My Newest Flute, made of... Plastic?!

Oct 14 2010 Published by under Music

This is rather off topic for GM/BM, but there's a teeny bit of physics mixed in.

One of the things that I do for fun, other than writing this blog, is playing the flute. I don't play the modern flute: I play traditional Irish music on the wooden flute. For traditional Irish music, you're mostly playing tunes that were written for pipes, which aren't chromatic - and as a result, for Irish music, you don't actually need any keys. Just the main six finger holes are enough. I bought a really magnificent wooden flute, custom made by an amazing craftsman named Patrick Olwell.

But sometimes, I want to be able to play other stuff. So for a very long time, I've wanted a wooden flute with keys, a flute that could play chromatically so that I could play any kind of music I wanted. The problem is, a decent keyed wooden flute costs a fortune. They generally cost at least $4,000, and most of the good makers have a waiting list. For Pat Olwell, that waiting list is between three and seven years.

So for a very long time, I've been looking for a way of getting a keyed, chromatic wooden flute. I've bought four different antiques from Ebay, all of which needed lots of work to be playable, and none of which were really salvagable for chromatic playing - their keywork is just too messed up for me to fix.

I'd heard about M&E, a plastic flute made by a guy named Michael Cronnoly. His flutes are much less expensive, and they've got a very good reputation.

But... Plastic?

I've seen several acoustic studies that claim that the material the instrument is made of isn't that important. In a wooden flute, the physics show that the head joint is the only part of the flute that really has a significant influence on its sound. But the head joint of a wooden flute is actually lined with metal. So the wood isn't really having too much influence on the sound.

But...

The first flute I bought was a Dixon polymer. The thing is, frankly, a piece of junk. It's incredibly heavy; the tone is mediocre at best; the embouchure hole is awful... It's really not a great instrument. That's my only prior experience with pseudo-wooden flutes, and it really wasn't a good one.

Plus, I grew up playing the clarinet. There's a similar argument about acoustic materials for clarinets. In a clarinet, the tone is formed in the mouthpiece and barrel: they determine how it will sound. Most people (including me) play on mouthpieces made of hard rubber or plastic - so the primary sound-producing piece of the instrument is plastic. The barrel of a wooden clarinet is (obviously) wood, so according to the physics/acoustics, that's the only piece of wood that actually has any measurable acoustic effect. And the physics of this isn't sloppy stuff put together by an instrument company trying to sell their plastic clarinets: to the limits of my ability to understand it, it's good, solid stuff.

And yet, I've played a whole lot of clarinets, and by god, there's nothing like a grenadilla wood clarinet. Even the best clarinet makers, even when I put my wooden barrel on a polymer body, it doesn't sound the same. Of course, that's subjective, and we humans are notorious for hearing what we want to hear in a subjective situation. And, by god, I'm a math geek. I've seen the math, and it's correct.

But still, I really do believe that my wooden clarinet sounds better than any plastic I've ever played. So why? If the math says it shouldn't, why does it? I've never been sure, but my suspicion is that it's a matter of craftsmanship. No one makes plastic clarinets with the kind of care and craftsmanship that they put into a good wooden clarinet. My good clarinet is
built around what they call a polycylindrical bore. What that means is that the body isn't actually a long cylinder from the mouthpiece to the bell: the exact diameter varies. So you've got a very complex shape, and every contour of that shape has an effect. That distinction, the math supports very clearly: change the shape of the body, and you are affecting the waveform of the sound.

Anyway... I finally decided to try one of the M&E plastics. One thing about wooden flutes is that the shape isn't as complex as a modern boehm clarinet. It's a conical bore, with very straight lines. So if you made it really carefully, with a really clean, well crafted bore - well, maybe it would work! My plan was to find out about how much it cost, and how long the waitlist was, and then to order one when the next royalty check from my book came in. So I wrote to Michael through email about his polymer flutes. He sells them for just 500 euros, which is astonishingly cheap. (Like I said, the wood ones go for $4000, and most of that cost is the keywork - a custom made keyless costs around $1500; a keyed more than double that.) So I was planning on getting one, if he'd let me return it if I didn't like it.

And then, he offered to give me one in exchange for building a new website for him. I accepted. So the flute I'm talking about here was given to me by Michael. I didn't pay for it. But I did not make any promises about what I would say about it.

I've had Michael's flute for a few months now, and... I really can't believe how good it is. Every time I play it, I'm absolutely stunned by how wonderful it sounds. Over the years, I've bought a couple of antique flutes that needed repair... none of them were in good shape - they needed keywork, but they were playable. My M&E has them beat, hands down. It's not quite up with my Olwell - but it's amazingly close. Seriously, it comes very close to my Olwell in both sound quality, and sound flexibility. And that's simply shocking: this flute costs one-half of the cost of a keyless Olwell - and yet, fully keyed, it manages to come close. I'm not going to give up my Olwell for keyless playing, but... if I were starting over and buying a good flute for the first time? I'm not completely sure, but I'd probably go with the keyed M&E.

It's got excellent sound flexibility. By working with my embouchure, I can easily range from a great reedy sound to a very clear, bright, almost whistle-like sound. It's very stable in both octaves, and easy to break between. The low D isn't quite as strong as the low D on the Olwell - it takes a bit of work to get a good hard low D, but it is definitely doable.

For most of the range, the intonation is terrific. All of the standard notes are well-tuned. The only tuning glitch is that the keyed notes on the foot - the low C and C-sharp, are very sharp. But that's easily fixed - with the foot pulled out on it's joint just a quarter inch or so, they sound right-on, and it doesn't seem to effect the low D. Still, that's a problem. Really, that low key foot should be a quarter inch longer. This really bugs me: in general, everything about this flute is so wonderful, there's so much care about the aspects of the flute that affect its sound, and yet... the foot is too short. I don't understand it. You can easily work around it - but it's frustrating and frankly, kind of sloppy.

It's very comfortable to play. I'm not sure how he did it, but compared to either an old Rudall and Rose (the style of antique flute I've bought) or a new Pratten-style Olwell, the hole size and spacing are very comfortable, without any loss of sound quality. It's also light. Based on what I knew about polymers before, I was expecting it to be a heavy instrument. It's heavier than my keyless Olwell, but lighter than my keyed 19th century flutes.

The workmanship is mixed. In terms of things that affect the sound quality, it's very good. The embouchure hole is cut cleanly, and shaped very well. The fingerholes are clean and well positioned. The keywork is very sturdy and well made, and easy to work with. Pads and springs are all set up properly - the key-springs have the correct tension to keep the pads securely closed while keeping it easy to work the keys quickly. The low foot keys have a roller to make it more comfortable to quickly shift between the low notes in common scale patterns.

Cosmetically, it's a bit iffy. There are a few scratches around the embouchure hole. Nothing obvious, and certainly nothing that has an effect on its playing. But it's a tell-tale sign that there's not quite the same degree of care in making it as you'd find in one of the custom flutes from someone like Pat Olwell.

The joints are strange. Instead of doing something like a wood flute, and putting in a cork ring, he just shaped the polymer into the joints. So the joints are tight, bare polymer. They're a bit hard to put together, and grease on the joints doesn't stick particularly well, you'll get globs of grease getting squeezed out of the joint inside the flute when you put it together. It came with some sort of grease in the joints that's unpleasant - more like a vaseline than a cork grease. After experimenting a bit, I've found that traditional cork grease really doesn't work well on the plastic - you do need to use something stickier, like a petroleum jelly. This is the one thing about the flute that I really don't like: the bare polymer joints are, without a doubt, inferior to a corked joint.

The keywork is very nicely done. It's post-mounted keys. The keys are well made, with good post positioning, good key positioning, springwork set up to make the keys close solidly, without being too tense to open easily. The padwork is excellent. (Which is a bit of a bugaboo of mine. As a long-time clarinetist, I've done a lot of pad work, and I've found that a lot of people are really sloppy about how they set pads. These are leather-covered pads, set solidly and levelly.)

There are metal rings around the joint edges. The rings around the joints are a bit messy. Again, it's cosmetic, not functional. But when you look closely around any of the rings, you can see that the polymer isn't quite flush, and many of the rings have a bit of scratching around them.

The end-cap on the headjoint is ugly. It's a molded replica of a Rudall&Rose cap, with M&E added on the bottom. Frankly, it's ugly and cheap looking. Very disappointing, because over all, until you look very closely, the flute is beautiful. There are minor cosmetic problems with the joint rings, but overall, it's lovely. But that end-cap? It looks terrible. It's totally unimportant, but for a couple of extra bucks, I'll bet you could make a much nicer looking endcap.

The material is interesting. The thing that M&E is known for is making pseudo-wood flutes. That is, it's built in the style of a wooden flute, but they actually use a polymer. It's black, and it shows the marks of being worked in a way that really looks a lot like wood. Honestly, if I was looking at someone else playing it, I probably wouldn't guess that it was polymer unless someone told me.

When you pick it up, you know it's not wood. It doesn't feel like wood. The main difference is that it feels too smooth - there's no grain to it. And up close, you can see that the color is too uniform. In real wood, when you look closely, you can always see a bit of color variation. This is just perfectly, uniformly, black. But in terms of weight? It feels like a wooden flute. It's just a hair heavier than my Olwell - which makes sense, given that it's carrying full keywork.

It feels rock solid. As an experiment, I tried to scratch the inside of one of the joints with my fingernail. It's much too hard to scratch like that. It's a good, solid material. Like most plastics, it's weatherproof - so you don't need to worry about humidifying the case, or oiling the wood. And, unlike my Olwell, there's no variation in playability with the weather. My Olwell sounds different during the winter, due to the dryness of the air. There are noticeable day-to-day variations in how easily certain notes - particularly that all-important strong-low-D - sound. In the M&E, it doesn't vary: it's uniformly great.

Of course, the most important thing is the sound. This sounds like a wood flute. It really does. It sounds better than any of the beaten-up real wooden flutes that I've acquired. As I said, in terms of sound, it's not quite up there with my Olwell, but I think that that's more a matter of workmanship than material. Pat makes a magnificent instrument, and making something not quite as good is absolutely not a critique of M&E.

Being realistic, M&E is selling keyed polymer flutes for 500 euro. Pat made me my keyless wooden flute for something around $1500. For a keyed flute, Pat (and most other makers) charge in the $4,000 range. The M&E is unbelievable when you work price into the equation. It's better than any of the antiques I've played. It's as good as real wooden keyed flutes by some of the other makers (Sweet and Healy) that I've tried. It's not as good as an Olwell, but for 1/5th the price, and no waiting list? It's worth every penny it costs and more. It's a really lovely flute, with a beautiful sound. The workmanship is great where it counts. The cosmetics could use a bit of work - but when you consider the price, that's really no big deal. Still... if he charged six or seven hundred euros, he'd still be under a fifth the price of a good wooden keyed flute, and he'd be able to fix up some of the cosmetics. I'd definitely be willing to pay an extra one hundred euros for cork joints. (I really hate the uncorked tenons!)

If I had the money, and I could get an Olwell keyed flute tomorrow, I'd probably go for it over the M&E. But given that coming up with money to buy an instrument for my hobby isn't easy, the huge price difference, the multiyear waiting list? M&E wins. I'm very happy with my M&E. And given a choice between the M&E and pretty much anything but an Olwell? I'd take the M&E happily. I would happily pay Michael for this flute, and I just might end up buying one of his F flutes, to have something with a smaller finger reach.

M&E's current site has sound samples in realplayer format. I'm working on setting up a new site for M&E. Assuming he approves the design, it should be up by next week. I'll have updated sound samples in mp3 format, and Michael even sent me a video of Matt Molloy (one of the finest Irish flutists in the world) playing an M&E, which will be on the new site.

Tags: ,

17 responses so far

  • Dorothea says:

    I think you're on to something with the craftsmanship argument. Back in the day I was a tolerably decent recorder player. I have moderate-quality boxwood soprano and alto recorders, a crappy wooden tenor, and plastic instruments in all three sizes.

    The plastic soprano and alto -- well, frankly, they're awful. You can't get a plastic soprano recorder that isn't made for the elementary-school market, so they're skreeky and harsh-sounding. The alto isn't much better.

    The Yamaha plastic tenor, though, it's had some more design work put into it, because you don't play a tenor recorder unless you're fairly serious about it. The sound isn't as warm as a good wooden instrument, but it's better than my crappy wooden one, by a long shot.

    There's also a technique question that sometimes militates against plastic recorders. To get to a recorder's higher register, you have to "crack" the thumbhole. Some people do this by rolling their thumbs a little away. Others (myself among them) use the thumbnail for more precision, eventually wearing a groove into the sides of the hole -- IF the instrument is wooden. I can't quite manage to make a groove in my plastic instruments!

  • VicDiesel says:

    Your plastic flute is relatively expensive, probably because of the keywork, and because Irish flutes are relatively uncommon. Plastic recorders have existed for quite a while, and the yamaha ones are excellent. I know professionals who play them in concert, and the general concensus is that you need a wooden one of 5-10 times the price to get something that's really better. My plastic soprano was $30 and you need to spend $400 or so on a wooden to get a better instrument. The plastic yamaha bass is about 300 and my wooden bass was 5 times that.

    But I still hear something plastic-y in the polymer instruments, so since I can afford good instruments that's what I play. Also, they don't clog up the way the plastic ones do.

    • MarkCC says:

      I think that the main reason for the cost of the flute is workmanship, not rarity, or even keywork. The keywork is vastly less expensive on the M&E than on a traditional wooden flute, because Cronnelly isn't being showy.

      On an Olwell keyed flute, he's using woodblock for the key mounts, and hand-cast silver keys. Key mounts are completely cosmetic, and it's a lot cheaper (if less pretty) to use post mounts. As a clarinetist, I'm used to post mounts: you can't build a boehm clarinet with block-mounted keys - there isn't enough room. So to me, the posts look fine. Cronnelly is using post-mounts, and mass-produced keys. So the cost of the keys is dramatically lower - essentially the same as the cost of keys on a keyed boehm clarinet.

      I'm also comparing against another plastic flute, which absolutely *sucks* in comparison to the M&E. The main difference in that one is the embouchure hole: the cut of the hole in the M&E is shaped really well, and creates a very clean, controllable airflow.

      I really believe it's the craftsmanship.

      And, honestly, I think that if Michael Cronnelly were to make a wooden flute with the same care he uses for his plastics, it wouldn't be any better than the plastic; likewise, if Pat Olwell were making flutes out of plastic, and using the metal sleeve lining the headjoint, I don't think they'd sound different from his woods. I'll believe that if he did an unlined wooden headjoint, it would probably sound different from an unlined plastic headjoint: there's good math and good physics to back that. But once you put in the metal liner, I don't think there's any difference between the plastic and the wood for the body of the flute.

  • superdave says:

    By my understanding, the major difference between plastic and wood, assuming all other things about the instruments are the same, will be their acoustic impedance. As long as these match, there is no reason why the sound should be different.

  • drugmonkey says:

    And, by god, I’m a math geek. I’ve seen the math, and it’s correct.

    But still,

    that is one of the most hilarious and poignant things I've read on the toobs....

    • MarkCC says:

      It's deliberate. 🙂

      The math is there, but there is a difference, and so I've been trying to figure out what that difference is. And, as I said later in the post, I think that it's a matter of craftsmanship. The craftsmanship affects the uniformity and geometry of the instrument, and that, in turn, has a definite affect on the sound of the instrument. So what I think I'm hearing in the woodiness of a grenadilla clarinet mostly isn't really the grenadilla wood; it's the hand-turned wooden body, the perfect smoothness of the bore; the varying diameter of the bore and the perfection of the transitions between those bore regions; and the ways in which the holes are cut and set in the body. If you took something with density equivalent to grenadilla, and prepared it the same way, you'd get something with the same sound.

  • Speaking of Irish traditional music, have you read "Traditional Music in Ireland" by Tomás Ó Canainn? Quite a detailed analysis of the style's distinctive features that verges, in places, on the mathematical. I found it interesting, anyway.

  • garry says:

    i'm a harp (harmonica) player, and one of the perennial debates that refuses to die on the harp forums is whether the material the comb is made of makes a difference in the sound produced. reasoning about how harps work says no, the (minimal) tests that have been done say no. but some people insist they hear a difference, that wood (vs. plastic) combs sound "warmer" or better in some other nebulous way.

  • hexatron says:

    I am a recorder player, responding to Dorothea's groove problem.
    To put a groove in the thumb-hole of a plastic recorder, use a triangular metal file.

    If you have a wood recorder with the groove in it, just file the plastic till it is near the dimensions of the wood groove, then spend half an hour sticking your thumbnail into the groove and then deepening it a little.

    If you do not have a model groove, I guess you could put your nail in the thumb-hole, see where it contacts the plastic, and start filing there.

    The file should be 4 to 6 inches long. It doesn't need a handle. They are found in any garage, where they seem to multiply on their own, much like odd socks in a sock drawer.

    This worked for me on a yamaha alto, which is pretty nice. I also did it to a yamaha soprano recorder. It still sounds poor, but is at least playable.

  • Philip Langmuir says:

    A lot of professional oboists have been moving lately to synthetic top joints. If they've had as much workmanship put into them as a wooden oboe would get, the difference in sound quality is negligible. And they don't crack as easily in dry weather.

  • The oldest flute we know of is made of a hollow animal bone (perhaps antelope), which was not recognized as such for years while it gathered dust in a museum archive, until a grad student picked it up and blew a tune. It was manufactured by a Neanderthal!

  • One of my 1,390 Facebook friends supplied a link to more on this:

    The oldest musical instrument in Europe discovered in Slovenia?
    by Monika Moniq on Monday, October 18, 2010 at 1:56pm

    by Ivan Turk, Janez Dirjec and Boris Kavur

    ... Preliminary results of the palaeontological research prove that layer 8 could be older than the interstadial Hengelo which is compared to layer 5. Since the interesting bone artifact was found fairly deep in the compact breccia, in 1995 some 25 cm of consolidated sediments above the find were removed first, there can be no doubt about its primary location. Since similar artifacts date from the upper palaeolithic exclusively and are believed to be musical instruments, the possibility that the find could be the oldest musical instrument found in Europe cannot be ruled out. Of course, it must be first proved that the holes are manmade. In this particular case it would probably be Neanderthal man who was responsible."

    Other researchers, however, think that the flute wasn't made by Neanderthal but by Homo Sapiens. The early humans lived in the same area as Neanderthals during the same time for a while, says the science nowadays....

  • Dunc says:

    "The first flute I bought was a Dixon polymer. The thing is, frankly, a piece of junk."

    In fairness, Tony Dixon's instruments are aimed squarely at the lower end of the market. I've got a couple of Dixon polymer whistles, and they're really pretty good - for the price. You'd have to pay three times as much for a significantly better instrument. And they blow the ubiquitous mass-produced whistles out of the water... (Although I don't play the flute, so I can't exclude the possibility that his flutes are worse than his whistles.)

    • MarkCC says:

      I didn't call Dixon's polymer a piece of junk lightly. I was taking lessons at the time, and struggling like crazy to get any decent sound out of the thing.

      I haven't seen any other plastic flute in that price range - but I've played a variety of bamboo flutes that are significantly cheaper - and they're all dramatically better. In all seriousness, a $2 bamboo flute from chinatown is better than my Dixon. The embouchure hole is just *terrible*.

      His whistles are, likely, better than his flutes. They've got a great reputation.

  • reinout says:

    Hi there, since 2010 I play a keyless Pratten style Olwell wich is wonderfull.
    My good friend Wim Poesen who has a nice collection of wooden flutes (some from Hammy Hamilton, some from Pat Olwell, including a cocus keyed) ordered a Delrin instrument from Forbes (http://www.forbesflutes.com/ ) to take on roadtrips, and the craftmanship is very nice - a keyless tough.
    The joints are done with o-rings, and work fine. The sound comes very close to a keyless Olwell with a strong low D, very good intonation, a very nice instrument - somewhat more expensive than the M&E's but a very nice "plastic" alternative.
    I never would have believed that a polymer instrument could fool me, but the maths are right again ...

  • Matthew says:

    I heard some years ago, how a scientist fooled some musicians. He asked them to recognize a plastic recorder by sound alone. It turned out that the one they liked better was actually plastic, but it was modified by breaking the edges of tone holes, making them less sharp on the inner side (in the mechanical sense of the word). It seems plastic recorders tend to have squeaky tones, mainly because these edges are very sharp compared to wooden recorders. After all, it's the air column's shape that determines the tome. Easy to try out on a cheap recorder from a secondhand store.

Leave a Reply