spend profiling. Some may argue I can better control the outcome if I take control of all the equipment, and purchase a splitter and gouger as well. But from where I'm standing, it would take a lot to upset my status quo. I'm fairly satisfied with the reeds I'm making. IF I were to become more demanding and need to be more exacting about my reed-making, I would need a lot of funds to create even the possibility of adding equipment. I would also need much more instruction to understand how each piece might help, and which models to choose (and I have a doctorate).
    For me, it's primarily a funding issue; those with more resources (well-paid full-time positions and/or generous equipment budgets) may find experimenting with various equipment enjoyable, educational, and ultimately improving their reed-making. I don't have that luxury, and I think I'm the norm. (I do however realize that if for any reason my supplier dried up or switched his measurements, I might be in a bit of trouble. It's a risk I just have to live with.)

    Finally, I'd like to add that I have had great difficulty working with the profilers that remove cane close to the level of finished reed. The cane always became flimsy and difficult to manipulate, and often broke during the shaping process. I'll pay another $1 to save my first $3. = )

  3. I have a new single barrel design that will go into production shortly. It is based on profilers used by professional reed makers. It profiles from center to side as well as from collar to tip. Giving that crescent moon center to side profile. This is something no "normal" single profiler can do. Since it is adjustable it's like having a double profiler with multiple cams. However I'm profiling a little heavier than you but the sides are more in proportion to a finished reed. I get a very high success rate. I can play high and low in tune and make very soft attacks as well as being able to make my colleagues open their throats to keep up...not a good thing unless you have tenure. I think its more important to have a balanced reed from the start so most of your work will be on the tip or using your wires to round out the throat for soft cane. I can use a wide range of cane so I have very little waste. I get peppy and mellow reeds from the natural variation of cane. I also get more flexibility and power as well as soft and loud volume. I have to have this to be able to sell my reeds. A lot of bassoonists are very happy with the results from my reeds. So it's all in how you use a tool. I also use some labor saving techniques like sandpaper in large (four inch) tubes. It does very nice general sanding of the tip. Very smooth results. The barrel is the secret and a modification may be available for your MD The results are subtle and so accurate that I have few collapsed reeds. Sometimes I have out of balance reeds which I fix using a forming mandrel pulling one side tight. That is when one blade is flat and one is round. You can use the forming mandrel to round out the flat blade and bring the reed up to pitch. I may make a youtube video of the process.

  4. GREAT ARTICLE, BARRY!Mr. Herzberg taught me to make reeds only with a RDG shaper, equaling needle files, 21 gauge brass wire, and by HAND PROFILING every piece for the first 2 years.Scott /Vigder

  5. I understand where you are coming from. I have learned how to compensate for variations in cane through leaving the tip a bit heavy and aiming at getting the back of the blade to the finished depth. I detest working on the rails. Compensating with no use of the tip profiler, rounding the throat, narrowing the blade or shortening the blade for weak cane. My new profiler design does all the work for you on the back of the blade It's just a matter of balancing the tip one way or another. Many of my reeds play right away off the tip profiler. The ones that don't are usually weaker cane. There is the rare hard piece of cane which becomes a high note reed.