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My personal overview of the Vandoren line on alto

1465 Views 2 Replies 3 Participants Last post by  -j.
I recently tried both of the Vandoren sample packs, and I figured I might share my impressions. For background, I got back into playing a couple months ago after being away from it for about 10 years (though I played flute). Just before this little pandemic situation started, I got my horn fixed and got a new mouthpiece. Lots of time to play and today my lips are a bit out of shape so I'm taking a break.

My equipment is a Yamaha yas-62 alto sax, a D'Addario Select Jazz D6M, and a Rovner mkIII ligature. My old mouthpiece is an Otto Link STM 6*, and I tested most of the reeds on that as well. A few I worked on with a reedgeek (beyond flattening the table), and that I will note. I have been playing standards like "Willow Weep for Me" but also jazz standards like "Maiden Voyage", with a backing track or on their own.

All reeds were 2.5 strength.
Blue Box - I used these as my main reeds back in the day, but in comparing with the others I found them a little stuffy. They don't stand out anywhere, and they are a bit stiff. I found them a bit looser on the bottom than I remembered (hard to get clean low notes), but still feels like the sound is weak on top. Maybe need to be worked over with a reed tool.
Java Red - I found these to have a bit of jazzy buzz in comparison. I really like these. They sound good on both the Select Jazz and Otto Link. They played more evenly throughout the range.
Java Green - The sound is very bright but a kinda wild on intonation and tone. The 2.5 is too soft, at least for the D'Addario. When things open up I may look for a 3. I found articulation a bit soft in the lower register in particular, probably just too soft for my setup, but for more experienced players I think it would give the most flexible sound and it has a very strong punch.
ZZ - It never really worked for me. I found it a buzzy but also very airy. I may have gotten a bad reed. I worked on it with a reedgeek and got it playing pretty well but the sound just didn't seem to have a strong core with either mouthpiece.
V16 - I had tried these before and didn't like them, but on the Select Jazz they seem just right, perhaps because play like a harder reed. Very stable and even throughout, and worked so well I ordered a box. The buzz factor is there but less than the Java, and balanced by a good core.
V12 ("classical") - It was very stiff so I worked on it with the reedgeek, and it came out the most stable in intonation and tone. It has a sort of fast buzz? or sax sound that would work in classical, more colorful than the blue box without being "loose" on the bottom. A bit too resistant for me, but probably very good on a lower tip opening. Very good articulation, good tone, good on both low and high notes, but isn't quite my sound. Strong sounding, I guess is how I would put it.
V21 ("classical") - a real surprise for me. A very clear, round, smooth tone, good in all registers, good on both mouthpieces but especially on the Otto Link. The first one played fine from the package, the second one was a bit stiff until I did a little with the reedgeek. It isn't as perfectly crisp as the V12 in articulation but still is stable in intonation and plays well throughout the range. The tone it brings out appeals to me a lot.

Overall, my favorites are the V16 and V21. If you are not sure of your sound, I recommend the sample packs. The so-called "classical" reeds should NOT be overlooked if you have the option to try them. The V21 really brings out something quite pretty that I like a lot, which particularly works on a ballad, and the V12 is very strong and stable. And although I came out not liking the blue box as much, we all know people who love them and I used to play them for years.

My only nitpick would be that some reeds, like the Java green, play much softer at the same strength than others, so the sample pack will be guaranteed to have some that work for you better than others. I don't feel I can do justice to the Java green, which is just too soft in comparison, and my bias toward the V16 may have more to do with it acting almost like a 2.75 and working with the Select Jazz D6M well rather than anything else.

I also think the reedgeek is almost too powerful a tool, if you have a "bad" or "stiff" reed you can certainly make it work, even if it's not perfect. So far I haven't found a reed that I can't make decent with it. I may be shortening the life of some reeds, but I figure it evens out - I don't spend time breaking in iffy reeds, they might die earlier but the same amount of good play time results. Plus just crappy reeds I would never be happy with all become at least good.
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Interesting, thanks for this!

For what it's worth, my experience with Vandoren reeds is shared by another SOTWer with whom I had an e-mail exchange recently about this very topic. I'm a hobbyist, mostly on tenor, and I used to play red Vandoren Javas on alto and tenor for years, ever since they came out. Never had a problem with them, especially the alto reeds: every reed in a box was at least good enough for practice. I never worked on my reeds, either: just put them im my mouth for half a minute before slapping them on the mouthpiece. I liked the balance of buzziness and darkness that the red Javas gave me, on both horns.

Then, three years ago, everything changed, literally from one box to the next. I came back from a 4-week vacation and opened up a new box of red Java alto reeds because I'd forgotten to close the ziploc bag in which I keep my reed guard before I left. At first I thought my horn (Mark VII) had somehow mysteriously managed to get out of adjustment while sitting in the case, it was so bad. Eventually I put on a new reed, and luckily that one played well. Turned out that that one, the second one I tried, was the only playable reed out of the box of 10. Everything else was craptaculous.

The next ones to go, about 5, 6 months later, were the red Javas for tenor. In my desperation, I got a ReedGeek and learned how to prep my reeds: that helped some, but I would still have to go through 2 boxes to find 1 reed that was good enough to gig with.

I then embarked on an epic journey of about a year, spending way too much time reading up stuff on SOTW and WAY too much $$$ buying every reed under the sun, including the entire Vandoren line, and including various synthetics. This was for tenor.

The Rigottis came closest to my sound ideal -- and they are indeed very consistent -- but I missed the clarity and punch and that I would get from a good Java red. I didn't like any of the synthetics -- like, at all... In my recollection, I got pretty much the same results sound-wise from the various Vandoren reeds on tenor as the OP did on alto.

I eventually settled on green Javas. They are, for me, I'd say about a quarter strength softer than the red Javas (again, that's on tenor) and they are a bit brighter too. But for the last 12 months or so, every green Java has been at least good enough to practice on after just a few swipes with the ReedGeek.

I only recently ordered a bunch of green Javas for alto, too, and my initial experience seems to parallel the OP's: I used to play the red Javas in 2-1/2 strength, but the green Javas work better for me in 3. I say "seems" because I only opened one box of green Javas each, one 2-1/2, the other 3: the first one of the weaker reeds was absolutely concert quality if a little on the soft side already, the first two of the stronger reeds evenly divided, one good enough to practice on, the other ready for the stage.

The green Javas are brighter, too, on both alto and tenor. But for me, that's not a problem because I'm a naturally dark player to begin with.

Again, this is just my experience. The teacher who I was taking lessons from two years ago counseled me against the green Javas because they were the most inconsistent in the Vandoren line, he said. But me, myself, and I, so far we haven't had to throw away a single green Java.

Just last week, I opened up two boxes of red Javas #3 for tenor: even after careful and individual prepping, I ended up with one concert-ready reed, and one good enough to practice on. 3 were beyond redemption, clearly. The remaining 5 will require more sanding etc. to determine if they're salvageable.

I'm hoping, reeeeeally hoping, I won't have to hop on the reed carousel again any time soon. If the green Javas go potty for me too, then I think I may just have to make an appointment with a certain gentleman at the midnight crossroads and talk about a business deal.........

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