Mouthpiece Material: Does it make a Difference to the Sound?
Yes and No (but mostly no)
As we know from reading about whether the material of the saxophone itself can make a difference to the sound, it is the air column vibrating not the walls of the instrument (unlike resonant instruments such as guitars, pianos and drums). For this reason we believe that what affects the sound significantly is the internal geometry and dimensions, not the wall material or finish.
So logically, we might think the same applies to the mouthpiece, and to a very large extent this is true, tiny changes to the baffle, chamber and rails can make a hugely significant difference whereas the material in most cases has no significant effect.
A common question I get asked is “what metal mouthpiece should I get?”. 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 that some brands of metal mouthpieces are brighter, it’s also true some hard rubber (aka ebonite) mouthpieces are also brighter.
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
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.
So when can it make a difference?
Disclaimer: this section is in regard to an ongoing study and currently presented as a theory based on extensive observation, not scientific proof.
As with saxophones, it probably seems common sense that some materials will not sound good, if they don’t actually have the physical integrity to stand up to the job. Anything that is soft or flexible just won’t work, if only because it will quickly lose it’s shape. So we wouldn’t make a saxophone or mouthpiece from cotton, neoprene or cheese.
But, any vibrations of the mouthpiece at the tip are right opposite the reed, so are almost acting in the same way as a double reed, and as we all know the reed can make a difference to the sound. Many people have observed how a soprano saxophone can have an oboe like quality. Is this because the smaller mouthpiece means that the tip has more vibrations and so has more of this pseudo double reed effect?
There are no scientific studies that prove this, it is based mainly on the extensive research, observations of Dr. Edward Pillinger along with his customer feedback.
However, this may or may not happen. For this pseudo double reed effect to occur, there are two criteria:
- The mouthpiece material at the beak must be thin enough to allow vibration
- The mouthpiece material must be of a certain property. Exactly what this is will be the subject of further research, suffice it to say that our observations so far conclude that it has an effect and that rather than a specific material it is more to do with the density of the material.
What this means in practice is that there will most likely be no double reed effect if (a) the beak is relatively thick, as it would be with high baffle mouthpieces and (b) if the material (or rather the density) of the material does not allow any significant vibration.
So we can concluded that when you compare two high baffle mouthpieces you may not hear any difference, but when you compare two mouthpieces with relatively thinner beak material, you may well hear a difference that is die to this pseudo double reed effect.
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.
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.
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. (NB: this is not the same order as the test posted on SOTW in 2013)