Clarinets have a reputation for being flat. The question really should be “flat with what?” Clarinets are usually NOT flat with the world-standard A440 pitch. Nearly all the other instruments can, and when not monitored, WILL play higher than standard pitch. Brass instruments are often sharp, flutes... oh boy, do they ever go sharp! And strings players hate to sound flat, so they give the tuning peg a little nudge higher. The piano tuner who does our church pianos consistently tunes a few cents sharp. Clarinets loose the war because they cannot make the barrel shorter.
So, if you can't convince people to tune lower (and if you can, you should become Secretary of State!), the clarinet player must fight back with a shorter barrel. The standard barrel is 66mm. But I think every clarinet player should have a 64 or 65mm barrel on hand to use when necessary. If you have warmed up your instrument and the band tunes up carefully at the start a band rehearsal, you might be able to start with a 66mm barrel. But you'll notice that you have become flat with everyone else after ten minutes.
On the other hand, if you are playing in a group where you often need to pull out 1.5mm or more, you need a longer barrel or to use tuning rings (see the sub-page below this page). This is because the gap in the bore caused by pulling out that far will make short-column notes (throat tones) way too flat in comparison to other notes (especially the standard tuning notes).
The human ear hears flatness easier than sharpness. Flatness offends us more. Nothing is so discouraging to a student than to sound bad because of being flat. I think it is a good idea for even junior high students to have a shorter barrel.
Here is a list of the reasons for buying another barrel, ranked in what I consider the order of importance:
1. replace a lost or damaged barrel
2. to have a shorter or longer barrel as needed
3. rare technical reasons, such as to better match your mouthpiece bore dimensions
4. better response. The better response may be a result of #3, or because of such things as a reverse taper bore on new high-tech barrels.
5. better intonation across 12ths. The reverse taper bore may help with this, but it is very subtle indeed.
6. desire to get a darker tone using special materials, using hard rubber or exotic wood. (If switching to hard rubber, #6 perhaps could shift higher in the ranking.)
7. to give a cool visual impression.
I have found that the Muncy Winds is a good source for barrels, both synthetic and wooden. (Like the one shown here.) There are also many other fine barrels out there on the Internet. If you want to get in tune and improve response on a tight budget, I recommend the Muncy synthetic pictured below. If you want the best dark sound plus better intonation, I recommend the Ridenour Ivorolon. This difference in cost is only about $20.
Synthetic barrels on wooden clarinets:
My teacher at the New England Conservatory (Joe Allard) absolutely proved to me on two occasions that he could hear the difference between a plastic barrel and a wooden one. I had two black synthetic Springer barrels that I liked to play, and two wooden barrels. He stood facing a corner of the room with his hands cupped around his ears, and after only a note or two he would cry out disdainfully “plastic,” or approvingly “wood.” He never got it wrong even once! I even changed reeds and mouthpieces to try to fool him. He always got it right. If he was still around, I would thank him for his patience with me!
From my perspective as a player, I think that there is the tiniest of differences somewhere in the extreme stratosphere of the highest overtones/partials. Playing with the synthetic barrel has a slightly more hollow sound. Some extremely high partials are missing. Certainly it is a pleasant sound, but a bit hollow. A good wood barrel just has that little indescribable “whats-it”— that little bit of pithy presence that seems to command attention. On the other hand, when I play my Muncy or Springer barrels, I enjoy the ease of response across registers. That was why I was loath to give up my plastic barrels at the conservatory. All of this is written from a player's perspective. I don't think that I could correctly identify when someone else is playing with a plastic or wooden barrel like Joe Allard did!
I played a red colored cocobolo wood barrel on my Buffet clarinet, made by Dr. Allan Segal of clarinetconcepts.com. The picture of my barrel on the right doesn't do justice to Allan's beautiful work. In response to my questions, Allan has sent me some excellent information which I have placed on this page: Allan Segal's in-depth barrel information
I use a short Muncy Diamond synthetic barrel on my 100% synthetic Forte clarinet when playing in a sharp ensemble.
My current favorite barrel is made of hard rubber, the Ivorolon, by Ridenour. Since good mouthpieces are made of hard rubber, it makes sense that continuing that material for the barrel joint would work well. And I do love the more intense but not-bright tone I get in the clarion register.
A new clarinet barrel and bell maker is in Australia, clarinetbarrel.com. They have rosewood and ebony barrels, and both can be ordered with an upgrade brass sleeve inside. I have recently tried two of their barrels and my brief review is here: Auzie ClarinetBarrels
Gary Kern shared this David Weber barrel with me. It is wooden, having a traditional look with metal rings. This is also a fine product.
[2July2012] Hard rubber Chedeville barrels are also very good!
Information from Omar Henderson:
The Chedeville barrels are also CNC machined from rod stock with 2 tapers designed by Allan Segal after much trial and error. They are presently made primarily for Buffet R-13 clarinets. Taper 1 is for newer (1970’s up) and Taper 2 for 1960’s. They come in 65, 66, and 67mm. I will be happy to let you try out a barrel (let me know the taper and length) and Chedeville Prime mouthpiece. Send me your shipping address.See http://www.chedevillemp.com/barrel/ for more information.
[9Aug2013] My friend in China, Kaiyu, has started to make cocobolo wood barrels— such as the one pictured left. It is wonderful! I tried this first when testing an Evette Schaeffer clarinet that I had repadded. Compared to the standard barrel, there is a very clear difference— Kaiyu's barrel being more open feeling, more responsive, and having a better sound. When using my Ridenour clarinet (on which I normally play a Chedeville hard rubber barrel), it was very difficult for me to pick a favorite. The hard rubber barrel seems darker, whereas Kaiyu's cocobolo barrel seemed to have more overtones. Sound comparison test files will be posted at the clarinetpages.info forum. The outside-of-China price for Kaiyu's barrels is $110. He makes them in several styles. Contact Kaiyu directly via