For the past few months I've been testing and acquiring barrels and bells from Backun Musical Services in Burnaby Canada. In this post, I discuss the pros and cons of Backun clarinet parts, and I also detail what to keep in mind when trying new equipment of any sort from mouthpieces to clarinets.
Most clarinetists know Backun brand. Non musicians will not know the name. As for non-clarinetists, though they may not know Backun parts, they certainly know the fever of seeking the best instrument and/or parts.
But EVERYONE knows how Backun parts look. Eyecatchingly beautiful! You cannot miss them from a distance.
Our instrument IS our voice. How we use it is up to us, but the instrument and all its parts are critical to how we sound. However, I remember something Loren Kitt (Principal Clarinet National Symphony, Washington, DC) said to me. "You'll always end up sounding like you, so just get the most comfortable equipment." The most comfortable equipment is probably the best, at least for you.
That's were it gets tricky. Comfortable is a relative thing. For example, if you bite the mouthpiece when you play, an open facing will be more comfortable, though it caters to a bad habit.
When I began to test all these beautiful barrels and bells, the challenge was to play consistently. I had to take into account the variables of the reed, ligature, mouthpiece, and room acoustics. (I aimed the instrument to the same corner of the room for each test.) In other words, it had to be at least a bit "scientific", with all variables controlled as much as possible.
At first I tried only the traditional style barrels in Cocobolo and bells in Grenadilla. The previous set I had owned were all Cocobolo, and I wanted to avoid the Cocobolo bells because they seemed not to project well in my 3000 seat hall. I also tried bells with the voicing groove and without.
I found that the voicing groove helped not only with voicing the tone of the long "B", but also changed the shape of the tone of the whole range of the instrument, giving it a more round quality. It took some getting used to, since I habitually "voiced" the long "B". When I stopped trying to doctor it, it sounded better. (I tested this outcome by recording myself, since the long B continued to sound stuffy close up)
I played a C scale, mezzo-forte, to do a quick test of each new piece. Consider that I had a great variety of both barrels and bells, so even this quick test took some time. I put aside the ones I liked, and started round two.
For the second round, I played some excerpts: Brahms 1- third movement, Brahms 3- second movement, R.K. Scheherazade- third movement, the perky ppp staccato solo, and R.K. Capriccio Espanol opening solo and Respighi Pines of Rome solo. These excerpts cover a range of challenging tests for any equipment.
As I said before, I had to concentrate on maintaining my embouchure, voicing and air support at a consistent high level. It was easy to "make" one barrel or bell sound better or worse to "speed up" the process. At times I would spend 4-5 hours trying them, and after picking the "best", would go back and find I had doctored them with my voicing, and that another piece was in fact more consistently better overall. Or they sounded good with one reed, and not another, or in one room, but not a bigger room, or one excerpt, but not another.
I will also emphasize that testing for soft attacks and articulation is critical, since some pieces sound great loud, but have unworkable resistance in pp. (hence choosing R.K. Scheherazade ppp articulated solo)
I also recorded myself in a large room, with the microphone at least 10 feet away. Some pieces sound good close up, but less focused 10 feet away.
Another thing to be aware of is the tightness of a barrel. A tight barrel may sound very focused, but it will not "blossom" in sound, and will sound spread or unfocused from a distance. A tight barrel will feel tight when you try to open up the sound in a crescendo. The sound focuses too soon in the vibrating column, and will feel tight in your throat when you try to voice it.
After I had picked the best barrels and bells, I took them to my hall to test them there. Unfortunately, the traditional barrels did not cut over the orchestra into the hall. So I decided to give the new MoBa (and Mo-expensive) design a try.
The new MoBa line of Backuns is a collaboration by Riccardo Morales and Morrie Backun. According to Erika Block, the wonderful person who handles all the sales orders, the MoBas project better than the traditional Backun design. I tried the Cocobolo version on her recommendation.
When I received them, I was amazed how much more focused and projected the sound was, especially by the bells, which are radically different in design from any bell I have seen. They are shorter than Buffet bells, and have a larger bore which then flares less.
Overall, I was very impressed with MoBas, and I bought a set or barrels and bells.
Now a few words about my overall impression of Backun parts. The Backun style rendered customizing our instruments infinitely more interesting and colorful. (One colleague joked that Buffet should only sell the body of the instrument, sans barrel and bell, since nearly everyone switches.)
Do they make you sound better? If you enjoy your own playing more, you will sound better. If you are more comfortable, you will sound better. The process of testing them is a learning process in itself. It helps you separate what is your responsibility and what is the equipment. I truly became a better player in the process.
Backun barrels and bells mellow the edge of a clarinet sound. Don't play them if that is not what you want. They change the sound, adding a "bulbous" quality, more like an English horn. By this I mean that the tone is a bit more "contained" and less extroverted.
I found that I began to blow more deeply into the instrument and tone as I grew accustomed to the Backun sound and feel.
Is the Backun sound better? It's different. If you like it better, then it's better. Again, be sure to try them in a large hall if that's where you work, since they tend to sound better close up than regular clarinet equipment.
Are they better than Buffet (or Selmer) barrels and bells? Ultimately, if you were able to choose from a dozen Buffet barrels and bells, you would probably pick parts which improve the quality of your equipment, and your playing. Anyone who has tried Moennig or Chadash barrels knows that 1 out of 5 might be really good.
Do they tune as well as, or better than, standard equipment? Tuning your pitch comes from being able to connect with the core of your sound. If Backuns help you do that, you will tune better. (However, since they change the shape of the core tone, they take some getting used to)
Overall, I believe Backun style has helped evolve the traditional clarinet sound into something more mellow and round. The projecting quality of a good clarinet tone has its dangers. Often, a projecting tone takes on a bright, or even shrill edge. Bakuns take off the edge, but, especially with the MoBas, keep most of the projection. This allows the high level player to put more volume into the sound without fearing the encroachment of dreaded brightness.
And, I have to admit, they are beautiful, even kind of sexy, to look at!
My bottom line advice. If you have a good Moennig or Chadash barrel, consider trying the MoBa bells, with voicing groove, in Cocobolo.