When I listen to the recordings in the Metal Clarinet Test, I can hear a difference between the metal instruments and my wooden horns, but it is very subtle. The wooden clarinets typically have a slightly warmer sound. However, I’m not convinced that the metal clarinets sound different simply because of the material used to make the instruments. There are experts in acoustics who say that the material has little bearing on the tone produced and that the shape of the bore is what is most important. Also, in this case the comparison is a little unfair -- we are comparing an instrument that was made in the early 1930s with modern instruments. (Also, I recorded the Silva-Bet last, at about 1:00 AM and I was not at the top of my playing at that point. I should rerecord them.) The metal clarinets that I own respond differently from my wooden ones and require a slightly lighter reed. I have been playing on wood clarinets my entire career and they are naturally more comfortable for me. Perhaps, if I practiced exclusively on the metal clarinets for several months, I could produce a warmer sound on them.
If you have heard a metal clarinet played before, chances are good that it did have a bright or metallic sound, but not necessarily because the instrument was made of metal. In producing a clarinet sound, the performer’s concept of tone, as well as the mouthpiece and reed are more important than the material of the clarinet. Of all the metal clarinets I’ve seen, only one had a decent mouthpiece with it. When there were reeds in the case from previous owners, they ranged in strength from 1.5 to 2.5. You could play the greatest Buffet Prestige wooden instrument ever created, but if you are playing a lousy mouthpiece on a 1.5 reed, it’s not going to have that rich, “woody” clarinet sound that many of us strive for.
Also, many metal clarinets were used in marching bands and jazz bands where a bright sound was preferred. It was a choice of the clarinetist to produce that type of sound. In reality, we are only capable of producing the tone that we hear in our mind’s ear, regardless of the equipment we’re using.
Our perceptions can also be skewed by what we see. A metal clarinet looks bright and shiny, so many people think that it must sound bright and metallic. I once played a gig on my brass Cleveland clarinet and a woman came up to me and said how much she loves the soprano sax. She was definitely listening wither her eyes. Listen to the instruments in the Metal Clarinet Test and decide whether or not any of them sound like a saxophone.
My point with these web pages is to present my own observations from my experience with metal and silver-plated clarinets. I also want clarinetists to gain a greater understanding of the instruments. It is a hope of mine that someday soon, a major instrument maker will produce a good, high quality metal clarinet -- one that is not just equal to wooden clarinets, but better than them.
Here are some very interesting web sites with lots of information about metal clarinets:
www.silver-clarinet.com has many pictures and some history on the instruments.
The H. N. White site at www.hnwhite.com/Clarinets.htm has a very good history of the King metal clarinets.
A brief history of metal clarinets
The Metal Clarinet Test
My experiences with metal clarinets
The advantages of metal clarinets
More info and pictures of the Silva-Bet used in the recordings
More info and pictures of the Cleveland used in the recordings