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Mouthpiece Material

Mouthpiece materialMouthpiece Material: Does it make a Difference to the Sound? – some common misconceptions

Can You Tell the Difference? Metal vs Ebonite

Listen to the audiofiles below, you may be able to identify a consistent difference between the mouthpiece material, in this case metal and hard rubber. Some of these are played with a Metal mouthpiece, some with an Ebonite mouthpiece (with the same internal and external dimensions). Electrical tape was fitted to the beak of each mouthpiece, both of which were at the same temperature so that the blindfolded player could not tell which was which. Both pieces are played with the same reed. They have the same ligature and tightness of ligature.

The first audiofile in each test was played on the metal mouthpiece, can you tell which of the other mouthpieces are metal and which are ebonite? To make things interesting I have also included a mystery mouthpiece.

Test 1

Mouthpiece 1

Mouthpiece 2

Mouthpiece 3

Mouthpiece 4

Mouthpiece 5

Mouthpiece 6

Mouthpiece 7

Mystery Mouthpiece

 

Answers here

Metal 1, 4, 5 and (8)

Ebonite: 2, 3, 6 and 7

Click here for Forum Discussion

One of the things I see very often on the saxophone forums is a question asking “what metal mouthpiece should I get?”. When questioned as to why a metal mouthpiece is specified, it’s usually because the player is under the impression that a metal mouthpiece has a brighter sound, or a jazzier sound. While this may be true of some metal mouthpieces, it’s also true of some hard rubber (aka ebonite) mouthpieces as well. The other reason given is that metal looks cooler – a fair comment, and possibly a good reason to switch to metal – I’m not going to knock it. If the look of a mouthpiece makes you feel good, there may well be a psychological effect on your playing.

I have also heard of band directors who insist that all players use hard rubber mouthpieces in order to get a less bright sound or a better blend, i.e. a more homogenous sound. This is also not a good reason.

  • Metal mouthpieces can be bright or dark sounding, loud or quiet
  • Hard Rubber or Plastic mouthpieces can be bright or dark sounding, loud or quiet

It is generally accepted that internal dimensions and shape are mostly (or entirely) what gives a mouthpiece it’s tonal or dynamic characteristics. A tiny difference in bore, shape of the chamber, height of baffle etc. can make a really huge difference in tone and loudness. Very generally speaking a higher baffle and/or a smaller chamber will usually result in a brighter mouthpiece and often a louder mouthpiece. Of course it could be the brightness or edge that makes the mouthpiece appear to be louder as it can cut across or stand out from more mellow sounds around it. As a good example, try playing a standard metal Otto Link Mouthpiece and then try HR Vandoren Jumbo Java. I have no doubt that people would say the Vandoren is brighter and (probably) louder.

Perception

There is one very crucial factor to take into account, which is that what the player hears can be very different to what the audience hears or what a microphone picks up. As well as the sound emanating from the saxophone itself, the player also hears sound transmitted via vibrations though the teeth, skull and into the brain. Most people notice a huge difference in the sound of their voice when recorded compared to how they normally hear themselves.

Different Materials

Saxophone mouthpiece material is usually either Metal or Hard Rubber. Some are also made from wood, various plastics, porcelain and other materials. What makes one material better for a mouthpiece can also count against it in some respects. While hard rubber is easy to work with if you want to make any alterations as it is softer than many metals or porcelain, this means that distortion due to wear or damage could occur more easily.

Does material make even a very small difference?

It’s probably impossible to carry out a completely scientific experiment to determine this. You would need two absolutely identical mouthpieces made from different materials (this is reasonably possible with modern technology) and a double blind test (i.e. the player must not know which mouthpiece they are playing, nor must the listener). You would also need to ensure that either the reed is identical (not so easy with organic material) or else use the same reed and switch from one mouthpiece to the other. The mere act of changing reeds could mean that the reed is in a very slightly different position, which would invalidate any results.

It could be argued that the resonance of one material is different to another – it can be proven that string instruments and percussion made from different materials do sound different. However the sound generation of these is totally different to a woodwind. With a saxophone, it is the reed and air that vibrates to make the sound, not the instrument itself. This means any slight vibration there may be in the mouthpiece material may or may not make any difference to the sound. Once again, the perception of the player can be misleading. Having said that, it is possible that the material may make more of a difference right at the very tip of the mouthpiece. If it is very thin here, it’s possible that the tip of the mouthpiece starts to act like a reed. This could only happen if it was thin enough and long enough to actually resonate. Again, although this is highly possible, I believe the actual difference in sound would be very very small compared with the difference made by the internal dimensions of the mouthpiece or merely by switching reeds.

Further reading: Does Saxophone Mouthpiece Material Matter

More metal vs Onyxite comparisons

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