How many holes? 11 vs. 12 hole ocarinas

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The following article is a little something I wrote up at the request of Robert Hickman concerning the differences between 11 and 12 hole ocarinas.  He was doing research for his eBook on how to make ocarinas and asked if I would be willing to help out.  I was more than happy to contribute, and I was flattered to see that this essay made it into his final publication almost untouched.     

You can learn more about Robert's book here:  The Art of Ocarina Making eBook by Robert Hickman

The 12 hole problem

It has been said by some that the 12 hole single chamber ocarina is a flawed instrument. While that assessment may be a bit harsh, there is some justification for it. The 12 hole ocarina is notorious for having either weak and airy high notes, or weak an ineffectual sub-notes. It is said that 12 holes is pretty much the physical limit of a single chamber ocarina. The reasons for this have to do with the delicate balance between the three crucial elements of voicing size, chamber size and tuning.

On any ocarina, achieving the desired pitch range is a balancing act between all those elements of the ocarina that work together to produce sound at the correct pitch. The size of the internal chamber, the size and precision of the voicing and wind-way opening, and the size of the finger holes, or the tuning. All of these elements must be perfectly balanced to allow all 12 holes to produce a strong, clear tone at the correct pitch.

Consider for a moment what we know about how ocarinas produce sound. As the internal chamber is pressurized and de-pressurized in rapid succession, air passing back and forth over the voicing labium produce sound. When all holes are covered, the only avenue for the air to escape the chamber is through the voicing. However, once a finger hole is opened an alternate avenue of escape allows air to exit the chamber elsewhere. This means that it takes more air coming in from the wind-way to create the correct internal pressure to create sound. As more holes are opened, and more alternate avenues for escape made available, it takes more breath to pressurize the chamber, the air that does exit through the voicing does so with greater velocity and the pitch increases.

At some point, though, common sense will tell you that there are only so many alternate avenues that can be opened before not enough air passes through the voicing to produce sound. So there is a physical limit to the number of possible finger holes for a given chamber and voicing size. The usual symptom that this limit is being reached is airiness in the high notes. Depending on the how well the voicing is constructed, the notes at the top end may simply not play at all. Even with the best voicing imaginable, there is limitation on chamber size that must be considered as well. As I said before, it is a delicate balance.

For a 12 hole Alto C with two sub-holes, the lowest pitch that must be sounded is an A4, we'll call this the fundamental pitch. In order to produce A4 there are only two of the three crucial elements that can be altered to affect this, chamber size and voicing. Of these two, chamber size is the most important in determining the fundamental pitch. Once the chamber size is set to produce the correct fundamental pitch, it can't really be altered much. So there is very little that can be done to make an ocarina capable of sounding more than 12 holes. Even with 12 holes the chamber size has to be just right, the voicing has to be very precise and constructed well, and the tuning has to have just the right breath slope to make the highest notes sound clear and strong. If any one of these three elements is off, then problems will occur.

It seems that with many 12 hole ocarinas currently on the market, the makers have chosen to decrease the chamber size slightly in order to strengthen the high notes. This makes the fundamental pitch slightly too sharp, and so many ocarinas require a big drop in breath pressure to play the sub-hole notes, causing them to sound weak and unstable. This is one of the biggest complaints with 12 hole ocarinas. Other makers will simply allow the high notes to sound airy, seeming to believe that the problem is insurmountable or simply because they lack the skill to create a voicing good enough to support those notes.

Ways around the 12 hole problem

There are a couple of tricks that some makers will use to get around the 12 hole problem. One is to tune the ocarinas so flat that an enormous amount of breath is needed to play it. This high breath requirement can supply the necessary air volume to play the high notes if the voicing is well done, and possibly support a thirteenth hole. The cost in play-ability and sound quality, though, is high.

Another way around the problem is baffles. Baffles are small walls inside the chamber that obstruct or alter the flow of air internally. This altering of the internal airflow can help keep the internal chamber pressure high enough to support the high notes quite well. Some baffled ocarinas can have remarkable clarity in the high notes. However, there is a price to be paid there as well. There are three common complaints with baffled ocarinas. First, baffling has a tendency to create elevated overtones that can cause the high notes to sound very harsh and sterile, losing much of the richness that the lower notes have. This leads to an inconsistency in tonal quality throughout the range that many find undesirable. Second, baffling can also cause certain notes throughout the range to play at a markedly increased volume for the amount of breath, or require a marked decrease in breath pressure to play on pitch. This leads to inconsistencies in resonance that are also undesirable. Third, baffled ocarinas tend to have a slower breath response. The difference is minimal, but experienced players can tell that it takes a microsecond longer for a pitch to sound after the breath is delivered through the wind-way. This extremely slight delay will make the ocarina feel just a little sluggish, but only when directly compared to an ocarina that has a good fast breath response.

Less is more: 11 holes instead of 12

Another way around the 12 hole problem is to simply eliminate one of the holes, making it an 11 hole ocarina instead. An 11 hole ocarina drops the lowest sub-hole thereby eliminated the low A4 on an Alto C ocarina and making lowest possible note a B4 instead. This makes an enormous difference in the strength and clarity of the ocarina through the entire range, not just on the high notes. Here's why:

As stated before, in order to produce a 12 hole Alto C, the chamber size must be set so that the fundamental pitch is an A4, but with an 11 hole ocarina the fundamental pitch is B4, a whole tone higher, so the chamber size needed to support that pitch is quite a bit smaller. I haven't measured the difference exactly, but my guess is that it is as much as 8 to 10 percent smaller. A smaller chamber size means that it takes less air volume to pressurize the chamber. In addition to that there is one less alternate avenue for escaping air, another factor that makes the necessary internal chamber pressure easier to achieve. These two factors together make an 11 hole ocarina sound better, play better, and easier to make.

So if 11 holes is better than 12, would 10 holes be better than 11? Not necessarily. There is one factor that makes the 11 hole better than 10. In order for any tone played on an ocarina to sound it's best there must be at least one alternate avenue for escaping air. The very lowest pitch on any ocarina, that pitch which plays when all holes are covered, will almost always sound a little muddy and feel slightly unstable. This is because ALL of the air is escaping through the voicing. Providing even one small additional escape route for air leaving the chamber will make the lowest tone stronger and more stable. On an 10 hole ocarina, that lowest tone is the tonic of the natural scale that ocarina plays, for an Alto C that would be the low C, or C5. Many 10 hole ocarinas, especially the Italian and European made ones, compensate for this inherent instability by sizing the chamber and voicing so that more breath is required at the low end, thus strengthening that tone.

For an 11 hole the lowest tone is the low B or B4. This allows the tonic of the naturally played scale for that ocarina to be as strong as it can be, leaving the instability of the lowest tone to the seventh of that scale, the low B, a note that is usually played as a passing tone. Couple this with only a slight increase in breath requirements to strengthen that tone and an 11 hole just may be the perfect single chamber ocarina.