Why I Play Synthetics

For more than a decade now I have played on synthetic reeds. I made the switch to Fibracell reeds on all my saxes in the 1990s, and haven’t looked back.

Today while I was doing some research into the cane shortage of the mid 1920s, I stumbled across a book that was totally unrelated to my search, but that completely solidified in my mind why I do not miss playing cane reeds.

     Source: amazon.ca

The Saxophone Reed: The Advanced Art Of Adjusting Single Reeds by Ray Reed, is a 177+ page book that is without a doubt, the most comprehensive resource that I have ever seen on this topic. It covers an enormous range of subjects including:

  • Consistency
  • Break-In Sessions
  • Reed Working Tools
  • Player Temperament
  • Cane Symmetry
  • Matching the Reed to the Embouchure
  • Etc, Etc, Etc, Etc

To get a full overview of the breadth and depth of this resource book, check out the preview on Google Books.

While I applaud the author for writing something like this, I personally don’t plan to need it. Years ago I used to soak, scrap, sand, etc, etc my reeds. At the time, it was the thing to do. Now I would rather play my sax, than spend hours prepping my reeds.

Life’s too short to dick around with the small stuff. There are a whole host of synthetic reeds out there—many of them much more expensive than the Fibracells that I use—and they are very comparable to cane. I know purists will disagree with this last statement. That’s OK. Life would be boring if we all used and did the same thing.

Next time I’m in my favourite music store I’m going to see if I can find a copy of this book. I would like to see it for myself. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll end up buying it just because it’s good reference material.

I know one thing for sure though: It will be a cold day in hell before you’ll find me spending my afternoon assessing if a cane reed has a Christmas tree shape or not. 😈

If you’d like to buy the book, you can find it on Amazon.com and Amazon.ca.

…this is just my blog. My “real” website is www.bassic-sax.info. If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!

© 2010, Helen. All rights reserved.


Helen Kahlke is a professional horn player and sax teacher who lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia. She plays soprano, alto, C melody, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones.


  1. I never got to play the old Fibracells. Fortunately, I like the current crop. The only change I have noticed is that the ones with the serial numbers seem to be just a touch harder than the ones without — though I have no NEW un-numbered ones to do a true cross-check and it could be because the numbered ones are new that they are harder than ones I already owned.

    As for working on them, I do still have to. They take as much dialing in as any cane reed. However, they last so much longer than cane that I’m still spending far less time fiddling with reeds. I just play one for 30 to 60 minutes (during which time it will go from WAY too hard to merely SOMEWHAT too hard), then sand it to my liking. It will then stay that way until the backing peels off or it gets damaged (or both, since damage seems to cause the backing to peel off much sooner). Then I peel off the backing, clean up the adhesive and dangling fibers, and keep on playing it until it becomes too soft.

  2. Hi there Paul.

    The FunctionalForm reeds you had a chance to play-test in the 70s sound like they would have been a really nice choice.

    I do like my alto carbon fiber Fiberreed from Harry, but I still haven’t trimmed the sides of the tenor reed to have it fit on my Dukoff mouthpieces. Honestly, I’m afraid to trim it because of the cost of the reed, and the pain in the ass shakiness in my hands that I now have thanks to my neuro problems.

    I wish Harry would make his reeds just a little narrower so that trimming would not be required. (Why not make them the same width as say Fibracell reeds?) I have a fairly good cross section of mouthpieces, and on tenor, the only one the Fiberreed fits on is a vintage Vandoren hard rubber piece. On alto, I lucked out, and the reed just happens to be the right size for my Runyon Custom. If I were to play my Dukoff though, it would be too wide for that. I can’t remember now what other alto mouthpieces of mine the Fiberreed fits.

    I must say though, the Fiberreed has great projection, response, and the altissimo notes just pop right out. All in all, I really like it. It is like the Fibracells used to be, before they changed a few years ago.

    I read somewhere that Fibracell is having difficulty getting the same Kevlar fibers they did previously, hence the change in their reeds. I don’t know if that’s true, or if this is just an urban myth. If this is in fact true, then it would go a long way in explaining why the Fibracell reeds of today no longer play the way they did a number of years ago.

    • Hi Helen,

      In my experience, adjusting FibraCell reeds is best done with reed rush or very fine sandpaper, crocus, etc. (200+ grit; 300 is about optimal for efficiency and precision; anything coarser than about 120 is difficult to control). Scraping with a knife or razor tends to leave exposed fiber ends which can become very uncomfortable. Trimming the tip with a better quality reed trimmer usually works well. The few reed tips I’ve needed to shape I’ve been able to do so with the fine side of an emery board, but that does require sensitive motor skills. I suspect that the Old School method of lining up a reed with the edge of a half-dollar coin and using a match or lighter to burn off the tip from underneath would only end in disaster with a synthetic reed — don’t try this at home! In any case, the same methods apply to Fiberreeds; they just require a little more patience because the material is harder.

      As an experiment, you might want to try the following procedure on a worn baritone sax FiberCell reed, just as a proof of concept.

      1) Fasten the reed to the desired mouthpiece, making sure it is properly aligned. While gently pressing the tip of the reed closed, run a fine felt-tipped pen along the angle formed between the reed and the mouthpiece. This should give you a rough guide for the final dimension.

      2) Using a single-edged razor or reed knife, gently scrape the sides of the reed, from back to front, to within 1-2 mm of the guide line. Take your time. It’s OK if the back of the reed is too narrow; not so much if the tip is.

      3) To finish, grasp the reed with one finger on bottom and the other on the top of the butt end, and draw the side of the reed — I recommend pushing over pulling — across a narrow strip of very fine abrasive, butt end first. An ordinary emery board tacked to a glass or plexiglass plaque with paper glue is one way. Wrapping an emery board, popsicle stick, etc. with abrasive paper is another. The point is to allow your fingers to be guided by sliding on the hard surface without touching the abrasive, which will give you a great deal more control over the pressure and the angle.



      • Thanks for these tips Paul. I might try them to make the new gen of Fibracells I have playable.

        I know people do work on FibraCells, despite the company’s warning to the contrary. I have so far not needed to try to work on the reeds because I have had so many old stock reeds—which played well—that fiddling with them was not necessary.

        In my experience, the old FibraCell reeds played great out of the box, and played and played and played until they died. These new ones I’m not so impressed with. I haven’t wanted to work on them because honestly, if I wanted to work on reeds, I could play cane. I still have boxes and boxes of Rico PlastiCover in my reed drawer as well, which work really well as well when I double on multiple saxes. I just really pine away for the original FibraCells.

        • Helen,

          To be clear, the only times I’ve bothered to adjust a FibraCell reed were to fix a damaged tip on a reed that was otherwise playable, or to reshape the tip to better fit a particular mouthpiece. Either necessarily requires gently thinning the area behind the tip to restore its responsiveness, or dressing the side of the reed, and so I wanted to discover for myself what works.

          Your comment about the PlastiCover reeds made me smile. I, too, found them the best of both worlds — the flexibility and responsiveness of cane with the stability and consistency of synthetics — until approximately the time when Rico changed the color of the coating from black to gold. Like many other urban legends surrounding musical gear, it’s not the color of the coating that matters, it’s the gradual lack of quality control for the underlying cane that the color indicates. For a while I experimented with rubbing fine bees wax into the grain of good reeds, but found the process too fussy to duplicate reliably. YMMV.

          I suspect that reed makers were the victims of their own success in promoting school music programs and creating a market demand that is impossible to meet with quality cane.

          By the late 1970s this had become obvious with Vandoren, when typically four out of ten reeds in a box would be clearly cut from blanks that were misaligned with regard to grain and symmetry. These I would set aside for “experimental” purposes — when I had the time I would practice reed adjustment technique on them to see how playable I could make them. The next four would be those that were nearly symmetrical, when viewed from the butt end, yet unusually arched, flat, thick, or thin. These would be amenable to modest tweaking and quite serviceable for daily practice and rehearsals for anywhere from two to six weeks. The last two in the box would tend to be excellently cut and aged, and with a moderate amount of care could be relied on for performance use for up to a year, sometimes longer.

          I don’t mean to pick on Vandoren. Most of the other major brands eventually showed the same pattern: they either lowered their standards — particularly with regard to aging — or greatly increased their prices. Yet because Vandoren 3.5 on a Selmer C* (or D, or Larry Teal) on a Selmer Mark VI alto had become the standard for the then rapidly growing saxophone curriculum at the university level, they were the first to show the signs of the strain.

          As to your earlier remark about the current FibraCell production, they have obviously reduced the number of strengths in their range. Whether they have “improved” the formulation and/or manufacturing process, I would speculate that they might have done so to retain control of their original patent as much to materially improve their product — Selmer has been doing so for decades.



          • The only I might try and work on one of the new FibraCell reeds is to see if I could get it to play better than what it currently does. I’m not as big a fan any more as I once was. Don’t get me wrong, I still prefer them over cane, and they still sound as good as a cane reed, but their responsiveness is no longer the same, and they no longer last as long—in my experience anyway. Since I have the money invested in a bunch of them, I might try and experiment with 1 just to see if I can make it play better. Since they’re not nearly as expensive as the Fiberreed from Harry Hartmann, I’m not worried if I screw it up.

            I didn’t realize that Rico switched it PlastiCover reeds from a black finish to gold. That tells you the last time I bought any. I’m guessing it would have been about 10 or more years ago… Before I switched to FibraCells…

            I have a couple of drawers full of real cane reeds from the late early 80s for all saxophones. I bought boxes of them and threw them a drawer because at the time my professors said that the reeds were not good any more because the companies weren’t ageing the cane like they had done in the past. I took a break from playing after that, and when I went back, I started playing on the PlastiCoats, so I never used the cane. I figure by now some of them have aged like a fine wine. I’ve got Vandorens and Ricos I think. I haven’t looked in those drawers for so long, I can’t even remember what kinds of other treasures are in there.

  3. ETA,


    That should read:
    “I, too, much prefer my response to the matrix construction of FibraCell over the laminar types such as Bari, Légère, Olivieri, etc.”

    “squirreliness”: perhaps the word I am looking for is “skirliness”




  4. Hi Helen,

    The next most obvious reason to prefer synthetic reeds is if one does a lot of traveling and there isn’t the option for waiting a day or so for one’s reeds to become acclimated.

    I too much prefer my response to the matrix construction of FibraCell over the laminar types such as Bari, Légère, Oliveri, etc.

    IMHO, the best of all was one of the first, which sadly didn’t catch on at the time since good quality cane was comparatively inexpensive. In 1978 I participated in prototype testing of an alto sax synthetic reed called FunctionalForm. The construction was neither laminar nor matrix, but rather injection molded, with an interesting design. The outer surface was shaped like a regular scraped reed, but the back was “scooped out” between the rails and what would correspond to the heart of a cane reed, forming a “W” shape. The result was a reed with the crispness of a primo Olivieri, the flexibility and expressiveness of a La Voz, and none of the squirreliness of a Vandoren 8^)

    Best regards,


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