Royal USA Clarinets have been produced for international markets for about 5 years, and are designed by Boston clarinetist Yuan Gao. A collaboration with Lisa Canning (of Lisa’s Clarinet Shop) is allowing them to enter the US market for the first time, where they are already being used by students and professionals alike, including the world-renown Jonathan Cohler.
I take the Royal Classical for a spin to find out what all the fuss is about, and determine if these horns are a great bargain, or whether you’re better off waiting and saving up for a tried and true brand.
You can pick up a brand new set of wooden, silver-plated, professional Royal USA Classical Clarinets for just $4,500 USD. (No, this is not a typo!). This incredibly low price point is made possible by manufacturing the instruments in China, cutting out the middle man, and then passing the savings directly on to the consumer.
Unfortunately, the fact that these instruments are made in China may be an instant deal breaker for many players. In a way I understand given the country’s instrument manufacturing reputation over the past 20 years. However, many large instrument manufacturers are starting to outsource their work to Chinese factories. Gao’s particular facility employs under 10 people, and in spite of living in Boston, he checks in regularly on the manufacturing process in person.
Of course, it’s worth noting that I cannot truly attest to the build quality with these instruments one way or another given the short term trial period and the fact that they are so new on the market, but comparing these horns to a a $50 plastic CSO (clarinet-shaped-object) from Amazon simply because they are made in the same country doesn’t seem like an entirely rational thing to do.
Finding your Voice
Depending on your preference, you can select an “Oh,” “Ee,”or “Ah” voiced Royal Classical clarinet, and I was very interested to see, feel, and hear the difference between these three variations.
For my purposes, I asked to try the “Oh” and “Ee” voicings because these are the ones that I most closely identified with. (As a side note, I don’t actually know many people who use an “ah” voicing, though I hear this is common amongst players who use a double lip embouchure).
If you’re new to this concept or are not sure which voicing is best for you, Royal is now offering a program on their website called “Music For Good” which allows you to take an online course that helps you determine your best fit. The “Music for Good” program seems interesting, but was outside the scope of my review. I asked Lacy to please summarize the program for those who might be interested. (If you’re just interested in the clarinets, just skip to the end of the purple box to keep reading!)
Music For Good Manifesto
We believe that learning to play a musical instrument is a profound journey that positively and uniquely changes us. When one learns to play a musical instrument it deepens our understanding of who we are and what we are capable of. This happens because learning to play a musical instrument requires, at a minimum, more flexibility, courage, tenacity, and curiosity from us. It requires a look within. And to grow these skills one must embark on a journey of handholding and support from our family, friends, peers, patrons, colleagues and instructors.
As we walk on this path together, with others who have traveled on it before us, or who are just like us, or who just want to be like us, it teaches us to be more empathic and kind to ourselves and to others, equally, because no one succeeds at learning how to make beautiful music alone. Within a year of learning to play, we find ourselves with new strengths, new beliefs and new passions too.
When we open our hearts and minds to music making, we open ourselves up to new possibilities. And in return for doing so, we are gifted with greater discipline and empathy, with a renewed purpose towards our own lives, and with new friendships we encounter on the path we share with so many others on a similar journey.
Everyone deserves to experience the power of music making. And by doing so, we find ourselves challenged to break down the barriers that divide us, which can lead to the greater good. New growth spurs this kind of openness and desire for new understanding.
As such, the investment you make into Music for Good can serve those who:
- Need to find ways to advance their professional pursuits and ‘better’ their best’.
- Cannot afford to experience the richness of learning to play a musical instrument.
- Provide you with resources you can use for these two reasons or to help your studio thrive in any way you choose.
- By pledging a $1.00 you will be investing into our joint venture with Lisa’s Clarinet Shop to produce the education you most want ON DEMAND. Your education dollars will 100% be rebated into your account so that you can use them for anything you want through us.
So, invest in a course. And send us a comment and tell us what you would like Lisa’s Clarinet Shop to create next for you.
To your highest purpose and best clarinetistry, friends!
Lisa, Lacy, and Yuan
Upon receiving the instruments, which arrived within 5 days of shipping to Canada, which was quite fast, I was surprised to see that the only visual difference between the models was a small tag affixed to the thumb rest with “Ee” or “Oh” hand-written in blue pen. I was careful not to remove the tags (except for the photos), since this would undoubtedly have caused me to mix up the instruments.
I expected the models to have subtle differences with the bore or register vent placement, but it turned out that there are no physical differences between the clarinets at all. The voicing specification is simply a result of the natural variation in the finished product, and is decided after the fact by the hand-selection process itself. In other words, these results are not premeditated, and there’s no way to find out which is which unless you try them, and this is, obviously, a rather subjective means of making this differentiation at all.
Many will appreciate the way that the instruments are organized in this manner I’m sure, but the voicing concept lost some of its flair for me when I learned there was no difference between the models as seems to be implied.
Comfortable, Adjustable Thumb Rest
The thumb rest on the Royal Clarinets is large, comfortable, adjustable, and features a convenient neck strap hook. In my opinion, these features should be standard on every modern clarinet, and it’s fantastic to see them here.
Regal Register Key
My absolute favourite feature of the Royal Clarinets is their register key. It bends off to the right as if windswept, and reminded me in particular of Salvador Dali’s famous melting clock paintings.
The fact that it looks interesting is one thing, but the real joy came from using it. What a fantastic design! I’d love to see more manufacturers bend the key off to the side like this. It’s just so much more natural to use, and was a pleasure to play on.
The keywork on the Royal clarinets is solid metal (not various pieces soldered together) but is only available in silver plate. I would hope that a Nickel or ever gold model become available because many people do prefer different finishes for personal reasons ranging from allergies to feel (which I debated with Andrew Morrow in Episode 51 of the podcast).
If you keep a small Philips screwdriver in your case you can make adjustments on the fly thanks to adjustment mechanisms below the right hand pinky keys and along the rods on the opposite side of the instrument. I’m sure many players will find these quite handy.
Although I appreciate the convenience of these adjustment screws, I would probably end up just sealing them with a little but of nail polish or threadlocker to keep them in place once set. Of course, this kind of defeats the purpose of having them at all, but I would personally prefer this to prevent them from slipping at inopportune times. Given my experience with my very finicky bass clarinet, this seems like an appropriate concern that I wouldn’t want carried over to my main instruments. Who knows, though. I might find I really like the convenience. I’ve never had these features on a B-flat clarinet before so it’s hard to say exactly how my experience with them would be in the long term.
E-Flat Lever Lovers
If you are like me and can’t live without a left-hand E-flat lever, you are in luck. Both the B-flat and A version of the Royal Classical Clarinet can be upgraded to include this key for an additional $250 USD.
This is something I would definitely consider, but the relative price of this upgrade when compared to the rest of the horn is very high. This single key ends up adding almost 13% to the total cost of the B-flat version of the instrument. Of course, this starts to push the investmont closer to other brands’ price points, especially in the used market. If your needs and budget starts expanding upwards in this way, you may want to consider all the additional options that become available to ensure you make the best choice for you.
EDIT: I’ve been informed by Royal that this upgrade includes an additional barrel. This make the cost much more justifiable and if I were purchasing these instruments I would definitely do this.
The case for the Royal Classical is the same German-made Jacob Winter case that has arguably been made famous by Buffet. It’s a great case that’s highly durable and I’ve always been a huge fan of the comfortable latches on these cases and the little ribbon that prevents them from opening too far. I definitely was impressed when I first opened the box and saw these cases. A very nice touch.
Jacob Winter cases are lockable, which might seem great at first, but I would personally not use the locks since the keys are too easily lost. I can barely find my car keys half the time, and the idea of needing to search for the keys for my “clarinet key” before a show causes anxiety just typing it out! Best not to use them, I would say. And in fact, I don’t know anyone who does.
How do they play?
As I already mentioned (but will repeat for the benefit of those skim-reading this article), I tried the “Ee” and “Oh” voiced instruments for a period of about 2 weeks. Honestly, this isn’t a lot of time to get to know any instrument, but it’s all most people have when making a choice, of course.
For the first week I was positive that the “Oh” clarinet was my favorite (as reflected in the podcast episode that was recorded during that time), since it seemed to exhibit a very dark, rich, resonant tone with an ease of articulation that I greatly enjoyed when compared to the “Ee” instrument. The sound, feel, and scale was generally even across the registers, although the tuning tendencies were a bit different than what I was used to on my Buffet. All in all, it was a pleasure to play.
By the middle of the second week, though, the instruments had switched places. All the qualities that I preferred in the “Oh” clarinet inexplicably shifted to the “Ee” clarinet. Of course it’s possible that my preferences adjusted to the different instruments, but this one became my favourite for the remainder of the trial.
The action became a bit sluggish by around day 10 on some keys, most notably on the A mechanism, which of course started causing random squeaking, but I remedied the issue with some minor adjustments.
Perhaps the difference that occurred between instruments and the key work changes were just part of them settling in to the new (much drier) climate here in Calgary, and it’s worth noting that they come with 90 days of free adjustments. However, If I was considering these horns for myself I would have most surely tried at least 3 more of each to be sure I was getting something consistent all round.
Overall, I was impressed with the sound and response, especially given the price point, but I’d be interested to see how they hold up with daily use over a long period.
What do my Students Have to Say?
I had several students try these instruments and they were not only thrilled by how they felt, but were surprised by the price. The most notable quote came from a student in Grade 10 who remarked “Oh my god, it feels like butter!” She loved the smooth, quiet action of the keys and the dark, consistent tone the instrument produced. To be fair, her main horn is quite old and needs a bit of TLC, but I could see this instrument being a great next step for her. It would surely be an easier sell to her parents than some of the competition.
Another student (an intermediate adult student) was intrigued by the variation between the two clarinets and, like me, strongly preferred the “Ee” instrument. She was again impressed with the price and did not seem at all deterred by the fact that they are made overseas.
What’s next from Royal
As Lacy Garbar mentioned on Episode 53 of the Clarineat podcast, Royal is soon to be expanding their line of instruments to include some higher end models, a bass clarinet that is apparently designed in collaboration with Rossi, and they have just introduced a new line of adjustable barrels. It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on this company, and it’s always great to see a new instrument maker on the block.
These instruments present an enticing option for many clarinetists. I can especially see advancing students, “prosumers”, and doublers on a budget finding these to be an option worth considering. After all, where else can you get a matching set of brand new instruments with professional features for just $4500?
However, I imagine most seasoned pros will stick to the tried and true brands, right or wrong, at least until Royal gets a chance to establish itself and prove its brand in this market. Overall I would recommend trying several of them if you have the chance, and if you’re lucky enough to be in attendance at the 2017 ClarinetFest in Orlando, Florida, they should have their extended line available for trial.