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Mouthpieces I take it all back - material does matter - high density

Pete Thomas

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I just saw there is a thread on SOTW about the HD Vandorens which I mentioned here. Ironically I remember years ago it seems I was in a minority saying that material makes no difference. Now I seem to be in a minority that thinks it does (or can do).

However only in very specific circumstances which it seems get ignored as most people just talking in very general terms e.g. "mouthpiece material makes no difference to the sound." By specific circumstances I don't mean if there is an R in the month, or if it's raining but it can all depend on (a) the type of mouthpiece - baffle or not and (b) the dynamics.

Yes, some tests were done using mouthpieces the same dimensions (including my own tests) but these tests were on mouthpieces with medium to high baffles. I think the baffle would negate any small effect the material might have as we now believe it only makes at difference at the very tip where there could be some vibrations occurring if the material is thin enough. Obviously once there is a baffle the material is a lot thicker.

The other thing is that when I've noticed some small differences based on material it is only at very loud levels. We know that the tone can change as you get louder due to the reed's vibration being wide enough to slap the mouthpiece rails at the tip. This is where (in my unesteemed opinion) there could be differences due to material.
 
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Ralph Morgan's Excalibur models used ebonite in a design where the beak material was thinned until it was supposed to act as resonator and give more edge and brilliance. I certainly liked playing on an Excalibur alto piece when I trialled one and the tenor version that I bought - they both seemed to be very lively.

But I do wonder whether the difference would be noticeable to a listener or only the player. That's why any tests to assess whether such effects are real should cover both perspectives, in terms of sound.

Wyman's Doctoral thesis on alto saxophone mouthpieces had an interesting set of objective and subjective assessments of a range of mouthpieces played by multiple players. Such tests would provide a good starting point for examining your latest ideas.

Rhys
 
had an interesting set of objective and subjective assessments of a range of mouthpieces played by multiple players. Such tests would provide a good starting point for examining your latest ideas.
Not so much my ideas but those of the esteemed Dr. Pillinger. If only he still had his artificial embouchure. Trying to prove anything like this with people may not be too easy. Huh, where's the saxbot when you need them?
 
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Some may think this is flogging the same old dead horse, but I think this sheds some new light on the debate and I believe is useful info. This is covered in more depth in this article here along with the sound comparisons I made a few years ago.

All of the observations below are based on a great deal of experimentation and discussion with Dr Edward Pillinger. I mention here his doctorate (The Effects of Design on the Tone and Response of Clarinet Mouthpieces) as his previous PhD research gives some authority to these new theories, albeit they are not so rigorously tested . Note that in his doctorate he went the extra mile toward what is often suggested for this type of test, and built an artificial embouchure, something that the following theories may benefit from at some stage. The theories here are based on based on trial, observation and customer feedback.

Unlike with the instrument body itself, the mouthpiece material can make a difference to the sound.

However it’s not that simple. It does and it doesn’t.



  1. Different materials can sound the same.
  2. Any difference may pertain primarily to the area of the mouthpiece around the beak.
  3. Depending on the design, there may or may not be a noticeable difference


Point 1 is because this theory proposes that the material per se is not what can cause a difference, but certain characteristics of the material (that could pertain to one material or be shared amongst several). So we don't say "metal has this sound" or "HR has that sound"

Point 2. So why only at the beak?

If the material at the beak is thin enough, and the material has certain properties, then there can by sympathetic vibrations there that act in less very much like the second reed in a double reed instrument such as an oboe, but in a less obvious way of course. A pseudo double reed.

Looking at these two points together:

What Dr. Pillinger has discovered, is that the big factors are the density and hardness, not the material per se, that affects sound. So if he makes a other composite with the same density as grenadilla, then it will have the sound characteristics of grenadilla, if not exactly the same then extremely close.

The theory is that although the material can make a difference, it doesn’t always. (ie I don't attribute any sound differences on metal, rubber, wood, plastic) but what can make a difference is the density of the material and the stiffness (ie flexibility or lack thereof)

Well, you might think, that is more or less the same as pinning it down to the actual material isn't it? Well we can say that, for example, HR sounds like HR (if it’s the same formula of HR) and that bronze sounds like bronze. But we can also find another material with the same density and hardness that will also sound the same. And bear in mind when I say “sound the same” there has not yet been any scientific tests done, so we have to think sound significantly similar rather than exactly the same.

Point 3. But this difference doesn’t always happen does it? Many people swear blind the are differences they can hear, and many swear blind there are no differences

This is because for the difference to manifest, the beak itself must be thin enough to allow the sympathetic vibrations.

So if the beak is quite thick, as it is with high baffle mouthpieces for example, then you probably won’t hear a difference between two mouthpieces of different material (with different density etc.) because the beak is too think for it to act like that double reed.

Beyond the tip of the mouthpiece, the density and hardness of the material has much less (more likely absolutely no) effect - just as scientific studies and accepted acoustic knowledge is that the material of the instrument itself has no significant effect on the sound of a woodwind instrument, as the only vibrations associated with sound are those of the air column not the walls of the instrument, unlike many stringed or percussion instruments which rely on the resonance of the body of the instrument for the sound quality.

Other properties

We also need to consider other factors, such as the cellular structure and its impact on vibrations. We can make a composite that has the same density and hardness as grenadilla, but it will have a different stucture to wood. Because we know how vibrations vary with different woods or other materials in the consctruction of resonant instruments such as guitars, we still can't assume that this applies to our theory of the pseudo double reed. We know for example, that hugely different reed materials can still sound very simar (see the cane vs synthetic reeds comparisons that many people find indistinguishable)

Flexibility.

More research to be done on this, but here is another possible factor that we need to think about. The degree of flexibility of the mouthpiece material, its flexural strength and elasticity along with its density and hardness, will have an effect on the reed excitation and the establishment of the primary wave. But then we have to think at what point would you decide the flexibility of a material is so much that it cannot retain it’s geometrical integrity, for example if you made a mouthpiece from something too bendy or soft that it just distorts or collapses. (BTW, I still want to make a mouthpiece from cheese)

Meanwhile I'd like to continue experimenting with composites of different hardness and density, we've used materials such as stone powder, metal powder (including bronze, gold and and silver), ebonite (HR) powder and various other that I won’t be mentioning.
 
See this article by Ralph Morgan entitled "Does The Material Used Make Any Difference in How Mouthpieces Play ?" which appeared in the February / March 1995 issue of the old Saxophone Journal.

Some relevant extracts:

In my trials, I started with a “normally” shaped mouthpiece. In filing and scraping the beak area, I found that, as the material was thinned, the response and tone production suffered progressively. At a point somewhere near half the original beak thickness, the clarinet ceased to play, emitting mostly buzzes of various pitch levels. However, when the appropriate thickness was reached by more thinning, the sound and response suddenly reappeared at a greatly enhanced level. In other words, the walls of the mouthpiece can either act with a damping effect or as an auxiliary tone generator for the poor belabored reed. Then the entire scale of the instrument speaks more quickly and evenly, with a more centered sound and “feel.”
The same changes pertain to saxophone mouthpieces as well. They become very evident to the player when comparing our own regular Morgan MI models of alto and tenor mouthpieces with our Excalibur models, which have the same facings and chamber characteristics, but in which the body walls are significantly thinner. This enhances the production of higher partials, thus a more brilliant tonal characteristic.

Rhys
 
But isn't the issue geometry, rather than mechanics?
By mechanics I mean "vibrates with" etc...

Surely a thin enough MP edge would start to work like a flute - so when the reed opens you have two edges accelerating air and causing turbulence. I guess, with a normal mouthpiece, you gave one edge, the reed, and the geometry if the MP (baffle, etc) gathers and directs the energy to pump the sound wave.
 
Ralph Morgan's Excalibur models used ebonite in a design where the beak material was thinned until it was supposed to act as resonator and give more edge and brilliance.
I have 2 Excaliburs for Tenor (Florida and Indiana), they are fantastic MPCs.
But I didn't notice anything that would make them feel like metal pieces to me (I have a Gottsu Doublering and Aaron Drake NY).

Greetings, Guenne
 
In other words, the walls of the mouthpiece can either act with a damping effect or as an auxiliary tone generator
OK well that may well align with Dr. Pillinger's theory that the part of the mouthpiece at or near the tip is doing something more than just being a container of the air. And if this is the case it backs up what I'been saying that the material may well matter because it's not the same as the body of the saxophone which is purely a container - so the shape and dimensions (and possible the properties of the surface) matter but not the material. If the tip of the beak is vibrating (acting as a generator) then both the thickness (as mentioned by Ralph Morgan) and the material could be pertinent.
 
But what do you mean by "feel like a metal piece?"
I can only answer with very personal, non-scientific expressions.
When playing hardrubber, I always have the impression of "fatness" in the "attack phase" of the tone.
Maybe "thick" would be a better term. That doesn't mean the tone can't be "bright".
When playing metal, my impression is one of more "definition" in the "attack phase", the "edges" of the sound are more defined.
This may or may not match with the horn. I haven't found a metal mouthpiece that I like playing on my Yanagisawa TWO20U, while I dislike playing a hardrubber piece on my Dallhammer Tenor, no matter what the mouthpiece manufacturer says about darkness or brightness.

Cheers, Guenne
 
While the whole subject baffles me (Boom Tish!) Going back to your first post it makes sense to me that everything makes a difference to a point where the differences can be swallowed up by a more dominant factor. In your case the baffle.

In a dish full of delicate flavours, they can be overpowered by a strong spice perhaps?
 
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"Many people swear blind the are differences they can hear, and many swear blind there are no differences"

If you are being objective you have to ignore these people unless their perceptions have been validated by well controlled double blind trials. These "many people" can swear and shout as much as they like but they are not contributing anything useful
 
Since I started going to Ed Pillinger for mouthpieces in 2016 (why oh why didn't I go to him YEARS before!) I have amassed a large collection of his pieces - maybe 20 or so. During 2020 he started to suggest his new higher density material as a possibility, and always keen to experiment I agreed to give it a go.

Long story short, I immediately noticed a subjective difference between older softer materials and the 'HiDenz' (as Ed reluctantly calls it). To my mind there is a greater clarity in the HiDenz pieces, but also very slightly less warmth.
The white material Ed used to use but gave up on because of the difficulty of working it, which is also a higher density material, was different again and capable of both greater darkness and edge depending upon reed choice - IMO.

Although this is subjective, it is my personal conclusion that material does matter despite what current science may have revealed. I respect science, but conclusions will be open to reassessment as our understanding expands. In practice, my perceptions as a professional player of nearly 50 years outweigh arguments that are contrary to my subjective experience.

Or in other words- I don't care what science says. Subjectively, I know what I feel and hear, and that has to affect my choices.
 
, it is my personal conclusion that material does matter despite what current science may have
But I wonder is there any current science which investigates the kind of detail mentioned here? ie how the sound changes across the dynamic spectrum, whether there are vibrations at just one small part of the mouthpiece. Everything I have seen people write is either based on what Adolphe Sax or Benade thought (not exactly modern sciences) or based on something they read but did not cite - mainly hearsay.
 
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Since I started going to Ed Pillinger for mouthpieces in 2016 (why oh why didn't I go to him YEARS before!) I have amassed a large collection of his pieces - maybe 20 or so. During 2020 he started to suggest his new higher density material as a possibility, and always keen to experiment I agreed to give it a go.

Long story short, I immediately noticed a subjective difference between older softer materials and the 'HiDenz' (as Ed reluctantly calls it). To my mind there is a greater clarity in the HiDenz pieces, but also very slightly less warmth.
The white material Ed used to use but gave up on because of the difficulty of working it, which is also a higher density material, was different again and capable of both greater darkness and edge depending upon reed choice - IMO.

Although this is subjective, it is my personal conclusion that material does matter despite what current science may have revealed. I respect science, but conclusions will be open to reassessment as our understanding expands. In practice, my perceptions as a professional player of nearly 50 years outweigh arguments that are contrary to my subjective experience.

Or in other words- I don't care what science says. Subjectively, I know what I feel and hear, and that has to affect my choices.

That's very interesting. When you say "I know what I feel and hear" is that "hear" as the player in action, or do the differences come across in recordings as well ?

Rhys

PS I don't dare add up all the Pillinger pieces I have. As The Who didn't sing "from 'nino down to bass I know I've played them all."
 
Since I started going to Ed Pillinger for mouthpieces in 2016 (why oh why didn't I go to him YEARS before!) I have amassed a large collection of his pieces - maybe 20 or so. During 2020 he started to suggest his new higher density material as a possibility, and always keen to experiment I agreed to give it a go.

Long story short, I immediately noticed a subjective difference between older softer materials and the 'HiDenz' (as Ed reluctantly calls it). To my mind there is a greater clarity in the HiDenz pieces, but also very slightly less warmth.
The white material Ed used to use but gave up on because of the difficulty of working it, which is also a higher density material, was different again and capable of both greater darkness and edge depending upon reed choice - IMO.

Although this is subjective, it is my personal conclusion that material does matter despite what current science may have revealed. I respect science, but conclusions will be open to reassessment as our understanding expands. In practice, my perceptions as a professional player of nearly 50 years outweigh arguments that are contrary to my subjective experience.

Or in other words- I don't care what science says. Subjectively, I know what I feel and hear, and that has to affect my choices.
This is where I am too. Had many sessions over the years with mates on mouthpieces, reeds, ligs and how they sound this that and the other.
And with my old clarinet prof too, who has been one of the foremost soloists in the UK for decades.
That final 10, 5 or whatever percentage is what manages my sanity.
I have no interest in whether an audience can hear the difference.
Interesting how ears familiar to a player’s sound can detect a change in setup though…
If you feel better about your own noise, you’ll likely play differently.
 
I have no interest in whether an audience can hear the difference.
I think I probably do. We do tend to care what something sounds like recorded so sure that is caring about what the audience think? But maybe that's a different thing.
If you feel better about your own noise, you’ll likely play differently.
That I find that very true and is part of what makes all of this stuff so difficult. A good player may respond to small differences in sound. Say for example you have a mouthpiece you are very comfortable with. You like the sound it makes as you play it, you like the sound it makes when you listen back to a recording.

Suppose someone then alters it to be a bit brighter. You may either think "I like that brightness," or else you might think you don't like it, in which case you will adapt your embouchure (either consciously or unconsciously) to make it sound like you did before. (ie equalisation)
 
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