Recorders

Choosing a Recorder

Short answer: If you are just starting out on the recorder, I'd recommend purchasing a high-quality Baroque-style plastic resin soprano recorder. Both Yamaha (300 series) and Aulos (500 or 700 series) produce excellent recorders which are a great value at about $25-35. Once you have been playing for a while, you may want to upgrade to an entry-level wooden recorder.

For ideas on where to purchase a recorder, see Resources.

1. What size recorder should I choose? 


Recorders come in a variety of different sizes, which play in different pitch ranges. Soprano (aka "Descant"), Alto (aka "Treble"), Tenor, and Bass are the most commonly used sizes. Soprano is the highest pitched of these, with each successive size being about a half-octave lower.

Most beginners start with a Soprano, although some people go with Alto right away instead. Tenor and especially Bass are large instruments that require large hands. Tenor is played exactly like Soprano (both instruments' range ends at C), and Bass exactly like Alto (range ends in F), so most people learn to play one of the smaller instruments first, then expand to Tenor or Bass, if physiology allows.

Pros of starting with Soprano:
  • Sopranos are more widely available to purchase
  • They are cheaper: about $25-35 for a good plastic soprano, as opposed to about $50 for an Alto. The price difference is even more pronounced with wooden instruments: you can get a decent starter wooden Soprano for under $100, but an Alto of similar quality will run you closer to $300.
  • They are smaller, with more closely-spaced holes, and thus potentially easier to finger, especially for children and people with small hands
  • There are more beginner-level instruction books available for Soprano than Alto, especially with a teach yourself focus
  • Lots of beginner/intermediate level music is available scored for Soprano, in a VERY wide variety of musical styles (classical, jazz, pop, folk, Celtic, Christmas carols, Harry Potter, Disney, Star Wars, you name it...)
  • The "authentic" traditional repertoire of the Soprano recorder - basically Medieval and Renaissance music - is for the most part technically much easier than the (mostly very advanced crazy virtuoso Baroque) Alto repertoire
  • Plus that's just the way it's always been done! Soprano goes first, because it just does! :-)
Pros of starting with Alto:
  •  The Alto has a deeper, mellow tone that many find irresistibly compelling, especially as compared to the Soprano's shrill high notes, which when played by a beginner can lack... sweetness.
  •  The (arguably) "best" recorder music - the Baroque classics: Bach, Telemann, Handel, etc. - is almost all written for Alto. (But as I mentioned above, most of this is at a very high level of difficulty, so as a beginner you won't be playing it for quite a while anyway.)
  • It's bigger, just looks cooler, and makes you different from all those Soprano noobs :-)
Yamaha and Aulos Alto Recorders:


So basically, your task will be easier if you start with Soprano, and that is what most teach yourselfers do. But if your heart is set on an Alto, and you want to take the most direct path to that Baroque fantasticalness, by all means go for it. Your best bets for materials are probably the Orr Alto method (Volume 1 and Volume 2), with  Suzuki added in (Volume 1, Volume 2, CD) for some great listening models. Ideally you really want to be working with a good teacher in this scenario though.

If you're like most people, once you learn one recorder you get hooked and want to learn them all. After you learn Soprano, you can pick up a Tenor and play it exactly the same way, IF your fingers can reach the holes. I have small-ish hands and unfortunately can't play a Tenor comfortably. (I'm thinking of having keys added to my instrument to see if that helps... the Tenor has an awesome deep sound and would be so fun to play!) Many people eventually learn Alto as well. The fingering is the same, but it yields different notes - so for example the fingering that creates a D on the Soprano creates a G on the Alto. Learning the other one is more a mental problem than a physical one: you need to learn to read the music all over again. Alto is played exactly the same way as Sopranino (itty-bitty) and Bass (huge!).

Yamaha Sopranino, Tenor, and Bass recorders:


Aulos Sopranino, Tenor, and Bass recorders:


2. Should I get a plastic recorder or a wooden one?


There are actually THREE types of recorders according to material:
  • cheap hard plastic -VERY VERY BAD!
  • plastic resin - GOOD
  • wood - BEST

a. The very cheap hard plastic kind (price ranges from $2-$5, and can often be purchased at random places like grocery stores and pharmacies) should be avoided at all costs. *Believe me, every living being in your household with ears will thank you if you do NOT play one of these atrocities.* These are the reason recorders sometimes get a bad rap.

b. Modern plastic ABS resin recorders, such as those made by Yamaha and Aulos, are very reasonable in price and sound so much better than the cheap plastic kind. They really have a very pleasant tone, and play similarly to wooden instruments. Many serious music students and even professional players use them for practicing and performances. These are absolutely legitimate musical instruments, and the fact that a Soprano can be had for under 25 bucks is just a ridiculous steal. If you're a beginner, I'd highly recommend any of these:


Yamaha 300-series Soprano recorders:


Aulos Soprano recorders:



The Yamaha 302 is the standard variety. They also have a brand-new 402 model, which is made from a mixture of resin and plant-based material - more eco-friendly, and supposedly with improved tone. The 312 (Rosewood) and 314 (Ebony) have a simulated woodgrain covering on the outside, which makes them way prettier and improves the tone a bit as well. Aulos makes two versions: the 500 series is shiny plastic, while the 700 has a simulated Rosewood-colored woodgrain exterior. The Yamahas are the most popular, probably because they're slightly cheaper. The Aulos have a curved windway, which improves tone. Some say the Aulos is better. But frankly I've never heard a discouraging word about either brand. I personally have Yamahas (in three sizes: Soprano, Alto, and Tenor), and am very happy with them. If anyone has played both brands and can compare for us - let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Yamaha plastic resin recorders: Soprano, Alto, and Tenor


All plastic recorders do have one potential issue: because plastic does not absorb moisture, the windway tends to clog after just a few minutes of playing. Try to be as "dry" as you can when playing these. It can also help to dribble a tiny amount of dish detergent mixed with water into the windway before playing. This will help the moisture flow through the instrument, rather than getting stuck in the windway and clogging up the instrument. Also, you can usually "suck" the moisture out of the head by breathing in sharply. Gross, but effective.

c. Wooden recorders are of course the best of all, in terms of sound quality. A good wooden recorder has a warm, natural resonance which puts it in a different league entirely. However, they do have some drawbacks to plastic resin in terms of practicality.

Potential Cons of wooden recorders:
  • Expense: wooden recorders are more expensive than plastic, and the best handmade wooden recorders are REALLY expensive. (As in thousands of dollars.)
  • Variability: each wooden recorder is somewhat unique, and even ones made from the same template by the same maker will have idiosyncratic features which may create slight variations in how you must play the instrument. Ideally, you should select a wooden recorder by trying out several in person. The process of learning to play each wooden recorder will take time and be different for each one.
  • Care: wooden recorders are vulnerable to environmental conditions. Wood can rot or crack if subjected to temperature or humidity extremes. They must be "played in" slowly, so that they don't crack, can never be played more than 45 minutes or so per day, and must be kept in a carefully humidified environment. Do not expose to low or high temperatures.
  • Tuning: wooden recorders change pitch as they warm up, which they will naturally do as they are played for a time. This can create tuning problems when playing together with an ensemble.
Nevertheless, most people love their wooden recorders for the incomparable sound they produce. Once you have been playing for a while, you may be interested in purchasing an entry-level wooden "Student" recorder. They are typically offered in softer, inexpensive woods such as pear and maple, and are not too pricey. The following entry-level models range in price from about $75-150:

  • Moeck School Recorder
  • Mollenhauer Student or Canta
  • Kung Model I Studio
  • Gerhard Huber Model II

I personally have a pearwood Gerhard Huber Model II, and am incredibly pleased with it.

A wooden recorder that I recommend you AVOID: the Hohner pearwood soprano which is unfortunately widely available. I made the stupid mistake of falling for the lure of what looked like a low-price wooden instrument. I don't like to swear, but this thing is literally a piece of *$%& (<- insert favorite derogatory term here). It is very poorly manufactured, and does not play in tune at all. A complete waste of money. If the budget is tight, you are much better off with a quality plastic resin recorder from Yamaha or Aulos. These are much better instruments than the Hohner, at a lower price as well.

See Antique Sound Workshop's Guide to Recorders for more detailed information about selecting a wooden recorder. Antique Sound Workshop and Kelischek both stock Student/beginner wooden recorders, as well as more expensive models.

3. What style of recorder is best - Renaissance or Baroque?


There are two general families of recorders manufactured today: (neo-)Renaissance and (neo-)Baroque. At some point in the early Baroque period in music history, the recorder underwent some crucial design changes that affected its sound quality and playing characteristics. Neo-Renaissance recorders have some features in common with the historical instruments used before this design innovation, and Neo-Baroque recorders are more similar to the revised instruments of the 18th century. There are basically two important physical differences:

  • Renaissance instruments have a wide bore (the cylindrical hole down the center of the instrument is wider in diameter) which does not taper very much or at all, and Baroque instruments have a narrow, tapered bore (the hole decreases in diameter as you move down the instrument)
  • Renaissance instruments have larger tone holes (the holes you put your fingers on), which are usually all more or less the same size, while Baroque instruments have smaller tone holes that vary in diameter (some holes are larger than others)

You can see the differences in these pictures, showing my Mollenhauer Dream (a modernized Renaissance-style instrument) and the Gerhard Huber Model II (a Baroque-style instrument). Here they are side by side:


Two wooden soprano recorders: Mollenhauer Dream in plumwood; Gerhard Huber Model II in pearwood

First, note how the hole at the bottom of the Mollenhauer Dream on the left is much larger than the Huber on the right. That's the wide versus narrow bore.

Wide bore of Renaissance-style recorder; Narrow bore of Baroque-style recorder

Next, compare the tone holes and tube shape. The Renaissance Dream on the left has much larger finger holes, as you can see. (This is a modernized instrument, so they have incorporated variable-sized tone holes - a Baroque innovation that allows the instrument to play further into the upper octave. A true reproduction Renaissance instrument would have tone holes all of the same size.) Also, you might notice in this photo how the body (tube) of the Dream on the left is quite straight, while the Huber tapers somewhat. This is a reflection of the straight versus tapered bore inside the instruments.

Tone holes: larger holes on Renaissance recorder; smaller holes on Baroque recorder

There are several effects of these physical differences:

  • Volume: all other things being equal (i.e., same wood and size), Renaissance-style recorders are louder than Baroque-style, due to the larger bore. They also require more air to play.
  • Tone: Renaissance-style recorders generally have a warmer, softer, fuzzier tone, while Baroque-style recorders are denser, cleaner, and more focused sounding.
  • Low notes: the bottom three notes (C, D, E on a Soprano) should be full, even, and warm on a Renaissance-style recorder. On a Baroque recorder these notes can be uneven in tone and/or volume as compared to the higher notes.
  • High notes: conversely, the high notes are usually easier to play and have better tone and more accurate pitch on a Baroque recorder as compared to a Renaissance one. True Renaissance reproduction recorders may only play an octave and half or so - they won't even go up that high.

All of these issues are greatly affected by the specific design of the recorder, the wood used, and the playing technique of course, but these general tendencies are overall true.

There are also superficial, mainly decorative differences: Renaissance recorders were typically just straight tubes of wood with little to no exterior decoration, while Baroque recorders often had complex turnings and fancy rings at the joints, and a flared bell shape at the bottom. These are largely aesthetic differences that don't affect sound production.

So, which type of instrument is preferable for a beginner? Most modern recorders are Baroque-style, so that is what most people end up with, more or less by default. All of the plastic resin models mentioned above (Yamaha and Aulos) are Baroque-style instruments. The majority of beginning recorder players will use one of these to learn on, and only branch out into a Renaissance-style recorder later on, if they are interested in playing Renaissance period music, especially consort music.


There is potentially something to be said for starting with a Renaissance-style recorder though. Since the lower notes are generally easier to produce and control on a Renaissance-style recorder, and since the lower octave is where beginners will be spending most of their time anyway, it certainly seems to be a logical choice. The Renaissance literature is also more accessible to beginners than the Baroque. Unfortunately, Renaissance-style instruments are not as widely available. I know of only two companies that make one in plastic: Susato makes a wide-bore neo-Renaissance plastic recorder, available from Kelischek Workshop. And Mollenhauer makes a plastic version of their wide-bore Adri's Dream recorder, as well as relatively inexpensive pearwood. If you are particularly interested in Renaissance music, or just prefer a softer, fuller sound, you may prefer these to the more standard Baroque recorders.


If the budget allows, it's potentially "fun" (in a recorder-Geek kind of way) to have one of each. This way, you can experiment with how different songs sound on each style of recorder. I personally have a Mollenhauer Dream in plumwood - a bit pricier than pearwood, but gives it a richer, darker sound.



4. Should I use Baroque or German fingering?


Almost all recorders manufactured today are designed to be played with Baroque (aka "English") fingering. (Notice that "Baroque fingering" is a separate issue from the "Baroque-style" recorder design discussed above. Renaissance-style recorders can have Baroque fingering too.) For a period of time in the early 20th century, an alternative system known as "German" fingering was somewhat popular, and some recorders manufactured then need to be played with this alternative system. The German system was designed to simplify fingering in the most basic notes (so there are no "cross-fingered" natural notes in the lower octave), but this creates ridiculous complications with many other notes, that effectively make the recorder unplayable beyond a very elementary level. The problems were soon realized, and as a result the German fingering system was largely abandoned. If you are purchasing a new recorder, it will almost certainly have Baroque fingering (even if it is a Renaissance style recorder). If you have an older recorder, look for a small letter stamped on the back, just above the thumb hole. Hopefully it is a "B" (which means "Baroque" fingering - not key of B!). If it is a "G" - bum luck; discard the recorder and purchase a Baroque fingered one.

Some older teaching methods use or discuss the German fingering as well. For example, the otherwise very good Method for the Recorder from early 20th century Germany by Giesbert introduces German fingering, although he thankfully shows the Baroque alternatives as well. Be careful if you are using an older method book, especially one written by a German :-) The fingering for F natural in the Baroque system should have all tone holes covered, except for finger 5 (the middle finger of the right hand).

3 comments:

  1. Nice description of the differences. Thanks!

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  2. I found your page by accident... and I'm so glad I did! These are the clearest descriptions of the differences between instruments and styles that I've come across. Many thanks for sharing. 😊

    ReplyDelete