Evaluating the quality of transverse ocarinas

Knowing how to evaluate the quality of an ocarina is very important. The same can be said of any instrument, but it is especially so with ocarinas as the term is so ambiguous.

If you buy an instrument like a recorder or flute, you will almost certainly get something that is a playable instrument, but that is not true of ocarinas. People in many cultures seem to consider all versions of the instrument the same, ranging from novelty whistles to serious instruments.

It is up to you as the player to have the knowledge to evaluate the quality of an ocarina, and identify and choose ones that fits your needs. In practice this means understanding the factors that go into designing ocarinas as serious musical instruments.

The single focus here will be the design of transverse ocarinas, and the reasoning behind this is discussed in Which ocarina type should I learn.

Be especially careful about blaming yourself if you are struggling with playing an ocarina as there is a very good chance the instrument, not you, is to blame. If an ocarina seems bad, it probably is.

Evaluating ocarina quality can be challenging if you are a new player, due to skill development.

Ergonomics

Ergonomics is the study and application of the way that humans interact with things. Ergonomics is quite a complex topic that covers a lot of factors, including the shape of an ocarina, its weight distribution and balance, as well as the placement of the finger holes.

I have an article that discusses it.

Support points

Any good quality transverse ocarina will be shaped to help you hold it, and should have support points besides the leftmost and rightmost finger holes, which are used to support the instrument while playing the high notes.

Special consideration needs to be made in the case of sculptural ocarinas. You need to learn how to look out for indications that the maker has given proper consideration to the ergonomic design, and explains how they intend you to hold it. If such information is missing they probably did not think about it.

Weight and balance

At a minimum, any transverse ocarina should be able to balance between your right thumb and pinky finger when parallel to the ground. A slight tendency to roll towards the mouthpiece is ok, but rolling away from you indicates a bad instrument.

Body shape

Sound quality

The sound quality or 'timbre' of an ocarina can vary quite a lot, between very pure and 'reedy'. But as a general rule, a good quality ocarina should sound fairly consistent over the whole range.

12 hole ocarinas frequently suffer from an issue of airy high notes.

Airiness will increase towards the high notes, as they must be blown harder, but this should never drown out the ocarina's primary tone. An ocarina which sounds especially harsh or airy indicates either that it is being blown too hard or its voicing and windway are badly designed.

Listen to the sound samples below. To me, that second sound sample is unpleasant to listen to; the tone contains a large portion of wind noise and has a harsh edge.

Good sound
Bad sound

Hole sizes

With a little experience the sizes of an ocarina's finger holes can be a great way of evaluating the quality of the instrument.

At a basic level, any ocarina with identically sized finger holes has not been tuned, and thus is a bad instrument. You can objectively check the tuning by measuring the breath curve.

Ocarinas are tuned by varying their hole size, and the intervals of the scale can be seen in the sizes of the finger holes. Any well tuned ocarina should look roughly like this:

The intervals of a major scale (whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half) can be seen in the relative proportions of the finger hole of a transverse ocarina (large, large, small, large, large, large, small)

The exact sizes of the finger holes depends on the thickness of the chamber wall and blowing pressure. Larger holes indicate a steeper breath curve, discussed in the following section.

Breath curves and tuning

As holes are opened, air can escape and an ocarina will become increasingly airy sounding. To compensate for this, the player has to blow harder. How the pressure changes from note to note is called an ocarina's breath curve.

The breath curve should be relatively consistent over the entirety of an ocarina's range, with no large arbitrary changes.

Good breath curve

A graph visualising the breath curve of a well tuned single chamber ocarina. Pressure increases smoothly from the low note to the high note

Poor breath curve

The breath curve of a badly tuned ocarina. The pressure change required from one note to the next in order to keep the instrument in tune will be essentially random, and some notes may be impossible to play in tune without squeaking

You can verify this by checking the tuning of sequential notes. If you finger a note, then lift the finger for the note above without changing your breath pressure, this note will fall flat. You can measure these changes using a chromatic tuner; they may gradually increase or decrease between sequential notes but this variance should be regular. Large irregular changes between close notes generally indicate a poorly made ocarina.

Breath curves vary a great deal between ocarinas: they can be relatively flat, or ramp up exponentially towards the high end. You can get a reasonable idea of the pressure required to play an ocarina by looking at the sizes of the finger holes. Larger holes generally indicate an ocarina tuned a higher pressure, but this isn't foolproof as hole size also depends on chamber shape and wall thickness.

You can vaguely gauge breath pressure by looking at the relative size of an ocarinas finger holes in relation to its body. Smaller holes indicate a flatter breath curve and lower pressure, while larger holes indicate a steeper curve and higher preassure.

If an ocarina sounds fine on its low notes, but its high notes are exceptionally airy, this can also signify a bad instrument. But do note that ocarinas are very sensitive to playing technique, particularly on the high notes, so this can also indicate poor player technique. If an ocarina is sold as 'needing an acute bend', it is probably a bad instrument. 10 and 11 hole ocarinas typically don't have this problem, and multichambers are vastly superior to 12 hole ocarinas if you want more range.

Pressure balance between chambers

If the ocarina you are evaluating is a multichamber, you should also check the pressure balance between the different chambers.

Like the pressure curve of a single chambered ocarina should be regular over its sounding range, the same should be true of a multichamber. When you play through the instrument linearly, the pressure should increase regularly across the first chamber, and this should continue onto the second.

Because an ocarina's breath curve is approximately exponential, maintaining a completely regular pressure change over the entirety of a multichamber is impossible, as the high notes would be tuned to an insanely high pressure and would squeak. Instead, the second and higher chambers are usually tuned with a flatter increase. This is possible as smaller chambers are easier to drive, and the higher chambers produce less range than the first.

On multichmbers that were tuned to allow the playing of harmonies between chambers you may find that the pressure curve of the second chamber starts at a slightly lower pressure. But regardless both curves should be even over their range, without abrupt changes.

A graph showing the typical breath curve of a multichamber ocarina. Pressure increases gradually towards the high notes of the first chamber with a slight exponential curve, and the second chamber continues from a similar pressure, increasing more linearly and slowly