It is an often asked question: "what is the difference between silver and gold on a flute?". And it is a difficult question to answer. I'm going to fail to answer completely objectively.
Most days, I play a gold Haynes flute. I was determined not to buy a gold flute and in fact blind tested a number of instruments before purchasing. This one instrument stood out, and keeps getting better as I learn to play it more. I think the gold is one factor, the overall quality and design another - but also it is just a particularly well-set-up instrument in and of itself - all the little things come together and make it a joy to play. It's not without its minor niggles mind, but overall it's a great compromise of everything I felt I needed.
I play wooden, silver and gold flutes of a variety of ages, and to me they "feel" very different. The headjoint is certainly the part that makes the most difference, and on the headjoint itself the riser material (silver, platinum, gold, blackwood, mopane etc), riser height, embouchure cut, and taper seem to have the most impact on "feel". With the stopper and crown playing a (remarkably important) part too.
I'm using the term "feel", because I believe the largest effect of changing materials is perceived by the player. That's not downplaying its overall importance.
Surprisingly small things can have meaningful effects: tightness of fit of headjoint tenon; weight and materials of stoppers and crowns; add-ons such as sound-bridges and foot extensions; soldered vs. drawn tone holes; pad material etc. If in doubt, try playing around with your own instrument: play without the crown and you should feel a difference in resistance, attack, timbre, projection, or all four.
I was personally surprised how much effect changing the stopper material and shape had on my own flute. Initially, I made myself a really heavy platinum stopper, and machined it to fit my rose gold Haynes headjoint perfectly. It was a dream to play at home, with what felt like a thick and sturdy sound. But in a large symphony orchestra, I found I struggled to project - I was blasting solid sound out with little nuance or colour and it didn't cut through. According to my sound level meter, and sonograph, there was plenty of volume and plenty of harmonics. On a post-concert recording, it sounded fine - it sounded loud enough and nice enough. But it had felt like I had to push. It wasn't comfortable or confidence building. Re-polishing it actually made it better.
Testing a number of materials and finishes for the swap-stopper
The most desired and recognised effects of changing stoppers and crowns - normally for heavier ones - seem to be expressed as a focussing of sound, "more centre in the sound" and improving attack in the lower register. In developing the swap-stopper, I've had to consider the compound effects of replacing the cork, the weight of the stopper back, and the weight, size, shape, and finish (e.g. how polished) each different face material is.
I'd originally set out experimenting to see if I could create a cheaper and lighter stopper - and in the back of my mind I really thought that highly polished copper would be the winner. But it was weak feeling, bland, and I had to work hard to maintain intonation and create contrasting dynamics. Having tried 50+ materials, finishes, and weight combinations on top, I've come to a few conclusions:
- There is a huge difference in the perceived effect of materials and weights (for a range of gadgets not only my stoppers) close-to (to the player) and for the listener. From my recordings and sonograph measurements, the effect for an audience is less than the effect on the player. But...
- How the flute feels can have a dramatic effect on confidence, intonation, technique and musicality. If I feel on good form, and feel I can push my instrument in predictable ways, I put more into the music and I go for more. That certainly has an effect on the audience. And musically it can me the difference between having to "blast", and being able to project a pianissimo.
- The type and weight of materials have an interrelated effect. So in a gold flute, yes the gold has an effect, but also the overall weight difference too.
- the weight of the stopper and the material are two components that can be adjusted inter-dependently. I personally prefer a slightly lighter stopper, but with a particular choice of material for the face in most of my headjoints. My big exception is one of my wooden headjoints, which really comes alive with a much heavier stopper back paired to a very light crown.
- Gold and Platinum can be lovely. I wish they were not because of their cost, but for whatever reason, they are very rewarding to play.
- When I change materials in rehearsals, my colleagues can notice a difference. They might like the sound more or less; find it louder or quieter; or indeed easier or harder to blend with.
- Titanium and Zirconium have a very good balance of sounding and feeling nice to play in the practice room, whilst also coming across very well in larger halls and through large ensembles. Silver does too, in the right weight and finish.
Since such small things can have an effect on the feel for the player, it highlights the importance to me of having a well-set-up instrument in the first place. Making sure your flute is sealing well, that the headjoint is well fitting (and you might prefer it tighter or looser!), that the stopper is in the right place (for you), are critically important and cost-effective ways of getting the best feel from the instrument.
At some point, I might write about my test rig and measurement for different materials. But as you'd expect, it is rather difficult (and a little expensive equipment-wise) to quantify objectively and even harder to write about clearly. For the moment, I'm focussing on the practical differences that I feel and hear, whilst making sure that the parts I'm creating are well engineered and finished so that they are consistent and predictable in use.