A Discussion of Scale Design
by Leonard E. Lopatin
On FLUTE, an email discussion group, in September of 2003, the topic of how to know how far out to draw your head joint came up. A question was asked as to why manufacturers don't tell us how far they intend this distance to be for the various pitches they make. The method of determining this by overblowing and tuning harmonics arose.
The reply I posted should shed some light on how I arrived at my scale measurements.
One list member wrote:
"The trouble with using harmonics to set your flute up is that this method is only as reliable as your embouchure. However, in the absence of any help from the manufacturers on the matter of exactly how far out their beginner or student flutes should have the HJ, to give the reliable scale they are marketing, it is the only method of doing it."
I wrote in reply:
"I have wanted to say something about this method for the longest time. Thank you for bringing it up. I would say that this method is not *even* as reliable as your embouchure. Try the 'overblown method' with a tuner. Don't try to play in tune. That's the opposite of what you should do. Play the best, most perfectly centered tone you are able to. Face the tuner with your eyes closed as you center the tone of the overblown octave. Once you have the sound centered, without stopping or changing the airstream, open your eyes and see what the tuner says. It will say you are sharp. Octaves and other harmonics simply don't overblow in tune according to the idea of tuning we have in Western music. Not automatically, anyway. Nature has Her own ideas, and best to go along, you know.
When I designed my scale, and being aware of the above, I first set out to tune the length of the first octave by finding the right length for low C, then for the C at the upper end of the first octave. That was pretty good, I thought, and it was pretty darn similar to what Albert Cooper had decided upon. But when I played the third C (top of the second octave), it was sharp. It dawned on me at the point that this is at least part of the reason that with all the wonderful scale-shortening work that has been done over the last several decades, the top register is still sharp. We use the left hand tone holes for venting the high register, and some kind of compromise is required. The compromise that has been employed for the most part is to accept a slightly sharp high register, since we play in the first two registers more. I don't like that choice of compromises. In contemporary music, there is a huge amount of playing required in the third register.
So I tried the compromise I thought would please me better---to make my scale length so that bottom C and the C at the top of the second octave (two ledger lines above the staff) were both perfectly in tune. That really brought the high register down to pitch. So now you might suppose that that is what I do on the flutes I make now, but I don't! I wanted to, because I felt that the least flexible notes on the flute, those in the third register were in tune (or close as I believed they could be). But the other side of the coin was that the notes above A in the first octave were noticeably flat. I *still* didn't mind. It took a bit of a change in the approach needed to cross register breaks, assuming you still were planning to play in tune, but I didn't mind. The notes at the upper end of the first octave are the most flexible on the flute as to pitch.
So I had players try my prototype, and within seconds, I could tell no one was going to accept (therefore buy) a flute with this scale. I couldn't go all the way to this extreme, but I found that by splitting the difference, I could 'get away with it.' So I made the C at the top of the first octave a teensy bit flat, the C at the top of the second octave a teeny bit sharp, and had reduced the sharpness of the third octave a little.
So, I compromised my compromise. I was less happy, but more people were more happy, so who's to say what's right?
The next point (and I will try not to be as long-winded!), is about the desire I frequently hear expressed by players to have manufacturers tell you just how far to pull out/push in to play at the nominal pitch of the flute. It seems to have gotten lost in the mists of time, but we have done that. It was always the industry standard, to my recollection, to make the head joint 2 mm shorter than needed to play at A=440, 442, or what have you. But we makers have always known that some players will pull out to 3 mm, 4 mm, 5 mm, 6 mm, 7 mm, 8 mm or what have you. Some will push all the way in and complain that they are still flat!
So, when a player asks me to tell them exactly how much they are 'supposed' to pull out, I tell them that I can't say. They would have to tell me exactly how hard they plan to blow, at what angle (do they 'roll in/roll out', and how much), are they used to pulling out or pushing in, why do they do these things?, etc. I believe that many set their flutes up a certain way because that's how their teacher does.
I know this all sounds very curmudgeonly of me to say, but the reasons we don't more precisely indicate how much you are to pull out are: A) There are too many variables. B) Most players would not listen to this 'rule' and would set up the way they are comfortable setting up.
And that is exactly the right thing for them to do. Makers could only standardize these things more fully if and when humans start being made with a standardized pair of lips, and when we all sit down and hammer out a final agreement on the correct sound that we all want to hear from everyone all the time. I won't be holding my breath.
The diversity is part of the beauty of this beautiful thing called art.
(Soapbox returned to under kitchen sink!)
Yours with best wishes,
Leonard E. Lopatin
Lopatin Flute Company
For more information on FLUTE go to: www.larrykrantz.com - The Flute List Pages: an e-mail discussion group, covering all flute-related topics.