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Windcraft WCL-100 (series 1) clarinet
Origin: China
Guide price : £225
Weight: 0.72kg
Date of manufacture: July 2012
Date reviewed : December 2012

Description : An interesting entry-level clarinet from one of the UK's leading dealers

Windcraft_WCL100  clarinetI've been quite positive about ultra-cheap saxes from China in recent years. To be sure, they still have some way to go in terms of quality control, but the overall standard is considerably better than it was a few years ago - and while there are still nits that need picking, they're not on the scale that they once were.
The same cannot be said of the clarinets, at least up until now. Many of the examples I've seen in the last few years have been pretty poor in comparison to the saxes (and some of the flutes...and the brasswinds), but at last the tide appears to be turning and there are now some credible clarinets turning up on the market at very appealing prices.

I've always maintained that the safest way to buy an ultra-cheap horn is to do so via a reputable dealer - one with an established track-record of customer service - and an even better bet is to buy from a dealer who carries out pre-sale quality-control inspections using experienced repairers. This helps to sort out the wheat from the chaff, and if all else fails you still have the dealer's customer service to fall back on.
In this respect, the WCL100 from Windcraft ticks all the boxes.
Not only has it been designed with the input from their in-house technical team, it also gets inspected and set up before sale - and Windcraft (and their associated retail side, Dawkes) have a reputation that goes back further than I can remember...and that's quite a long time.

So, the seller scores highly, but how does the clarinet rate?
As you'd expect at this price it's a plastic-bodied instrument. This means it's light and tough, which are pretty much essential requirements for an instrument that's likely to find its ways into the hands of young students. It'll tolerate being knocked about a bit and it won't cause too many problems if there's a distinct lack of post-playing care (such as swabbing out the bore etc.).
Part of the problem with early examples of the genre were inconsistencies in the body material. Clarinets were turning up with air holes in the plastic - quite a few of them simply broke in half...and not in the usual place (the mid tenon joint) but right in the middle of the joints themselves.

Windcraft_WCL100  tone holeThe WCL100 clearly doesn't suffer from this lack of quality - although it's relatively light (as compared to a wooden clarinet) it's reassuringly weighty, and a quick peek up the bore shows it to be neat and tidy. It also reveals the undercutting of the tone holes. This is a technique that helps to improve the stability of the tuning and the tone, and isn't a feature that's commonly found on budget-price instruments.
The quality is carried over to the exterior of the instrument - which also looks neat and tidy with its matt brushed finish.

Another common failing was the dreadful standard of finishing on the tone holes.
Nothing to worry about on the WCL100 - this is as neat a tone hole as I've seen. No frayed edges, no chips and splits, and no warps either - just a nice, level tone hole with a good finish to the rim. A well-set pad in a level key cup will seal against this tone hole tighter than a drummer's wallet.

The pillars and fittings are nice and neat too, though I noted that none of the pillars are 'locked'. Pillars are usually screwed into the body, and over time they can work loose - so a variety of methods are used to ensure that they stay put. This usually means a small plate is fitted to the pillar, which is then screwed to the body. There's no such feature on the WCL100, but I would tend to think that it's not necessary. The body material has a small degree of flexibility which should ensure that the pillars remain firmly gripped in their sockets. Just to be on the safe side and gave a couple a bit of a twist with the old pliers - I think 'good and tight' covers it nicely.

Windcraft_WCL100  thumb restI was pleased to see an adjustable thumb rest fitted. This is pretty much a standard requirement these days, and allows for plenty of adjustment to suit a wide range of hand sizes. Windcraft get extra points for fitting one as standard, but lose a couple by virtue of not featuring a sling ring. Many young players find it helpful to play with a sling or a strap to help support the weight of the clarinet, and although you can get slings that are designed to slip over the thumb rest plate, it's much more convenient to have a dedicated ring (which is often incorporated into the adjusting screw).
However, they reclaim a few points due the the fact that the thumb rest is quite nicely built - a great many seem to remain loose and wobbly no matter how hard you tighten the adjusting screw.

As for the rest of the fittings - well, to be honest there aren't that many on a clarinet. A few tenon rings and a thumb rest and that's about your lot. Nevertheless, I had a quick check-over for any rough or sharp edges but didn't find any (which is always a bonus).

Windcraft_WCL100 spatula keysMoving on to the keywork, the focus on build quality remains in evidence. This is another area in which early ultra-cheap clarinets failed miserably. It wasn't so much that they keys were soft (more often than not they're pretty tough), more that they looked like they'd been finished with the aid of a hammer and chisel rather than the experienced hand of a master keymaker.
In fact this is the first thing that hits you when you open the case - how clean the lines of the keys are.
I had a good look around for rough edges and flaky plating (it's silver, incidentally), but came away disappointed at having nothing to moan about.

Even the point screws put on a good show.
These are of the pseudo type. Normally this would be a recipe for built-in wear - and a chance for me to pontificate about the need for such screws to have accurately-drilled holes in the key barrels.

The WCL100 has accurately-drilled holes in the key barrels.
In fact the action was nice and tight all over the instrument - and while I was examining it I also noticed how neat the corkwork was. This can be terrible even on some of the better-quality Chinese woodwinds, but quite clearly some care has gone into getting this small detail right...even to the point of fitting agglomerated/composite cork between keys which rub together (such as the bridge key). It's a nice touch, and if you don't know what agglomerated cork is, it's that kind of cork that looks like it's been put through a grinder and then been glued back together again. Refried cork, I call it.

Windcraft_WCL100 lever keysI then spotted that the left hand lever keys feature a pin and socket link. I'm not a fan of this method of linking the lever keys to the right hand spatulas, I much prefer the simplicity and ruggedness of the 'stepped' link. Many makers seem to fit nylon pins, which always seems like courting disaster as far as I'm concerned. If you're going to fit pins at least make them metal ones.
The WCL100 has metal pins.

On top of all this there's a set of decent-looking pads (in skin/bladder) fitted, all of which were well set - and powering the keywork is a set of blued steel springs, and even these were quite nicely balanced. I'd normally advise anyone purchasing a new instrument to at least have the springs tweaked - they're nearly always set far too strong - but this clarinet was spot on right out of the box. Top marks there.
As far as the build quality goes then, I haven't really got anything to complain about... so let's see if it all comes crashing down in the play-test.

Windcraft_WCL100 caseIn the hands the clarinet feels quite nicely balanced. I particularly liked the feel of the ring keys. I'm a bit fussy about these keys - some manufacturers seem to prefer to have the rings quite rounded, others seem to like to make them quite flat. It's largely a personal preference, but I find I tend to stumble if they're too much of one or the other. Happily the Windcraft's rings strike a nice balance, which means they should be comfortable for a wide variety of fingertip shapes.
Everything was where I expected it to be - and while I noticed a couple of areas in which my largish fingers felt a bit cramped, I didn't forget that this is a clarinet aimed and students...so there's a need to keep things quite compact.

Tonewise I'd say it's a medium to bright sound. This is what I expected. The more complex the tone of a clarinet, the more demands it makes of the player - so by keeping things a tad on the bright side you ensure that the instrument isn't too resistant (stiff to blow) and prone to being 'twitchy'. If course, it's possible to overdo it and make the whole thing harsh and shrill, but I found it to be a nice compromise. When played against a few other budget clarinets, the WCL100 showed a touch more depth to the tone.
This may have been due to the mouthpiece supplied with the instrument - Windcraft's own brand. It's a cut above the usual unbranded fare that you tend to get with student instruments - but replacing the mouthpieces with a quality piece (a Vandoren B5) showed the same results.
Some of this will be down to the instrument's setup - too high or too low and action can have a dramatic effect on the response. This, again, is something I recommend having tweaked on new instruments - but, again, the Windcraft was spot on out of the box.

So, it's well put-together, nicely finished, it feels nice and it sounds good. What more could you want?
Well, it comes with two barrels (a standard and a short, which is handy for those occasions where you need to play a little sharper), a decent accessory pack (swabs, cloths, reeds, cork grease) and it's got a respectable case. OK, so it's a zippered case - and I'm not keen on zips - but it has a shoulder strap, which will help with lugging it to and from school.
There's not much space in the case for bits and bobs, but then there's an additional zippered compartment on the outside of the case.
The whole outfit comes with a limited 5-year guarantee - which isn't bad going - and if you have any problems, Windcraft have a team of repairers who can sort it out.
Given all of that, and the very reasonable price, I'd say this was as safe a bet as you're likely to find if you're after a decent starter clarinet on a tight budget.

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