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Cryogenics and reeds

Update: This page first appeared as a simple web page all on its own as a follow up to posts made in Alt.Music.Saxophone (a Usenet newsgroup). It was originally posted on April 1st 2001. No prizes then for guessing that little, if anything, you see on this page is in fact true.

However, it came to my notice that some sites were linking to this page - and I felt that without the reader having the benefit of reading the follow-ups to this article in the appropriate newsgroups there was some small chance that someone out there would take all this seriously (it really does happen). Therefore, for those of you inclined to be convinced by lots of text on a web page - don't be...this was an April fool's prank based on my scepticism regarding the process of freezing saxes to make them sound better.

But don't let that stop you reading on and picturing in your mind any number of erstwhile reed players hovering expectantly over their freezers...and there were a few...

Steve Howard 12/11/2001

Please read this disclaimer first:

Please note! These techniques worked for me - I cannot guarantee that they will work for you. Therefore I accept no responsibility for any damage that accrues from your experiments. If you can't afford to lose the price of a reed then do not experiment.

Much has been made recently of the use of cryogenics as a means to improve the response of musical instruments - but my personal feeling on this matter is that there are far too many variables involved to be able to draw any positive conclusions. Apart from which the process is expensive and therefore confined to a very select group in the marketplace.

However, cryogenics - or more properly, freezing - in the timber industry is a well documented technique. The purpose of the technique is not to improve the tonal response (not much use for a table or a chair) but to change the characteristics of the wood in order to enhance its strength, longevity or workability. In the case of restoration it's a technique that's used to revive woods when the ravages of time have taken their toll.
It idly occurred to me that although freezing a wooden instrument was not a good idea, there was nothing to be lost by trying out the process on the one bit of wood most of us rely upon to give us our sound - namely the reed.

The use of freezing in the timber industry is based on the principle that the cell structure of any given wood is inherently uneven (naturally). The process of freezing makes use of the fact that moisture, when frozen, expands.
In the case of metals the cell structure (although perhaps altered?) returns to its original dimensions - not so with wood.

The expansion caused by freezing stretches the cell membranes - and, given an even moisture content throughout, the cells tend to 'equalise'. This on its own could potentially be quite disastrous - but one interesting property of wood is that the exterior cells are drier than the internal ones. Here there is little or no expansion of the cells (assuming the wood is in a dry state), and this outer layer acts as what's known as a 'compression boundary', confining the expansion to the internal layers. This is particularly important in the case of reeds, where any shift of the external cell structure would result in warping.

Occasionally things go wrong - if there is too much internal moisture the external compression layer fails, and thus the wood splits. Hence this is not a method that can be safely applied to finished goods of any appreciable size.

Cane has a very haphazard cellular structure, with rather longer grains than most common woods. The structure too is weak in growth and prone to distortion, particularly during harvest and processing. Freezing would appear to be a valid method of correcting those deficiencies. Cryogenics (a far deeper and more rapid freeze) has been found to be inappropriate for woods - the process does not allow the grain structure enough time to equalise.

Of course, it was just idle curiosity - and frankly I simply didn't expect to notice any change at all.

This was not to be the case however.

My initial experiments were not documented (I didn't expect it to work!) - but the results were so obvious that I set about drawing up a formal test procedure and enlisted the help of a group of clients to act as testers.

What I did discover is that merely bunging a reed in a freezer just doesn't work. Moisture seemed to be the biggest problem here - both before the freezing process and in the thawing. It became clear that there was a set method to be adopted if the procedure was going to work. Naturally there was a great deal of trial and error involved, but what follows is the final method that was found to yield positive and verifiable results:

Step 1 - Preparation

Reeds to be frozen must be absolutely dry. Reeds that were wet or damp were practically destroyed by the process and could not be revived.
The best results were obtained by allowing the reeds to rest on a wire rack for an hour or so (I used a cake rack - but any wire rack will do) - and if there is reckoned to be much moisture in the air then the use of a spotlamp about two feet away provided enough heat to ensure the reeds were dry.

If trying to revive used reeds the lamp seemed to be pretty much essential.

Step 2 - The freeze

A tray is required - a baking tray will do - though a wire rack will give a more even freeze. Place a double thickness of tissue paper on the tray (kitchen roll etc.) and then place the reeds on top of the tissue. Spread them out nice and evenly. Cover with two layers of tissue again. Wrap whole tray in foil. This was found necessary to avoid condensation forming on the reeds. Clingfilm did not work.

Place tray in freezer.

The timing didn't seem to be that critical. Depending on how powerful your freezer is you can expect the reeds to be frozen in as little as a few hours. No appreciable gain was found by leaving the reeds in for an extended period of time - except in the case of used reeds which seemed to benefit from at least 48 hours. I would suggest an overnight freezing to be more than adequate for new reeds. Choose the coldest part of the freezer - typically the bottom shelf.

Step 3 - The thaw

This was found to be the critical stage. Reeds that were thawed too quickly practically fell apart. The trick seemed to be to not allow too much moisture to form on the reeds at any time during the thawing process. The best results were obtained by thawing near a gentle source of heat (in the kitchen, beside - not on - a radiator, or by using the spotlight).

Have another tray at hand - again with two layers of tissue (this tissue can be re-used, by the way). Remove the tray from the freezer, remove foil and top layers of tissue.

Holding each reed only by the tip of the shank (the thick end) remove and place it on the new tray. Do this quickly, and then cover the reeds with two fresh layers of tissue. Leave to stand in your already prepared warm place.

It will take at least two hours for the reeds to fully thaw. Do not be impatient - touching the reeds will not tell you if the core has thawed, only the surface. Some testers froze an old reed alongside the good ones to use as a test reed to check the state of the thaw - that was until one of them decided to play one of these old reeds and found it had been brought back to life.

When the reeds are thawed they may treated as any other reed.

How we tested

Each tester was required to select a number of reeds and test them. Marks were given on the basis of response, tone, attack, flexibility and overall playability. Longevity was judged later, obviously.

The reeds were numbered to identify them by a third party, frozen, thawed and then tested again. Marks were then given and compared to the original. At no time was any tester allowed to see the before and after results until the longevity marks were in.

There was a 25% placebo effect built in to the tests (we didn't really freeze some of the reeds) in order to be able to draw a comparison with any psychological effects. We recorded a 15% error margin here - which equates to about two reeds in every box of 25.

A total of 18 testers tested 450 reeds of assorted makes and strengths, and a further 245 used reeds were tested.

The testers comprised of 5 clarinettists, 5 alto , 5 tenor, 1 soprano, 1 baritone saxophonists - and one bass clarinettist. All players were working professionals taken from the various disciplines (classical, jazz, rock etc.).

What to expect, what works and what doesn't

The most obvious result was that reeds thus treated tended to blow freer and with more tone. There was a marked improvement in the number of viable reeds to be gotten out of a single box. It was also noted subsequently that these reeds lasted significantly longer than their untreated counterparts.

Reeds that were deemed 'poor' showed sign of improvement too, though this was very much a hit and miss affair (a success rate of about 45%). Even so, no such reed was made any worse by the process. Multiple freezing of poor reeds made no difference whatsoever.

Used reeds worked too, though it was noted that they didn't last that long - which is nevertheless an improvement on having to throw them away.

Broken, chipped or warped reeds were found not to be improved - so no surprises there then.

In the case of sax reeds it was found that the upper harmonics were easier to reach, and yet not at the expense of the lower midrange (which is usually the case). One tester described the sound as 'bell like', and most testers reported a 'fatter' sound but without the loss of edge. Rico Plasticovers showed a very marked improvement in the time it took to 'warm them up'. These reeds are noted for needing an extended period of 'wetting' before they're ready for use.

The clarinettists were particularly impressed with the response of the reeds over the throat A, and the increase in precision during staccato passages. Waterlogging was noticeably improved too, which suggest that the process improves the throughput of moisture in the reed's cellular structure.

All testers noted that the reeds retained their characteristics for longer periods than untreated reeds. This was particularly evident among the sax players, who had a greater throughput of reeds.

The process needs no special equipment and thus makes it eminently suitable for home use (assuming you have a freezer). It would be worthwhile to duplicate some aspects of the original tests by first testing untreated reeds, scoring and marking them for identification, freezing them, and then playing them again (without looking at the ident) and then comparing the results. I would suggest starting off with perhaps two reeds at most - in case of accidents.

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