This is particularly true of wooden instruments...my current gig requires me to have three clarinets, an Eb, a Bb, and a bass. In a previous entry, I've discussed the choice I made regarding my bass clarinet, which was the Ridenour Lyrique. Not much of a compromise there, actually, as it is every bit as in tune and beautiful-sounding as a wooden bass three times the price.
However, I've had a slightly different journey regarding my Bb clarinet. My original road horn was a Vito V40, which for a plastic clarinet, is a pretty darn good little horn with great intonation. I'd added a Backun barrel and bell, and honestly, it was a pretty serviceable setup for a professional playing situation, at least in the environmental circumstances I found myself in. (I certainly would not play it in an orchestra, or probably even in a pit on Broadway in New York, but adding in the variable of constant travel changes everything.) Over time, though, I realized that it just wasn't cutting it anymore. The mechanism was giving me all kinds of grief, and the sound, even with the Backun stuff, was a little too bright to be comfortable; the intonation seemed to be getting squirrely, which it never seemed to be before. The only thing I could deduce was that the constant travel and temp/humidity instability was wreaking havoc with the cocobolo parts of my setup, causing dramatic fluctuations in intonation and response, and the damn thing was made in like, 1979, so it was probably time to put it out to pasture.
I became determined not to have a wood clarinet in the pit. Partially out of a genuine worry about cracking and unstable intonation from day to day, climate to climate; but also partially out of a stubborn resolve to see if I could find a non-wood instrument that did both the score of the show and my own playing standards justice. It became sort of a quest, really.
The obvious choice to me for the next horn was the Backun Alpha. I'd tried a couple, thought they played fantastically well for the price point (which is excellent), and it's synthetic, so woo, no fluctuations in bore geometry! I bought one from a music store in Memphis, and started using it in the show. Instantly, I felt more secure in certain passages that had been giving me uncertainty-based heart attacks with the Vito, because I knew the mechanism wasn't going to fail me; and instantly the intonation seemed to settle with the rest of the orchestra and everyone gave a big stamp of approval on the new clarinet. (It also is a pretty darn cool looking little thing, which never hurts.)
Honestly, I would probably have been happy to use it until the end of the tour, but one day, I was exchanging emails with Ted Ridenour, and he mentioned that they had just come out with a new flagship model of hard rubber Bb clarinet. I, of course, immediately said I'd love to try one, because I love my bass so much and have such respect for Tom Ridenour's design skills. So he said he'd send me one, no obligation, he knew I'd just purchased a new clarinet, he just wanted me to try it out for a few days and give them some feedback on it.
Boy, am I ever glad he did! I'm still playing it every day, two months later...
This thing is simply unbelievable. If you have ever played a Leblanc Opus or Concerto (as I have, for many years), then you have an idea of how incredibly well-tuned this clarinet is, and how easy large intervals are, and how round and lovely the sound is. However, the Libertas is NOT an Opus or Concerto...I daresay it's a bit better. First off, it is made of the same natural hard rubber as the other Ridenour clarinets, so it WILL. NOT. CRACK. EVER. I cannot stress how important this is in the peace-of-mind department, especially for a person who makes most of their living in a dark, dusty, occasionally damp, hole in the floor that is generally situated directly under a direct blast of industrial air conditioning.
Secondly, the sound. Jesus, the sound. It is SO round and lovely and clarinetty and fluid, as you'd expect from an instrument designed by the guy who gave the world the Leblanc Opus. For those who have expressed concern about the projection of hard rubber...fear not, I routinely fill 5,000 seat auditoriums with this instrument's sound. Intervallic response on this instrument is also really spectacular. This particular show is full of legato sevenths, tenths, and twelfths (both ascending and descending), and I nail every one of them, every time, and I don't have to do anything with my face to coax them out. There is no tiny hesitation between notes while the next one is trying to speak, it just...comes out.
Thirdly, the intonation. I just don't know how much better it can get on a clarinet. No, it isn't totally perfect, BECAUSE IT'S A F*CKING CLARINET. No clarinet is ever going to be perfectly in tune on every note without any adjustment, because it is a tube with fewer than 30 holes drilled into it from which we are expected to produce, what, about 45 different pitches (depending on how high you can play)? So, OBVIOUSLY some mathematical compromises are going to be made in the placement of these holes...what makes one clarinet different from another is how close to the center those compromises are. My Libertas was some rando case that was grabbed off a shelf of clarinets (which had all just been setup by Tom personally, that is), put in a box, and shipped to me. I did not try 5 of them. I did not try 10 of them. I did not go to a dealer or the factory or the US importer and try 25 to 100 of them to find this one. It's just whatever one was grabbed off a shelf and sent to me.
There has yet to be a variation of more than, at MOST, 10 cents in either direction on any note. I play a D below the staff...just about perfectly centered. I hit the register key, and immediately out pops an A above the staff...just about perfectly centered.
Tom has put up at least 2 videos that I know of on Youtube demonstrating the remarkably even and consistent tuning characteristics of this clarinet, and I think that speaks for itself. This thing, for a clarinet, is REALLY in tune.
Next, the keywork. It is just as solid and sturdy as any other clarinet I've ever played. I don't LOVE the Delrin (nylon? I dunno. They're white) pins in the left hand long E/B and F#/C# keys, but hey, I don't like them on the R13, either, and those puppies are three and a half thousand bucks. The Libertas isn't. It isn't even $1500. Know what else you get on a $3,500 Buffet? Nothing else I've written about so far.
In summation, Tom Ridenour has created a top-of-the-line clarinet that plays really well in tune, smoothly and evenly throughout every register of the instrument with a totally uniform sonority from bottom to top, great keywork, and will never, ever, ever, crack. Ever.
I can think of precisely zero reasons not to at least give one a shot...I did, and I'm extremely glad. Maybe you will be, too.
OH, and for those who are like "Ew, nickel keys suck, I hate them.", I've heard that they're going to be offering them in gold plating soon, so YAY!
OH OH, I also forgot to mention there's a Libertas in A on the way. DOUBLE YAY! Orchestral players who play lots of pops/outdoor concerts, HOLLA! :)
OH OH OH, I must also tell you...they are not paying me to say ANY of this stuff. (Just as the other 2,402,780 makers of instruments I've mentioned on my blog haven't paid me anything to say all THAT nice stuff about them, either.) I just like it, so I'm telling you about it. Capisce?
Peace out from the West Side Story 2013-2014 tour pit, kids! Till next time... :-)