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The quality of an oboe reed is key in playing the instrument because it affects the tonal quality and overall sound. Even the highest-quality oboe in the hands of the best oboe player can sound terrible if the oboe doesn’t have a good-quality reed. Most musicians agree that the best reed is one that is handmade from high-quality bamboo, or tube cane. Second best on the list would be a reed that is machine profiled but hand finished. Mass-produced, machine-finished reeds are typically not the best choice, and fiber or plastic reeds should generally be avoided.
Most serious oboe players agree that the best choice for an oboe reed is one that is made completely by hand from start to finish. While handmade reeds tend to be more expensive than mass-produced ones, overall, they tend to have a better response and tone quality. The best oboe reed is one made from high-quality tube cane that is meticulously shaved and shaped over time by someone who is trained, educated, and experienced in the art of making oboe reeds. When choosing a handmade oboe reed, look for one that has a strong, well-defined tip and a sturdy spine, which is a thicker line down the middle. The reed should otherwise be smooth and free of any gouges, cracks, or indents.
Finding a reliable producer of handmade oboe reeds can be a challenge. Some oboists answer the challenge by learning how to make the reeds themselves. The process is an art and cannot be learned overnight, but if you are up for a challenge, it is certainly one way to ensure that you can always find the best oboe reed to suit your particular needs and playing style. Many colleges and music schools offer classes on making your own oboe reeds, but it is always helpful to learn from someone who has been doing it for many years.
If you are not committed to making your own oboe reeds or finding ones that are exclusively handmade, machine-profiled oboe reeds that are hand finished could be a good alternative for you. They are not not the best oboe reeds on the market. A reed that is mass produced by a machine then shaped and finished by hand, however, can still provide good quality and tone.
When searching for the best oboe reed, those that are mass produced, shaped, and finished by machine are probably not your best choice. Reeds made in this fashion tend to rush the process and don’t typically give the cane time to settle into its shape. This can cause the reed to be brittle, inflexible, and nonresponsive. In turn, this will greatly affect the sound of the oboe and the way that you play it.
Some manufacturers produce oboe reeds made from fiber or plastic. While these types of reeds may be passable for other instruments, such as the saxophone, they do not work quite so well for an oboe. If you are looking for the best oboe reed, therefore, you will likely want to stay away from any reeds that are made from plastic or fiber and stick to ones that are made from good-quality tube cane.
I didn't play the oboe in band, but since I never got beyond high school band, I never knew people made their own oboe reeds. My friends just bought the ones at the band instrument store. I knew they were darned expensive, though. I could get a clarinet reed for about 50 cents, but the oboe reeds were like $8 apiece, so you had to be extra careful with them. Chip a clarinet reed? No big deal. 50 cents gone and just replace it. Chip an oboe reed? That was a bad, bad thing.
I'll have to ask friends who were in college marching bands if they ever made their own reeds. That's interesting. Certainly a cheaper alternative if you have the know-how.
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