An Interview with Tom Alexander of Superial Reeds
By Paul R. Coats
PC: Tell us about yourself… background, playing, etc.
TA: Because my father, Bob Alexander, was a busy studio trombone player on the New York scene in the 1950′s-80′s, I was around music from the crib you could say, and picked up a lot from hearing the sounds of jazz wafting through our house on a regular basis, or later going to gigs with him, and meeting other musicians. As he played lead ‘bone on the Tonight Show and some other gigs when there were a good number of TV shows being broadcast from New York, I got a chance to hear some great big band stuff live from those studio orchestras, which were staffed with some very strong players, I might add. And my mom, being an avid jazz lover (to this day), also always liked to have the record player or radio going with anything from Count Basie and Prez to Charlie Parker and other great players. Let’s face it, how can you go wrong when you were raised with Bird in the air!
I kind of messed around in high school as an ear player with trombone, drums, keyboard, and bass, and then later got involved with working on pipe organs (repair, tuning, installation, etc.) in NYC, Boston, and Portland, Oregon for a few years, but didn’t really get into the playing end of music seriously until I started on saxophone at the late age of 24 when I was attending California State University (Sonoma). I was lucky in that I was gigging within the next couple of years and this gave me a starting point from which to work with the horn.
During this time, I was also very lucky to be able to hook up and hang out with some excellent musicians such as Vel Selvan (aka David Luell), San Francisco legends Mel Ellison and Smith Dobson, Jim Dukey, Marvin Williams, Bennett Friedman, and with jazz greats Joe Henderson and Dave Liebman. These were just excellent learning times for me, both from the music and life learning points of view…Needless to say, they all taught me some very valuable things not only about playing, but equipment, tone, attitude, and the importance of saying something as a musician.
I moved to Tokyo, in ’82 as I had become fascinated with the culture of Japan and spent my first five years here basically delving into that side of it, but nothing much in music until 1986 when I decided to get back into the horn on a serious level by practicing long hours every day.
In the next year, I met Mike Ellis, another American sax player (who has been on the scene on three continents) who became a very good friend of mine. We put a sax quartet and later a quintet called M.E.T.A. together, and this was essentially a band built around my and Mike’s original compositions.
So around this time I started to become very active on the scene over here in Tokyo with M.E.T.A., which had monthly gigs at the “Pit In”, and a number of other jazz and funk groups that worked in Tokyo and some on the road. The 80′s & 90′s were a golden time to be playing here as there were gigs galore and people really liked jazz a lot….I mean you could actually hear Bird or Miles in some supermarkets! Those days were really something.
Unfortunately however, I eventually had to give up playing altogether because of chronic neck and joint problems, but at least I was lucky enough to have been able to put in a good amount of gig time. It became a logical choice for me to throw myself into this reed project full time, as it is kind of a continuation through music and as my friends will tell you, I’m still a jazz guy…
PC: Why did you get into this?
TA: My concentration into the reed end of things basically evolved through having had bad luck with the ones I was using myself at that time in the mid to late 80′s. I remember experiencing several problems in playing which led me to throw away whole boxes of reeds and wondering if it was the reed, me, the mouthpiece, etc.?? I tried to isolate all the factors and it occurred to me that the reeds I had played some years earlier seemed to have something special that the ones I was currently using lacked. So from this vantage point I decided to delve in and really research this… try and locate the best cane and work on cut designs, so I could somehow at least find a reed that would work well for me. Little did I know then, that it would grow to be what it is today!
PC: What about equipment? Did you design your own, adapt equipment actually made for another purpose, etc?
TA: We use state of the art, computer driven machinery for both the strength testing and cutting of the reeds, which is also used by some of the other top reed manufacturers. One machine I did make from scratch is a reed gauge that measures the grid points of the vamp with extremely fine accuracy using 3 different digital dial indicators…it is pretty cool.
PC: Where do you get your cane? Tell us particulars about how the cane is treated, aged, whatever.
TA: Our cane comes from the Var Region of Southern France, long known in the 100+ year tradition of reed making as producing top grade stock.
The process of cultivating, aging, storing, selecting and cutting the cane tubes is basically the same as it was years ago…no treating, just pure, naturally grown “Arundo Donax” cane. After the cane is harvested, it is sun dried and aged in the time proven tradition of French reed making. But the advantage now is that our cutting and other machinery is far more advanced from earlier types and some aspects of it computerized, so that we can get much more accurate gauging and cutting than was available before. However some operations, such as the splitting of the cane tubes into 4 pieces of pre-milled blank stock, are still done by hand.
PC: Would you describe the differences in your three cuts of reeds?
TA: I’ve written a good deal about this on the specific pages on each individual model which you can see here:
and some more info on the FAQ page to compliment this:
PC: Some reeds work better on some mouthpieces than others, and I know artists that will use a jazz cut reed for classical, or vice versa… any particulars in this area?
TA: This is kind of a tough one to answer simply as there are several factors involved. First I’d say that we tried to design reeds which bring out the most efficiency from the mouthpiece. In other words, I feel a good reed should allow a mouthpiece to reach its maximum potential in terms of tonal color, response, attack, dynamics, and freedom of blowing. We did a lot of testing to try to cover this ground, so that players would have the ease of response, balanced out with an even scale throughout the registers, and a solid tonal platform that would provide flexibility, power, subtlety, and yes, beauty, in the resultant sound. And with the reed being able to vibrate efficiently along the course of the mouthpiece side and tip rails in a manner which makes the entire piece resonate freely, we believe our designs perform very well. We have also had this point verified by several recognized master mouthpiece artisans, among them Ralph Morgan, Dr. Paul Tenney, Theo Wanne, and the late Jon Van Wie, who felt our reeds brought out the best in their work, so I believe we must have been on the right track here. And this is a key point because lack of vibrational efficiency can lead to a feeling of stuffiness or sluggish response, one nemesis woodwind players have often come up against.
And in trying to achieve the positive characteristics of free resonance, I realized early on that just one cut would not suffice to cover everybody’s playing needs. There many styles of music and various musical situations where a reed player might want to explore different tonal possibilities and we worked on distinctly separate cut profiles I felt would cover them over a broad area. I had very specific ideas in mind about what tonal and playing situations should be addressed and the result was the 3 separate models we came up with… Superial, with it’s buzzy, warm, and brighter response, “DC” with a somewhat darker and more solid, yet with a powerful tonal core, and “Classique” with it’s thicker profile for an even dark, but “alive” timbre. It’s been fortunate that many of the jazz, classical, concert, rock, and funk players we have heard from or about seem to feel our reeds fit the bill for the type of playing they are involved with.
Another factor is of course, a player’s taste… There is just no one reed model that will make everyone happy, and so our 3 types cover a wide performance ground. At least in part, I think this can be attributed to the vibrational characteristics of this wonderful cane we use and in my opinion, the cane definitely does make a difference. So whether it be saxophonists like Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, Dave Liebman, the late great Bob Berg, Ravi Coltrane, Seamus Blake, Tim Price and our most recent endorsers Branford Marsalis, Vincent Herring, and Jaleel Shaw playing intense and powerful jazz music, or ones such as James Houlik, Paul Brodie, or Ken Radnofsky in a classical setting, scores of other pros, teachers and students, I think there is a common thread that binds these players, despite the wide diversity of styles. Though the cut profile some classical players prefer as opposed to those of jazz players may be quite different, we feel that the same cane delivers truly excellent performance, as it has for more than 100 years.
And you know Paul, it has been just amazing to see how many players of all types, from beginners to these top artists, have switched over to our reeds and feel so strongly about them. Frankly speaking, it wasn’t easy entering a market where there were so many brands established years ahead of ours or trying to compete with two large companies which practically dominated the field before we came in. However by now, we have definitely become “a player” in our own right. We’ve heard from woodwind player after woodwind player who seem to be convinced that our reeds do indeed deliver something special and I don’t feel it’s just a fluke that this has occurred. We have got a huge file of letters from people all over the world who were kind enough to take the time to write and express their feelings that our reeds gave them a marked improvement in tone and response, with some going so far to say that ours were the best reeds they have ever played in their lives. Receiving these kind of comments and knowing that we are now making a definite impact and difference in the saxophone and clarinet community is one of the greatest things about this job. I remember years ago how happy I was once I started using these reeds myself and to think that they have also given satisfaction to so many other players is a truly gratifying experience and a dream come true.
And I must add that I have learned a good deal in the process of working with some of the top reed players in the field. It’s interesting to see how their needs vary. The challenge for me is like one of trying to recommend the best and most expressive paints for a master artist about to fill up a blank canvass. Since I too played for years professionally and have been involved on the mouthpiece and horn side of it as well in that time, I know where they are coming from and this helps me get to what they need faster and with more accuracy. It has been really cool getting to know and work with these happening players and it’s also a singular honor for us that they decided to select these “tools” of ours to contribute to their personal sound and musical concepts. Most of them stay in regular touch with me and we are on the same wavelength, so that makes working with them just great.
Here is a little anecdote about how I met one of them, Dave Liebman…He was playing at a club in California in the later 70′s and I went to check him out. This was the first time I ever saw him and I was just blown away with his playing…seeing and hearing things I never imagined even possible on the saxophone! At one of his breaks, I showed him a Super Tone Master Otto Link Tenor I had customized and he just grabbed it out of my hands, stuck it on his horn and started playing some incredible stuff… From that point on, I started working on his mouthpieces (until he moved back to New York) and we began our long and friendly association, which has lasted around 25 years. In a way, that was a turning point for me…he really believed in me and my ideas very early on and helped me along the way, in same the way he has done for others he’s met and had faith in and they too will testify to his generosity and greatness as a player.
Incidentally, I should also mention that it is wonderful to have an extremely talented young player like Mingus Big Band member Jaleel Shaw with us now. Music of depth and intelligence is just pouring out of this gifted Alto player and it is quite something to witness such a bright light burning at such an early age. You owe it to yourself to check out this important up and coming saxophonist, who we will all undoubtedly be hearing more of in the future.
PC: How do you go about testing your reeds, developing the actual cut?
TA: To put the horse before the cart, the first thing on my mind, design wise was what type of tone and music should we address our efforts to? I thought a very free blowing, warm and vibrant tone was a good place to start, which would be suitable for jazz, fusion, brass band, etc. and Superial followed these guidelines. So by studying earlier designs and then making modifications I believed to be improvements, and then doing a good amount of blow-testing myself and with the feedback of some other players, we arrived at a cut we felt would cover these requirements.
Next was “DC”, where I was after a slightly darker and more solid tone core associated with some leading saxophonists active in the music of the 50′s-90′s Blue Note era who inspired me, and one which would also have immediate response and presence, which these reeds certainly do. I spent even more time with “DC” trying cut design after cut design, where the differences were at times so subtle and minute, that it took immense concentration and hours of work to get to that “Eureka!” moment, which finally and luckily occurred after all this…it was really apparent that we had come upon something special here when we hit on it.
The natural succession to the first models was “Classique”, a reed specifically designed for classical saxophone players. This reed has a darker tone (favoring the fundamental tones more than let’s say Superial in which the higher harmonics in the series are more prominent), but which also even some jazz players favor for it’s darker, but lively power.
PC: What is important for a beginner to look for in reeds? As a kid I thought pretty, clear bark might be better than spotty… then I thought the opposite. And looking for splits, evenness of cut, etc. And that reed with the thick dense fiber running up the left side just MAY work well… what I found was, I did not know what made a good reed or bad reed by only looking.
TA: This is an interesting question and if you get 10 saxophone players together in a room and start in on this subject (like many others regarding the saxophone), you may very well get 10 separate and completely different opinions! So I guess what that says is that there really is no one answer. Of course basically speaking, you should try to select reeds that aren’t flawed in any obvious ways like you mentioned such as splits, etc. However, you also will find reeds that still can play well, even if they don’t look perfect in the vamp cut. When you think of how the vamp of a reed tapers down to around the thickness of a piece of paper, it’s pretty hard to expect that out of the tens of thousands produced, they will all be perfect. However, we put our reeds through two levels of quality control to root out any of these and actually do some hand work on some after they are milled and finished. We have instituted a check system on every single reed we pack in Japan, and I don’t know of any other company that goes to this extent in quality control.
But I have to agree with what you said; “that reed with the thick dense fiber running up the left side just MAY work well”. Once again, in my experience the way a reed looks does not necessarily correlate to how it will play. I’ve used both mouthpieces and reeds that didn’t look perfect at all, but played GREAT, and some perfect looking ones that were just awful. Naturally we try to cut them as perfectly as we can given the limitations of the most advanced reed milling technology (which is not perfect itself), but the proof is in the actual playing.
I believe you should look at a reed as a “platform”. If the cane quality is high, even if the cut is a little off center, or either a bit too hard or soft, it should not be thrown away, but worked on! This is the way I learned at least, and I think spending a little time on your reeds can be a good idea if you are not happy with the way it plays straight out of the box. In essence, this means a little customizing and it is no big deal, really.
Generally speaking, we want to aim for an even cut where the right and left sides are correctly proportioned and balanced. Unfortunately, we don’t know of any improvements over the state of the art cutting machines yet which will turn out reed blanks and finished reeds exactly the same. First and foremost, it’s a good idea that you actually play the reed before deciding what, if anything, it may need in the way of customizing. You know the old saying…”if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”. To tell you the truth, at least with these reeds, I rarely had to do much of anything with the majority of them other than softening a few (especially if my chops had been down to a week or so when I wasn’t playing), because they usually work really well for me right from the box.
And remember that every player may feel strength differently due to the different brand, model and tip opening of mouthpiece they use, how well developed their chops are, the way they blow, etc. For example, 10 different players from beginner to pro could feel the strength and response of a Superial No. 3 as being completely different depending on their set-ups, whether they were blowing correctly via a well developed embouchure and diaphragm and open throat, whether they had been playing and practicing regularly or had laid off for awhile (in which case reeds could feel harder) etc. I have come across case after case of a player blaming resistance, stuffiness, or squeaking on a reed when it was later discovered that their set-up had some problems, such as a pad leak, loose neck, worn out neck cork that weren’t sealing 100% inside the bore of the mouthpiece, using a mouthpiece too open or closed, or one in which the table or rails are out of balance, a mouthpiece with a too high baffle or convex shape to the baffle right past the tip rail, mouthpiece tip rails too thick or too thin, a worn out or loose ligature, playing a dry reed, etc. When you think that just a single one of these points might contribute to problems with response, just imagine what a combination of them can do!
And another common occurrence a reed might get blamed for (especially with less experienced instrumentalists) is when a player subconsciously uses their jaw muscles or “biting” and a closed throat to give the airspeed enough momentum to set the reed in motion or bring it up to pitch, and a bright nasally type of tone (usually sharp), squeaks, a feeling of stuffiness, a choked sound, or no sound at all can be the result.
Similar difficulties can arise if players, thinking they want to get a huge loud tone, buy a mouthpiece that is really way over their heads in the sense that it is too open in the tip, or one with a radically high baffle. It can be an extremely challenging proposition to have any control over the intonation, dynamics, or general playability in this case. Or likewise, they may think they will get more power with a reed that is really too hard for their set-up, or use one too soft, and problems will be the end result. In these cases, the reed is not at fault and it is important that the right reed be matched with the right set-up and players level of physical development. We tried as best we could to come up with a reed comparison chart (http://www.superial.com/reed%20comparison.html), given the limitations created by the fact that every reed maker has different cup profiles, may use different types of cane and manufacture, etc. We try to give people a general idea of where our models stand relative to those of other makers. This is to help, let’s say, a first time player of our reeds make the most appropriate choice they can…if they are presently using regular Rico, for example, they probably should not be trying our Classique, but Superial model…Anyhow, this is not a perfect science and a little experimentation may need to be done.
However, if you do notice a reed may be softer or harder than you prefer, it’s a useful thing to keep some essential tools life a good reed knife, clipper, sandpaper, and reed rush handy at all times. These tools have been used for years and you should learn something about them, as a good teacher will tell you. Personally, I got to the point where I could do a lot in making harder reeds a bit softer with just my hands from a trick Joe Henderson showed me years ago which he used quite a lot himself (http://www.superial.com/notes.html). For reeds which are initially too soft, it is a more difficult proposition because you can’t really put much hardness back into the cane or cut…clipping or burning the tips is a second best way to achieve this. Clipping matches a spot behind the tip which was not intended to be the tip, though it can be useful in emergency situations. If the reeds you select basically feel too soft, you either should move up a half a number or try a model with a bit more resistance. Or you might also want to consider a slightly more open mouthpiece. Also, if you righteously do the break-in and prep I suggest, our reeds should harden up a bit after the first couple of days.
Either way, the whole question of getting the perfect balance between reed and mouthpiece is an age old one for reed players and in my experience, “The Middle Path” for the majority of players works best…a medium chamber/tip opening mouthpiece for a medium reed works very dependably and without the player killing himself trying to play well and in tune.
PC: What break-in procedure do you recommend, what brings out the best in your reeds. How should a reed be treated, handled, stored, as it ages? Should reeds be soaked or not? What should be done from one playing session to the next?
TA: Well, here’s another issue that has a myriad of possible answers. As far as our reeds specifically, I feel from experience that preparation and break in can have a good amount to do with bringing out the best in what they offer. The steps I recommend are not new…they were garnered from what I learned from several books and teachers, plus my own trial and error experiences, but they definitely can make a difference in the areas of reed stability, longevity, and peak performance.
For example, as opposed to just putting a reed in your mouth for a few seconds, slapping it on your mouthpiece and then blasting away full bore for the next hour, it certainly is better to follow the routine we suggest. So yes, we definitely recommend that you soak our reeds in water as you can see form the instruction sheets we put in the boxes for the U.S., or in the Notes on Superial (http://www.superial.com/notes.html) page of our website. The reeds should always be wet before any playing session as dry reeds can cause squeaking or stuffiness, so the reed or reeds you want to immediately play should be soaked in water a couple of minutes or more, not just a quick few seconds in the mouth. Reed tips will last longer if they are broken in as they are very thin and it’s just common sense that they will wear out faster if it is pushed all out in a prolonged amount of time from the first tone.
After the initial break-in & prep of the first couple of days, we recommend a light soaking a minute or so, or more if desired, (though too much soaking of well broken and in and played reeds may tend to waterlog them), and once again, this will vary between players. Some players like myself also seem to prefer to keep the reed with always some amount of moisture in it to prevent it from drying out and warping, which will happen to any cane reed.
You can see more on this on our FAQ page: http://www.superial.com/FAQ.htm
For storage, there is no single way to do it, as players have different preferences, but you can see some of them in our Notes on Superial (http://www.superial.com/notes.html) and FAQ (http://www.superial.com/FAQ.html) website pages.
PC: Are you making reeds for bass saxophone? There are maybe 75 guys in the country who really need a source of good bass sax reeds! Hah!
TA: Yes Paul, as a matter of fact we do make both Bass Sax and Bass Clarinet reeds. The Bass Saxes are big beauties, by the way!
PC: Anything new coming up from Alexander?
TA: In the coming years, I plan to add other high level accessories to complement our reed line. Actually, there are two major projects in the research & development stages now, but I don’t want to say much about them until they reach the level of refinement, quality and performance that convinces me they are ready to be debuted. In fact, I’ve had several opportunities in the past to add certain items, and I suppose we could have made money from taking them on, but I wasn’t satisfied that they were the best. I’m not interested in short cuts, but just making the top level products we are capable of…after all, I got into this as a player, not a businessman, just trying to come up with a better reed and that same philosophy continues to guide me today.
PC: Tom, I’d like to thank you for this very educational interview. You not only gave us insights into making your very popular reeds, but you also gave us a reed selection lesson, a reed break-in lesson, a reed care lesson, and other information that will benefit all reed players, from beginners to pros. Thank you!