Reeds are the weakest link on a saxophone. They aren’t metal, leather, or hard plastic, and they are the most active element in tone production. If you want to make a sound, the reed is the mechanical object being destroyed by the process. For a long time, people have sought a reed that can outlast the basic cane reed, and there are plenty of options available to the modern sax player.
About Artificial Reeds
Modern artificial reeds are made from a variety of materials and configurations. Some are trying to establish a “new sound” while others seek to replicate the classic sound of cane. All boast significant improvements in durability, consistency, and ease of use.
Artificial reeds for a saxophone can be made of any number of materials. On the “most reed-like” end of the spectrum are the Plasticover reeds made by Rico. These reeds are much like natural reeds because they are natural reeds, covered with a thin layer of plastic to prevent moisture from altering the reed dynamics. On the artificial end, there are carbon fiber, plastic, or composite material reeds designed to act in predictable and fairly similar ways to a common saxophone reed.
Pros of Artificial Reeds
There are a number of things in favor of artificial sax reeds. First of all, the tedious process of moistening, breaking in, and eventually discarding the reeds is completely eliminated. Artificial reeds require minimal care.
They also take significantly more use. On natural cane reeds, the production of music on a saxophone eventually breaks down the fibers within the cane, and the delicate balance between strength and flexibility declines. Eventually, the reed is left completely soft and has poor response. Artificial reeds are made of stronger materials, and they are designed to last for months, not days.
Artificial saxophone reeds are also more consistent than natural cane. Reed manufacturers try hard to maintain a consistent product, but cane is a plant, and some reeds will simply fail to achieve the sound you want. Artificial reeds are manufactured, and are extremely consistent by sax reed standards.
Cons of Artificial Reeds
There are still many disadvantages to arming your saxophone with an artificial reed. The reeds behave differently, wear differently, warm up differently, and do sound different in many cases. For some, that is an advantage, but others dislike the sound.
The reeds act differently on your saxophone. For instance, some artificial plastic reeds soften after repetitive stress, and after an hour of playing they become softer. Others stiffen with repetitive use. Cane reeds have been standard issue for so long that most sax players and teachers understand their quirks. They may have more quirks, but the quirks are well understood by all the players involved.
Artificial reeds don’t sound exactly like cane reeds either. Certainly, artificial reeds are close equivalents, but many players swear that they can hear the difference. In some genres like rock and Jazz, the change may be good. Increased brightness can help the sax sound above the rest of the group, but in some settings, for instance classical, any alteration from the classic sound may be perceived as upsetting.
Finally, artificial reeds cost more up front. Most will outlast their equivalent cost in cane reeds, but you can expect to spend between $12 and $40 per reed depending on the manufacturer and reed. Couple that with needing to try a few before you find the right reed/hardness combination for your sound, and you are looking at a sizeable upfront cost. Cane reeds are much cheaper to experiment with.
Cane reeds will always be the standard sound. There will always be people looking for the classic sound, and the disadvantages of cane reeds are outweighed by their historic and acoustic merits. On the other hand, though, people who are free to experiment with their sound may want to consider artificial reeds. In the long run, they are somewhat cheaper, and they may achieve the sound that you wanted all along.
Bassic Sax Blog: Synthetic Reeds
Taming the Saxophone: A guide to Synthetic Reeds