Goldilocks and the Three Barrels

Actually this Goldilocks had many more than three barrels to try!

The Three Barrels

I've been trying barrels. Again. Yes, again. More Morales-Backuns, ie MoBa. Grenadilla and Cocobolo this time. The trickiest part is to get the right tightness in the most responsive and smoothest barrel.

It's amazing how subtly different each barrel is, though by most scientific measurements they are identical. Each piece of wood has its character, whatever that means. But it certainly translates into something in the sound, but also in response, voicing, articulation, volume, colors, etc.

The orchestral excerpts I found useful to testing them are:

On Bb clarinet:

  • Brahms 1st symphony first movement. The full excerpt tests tone, evenness over the break, intonation, voicing, and, in the final arpeggios of the excerpt, response and articulation. Also in those final arpeggios, the clarion G and Bb are telltale notes which, on all but the best barrels will "spread".
  • Mahler 1st symphony, cuckoo call, altissimo E to clarinet B, staccato and pp.

On A clarinet:

  • Mozart Concerto, 1st movement exposition, end of second phrase, descending arpeggio to low F, then clarion B. This B should not have to be voiced too much on a good barrel.
  • Tchaikovsky 6th symphony, opening phrase for first clarinet, pp sixteenths notes on altissimo E. If there is too much resistance in the barrels, this excerpt will be unplayable.
  • Pines of Rome solos to see if legato and response is good over large leaps.

I also played a loud C scale on each barrel, with as little voicing as possible, to see if it can hold the sound.

I found the grenadilla barrels to have a bit more 'working' resistance, a little heavier 'ping', something useful for cutting through the orchestra when necessary.

Luckily I had found a great 65 MoBa a few months ago, and I was able to test these new barrels against it to be sure I didn't get too resistant or tight ones. It has to have juuuuust the right amount of resistance and tightness of sound. Not too loose, not too tight. Just right.

In my small, dead sounding practice room, a tighter sound feels good and the ping is more noticeable. In a larger hall, that same tight sound may hinder the necessary expansion and projection of the tone, choking it.

Over several days, I have chosen different ones, which surprised me, since I felt confident that I chose the best in the first trial. It shows that the overall picture of quality can be affected by subtle, subjective variables such as what you are used to, which excerpts you try, how tired you are, the acoustics in one room. I viewed the repeated tests not as singularly definitive, but each test as a "vote" for one barrel or another.

I did rigorous tests on two sets of clarinets, and two very different mouthpieces to be sure the barrels are really high quality, and not just matching one horn or another. It can be argued that a barrel should match a particular instrument, and I agree. After I pick out the best, I sometimes decide to buy 2 to have choices.

Goldilocks likes a lot of choices to keep her happy! She must have been an artist when she grew up.

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4 comments for “Goldilocks and the Three Barrels

  1. Bob
    March 14, 2010 at

    Ahhh….neat! Can I try your rejects before you send them back!? 🙂

    • March 14, 2010 at

      You forgot to twist the barrels on their axes (plural of axis) to find the sweet spot.
      Oh well….there are other fish in the sea.

      • March 16, 2010 at

        Hi Allen. I do twist the barrel to find the sweet spot. But with the barrel face forward, I can still hear and feel the general quality to choose the best first.

    • March 16, 2010 at


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