Alto⁺⁸ shawm

by pfh, published

Alto⁺⁸ shawm by pfh Oct 29, 2012
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A shawm, a double reed instrument, the wild ancestor of the oboe and the archetypal medieval sound.

This shawm is about the same size as an alto recorder. The pitch is an octave above alto voice.

Thanks to John Boshua for the excellent print. The STL files are slightly updated from the shawm in the photos, with a decorative end flare and improved finger hole geometry.


Depending on the capabilities of your printer, print:

The whole instrument in one go
OR segments 1-of-2 and 2-of-2
OR segments 1-of-2 and 3-of-4 and 4-of-4
OR segments 1-of-4 and 2-of-4 and 3-of-4 and 4-of-4

Make a drinking-straw reed using the instructions here:

The straw should be ~4mm diameter.

Use some sort of grease to make tight seals between all the joints, and with the reed.

Fingering chart:

More sizes of shawm are available in the "pre-built" design pack downloadable from:

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Made one today and it turned out that it is indeed very loud. For exercising (and the sake of my marriage) i use a pillow as damper.

I did some experiments with the "straw-reed" and found different styles (flat, triangels, sandpapered) but its difficult to find a perfect solution as the different holes seems to need different approches of blowing. I found out that even a pure straw with holes makes a nice flute (youtube -> Peter Bastian).

Thanks for sharing

Ha! When I saw this one, my immediate thought was "I bet it uses a plastic drinking straw for the reed". They're really remarkably effective double-reeds.

I finally got the four-part folk alto shawm built, and am very very slowly figuring out how to actually make all the notes play. Any tips?

It's a motor skill which is a bit hard to explain but should come with practice. A matter of applying a certain amount of pressure with the lips on the straw, at a particular position, and blowing with a certain amount of pressure, and with a little bit of a "ta" to start the note.

The upper register can be reached with by cracking the top hole open slightly, and it's also to do with exactly how much pressure you're putting on the reed and so on. Also how far into the upper register you can get is very dependant on the reed. For this size instrument, with this design, it's only a few notes.

As usual, the instrument can't have any tiny holes, eg in the joints, or it will tend to leap straight into the higher registers or not play at all.

The reed is also critical, and might require some experimentation.

Good luck!

One small quibble - this is a sopranino, not an alto. (and may be part of the reason that the reed works when oboe scaled)

my soprano's (in C 440), one Hanchet, one Moulder have sounding lengths of 40/45cm, and overall lengths of 65/75cm). 

Still looks interesting.   Is there a historical instrument that this is modeled on, as I haven't seen any museum instruments (or copies) that have the register hole. (I have seen them on the shawm cousin the rauchfipe) Also I would have expected a hole somewhere between the last finger hole and the end of the bell.  The historical examples I have seen, set the sounding length with a hole, not the end of the bell.  The bell extends another 40-60% of the sounding length.  It improves the tone, and it is a lot easier to tune the bottom note when all you have to modify is the top of a small hole.

If old paintings are to be believed, the reed shape has varied over time - the medieval reads were narrower,, more like the oboe's,  the renaissance reeds were much shorter but the same width as a modern bassoon reed - they looked like a fan with a squared off top.  An old teacher of mine joked that he switched to the fan reeds, because he could get 3 of them out of a standard bassoon reed blank.

Most of the musicians I hang around with play recorders, which are generally named an octave above human voice (I play SCA). The finger spacing is comparable to an "alto" recorder, as is the pitch. It is a point of confusion, and I'm open to suggestions for a less confusing naming scheme.

This is only modelled after a historical shawm in fairly general terms. For the moment I'm just trying to produce something that is in tune and has the same general characteristics: conical bore, finger holes, double reed, loud.

A tuning hole above the bell would be easy to add. As I'm doing a numerical simulation of the instrument before making it, I don't need it in order to tune the instrument. Even the flared end is purely decorative in terms of tuning. It would be interesting to see the affect of this on the tone. Something to experiment with.

I find the register hole helpful getting into the second octave. With this instrument I can play a little under halfway into the second octave, and it takes a fair degree of control. It's a start :-). I think the upper octave being in tune also improves the tone of the instrument, even if it is hard to play. Better reeds might make a register hole unnecessary. The rauschpfeife needs a register hole because the reed is enclosed in a windcap and is less controlable, presumably.

HI wonderful more playable items can you make a file with the all pieces on the build platform it would make life easier for a lot of people. Also is it more in line with an oboe reed or bassoon. 

Good ideal, I'll update my software to pack all the pieces into a single file.

Traditionally the shawm reed is shaped like a bassoon reed, but the critical thing is the range of pitches the reed likes to play, and for this size of instrument an oboe reed will be closer to a good match. The ideal would be like a bassoon reed, but smaller.