Evaluating the quality of transverse ocarinas

If you buy an instrument like a recorder or flute, you will almost certainly get a playable instrument, but that is not true of ocarinas. It falls on the player to have the knowledge to evaluate the quality of an ocarina, and identify and choose ones that fit your needs.

The single focus here will be transverse ocarinas, and the reasoning behind this is discussed in Which ocarina type should I learn. Also, If you're reading this because you are struggling to play an ocarina you have, don't blame yourself. There is a very good chance the instrument, not you, is to blame. If an ocarina seems bad, it probably is.

Ergonomics

To be ergonomic means that an ocarina has been designed to fit the human body. Ergonomics is discussed at length in The ergonomics of transverse ocarinas, and the key points have been summarised below.

Body shape and support points

Against popular belief, the shape of an ocarina does matter as it affects how the instrument balances in your hands, and other ergonomic factors.

A good quality transverse ocarina will be shaped such that is rests in your hands, without it feeling like you may drop the instrument.

  • Long straight bodies are much better than 'egg shaped' ocarinas.
  • Sculptural designs are a mixed bag, they may or may not be ergonomic.

Any good quality ocarina will also have areas provided besides the leftmost and rightmost finger holes, which are used to support the instrument while playing the high notes.

An ocarina with good ergonomic design. The shape of the chamber is pretty straight, with a good amount of space left besides the leftmost and rightmost finger holes for supporting the instrument

An ocarina shaped like an egg, with the finger holes placed very close to the ends of the chamber. This is a very poor design ergonomically, as there is nowhere to rest the fingers to support the ocarina while playing the high notes. Also, the rounded shape encourages fingers to slide off the instrument, making it feel unstable

Hole placement

Unlike most wind instruments, the pitch of an ocarina is determined by the sizes of the holes instead of where they are. Ocarinas from different makers can have very different hole placement.

That is a good thing as everyone's hands are different. If you try a number of different ocarinas you will find that some of them feel much more natural to you than others do.

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.

The primary balance plane of an ocarina runs between the ocarina's tail (the thin part) and through the right thumb hole. It allows you to support the instrument with only your right thumb and pinky when the instrument is held parallel to the ground

Sound quality

The 'timbre' or tone colour 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.

  • Airy high notes are a common indicator that you have a bad ocarina. Such an ocarina will sound sound clean on the low notes, but the high notes sound very weak and airy.
  • You should be able to blow the ocarina at different pressures without it screeching. The low notes should have a stable pitch variance of 4 or more semitones, the high notes at least 2.
  • Rapid tonguing should not cause the ocarina to screech.

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

To some extent sound quality can be judged without needing to play the ocarina. For one, the size of the sound hole relative to the overall size of the ocarina. If the sound hole is too large, the ocarina is going to have airy high notes, and probably won't sound very good.

Good sound hole size

Ocarina with a correctly sized sound hole (about 8mm for an alto C).

Too large sound hole

Bad ocarina with a sound hole that is far too big in relation to the chamber volume.

With experience you can learn if a sound hole looks too big in relation to the rest of the ocarina. It is worth noting though that the sizes of ocarina sound holes do vary:

  • 10 hole ocarinas usually have a larger sound hole than a 12 hole ocarina, where both ocarinas have the same key and pitch range.
  • Ocarinas that are designed to be louder also have larger sound holes.
  • The visual size of the sound hole changes with the thickness of the chamber wall. An ocarina that is very thick makes the sound hole look proportionally smaller.

These points vary within a range. A reasonable size for the sound hole of a 12 hole alto C ocarina is between about 8 and 9mm diameter. A 10 hole alto C could have a sound hole in the range of 8 to 10mm.

Note that this is the approximate width of the sound hole. The overall shape of a sound hole can vary quite a lot between different ocarinas. The shape of the sound hole controls the timbre, and is discussed in Ocarina playing characteristics and timbre.

If an ocarina is sold as 'needing an acute bend', it is also a bad quality ocarina. The acute bend is a technique where a player looks down and shades an ocarina's sound hole against their chest.

This technique is often used as an excuse for poor quality 12 hole ocarinas, and any well made ocarina will sound cleanly through its whole range without it. The acute bend appears to improve the sound quality of the high notes, but as far as I can tell, it is an illusion caused by bouncing sound off the player's chest into their ears.

The sizes of the finger holes

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.

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.

You can objectively check the tuning by measuring the breath curve.

The breath curve and tuning accuracy

The notes of an ocarina are tuned in relation to each other. Ocarinas are tuned so that as you play higher notes, you must blow harder, which is called the breath curve.

In a high quality ocarina, the breath curve should increase gradually towards the high notes, 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

Unfortunately, tuning accuracy is not something you can gauge without being able to play the ocarina for yourself. It can be checked quite easily using a chromatic tuner, and checking the tuning of sequential notes.

Essentially, If you play a note, then lift the finger for the next note in the scale without changing your blowing pressure, the pitch will fall flat. These pressure changes should be consistent over the ocarina's range. See How to measure an ocarina's breath curve.

Breath curves vary a great deal between ocarinas: they can be relatively flat, or ramp up exponentially towards the high end. However any variance should be regular. Large irregular changes between close notes indicate a poorly made ocarina.

Evaluating the quality of multichambered ocarinas

The same points raised apply equally for evaluating the quality of multichambered ocarinas, for example:

  • Feel how the instrument balances in your hands, and ensure that it provides support points. See The ergonomics of transverse ocarinas for more.
  • Ensure that tone production is clean over the range of all chambers, and that the timbre is balanced between them.
  • Measure the breath curve of each chamber individually, ensure that each chamber has a sensible breath curve with no large arbitrary pressure changes required.

Also, check for pressure differences between the high end of each chamber, and the low end of the next one. This is called the chamber break. In a well made multichamber ocarina, the two chambers should play in tune at approximately the same pressure.

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

Note that approximately does not mean exactly. On multichambers that were tuned to allow harmonies to be played between chambers you may find that the pressure curve of the second chamber starts at a slightly lower pressure. As long as there is no huge increase or decrease it isn't a problem.

On the whole, you will experience less objective quality issues with multichambered ocarinas than single chambers, as most of them are made as serious musical instruments.