Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Vintage Hard Rubber Mouthpiece Hoax

When we hear a claim (or make a claim) of historical fact, material properties, or acoustical properties of mouthpieces, I'm first going to invoke Carl Sagan's rule of critical thinking that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

With that in mind, let's look at the common claim that certain brands of vintage hard rubber mouthpieces are made of "superior hard rubber."  It always reminds me of silly claims like "they just don't make pancakes like they used to."  What?  Have the physical properties of the elementary ingredients changed?  Are the recipes lost in the dim past and can't be replicated today?  Heat doesn't transfer like it used to?  There's neither proof nor logical justification for this claim.

For a basic outline of the vulcanization of natural rubber to create "ebonite" or hard rubber, check out this video with a saxophone backing track and a voice-over by a woman who really, really likes vulcanization.  The flexibility or hardness of the rubber is basically in direct relationship to the amount of sulfur in the recipe, although other additives were later used to produce different properties.  Ebonite was first used because of its resemblance to the ebony wood originally used for woodwind mouthpieces. 

That's the benefit of hard rubber; it machines more reliably than ebony, it is more stable, and it is less expensive.  As an added benefit, with an investment in the proper equipment, it can be molded into a blank that eliminates much of the preliminary machining, including difficult chamber work.  It's final advantage to some is that it feels like wood in the mouth.  Many people prefer it to the feel of metal or plastic. 

Originally, ebonite was processed in the same manner as ebony for making mouthpieces.  A hard rubber manufacturer produced ebonite in a dowel shape, called bar or rod rubber, and the rod was cut into sections and machined by the mouthpiece maker just like making a mouthpiece from a piece of ebony wood dowel.  Mouthpiece makers in the early 1900s were already set up to machine ebony wood, and by purchasing rod rubber, the same milling process could be used.  Milling is still done today, although you would pay for the rod rubber and then mill away 80%, meaning that there are higher material costs for milling rod rubber.  On the other hand, milling rod rubber means that the maker doesn't have to make molds, mix raw ingredients, cook the rubber (in an expensive autoclave for many hours), etc., although the modern milling process for rod rubber can also require very expensive machinery.

If you had expensive and complex milling machinery, and were adept at milling, you would claim that rod rubber made superior mouthpieces.  If you had expensive and complex equipment for molding, and were adept at molding, then you would claim that molded hard rubber mouthpieces were superior.  That's the difference in the two processes.  Or at least, that's all we have evidence to support.  We know that there is no discernible difference because several of the most respected vintage mouthpiece makers went back and forth between molded and rod rubber pieces, as shown in this blog.

Notice that I did not make any acoustical claims for hard rubber, whether molded or rod rubber.  For that, we would need extraordinary evidence, of which there is none.  There is some anecdotal evidence where some people claim that they clearly hear the difference.  But we are back to the Princess and the mouthpiece type of story discussed in an earlier blog.  Since the claim is not really evidence, it is hard to rebut.  It is similar to this type of revealed knowledge: "What's that you say, Lord? You say that hard rod rubber is acoustically superior?  Then that shall be my proof!"  Okay, they are welcome to their beliefs, but don't try to convince others by claiming that there is evidence.

Support for the claim that "good" vulcanized rubber for making mouthpieces is no longer available is sometimes tied to the Environmental Protection Agency.  The assertion is that good hard rubber mouthpieces disappeared when the EPA promulgated rules in the 1970's related to hard rubber manufacturing.  So that's what happened!  Wait a minute.  This is two claims.  The first is that good hard rubber can no longer be produced.  The second claim is based on the inception of the EPA in December of 1970 coinciding with the alleged disappearance of good hard rubber.  The second claim sure sounds like it could be the infamous post hoc fallacy.  Mr. Sagan is going to require that we produce some extraordinary evidence for these claims. 

Well, for our primary evidence, how about the disappearance of the U.S. tire industry at exactly the same time?  Oh yeah, that never happened.  According to the Rubber Manufacturer's Association (RMA), U.S. tire manufacturer's produced 307.9 million automobile tires at 55 production facilities in the United States in 2013 (a .5% increase over the prior year).  So the production of vulcanized rubber products in the U.S. is alive and well despite the EPA.

Yeah, but how about the burdensome aspect of EPA rules driving mouthpiece manufacturers out of business?  Turns out that the EPA rules allow members of the RMA to "self report," meaning that the manufacturers tell the EPA what materials they are using and what waste products are produced.  It's not like the EPA is peering in their windows at night.  The publication also lists the hundreds of hard rubber manufacturers still producing products in every state in the U.S.  So much for the EPA rules having eliminated hard rubber production.

Not too surprising, it is the "waste" that is the biggest environmental concern.  Think of the tire industry again.  Everybody has heard of the nightmare caused by stockpiles of worn-out tires.  Add to that the number of "blems" or tires that don't meet production standards right at the factory.  The automobile tire waste stream is thousands of tons of vulcanized rubber per year.  The EPA is still searching for a solution, but the problem clearly hasn't ended the production of hard rubber products. 

It's silly to allege that the EPA was so concerned with the waste stream of hard rubber mouthpiece manufacturing that it regulated the industry out of business.  One thousand defective mouthpieces a year equals one truck tire.  Would the EPA even require that a producer self report a defective mouthpiece?  I don't know, but the idea that hard rubber mouthpieces disappeared because of the EPA doesn't fly.

The claim that vintage hard rubber contains some recipe or materials that are no longer available is harder to examine, but ultimately just as silly.  Latex rubber is still available.  Sulfur is still available.  Lamp black is still available (as a colorant).  Talcum powder is still available (as a mold release).  There are a host of other ingredients that have been used over the years, as listed in the EPA publication above, but the materials are hardly a secret and none became suddenly unavailable.  The same is true with the ratios and recipes.  As can be seen in the EPA publication, hundreds of manufacturers in the U.S. still avail themselves of materials and recipes.  And if you don't know the ratios and formulas, there's always the RMA to help you develop them.

The secret "formulas and recipes" claim is sometimes used in supporting the superiority of one vintage mouthpiece over another.  I also find this claim entertaining to examine.  I don't know how many times I read a claim like "these old Penzel-Mueller hard rubber mouthpieces used the best vintage hard rubber."  Those old Penzel-Mueller pieces were made by American Hard Rubber (and later Riffault), as were pieces for WoodWind Co. N.Y., as were some Links, some Dukoff, some Vito, some no-name, etc., etc.  So you can substitute just about any vintage name into the "best vintage hard rubber" claim.  Sort of weakens the claim from the get go.

But we need some extraordinary evidence to support the extraordinary claim of extraordinarily rare and superior vintage hard rubber.  The French company Riffault made blank mouthpieces for the above names and many others (Riffault also made most of the blanks for Lelandais and Chedeville, both of which are claimed to have still used rod rubber decades after they began using commercially available blanks.  More on the silly "rod rubber" fetish here).

If true, the "best vintage hard rubber" claim would require daily conversations at Riffault's manufacturing facility in Mehun sur Yevre, France* to go something like this (spoken with a French accent, but of course),

"We are now to making a production run for Dukoff, so let us add those ingredient to our namesake Riffault Steelite Ebonite hard rubber mouthpieces to secretly improve them for Monsieur Dukoff.  Next, we are making a production run for Woodwind Co. of New York City. Let us change our Steelite Ebonite recipe once again for an even more better hard rubber mixture for these gentlemen.  The next run will use our less-than-best Steelite Ebonite for Buffett Crampon and then we need to make a run using our secret Chedeville super-duper special hard rubber recipe.  Then we have to make some Vito pieces that need to be of inferior ingredients than those we use for Leblanc Paris.  Puis, we make some Revelle pieces for sales by music stores both here and abroad.  What recipe should we use for those?  The good Chedeville recipe or maybe the inferior Vito recipe, no?"

Where is the evidence that any blank manufacturer ever changed their recipe for individual customers?  Where is the evidence that any rod rubber producer changed their recipe for each mouthpiece customer or even had a "mouthpiece recipe?"  When I spoke with Bernedette and Jacque Mimault (the daughter and son-in-law of Maurice Riffault) they both stated that they sourced "ebonite," just ebonite, for use in their production.

I don't believe that woodwind mouthpieces ever drove the production of the type of rod rubber that was being produced.  Woodwind mouthpieces comprised a tiny fraction of the mouthpieces made of hard rubber.  Smoking pipe mouthpieces (i.e., pipe stems), which were made by the hundreds of thousands, were also made of ebonite.  And a new-fangled device called a telephone required the production of a thousand times more hard rubber mouthpieces (and ear pieces) than did the saxophone industry.  ("Boy, those old hard rubber telephone mouthpieces sure sounded better than any of the newer telephones.  The best being those that were milled from hard rubber rods, but of course.")  

Different hardnesses of rod rubber were available from a manufacturer, and still are available (as seen here, measured by a durometer in units of hardness called duros), but the generic term "ebonite" for a type of hard rubber is a durometer measure for a certain hardness of vulcanized rubber, i.e., a hardness that mimics ebony (a reading of 100 on an ASTM D2240 type A durometer).

Molded ebonite mouthpieces, especially the improved production techniques of Maurice Riffault in 1928, with further improvement in the 1950's when his daughter, son, and son-in-law joined the business, must have been tough competition for rod rubber mouthpiece makers, as is evidenced by the vast majority of makers and saxophone companies turning to molded pieces.  As early as the 1920's, 90% of mouthpieces were made from molded blanks.**  Read that last statement again.  By the 1930's and 40's, rod rubber mouthpieces were as rare as hen's teeth.  That's because makers had learned that there was no advantage to milling from rod rubber (although some would still claim that they were using some secret process like "eburnated bar rubber" without admitting that it was a molded blank).   

Because of some early hype about the superiority of mouthpieces milled from rod rubber, many vintage mouthpieces sold today are claimed to be made from "superior" rod rubber.  That's false on two accounts.  First, there's no evidence that rod rubber produces a better mouthpiece.  In fact, most claims about how mouthpiece matters are demonstrably false.

Second, there are very, very few vintage pieces made from rod rubber.  In the U.S., it is reported that the American Hard Rubber Company (AHR) produced the rubber rod used by some early American mouthpiece makers.  But huge advances were quickly made in the molding of hard rubber.  Automobile tires were one use.  AHR had its big success not with tires, but with a molded American icon, the ACE comb.  

There is evidence that AHR produced some of the rod rubber used for saxophone mouthpiece production, but by the 1930's, even AHR had begun selling molded mouthpieces to refinishing businesses like Link, Penzel Mueller, and Woodwind Co.  AHR is where Arnold Brilhart bought his first molded blank mouthpieces for the creation of his hard rubber line of pieces.***  

For the most part, the mouthpieces that were actually made from rod rubber in the early 1900's are easily recognized because they are dark, stuffy, and unwanted.  Thermoplastics in the 1940s must have been some tough competition for molded hard rubber mouthpiece makers.  At some point, definitely by the 1970's, reduced costs became an even larger factor in mouthpiece marketing (as in the case of general saxophone production) and there were more "student grade" mouthpieces, just as there were more student grade instruments.

One of the things that's really strange is that the perceived quality of the vintage "super special hard rubber" seems to vary between saxophone and clarinet players.  By that I mean that a generic Riffault hard rubber saxophone mouthpiece (which I think of as a standard hard rubber vintage mouthpiece) isn't given much value in the world of saxophones unless it is pressure stamped (stenciled) with a cache name like Dukoff or Woodwind Co., even though there is no evidence that the material quality is different.  But for clarinet players, a piece marked just Riffault is generally thought of as "better" than it's identical brethren marked with a trade name other than Riffault (of which there are many, including Bundy). 

Here's a recent Ebay auction for a Riffault clarinet piece in a standard facing.  Click on it to enlarge.

That's right, two bids and it's already over $800 for a clarinet mouthpiece.  I buy vintage Riffault tenor saxophone mouthpieces for under $30 each.  That's on the low side for vintage Riffault sax pieces, but I don't spend the extra money for those mouthpieces claimed to be made of the "special vintage hard rubber."  

It could be that the secret formula hard rubber in the Riffault clarinet pieces really is 25 times better than the rubber used for Riffault saxophone pieces.  That would make Riffault clarinet mouthpices like the super-duper rubber recipe used in the vintage Otto Link Tone Edge, which routinely sells for over $1,000.  Or, it could all be hype. We would need extraordinary evidence proving the difference.  And unfortunately, the evidence that I have concerning super-duper rubber recipes is from asking Jacques Mimault, the last CEO of Riffault et Fils about Steelite Ebonite.  His comment is in this blog.

Keep in mind that those who agree with the extraordinary claims regarding the hard rubber used in vintage mouthpieces tend to be the owners or sellers of those pieces.  Take a claim like "This Otto Link Tone Edge 'Slant Signature' plays great because it is made from superior vintage eburnated bar rubber that you just can't get anymore."  Full disclosure, I have one.  Fuller disclosure, I really, really understand the desire to say that.  Fullest disclosure, it just ain't so. 

This last claim brings up some more saxophone lore, that of "early Babbitt" mouthpieces.  The evidence we have is that Babbitt molded blanks for Otto Link from the early 1940's, when Link had clearly stopped producing from rod rubber.  Yet "early Babbitt" is a term used based on the address on the box that came with the mouthpiece and is generally claimed to be sometime in the 1970's.  With absolutely no evidence, it is claimed that the hard rubber used by Babbitt for making Link mouthpieces is superior to what Babbitt used when producing dozens of other name brand mouthpiece.  Again, with zero evidence and no logical explanation to support the claim.  It's kind of funny, unless you paid an extra $500 because of the "early Babbitt" hoax.

The era of the production of the mouthpiece is a better indication of the form of hard rubber used than is the trade name stamped on that particular piece.  As noted above, by the 1920's, the vast majority of mouthpieces were molded.  Sellers often represent that certain names (Lelandais and Chedeville come to mind) had their "golden age in the 1930's and 40's making "rod rubber" mouthpieces.  But there is no evidence that Lelandais or Chedeville still used rod rubber in the 30's and 40's and some evidence that they had also switched over to using molded blanks manufactured by third parties (as had Otto Link).  So much for the "golden age" of rod rubber.  The claim is further complicated by the obvious use of Riffault et Fils molded blanks by both Lelandais and Chedeville.

Finally, common-as-dirt vintage hard rubber pieces are much more uniform in material than the multitude of trade names stamped on them would imply.  There is no evidence that the large mouthpiece producers cut corners by routinely changing the formulas from one production run to the next (nor is there any evidence that a "good" hard rubber formula was any more expensive or complex to produce).  There isn't even any evidence that hard rubber manufacturers ever produced ebonite specifically for a saxophone mouthpiece that differed from that of a vintage pipe mouthpiece or vintage telephone mouthpiece.

So why did some vintage brand names become popular while some faded away?  This is curious because some of popular vintage brands used the exact same blank as the less familiar brands (and even no-name pieces).  My belief is that it is in the quality of the finish work.  That shouldn't be too surprising.  When the table, the lay, and the chamber have a quality finish that is superior to a piece made from an identical blank, it shows when played.  But the intricacies of table, the lay, and the chamber modifications are largely invisible to most players, so the sound produced is erroneously thought to be related to the mouthpiece material, which is erroneously thought to relate to the trade name stamped on the piece.  Mouthpiece makers were only too happy to further this misunderstanding.

My experience is that, despite claims of super-duper hard rubber, the quality of vintage mouthpiece materials is generally the same from piece to piece, as shown by various trade names having been used on identical blanks from the same producer.****  The uniformity of the ebonite material used in vintage pieces and the ready availability of vintage no-name pieces leads me to discount the claim of "superior and wonderful" hard rubber in any particular piece.  That claim only makes me wonder what other unsubstantiated puffery is being used by the seller in describing how the vintage mouthpiece actually plays.

*The fact that Riffault et Fils was located in France, had a huge segment of the American mouthpiece market, and also appeared to have ended production of hard rubber mouthpieces in the 1980s is either evidence of the secret international power of the EPA or another coincidence unrelated to the EPA.  What happened to Riffault is a story for another blog that is not yet finished (unless this text is a link).

**The Music Trades, Oct. 7, 1922 (interview with G. Langenus stating that as early as 1922 "90% of saxophone mouthpieces sold are cast").

*** Saxophone Journal, March/April, 1989 (interview with Arnold Brilhart).

****The only really inferior hard rubber that I have come across was a Penzel-Mueller mouthpiece that was made from a blank probably produced by American Hard Rubber in the 1940's.  The rubber had a little bit of a grainy look to it, like there were specks of something that had not completely mixed prior to molding.  Deep inside the chamber, at the point of the thickest material, there was a blister.  When I picked at it, the surface broke away and there was a void.  So it is certainly possible to produce defective molded hard rubber.  Had this piece been milled from defective rod rubber, the defect might have been more apparent.  Or not.  

In Search of the Perfect Saxophone Neck and Mouthpiece Bag

There are saxophone neck bags available commercially, but I'm not going to review them.  I've seen them made of felt, polar fleece, and some kind of thin soft plastic stuff.  Usually around $10.  Sometimes a new mouthpiece comes with a free semi-protective bag.  Sometimes people appropriate other items (Crown Royal bags or old socks, which might tell you something about the player).  All of them can hold a neck or a mouthpiece. But none of them do what I want them to do; provide the most protection at the cheapest price.

I sometimes carry the neck inside the horn's bell, as is the situation required by the Soundwear case reviewed in another blog.  The Soundwear case (now my favorite) comes with a polar fleece type of neck bag, which is just barely adequate.  The separate Soundwear mouthpiece container has a metal zipper pull on it, which is inadequate.  I don't want anything metal rubbing up against my horn's surface.  No zippers, no zipper pulls, no snaps, no nothing.  But as much protection as I can get.

Enter the neoprene personal electronics case.  These are intended to provide protection for your cell phone, GPS, ipod, ipad, Galaxy tablet, etc., etc.  The sizes are fairly standard, and you just need to know which one is likely to fit an alto neck, a tenor neck, or a mouthpiece. 

Here is a neoprene pouch that is intended to fit a 7" tablet.  Overall dimensions are about 8 inches by 5 inches.  Perfect for an alto neck.
No zippers or snaps to scratch the neck or the horn.  The neoprene folds easily and the neck can be inserted into the bell.

These can be bought for under $3.00 on eBay (including shipping) and are also available locally for about twice the price.  The 8 inch "tablet cover" fits a tenor neck.  Both of these have just enough room for a mouthpiece to be placed in with them and still fit in the bell.  The 8" pouch can be bought on the internet for $3.15, including free shipping from China.

But how do we protect the mouthpiece?  Same thing, just a little smaller size.  These little neoprene pouches are for cell phones and hand held GPS and are about 6 inches by 3 inches, just right for a tenor mouthpiece, ligature, and cap.  The pouches can't scratch the horn if placed loose in the case or in the bell and they can't scratch the neck when placed in the neck bag.  They are about $2.50.

These are even smaller drawstring neoprene cell phone bags that fits a tenor, alto, and soprano mouthpieces.  They have a little plastic cord stopper, but it won't hurt anything.

Unfortunately, they are harder to find than the larger smart phone and tablet neoprene pouches.  When you can find them, they are about $3.00.  More than the tablet "neck" pouches for some reason.

Most of these items are available as promotional items and you can get them printed with custom logos and trademarks (even free salesmen samples from some suppliers).  Here's a tenor neck and mouthpiece pouch with my new business logo. 
 Business is slow.

Seriously, these bags are hard to beat for the cost and protection that they provide.  Just look around on the internet or Ebay and get the size that fits your needs.  Be advised:  this material is waterproof, so if you put you neck away without swabbing it out, which you shouldn't do anyway, it is possible that it will stay wet.  

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Lester Young's Mouthpiece - I've got one. You might, too.

Search around the net and find the different opinions about which vintage mouthpieces were used by various famous sax players (or their horns, for that matter).  Then check auction sites like Ebay and you can check out what those mouthpieces sell for compared to other vintage mouthpieces.  If somebody like Lester Young played that brand/model of mouthpiece, then it is likely to be selling for several hundred dollars more than an identical piece stenciled for another company.

What's a "stencil" mouthpiece?  As with saxophones, stencil is a term applied to designate a mouthpiece that was ordered by a woodwind manufacturer, an instrument wholesaler, or a music store to be used as a private label piece for their exclusive sales.  Most mouthpieces are stencils. Don't believe me?  Read this blog.

Let's get back to Lester Young's mouthpiece.  It's an obscure stencil.  I know, you've heard about Mr. Young playing an Otto Link 4 Star and maybe you've seen a picture that sure looks like he is playing an old Link.  And you've heard that he played a Brilhart Ebolin and seen a picture of him playing a black mouthpiece with a white tooth guard.  Fine, maybe he did.  But I'm talking about the other mouthpiece.  The last mouthpiece.  The one that he still owned when he passed away in 1959.  The one that we really know that he owned.

His last horn and mouthpiece sat in his brother's basement for 56 years.  Mr. Young had given away his Conn tenor years before he passed away and he had kept a Dolnet tenor that had been presented to him a few years earlier.  Any prior Brilhart or Link mouthpiece was also given away, sold, stolen, or whatever by the time of his death.  But the Prez still had a Dolnet horn and a mouthpiece.  In fact, here's what Dave Pell, the first person to play the Prez's set up, said when he got ahold of it.

  “It had fifty-six years of rust. I took the thing home, and I said, ‘Gee, maybe I can play the mouthpiece.’ The mouthpiece plays just sensational. Just perfect. It sounds like Prez.  The mouthpiece that was on Lester Young's horn was an Emil Lyon.”

What the heck is an Emil Lyon tenor mouthpiece?  Turns out that we have to go off into stencil land again.  I've seen a few Emil Lyon clarinets.  They show up on Ebay once in a while. 

They appear to be a stencil of unknown origins (other than stating that they are from Paris).  I found one reference that they were imported and distributed by U.S. Musical Merchandising Corporation (USMMC) in New York, but then I couldn't find any further information on the corporation (other than an old address and the name of a line of Japanese-made guitars that they also distributed).  I also found a "for sale" advertisement for a Emil Lyon Db piccolo in a 1953 newspaper.  The trade name isn't very common.  I did later find information that Emil Lyon was a trademark used by USMMC for it's woodwinds from 1946 until 1964.

I have never seen or heard of an Emil Lyon saxophone, so I don't know why there are Emil Lyon saxophone mouthpieces.  It could be that Emil Lyon was a sufficiently popular trade name in clarinets such that the distributor decided to try and branch out.  First with a sax mouthpiece and then maybe an actual sax?  I don't know.  But I have seen an Emil Lyon saxophone mouthpiece.  It's white plastic.  And it's not uncommon.  That is because the identical mouthpiece was stenciled with trade names other than Emil Lyon in the 1940s, 50s, and maybe as late as the 1960s.

The actual plastic material used in making these pieces was never really addressed by the various wholesale sellers of these stencils (if the sellers even knew).  When these pieces were stenciled for Sorkin Music under the trade name Revere, a 1958 catalog said that the mouthpiece material was ivory (third picture) when shipped with the Revere Paris Model saxophones.  That's just advertising hype.  I can't find what the mouthpieces were called when they were stenciled King for H.N. White, although they shipped as one of the standard mouthpiece with the Super 20 horns (and changed over the years).  When stenciled True Tone for Buescher and shipped with the Aristocrat saxophones, this 1949 catalog said the material was Lucite (at page 7).  That's possible. 

Lucite was developed in the 1940's and first prominently used as the "plexiglass" gunner's window on the B-17 Flying Fortress.  It is still used in making everything from jewelry to dentures.  The fact that it can be injection molded to make "fake teeth" shows that it can be produced in mouthpiece colors that look like ivory, as well as some of the later plastic mouthpieces that were red, blue, etc. 

Whether these old stencil mouthpieces are actually Lucite (a trademarked recipe) or simply some form of injection molded polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) isn't important.  The generic term most people use is white plastic.  White plastic mouthpieces became popular because of injection molded mouthpieces being produced (maybe in house) by Arnold Brilhart in the 1940s.  The stencil pieces we are looking at appear to be a knockoff of the Brilhart plastic mouthpieces. 

Brilhart made injection molded PMMA mouthpieces in white (Tonalin), black (Ebolin), and clear (Tonalite).  Mouthpiece princesses, as discussed in another blog, can hear the difference between these different colors, despite the fact that the mouthpieces were produced in identical injection molds using the identical material.  I believe that the differences that they are hearing, if any, are caused by the varying quality of the individual facings, not the colors.  Or, possibly auditory hallucinations based on a preconceived notion of what they should be hearing from a certain colored mouthpiece. 

The weakness in these plastic mouthpieces is the brittleness of PMMA (watch out for cracks in the shank).  If you click on this picture, you can see one.  It's easy to see because the plastic is white.  Black PMMA  mouthpieces, like the Brilhart Ebolin series, also commonly have these cracks.  Most people never notice the cracks, especially on the black pieces. 
One solution to reduce cracking was to use rubber toughening, whereby small amounts of rubber are added to PMMA to try to stop the cracks from developing.  It makes the material slightly less brittle, more resistant to shock and stress cracks, and often results in surface crazing that doesn't actually progress to a larger crack.  Brilharts are famous for needing a metal band on the shank because of developing cracks, and the other plastic mouthpieces of the era can have the same problem.

Rubber toughening does not seem to add any protection from surface wear, and Brilharts and other PMMA mouthpieces seem to suffer more than most from tooth gouges.  Click on the picture below and you can see that the tooth gouge has also spawned a crack.  Because these pieces are white, little stress cracks are more obvious than with the black PMMA models.  The black plastic mouthpieces have cracks just as often, but they tend to go unnoticed.  With care, and especially with a shank band and a tooth guard, these can easily go another 50 years.
Although the gouges can be fixed, it generally isn't done because vintage plastic mouthpieces aren't collectible (yet).  The tooth guards on vintage Brilhart pieces are the same PMMA material as the body of the mouthpiece, just a different color, so it is a guard in name only.

Okay, back to Lester Young's mouthpiece.  You probably want to see what it looks like.  Here is an Emil Lyon mouthpiece.

Some of you may say, hey, I've seen that mouthpiece before.  Maybe not engraved Emil Lyon, but that mouthpiece.  Right you are.  They show up on Ebay once in a while.  I've paid up to $20, but my favorite was only $12, including shipping.  Probably about what the Prez paid for his in the 1950s.  Buescher's 1959 parts catalog listed their white tenor piece for $12.50 (it has a slightly different shank shape, as discussed below).

Here is it is as a King mouthpiece.  Same interior.  They have not quite flat sidewalls and not very much "squeeze" compared to newer Brilhart tenors but basically identical to the earlier Great Neck Brilharts.

Here is a PMMA tenor as a Lyons of Chicago Artist. This is not related to Emilio Lyons, the well-known instrument repairman.  It isn't related to Lyon & Healy, the Chicago harp manufacturer which also distributed woodwind instruments.  It isn't related to the Emil Lyon mouthpiece shown above.  This one was stenciled for the one-time leader of musical instrument distributors Lyons Band Instrument Company.  These mouthpieces are sometimes claimed to be "rare" and sell for above $40.  As we will see, the only thing that is rare (and not that rare) is this particular stenciling for Lyons of Chicago.  The actual manufacturer used this "Artist" stamp on other mouthpieces, including hard rubber pieces (picture #4).

Here it is stenciled as a Medallion and with a black after market tooth guard (recommended, for reasons that you saw above). 

Flat sidewalls and a large throat.

Here's one (above) with no name engraved on it and a clear tooth guard (again, recommended).

A smooth roll over baffle.

And here's one marked as a Paul Dupre Conservatoire.  So who the heck was Paul Dupre?  Some say that he was a famous Paris woodwind maker.  Nope.  When Paul Dupre woodwinds started circulating in the 1920's, people had heard of the Frenchman Paul Dupre.  He was a famous Rugby player who died in World War 1. 

The name Paul Dupre was perfect for a business looking for a French sounding trade name for clarinets, oboes, and flutes.  Henry Stadlmair Co. in New York needed a trade name for woodwind instruments that they were importing from international makers.  So the name Paul Dupre is to woodwinds what Betty Crocker is to cuisine.  Not that it's bad.  Stadlmair, like the wholesale house Sorkin in another blog, often sourced from excellent makers before putting their house brand on the instrument.  In fact, Stadlmair is famous for some of their banjos, ukuleles, steel guitars, etc. all of which were outsourced from a variety of makers.

These white plastic mouthpieces were generally marked as a 2 or 3 facing (if they are marked at all) and are generally between a .065" and .070" tip opening for the tenor.  The "no-name" pieces never having any indication of the lay (not that it really matters because most owners will want to change that).

Buescher Aristocrats altos and tenors shipped with a #3, and their 1950 catalog said that the standard #3 mouthpiece could be exchanged for one of the five True Tone facings that were available.  They later offered them directly for sale in various facings.  I've never seen one of the other facings, but they must exist.  Here's a #3 alto True Tone showing the wider sidewalls (as compared to a newer Brilhart alto piece). 

The Buescher is actually not quite identical to the Emil Lyon, Lyon & Healy, etc. on the exterior of the shank.  The beauty of injection molding is that a chamber interior can be used with a variety of distinctive exterior molds.  So any interior shape might be later used with a generic exterior, or a Buescher exterior, or a Dukoff exterior, or a King exterior, etc.  And the mold for the exterior shape, like this one, can be reserved for use just by Buescher, making it appear to be distinct from the "common" white plastic mouthpieces.

This generic white plastic tenor mouthpiece has had the tip opened up to .100"  or about a Great Neck 5* to 6 (recommended).

Above is the white PMMA mouthpiece actually marked as a Babbit.  It has the slightly smoother barrel to shank shape, i.e., the "Buescher" shape, but the same interior.

Here it is as an alto piece, again unmarked.  Notice that the sidewalls on this particular alto piece are relatively narrow (in the little picture), like a modern Brilhart.  

Below is another alto piece with the narrower sidewalls.  It also has one of the "later model" straight shank exterior designs, although it appears that the rounded and straight shank designs probably overlapped in the late 50's and early 60's.  Notice also in the second picture that this PMMA mouthpiece was stamped Dukoff.  That's why the asking price for this alto piece is $750 instead of the normal $20 for a white plastic mouthpiece.  As is common with Dukoff stencils, it has been refinished to a much larger tip opening than those on the generic blanks from which it was made (.084 for this alto).  Generic PMMA pieces are usually about .063 for altos.

The Revere PMMA alto piece below has the wider sidewalls, but gets a second shank ring (and as we have learned in another blog, it is sometimes alleged to have been made with genuine ivory!!).   The narrower sidewalls, like on the Dukoff, are the more common interiors.

There is really nothing about the exterior shape that gives a clue about the interior shape.  In fact, the Revere trade name was later used on a different exterior shape.  Below is an example of the later exterior with the same narrow or "late Brilhart style" chamber.  If you are selling one of these generic pieces, you could also call it a "Dukoff style" chamber.  Or, to be honest, you could call it a standard Babbitt PMMA chamber, as discussed below.

Enough about the vast number of trade names stamped on generic PMMA mouthpieces.  

It's no wonder that Lester Young used an Emil Lyon white plastic tenor mouthpiece after playing a Brilhart Ebolin for many years.  On the left below is a vintage Brilhart Ebolin Great Neck (with a metal shank band because of the well-founded fear of PMMA cracking).  On the right is not the Brilhart Tonalin Great Neck, but one of the white no-name pieces pictured above with the Emil Lyon style wide chamber.*  I've been over these two with my calipers and there isn't a dime's worth of difference between the two.  I'm just joking.  The pieces are identical, but there's actually about $150 difference between the two according to Ebay sales prices.  But not according to Lester Young.  Who ya gonna believe?

There are several other names and logos stenciled on these pieces besides Emil Lyon and those listed above.  But only one of the names actually manufactured these mouthpieces: JJ Babbitt Co.  JJ Babbitt has been around for a long time.  It's company profile in trade publications states "The company also produces custom mouthpieces with private labeling."  From the JJ Babbitt web site: "JJ Babbitt is an OEM supplier to the world's largest instrument manufacturers and also supplies mouthpieces internationally to professionals, distributors, and dealers."

In other words, JJ Babbitt Co. will stencil one of their mouthpieces with trade names requested by a music store, a saxophone manufacturer, or a mouthpiece finishing business.  Say like stenciling one of their Babbitt white plastic tenor models with the name King, Coast, Medallion, True Tone, Revere, Perfectone, Dukoff, Emil Lyon, etc., etc., etc.  Also available in "No Name" white.  All of these are okay deals at under $20 (because you will need to reface them from the general student facing).  Keep in mind that you can get a new plastic student piece like a Selmer Goldentone to reface for about $18,so why start with an old, possibly damaged blank if you're not looking for the slightly mellower sound of these vintage PMMA blanks?

You need to buy one of these before the word gets out and these common-as-dirt mouthpieces are claimed (by owner/sellers) to be rare examples of the piece played by the Prez.  And, just like those common JJ Babbitt hard rubber pieces that are claimed to be Dukoff House of Note clones, these will start selling for hundreds of dollars. 

You'll sound just like the Prez.  I promise.**  

*  There are Babbitt-produced white plastic mouthpieces that have wider chambers than the two styles discussed above.  Some of them shipped with the King Super 20 horns for years. But that would double the length of the blog.  

**  It might take some practice.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Hot Rodding the Cheapo Piece (part 2)

When we last left our Selmer Goldentone tenor mouthpiece, it had been changed from the standard number 3 facing to something much different.  But it still had the Goldentone name engraved on it, which would make some people never consider playing such a piece.  Here is the final product.  I continued to open the piece to .111 inches (2.82 mm), a gigantic opening for a "student" piece.  It's no longer a student piece, I guess, but it plays very easy for a large tip opening, in part because the lay is quite long at .965 inches (Brand number of 49 or 24.5 mm). 

I have to admit that I went with a larger tip opening because I took one too many swipes on the 320 grit paper and opened up the tip further than I intended to go.  In the prior blog, I showed the original Goldentone left and right rail lay compared to a generic Link 7* (the smooth brown curve) and that picture showed that I had overshot the tip opening a tiny little bit.  I now had to go to a Link 8.  Here's a graph with a new line showing a Link 8 curve (in yellow) and a red line that is the final lay of the Goldentone.  I even managed to over shoot the 8.  Click on the picture to enlarge.

I know that the lay is not perfect, but come on, it's a plastic Goldentone that I got for nothing.  It now plays great.  Opening the tip provided plenty of material for a baffle, although I didn't leave big baffle, as you can see in the picture below (where the start of the baffle is finished to a finer surface than the rest of the baffle going into the chamber).  I didn't want a bright piece.  Bright mouthpieces are easy to find and I admit that I don't care for them.  I think that roughing up the insides reduces the brightness a little bit (a stock Goldentone is super smooth and shiny.  See here at picture 1 and 2), but the larger change comes from changing the baffle shape a little. 


Here's another picture with the light reflecting on the baffle behind the tip roll over.  A very long roll over baffle was produced by a quick shot of an aggressive abrasive though from the shank end of the piece (not shown), followed by milder abrasives to smooth the "dimple" that was created. 
  You may have noticed that the band on the shank also looks different than the original Goldentone (Shown here at picture 9).  That's because when I was using various abrasive medias to form and polish the baffle I also used it to change the exterior look of the piece.

Finally, it's no longer a Goldentone student piece (because the name is gone, it has a better facing, and a larger tip opening).  Hotrodding a generic or student piece is a time-honored tradition and gave us some well known pieces like some of the vintage Dukoffs, Brilharts, Penzel-Mueller, etc.  This piece only has to wait another 60 years.  

The matte finish (produced by using finely crushed walnut shells as the blast medium) quickly eliminated it's largest "flaw," the gold stamped Goldentone name.  It can play considerably louder and quieter than the original Goldentone.  Low Bb is possible with just a puff of air.  You can't do that with a crooked facing like this one had to begin with.  It still has good intonation (the selling point for the Selmer Goldentone).  But it now has character, overtones, multiphonics, you know, fun.

I think that this refacing points out what makes the biggest difference in mouthpieces.  It isn't the color, or material, or vintage, or casting technique, or the name.  It's the quality of the finishing.  Goldentones are cheap because the can be rapidly pooped out using injection molding with very little finish work.  But a Goldentone with even rails plays better than one with uneven rails.  A Goldentone with a smooth lay plays better than one with a lumpy lay.  A Goldentone with an efficient curve plays better than one with an inefficient curve. 

 I have purchased some brand new $160-$350 mouthpieces that have very iffy lays on them.  If you think that the original lay on the Goldentone was disappointing, wait to you find a similar lay on a new expensive piece. 

After "X" amount of time and labor is invested, a cheapo mouthpiece can play as nice as more expensive pieces (on which "X" amount of time and labor was also spent).  The improved production quality is what you are paying for (and hopefully getting) when you spend $200 for a mouthpiece.  But the purpose of this blog was to show that it isn't impossible to produce a similar end result from an eBay beater, if you're willing to invest the time and labor. 

I'd guess that there will be plenty who just can't imagine playing a gig on a Goldentone no matter how it plays.  Maybe this mouthpiece needs a new name.  Not Goldentone anymore.  Silvertone has been used.  How about Titaniumtone?