This is the most contentious subject of all when sax players get together. Why does one reed perform better than another? If you're a new player, you may find it hard to understand what all the fuss is about. The fact is that almost all reeds are flawed at production because cane is organic. They often need adjusting with files, sand paper or a knife. I will quickly summarise a few ideas here in a second, but this is a topic you are better advised to get experience with, rather than taking anyone's word for it.
A reed can last anything from a few days to a year. Typically, six weeks. This snippet goes a long way to explaining why it's not so easy to say:
"Reeds last as long as they sound sweet - sometimes a few days, sometimes a couple of months, but that length of time is pushing it if you are playing to an audience. Lack of tone - harshness - should tell you when. You already buy by the box, which is a good move, as reed will often vary by +/- 30 % in hardness within a box - so chose the best one. Not all will work 1st time, but don't discard the others, for on another day you will find they work quite well. When higher notes are hard to play, it is certainly time to change the reed for a new one, or it may be time to move to a harder reed. I always have a few a half grade different for those days my lips are tired. You didn't say what mouthpiece you use - as it is the correct combination of the two that works best in the end. Experiment - but don't stay too long on a stale reed. This is also a health warning! An old reed will start to grow bugs, as it has been wet, and probably left to dry out in open air. Analogy: would you put the same fork in your mouth for two months without washing it?"A reed should be symmetrical, uniform and smooth. Use emery cloth or fine sandpaper to get a smooth finish without taking too much wood off (as little as possible). Soak the reed overnight when you buy it if you can as this will make it more responsive before playing. When you hold the reed up to strong light you should be able to see a heart of wood in the centre which tapers toward the tip and the sides. More than likely, it's all streaks and uneven (most reeds are). You can sand the offending areas down carefully, but don't go too far - too little is better than too much. Test the reed frequently when you sand it.
If a reed is too soft you can clip the end using purpose made clippers and hope for the best. This is not really a great solution but if you're short of reeds it may save you for a gig! If the reed's too hard sand it carefully on the flat face until you like it. Do this on a solid, flat surface. Remember that the tip will become thinner and you may spoil the reed if you're not careful. If the reed is too difficult to play in the bass register, scrape nearest the steep part at the back of the reed (symmetrically) until you are happy with the sound. Don't take off much. If the middle register is stuffy, thin the top third of the reed down. The tip can be reduced a little in thickness to get a better staccato response as well as upper register sound, while the top octave can be made more responsive by shaving away a little bit from each side of the reed about half way to the heart. Get more advice if you can from a teacher, and let them show you how. You can usually tell when a reed is `bad' as the resistance and purity will tend to get harder to control.
Reeds come in various strengths and styles, most commonly from 1 (soft) to 6 (hard) and usually in steps of halves. A soft reed will be unreliable, quiet and short-lived...but it'll be much easier to play for a novice. A medium reed (e.g. 3) is the most common reed for players to use, and will be consistent and responsive, as well as richer in tone than a soft reed. A harder reed such as a 5 will be much more difficult to play. With certain exceptions, a reed this hard will not sound better than a medium reed, and may actually be the sign of a lacking mouthpiece. If you've always played a 5, you are probably used to it and enjoying it. If you're thinking about using 5s, you're probably ready for a more open mouthpiece (see 2.8). These reeds do last a long time, and are louder, but they will be far more difficult to play bass notes on. Pitch bending and so on will be harder, and your embouchure will need to be much firmer to get them to play. Most players are using reeds between 2.5 and 3.5 - be aware that it is wrong to try and get onto the higher reed strengths as a mark of progress. A reed should match your style. It's no embarrassment to play a soft reed if that's how it is for you. You might spoil your tone if you use too hard a reed. Note that Vandoren reeds are half-a-strength more than their Rico equivalent, except Javas which are normal. Hemke are slightly stronger, too. If you're starting out on sax, review your reed strength frequently, and progress onto the right strength for you (and your mouthpiece) on advisement or when you feel ready. Don't go too fast.
Choosing the reed is an important factor in your tone. There are generally two different types of reed, American and French. The American types are used in classical arrangements and in marching bands, having a broader and more open sound. Rico make such reeds, and they are perfectly functional in all sorts of situation. A more popular contemporary and jazzy sound is the French reed, with a thicker heart and warmer, rounded tone. Vandoren are the usual manufacturer of these reeds, with Rico Royals being close in design. Other manufacturers include LaVoz, Guardala, Hemke, Bari...etc.
A few other reed-related ideas follow:
"As a beginner saxophonist I've found the fibrecell reed (soft) with an ottolink super tone master (7*) is the ideal reed for my sax(Vito). They have a little edge to the tone and they are ready to play at any time (no soaking needed for me). And with proper care they last."
"1) When I'm playing Rico Royals (tenor and bari) I buy them by the box and simply set down for an hour and play the reeds one by one, sorting them into good, bad, and so-so reeds. The good ones (usually 2-4 in a box of 10) go immediately in my reed holder, where I rotate 4 good reeds. The bad ones go into a tin to look at later and the so-so ones go back in the box for another playing some other time. Periodically, when I'm bored, I go through the mediocre and bad reed boxes, and I'll find perhaps 1 in 10 that really was a good reed after all. The confirmed bad reeds go into the trash can.
2) When I'm playing Vandorens (soprano), I sort through reeds at the store and select reeds that have a symmetric profile - that is, I look at the butt and the cut of the reeds for clean, even curves. I look for a slightly yellow color and stick my thumbnail into the reed to check its resilience. After I've picked out a half dozen or so I take them home and go through the same process outlined in 1."
From Richard Corpolongo:
How many times have you gone to your performance in a recital or an engagement thinking that the reeds you just worked on at home will respond perfectly but didn't? I bet the number is incalculable. The reason why reeds seemingly work great in your practice room and do not work at the performance hall is because both are acoustically different rooms, different temperatures and usually made of different materials. One reed could sound fantastic in one and sound dull and lifeless in the other. The answer is to bring all the better performing reeds that you pick out in your practice room to the area that you are going to perform in. Pick out two or more reeds that sound full and vibrant. Because there is usually enough time for a warm-up session in the hall before a performance, the problem of not being able to try out a number of reeds is zero. If the reeds need to be fixed in some way work on the reeds in the room. The reeds have to be as player ready as possible when you get there. They have to be moist enough to play and be worked on in either a dry or acoustically dead room. There is a way of raising the percentage of playable reeds by reducing the amount of preparation.
Go to any grocery store and purchase some type of spice jar, preferably a McCormick plastic one. Any small plastic jar, possibly a pill bottle that can hold ten reeds will do as well. Purchase a reed knife and reed clipper from any woodwind store. Buy a curved tooth file from any home builders type store. A fine checker file will work almost as well if a curved tooth file can't be found.
Place about ten brand new reeds tip down, right from the box and never been played in the jar. Fill the jar just above the top of the reeds with filtered water. Tap water has too many chemicals in it and can interfere with the soaking process. Let the reeds soak for 24 hours.
The next day play each reed about 2 to 3 minutes. Check each reed for over-all feel, hardness, ease of playing and sound production. The reeds that play pretty well without any major repair should be numbered with an indelible marker from 1-10, 1 being the best. They in turn are placed in a reed case to dry naturally. The reeds that did not work after being soaked go into another reed case to be dried and stored to be worked on some other time.
The good reeds that were put back in a reed case are now ready to be worked on. Mineral oil is a natural preservative for wood. Clarinetists use mineral oil to swab the bores of their wood instruments. Take a drop of mineral oil and rub each reed completely making sure to cover all the edges. The oil keeps the interior of the reed lubricated and water resistant making them last 4 to 5 times longer. Next, place the reeds on a piece of flat glass. Allow enough time for the oil to soak into the fibers of the reed, which usually varies with each individually. Once the oil has vanished, dry each reed with a soft towel to take all the excess oil off. Put all reeds back in the reed case for protection. The reeds are ready for performance.
The day of the performance put four good reeds in a container filled with distilled water for about an hour. Replace them back in the reed case just before leaving for the music hall. The reeds then will be moist enough for your playing-check procedure later at the performance area. Keep a 35 M.M film container filled with distilled water to moisten the reeds more fully if the room your playing in is dryer than expected. If the reeds are dry in the playing room place them in the film container about 5 minutes. Play all the reeds. If they perform to your satisfaction your problems are taken care of. When you have finished your performance dip the entire reed completely into another 35 M.M film container filled with a solution of 50-50% Hydrogen Peroxide and distilled water for a second or two. Immediately dry off the excess solution and replace the reed back into your reed case. This helps to keep the reed germ free while it is drying in the reed case. The bacteria in your mouth is the reason why reeds prematurely play bad after only a few performances.
The reeds that were not playable that you placed in another reed case when you first soaked them in distilled water are now ready to be corrected. If the reeds are dry when you are ready to work on them soak them for 5 minutes in distilled water to make them more playable. Place the bad reeds in four categories, soft, hard, squeaks or chirps, and stuffy. Once each reed has been corrected rub a drop of mineral oil using the same procedure that was mentioned before.
If a reed is too soft simply clip the reed very carefully a little at a time with a reed clipper. Keep clipping until the desired stiffness is achieved. The problems with soft reeds are usually solved with the clipping of them.
For reeds that are too hard another method is required. The first thing to check on a reed is the way it lays on the mouthpiece. Sometimes soaking the reed will swell-up the fibers and create little air pockets on the bottom or under-side of it causing the reed to play hard.
With the use of your curved tooth file lay the under-side of the reed on the file and scrape very gently forward and back three or four times. Make sure you go in the direction of the curve. Filing the under-side of the reed creates a more uniform fit over the mouthpiece by eliminating the air pockets that cause the hardness in the reed.
Play the reed to see if it is now workable. If not, repeat the process one more time. Continuing to scrape the under-side of the reed more than one more time will cause the reed to become soft again making it almost impossible to repair.
If the reed still does not want to respond after scraping take your reed knife and lightly cut a line beginning at the heart to the bottom of the reed.
The cut through the middle of the reed breaks the outer bark. This makes the reed adhere to the mouthpiece more comfortably when the pressure of the ligature is applied. It also forces the reed to compensate for problems in the mouthpiece by stretching and tightening where those inadequacies occur. Play the reed to see if the cut corrects the hardness problem. Cut the reed in the same place a little deeper if the reed still does not respond.
The next solution for a hard reed is to cut a line across the body of the reed, _ inch lower than the heart. Scrape the bark off between the cut and the heart making sure not to touch the heart. If you scrape so deeply that the fibers of the reed show, you have cut too far. Cutting so much bark off will make it impossible to fine-tune repairs on the reed because the wood has been scraped away. Once the wood is gone it cannot be glued back on the reed. The hard reed problem should be a thing of the past if all the above methods are carried out one by one.
The sweaky or chirping reed solution has to do with the tip of the reed. Have the student place his mouthpiece in his mouth slightly to the left of center and play some notes in all the different registers. Have him place the mouthpiece in his mouth slightly to the right of center and play some notes in all the different registers. Have him figures out which side is harder to play on. The hard side should be scraped with a reed knife very carefully one gram at a time to match the softer side. A little scrape will go a long way when it comes to the tip of a reed. This will correct the sweaking or chirping sounds from your saxophone and clarinet students.
A reed that is stuffy is usually that way because it was made unevenly.
It most likely has not one thing but a number of things wrong with it. The problems could be a combination of all the above or be something entirely different. The best way to find out what the problem or problems are is to first check all the above individual problems to see if the stuffiness is with a reed that is soft, hard or sweaky. If it is one of those then you have to correct the soft, hard or sweaky problems first. Only then will it be necessary to continue on to the next solution that takes care of stuffiness.
What exactly is the stuffiness problem? Come to a definite conclusion as to what notes and registers are giving you the most trouble.
With a pencil divide the reed into four equal sections starting at the heart and proceeding upward.
- section 1. Lowest note to a 5th above
- section 2. half step above to its 5th
- section. 3. half step above to its 5th
- section 4. half step above to the harmonic range.
For example, you have a student that has no problem with soft, hard or sweaky reeds but you hear a definite stuffiness problem in the middle register which is located in section 2 of the above chart. You really haven't discovered what exact note is stuffy yet, because you have just heard a passage played while you were rehearsing the band that contained one or all of the notes of section 2. Have the student play a chromatic scale very slowly (quarter note equals 40) starting on section 2 and go upwards to find out what note it is. Listen for any fluctuation of tonal quality. The note that sounds the stuffiest compared to all the other notes of that section should be worked on.
Take the reed knife and gently scrape the left side of the reed located anywhere in section 2 making sure not to go in the middle and heart of the reed. Play the notes of section 2 very slowly to see if the problem has been corrected. If it hasn't, gently scrape the right side and play the note to see if it has been corrected. If it has, the problem is solved.
The only consequence to the stuffiness solution is that once you correct one note another note in some other section might be affected. Any bad reed will play after scraping the under-side, cutting a slice from the heart to the bottom or fixing the tip for sweaks. These procedures are usually fast and easy to complete. Once you start getting into dividing the reed and scraping each section it becomes a real source of frustration to complete such a monumental task especially if you are on a time schedule.
If after trying all these solutions for fixing reeds fail the only alternative is to discard the reed. Once a reed has gone through all of this and still does not play it is considered dead and cannot be repaired at some later date.
My personal preference on an ebonite mouthpiece is a Vandoren 3.5, and occasionally a V16. Vandoren V16s have a thicker tip which will be harder to play but give you a more aggressive tone. They are a subtle combination of American and French designs. Rico Royal are a very popular make and again are consistently good performers. LaVoz are a slightly more expensive variation, often thought to be similar in design to Ricos, and generally work very well. Rico and Bari also make some interesting plastic reeds, which are a completely different issue. It seems that in alt.music.saxophone the slant is usually on jazz. Standard Ricos remain the world's most popular, despite this!
Rico Plasticovers are a standard Rico Royal design which is then coated with a strange black compound, effectively sealing the reed in a waterproof sheath. They are more resistant to breaking and will last a few months longer on average (depending on how often you play and the reed in question). They also have a fairly good tone, although inevitably they buzz a little, especially on a metal mouthpiece in my experience. Plasticovers are about twice as much (roughly) than a Rico cane reed. Bari plastic reeds have no cane in them, and are made reliably to a consistent specification. Although not necessarily worse than a cane sound, they are a different design completely. They usually last considerably longer than Plasticovers (many months), but cost about ten times as much as a standard reed. Try one if you think this might be a good option for you. Knowing that the reed is not at fault can encourage more rigorous embouchure control and lead to a better playing technique, if you need an excuse! :-)
A wavy reed is lot lost forever! Soak it in warm water for ten minutes. Never play it when it's dry, as you'll finish it off for good.
"It's all a matter of who you are, how you play, and what you want. I found commercial reeds so lacking that I ended up making my own from tube cane which I imported from France. They were the best reeds I ever played. They were also so time consuming that I learned to lower my expectations and play Vandorens, but I still was particular enough that it took an average of two boxes to find one good reed. Even then I put them through a several-week period of breaking in, adjusting, and getting used to.
My studiomate just slapped on a Rico Royal and played.
But nobody expected him to play what I played, nor could he. What I was doing required perfection at any dynamic level from low Bb to the highest altissimo D on soprano. I needed leaps of two octaves to pop out while double tongued at high tempos. I was playing 20th century flute and violin literature which I transcribed for soprano, and I would not settle for "that sounds good... for a saxophone." There are levels of certain styles of playing that are simply unattainable without similar levels of equipment quality.
So... the kind of reed you use, the quality of it, and the subtlety of the nuances it is capable of are all dependent on what you plan to do with it and what your ideal sound is. Synthetic reeds are great for what they do. But if you want control over sound and color, response and range, then you'd better look further." - email@example.com
"My very first saxophone instructor (Dick Harvey) is in on the manufacturing of these (correct spelling) Fibracell reeds. I have had input on the quality control of the product for the past two years. They are produced in a factory in San Marcos, California (just north of San Diego, next to my home town - Escondido). I am pleased with the strides that this company has taken to please instrumentalists like myself. I am pleased with the quality. The synthetic material (with kevlar) really does have a reedy feel, without compromising the tone quality. They are worth the price, and they do last! The only problem is that before you put up the bucks, make sure you know what size you want. I just talked with Dick the other day, and he said that they are working on a process for micro-sizing the reeds. I have found that what they call a medium soft (they do tend to run a bit stiff - but that should be fixed with micro-sizing) works well on my Sugal Gonz II copper on tenor. " - Miles Osland
Mail order reeds:
"U-Crest Music Center in Cheektowaga, N.Y. has always given me excellent service. I get reed orders in two days. They saved me hundreds of dollars on my horns. The number is 1-800-666-1268."
"Rayburn music in Boston will take phone orders and send out via mail.phone# (617)266-4727. Hope this helps..."
"Discount Reed Co.
24307 Magic Mountain Pkwy. #181
Valencia, CA 91355
"There is a company in Indiana called "The Woodwind & The Brasswind". You can call their 800 number and get the woodwind catalog. The number is 1-800-348-5003. I have ordered from them many times. They have a HUGE selection, and VERY good prices. I highly recommend it for people looking to mail order. Everything from instruments to slings, to reeds, etc. "A chart of reed strengths (thanks to Michel van Assendelft)
(Aside: I'm not sure I agree with all of these ratings)
Hemke, Plasticover and Symmetricut are rated as Ricos (being made by the same company!). Vandoren Java are rated as Rico Royals, while Vandoren V16 are half a strength harder. Dave Guardala reeds are half a strength harder than Ricos (usually).
Here's a snatch from a discussion between BB Bean and me:
First I toss aside the reeds that are assymetric (at the cut or the butt), and then I look at the opaque(ness, icity?) for an even transition from the thicker heart to the tip and rails. I feel the sides of the reeds and tip and try to find reeds that feel balanced. I also stick my thumbnail into the butt to check for hardness. I usually can get reeds that are 2/3 to 3/4 playable using this method, but not in my last adventure with Vandorens. firstname.lastname@example.org
I do all this but I've never tested the heart with my nail. Just lately I've had a really good run. I've got three Vandoren 3.5s on the go which are _incredibly_ good. I mean outstanding. They are the best I've ever had. It's going to be horrible when they get broken or worn out. :-(
Looking at them, though, the main characteristic which they all have is a very exact symmetry, especially in the tip, with a good, consistent tapering of the heart. The heart is central and doesn't bleed away into the sides of the reed at all. Also, there are no streaks or stray splinters of cane. The sides of the reed are lined up with the direction of the cane's 'grain', which is often not the case imho on Rico Royals. Also, having sanded these reeds a little, they are completely smooth. I can remember that at least one of them seemed unplayable when I first got it. The sanding helps enormously. I use a super-fine emery cloth, which is technically a metal sander, but because it has no harsh crystals on it like sand or glass-paper, it is perfect for reeds.
Vandoren all the way for me. If you take the view that no reed will be perfect from the manufacturer, then it's just a matter of finding the best sort of 'blank' to work on. Vandoren are thicker in the tip and, provided you find their tone agreeable, they are easier to work on. I have a suspicion that Hemke may also be good but I've not persisted with these reeds much. Rico...well...they are a good reed. They are also a little limited. I don't quite know how. Perhaps I just dislike the sound. They give me the impression of super-mass production, whereas Vandoren do seem to be just a little bit more carefully made. For example, I once bought a Rico Royal 3 which was so splintered and coarse that it would never play (it was in a box of 10 - that's one argument against buying by the box) - hand selection would have helped a lot there. It's obviously cheaper to buy mail order, though, where you just can't do that.
The one thing that irritates me intensely is being offered a box of reeds which is obviously just a collection of rejects from other boxes which have been sorted through in the shop. I never shop anywhere where this goes on. It makes financial sense, but it should also be made obvious from the outset. These boxes should be cheaper, if anything. I try to buy sealed boxes only.
More advice, this time from Chris Neal:
Chris Neal (email@example.com)
I sympathize with your reed troubles!! I am a believer that reeds, like mouthpiece selection, warm-up routine, etc. are largely a personal matter. What works for me won't necessarily work for you. However, here are a few comments which will hopefully contribute to a solution for you.
1. I prefer to soak my reeds in water, rather than in my mouth. Another poster mentioned the germ factor, which makes sense (so I may experiment with the vodka myself). But at the very least, remember that the function of saliva is to chemically alter foods you eat. My common sense (such as it is) tells me that this also happens to reeds. Frustrating as it is, degradation of the reed material is a force of nature. I simply try to minimize the amount of actual saliva which comes in contact with the reed.
2. The life of my reeds seems to follow a pretty predictable bell curve. I try to have a few reeds at varying stages of this curve--some early, some working really well, and some tapering off. It's a hard balance, but see #3 for how I help this.
3. My teacher and I used to go round and round about this. He felt that if I found a great reed, I should put it away and save it for an important performance--apparently this worked for him. I tried this, but the reed never played the same when I brought it back, even if I tried to do so gradually in the weeks before the performance. As a result, I treat my reeds more like most of the double reed players I know when I find a good one, I play it consistently until it dies. I believe that the natural warping in the wood caused by changing climate affects reeds even when they are tucked away somewhere. I have gotten the best consistency by playing good reeds for at least 20-30 minutes a day EVERY DAY. If I do this to 3-4 reeds a day, I have a pretty reliable arsenal at all times.
4. It seems like mouthpieces with thicker tip rails are a little more forgiving to subtle changes in my reeds. Have you experiment with different mouthpieces?? Sometimes mouthpieces I love for their responsiveness are REALLY hard to find reeds for.
5. The first place I work on a reed is actually the back, where the reed lays against the table of the mouthpiece. I use a soft lead pencil to draw 3-4 evenly spaced lines width-wise across the reed. Then I make 2 or 3 circular passes on fine grade sandpaper, sanding only the back of the butt. I do this with the sandpaper on a mirror or other flat surface and the reed on top of that. You can really see the warping by observing where the sanding erases the pencil markings.
If you don't already do this, I urge you to experiment with #5. I have had good reeds go bad after a few days (like you said) only to see an equally remarkable turnaround once the reed can sit flat against the mouthpiece again.
...and this from Graham Seale:
You have just got to overdoing the reed dependency thing. Sure you can form preferences (java.. whatever) and you know when a reed has lost its "springy" or is too hard and needs a little careful rubbing. But to be spending so much parents $ probably means your technique is insufficiently flexible to allow you to coax good sounds out of a wider spread of reed conditions - or the mpc tip rail is the problem.
I suspect it is probably the mouthpiece that is giving you grief, because I think it significant that this sensitivity to reed state happens only for your tenor, and not for the alto as well.
Consider that your mouthpiece may need refacing , especially to have adequate side rails and tip. No kinks dents scrapes or rounding by burnishing from asymmetric reed slap. Although the rails curve in one plane, the section across must be absolutely straight. A very narrow tip rail gives projection with lots of harmonics and can deliver a buzzy tone effect that many folk like. The downside is that it is hard to control, delivers chirps and squeaks, and is very sensitive to reed condition and fit. A slightly wider tip rail will be much more forgiving, and enable you to start soft notes. Don't overdo the tip rail, or it starts to sound like a clarinet! Find a sax doctor who cares - and ask.
Do the mouthpiece exercises. Unless you have a really touchy unforgiving reed-specific mpc, you should be able to make even an indifferent reed work for you for a while. Embouchure!! I consider it significant that you say you "can't practice without a good sound". It must be nice to have an automatic good sound so you can practice other stuff. Me - I still have to practice to get the good sound!
Make reeds work for longer by soaking in warm clarinet bore oil. It is a high quality mineral oil that is absolutely tasteless. It does affect the sound a bit ,but you can compensate with embouchure technique. A little hard stuff vodka/gin/potcheen whatever in the bottom of the jar slows the reed structure biological breakdown. When you have been rubbing a reed, and have it at the right state of moisture/oilsoak then burnish the surfaces by rubbing lightly with the back of a spoon handle. It seals the grain and brings on a slight shine which is less absorbent.
Just to finish off this section on reeds, here is a long post from Shooshie on the subject. Good advice as always!
"The time has come to talk about reeds. I've been asked several times to discuss this, and have procrastinated for good reason. This is a bad idea, trying to talk reeds without even so much as a picture, but I've never really exercised the best judgment on UseNET, so throwing caution to the wind, I proceed. At best, I can only put a general idea out there; at worst, I could really give you some wrong impressions, so feel free to ask questions:
Rule Number 1:
Every rule has exceptions. With reeds, the exceptions are the rule.
That is the only rule I'll be making. Stick to it wisely.
That said, let's move on to practical advice. Start at the butt, or heel of the reed. Look for symmetry. A reed which is thicker on one side than the other at the heel was cut out of a crooked piece of cane, or else split at an angle or sanded flat at an angle, and therefore will be harder on one side. Sometimes the backbone will actually run at a slight diagonal up the reed. This always spells trouble, usually in the form of squeaks. Often these reeds are buzzy and stiff, so that if you ever get the stiffness worked out of them, they buzz like paper. Reject them. Any reed of this sort which plays well is an exception, and most likely will quit playing the moment you need it most.
The center of the heel should be in the neighborhood of half-again to double the thickness of the edges. If the arc is too curved, the backbone is going to be very thick. Too shallow and it will lack support. Middle thickness rules.
The second check is to lay the reed flat on a piece of glass. You must check the table of the reed to see if it is flat. See if it rocks from side to side, like the bottom of a canoe. Some may actually have a concave table. Perfect flatness is ideal, but it won't stay flat when you begin playing it. More on this later. For now, if the reed has a tremendous arc in the table, reject it. If it is only a slight arc, go ahead and work with it for now. Note that this is not so much a defect in the reed as a response to the environment. If you live by the ocean, you will find most of your reeds to be flat or concave. If you live at high altitudes, cold climates, or deserts - (dry air) - they will be canoe shaped. This is something that takes a lot of learning, and I may not try to devote much time to it here. It even changes as you play.
Now turn the reed so that you see a profile, heel to tip, along each rail (the side of a reed). From the heel to the shoulder - where the cut begins its wedge-shaped decline to the tip - the top and bottom of the rail should be parallel. If it's not, then again the reed was cut wrong from the tube cane, or the cane was crooked. More problems than you want to fool with, trust me. Just reject it. Of course... if it plays it plays. But it will probably have weird extreme registers, because the fibers will not run full-length from heel to tip.
Symmetry, proportion and balance are the goals
Next, check the shoulders. Just like your shoulders, they work best when they are located symmetrically, relative to each other. One shoulder should not be higher than the other, or thicker. This will also mean that the vamp - the scraped surface of the reed - must form a perfectly symmetrical arc from one shoulder to the other. If this arc slides off on one side or the other, then the reed is definitely imbalanced, and even the best reed-knife technique will be challenged to restore the balance. The shape of this arc is going to differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. A good reed maker will adjust that arc for each reed he makes, because it depends upon cane thickness, diameter of the original tube, strength, and other subjective factors as well. Manufacturers cannot do this, of course. Their machines attempt to scrape every piece of cane into the shape of their pattern. Since every piece of cane is as different as our faces, this is obviously impossible. It's potluck here. You'll have to figure out how to measure a number of things subjectively. I'd have to teach you personally over time, or at least show you some pictures, but I'll attempt a description or two.
Hold the reed up to the light. Shield your eyes from the light so that the reed appears to be illuminated from within. Now mentally draw an X from the corners (at the tip) to the shoulders of the reed. Within that X, you should have four sections. The rear section is roughly the backbone of the reed, and should be fairly opaque. The right and left sides are areas in which it is permissible to scrape for adjustment, and should range from dark at the bottom to lighter at the tip. These must be symmetrical. Here's the problem in `eyeballing' it: strength does not always correlate exactly to brightness of the light. You can learn what to look for within that light - coarseness of grain, density of the tubules which are the vibrating core of the reed, and the patterns they make - but when you are learning this, brightness (how much light passes through) is about as good a test as any.
Symmetry, proportion and balance are the goals
If you choose to adjust these sides of the reed (within the X pattern's left and right sides), just be aware that any scraping you make must taper smoothly to the tip. No gouges. If you see a little dark spot and try to scrape it out, most likely you'll end up with a gouged area which will ruin your reed. When you scrape, remember that you are scraping a tapered incline plane. One stroke near the tip is worth ten strokes at the shoulder. (Not an actual proportion, just a figure of speech) The shoulder area is where you will need to work to loosen up pudgy low registers, although, again, it must be worked proportionally down to the tip. When you work on a reed in this way, it is balance you are trying to achieve. If you find yourself trying to change the strength of each reed, making them softer, chances are you just need to start with a softer reed to begin with. But strength and balance are easily confused. The difference is this: a balanced reed plays with a nice sound even if it's hard. It will have finer overtone structure, but may just be uncomfortable to blow if it is too hard, and may sound airy, even though it responds fairly well. A reed which may be "soft" enough but imbalanced will feel hard to blow because it doesn't want to respond to an attack, and certain registers will play better than others. Often certain notes will sound good but not others even nearby. Balancing it will bring out the good overtone structure and make all registers respond more evenly.
Symmetry, proportion and balance are the goals
Now, the area in the front triangle of the X represents several special areas. Let's imagine it as a slice of a pie stood on its point. It is the most transparent of the four sections of the reed There at the vertex (which was the center of our X) is what we call the heart of the reed. That area is sacred. Only those who have been knighted by the reed-gods are allowed to work in that area. But it's ok to mess around with it to see what happens if you want to learn and don't mind wasting reeds. Otherwise, how are you going to become a reed-god? You gotta learn, and experience is a great teacher. Along with a few thousand reeds.
Too stiff a heart will make your attacks dull and airy. Too little heart will make your altissimo and high registers weak and flat. Of course, heart must be relative to tip, and we're going to talk about tip later, so keep the heart in mind, always comparing it relatively to other parts of the reed, but don't fret with it much for now. You'll figure out what to do as you learn. This is a long-term skill. You don't become an expert on reeds overnight. Even with the knowledge of what to do, your hands have to learn it. It's as if the embouchure and hands communicate, and the brain only gets in the way when you actually start scraping. This is a craft, an art, so don't rush it.
Symmetry, proportion and balance are the goals
Feel the corners of the tip of the reed, and the arc of the tip from corner to corner. In our pie shape, this would be the crust. Slightly touch them so that they bend and spring back at your touch. If you are sensitive to it, you will learn to feel when one corner is stronger than the other. This always leads to squeaks, stiff attacks, and sounds which are harmonically out of tune with themselves. The corners must be equal in elasticity. Fine, even grain is a good sign, but too much grain is a bad sign at the corners. The fully-formed tubules should fade from view about one to two millimeters from the tip.
A trick which helps reed response, if you can learn to do it well, is to scrape the last one-half millimeter of the tip to a very thin incline. Rather than an abrupt square dropping off at a thickness of about .3 mm, taper it down to about .1 mm. It just catches the air better and helps transfer vibration into the vamp of the reed. I do this with a reed knife on glass, but others may have better luck with sandpaper rolled around a fingertip, or with dutch rush - an abrasive member of the fern family which grows around creeks. Looks like a corrugated straw about a quarter-inch (7 - 8mm) in diameter.
Do not work on the area from the heart to the tip (the "pie" shape, excepting the crust - the extreme tip as described above) unless you are experimenting. It is usually counterproductive, since that area of the reed is the "patented" shape of each manufacturer's scrape, and since it is very sensitive to mistakes of imbalance. If the scrape in that area is not right for you, try a different kind of reed or make your own.
Symmetry, proportion and balance are the goals
Ok, that is a brief discussion of the scrape of the reed. Now for a serious problem that affects everyone, but which few people are aware of just how seriously it affects them: the table's flatness. If there is any leakage between the table of the reed and the table of the mouthpiece, that leakage forms the equivalent of a vent, like an octave key. It wants to make your tone break at a squeaky-high harmonic. One way to tell if you are getting a leak between the reed and the mouthpiece is to place your hand against the back of the mouthpiece (or the larger end of the saxophone neck with the mouthpiece on it) to seal it off, then form a suction in the mouthpiece, pulling it from your mouth and sealing it off with the reed as it goes. This should hold for at least a couple of seconds. If you can't get a suction, there's a leak. I find this test to be slightly damaging to the heart of the reed over time - it's not good to bite on it - and it can actually create a leak. So, I perform another test which kind of gets a `crowing' sound from the reed by sucking air through your horn (fully equipped with mouthpiece and reed). There's a certain sound it makes when everything is ok, and it cannot do it if there is a leak. This is a more benign test, and easier to perform, but more difficult to describe in print.
If the reed is warped in a canoe-shape convex table, then you have some choices. You can sand it flat if the warpage is minor. Beware, though, because this weakens the overall reed. A better approach is to wet the reed and store it in a hermetically sealed container overnight, then take it out, play on it and work on it the next day, then repeat this each day for about two weeks. Before you play, soak the reed well with saliva from heel to tip and give it time to absorb it, rewetting it from time to time over a period of about three minutes. After about two weeks the reed's pores begin to seal off and the warpage becomes less pronounced. At this point, you can polish the table of the reed by placing the reed flat on a piece of paper on glass. Not sandpaper, but plain paper. Holding onto the reed with some downward pressure, slide it from side to side, quickly, as though you are sanding it. After a while, you can achieve a hard shine as the surface becomes glazed with heat and friction. This helps seal the table itself.
I recommend two methods of storage. Smaller reeds store well on glass in those felt-lined wooden reed cases. Larger reeds are even more susceptible to weather changes, and I recommend a bottle of some sort with a sealed lid. I have a plastic bottle not much bigger than the reeds themselves. I put sponge in the bottom to protect the tip. As I put reeds into it (after playing), I may breathe a little air into it before putting the cap on. That puts the moisture of my breath in there for the reed to absorb. [note: if you leave this for a few days, it will be nicely covered with a furry mold. I've actually just scraped it off and continued using the reeds. Sometimes the mold actually fills the pores and prevents drastic warpage! But I'm not recommending it.]
If you live in a relatively humid climate, this is not a problem you will have to deal with so much until you go on tour. When you tour the mountain or desert states, you'll be wishing you remembered what ol' Shooshie told you.
As you play, the reed may dry out and warp on your mouthpiece, especially in the desert states. This is why I keep all sorts of reeds in the preparation stages, and finish them on site. A reed which is concave in Miami is going to be flat in Denver or Phoenix, but a reed which is convex in Miami will be unusable in Denver.
Again, this is an art form, and many people develop their own methods. I'm just trying to make you aware of it. Younger players tend not to know about these things, and get bewildered especially when they travel and find that their lightning technique suddenly can't get off the ground when they change cities. It's an eye-opening experience, but you don't have to travel out of state to experience it. Go from a house with old-fashioned gas space heaters and into a building with central heat and you'll get the same effect, or from an air-conditioned practice room to an outdoor concert.
Five pages. Too much. And I've really only scratched the surface. Let me tell you, reedmaking is the evil twin to all the technique which you work on daily in the practice room. Ignore it, and it will steal away all your ability and make you impotent just when you think you're a stud. If you are playing on a high-level, or aspire to it, then you're either an expert on reeds or soon will be - or else you'll soon shift careers.
Oh yes, one last thing; did I mention that symmetry, proportion and balance are the goals?"