Some Considerations when Buying a Flute
This page has been compiled with advice from various Flute groups on the internet including Flute Pastels, FluteNet and Flute.
The first consideration when buying a flute, is 'don't be in a hurry'. If the new flute you are trying is better than the one you are used to playing, you will be impressed immediately. The simple fact that the new one has all the pads seating nicely and your old one has a few small leaks can make a huge difference. You need time to get past the "new flute fever" so you can make a non-emotional decision.
Second, compare if at all possible. Try and get several flutes even of the same make. This is not always possible with high priced hand made instruments, but do try. Each flute has a distinctive personality and sound(s).
Third, find several sets of educated ears to help. Play the flutes in as many acoustical conditions as possible (dead as well as live rooms). How well does the flute project?
Fourth, this is going to be 'your' flute. It is not your teacher's flute, or your friend's flute, or your parent's flute. It must be one that makes you happy. We all have different tastes in tone colour. The flute must suit you. That said younger players and those fairly new to the instrument would do well to accept guidance from those teachers and professionals that they trust.
Try to make sure you have all the features you wish decided before you visit a reputable, knowledgeable flute retailer.
1) What is your price range?
2) Do you wish a split E mechanism?
3) What metal would you like your flute to be made of?
4) Do you wish the tube to be solid or seamed?
5) Do you wish an offset or in-line G?
6) Do you wish open or closed holes?
7) Do you wish soldered or drawn tone-holes?
8) Do you wish a B foot-joint?
9) What kind of lip plate would you prefer?
10) Do you wish a different head-joint?
When all is said and done, there are two important things to consider when buying a flute. The flute has a body and a head-joint. You must be able to evaluate each part or else you may inadvertently discard a good flute with a bad head-joint or vice versa.
Contrary to popular belief a flute is not always made from one piece of tube. (I.e. the body and head-joint are made from the same drawn tube) This is possibly the case with some hand-made instruments but not usually with the non hand-made flutes.
I really don't believe there is anything wrong with using a different head-joint from that supplied. There is plenty of evidence to support that a mixture of materials can actually help an instrument. Silver flutes generally play better with a tin head-joint. (WIBB plays a silver Louis Lot with a tin Bonneville head.) Many players of old French flutes use this combination. Similarly you will find that a tin flute (I.e. made of Maillechort) will benefit from a silver head.
So the advice is simple. A tin head will add brilliance and vibrancy to the upper middle and top registers where the all silver combination goes dead and where it is hard to make it sing. A silver head on a tin flute will add more weight to the sound and reduce the thinness of the 3rd register.
If you find the flute to be appraised has:
(1) A good response, i.e. articulation on low notes.
(2) A wide dynamic range
(3) A wide range of colours in the sound as you pass between registers
(4) A good flexibility changing between registers
You have not found a good flute...but a fantastic head-joint!!
The head-joint has the biggest effect on the sound. Factors affecting the sound include the workmanship of the head-joint and the material it is made of. Consider a solid silver head-joint, especially if you are purchasing a mass produced flute. However, a handmade silver plated head can be superior to a solid silver mass produced head-joint. It may be more expensive.
All the above factors are determined by the manner in which the head-joint embouchure hole has been cut (though I am told that the new square tone-holes do aid response and articulation) and the parabolic curve of the mandrel upon which the head was drawn. This latter element has a great influence on tuning and how the harmonics behave. If the embouchure hole has not been cut in exactly the right place on the tube (i.e. at too wide a point) then the octaves will suffer and so forth further up the harmonic series. Measure the dimensions of the embouchure hole. As a guide something around 10.2/3mm X 11.8/12mm with a chimney height of 5mm is good.
YOU NEED SOME EXPERTISE TO EVALUATE THESE LATTER POINTS.
A solid silver body is more durable than a plated body, but doesn’t necessarily improve the sound. I don’t recommend gold plating on lip plate. It wears off in time and looks yucky!
The most important contribution of the body is that of scale.... whether the tone holes are in the correct place for the pitch you intend to play the flute at. There isn't any point in buying a Flute pitched at 442 if the people you play with pitch at 440. You will have to pull the head-joint way out to make an A at the right pitch and will probably succeed in making all the Left Hand notes too flat. Similarly if you buy a flute at 440 and try to play at 442 you will push in and succeed in making most of the Left Hand notes too sharp and as these act as vents for the 3rd register notes which are 3rd harmonics (D3-G#3) all your upper notes will be also be too sharp.
THIS IS PROBABLY THE MOST COMMON CAUSE OF SHARPNESS IN THE 3RD REGISTER.
It is not difficult to check the scale of a flute within itself by cross-referencing notes and their alternative harmonics.
DON'T USE A TUNER FOR ANYTHING OTHER THAN FOR SOUNDING A FUNDAMENTAL AND MATCHING PITCHES OF 3RDS AND 4THS USING DIFFERENCE TONES.
Try to establish the octave length of the flute by playing low C and sounding the C2 as a harmonic. Check with fingered C2 and pull out the head-joint until these are the same pitch.
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO DO.
As a simple test, try a slow A major scale and listen to each interval carefully. Is the 3rd degree flat enough? A major third is flatter in the equally tempered scale. What about the 2nd? Try A to B. Then add C#.
Today, flutes are padded well and generally very well engineered which was not always the case. It might also be good to check the diameter of the body tube as flutes are made in 3 different thicknesses. Most hand-made silver flutes are .014 inch but some are .016, notably Jack Moore flutes. This latter fact is endorsed by his flutes having drawn tone-holes...another factor to consider as it means you will never have leaks due to rotting solder. The soldered tone holes add a little weight to the flute, which is countered by the lighter tube. For years the Boston makers prided themselves on their ability to get 90 deg angles where the soldered tone holes join the body tube. Anyone who has ever looked at 18th c flutes will realise that holes were traditionally undercut...and sometimes over-cut. Jack Moore flutes have drawn tone-holes, which are rounded even further.
I would say that .016 is best with drawn tone-holes and .014 best with soldered. Avoid the "commercial" models, which are drawn tone-holes but .018 tubes. They are not really flexible enough for a serious student. They really aren't bad flutes just different.
Mass, density, and hardness are believed to correlate positively with sound quality. In general, the denser the metal of the flute tube, the darker the sound will be. Precious metals are used in flute making because they are dense, attractive, and easily formed. Powell, for example, has a wide selection of precious metals for flutes.
Silver, which has a density of 10.5 has been used in flute making for 120 years. When properly worked it is capable of producing its renowned fine tone and excellent response.
Powell has developed a patented technology for combining precious metals in layers. This metal is called Aurumite ®. Aurumite consists of a flute tube where 14k rose gold (which is denser and harder than sterling silver) is placed on the inside of the tube and fused to an outer layer of sterling silver. The sound quality of Aurumite has much of the darkness of gold while preserving the resonance and projection of sterling silver.
Gold is denser than silver and, when alloyed with other metals, is also harder. Gold flutes are prized for their warm tonal colour and great dynamic range.
Platinum alloy is highly regarded for producing a dark, penetrating sound, and for its ability to maintain a stable pitch at different dynamic levels. Its density is 21.5. (Hence the name of Varese's piece for Flute.)
Exotic hardwoods like Black grenadilla wood (Dalbergia Melanoxylon), are very stable and dark sounding. A large number of flutes were made from Black grenadilla during the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, and it has been the traditional wood of choice for piccolos, clarinets, and oboes during the past century.
Want to know more about the properties of different metals for Flutes and Head-joints?
Good luck with your Flute Hunting!
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