How Flute Pads Work – Part 1 – Traditional Flute Pads – Flute Essentials

How Flute Pads Work – Part 1 – Traditional Flute Pads

There are a number of different types of pads available for flute players, now, but how can you know objectively which one is best?

The types of pads that are generally available are these:

  • Traditional felt pads
  • Straubinger pads
  • Straubinger Style (imitation) pads
  • Jim Schmidt Gold and Black Gold Pads
  • Muramatsu Pads

There are so many different qualities that a flute pad can bring to the table, for both the repairers of flutes and the players of flutes.  We live in an era of rapidly developing technology, but the method of installing pads is still quite archaic. The pads themselves are evolving, and I think that we are coming close to the perfect pad.

The types of qualities that each pad type holds, revolve around these areas:

  • How does it affect the tone quality?
  • How well can it seal the tone-holes?
  • How does it affect the way the flute feels?
  • How stable is the pad?
  • How long will the pad last?

We will look at how they compare and what qualities and benefits they can bring to your flute life, in this series of articles.

Traditional Felt Flute Pads

It wasn’t all that long ago (am I showing my age?) that these pads were virtually the only ones available to flute players. Every flute technician has been trained in the fitting of these pads and they are still the most widely-used pad for flutes. And they are the least expensive to buy as a ‘part’ for the flute.

They can certainly do the job, but there are reasons why most serious players have moved away from them. Despite this, they do have their advantages. Let’s have a look at how they work…

What are they made from?

Traditional pads are made with traditional materials, in an “old world” sense. These are the types of materials that have been available for hundreds of years. None of them are very durable.

  • Cardboard
  • Felt
  • Goldbeater’s skin, also known as fish skin

In a traditional pad, the card is used as the backing material, to help keep the pad stiff and relatively inflexible. The felt, of course, is used to provide the padding, so that the flute key can close without making too much noise, and the goldbeater’s skin is used to make the pad air-tight (felt is very porous and cannot make the tone-hole seal well).

How stable are the pads?

All of these components are subject to environmental conditions including heat and moisture. The moisture can include general humidity in the air, as well as the moisture that runs through the flute during a playing session. This is why proper flute care is so important!

Both cardboard and felt will change shape and thicken up when exposed to moisture. And how much thicker can they become? Maybe one millimeter? Does that sound like a lot?

For comparison, when working with traditional pads, I will often make adjustments of three hundredths of a millimeter. For a traditional pad, three hundredths is a small amount, but one millimeter is enormous, and this type of a change can make an instrument unplayable.

Moisture can make a pad deteriorate fairly quickly, so it is important to always clean a flute at regular intervals during play, and after every playing session. Moisture left inside a case with the flute is one of the biggest killers.

Heat is also an important factor in pad life and stability. Excess heat can warp cardboard, and shrink felt. It can also shrink the goldbeater’s skin. If the goldbeater’s skin shrinks, it pulls the sides of the pad inwards, causing it to lose shape and begin leaking.

There is a lot that can go wrong with traditional pads. They are extremely vulnerable to the elements and require some very special care to keep them working well.

Traditional pad variations

The evolution of the flute pad certainly began with the traditional pad. The aim has always been to build a better quality pad. The materials in a traditional pad can make a big difference to how easy it is to work with, and what the end result will be for the player.

The felt that makes up the ‘cushion’ in the middle of the pad can come in a couple of different types and many different grades. The felt types that are available are basically either woven or pressed.

In a woven pad, you can see the weaving along the side of the pad. This is usually hidden once the pad is installed inside the key cup of the flute. The majority of woven pads on the market are fairly soft, although I have seen versions over the years that are quite firm.

A soft pad gives the flute a bit more of a squishy feel and the player will normally need to press more firmly than normal to make it work well. There are tricks that can be used to increase the firmness of the pad, but I do not believe the result is acceptable for a professional player, and is also not a recommendation I would make for a student player either.

On the other hand, a pad made with pressed felt is normally more firm. Although felt can be ‘pressed’ to make just about any type of density, the ones that are used in most pads are firm enough to give a very satisfactory result for any instrument.

Best use for traditional pads

The biggest advantage traditional pads have over any other is their flexibility.

This means that they can be used in any flute, no matter how warped or misshapen they tone-holes may be.

Traditional pads are normally the best pads to use in student-level flutes, because these instruments tend to bend out of shape more easily than professional instruments. The top side of a flute is filled with holes and makes this part of the flute fairly weak in this respect.

The metal in a student flute is also usually thinner than a professional flute, and the tone-holes are drawn, leading to further weaknesses. In addition, the instruments at this level generally tend to be handled not-so-well.

There are times when straightening such flutes is not desirable. This is where pads can make a big difference. A traditional pad has the ability to follow the contour of the tone hole and make a perfect seal. The other more advanced pads cannot provide this option.

Fitting traditional pads to a flute

Fitting traditional pads to a flute varies slightly from repairer to repairer. There are various techniques to make the pad surface firm enough for good response and satisfactory tactile sensation.

Repairers can make use of the flexibility of these pads to obtain a result. The felt can be squished and heated to create a firmer product and the skin can be heated to iron out wrinkles that are created from fitting to the flute.

Heat and moisture are important in fitting a traditional pad, but using too much of either can deteriorate the pad from the beginning or leave it stuck to the inside of the keycup, all of which can make it impossible to make fine adjustments in the future.

The best fit can be obtained over a few days. The pad will normally sink in and mold to the keycup and stabilize over a number of hours. After this movement has occurred, the pad needs to be re-adjusted and re-molded. This is why padding cannot be carried out properly in just one day.

Whole and part shims are needed underneath the pad to make the flute seat perfectly flat over the tone hole. This is how these types of pads are manipulated to form a good seal over a tone hole of any type or condition.

Summary

Traditional flute pads are extremely vulnerable to heat and moisture, so they require constant care to ensure they continue to function as expected.

When well-cared for, these pads can easily outlast other pad types such as Straubinger pads, and some players have chosen to use traditional pads over Straubingers, in their flutes for this very reason.  However, there is more than one choice when it comes to Straubinger-style pads, as we’ll see in the next article.

The traditional pad can create an excellent sound when fitted well, but is still unlikely to outperform the firmer pads created with newer technologies.

Overall, the traditional pad creates the standard sound and feel that flute players are used to, and most serious players will still find them satisfactory in a performance setting, if they have been fitted correctly by the technician.

In the next article we will have a look at Straubinger pads – the pros, cons and the limitations – and what a difference they can make to your flute.

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Drew Niemeyer

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