D’Addario Woodwinds Reed Production

Mike Lawson • Features • May 18, 2015

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Figure 1Editor’s Note: We hope you enjoy this first installment of our new feature column in SBO, “Meet Your Makers,” where we plan to give you a look at how the instruments and tools you use are created from raw materials to finished product. To kick off this new column, SBO invited D’Addario Woodwinds to submit in their own words an article to share with our readers on just what it takes to create the reeds you use everyday in your school music band programs.

Figure 2D’Addario Woodwinds is internationally recognized as a market leader for consistency across reeds in a box. Everyone is talking about our new digital reed vamping process, which allows us to have unparalleled computer controlled accuracy, symmetry, and sound quality. Precisely cutting the vamp portion of a reed at the speed required to offer reasonable product cost is a unique manufacturing challenge. Over the years, there have been various technologies used to vamp a reed. Most European reed makers use a process based on machines built by the Franke Company. This method utilizes a hardened steel model or “cam” of the desired reed shape. The machine follows the model in a similar fashion to a key cutting machine at a hardware store. A sharp cutting blade moves forward and back at very high speeds removing small amounts of material as it is following the cam. 

Rico’s original machinery was designed in the early 20th century and is conceptually very different from anything found in Europe or developed elsewhere. The original Rico technology uses a circular cutting wheel, however instead of a premade cam to guide the cutter across the vamp the machine used a series of complicated mechanical adjustments to create different designs.

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It is clear from our studies that all three approaches have advantages and disadvantages. Here at D’Addario we have always dreamt of a dynamic solution where we can change from saxophone voices to clarinet voices and back again with data-driven models instead of mechanical cams or adjustments. With digital technology, we are virtually free from the variables of a traditional mechanical process.

Mathematically speaking, the vamp area of a reed is a series of complex parabolas. Standard milling machines can be programmed to cut a reed vamp, however they are too slow to be practical for a large scale manufacturing operation. The challenges we faced in development forced our engineering team to think of clever solutions to move the cutting device more rapidly and on the precise series of radii that the design of the reeds requires. Everything had to be digitally controlled and synchronized to make it possible for us to cut a reed with ultimate precision, while maintaining practical production rates and the best playability.

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In explaining our new technology to our traditional consumers, we like to start with, “Why?” First, it is our goal to be the absolute state-of-the-art in reed making and we’ve done so by a mile. Older technologies that are still in use today are dated by one hundred years and difficult to work with. Our new robust platform provides us with an environment where we can design and duplicate our reeds like never before. We have built a streamlined, extremely repeatable production process that eliminates many variables inherent in the antique technology. Once someone finds the reed design they like, they can trust us to provide it for them again and again.

Our unique process removes many traditional roadblocks from the product development process. While incubating a new reed design with the world’s finest music professionals, we can generate ten to fifteen iterations in a single day representing both major changes and minor tweaks until we have it just right. Ten to fifteen design generations would take weeks upon weeks with older technology. The old process required the machine shop to design, machine, and harden an entirely new a cam every time we tried something new. Then, once we settled on the one we like, we were challenged to duplicate it perfectly to run it on more than a single machine. Our digital machinery leaves those old fashioned headaches in the dust.

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The quality of the reed increases on the digital machinery because the computer controlled cutter is vastly more accurate. The digital platform gives us major advantages, the most significant being the quality of the cut, its reliability, and repeatability. The new process removes the mechanical variables that plagued the old systems. There are no cams to wear out or constant adjustments that create subtle variations from our target reed.  There is no question that the quality and consistency is dramatically improved.

D’Addario is always looking ahead to the next step in development. We started our affair with computerized equipment ten years ago with the design and construction of one-of-a-kind digital blanking machinery. Since then, we’ve incorporated video inspection and laser precise measuring stations into the blanking machines. The blanks coming into the vamping process are already separated and sorted into many categories. The capabilities of these machines are staggering. We have so much flexibility with the digital platform the possibilities for the future of reed making are endless.

Figure 6We have two new BH clarinet reeds. The Reserve Bb Clarinet Reed has a traditional blank, shorter vamp length, and a standard tip thickness. This provides clarinetists with great tonal clarity, evenness of sound, and immediate response. The Reserve Classic Bb Clarinet Reed features a thicker blank, a longer vamp length, and a thicker tip. This offers clarinetists depth and flexibility of both tone and response. The D’Addario business model is to perform nearly all custom engineering in-house and to build all of our own machinery. Over the last 10 years, we’ve recruited a team of six engineers to work full time at our factory in Sun Valley, California. Our CEO Jim D’Addario is intimately involved in all aspects of development, production and especially design. The amazing musicians, engineers, machinists, and production experts in California form a team with capabilities that rival the flagship operation we have in Farmingdale, New York for strings and drumheads.

All of our mechanical development was handled internally and the technology is completely proprietary, no one else has anything close to our level of sophistication in reed making. We are very proud of what we have accomplished with this effort. It is truly revolutionary, and we are delighted to finally give musicians all over the world a taste of the 21st century.  

We take great pride in our agronomy process and we know that frequently when it comes to reeds, the bottom line for playability is the quality of the material. That’s why D’Addario Woodwinds is always looking forward, and once we are finished with the complete digital conversion, we will automate the processing of cane poles, tubes, and splits at our plantation facilities. We have already taken the first steps with an automated pole cutting machine for our plantations in the Var region of France. The next step will include splitting the tubes after cutting, and trimming them to the right length for making blanks.

By the end of next year, our engineering team should have the bandwidth to tackle the plantation automation project. Between now and then, keep your eyes open for more mouthpiece and accessory offerings. For instance, we have recently launched the alto saxophone Select Jazz mouthpiece. Who knows where we will innovate next – double reeds, synthetic reeds? Who knows? The opportunities are endless.


Rico Soprano Saxophone CapGetting the Most Out of Your Reeds

  • Be sure to thoroughly break-in and rotate your reeds.  Do not play each reed for more than a few minutes in the first days of use.
  • The acidity content in one’s saliva may negatively affect the life of a reed.  Consider using water to soak your reeds instead. 
  • Dark spots in the bark of the reed do not indicate that a reed will play poorly.
  • Always use a mouthpiece cap when the reed is still on the mouthpiece, but not in use.  This prevents reed damage and keeps the reed from drying out.  Do not store your reed on the mouthpiece.
  • The entire length of the reed vibrates; too much ligature pressure can stifle the vibration, so be careful when tightening the screw(s).
  • Storing your reeds properly is important for maintaining stable, well-functioning reeds.  Our signature reed case features the Reed Vitalizer technology, which regulates the humidity level inside the case and prevents warping.  


Filed vs. Unfiled: What Does It Mean?

Filed ReedFiled A reed that goes through one additional cutting process that removes bark from the reed’s shoulders. This allows for faster vibration.


Unfiled ReedUnfiled A reed is unfiled when bark from the reed’s shoulders remains intact. Many players enjoy the added resistance of this additional material.

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