Mouthpieces Mouthpiece matching - tuning

Pete Thomas

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Sunny Southampton
My knowledge on this is mostly hearsay with a bit of trial end error, but we often hear about "mouthpiece mismatches", especially when using modern mouthpieces on vintage instruments (Not the other way round - why?)

Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe a big issue is that the saxophone always has to be a compromise acoustically. As it's conical, the perfect saxophone (acoustically speaking) should theoretically taper to a point. However it can't because there has to be a mouthpiece bunged on the neck. So therefore it is a truncated cone, and theoreticaly the mouthpiece volume should make up for the volume of the cone that has been cut off.

Back in the old days, mouthpieces tended to have a huge bore and the saxophone body/neck was designed accordingly. But these days saxophones are designed to use smaller bore mouthpieces for brighter sound or maybe more projection (even leaving aside the concept of a high baffle reducing the internal volume).

I've seen very little written about when this change was supposed to have occurred, whether it was gradual or what.

We hear of people adding neck extensions so that they can use modern (smaller chamber) mouthpieces on older instruments however I don't think this is ideal. It certainly increases the internal volume (of neck and mouthpiece) thus making up for some of the truncated cone, but I've also heard that the extra length would throw out the intonation - especially at the top - due to the length of tube not being optimal for the tone hole positioning.

That actually sounds like common sense and, to my non-scientific mind, is probably true.

So what is the ideal if you want to play a vintage instrument, but the old mouthpieces that are supposed to have the best intonation don't help you get a more modern tone? I remember especially, battling with an old Buescher alto, and the only way to get it tuning nicely was the original mouthpiece but I couldn't stop it sounding too mellow for most purposes or (at worst) a bit "tubby."
I think you have answered your own question. If you want a modern sound, you play a modern instrument, if you want a vintage sound, you play a vintage instrument; each matched to a suitable mouthpiece.
However, modern instruments are played by classical as well as jazz/pop/rock players, with quite different mouthpieces.
Introduction to saxophone acoustics is interesting, but does not go into enough detail in this area.
One solution is a mouthpiece like the Woodwind Co. Meliphone Special (or the Dick Stabile that was a particular size of that). This had a small-ish chamber (for the period) with straight sidewalls (it was described as "a clarinet type chamber") but then between the chamber and the bore it opened up into a large "inner chamber" bigger than the bore.

That design seems to separate the "working" chamber size (small for brightness and power) from the "effective" chamber size that affects tuning.

The Woodwind Co. advertising described it as "Tremendously powerful. Gives a clear, brilliant tone quality and cuts through the largest combinations effortlessly."

I have got Meliphone Specials for alto, tenor and baritone (I would like to complete the set with one for soprano and for C melody). I find that the sound is modern and the tuning really good on modern or vintage saxophones.

A few years ago I was in discussion with Morgan Fry about adapting a Berg Larsen ebonite piece to tune well with my old Conn baritone. He described what he did as "hogging out the throat" what he did was to "reface it, then grind out the throat and bore with a rotary tool, testing as I go on a borrowed 12M, until the scale is pretty much right."

I'm surprised that no other mouthpiece maker has developed the design ideas of the Meliphone Special, except maybe Erik Greiffenhagen of the Mouthpiece Guys and his "double chamber" modification for mouthpieces to suit vintage baritones. I have a couple of Erik's modified pieces and they work well but the sound is a bit too mellow for me.

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How old is a modern or vintage sax? Many sax models shared, more or less, the same tube through the years.

Back in the old days, mouthpieces tended to have a huge bore and the saxophone body/neck was designed accordingly.
Yes., The moutpiece a part of tube. I mesure an old stubby soprano mouthpice (Buescher) and a modern soprano mouthpiece (Dukoff). The mothern Dukoff had bigger volume? Is an old stubby vintage mouthpiece always bigger (volume) than a modern one?

The ideal neck extension is conical. But that's not the case.

So what is the ideal if you want to play a vintage instrument, but the old mouthpieces that are supposed to have the best intonation don't help you get a more modern tone?

Modern pads, oversized resonators/reflectors, open up the keys ... can help. A new neck would also help. A mouthpice with a taper chamber instead of a bore?

I play a modern long Rovner on my 1938 Martin HC Committee. It's ok. I just play at home or at places where there are not seaching for perfect pitch. When I play with other saxes/horns they use to say I'm out of pitch. Sometimes I am, but often I think my timber is differnt to the other sax players. You can play at the right pitch with diffent timbre?
I have a Super 20 and a Zephyr Special and use an RPC on them. A lot of people seem to expect a saxophone to play in tune without any special effort and I suspect modern horns are designed to get as close to achieving this as possible. If I was a classical player it might bother me but I’m not and it doesn’t. I have a Keilwerth that is unsettlingly in tune. Older horns generally seem to need to be played in tune. The RPC has a large bore and a reasonably substantial baffle so a modern mouthpiece can be made to work on an older horn although I have a second one that’s hopelessly out of tune in the upper octave. I also have a couple of Vandoren V16s that play in tune, largish chamber but quite bright, cerainly not tubby.

Edit: interestingly the RPC that's flat at the top doesn't have much of a baffle.
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I mouthpice designer told me to learn/play mouthpice+reed at the right pitches. The right tone (pitch) were:

Soprano = C
Alto = A
Tenor = G
Baritone = D

I did that. So when I blew a mouthpiece + reed the right tone/pitch should come out from the mouthpiece. It's not easy to it the right tone. I think it helped me.
There is nothing to say you cant have a medium or medium large chamber piece that is quite lively. My intrepid alslto piece has a heafty chamber but also an ample step baffle. So its just a matter of seeking tye right piece. However, I do agree if you want a small chamber ultra modern vibe its best to play a modern horn. Generally vintage buyers are seeking a vintage vibe.
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Out of interest what is a vintage vibe? It's a serious question, I see it said quite often, I don't know what it suggests.
Generally vintage buyers are seeking a vintage vibe.

Yes I suppose that may make sense, althouhgh most players I know (inc ) who play vintage horns want to be mostly get a sound that is very versatile. I rarely need an actual 20s or 30s "sound" - mostly 50s - 80s I suppose.

I think of 50s as being bebop or rock & roll and 80s being Sandborn or Brecker type sound. Is there anything more "modern" than that?

I don't hear may players that you could say they have a more modern sound than anything between the 50s and 80s.
Out of interest what is a vintage vibe? It's a serious question, I see it said quite often, I don't know what it suggests.

Good question. And my post above touches on that. To me I think of Rudy Wiedoft or Sydney Bechet. Maybe it's mostly in the vibrato, ie the sound and phrasing rather than the tone.
It appears that Jody Espina has tried to address this need with his Giant mouthpieces. This is from the mouthpiece description:
  • "not loud, BIG
    The GIANT has a large chamber and a large sound. This tenor saxophone mouthpiece is somewhat unique in the fact that normally to get a lot of projection you have to have a smaller chamber, which gives you a brighter more cutting sound. And when a mouthpiece has a larger chamber the sound becomes warmer but the projection goes way down. Another way to say that is that large chamber saxophone mouthpieces are typically quieter. But the GIANT has a large chamber and huge warm sound due to the following unique factors that make up the GIANT: Material – Anodized Aluminum, Facing Curve – this is a brand new facing curve that allows maximum reed vibration, Baffle – this is the material inside the mouthpiece right next to the tip rail (extremely important for projection), Chamber Shape – The GIANT has its own unique chamber shape which is allowing warmth with projection."
Marketing is fun isn't it ;)

To say projection needs a smaller chamber is a load of cobblers. There are many combinations of shapes and size of chamber, facings, baffles etc.

"Projection" in this case is just a different word for being loud. Smaller chambers may be brighter, baffles may be brighter. maybe you want to be loud without being brighter and this can really be achieved with different combinations. I don't think Jody is unique in having stumbled upon a nice combo. I bet @Phil has. I know for a fact that Ed Pillinger has, and I belive with our tenor mouthpiece which is a big chamber and a certain height and shape of baffle has done it.
Leave it out Pete you're getting me interested in your mouthpieces again. And haven't you just answered the question you posed?
One solution is a mouthpiece like the Woodwind Co. Meliphone Special (or the Dick Stabile that was a particular size of that). This had a small-ish chamber (for the period) with straight sidewalls (it was described as "a clarinet type chamber") but then between the chamber and the bore it opened up into a large "inner chamber" bigger than the bore.
I had one of those Dick Stabile Special mouthpieces. Cost me 50p. Back in 1984, I was a student living in London, and I wenst to visit the original Richer Sounds shop in London Bridge Walk - I wanted some cheap audio gear. When I got there, I found a cardboard box outside the door with a sign hand written in black marker sayng 'Mouhtpieces - 50p each' I had a tenner on me so bought the 20 that looked the best, including the Stabile. I ended up selling it to a bandsman from Deepcut barracks. I also got a Selmer Airflow, a scroll shank Selmer tenor with a knackered table (sold as a blank for refacing), a Roc Britone, a couple of other Selmers and some Vandorens and various others.

Back to the original question, I've played modern mouthepices on vintage horns without any problems - I have a silver Buescher True Tone alto and a brass TT soprano. I mostly use a metal Yanagisawa on the alto, but I have played it with a step baffle Oleg Maestro, a very bright mouthpiece. I've used a PPT and a Bari metal on the sop. No real issues with tuning. maybe I've been lucky
Here's my opinion. Most pre 50s saxophones have tuning issues with modern mouthpieces. Most of the times this means you're stuck with a vintage mouthpiece that makes the sax play in tune.
I wouldn't play any prewar or pre50s sax and have high hopes that it can play anything unless they are top of the line aristocrats or 10Ms ( I'm mostly a tenor player). The Aristocrats series I have a versatile tone and stunning intonation.
Conn 10Ms have a special tone and great intonation. I've played prewar ones and 60s ones. A little bit different but they basically have the same vibe. The prewar ones are a little bit more mouthpiece sensitive.

Most 60s+ saxophones can play with more extreme mouthpieces.
When it comes to the studio it's where things are more complicated. What is recorded is not what is perceived when we play. Different configurations sound a lot more closer than we think ... and that's where it gets frustrating with most players. They want a sound close to the concept in their heads being similar in their heads and through the mic.
Modern saxophones are much closer to that.
I remember playing a Yamaha 62 tenor and what I heard recorded was very close to what I heard while playing.
My beaugnier feels and sounds a lot less treble in my head than what I hear recorded.....

This is by no means scientific but I'm pretty sure that some saxes project in a way that can be deceiving for the player.
My conclusion is that your sax may be much more expressive than you think!
So does your old school mouthpiece that fits your ultra-vintage horn.

Now about recording and evaluating a horn .....
I had much success with recording with high quality ribbon mics. Condensers seemed to me to "emphasize" the highs and dynamics to be ultra sensitive to their placement.
Using a 3rd person evaluating that what was played from a recording was very very close to what he heard in the room ( trying to create a "reference" recording environment ) lead us to the conclusion that a ribbon was the best way to capture the sound ....

The ribbon playalongs ... revealed .... very very little difference between different setups .... saxophones and mouthpieces ... after playing them for a while ....
The sound was changing ... but just a tiny bit ....

Not at all what I thought that was going on .... So after that ... I focused on having a proper mouthpiece that made my life easy, not to struggle with my horn .... with a small amount of "healthy" resistance in order to be expressive .... and I stopped worrying to much about the produced sound.

Now about the 80s ear piercing modern sound -sorry guys i'm too old school for this- I'm pretty sure that the average sound guy with their trusty sm58 and a bit of EQing can work wonders in a live or a studio setup .... The way we play and a pretty bright/light reed can make a big difference ..... and a high baffled piece too if you want to peel the walls ... :)
Most pre 50s saxophones have tuning issues with modern mouthpieces.
I most of the tuning issues is caused by the player. It doesn't matter if it's a sax from the 20's, 30's ..... or 80's 90's . It wasn't the saxes or the mouthpieces, it was me that was the weak link.

There were some long running sax models that didn't changed so much over the years. The were basically the same sax construction from the start to the end. Conn Artist 10M (mid 30's to 58 or 59 or to 74), King Super 20 (1945-1979), The Martin Tenor (1945- 1971). So an early The Martin Tenor needs a differnt mouthpiece? Or was it the music that changed?

Lots of wise guys says a vintage mouthpiece (big round chamber) is best mpc on a Martin Committee. I don't think so. I've played big round chambered mouthpieces on Martin Committees and they didn't fit me.

The guy who talked me in to Rovner (long, dual chamber, big window, heavy, tapered chamber .....) was a Swedish sax player called Bo Gustafsson. He is on a Conn Artist 10M with a Rovner mouthpiece. I he sounds good. He alsways seems to have a good time when he is playing and the audience are also having a good time! Maybe a vintage mouthpiece on his vintage sax would be better? A link with Bosse Gustafsson playing his 10M with a Rovner mpc.
There is no perfectly pitched instrument/mouthpiece/ligature/Reed set up because of the human stuck on the end of it.
Benade writes that two conditions must be met for a saxophone to behave as if it had a completed cone at its end rather than a truncated one:
  • That the "effective volume" of the mouthpiece be a close match to the "calculated" volume of the missing cone.
  • That the played frequency (frs) of the mouthpiece + neck must be a close match to the natural resonant frequency of a cone the same length using the formula: frequency = speed of sound / 2x the length
The "effective volume" of a mouthpiece is greater than its measured geometric volume due to the effects of the reed travel and to a small degree the player's oral cavity. This would indicate that not only the chamber size, but the tip opening, lay, and reed strength also contribute to the "effective volume" as does how much mouthpiece is in the mouth and the tightness of the player's embouchure. Measurements by Benade and Gebler of a soprano mouthpiece being played showed the "effective volume" to be approximately 24% greater than the physical volume past the end of the neck.

In my playing and teaching, I have found that a played frequency of Ab concert on the mouthpiece and neck for the alto saxophone, and of E concert for the tenor saxophone to be useful guide posts. This is reinforced by the fact that a classical alto saxophonist playing A concert on the mouthpiece alone will tune with the mouthpiece in one location and a jazz player playing a step and 1/2 lower on the mouthpiece alone will push the mouthpiece on farther to tune and in both instances the note produced by the mouthpiece + neck will remain the same.
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