Thursday, March 30, 2017

Does Mouthpiece Material Matter? Part 2.

In Part 1, we looked at the idea that a certain "perfect" hardness of vulcanized rubber effects how a mouthpiece sounds.  With the help of a mouthpiece expert, the preliminary conclusion was that it does not.  We will now look at the published statements of another materials expert on whether mouthpiece material matters.

I have used Mr. Otto Link as an expert before.  We first find him working for Alexandre Selmer in New York before WWI.  We then find him working at an instrument repair shop with Frank Meyer (later of Meyer Brothers mouthpieces) in 1923.  Then he opens his own musical repair shop and (in small print) offers mouthpiece refacing.  Finally, years after Goldbeck had received a patent for a metal mouthpiece (in 1920), Mr. Link begins producing what appears to be an identical metal mouthpiece under his own name.  

But there is a problem.  The production cost of Mr. Link's metal mouthpiece is fairly high.  Competitor's mouthpieces cast out of hard rubber are undercutting his sales.  So he begins production of an hard rubber piece.  To quote a 1940 Link sales pamplet: "By embodying the famous "LINK" TONE CHAMBER heretofore found only in our Metal Mouthpieces we have created a very popular Hard Rubber Mouthpiece which exactly fills the needs of of those musicians who prefer a hard rubber mouthpiece." Great, Mr. Link created an identical mouthpiece made of rubber.  

But don't think that Otto Link was going to ignore the whims of those who desire mystical vibrations from materials.  His advertising goes on to state that his metal mouthpiece was made of bell metal.  Presumably the idea was that bells resonate, ergo, a woodwind mouthpiece made of bell metal (a fairly specific bronze alloy) could ring like a bell or something.  Wait a minute.  How can Mr. Link possibly make a rubber mouthpiece to mimic his bell metal mouthpiece? What is the sound of a rubber bell?  None of this makes any sense.

Not to worry.  We don't need to make any sense if we can come up with some convincing gibberish.  Otto Link simply ignored the inherent contradiction in metal vs. rubber vibration claims.  He realized that material science can be ignored.  Superficial hype is all that is required.  Simply make an unfounded allegation (e.g., Link metal mouthpieces are made of "bell metal" with the understanding that the term is inexact and nobody will ever test.)  Let others imagine what bell metal does for a mouthpiece.  Likewise, just claim that Link rubber is "eburnated" and walk away.  Remember, musician's don't analyze matter, they just repeat claims that material matters. 

Let's assume that we are not manufacturing or selling mouthpieces and examine a "bell metal matters" claim.  Common bell metal (a bronze that is 78% copper and 22% tin by mass) has a nicer ring to it than common brass (copper and 32-39% zinc) when formed into the proper shape of a bell.  The shape of the bell is all important in the clarity, length of resonance, and pitch of the bell.  Mr. Morgan, in his article referenced in Part 1, alludes to this when he states "Obviously an alloy with less copper content will be harder and more dense, with a greater capacity to resonate. If you have ever compared the sounds of a fine Zildjian cymbal with some of the lesser quality ones available, the difference is heard immediately."

But wait a minute.  Brass always has less copper content than bell metal (61% to 78%).  Therefore, according to our expert's theory, brass would be harder, more dense, and has a greater capacity to resonate, all of which is completely wrong.  I think we have further evidence that our materials expert is not an expert.   

Let's unpack the ultimate claim that a brass and a bronze mouthpiece would "sound" different by conducting a test. I bent a Zildjian cymbal into the shape of a saxophone mouthpiece.  It made a poor mouthpiece and was no longer a good cymbal.  I then bent it into the shape of a bell.  It appears that the shape was more important than the material for either a cymbol, a bell, or a saxophone mouthiece.  Yes, the material of a cymbal or bell matters, but only after it is formed into the proper shape.  We now have evidence that a mouthpiece shape effects the sound, but not whether it is 78% copper or 76% copper.

Of course, there is no sound at all unless you hit the mangled cymbal with the drumstick.  Here, we can get philosophical, since we never actually strike a bell metal saxophone mouthpiece.  What is the sound of an unrung bell, grasshopper?  If you want to get really hippie dippy, watch the YouTube video linked above all the way through.  (If you can hear the difference between a mouthpiece alloy with 78% copper and one with 75% copper, this video is for you.)  It appears that bell metal doesn't matter on a mouthpiece.  Or more precisely, bell metal only matters if formed in the shape of a bell or cymbal and struck with a hard object.  

Even when bell metal is the proper shape to resonate, it generally has only one responsive pitch (some metals, such as Monel, have additional harmonic responses for a given shape).   A "bell metal" mouthpiece doesn't have what anybody would consider a pitch.  Trust me, no need to whack your Super Tone Master with a drumstick.  But if a Link metal mouthpiece could resonate at a certain frequency, as claimed, what would that best pitch be?  Mr. Morgan doesn't tell us, so we'll have to choose one.



How about Bb for tenor and Eb for alto?  Can you find them in this picture?  It is very important.  Not.  What is important to understand from this picture is that metals, copper, bronze, silver, etc., don't resonate at a certain frequency.   Various metal alloys, when a certain size and shape resonate at a certain frequency.  Have you noticed that none of these bells are the size and shape of a saxophone mouthpiece?

In the web site linked above, the dimensions of a middle C tuning fork of steel (the common material for tuning forks) was recreated using different metal alloys.  Not surprising, each alloy has a different pitch.  Also not surprisingly, most tuning forks had only one pitch per alloy.  And also not surprisingly, each metal alloy resonated only when struck with a hard object.  So a "bell metal" mouthpiece could conceivably produce a single short duration "pitch," depending on its shape, but only when struck with a clapper (or drumstick).

Let's take a closer look at a famous Link "bell metal" Super Tone Master.  But first, here's a brass bell.  Yes, they make bells of both brass and bronze.  Mine's just brass.  You can see that, although brass isn't supposed to be magnetic, it responds to a rare earth magnet and slight magnetism is one way to differentiate between brass and bronze.



Next, I'm going to use the magnet on bronze.  This is a high quality bronze screw, sometimes called a boat screw.  



No reaction at all.  Next is an old Otto Link.



What?  That's not supposed to happen.  Let's take a closer look.  In the first video, you can see that the brass bell is brass colored.  In the second video, you can see that the bronze screw is bronze colored.  That's the other way to tell if something is brass or bronze.  Brass and bronze alloys have a different color and get a different patina with age.  Brass is more golden, bronze more reddish.  Here is a look at the metal used on an old Otto Link (balanced on the bronze screw).



Now what?  Metal Otto Links are made of two cast halves brazed together.  And you can see that this one is made of two different alloys.  Which one is bell metal?  I'm going with the right side.  That's the side that always sounded best.  Just kidding.  This is further proof that material doesn't matter and Mr. Link knew this.  Brass, bronze, whatever is most convenient to cast and machine at a reasonable cost. 

Apparently, different Link casting batches used different alloys and nobody could tell when playing them.  Just claim that it's made of "bell metal" and let the suckers consumers make up the rest of the story.  To his credit, Mr. Link never proceeded further with claims about the magical properties of "bell metal."  I'm sure that he knew that there is no pitch or resonance produced without the shape of a bell, and being struck with a clapper, and being a particular size.  And he knew that it was possible to make a great mouthpiece out of either brass, bronze, or hard rubber.  So much for materials matter. 

Mr. Link did not, however, do any thing to stop the myths surrounding his "bell metal" and "eburnated ebonite."  Our other expert, Mr. Morgan, treads where even Otto Link, the heretofore King of Hype, dared not go when discussing metal mouthpieces.  "Metal mouthpieces are not subject to the same tonal changes we note in hard rubber, since the average thickness of material used can do nothing but act as a damping effect on the reeds (sic) vibration."  

Let me understand this; if you want a damping effect, use metal not rubber.  Forget about rubber baby buggy bumpers.  Metal dampens more than rubber?  That contradicts both my personal experience and the understanding of the manufacturers of rubber products.  A rubber bell resonates longer than a bronze bell?  In what world?

Next, Mr. Morgan claims that players want to use metal mouthpieces "because a long list of prestigious players used that type of mouthpiece."  But these unwitting rubes don't realize that "they have only heard a performance using all manner of electronic enhancement and simplification, either live or on CDs/records/tapes.  Therefore, what we hear may be from what the player, mouthpiece, and instrument actually sound like, due to the whims of the sound engineer, etc., altering the true sound."  

Okay, that's a lot to unpack.  First, we can assume that the player has heard himself play when not using electronic amplification and prefers the metal piece.  Second, we can assume that sound engineers can also alter the sound of a Shore 85 "perfect" ebonite piece to make it sound as good as a metal mouthpiece.  Third, a lot of performances aren't miked and the patrons don't turn away when somebody plays a metal mouthpiece in a completely acoustic setting.  So much for that materials matter claim.

Finally, with yet another claim that metal mouthpieces "naturally provide more damping of the reed than hard rubber," Mr. Morgan states that metal mouthpieces can actually work if "the basic design be the result of much acoustical and aerodynamic study."  Aerodynamic study, not this bogus claim again!  

At what speed does aerodynamics come into play on a woodwind mouthpiece?  
A.  30 miles per hour.  
B.  150 mph.  
C.  Never.

But my favorite statement is "Experiments show that a mouthpiece properly designed and made of good hard rubber will produce 30% more sound overall and play with a more centered sound."  What is 30% more sound?  More volume? More overtones?  More inharmonics?  50% more highs and 20% less lows?  And centered around what?  Is any of this good?  

And why do other experiments, experience, and common sense show that metal mouthpieces are appropriate and appreciated?  The listening audience, which is responsible for creating the "long list of prestigious players," apparently groove on metal pieces.  What good is hard rubber's claimed "more centered sound" if fewer want to listen?  We have established that material matters . . . it can create unfounded and unsubstantiated prejudice.

Finally, a specific mention is made of the "distinct quality of silver mouthpieces.  One metal which does have the capacity, given the correct alloy, to produce a distinct clarity of sound is silver . . . which resonates at frequencies conducive to the production of a richness of sound not present in most other metal mouthpieces."  And what is claimed to be the "resonant" silver alloy?  Sterling silver at 92.5% pure silver, of course.  Why is sterling silver so good?  Maybe because sterling silver was once used for money.  That sounds expensive, so it must be good.*

Sterling silver is always 92.5% silver, but the rest can be an alloy of either copper, zinc, tin, etc. and it is still called sterling silver. We know from our tuning fork website linked above that the particular metal used to alloy 92.5% silver would effect the resonance.  As we have seen with copper alloys, an alloy with zinc produces brass and using tin produces bronze, each with distinct resonance and only one called "bell metal." 

Apparently Mr. Morgan didn't know about the large variety of alloys called sterling silver.  Sterling is uniform only in the percentage of silver but, because of the various alloys, not in the variety of frequencies at which it will resonate (when formed into a shape that can resonate and struck with a hard object).  So much for the sterling silver mouthpiece nonsense. Darn science (and logic and experience and common sense).  

So what have we learned from all of this?  Material matters depending on what type of mouthpiece you are selling.  If you are marketing metal pieces, they ring like a bell.  If you are marketing rubber mouthpieces, your special hard rubber recipe makes them resonate like the wing beats of an angel.  If you are marketing wooden mouthpieces, you will have to make something up.  On that, Mr. Link, Mr. Morgan, and I agree.  

Mr. Morgan may be on to something when he states that not the material, but the average thickness of material, can effect the way a mouthpiece plays.  I'm thinking about writing a future blog about that concept and will provide a link if I get around to it.

Here is the link to the "material thickness" blog.

*  Silver as a magical material for bells became famous after the Christmas song "Silver Bells" was recorded by Bing Crosby in 1950.  Although the title has a nice "ring" to it, silver bells are not common except as charm bracelet bangles.  Despite the perceived "richness" of sterling silver, bells from silver are not popular because of the relatively high pitched "tinkle" that they make in comparison to brass and bronze.  A strange coincidence as the song's author first called it "Tinkle Bells" until his wife explained her understanding of what the word "tinkle" means to women. 


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