Reeds & Tone

Reeds

If an existing mouthpiece is being replaced due to its low reed success rate, do not choose the new mouthpiece using one of your old reeds. A good mouthpiece should allow:-

  • At least four to five new reeds from a box of 10 to work reasonably well
  • Three to four to work very well,
  • Two to three, to work exceptionally well.
  • If a batch of mouthpieces seem very similar then choose the one that makes the reeds feel softer and free to blow (but not flabby or tubby).

Generally, a close lay (1mm tip opening) will work better with a harder reed and conversely, a more open lay (1.20 and above), will demand a softer reed. However, this is not a hard and fast rule, the gradient(s) of the curve and the length of the lay also affect the response of the reed. The longer the lay the more compliant the reed will feel, but if the lay is too long for its curve and tip opening, then articulation will deteriorate and the tone will lack focus. A higher curve on the facing will increase blowing resistance.

From the above it should be apparent that it is possible for a 1.3mm open lay to play as easily as a 1.10mm closer lay, although the feel of the set-up and the tone will certainly be different. As a general rule of thumb, lays below 1.15mm at the tip will usually give a more focused tone, and those above 1.20mm a broader tone, explaining the popularity of the 1.20mm x 20mm lay.

Traditional German lays are altogether different. Here, a 1.0mm tip opening would be considered open. Lays around 0.8mm x 25mm are the most common. Viennese lays often have tip openings as close as 0.6mm.

Tone

‘ Good tone’ is subjective. Some players look for centre in the tone, others prefer more breadth. Some may be looking for a more ringing tone in the clarinet register with more resonance in the low register. A wide dynamic range may be the biggest priority, or the ability to hit extreme high notes with ease. Tone that can cut through thick orchestral texture may well be an important feature but it may not be possible to assess this until the instrument and new mouthpiece are played in different acoustic conditions.
To summarise:

  1. The lay must be comfortable, responsive and allow clean articulation, otherwise no other aspect of the mouthpiece can be assessed properly.
  2. Reeds take a moment or two to adjust to the curve of the lay of a different mouthpiece, so do not be too hasty in coming to any conclusions. However, do not spend too long on a mouthpiece that really does not perform very well; you will adapt to inadequacies and form a flawed opinion.
  3. Small, U-frame apertures encourage centred, clear tone, providing the baffle is not set too high and straight and the throat/aperture area too small, otherwise a bright thin tone will be the result.
  4. A-frame apertures in combination with wider undercut side-walls encourage dark, warm tone with greater breadth, but if the baffle is too deep, some instruments may produce an unfocused sound.
  5. Straight baffles can aid the response of bell notes, but they can also contribute to a harder tone overall, especially if the baffle angle is set high.
  6. Mouthpiece material has an effect on tone colour.

Traditionally, ebonite (hard rubber) has been the preferred material for the manufacture of clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces. Today, several new materials are being used and in blind tests many players have been unable to tell the difference between a new polymer and ebonite, or have found the new materials to be superior. The important thing is to let your ear be the guide, and not be influenced by prejudice. The reasons for the difference in feel and tonal output from mouthpieces made in various materials are too complex to explain here but put simply it is because of the different resonant frequency of materials inherent at the tip of the mouthpiece where the reed excitation produces the primary wave. Interaction here changes the nature of this primary wave. In my experience, materials exhibiting lower resonant frequencies facilitate a more colourful tonal output and these mouthpieces are generally made from a material that has a degree of flexibility. Harder, stiffer materials have higher resonant frequencies and generally encourage a smooth, clean tone, but arguably less character. The extremes would be soft plastic and stainless steel. Sax players are generally more familiar with mouthpieces made in different materials and are sensitive to the variations in tone, response and feel. However, it must be remembered that the effect of the material will not be apparent unless all other aspects of the mouthpiece are ‘right’.
Once a final selection has been made and you are pleased with the tone, response and reed success rate, make a
final check by playing your old mouthpiece to make sure you really have made an improvement.

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