Canada’s own Backun Musical Services is the Lamborghini of the Clarinet world. Their instruments are so iconic that even an untrained eye can recognize them instantly from the back row of the largest concert halls.
Their uniquely flared bells and fat “MoBa” barrels make a bold statement on their own, but when coupled with the warm glow of gold keys against luscious red cocobolo wood the appearance of these instruments is not only unique, but simply jaw-dropping. Like their Italian supercar counterparts, many have been left drooling in their midst.
They don’t just look good, though. Many top players around the world use Backun’s professional offerings as their daily driver, so to speak, from top level orchestral players to international solo artists.
Entering New Markets
With a set of truly matched instruments made from the same piece of wood costing up to 25 thousand dollars USD, Backun’s target market has traditionally been clear: they make the best horns, for the best players with the best materials, at any cost.
the best horns, for the best players with the best materials, at any cost
Lately, however, they’ve extended their product range into a new market: students and advancing players. Coupled with a surprisingly approachable starting price of just $910 USD (Alpha) and $1745 (Beta), these instruments are sure to be a hit.
Going for a (4 Month)
Test Drive Joy Ride
You might be asking, “are these clarinets just enticing eye candy, or do they offer a compelling choice for the advancing student and professional alike?”
Well, I had the chance to take the Backun Alpha and Beta on an extended 4 month joy ride to find out.
Backun Alpha and Beta Overview
- Gorgeous, unstained wood (Beta only)
- Two plating options (silver and nickel)
- Impressive attention to detail
- Valentino Pads
- Expertly adjusted before leaving factory
- Large, adjustable Thumbrest
- Neck strap Hook
- Compact, light weight case
- Bright, complex, lively, flexible tone
- Pricier than competing models
- Tone differs from “classic” instruments
- Thumb rest does not fit in the case at some settings
The first thing you’ll see when you bring home a new Alpha or Beta, of course, is the case. Both instruments come in a compact, sturdy plastic and fabric case that protects them very well. I never had any issue with the horn sliding around inside, or with accessories becoming dislodged.
The Alpha case is a textured black plastic finish, whereas the Beta is sort of a brushed aluminum look. I slightly preferred the look of the Beta, but found the texture a bit slippery when compared to the Alpha.
Either way, it doesn’t really matter and students will appreciate the comfortable handle, light weight, and the ease at which it will slip into a backpack, locker, or band room shelf.
The SOLO “Laptop” Bag
Speaking of bags, I’ve had a backpack style case for close to 15 years and going back to a small case like this was tough for me. After dropping the Backun twice while juggling my phone, coffee, and music folder I started looking for a better solution. To my surprise I found this amazing bag at my local Staples store.
It’s called the Solo Hybrid Laptop Briefcase and it can be had for just $30 on Amazon (I paid $50 and I’d say it was still a bargain!).
This bag is super lightweight yet durable, features two large external pockets, an internal ipad sleeve, and a seperated laptop compartment that also fits most music sheets perfectly.
After using it for a while I actually find that I prefer this option to my larger BAM cases. I only have to bring one bag along now–even when I have my laptop with me–and it weighs a lot less.
The best part (if that’s not enough) is that it converts from a backpack to a shoulder bag–and back–in a matter of seconds. I highly, highly recommend this bag for any clarinetist with a small case, and it works especially well with the Backun Alpha and Beta series.
Do yourself a favour and get this bag. I love it. It’s a no-brainer purchase that will protect your investment.
I love it. It’s a no-brainer purchase that will protect your investment
The Wood on the Backun Beta is unstained grenadilla, and as you would expect it is absolutely gorgeous.
Traditionally, only instruments of the highest quality are unstained (because stain hides imperfections that are often present in entry level horns) so this is a bold move at this price point, and is likely part of the reason that the instruments cost a bit more than the competition.
As Morrie Backun himself said in Episode 37 of the podcast “if you have a beautiful piece of wood, why would you want to [stain it?]”
Both instruments are available in nickel and silver plating. For this test I had nickel on the Alpha, and silver on the Beta. The plating on the Beta in particular is so gorgeous and bright that people actually asked me for advice on how to “polish their instrument as well as mine.” (Of course, I had done literally nothing but open the case and play!)
Some people are actually allergic to nickel, so silver is obviously a better choice for them. But others simply prefer the feel (myself included) or just like how it looks. Regardless, it’s great to have the option and it’s a testament to Backun’s commitment to offering something that actually suits the needs of real players.
If Silver is your preference, you can have it on either instrument starting at just $75 extra. A very worthwhile investment in my opinion, and one I would definitely opt for on both models.
Pads and Felts
An aesthetically and practically tasteful touch on both instruments is the use of black Valentino pads, which are highly durable and seal very well. Many sections also feature cork treatments and black felt to match. Considerable attention to detail here.
Some of the black felt, while gorgeous, has started to wear down after 4 months of heavy use (1-4 hours a day). Honestly, I would say this is pretty normal with this material, and perhaps it’s time for this instrument to have its first tune up. When I do take it in I might have some of these pieces replaced with nylon out of personal preference, but it’s unfortunately going to take away from the all-black look!
When designing the Alpha clarinet, Backun also considered the fact that professional players might not be comfortable taking their main instrument to perform outside. The Alpha, with its synthetic body, is highly resistant to cracking. When upgraded with your favourite mouthpiece and a MoBa barrel and bell, the instrument becomes a force to reckon with.
Adjustable Thumb Rest
A welcome addition to both the Alpha and Beta clarinets was not only the adjustable thumb rest, but also the neck strap attachment. Neck straps aren’t for everyone, but nothing is more annoying than having to use a little leather sheath under the thumb rest if you want to use one.
The thumb rest also features a small notch that accomodates a standard Philips screwdriver and ensures that it’s not going anywhere.
The only drawback to the thumb rest was that in its highest position (where I preferred it) the clarinet no longer fit in the case. In this situation it’s rather easy to simpy remove the neck strap attachment, but if you wanted to use the thumb rest in a high position with the neck strap you’re going to have to re-adjust the screw each time.
How do they play and Sound?!
Perhaps the most important question of all is how did they play? Of course, instrument choice is highly subjective, but I’ve attached a quick demo for you to hear.
Have a listen. In under 1 minute per instrument I do the following on the Alpha, Beta, and my R13 Festival:
- Chromatic scale in Chalemeau register (E to B-flat)
- Chalemeau study excerpt
- Chromatic Scale Clarion Register (C to C)
- Clarion study excerpt
(These exerpts were played with a D’Addario X25E mouthpiece, Legere European 3 strength reed, and a Peter Spriggs Ligature. I recorded them with a Shure MV88 recorder. It is worth noting that the mic was a bit too close and this is the reason for the volume difference between some notes on all 3 instruments.)
Buffet R13 Festival
I found that the Backun horns exhibited a lighthearted, bright, playful, and flexible tone. At first I found it too different than what I was used to, but after a few days I found it intriguing. It might not be for everyone (nothing is) but I really came to like the different, diverse tone colour of the Backun. It was a taste of something new and refreshing. Every time I returned to the more “dark” and “covered” sound of my Festival, it just felt less interesting.
The more I played the instrument, however, I started to wonder if my impressions were all in my head. After all, kids always love their latest toy the most, and clarinet players are just big kids with expensive toys.
So I decided to do a little experiment with something called a spectrogram to find out if there was any way to scientifically and objectively demonstrate the difference. (Disclaimer: I am not a scientist).
I analyzed the above recordings with the spectrogram in Adobe Audition and I have to say that the results were remarkable. The following pictures show what a chromatic scale from low E to middle B-flat look like on my Buffet Festival and then the Backun Beta.
(PS: If you’re not familiar with what a Spectrogram is, you are forgiven. Basically, it shows time on the horizontal axis, and frequency on the vertical axis. What it does is break a sound file into its frequencies, and displays them according to their prominence.)
As I suspected, the Backun clarinets had significantly more presence throughout the frequency range, started to taper off later, and they went much higher. In fact, the Buffet’s last visible overtones are around 5-8000 hz, while the Backun reaches between 6 and 10 000.
This is an incredibly difference in tonal colour and proves objectively that the Backun sound is not only more complex, but is indeed “brighter” than the Festival. It will be up to the individual player to decide what they are going for but I think it sounds great.
What Could be Improved
The Alpha was designed for entry level players, but is also intended to be an option for professionals to take outside when needed. When matched with a MoBa barrel and bell it apparently plays fantastically well, so much so that Corrado Giuffredi uses it all the time with his orchestra.
However, there’s no “A” clarinet version of the Alpha (or Beta), and while this is understandable due to potentially low demand, I actually think there is a real need for a quality, affordable, synthetic A clarinet in the marketplace. I have a student right now who would buy one.
The lack of an E-flat lever is somewhat disappointing, and for me it was especially missed after having had one on my Buffet Festival for the last 15 years. I didn’t realize how much I used it until I started playing daily with the Beta. It would be nice to have as an optional add-on, along with other elements of Backun’s keywork improvements such as the low F vent.
In fact, I would be very interested to see if Backun will release a “Synthetic MoBa” version of this horn at some point (even in gold?!) with a price tag to match for players that want the best possible experience from a synthetic Backun Instrument. Perhaps they have something else up their sleeve for a crack-resistant offering for daily professional use? Only time will tell!
The Backun Alpha and Beta Clarinets, while somewhat more expensive than similar instruments in the market, deliver a complex, versatile tone, great design features, and, of course, the iconic Backun appearance we all know and love. I think these instruments are definitely worthy of consideration by advancing players as a step up horn, and present a compelling option to anyone as a secondary or outdoor instrument.
I’ve been getting great mileage out of this clarinet. It’s been a blast to play, and I’ve been using it daily for me for the last four months. If you get a chance to try one, don’t miss it!