An interesting collaboration on 
Firth, Pond and Co

Even as I learned that Grey Larsen, Irish flute player from Bloomington, Indiana, was booked for the National Folk Festival in Canberra at Easter 2003, the little wheels started to turn.  Now here's a strange fellow, surely.  While most of the other well-known Irish flute players go for the big Rudalls or the even bigger Pratten's, Grey prefers his small holed 19th century American made flute by Firth, Pond and Co.  Perhaps he's insane?  Or is there some feature of the instrument we should acquaint ourselves with?  I resolved to find out.

It seemed a bit mean though to lean on Grey to spend the necessary time for me to find out at his expense.  It's hard enough to make a living as a professional musician without the predations of fat capitalist musical instrument makers like me! (Er, what?)

So I talked to the wonderful people at artsACT - the ACT Government's Arts support unit.  The main funding round for the year had already closed, but fortunately I could apply for a "quick-response" grant.  I remembered that years ago when I was on the peer group review committee for music grants I had argued for just such a grant scheme.  Now here I was applying for one.  How wheels turn!

So I applied for funding to cover Grey's time for a collaboration on American made flutes, and sure enough, it seemed like a good idea to them too.  And Grey liked it, so the stage was set.

Grey Larsen?

Oops, perhaps you haven't met Grey yet...  

Grey Larsen is an American musician who has been playing Irish flute since the mid-1970s. He is regarded as one of the finest players active today.  Since 1976 he has made numerous recordings, on his own and in collaboration with Paddy League, André Marchand, Metamora, and Malcolm Dalglish.  Titles include Dark of the Moon, The Green House, the Orange Tree, the Gathering, Thunderhead, and Banish Misfortune.  He has also contributed new tunes to the repertoire, notably "Thunderhead", which has been performed and recorded by the likes of Lunasa, North Cregg, the Tannahill Weavers, Kevin Burke & Micheál O Domhnaill, and Andy Irvine.

Grey has other strings to his bow - he plays Irish concertina, and fiddle in the Scandinavian and American Old Timey traditions.  He's a sought-after recording mastering engineer, a teacher and author.  His forthcoming book "The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle" (to be published in July 2003 by Mel Bay Publications) is a mammoth 500 page work featuring a penetrating new approach to understanding and notating ornamentation, guidance on breathing and phrasing, exercises, history and theory of traditional Irish flute and whistle music, and 27 meticulous transcriptions of recordings of great Irish flute and tin whistle players from 1926 to 2001.  I enjoyed the opportunity to take a sneak peek at the manuscript while Grey was here.  Great work!  Indeed, Matt Molloy, Irish Flute player with the Chieftains, says this about the book:

"Grey has, through his research, patience, and diligence, completed a work on Irish flute and tin whistle that I feel is essential reading for anybody interested in getting it right."

Find out more about Grey, his recordings, the forthcoming book, etc

About the Collaboration

So what were the aims of this collaboration?  

  • To understand better the nature of American-made flutes, 
  • to try to determine what had influenced their design, 
  • to determine what (if anything) they have to offer the modern player, 
  • perhaps to attempt a copy and, if so, then 
  • to determine whether the copy also exhibits the features that made the flute attractive.  
  • And, if not, why not?!

Convince me!

I started by confronting Grey with a pile of the best London-made flutes, and a pile of mine with different heads and embouchures.  Pratten's, Hawkes, Nicholsons, Rudall's, and modern copies thereof.  Could we shake his preference for his small-holed American flute?  No, it seemed not.  

So what magic ingredient did the Firth, Pond & Co have that all these others didn't?  I asked Grey to elucidate ...

"When I first encountered my Firth, Pond & Co. flute, which I have been playing since about 1980, I was immediately thrilled with it. The sound is rich, full, and well-balanced through a two-octave range. The low notes are especially strong. It is lightweight and very comfortable to hold, with a relatively small outer diameter. The small finger holes are also very easy to cover (and were familiar to me at that time since I had been playing a William Hall four-key flute). There is also a quickness and agility in its responsiveness to finger movements which is a delight, a nimbleness that I do not find in flutes with large bores/finger holes. The separate foot-joint allows custom positioning of the E-flat key to fit my hand." 

"The six-key configuration seems ideal, as I value chromatic flexibility but don't often miss having low C and C-sharp. I'd rather not have the extra weight of an extended foot-joint, and I like the solid strength of the low D that I think the short foot provides. The intonation is superb, the best I have encountered in a wooden flute. Playing with a dark, rich tone comes very naturally on this flute, and that suits my musical personality. I can also play bright and hard if I like, or sweet and extremely quiet."

"You can hear this flute (with a Chris Abell head-joint) on my latest two CDS with Paddy League, "Dark of the Moon" (2003) and "The Green House" (2002). On "Dark of the moon", I suggest track 4, The Blackbird /The Gold Ring, and track 10, The Slopes of Mount Storm/Hurry the Jug/Dark of the Moon. On "The Green House", I suggest cut 4, The Wind that Shakes the Barley/Dusk Among the Willows, and cut 11, Sweet Iniscara/The Morning Star/Scotch Mary/Music in the Glen. You can hear this flute with its original Firth, Pond & Co. head-joint on the following CDs: "The Orange Tree", "The Gathering", "The Great Road", and "Metamora"."

(Note.  The original Firth, Pond & Co head and barrel were fully lined with the metal tubes forming the tuning slide, and like most such old flutes have cracked in both sections.  Grey now plays the flute with a partially-lined blackwood head and barrel built by American maker Chris Abell.  Although of quite different appearance, the head largely follows the original dimensions in matters that count.  Probably the only really different factors are a "cutaway" leading away from the "edge" and the fact of the partial lining.)

My reaction

Now it's not enough that Grey prefers the flute - would others?  Would I?  I found it quick, playful and sonorous.  OK, worth getting serious with.  So I settled down to measure the instrument thoroughly while Grey entertained himself playing various of my heads and flutes and making notes.  Not surprisingly, Grey found himself preferring my smallest model (the Rudall Refined).  Still big compared to the Firth, Pond & Co ....  

The day ran out and Grey headed off for a media engagement.  I settled down to analysing the data.  The one thing I regretted was not having had time to measure the instrument's intonation.  It had seemed OK listening and playing, but some numbers would be good.  Grey was off interstate next morning.  I rang him first thing and had him play the flute over the phone.  With my phone on "speaker", I recorded straight into the computer for subsequent pitch analysis.  We have the technology ....

A new flute

The pitch analysis showed some of the usual irregularities but nothing I haven't dealt with before.  Indeed, it positively beckoned.  But did I really have time to make a new set of reamers to make this flute?  Couldn't I cheat just a little?

I mapped out the bore shapes and compared it with some of the other flutes I had made over the years.  There were some peculiarities I couldn't hope to match without the proper reamers, but maybe they were small enough to not be critical.  I didn't have to clone this flute for the purposes of initial discovery - just approximate it.  If it continued to look promising, I could then make the reamers and do the job properly.  Indeed, fudging it promised to give us an idea of just how accurate a copy has to be to have reasonably similar playing characteristics.

A nice piece of gidgee (Acacia Cambagei) of just the right dimensions was found quivering in fear under the saw bench and was rapidly slashed into bits.  The rag-tag collection of reamers converted it into a plausible approximation of the original.  Although the temptation to "make a few little changes" was high, I opted to keep it similar, stupid.  Grey would be back in town in a week; let's see what he thinks needs fixing before we mess with it.

As is my usual practice, I opted to make a keyless version in the first instance.  Much less work, just in case it turns out to be a complete dud.

The Firth, Pond & Co 6-key original in cocuswood and silver (above) 
with the keyless copy in gidgee and silver (below).  

You'll notice in the comparison above I've thinned the head a little on each side of the embouchure, and reduced the overhang beyond the stopper, both measures to reduce the possibility of making the flute "head heavy".   This can be an issue with keyless flutes with a short foot, especially when the body is elegantly thin as with the Firth, Pond & Co.  The barrel appears to be a little lower, but that was just so I could make use of my usual socket cutters.  It has no acoustic implications.

My appraisal

So what did I think of the copied instrument?  I thought it was good.  Surprisingly good volume, good intonation (a few quirks but nothing offensive and nothing that couldn't be tweaked), snappy articulation, and very good balance of volumes.  Let me extrapolate on these points.


It's certainly the normal assumption that large-hole flutes are louder than small-hole flutes - they sure give that impression.  We should thus expect this flute to be very quiet, and yet it's not.  Hmmm ...


Articulation is all about how quickly or slowly notes will form.  Or perhaps more importantly in our musical context, how precisely can ornaments such as rolls, cuts, cranns, etc be articulated?  My impression is that small hole flutes are "snappier" than large holed flutes. Perhaps the changeover from "covered" to "uncovered" occurs in a shorter vertical distance, and therefore less time?  More hmmm ...

Balance of Volume

It's always seemed to me that, contrary to popular 19th century opinion, a flute with identical sized holes all the way along would not display perfect balance of loudness on each note, but indeed display a gradual reduction in loudness with increasing length.  The obvious example is the Boehm flute.  There's no way that the lowest few notes are as loud as the top ones.

And I'd expect a flute with small holes to do the reverse - the body notes will be a little subdued, but the bottom end note (which takes advantage of the whole bore diameter for venting) will honk like the proverbial gander in the proverbial pratie hole.  Now that's been my supposition, but is it true?  

Is this the opportunity to find out?


The tuning of the original was not perfect (is it ever?).  And because I was loath to make substantial changes before Grey reviewed it, neither was the copy.  But it was better - I did work the undercutting harder than Firth & Pond did.  What was interesting was that it seemed to need intervention a good deal less than most of the English flutes I had copied.  By any yardstick, it was eminently satisfactory.  (I might yet just give it a little tweak later...)

Grey's appraisal

So Grey returned a week later to rejoin the fray. The obvious first thing to do was see what he thought of the copy...  

"The copy is great. On playing it the first time it felt and sounded so much like my Firth, Pond & Co. flute that I was thrilled with it.  If my flute was ever to be lost, I now know where I'd go for a replacement. There are subtle differences in tone due to Terry's embouchure being different from that of my Abell head-joint, and perhaps due to different kinds of wood. But the response, intonation, strength of the low notes, overall balance, light weight, easy feel - all the things I love about my Firth, Pond & Co. are here in Terry's copy."

You can hear Grey playing my version of his flute - The Sunny Banks.

Boring issues

You'll remember I stewed this thing up using a dodgy set of reamers.  If Grey ( the original flute's owner) felt the copy was a good work-a-like of the original, this must tell us something about the level of precision needed.  Just how different are these bores?  Check them out on this extremely exaggerated chart.

Hmmm, decidedly sloppy work, you might say!  and indeed there are few points where the original (in bold) and the "copy" (thin traces) coincide.  I could probably have got the match better, even with "borrowed" reamers, but you'll remember time was of the essence.  Still, they follow the same general shape and rarely deviate more than 0.5mm - about 3 to 4% at worst.  Now normally we aim for a precision in the 0.1mm area - better than 1%.  It probably means we could afford to relax a bit, but, as 0.1mm accuracy is fairly easily achieved, why would you?  Aiming for anything better would be wasted effort, especially as wood movement with the seasons will negate any higher precision. 

Further investigations

With those matters out of the way, we settled down to study some of the issues pertaining to the original identified earlier:

  • Intonation
  • Loudness
  • Articulation

The Loudness and Articulation studies threw up some very interesting stuff which really requires further investigation.  Preliminary results are given though.


We measured the loudness of three flutes:

  • The Firth, Pond and Co original (very small holes)
  • A medium holed Rudall copy (medium)
  • A Pratten's Perfected copy (the largest anywhere)
We followed the standard procedure - taking results from a sound level meter with A-weighting at a distance of 1 metre.  (A-weighting simulates the ear's response to sounds at different pitches.)  

Grey was instructed to play at the comfortable centre volume of each note - not pulling back and not pushing it to its extreme.  The microphone stand directly in front of him kept him at 1M distance.  The sound level meter can be seen on the tripod in front of me.

Ideally we would have done this outdoors to minimise reflections from walls, floor and ceiling, but unfortunately the day was far too windy.  Some of the lumps and bumps on the curves below are probably due to standing waves in one or more of the three axes of the room.  None the less, as the three flutes were measured under the same conditions, the general relativity should be valid.

Ignoring the bumps then and looking for trends, we note that all three flutes follow the same general pattern - a reasonably flat response above F natural and a diminishing response below it.  Even that could be a room effect, indicating reducing support for lower frequencies below the room's "cut-off" frequency.  But the important thing to note is that the small holed Firth, Pond & Co (pink trace) is not significantly quieter than its bigger sisters. 

Tabulating the results:

Flute: Firth Pond & Co Medium Rudall Copy Pratten's Perfected Copy
Loudest Note 86 dBA 86 dBA 88 dBA
Quietest Note 72 dBA 70 dBA 72 dBA
Average loudness 79 dBA 79 dBA 81 dBA
Range of loudness 14 dB 17 dB 16 dB

We can see that the Pratten's copy ends up an average 2dB louder, while the other two were very similar.  Keep in mind that 1dB is the smallest change detectable by a trained listener on a constant tone, and three dB is the smallest change detectable in normal program material (eg music) for the average listener.  An apparent doubling of sound intensity is 10dB.  In the light of those definitions a 2dB change is not very significant.

Indeed, it isn't enough to explain the perceived difference in loudness of the Pratten's and the Firth, Pond & Co.  We have to assume for the moment that the difference is mostly timbrel in nature, although a quick comparison of the spectra of notes played on each instrument did not reveal anything startling.  Clearly a lot more work needs to be done here.  It is important that we can understand what influences our perception of loudness and fullness in a flute, and what characteristics of the flute contribute to that perception.

The range of loudness (difference between the loudest and quietest notes) seems to bear out the perception that this small-holed flute has a better balance of volume across its range than either of its bigger sisters.  More work is needed to confirm this with a series of measurements taken under better acoustic conditions.


Articulation - the flute's ability to respond quickly and surely to changes in fingering or blowing - also proves a difficult matter to quantify.  Our perception was that the FP&Co responded significantly more crisply than larger flutes, and that the larger the flute the less quickly it responded.  We recorded fast transitions between notes (in the form of ornaments) and viewed the waveforms using the digital audio editor Wavelab.  In the general case, the difference between the speed of recovery after the change did not seem significant or repeatable.  More work needed here too.  Again, outdoors on a quiet day or an artificially non-reverberant chamber might be essential for meaningful transient analysis.

There was one fascinating discovery however.  One of Grey's armoury of ornaments is the long crann on the middle D note.  Cranns, originally a piping ornament, are being used increasingly by Irish flute players.  The fingering pattern for this crann is:

oxx xxx
oxx oxx
oxx xxx
oxx xox
oxx xxx
oxx oxx
oxx xxx

all carried out in fractions of a second on one breath.

Grey was convinced that there was a significant difference in the performance of large and small hole flutes on this crann.  Examining the waveform of the final transition as played on a large holed flute revealed a significant period of cyclical instability before the note finally stabilised.  But repeating the test with the FP&Co also showed a small amount of the same instability.  Sure enough, subsequent testing of a medium sized flute showed a medium amount of the same artefact.  So it's a flute issue, not a particular flute issue.

This screen grab from the digital audio editor shows the instability clearly - those three (almost five) groups of about five cycles each shouldn't be there!  That was the worst case - a Pratten's copy.  To make sure it was not just an artefact of my making, we checked an original Hawkes and found the same.  Definitely a flute thing.

While we are not in a position yet to describe what's actually going on there, it does illustrate that we can use a screen-based digital audio editor as an investigative tool for transition analysis.  As the crispness of transitions is perceivable by the player and the listener, and can help make the difference between mushy and articulate performance, it seems very desirable that we find ways to explore this tricky facet of flute behaviour.

Public Perception

By now, you may well be thinking that here's two smug, self satisfied, mutually supportive lunatics thoroughly encased in their own little world admiring their joint handiwork and preparing to apply for "national artistic treasure" status in their respective countries.  But a chilling thought - what would others think of this flute?  Gulp, the National Folk Festival master classes and with it the inaugural Australian Wooden Flute Symposium starts the following day.  Are we ready to go public?  What the heck ...

It's the end of the day, and we're tired but happy.  Grey trolls off with his flute, the copy and an fistful of other flutes that might be useful in a summer school situation.  Next morning dawns and I struggle in to the Festival site, to find classes in operation and flutes in circulation.  Immediate reaction to the prototype is very positive.  Within a few days the first order is placed for a four key version.  Another follows a few days later, less than two weeks after the project started!  

What's in a name?

So clearly the flute has to take its place in my list of models available.  But what to call it?  Several ideas surfaced and were rejected on one ground or another.  Finally we settled on something we all found acceptable - "Grey Larsen Preferred".  I particularly liked it because it reflects honour on its proponent, in the way that "Nicholson's Improved" and "Pratten's Perfected" reflect honour on those great performers and enthusiasts for their flutes of days long gone.


Whoa, now that we're talking making keyed copies, it would be handy to know what the keys look like.  And to have more input from Grey on what he'd change if he'd his druthers. And to wonder at what we'd found and what yet needs to be done.  Graciously, and far beyond his obligations under the grant, Grey spent his last evening in Australia with us.  We enjoyed a meal and a chat, got the measurements done and the notes taken, and bade farewell to a new friend we hope we'll see here again soon.


Now just by chance, I happened to mention the project to Seattle flute player Rebecca Deryckx.  Rebecca plays a Meacham and Pond flute and was enjoying my assessment of a William Hall flute, another American maker.  The need for further research into the history and activities of the US makers came up in conversation, which lead to Rebecca talking to Paul Wells, Director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University.  Paul in turn contacted Robert Eliason, a leading scholar in researching the history of American brass and woodwind instrument makers, and the former curator of the Ford collection.  Robert had over the years collected together a bundle of materials on Firth, Hall, Pond, etc with a view to an article, but other obligations always intervened.  Robert will make the stuff available to Paul who will complete the project.  So one collaboration leads to another.


How do you wrap up a project like this?  Frantically short, due to Grey's limited time (this time!) in Australia.  Superheated, because of the imminence of the National Folk Festival.  But very successful, very satisfying.  What did we achieve?

  • a new understanding and appreciation of the flutes by New York makers, Firth, Pond & Co

  • a new model, offering a new balance of features that will delight some players

  • we've initiated intonation studies by telephone, opening up the possibility for similar measurements across the world (important for an antipodean researcher!)

  • we've rattled the acceptance that loudness is simply a factor of hole size

  • we've taken some steps towards determining just how accurate a copy has to be to retain the most important playing characteristics of the original

  • we've pioneered the use of the screen-based digital audio editor as a tool for investigating transitive phenomena

  • we've discovered a fascinating instability that appears to exist in all flutes but seems dependant upon hole size.  Are there more?

  • we've infected others with the desire to pitch in to find out more about American flute-makers

  • we've identified a vast number of questions yet to be answered (see below).  

Grey seemed to enjoy the project:

"The collaboration was delightful, fascinating, and thorough. Terry has a penetrating inquisitiveness about what is "really going on" in flute playing and flute design, an approach both musical and scientific. Devoting this kind of deep inquiry to the specific nature of Irish flute playing, as opposed to flute playing in general, expands an area of knowledge that needs illumination and deeper insight. This collaboration, like the writing of my book "The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle", will hopefully contribute a great deal to the current flowering of interest in and appreciation of Irish flute playing."

Work Outstanding

It's a poor study that answers all the questions but raises no others.  There are always more questions.  This must then be a very good study - we've raised enough questions for several PhD's!  They include:

On measurement methodology:

  • Further refinement of techniques for transitional analysis (to include investigation of effect of the reverberant field in masking transitions.  Is such masking perceived equally by the measuring equipment, the player, the adjacent listener and the distant listener?)

  • Method for gauging rate of air usage in flutes

  • Method for determining lag between a fingering being implemented and the subsequent audio response (possible techniques include synchronised high-speed video and audio recordings, synchronised electrical sensing and audio recording, or synchronised impact and audio recordings.)

On flute principles:

  • further investigation of the relationship between hole size, loudness, perceived loudness, timbre and carrying power

  • more investigation of the apparent loudness of larger bore/hole flutes. From our preliminary testing it appears that it is not so much a loudness issue as a timbrel issue. Perceptions are important, of course, but what is really being perceived when people say bigger flutes are louder?  If there is a spectrum of dark to bright tone, is it true that a large bore/hole flute has a centre timbre that is brighter than one with small bore/holes?

  • Can perceived timbre be reliably linked to harmonic development, and can that be reliably linked to venting?  Given the variability of venting in an 8-key flute, does that lead to a variability in perceived timbre?  Is the listener's perception more influenced by the darker, brighter or average of notes?

  • Embouchure holes and their effects on responsiveness to fingering.

  • More research of finger hole size and responsiveness of articulation.  (Grey: It seemed to me that the crispness of the articulations was about the same regardless of hole/bore size, but that there was less "lag time" before the onset of cuts and strikes with the small bore/hole flutes.)

  • Further investigation of the sluggish middle D crann issue between large and small flutes. 

    (Grey: It's the crossing back and forth from 2nd to 1st and back to 2nd register that is the issue I think. The middle D crann, when played with the oxx xxx vented fingering, produces cuts with the pitch of (approx.) C natural below the principal note of D. (With other cranns the cuts produce pitches that are higher than the principal note.) This is why the crossing of the register break is relevant here.)  

    Is there a similar phenomenon with the other note combinations, such as low A to high E?  Is it the bore diameter, or the hole sizes, or both?  Does this change when more volume of air is put through the flute? Or higher speed of air?  Or both?

  • From our preliminary testing small flutes appear to be more even in loudness across the range. Look at this more closely.  Is there an optimum size of holes for best uniformity?  Do different embouchure holes effect this?

  • When you play "bright and hard" does the uniformity of response remain the same?

  • Importance of airstream speed and volume of air.  Investigate the notion, firmly established in tradition, of "filling the flute" (which is always full, is it not?). Do larger bore/hole flutes really require more air?

  • Embouchure hole shape/size vs. dynamic range, or ease of producing the dynamic range.

Interaction between flute and player

  • Does it make sense to have different flutes for different purposes?  Eg. a larger bore/hole flute for large sessions and ceili bands and a smaller more nimble flute for solo performance and with smaller ensembles and more subtle music?  Or would difficulties in reacclimatizing counteract any gains to be made? (Grey: For me, I think I would miss the quicker response when I played a larger flute).

  • What feels odd or unfamiliar when players of large flutes switch to a small flute? Can they achieve the bright sounds they liked from their larger flutes? Do they feel they are using less air overall, more efficient air usage?  Do small-hole flutes overblow more readily, too readily?

  • Lower lip coverage of embouchure hole - look at how various degrees of this affects responsiveness or articulation, balance of note loudness across the range of the flute, other things?

  • Is it more difficult to produce a soft, dark tone on a large bore/hole flute than on a small one? And more difficult to produce a hard, bright tone on a small bore/hole flute?

On specific flute design:

  • the effect and significance of head thickness (the F, P & Co original has a very thick head - 28.7mm, compared to the typical English 27mm).  Will a more typical head still work well on this flute?  Will this head bring benefits to typical English flutes.  Is it wall thickness or outside diameter or a mix of the two that is significant?

  • The immediate response of many who played the copy was a great sigh of relief - here was a flute they could manage without pain.  The modern metal flute has been described by ergonomic specialists as one of the worst of the musical instruments - the typical 19th century flute adds badly designed keys and impossible stretches to that.  This flute alleviates many of these problems.  From this starting point, rework the ergonomics to fit a wide range of hand shapes and sizes. 

  • Is the bottom D really better with a short foot joint, and with flaring of the bore at the end? Better how exactly?

  • Are larger bore/hole flutes less susceptible to cracking? or more?

On understanding the Firth, Pond & Co

  • further in-depth loudness measurements to be made under better acoustic conditions

  • correlating perceived articulation qualities with reality and with physical qualities of the instrument

  • How to explain the excellent intonation of the FP & Co flute? Is it hole size, hole placement, bore dimensions, all of the above, or more?

I'll endeavour to answer some of these questions as my work continues.  Some however will have to await another opportunity to collaborate with a top class and inquisitive player like Grey.


Obviously to Grey, for his unstinting, intelligent and enthusiastic application to the matters in hand, and his kind permission to invoke his name in the titling of the new model,

To Jo Cresswell, Grey's Australian tour manager, for facilitating Grey's involvement in the project,

To the National Folk Festival, for bringing Grey to Australia in the first place,

To Rebecca Deryckx, Paul Wells and Robert Eliason for the promise of more to come,

To the ACT Government, its Cultural Council, 
and the administrative staff of artsACT 
for supporting the project at short notice.

On to the Firth Pond & Co flute

Or, back to McGee Flutes home page...