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WHY ARE SUPERPADS® SO MUCH BETTER THAN ORDINARY PADS?
As a result of all these features:
The following, for those interested, is a somewhat technical & therefore by its nature, rather long-winded explanation of some of the reasons behind, & the thinking leading up to the advent of Superpads.
Since its inception about 200 years ago, the humble key/pad system of remotely opening and closing the tone holes on woodwind instruments has hardly changed at all. True, keywork is somewhat more accurate now but it’s still hardly cutting edge engineering and the pad, which is the main subject of this essay, is all but identical to its predecessor.
Originally of course, keys were cut from flat sheet metal and a piece of leather glued onto the blade which opened and closed a tone hole whose surround had been milled flat. It’s common on many boxwood instruments of the 18th/19th century.
This gave way to the familiar raised-lip tone hole we see today and a cast or forged key, housing a resilient pad made from a small leather sack filled with horsehair. And that’s basically what today’s modern pad is made from. We now use a pressed or woven felt instead of the horsehair and cover it with various animal skins, the resultant pad being either softish or harder depending on the choice of materials. The use of these materials in this application is, on the face of it, well chosen as they combine the desirable properties of resilience, the ability to create a reasonably airtight seal and quietness of operation (see comments by Robert Plane - Principal Clarinet of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales ).
As with most things however, there is a down side – or to be more accurate, there are quite a number of down sides.
Firstly there’s the question of the basic difference between the two pads described above – soft v hard.
A soft pad is
mechanically quiet - which is good. It will squash down onto the tone
hole and not be too fussy as to positioning, thereby accommodating
inaccuracies in keywork bearings and tone hole surface and therefore
achieving quite good reliability - which is also good.
But a soft pad
requires pressure in order to use the resilience which allows it to
reform itself each time it hits the tone hole. So the player must work
harder to overcome the inaccuracy of the pad and the keywork becomes
less of an extension of the fingers and more a mechanical hindrance -
which is bad.
materials in this soft pad are not very stable when subjected to
temperature and moisture changes, so it’s going to move unpredictably
and thus ruin its potentially good reliability record.
So, a harder pad
is more accurate, more precise, requiring less effort to operate and
thus being nearer the ideal extension of the fingers. But in being so it
becomes noisier and less resilient and therefore less able to
accommodate any slight misalignment of associated parts. It becomes more
like a switch. It’s either on or off. It either works or it doesn’t.
Reliability is in the balance here, and the fact that it is still
subject to the movement caused by temperature and moisture changes means
that that balance is tipped to the negative side of good (see comments
Lynsey Marsh -
A conventional pad is made by stretching a piece of skin over and around a disc of felt, and securing it on the underside. In use, the felt acts as a resilient cushion on top of which the skin is brought to bear on the tone hole in order to seal it. So far so good – but the felt is also being required to hold the stretched skin in position and stop the pad collapsing. As a result of this the pad is not evenly consistent across its face. In the centre it is relatively flat and soft but it gets progressively harder and more mis-shapen towards the edge rather in the same way as a book is different at the opening edge as opposed to the binding. It follows therefore that unless the key sits on its tone hole perfectly centrally, and all too many don’t, the tone hole “sees” a different type of pad in different places around its own circumference. This is bad news because now, the pad is expanding and contracting at different rates across its own surface in addition to which, because of the nature of a piece of skin, any reaction on one part of its surface has an effect on adjacent parts.
In order to
minimise the effects of this and eliminate the microscopic blemishes in
the wood of the tone hole and the skin, which would cause air leakage,
it is common practice to “bed” the pad in much the same way as one
might iron a crease in a garment. This unfortunately is no more than
forcing it into a position it didn’t really want to be in in the first
place and the resulting stress will, in part, be relieved as the
material tries to assume its original relaxed form.
It's useful here to mention that all
materials are moving in varying degrees and from different influences.
As far as we are concerned with instruments, the relatively soft
materials from which the pad is made are highly volatile in terms of
dimensional change, from the combined influences of temperature,
moisture and stress (see comments by
the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra ).
The metal of the
keywork (and bodies in the case of flutes and saxophones) is very much
influenced by stress movement due to the harsh forming processes used
during manufacture, although this occurs over quite a long time (years).
The effects of temperature change within normal use are probably
insignificant in this context and moisture has no effect at all.
Wood on the other hand, is highly influenced by moisture and temperature although movement due to machining is probably better described as stress relief.
So back to the
humble pad. It’s a wonder it works at all isn’t it? The poor thing
is alternately soaked and dried out. It’s changing its shape all the
time. The key to which it’s attached probably has badly engineered
loose bearings which means it doesn’t come down in the same place
twice. When it does, it nearly misses the hole it’s trying to
cover because the key has been made either too long or too short, or the
tone hole is nearly bigger than the pad itself!
I’ve spent much of my 45 years in this business trying to overcome these problems and
when trying new and/or processing different traditional materials
in an attempt to eliminate their shortcomings, a solution to one problem
always brings with it a drawback in another area.
Why not use cork pads – they‘re
stable and waterproof – problem solved? – nope! They are very non-reactive (i.e.
when deformed from their original shape, they don’t return for a
very long time) and when the short fibres at the top and bottom of each
tone hole start to pull out, as they do, cork is too hard to take this
into account. They're the ultimate switches - working or not working -
either on or off . Okay maybe for the
smaller key movement of oboes and piccolos (although this is
questionable), but not for clarinets. And they're much too noisy. Who wants to listen to the Mozart
Clarinet Concerto with clog dance continuo?
So let’s make
the pads completely waterproof – that’ll sort it out won’t it?
Yippee! No more swelling up and letting you down just when things are
getting really hot and sweaty. No more deterioration – they last for
ever. – but no sir. Now, instead of some of the water being soaked up by
the pads, it’s clogging up every tone hole, then it starts to drip off
your right elbow! And they’re too noisy. Slap! Slap! Slap!
And as if all that
wasn’t enough, there’s the debate as to which type of pad
sounds best, and guess what – it’s almost certain that according to
a law attributed to a certain Irish gentleman, the best sounding pad is
guaranteed to be the most impractical thing (from every other point of
view) that you’ve ever seen in your life! It’s just not fair!
Well hold on.
There is a solution. It’s very simple, which is what all the best
solutions are, and it completely kills – stone dead – all the
problems mentioned here, plus all the ones not mentioned (‘cos it can
get a bit technical and/or boring). Best of all – it has no drawbacks.
What none? No None. What none? Well hardly any (Thanks Gilbert &
There are two drawbacks, so let’s get rid of them first.
What are they then? Well
they’re called “Superpads” -
Well what else do you call a superior pad?
They are a combination of traditional and modern materials utilising a very thin synthetic facing bonded to a cork base. That’s the simple part.
And what is it that makes them so good then?
Having used these pads exclusively for many years now, they have proved to be faultless, testimony to this being their adoption by some of the world’s leading players and their pupils. references )
SUPERPADS are generally regarded as superior in every respect to conventional Clarinet Pads or Bassoon Pads. Their use on Piccolo & Soprano Saxophone is also very successful. Other instruments need more development.