This is rather off topic for GM/BM, but there’s a teeny bit of physics mixed in.
One of the things that I do for fun, other than writing this blog, is playing the flute. I don’t play the modern flute: I play traditional Irish music on the wooden flute. For traditional Irish music, you’re mostly playing tunes that were written for pipes, which aren’t chromatic – and as a result, for Irish music, you don’t actually need any keys. Just the main six finger holes are enough. I bought a really magnificent wooden flute, custom made by an amazing craftsman named Patrick Olwell.
But sometimes, I want to be able to play other stuff. So for a very long time, I’ve wanted a wooden flute with keys, a flute that could play chromatically so that I could play any kind of music I wanted. The problem is, a decent keyed wooden flute costs a fortune. They generally cost at least $4,000, and most of the good makers have a waiting list. For Pat Olwell, that waiting list is between three and seven years.
So for a very long time, I’ve been looking for a way of getting a keyed, chromatic wooden flute. I’ve bought four different antiques from Ebay, all of which needed lots of work to be playable, and none of which were really salvagable for chromatic playing – their keywork is just too messed up for me to fix.
I’d heard about M&E, a plastic flute made by a guy named Michael Cronnoly. His flutes are much less expensive, and they’ve got a very good reputation.
I’ve seen several acoustic studies that claim that the material the instrument is made of isn’t that important. In a wooden flute, the physics show that the head joint is the only part of the flute that really has a significant influence on its sound. But the head joint of a wooden flute is actually lined with metal. So the wood isn’t really having too much influence on the sound.
The first flute I bought was a Dixon polymer. The thing is, frankly, a piece of junk. It’s incredibly heavy; the tone is mediocre at best; the embouchure hole is awful… It’s really not a great instrument. That’s my only prior experience with pseudo-wooden flutes, and it really wasn’t a good one.
Plus, I grew up playing the clarinet. There’s a similar argument about acoustic materials for clarinets. In a clarinet, the tone is formed in the mouthpiece and barrel: they determine how it will sound. Most people (including me) play on mouthpieces made of hard rubber or plastic – so the primary sound-producing piece of the instrument is plastic. The barrel of a wooden clarinet is (obviously) wood, so according to the physics/acoustics, that’s the only piece of wood that actually has any measurable acoustic effect. And the physics of this isn’t sloppy stuff put together by an instrument company trying to sell their plastic clarinets: to the limits of my ability to understand it, it’s good, solid stuff.
And yet, I’ve played a whole lot of clarinets, and by god, there’s nothing like a grenadilla wood clarinet. Even the best clarinet makers, even when I put my wooden barrel on a polymer body, it doesn’t sound the same. Of course, that’s subjective, and we humans are notorious for hearing what we want to hear in a subjective situation. And, by god, I’m a math geek. I’ve seen the math, and it’s correct.
But still, I really do believe that my wooden clarinet sounds better than any plastic I’ve ever played. So why? If the math says it shouldn’t, why does it? I’ve never been sure, but my suspicion is that it’s a matter of craftsmanship. No one makes plastic clarinets with the kind of care and craftsmanship that they put into a good wooden clarinet. My good clarinet is
built around what they call a polycylindrical bore. What that means is that the body isn’t actually a long cylinder from the mouthpiece to the bell: the exact diameter varies. So you’ve got a very complex shape, and every contour of that shape has an effect. That distinction, the math supports very clearly: change the shape of the body, and you are affecting the waveform of the sound.
Anyway… I finally decided to try one of the M&E plastics. One thing about wooden flutes is that the shape isn’t as complex as a modern boehm clarinet. It’s a conical bore, with very straight lines. So if you made it really carefully, with a really clean, well crafted bore – well, maybe it would work! My plan was to find out about how much it cost, and how long the waitlist was, and then to order one when the next royalty check from my book came in. So I wrote to Michael through email about his polymer flutes. He sells them for just 500 euros, which is astonishingly cheap. (Like I said, the wood ones go for $4000, and most of that cost is the keywork – a custom made keyless costs around $1500; a keyed more than double that.) So I was planning on getting one, if he’d let me return it if I didn’t like it.
And then, he offered to give me one in exchange for building a new website for him. I accepted. So the flute I’m talking about here was given to me by Michael. I didn’t pay for it. But I did not make any promises about what I would say about it.
I’ve had Michael’s flute for a few months now, and… I really can’t believe how good it is. Every time I play it, I’m absolutely stunned by how wonderful it sounds. Over the years, I’ve bought a couple of antique flutes that needed repair… none of them were in good shape – they needed keywork, but they were playable. My M&E has them beat, hands down. It’s not quite up with my Olwell – but it’s amazingly close. Seriously, it comes very close to my Olwell in both sound quality, and sound flexibility. And that’s simply shocking: this flute costs one-half of the cost of a keyless Olwell – and yet, fully keyed, it manages to come close. I’m not going to give up my Olwell for keyless playing, but… if I were starting over and buying a good flute for the first time? I’m not completely sure, but I’d probably go with the keyed M&E.
It’s got excellent sound flexibility. By working with my embouchure, I can easily range from a great reedy sound to a very clear, bright, almost whistle-like sound. It’s very stable in both octaves, and easy to break between. The low D isn’t quite as strong as the low D on the Olwell – it takes a bit of work to get a good hard low D, but it is definitely doable.
For most of the range, the intonation is terrific. All of the standard notes are well-tuned. The only tuning glitch is that the keyed notes on the foot – the low C and C-sharp, are very sharp. But that’s easily fixed – with the foot pulled out on it’s joint just a quarter inch or so, they sound right-on, and it doesn’t seem to effect the low D. Still, that’s a problem. Really, that low key foot should be a quarter inch longer. This really bugs me: in general, everything about this flute is so wonderful, there’s so much care about the aspects of the flute that affect its sound, and yet… the foot is too short. I don’t understand it. You can easily work around it – but it’s frustrating and frankly, kind of sloppy.
It’s very comfortable to play. I’m not sure how he did it, but compared to either an old Rudall and Rose (the style of antique flute I’ve bought) or a new Pratten-style Olwell, the hole size and spacing are very comfortable, without any loss of sound quality. It’s also light. Based on what I knew about polymers before, I was expecting it to be a heavy instrument. It’s heavier than my keyless Olwell, but lighter than my keyed 19th century flutes.
The workmanship is mixed. In terms of things that affect the sound quality, it’s very good. The embouchure hole is cut cleanly, and shaped very well. The fingerholes are clean and well positioned. The keywork is very sturdy and well made, and easy to work with. Pads and springs are all set up properly – the key-springs have the correct tension to keep the pads securely closed while keeping it easy to work the keys quickly. The low foot keys have a roller to make it more comfortable to quickly shift between the low notes in common scale patterns.
Cosmetically, it’s a bit iffy. There are a few scratches around the embouchure hole. Nothing obvious, and certainly nothing that has an effect on its playing. But it’s a tell-tale sign that there’s not quite the same degree of care in making it as you’d find in one of the custom flutes from someone like Pat Olwell.
The joints are strange. Instead of doing something like a wood flute, and putting in a cork ring, he just shaped the polymer into the joints. So the joints are tight, bare polymer. They’re a bit hard to put together, and grease on the joints doesn’t stick particularly well, you’ll get globs of grease getting squeezed out of the joint inside the flute when you put it together. It came with some sort of grease in the joints that’s unpleasant – more like a vaseline than a cork grease. After experimenting a bit, I’ve found that traditional cork grease really doesn’t work well on the plastic – you do need to use something stickier, like a petroleum jelly. This is the one thing about the flute that I really don’t like: the bare polymer joints are, without a doubt, inferior to a corked joint.
The keywork is very nicely done. It’s post-mounted keys. The keys are well made, with good post positioning, good key positioning, springwork set up to make the keys close solidly, without being too tense to open easily. The padwork is excellent. (Which is a bit of a bugaboo of mine. As a long-time clarinetist, I’ve done a lot of pad work, and I’ve found that a lot of people are really sloppy about how they set pads. These are leather-covered pads, set solidly and levelly.)
There are metal rings around the joint edges. The rings around the joints are a bit messy. Again, it’s cosmetic, not functional. But when you look closely around any of the rings, you can see that the polymer isn’t quite flush, and many of the rings have a bit of scratching around them.
The end-cap on the headjoint is ugly. It’s a molded replica of a Rudall&Rose cap, with M&E added on the bottom. Frankly, it’s ugly and cheap looking. Very disappointing, because over all, until you look very closely, the flute is beautiful. There are minor cosmetic problems with the joint rings, but overall, it’s lovely. But that end-cap? It looks terrible. It’s totally unimportant, but for a couple of extra bucks, I’ll bet you could make a much nicer looking endcap.
The material is interesting. The thing that M&E is known for is making pseudo-wood flutes. That is, it’s built in the style of a wooden flute, but they actually use a polymer. It’s black, and it shows the marks of being worked in a way that really looks a lot like wood. Honestly, if I was looking at someone else playing it, I probably wouldn’t guess that it was polymer unless someone told me.
When you pick it up, you know it’s not wood. It doesn’t feel like wood. The main difference is that it feels too smooth – there’s no grain to it. And up close, you can see that the color is too uniform. In real wood, when you look closely, you can always see a bit of color variation. This is just perfectly, uniformly, black. But in terms of weight? It feels like a wooden flute. It’s just a hair heavier than my Olwell – which makes sense, given that it’s carrying full keywork.
It feels rock solid. As an experiment, I tried to scratch the inside of one of the joints with my fingernail. It’s much too hard to scratch like that. It’s a good, solid material. Like most plastics, it’s weatherproof – so you don’t need to worry about humidifying the case, or oiling the wood. And, unlike my Olwell, there’s no variation in playability with the weather. My Olwell sounds different during the winter, due to the dryness of the air. There are noticeable day-to-day variations in how easily certain notes – particularly that all-important strong-low-D – sound. In the M&E, it doesn’t vary: it’s uniformly great.
Of course, the most important thing is the sound. This sounds like a wood flute. It really does. It sounds better than any of the beaten-up real wooden flutes that I’ve acquired. As I said, in terms of sound, it’s not quite up there with my Olwell, but I think that that’s more a matter of workmanship than material. Pat makes a magnificent instrument, and making something not quite as good is absolutely not a critique of M&E.
Being realistic, M&E is selling keyed polymer flutes for 500 euro. Pat made me my keyless wooden flute for something around $1500. For a keyed flute, Pat (and most other makers) charge in the $4,000 range. The M&E is unbelievable when you work price into the equation. It’s better than any of the antiques I’ve played. It’s as good as real wooden keyed flutes by some of the other makers (Sweet and Healy) that I’ve tried. It’s not as good as an Olwell, but for 1/5th the price, and no waiting list? It’s worth every penny it costs and more. It’s a really lovely flute, with a beautiful sound. The workmanship is great where it counts. The cosmetics could use a bit of work – but when you consider the price, that’s really no big deal. Still… if he charged six or seven hundred euros, he’d still be under a fifth the price of a good wooden keyed flute, and he’d be able to fix up some of the cosmetics. I’d definitely be willing to pay an extra one hundred euros for cork joints. (I really hate the uncorked tenons!)
If I had the money, and I could get an Olwell keyed flute tomorrow, I’d probably go for it over the M&E. But given that coming up with money to buy an instrument for my hobby isn’t easy, the huge price difference, the multiyear waiting list? M&E wins. I’m very happy with my M&E. And given a choice between the M&E and pretty much anything but an Olwell? I’d take the M&E happily. I would happily pay Michael for this flute, and I just might end up buying one of his F flutes, to have something with a smaller finger reach.
M&E’s current site has sound samples in realplayer format. I’m working on setting up a new site for M&E. Assuming he approves the design, it should be up by next week. I’ll have updated sound samples in mp3 format, and Michael even sent me a video of Matt Molloy (one of the finest Irish flutists in the world) playing an M&E, which will be on the new site.