the jazz authority; random dubiously zappy rants about 'the musicians music'.: Mouthpieces & You

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Mouthpieces & You


There is a lot of ground to cover when the subject of mouthpieces is up for discussion. With so many variables, it's hard for us to know if we've really got the right one. Not only do we have dozens of mouthpieces to pick from; there is the issue of how they all interact with our horns and our reeds. The ligature is another concern, and of course if our embouchure is incorrect, nothing will sound good. Whew! While it all seems like too much to consider, and just going ahead and getting a mouthpiece that was recommended on a jazz forum by 'Saxy372' appears to be the easy thing to do, perhaps I can ease the pain by offering some real nuggets of wisdom, hard won through years of trial and error. The following are some thoughts on mouthpieces, and I hope you all find this useful and informative.

Table
This is the part that the reed is clamped onto by the ligature. The table must be extremely flat or the reed will distort and cause squeaks or allow air to leak.
Chamber
The inside of the mouthpiece. The size and shape of the chamber can have a big effect on the sound.

Rails
The sides of the mouthpiece along the vibrating part of the reed. The thickness of the rails has an effect on the sound. They should be symmetrical.

Tip
The tip of the mouthpiece. This should line up with the tip of the reed when looking at the reed side of the mouthpiece. The better the fit, the better the consistency of response.

Lay
The curved part of the mouthpiece. This curve allows the reed to vibrate. Long lay = more resistance. Often if the tip opening is very wide the lay is shorter to allow for proper resistance.

Shank
The part that joins onto the neck of the saxophone. There must be an airtight seal between the inside of the shank and the neck cork. The seal should also be quite snog to allow for strong vibration transfer.

Baffle
A relatively modern innovation. Some mouthpieces have a wedge shape built up inside which causes the airstream to flow faster, resulting in a brighter, more cutting sound.

Ligature
This clamps the reed to the mouthpieces. Some people consider that the type of ligature affects the sound - I’ve never noticed this, however it is very important that the ligature is not distorted or the tone will definiteley suffer. For this reason the more flexible textile based ligatures may sound better if compared to a damaged metal one. Do not overtighten the screws, they should be tight enough to just stop the reed from slipping.

Dimensions
The length of lay and width of tip opening are usually the most important considerations for the player when choosong saxophone mouthpieces. Wider tip openings can be harder to play, though it is the combination of lay length and tip opening that really determines this. A long lay can make a wide tip opening easier, and a short lay can make a narrower tip opening harder to play. Generally the wider the tip opening, the softer the reeds required.

Material
Saxophone mouthpieces are usually metal or hard rubber. The main differences in sound are due to the dimensions and shape of the mouthpiece.

So that's a quick list. Below is a more personal rundown.

First, let me remind you that I'm a tenor player. I've doubled on alto and soprano in the past, for the most part this mouthpiece info is pertaining to the tenor, although much of this is universal to all saxes. So first, a bit about alto and soprano mouthpieces.

Now don't get excited, but I believe that there's no reason for anyone to use a metal mouthpiece on alto or soprano, because the horns already have enough brightness to them. That is, unless you play nasty dirty funk, or lead in a big band. My favs on alto are the C** (no, not the C*, and not the D either), and the Meyer (can't remember the tip opening and type). For, sop, whatever is easiest to blow on and stays relatively in tune. The tuning is hard to tell, as the Sop is notoriously hard to keep in tune anyway.

Basic Tips On Selection, Etc.
I'll string together some random bits of bite sized wisdom here...
Get familiar with a couple of reeds before you go out mouthpiece hunting. You'll want a slightly weaker, broken in one, and a slightly stiff newer one. Every mouthpiece responds differently to assorted reeds.

Do the suction test. Put a reed on – that you know isn't warped – and blow a buzz note. Then, suck the air out a little and close up the reed to the tip of the mouthpiece with your tongue. If it holds for a split second and then pops off, you've got a good seal. If it doesn't hold the air, there may be a problem with your mouthpiece. Of course, if you didn't really wet your reed down or if it is warped, this trick won't work.

Look for thin side rails and tip rail. This will allow for a brighter sound and a faster response to notes in fast lines. Seriously, this tip is a little jem. If you want your lines to come off crisp and clean at blistering tempos, you'll want a mouthpiece with thin rails. The opposite to this is fat rails, and all but the daftest of players can get a reed to seat blindfolded on a mouthpiece with big runway rals. This will make your sound less bright, and notes will come off a bit more sluggishly. NOTE: There is a trick you can try if you notice that your mouthpiece does in fact have wide rails; get a fine grit sandpaper (400 – 600) and set your reed on it's side on the sandpaper. Hold it two thirds of the way towards the butt of the reed, and with short, slow, light strokes, slide the reed forwards and backwards. This will remove only a very small amount of width from your reed, and will basically make it fit 'tight' on the facing. Go with 10 strokes per side untill you notice that it is thinner. Hmmm... maybe this should be a reed and mouthpiece article... naw, back to the topic...

Again, unless you are lead sax in a big band, or playing R&B or funky stuff, you don't need a giant baffle. The baffle is the amount of material just past the tip below the reed at the from of th mouthpiece. Some brands do silly things like create huge tables that destroy the tone, but allow for ridiculously easy altissimo and super peircing notes. I'm maybe old school, but I think that what one should do is get a mouthpiece with a nice centered solid tone, and work on the brightness through emboushure and tone exercises. I once had a beautifull metal Otto Link 8 with super thin rails, a nie carved out chamber, even rails, and it just played so nicely. Sadly we parted company a few years back, but it's probably for the best. It was an 8, for Pete's sake! I had to use a med soft reed in order to blow it for a long time, and I could literally crack walnuts with my lips! Anyways, now I have a metal Link 7*, and it's good for me, but it sure isn't made as well as my 8 was.

This brings me to another point: mouthpieces are fairly inconsistent from one to another. Two exact same models will blow differently, and this is the case for every brand (with a few exceptions). When you find a brand you like, get the tip opening in a reasonable range, and try two or three or four. Speaking of tip openings...

Wide tip opening = loud. Small tip opening = quiet. Well, it's not really as simple as this, but let's keep it dumbed down for now. If the tip is very open, you will need to use a softer reed than if it were small in order to do the same amount of work. You can push more air through a wide tip, and you can 'cheat' with your tuning by just blowing hard and setting that as your tuning. I know, that doesn't make sense, but let's look at it from the other side. With a very small tip opening it's easy to lip a note down or up as far as a half tone. This is much harder with a wider tip, but all in all this is pretty useless info. An average tip opening for tenor mouthpieces is between 95 and 105 thousandths of an inch.

Like the baffle, the chamber can affect your tone greatly. This is the area located just behind the baffle, and it goes all the way back to wherever the neck in the mouthpiece ends. Here is a not-so-useless-fact: if the chamber is big, this will lower the tone slightly, and a large chamber won't push air through as fast as a small chamber. Often a large/high baffle is coupled with a tight/small chamber in order to achieve a 'punchy' tone, and similary a low/small baffle can often be seen with a large/wide chambler. Oh yeah, about the air speed: mouthpieces can match horns. I have a Selmer MK VI, and using my big 7* link seemed good because it's what I was used to. Then I found a vintage Selmer Soloist D, and I discovered what matching a horn with a mouthpiece can do. The soloist has a long rolled baffle and a tight chamber, and evidently it was designed specifically for the Selmer MK VI. This can be more exact than you need to get, so just remember that it may be causing you grief, but other factors are more important than this one.

Mouthpiece cusions. Man, I'm all over the place with my topics and subject matter, but so far it seems to make sense. So yeah, if you haven't used mouthpiece cusions I strongly suggest that you do. With them it is easier to anchor your top teeth lightly to the mouthpiece, and the vibrations don't travel through the mouthpiece into your head through your teeth. Believe me, once you use one, you'll never go back. There are a few brands – Blayman & Selmer are two I've used.

I could go on, but instead I'll end this post now and offer to answer individual posts in the comments area.
By the way, the title links to the same place as the site below, and it's got great info on mouthpieces if you wanna go a little deeper. Find out what mouthpiece your fav sax player played, and compare tip openings of different brands. Wee!!!


L8R

1 comment:

Chris said...

Great post. I just picked up the tenor sax again after a 12 year break, and I'm ready to get serious now. I have a YTS-61 and a Claude Lakey 7*3 mouthpiece, which I think might be too much for me to handle right now. From your post, I gather that the 7 refers to the tip opening (after a little research, I found out that this one has a .110 inch opening). Can you explain what the *3 refers to?