There's simply no substitute for having the right clarinet reed. It's the primary effector of sound in your instrument - with its vibrations, the reed creates the foundation of the clarinet's tone. A reed is a delicate item, and even the subtlest differences from one to the next will have a profound effect on its sound. Although embouchure and playing skill are some of the key ingredients in achieving the strong, warm tone you desire, reed selection is every bit as important.
The first and most basic thing to look for when choosing your clarinet reed is that you're buying for the correct type of clarinet. In most cases, that will mean Bb. The Bb clarinet is by far the most common, especially for beginners. However, if you play a bass clarinet or Eb clarinet, be sure to look for reeds made specifically for the instrument that you own. All it takes is a check of the box (or the product information when buying online) - an easy but critical step toward making a purchase.
Before delving into the finer details of reeds, it's a good idea to get a sense for the general particulars so you'll understand how different characteristics can alter a reed's performance. There are three active parts to a reed: the tip, the vamp and the heart.
The tip is the narrow end of the reed, and affects the quickness of response. With a thinner tip, the reed will make sound more rapidly. A thicker tip, on the other hand, strengthens the reed so that it can handle greater airflow.
The vamp is the inclined, "peeled" part of the reed leading to the tip. A long vamp makes the reed flexible and responsive, ideal for jazz musicians. A concert clarinetist, on the other hand, may prefer a shorter vamp for its improved focus.
The heart is the area in the center of the vamp. Like the tip, its thickness affects the instrument's sound, with a thinner heart producing reedier tone and color.
In addition to the shaping of a reed's "business end," there are also three different cuts to choose from. The distinction between them is subtle enough that it won't very much matter to a beginner, but it's worth knowing the difference before you encounter them while shopping. American, or regular cut reeds, are thin with a dark tonal character. You can spot these by the distinct "U" shape where the vamp joins the rest of the reed.
A second style, called French file or French cut, can be discerned from the traditional cut by having a straight shoulder where the "U" shape has been filed down. This makes for a versatile reed, and is a good match for a darker-sounding mouthpiece in order to get a well-balanced tone. Similarly, the darker regular cut pairs nicely with brighter mouthpieces. If neither one seems quite right for your instrument, you may wish to consider the third option: German cut. These reeds provide strong, warm tone, but they're also the thickest, which makes them more difficult for a beginner to handle.
Cane and its Alternatives
For a great many years, the only material considered suitable for the best-quality clarinet reeds was a woody grass called Arundo Donax. This is what's referred to as a cane reed, and it's known for its rich tone. Most of this cane comes from France, but further sources, including Spain, Argentina and other countries, are becoming more and more popular. For many clarinetists, natural cane woodwind reeds are still the only way to go.
Unlike in the past, however, there is a second option that's been made possible by new modern materials and manufacturing methods: synthetic reeds. Although synthetic reeds have their detractors, they're improving with each new generation - and they do have one key advantage over cane reeds, which is that they're completely neutral to humidity. This means they will always sound consistent no matter the time of year or weather conditions, which makes them a common choice for musicians in marching bands who need to perform rain or shine.
Reed Strength - What's in a Number?
Playing technique aside, the principal factor determining your clarinet's tone is the strength of its reed. You can tell the strength by the number printed on the reed and its packaging, with higher numbers designating a reed as stiffer. Experience level matters here, because getting good performance out of a very stiff reed takes advanced breath support and embouchure. The tradeoff is that a stiffer reed will produce a darker tone.
Finding the right balance for your skill level, instrument and playing style is essential. A reed that's too stiff will lose articulation and isn't conducive to soft passages, while a reed that's too soft will sound excessively bright with a potentially flat upper register. The best way to find the perfect reed for you is to try some different sizes to see what works best.
For most reed manufacturers, strength numbers run from 1 through 5, but there are some brands that also include half-steps, and others that simply call them "soft," "medium," and "hard." If you're a beginner, start with reeds in the 2-3, or "medium," range. It's also worth noting that the exact scale varies by manufacturer, so if you change brands, make sure to test the reed to make sure the same number gives you the same performance. If it doesn't, try the next size up or down accordingly.
Tips & Advice
Brand is not as important a factor as you may think. While it's true that exact specifications vary from one to another, it's also true that you can generally find equivalent reeds in any brand, even if the strength number or exact geometry varies slightly. Two of the brands that are especially popular with beginners are Rico and Vandoren.
Once you have a solid handle on the right reeds for your instrument and technique, it's worth your while to master care and maintenance practices so that you can keep them in good shape. Proper hydration, climate control and even physical care like gentle re-shaping can all help you get longer life and better performance out of your reeds.
It's a good idea to keep at least 3 spare reeds on hand, and there are special reed containers available that will help them stay moisturized. Test your reeds from time to time to make sure they're in good condition, and replace or re-moisturize them as necessary.