Dec 29, 2023

A Complete History of Rico Reeds - dissertation by Neal Postma

 Every now and then I run across some really interesting information on the "Sax on the Web” forum. A recent thread led me to to a dissertation by Neal Postma, A Complete History of Rico Reeds.

The paper certainly lives up to its title. The story begins in 1928, and the dissertation follows the development of the company up to its purchase by J. D'Addario & Co. in 2004. Chapters cover the inception of the company, leadership and reed designers, reeds, accessories (including Gregory and Gale mouthpieces), cane cultivation, marketing strategies, and the acquisition by D'Addario. 

It's a great read (pun intended). Here are a few nuggets of information that came up:

1) Rico "Orange Box" reeds (formerly brown box, and before that branded as Roy J. Maier) are exactly the same reed as La Voz. There is no quality difference, and no difference in the cut. It's been this way since La Voz was introduced in 1948, and it's still that way:

The La Voz Corporation was set up as a means to appear not to have a complete monopoly on the reed market. They also tried to lure customers that were not happy with Rico reeds. The company produced a reed with the name La Voz, but it was the same exact reed as a Rico Orange Box. Rico color sorted the cane for La Voz reeds, but they did not playtest it. The only other difference between these two reeds was the strength grading. Roy J. Maier (and Rico Orange box) used strengths 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5, and 5, a total of nine strengths. La Voz strengths are soft, medium-soft, medium, medium-hard, and hard, a total of five. The reed’s design is the same…The company first introduced this reed in 1948 after only ten years of production of reeds under the Roy J. Maier branding. It was not widely known at the time that Rico even made La Voz reeds, much less that they were the same exact reeds as the Roy J. Maier cuts. In addition to wanting a different reed on the market, Rico introduced this reed under a different company name that went as far as to have a separate PO Box so as to avoid the appearance of having a monopoly on the American reed market. Marketing practices led the public to believe that the La Voz Corporation was an entirely different manufacturer. 

Neal Postma got this information from from Jess Gonzales, Materials Manager at D'Addario, in 2017. Although D'Addario may have replaced and upgraded their reedmaking machinery since then, the same information about Rico vs. La Voz reeds was cited in a 2022 podcast by Wally Wallace, quoting Andrea Harrell, the present D'Addario Woodwinds Product Manager, in a recent conversation (Wallace's reed discussion starts at about 15:05).

The Rico Co. presented La Voz as a superior reed to Rico, but that was strictly a marketing ploy - and apparently still is.

2) Rico Royal (now just called "Royal") is just a regular Rico reed that has had the bark partially filed off, in a "French cut." 

3) In past years, the same basic Rico reed has been branded as "Roy J. Maier," "Conn Diamond Cut," and a number of other names. "Plasticover" is the same reed with a partial plastic coating.

However, Mitchell Lurie reeds (another Rico product) are a different design. "Select Jazz" reeds are a different design also, and they are made with better cane. 

4) Although this info did not come from the dissertation, Wally Wallace also quotes Andrea Harrell saying that D'Addario sources its cane in both France and Argentina, but intermingles the stock. Thus, a purchaser would not know which was the source of the cane. Perhaps for most purchasers, it doesn't matter.

5) Strength is measured with a machine that tests for flex ("resistance"). I recalled reading somewhere that some manufacturer supposedly used a machine that assigned strength by putting a light behind the reed to check the density. Apparently this was incorrect. 

Googling this question, I came across this post on the Clarinet BBoard:

About 15 years ago, one of the Van Dorens was in Montreal and gave a reed presentation. He explained that there is no difference in *thickness* between a 2 1/2 strength reed and a 5 strength reed (a fact one can confirm by measuring the reed on a micrometer like a Perfectareed). He explained that the phenomenon that determines a reed's strength is the cane's density. He described the density gauge Vandoren uses. If you look at the butt of a Vandoren or Rico reed you will see a horizontal band of "teeth marks". These are marks left by a spring gauge that presses into the butt of the reed, measuring the cane's density. The resulting density measurement determines the number strength the reed is assigned.

The point about all reeds of a given design having the same thickness is correct, but the last part of this post seems to be incorrect, or at least unclear. The spring gauge may hold the butt end of the reed, leaving a mark, but the reed is checked for flex the same way as Rico/D'Addario has for many decades, as shown in this video from Vandoren (animation shows a flex test at 2:14). “Density” may not be exactly the right word to use here, although density does relate to flex.

This is probably a good place to quote the (maybe apocryphal) story about the time that clarinetist Stanley Drucker visited the Vandoren factory, and asked Bernard Vandoren if he could be introduced to "the guy who puts the one good reed in every box."

6) Beginning on p.80 of the dissertation, Postma describes recent scientific studies of cane playability. One 1998 study in Australia seems to have influenced management at D'Addario:

All of the characteristics correlated to strong performance had something in common: they were all related to the vascular bundles in the inner cortex. In short, the performance of a reed is determined by a high percentage of fiber and a low percentage xylem and phloem. Xylem is a tissue found in plants that water and dissolved minerals will travel through to disperse it throughout the plant. Phloem is a similar tissue found in plants that food and nutrients travel through as they are dispersed throughout the plant.

While Rico did not commission this study, it was reviewed by Bill Carpenter and those who were running the plantations at the time. This is a relatively new study, and cane cultivation practices are still being developed. Rico/D’Addario holds propriety over techniques used on their plantations to increase the fiber percentage and lower xylem and phloem percentages in their reeds, and they do not wish to disclose any trade secrets.

The clear implication here is that D'Addario may be able to improve cane quality as time goes on. 

For a clearer look at reed anatomy, including vascular bundles, xylem, and phloem, check out this previous post.

Here's a discussion on SOTW discussing the Rico Orange Box vs. La Voz question. There's certainly a lot of disbelief and denial!

Here's a video from Rico/D'Addario on how reeds are made, including a shot of the strength grading device.

One more - a video from Marca Reeds showing their manufacturing process. No English subtitles, but you can see that it's a smaller operation, and less automated.

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