How Do I Sound?

An article by Andrew Roberts for CASS magazine

For the last thirty odd years I have been very nearly obsessed with how my clarinet (and for a short period, my saxophone) sounded to those who were listening, willingly or under duress.

My poor long suffering wife cannily came up with a polite suggestion, to get herself out of the constant, “how does it sound to you?” questioning, that I should try to record myself to get the answer. Thus began a long saga of experiments for the best way for me to get to hear what everyone else had to put up with.

My first serious recording machine, was the Sony Walkman Professional tape recorder. Imagine my shock at hearing what it relayed back to me as my sound! If you have ever recorded your voice and listened to the playback, you will have some idea what I am describing. Everyone eventually realises that the sound we hear back from a recording of our voice is actually what we sound like. However, I have yet to meet anyone that liked that sound or indeed thought it sounded like them.

I could accept that the sound I heard was different to what I hear when connected to the mouthpiece, but I really didn’t like it much.

Our mouthpiece connects directly to our upper teeth and jaw bones. This means that they way we perceive the sound when playing is greatly coloured by the bone conduction, i.e. the sound travelling through vibration from the surrounding bones to the inner ear.

To experience this yourself, try playing and blocking your ears, either with an assistant’s hands, or perhaps with some earplugs. You will begin to understand just how hard it is for the single reed player to get a subjective idea of the sound others will hear. Recording engineers I have spoken to dread having to record three things, voice, piano, and clarinet, as their sounds are so complex that a true representation is very difficult to record.

That goes some way to explaining my dissatisfaction with the sound the Sony Walkman produced. Inevitably, further expenditure was required and sometime later a DAT machine arrived in my studio. The DAT machine also needed a mixing desk and a couple of studio quality microphones to get a “true” picture of my sound. In general, the results were much more acceptable and this arrangement served me well for many years, helping me to decide on whether improvements I strove to make were worth the effort. I have used the recording setup in my music studio to record many student’s lessons, which most have found useful, if a surprise when they hear what everyone else has been hearing! All this may seem unnecessary and expensive, but to me it was increasingly important to know how it SOUNDS!!!

All good things come to an end, and eventually my beloved DAT passed away to the great recording studio in the sky. Fortunately one of my contacts in the industry recommended the Zoom H4/or the H2, which is better than the DAT and a fraction of the cost. This new machine records on to standard SD discs, like those used in many cameras, has built in stereo microphones, and produces excellent results for less than £200! Check it out on Ebay as prices can be lower, there are other machines on the market with the similar facilities, and I must stress that I have no connection with Zoom other than my satisfactory purchase.

This may seem extreme course of action for any sane person to take in pursuit of the goal of improving their playing. However, when you consider the expenditure equates to about 15 boxes of reeds, it doesn’t seem too bad, when you can learn a huge amount about your playing, from your timing to your interpretation and of course the sound.

To conclude, many clarinet players obsess about “the sound”. This obsession is not often shared by players of other instruments, as they seek a whole pallet of colours to paint their stories in music. So perhaps we need to listen more and find ways to vary the colours and timbres that our instruments can produce to make interesting and varied performances of our repertoire, with or without the aid of technology!