The different parts of a mouthpiece
Here is some information about the mouthpiece. It’s going to be a bit technical but it is important to have some knowledge of your equipment, how it works, what does impact the sound in what way. This will help you with your quest to find YOUR sound.
Important terms and their impact on the sound:
Material: a mouthpiece can be made of hard rubber, metal, wood, glass or plastic. Of course you should avoid the plastic ones, they have very poor tone qualities and will break very easily. The glass mouthpieces are quite rare and mostly used by classical musicians. To grossly schematize a metal mouthpiece will be brighter, a hard rubber will be darker and a wood piece has more body. This is my personal opinion and experience. I know some musicians who play alto with a metal mouthpiece and have a dark sound. Personally I have never felt comfortable with metal mouthpieces. I play hard rubber and wood Lebayle mouthpieces and my preference goes for the wood. The tone is fuller and the way the piece vibrates is really different. There is something noble and unique about a wood mouthpiece. Mouthpieces should be cleaned after each use (I use BG France cleaning products) and wood mouthpiece should be placed in a glass of olive oil for one night each month to nourish the wood and avoid the table to move.
Chamber: this is the inside of the open area of the mouthpiece. It is the most important part as this is the primary resonance chamber of the tone. A well crafted chamber will work reasonably with any table, tip, facing etc… A large chamber has a larger diameter than the bore (I’ve read that was the original designed by Adolphe Sax). A medium chamber has the same diameter as the bore and a small chamber will have a smaller diameter than the bore. It’s all about air pressure, so you will notice than every part of the mouthpiece that increase the air pressure will tend to brighten the sound, and vice versa a lower pressure will darken the sound. Therefore a small chamber will be brighter than a medium chamber that will be brighter than a large chamber.
Walls: these are the sides of the chamber: straight walls help for a focused and bright sound, curved walls will help for a fat and dark tone.
Table: this is the flat area on which you place the reed. The length of the table can vary. A long table means more contact with the reed, hence less vibrations. It might lead to a darker and warmer sound. A shorter table will have less contact with the reed, therefore a brighter sound. With time the table can become uneven or damaged, therefore the reed will not respond as it should. A damaged table can be fixed but make sure you call an experienced repairman.
Tip rail: This is the extremity of the mouthpiece that goes in the mouth. A thick tip rail tend to be easier for soft playing and more stable. However, it diminishes the projection and the upper partials. You will have less resistance with a thin tip, the sound will be more edgy and brighter. But it is more difficult to control and you may squeak once in a while.
Window: this is the open area between the tip rail and the table. Obviously, a long window means a short table, and vice versa.
Side rails: those are the side edges of the window. Make sure those are even. A poorly made piece may have one rail thicker than the other, resulting in an unbalanced contact with the reed. Control that the rails are not damaged.
Baffle: this is the part right after the tip rail inside the chamber. It sort of closes the chamber, like you would close a water pipe with your finger in order to increase the pressure. Same idea here. The higher the baffle is, the higher the pressure. A high baffle leaves little space between the reed and the chamber, reinforcing higher partials, resulting in a brighter and edgy sound. You might look for a high baffle if you play fusion, rock, smooth etc… A low baffle will help you get a warmer, darker sound, but it looses projection.
Throat: also called the bore, it is the area inside the mouthpiece, after the chamber. Same idea than with the baffle or the chamber. Small bore will tend to be bright and focused, a large bore will tend to be dark and warm.
Facing: Look at your mouthpiece from the side. The facing is the shape of the curve between the table and the tip. The distance between the tip and the point of contact of the reed with the mouthpiece is the length of the facing. The facing controls the tip opening.
Tip opening: this is the distance between the tip of the mouthpiece and the tip of the reed. You need to balance the tip opening with the chamber: I wouldn’t recommend to play a small opening like a 5 with a large chamber. It’s like filling an Olympic size swimming pool with the water pipe you use to water your flowers. On the other hand, just like you don’t want to water your garden with the pipe from the fire department truck, playing a 10* opening with a small chamber may not be the best choice. Also, a general rule is that the bigger the opening the softer the reed, the smaller the opening the harder the reed. That rule is very easily proven wrong as I know musicians who play a 12 opening with a 4 reed. I would probably never get a sound with that set up!
Of course the equipment you use is important. But most importantly you MUST know how you want to sound like. You need to hear in your head the sound you want to produce. Do you like the sound to be bright or dark, spread or focused, light or fat? The shades are infinite so you need to clarify as much as possible what your voice is and isn’t. For instance, although I love Michael Brecker’s sound, as much as I try I will never emulate that sound properly, this is just not my voice. You have to spend some time in one direction in order to know if this is good for you or not. I spent one year focusing on Michael Brecker, I know for sure this is not the direction I want to take. Although maybe someday in the future that could change.
That being said, let’s focus on what we’re here for. In my opinion, the order of what’s important to get your sound is:
1. You. The sound you hear in your head
2. The mouthpiece
3. The reeds and ligature the equilibrium of the mouthpiece/reed/ligature
4. The neck
5. The saxophone
We give way too much importance to the saxophone itself when we search for a good sound. In my opinion the saxophone itself has a smaller impact on your sound than your set up mouthpiece + reed + ligature. I judge a saxophone on its projection, tone quality, comfort of playing and the quality of the mechanics. If you take your set up mouthpiece + reed + ligature and switch between saxophones, the difference will be less than if you change your set up and keep the same saxophone.
I demonstrate this in the master class I gave in Barcelona.
The mouthpiece is the most personal tool of your entire set up. A mouthpiece may work for you and not for me, because you and I have different ways to blow air, a different jaw structure, a different embouchure etc… Also a mouthpiece may be great with one saxophone but not necessarily with another one, some saxophones are brighter than others, or darker, or more focus etc… If you own a Mark VI, a King or a modern instrument, you may want to have a specific mouthpiece for each!
The balance between the mouthpiece, the reed and the ligature is also a subtle one. I have a few different ligatures to choose from, depending on the sound of the room I’m performing in. A small room with a dry sound or a big room with natural reverb will influence my choice of ligature.
The possibilities and combinations are endless. The slightest change on any part of the mouthpiece will impact the tone, projection, response etc… even the intonation can be affected by a crappy mouthpiece. You need to experiment and identify what you like and don’t like and find the best balance possible with all the elements.
I use a custom made mouthpiece by Fred Lebayle. Ultimately, if you are a professional musician, that’s really the best thing you can do. Find a good craftsman and have a mouthpiece made for you.
I have recently tried the D’Addario Select Jazz Alto Saxophone Mouthpiece, D5M which was very good. The only thing is the opening is too small for me, but maybe they will make some more open in the future.
I also played hard rubber meyer mouthpiecesat some point