Updated May 14th, Finding a great mouthpiece can be a lot of work. It may make things worse or at least more complicated. Practice long tones for at least a month before deciding the problem is in your set up. Here is some gathered information to help you in the arduous task of finding a mouthpiece to use.
The first thing to know is that mouthpieces come in all shapes, materials, sizes, brands, and styles. This Chart is definitely not complete. The below article is mostly referring to Baritone Saxophone mouthpieces. Not that I recommend using the most common mouthpiece. However, the most common brands I see for baritone are Berg Larsen metal and rubber , Meyer, and Otto Links usually metal.
I have noticed recently that the variety of mouthpieces being used in the last few years is definitely expanding. Hopefully this is a continuing trend. This is also a very common mouthpiece with classical saxophonists, however someone playing anything other than strict classical music might benefit from a mouthpiece with a larger tip opening and chamber. Gerry Mulligan and Harry Carney generally used rubber mouthpieces.
You can find out what your favorite players used and use that, but there is no guarantee that their type of mouthpiece will work for you or sound at all like it did when they played it. So do not be surprised if even with the exact same set up as your favorite player that your sound is quite a bit different. There are both new and vintage mouthpieces out there.
A large difference between the two is that vintage mouthpieces were hand crafted. Unlike the horn itself, it is actually possible to find modern hand finished mouthpieces today. Newer mouthpieces tend to be far more consistent from one mouthpiece to another of the same model, because most of the work is done with precision machinery, although many modern mouthpieces are hand finished, or even hand made if they are from a custom mouthpiece maker or smaller brand.
Having a newer mouthpiece means that if you find a new mouthpiece you love and you lose it or break it, you can buy another and easily replace it. Although this makes the mouthpiece nearly irreplaceable. Unlike horns, I believe that some of the newer mouthpieces can definitely hold their own against vintage ones.
Vintage mouthpieces are far more fragile especially rubber ones and can be far more expensive. Newer mouthpieces tend to be much more reed friendly and forgiving to reeds, as they are more physically symmetrical and well defined. The bottom line of course, is that nothing matters more than if it sounds good or not.
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There are a few things to remember when trying out mouthpieces. First, if possible, try and keep the conditions and variables the same between all mouthpieces to give a fair comparison. This is tricky as a more open mouthpiece will need a softer reed and if you try them in different stores or rooms the sound of the room will undoubtedly be different. Do the best you can, bringing a small recording device is not a terrible idea. Bring a tuner! See how the mouthpiece plays in tune on your horn. Most mouthpieces and horns will sound and play best when they are adjusted to be in tune.
Many online sites will send you a few after you pay for them and allow you to try them for an extended period and send them back for a full refund if you do not like them. Also, many mouthpieces are hand finished, so if you find a mouthpiece you like and want to purchase see if you can try out of the exact same mouthpiece, they will each be slightly different. Most stores will let you try any mouthpiece before purchasing as well. The tip opening is the distance between the reed and the tip of the top of the mouthpiece. A good starting place for baritone is around.
A wider more open tip opening generally requires a softer reed, while a smaller, or more closed opening, will require a harder reed. A medium-open set up would be. Its a good idea to try many different tip opening to see what you can handle and what you like. If the tip opening is too large it will seem very hard to produce a clear tone, or sound extremely stuffy or fuzzy.
If you are trying a mouthpiece more open than you are comfortable on it may squeak quite a bit because it is harder to control. It is important to note that using a harder reed as opposed to a larger tip opening are not exactly the same.
Both options provide more resistance, but a small tip opening with a really hard reed will have a different sound, timbre, and feel than a wide tip opening with a soft reed even though they may have similar resistances. Most saxophonist tend to only consider the tip opening when looking at mouthpiece specs. This neglects two things that can have a huge effect on the way a mouthpiece plays and sounds — facing lengths and rails.
The facing length refers to the distance from the tip of the mouthpiece to where the reed actually begins to touch the rails of the mouthpiece. This distance can vary greatly. A longer facing will reduce resistance meaning you can use a harder reed whereas a shorter facing increases resistance. A good analogy is like a diving board, the longer the board, the more flimsy and less resistant to bending it becomes.
The width of the rails can vary quite a bit from one mouthpiece to another. Not only the side rails but the tip rail at the top of the mouthpiece as well. The rails of the mouthpiece are what the reed actually vibrates against and bounces off, so they are responsible for producing the actual vibration of the air! Thicker rails increase resistance and can slow down articulation and response but will provide a deeper, warmer and possibly richer sound.
Thinner rails are better for quick articulation and ease of response. So as you can imagine the combinations between tip openings, facing lengths and rail widths are nearly endless. Especially when you consider the shape of the facing curve even for two tip openings can be completely different. Not all metal mouthpieces are bright, and in fact some hard rubber mouthpieces can be incredibly bright and loud!
There are several materials used for mouthpieces including metal, plastic, glass, wood, and hard rubber ebonite. Metal and hard rubber ebonite are by far the most common materials used for baritone saxophone mouthpieces. There are a few basic differences between hard rubber mouthpieces and metal ones. Metal mouthpieces are much less fragile as they can be washed with anything, they wont crack, and wont shatter if dropped.
Plastic mouthpieces are usually worthless and just for students, they may come in the case with a new saxophone. Glass mouthpieces are extremely rare, especially among baritone mouthpieces — they are much more common for clarinet. Wooden mouthpieces are somewhat rare as well, and can sound great, but may be hard to keep in shape and may be expensive. They are affected greatly by changes in humidity weather and are prone to cracking.
The difference in sound depends mostly on the chamber, curve of the facing, and tip opening, baffle, chamber etc, as opposed to the material. Baffles and different chamber sizes are used to alter the speed of the air as it travels through the mouthpiece, thus changing the sound. A baffle refers to when the inside of the mouthpiece below the tip opening is raised in a variety of shapes and sizes. This generally creates a more narrow opening which forces the air through faster, and creates a brighter sound.
High baffles are fantastic for when you need punch in your sound or to play extremely loud — highly recommended for rock and salsa gigs. There are a few mouthpieces out there with a movable baffle, although none of these have been considered more than a novelty. Baffles can be added or removed to existing mouthpieces by skilled craftsmen. Different chamber sizes can have similar effects to baffles.
The chamber is the inside of the mouthpiece towards the bottom of the mouthpiece. A large chamber slows down the airspeed, and will usually create a much darker sound. A small chamber generally produces brighter one. A large chamber may provide more resistance as well. When you see two numbers in the size of the mouthpiece e. The larger the number the larger the chamber, and darker the sound.
Note that a larger chamber may also affect the tuning, as it increases the volume inside the mouthpiece, thereby slightly altering the pitch. It is a really good idea to swab out your mouthpiece every other, if not each time you use it. If saliva is left on the mouthpiece after playing, it can form over a period of months into calcium carbonate deposits which look like a crusty white substance that is extremely hard to remove. The best solution is to not allow the build up in the first place.
There are some people that swear by soaking a mouthpiece in liquids such as vinegar can remedy this, but best to avoid having to soak your mouthpiece in anything. Some people prefer to leave their reed on the mouthpiece, rather than putting their reed away after playing. This is a very sure way to build up the calcium deposits and can ruin a good piece. It is also best to wash your mouthpiece occasionally. Be sure to use only water, not soap. Hot water can cause certain materials in the rubber to leech out, specifically the sulfur used in the firing process that hardens the rubber.
You may notice that it turns green after you wash it in warm water — this is not a good thing. Today manufacturers of modern synthetic reeds will tell you that even top classic artists and conservative orchestras use synthetic reeds. It will be interesting to see what the future brings in this field. The reed is fixed onto the mouthpiece of the clarinet so that only a very narrow opening remains between the tip of the reed and the mouthpiece.
When you close your lips around the mouthpiece and the reed and blow, a tone is created. Technically speaking, the reed together with the mouthpiece work as a valve that opens and closes: The air presses the reed against the opening of the mouthpiece so that the stream of air is blocked. Because the reed is elastic, it immediately swings back and the air immediately streams in again, presses the reed against the opening and so on and so on. As a result there is a pulsed air column in the clarinet whose vibrations cause the surrounding air to swing in waves that we hear as tones.
There is a more detailed description with graphics to be found here. In order to work well, the reed must be really thin at the front end, typically 0. However, it also must be stiff and elastic, must keep absolutely identical vibration qualities up to One has to consider, too, that this reed will get wet, gets centigrade warm it is in your mouth which are nightmare conditions for wood. Thinking about that, every reed that works is a small wonder. Depending on the manufacturer you will find different classes and naming conventions for reeds.
Usually 1 is the softest lightest and 5 the hardest. But this is - as I said - depending on the type of instrument, the player and other factors. The classes are not defined strictly, and from one reed to another of the same class can be individual differences, too.
But even in the industrial mass production e. Small manufacturers try out every single reed, there you can rely on a tested reed at a much higher price, off course. The traditional way is to go to a music shop and buy a box or some single reeds of you favorite brand. Most will have in stock VanDoren and Ricoh, and usually some national brands.
The good thing in a music shop is, that if you buy single reeds, the salesman takes them out of the box - and even if they come in plastic covers, one can often see easily that some of them are not good. Depending on how the local culture is in your country you might not have to take those. When you buy a box, then you are caught - it is perfectly normal that 3 out of ten reeds are hardly usable. You can as well order over the internet - reeds are standardized products. There are a lot of different opinions about treating reeds. Some are very specific, and many are contradictory.
Most agree that you have to "break in" reeds, that is, in the beginning you don't play on them longer than 15 minutes, so they "get used" to swinging. This may sound strange but most people find that this advice is good. What I find interesting is that the oboe players, who use similar - but much more sensitive and expensive - material, have come up with some suggestions that I find are well founded:. You will see that oboe players carry about a glass of water, or, more practical, a small plastic container for film rolls you will find those in drug stores where people turn in their fotos from non-digital cameras.
It is a fact that clarinet reeds are much less sensitive than oboe reeds, but nevertheless this may help us, too. Generally you should treat your reeds as carefully as possible. After playing them one should keep them in special boxes to prevent environmental effects on them. They must be stored in a way that the thin, still moist tip does not develop "crinkles" or waves.
Whether it it makes sense to keep them in a climatised box not unlike a cigar humidor is still under discussion. But the boxes in the photo are not expensive and proved useful for that purpose. They make a nice present for clarinet players who still carry around reeds in simple cartons or in the typical single plastic cover, in which the moist wood cannot dry and might eventually start to rot!
I am glad I do - it is no rocket science and it can make life much easier at least it saves money, since you can use and enjoy reeds you would otherwise have thrown away. Before you try a reed, make sure your clarinet is in perfect condition, because otherwise you might blame the reed for any hissing and squeaking that in fact is the clarinet's fault. When you take a reed out of the box, it has been dry for a long time. So you want to moisten it in a glass of water - see treatment for about 3 to 5 Minutes - then the tip is moist inside, too.
Then you examine the bottom. It must be perfectly flat and the tip must not show any curves. Then you fix the reed on the clarinet and try the lower register and the g'". This should sound well, even in piano without much hissing noise. Then check with the c', whether both of the reeds sides are well balanced: You turn the clarinet in your mouth to the right and the left which stops either the right or the left side of the reed to swing. What swings is the other side, and so you can compare them.
Then you check some tricky legato jumps. Everything all right? But don't overdo it in the beginning: Many experts are convinced that one should "play in" a reed - like no more than fifteen minutes in the beginning. Most clarinettists make notes on the reed once they are sure what the reed is like. A waterproof CD marker writes well on the shoulder of the reed, the part, where you can't injure the cut. Generally you shoul work carefully! Better do a step again some times than to be too radical, because on the sensitive tip you can't redo anything - pulling firmly over a sheet of sandpaper once can be too much for a soft tip!
With more experience you will know in advance how much sanding the reed needs, but in the beginning things will go wrong, too - so you want to start with reeds that are a little older or that come out the box - never start with the reeds you rely on for your next concert Sometimes you find that you can't improve a reed however hard you try.
Then just throw it away; it is unlikely you will repair it later. It is sufficient if you keep one or two old unplayable reeds that you can use to cover the mouthpieces lay with when the mouthpiece is not in use, for example. Throw away old and unusable material or you might lose overview over your reeds. The whole planed area of the reed is called cut. The colours show areas of equal strength like height lines on a map. The tip white is the thinnest and most sensitive area, it is responsible for the high frequency swinging and the attack behaviour of the reed.
The area edged black is the raised crest sometimes called "heart". In the raised crest you don't sand except if the whole reed's surface must be redone. The sides or flanks next to the creast are important for the balance. The area below the crest is sometimes called shoulder, here the reed is strong and does hardly swing at all. The unplaned area is called blade. First you check whether the bottom of the reed is absolutely flat and smooth. Often there still is some dust or the surface is sticky. Or it is not absolutely flat. Make the reed wet - only work on wet reeds.
Then put the reed on the finest sand paper you have got, put index, middle finger and ring finger on top of the blade and push it over the surface away from the tip like you would move a matchbox car over the floor - no force necessary. Never move a reed towards the tip, because the fibers on the thin tip will then break. It is not as easy as it may sound - because it is hard to get hold of the reed, and you must not press harder on one side than the other. Simplest way - if it is a very small correction: You pull the reed face-down over a fine sheet of sand paper that is with the crest looking down in an acute angle with only very little pressure.
Make sure you keep the reed absolutely horizontal! Stronger effect: Take the spatula or the horsetail as seen on the picture left and make the tip a little thinner. You move the horsetail only towards the tip, not the other way, so the fibres can't be ripped out of their structure. In addition you do make the sides in the picture above: the green are a little thinner but always keep out of the crest.
The areas here are the mose sensitive of the reed, so be careful. Doing the sides be careful to work balanced on both sides. Often check by fixing the reed on the mouthpiece, and while playing a note, turn the instrument right and left - then the reed will be hindered to play right or left because it can't swing, and you can easiliy find out whether its responsiveness is the same on both sides. As described above, but now you work further away from the tip in the blue and yellow are. Here the reed is much stronger, and you can sand away a little more before you find the reed to react. The reed plays easily, but it squeaks for no reason and it is difficult to keep the tone constant.
Forte is clattering and when you want to play fortissimo, you press the reed against the mouthpiece and it shuts and blocks. Actually "too soft" just means the reed swings too much. This can be due to being to thin in the tip or the tip opening between reed and mouthpiece is too thin.