I had a bit of quandary deciding precisely where to document what
follows in this article. It refers to a fault I found on a new Chinese
bass clarinet, and as such it seemed logical to pop it into the
corresponding review of that instrument. Then again it was critical
fault that turned out to be confoundedly difficult to pin down,
and one that required both the tester at the factory and the same
at the retailer to fail spotting it - and thus richly deserved a
place in my Black Museum.
Finally though I decided on a Notes article, for two reasons. One,
it would perhaps convey some of the frustration associated with
locating and fixing unusual problems, and two - it might afford
some readers a touch of schadenfreude given that, on the whole,
I'm quite positive about the influx of cheap but usable instruments
from the East.
In some ways I suppose I could say that what these cheap instruments
have brought to my profession is a touch of excitement (or maybe
I need to get out more). The thing is, when you're faced with the
prospect of examining an item for, shall we say, functionality,
you tend to start off with a preconceived set of standards - even
if you're not an expert. Let's say you just bought a new DVD player
and you're checking it over prior to installing it. What would you
I guess you'd check that it looked physically OK, that there weren't
any obvious bits missing or hanging off and that it had all the
parts you'd expect - such as an on/off button, somewhere for the
disc to go and a plug for the power. You wouldn't really expect
to have to check that it actually had any electronics inside of
it or that the manufacturers hadn't forgotten something fundamental
like a set of output sockets.
That's more or less the sort of pattern I follow when I'm checking
over a new instrument from one of the established manufacturers
- I start off with the assumption that all the bits that are necessary
to make it work are there, and in the right places - and by and
large that seems to be the case.
When it comes to cheap Chinese instruments though I have to be rather
more on the ball, and although it's rare to find an instrument that
has bits missing it's far more common to find some of the bits aren't
as well-made and fitted as they ought to be. Thus I've seen flutes
where the foot joint doesn't stand even half a chance of fitting
onto the tenon joint, plastic piccolos where the entire action (which
is held onto the body with screws) moves when the keys are pressed
and resin-bodied clarinets that have air bubble holes in the body
that have encroached into tone holes. In other words if you consider
your inspection of that DVD player to warrant a level of, say, 3
on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd be running at a level of 20...out of
ten. It's about as near to 'seat of your pants' excitement as it
gets in the repair business.
To be fair things aren't that bad these days, the overall quality
has improved immensely in the last couple of years, but it's still
not quite at the point where you can take such things for granted.
This is why it's still important to buy from a retailer who makes
an effort to at least casually inspect the goods that go out, and
who hopefully impresses upon the manufacturer the importance of
some quality control at the point of origin.
Every now and again though there's bound to be the odd rogue that
escapes the net - and one of these landed on my bench in the shape
of this bass clarinet. I'll admit I was partially fooled - the instrument
was made by Conn Selmer, so although still very much a cheap one
it should at least have had the benefit of a factory inspection.
I was also fooled by the retailer's tag hanging from the case handle
that assured me they check each and every instrument out before
it leaves the warehouse.
Someone was lying.
As it happens I wasn't all that impressed by the instrument anyway,
it felt like too many economic corners had been cut and the setup
was, frankly, appalling. So I set to making things right in the
hope that the instrument would redeem itself in the blowing, as
many a cheap and cheerful instrument often does.
Having sorted out the badly seated pads, the heavy springing and
the arbitrary regulation of the action I set to testing each joint
in turn for air-tightness. This is a standard test that shows whether
or not the pads are leaking and in this case it was done by popping
a bung in the bottom end of each joint, closing all the keys and
blowing into the other end of the joint using my lips to seal the
tube. It's a bit tricky with bass clarinet upper joints as you have
to get all of the crook socket in your gob, and that's not nice
if the instrument's seen a few years of use. In some respects it's
an academic test (or at least it ought to be). If you've set every
pad right and adjusted every key properly you'll know it's going
to work - but then it never hurts to be a tad obsessive as a repairer.
So there I was, merrily testing the joints for air-tightness when
I found a leak in the top joint. Well, I say I 'found' a leak -
because although I could hear and feel air escaping I couldn't quite
pin down where it was coming from. With a bit of prodding and poking,
squeezing and puffing I managed to narrow the field down to somewhere
around the forefinger/thumb area, but what with the size of the
joint it was difficult to accurately home in on the leak. So, back
to the cigarette papers and testing each pad in turn. No faults
showed up though, and at this point in time I began to consider
the other possibilities that might cause a leak on a cheap resin-bodied
Perhaps the most annoying symptom was that no matter how hard
I pressed the keys down, the leak remained constant.
Pressing keys down hard usually has one of two effects; it either
stops the leak dead by virtue of a poorly seated pad being squashed
down onto the tonehole, or it increases the leak as the key arms
flex under the pressure and cause the cups to distort...though this
tends to happen more on saxes where the keys are that much larger
(which is why ramming your little fingers hard down on the low C
and B/Bb keys doesn't always help an iffy low note). What this told
me was that the leak was a constant, which generally means a hole
in the body somewhere.
By far the most common cause of these is pillar sockets that have
been drilled right through the body into the bore. Naturally this
is 'not a good thing', but it's usually easy enough to spot simply
by peering down the bore. Nearly as common would be leaks around
the thumbhole chimney, but the bass clarinet doesn't have one -
but it does have two speaker key chimneys...neither of which were
leaking around the edges, and were out of range of the fault anyway.
There were no burrs or chips to the tone holes, no splits or cracks
in the body and as far as I could see no splits or holes in any
of the pads.
It was time for the smoke test.
Smoke testing is very much a last resort. Yes, it's effective and
fast, but it has several drawbacks in that it requires you to clean
out the bore of the instrument afterwards ('cos it makes it smell)
and clean the pads. It also requires you to smoke - which is not
such a good idea anyway. The trick is to be quick - and perform
the test in front of a mirror so as to afford you the best possible
view of where the smoke escapes from. As soon as the leak is located
you need to get the smoke out of the bore.
So the test was made and smoke poured out of the forefinger pad
cup. This came as a bit of a surprise because the cigarette paper
test showed a perfect pad seal.
The pad in question is slightly unusual because the cup is vented.
That's to say that it's an ordinary pad cup, about 15mm in diameter,
but it has a small hole drilled in its centre, of 3 or 4mm or so.
This is to allow the key to be vented when playing in the upper
registers - a small disc attached to the pad cup allows you to close
the pad whilst the hole in the cup lets out a small amount of air,
which helps to stabilise the notes. It's a little like the octave
key holes on a sax inasmuch as in the lower octave their opening
would constitute a leak and yet in the upper octave they're vital
to the note quality.
The pad that sits in this cup is equally special and constitutes
a solid ring with a small hole punched in the middle.
Typically these vented pads were made of cork, but these days they're
just as likely to be made of synthetic material - and in this case
it was a ring of dense white foam rubber.
There's a maxim attributed to the renowned fictional detective Sherlock
Holmes that states "When you rule out the impossible, that
which remains – however improbable – is likely the truth" -
and the truth that I was considering was that the foam ring was
If so this would explain the leak and the difficulty in placing
it, and be something of a manufacturing faux pas - so the next step
was to whip the key off and have a closer look at the pad.
One of the slight benefits of the smoke test is that it leaves a
little brown stain at the point where the smoke escapes (assuming
it comes out via a pad), but I could see no such staining on the
foam. I decided to take the pad out to further examine it...and
that's when the culprit was discovered.
The pads on this instrument had been fixed in with plastic glue.
This is quite common these days and a lot of manufacturers use it
in place of the more traditional (and far superior in my opinion)
shellac. In order to speed up production the manufacturer was using
small chips of this glue, and the pad was held in place by three
or four such chips - but they hadn't fully melted when the pad was
set, probably because the heat required to do so would be close
to that which would melt the foam pad...so there were these blocks
which had melted enough to hold the pad in the cup but not sufficiently
to merge together to form a seal. The pad was being held off the
base of the cup and air was able to come up the small central hole,
find its way through the gaps between the blocks of glue and then
leak out of the side of the key cup.
I started off this article by saying how frustrating it can be
at times to track down unusual faults like this, but in some ways
it's also quite satisfying to be rewarded with a spectacle so bizarre
that it makes you think "Well I'll be...". It's the difference
between sitting in a traffic jam for two hours and finding no apparent
reason when you finally get under way again, or getting to the end
of it and finding a sedated hippopotamus in a tutu lying on the