Tuesday, May 16, 2017

How mouthpiece material matters - Thickness

In a prior blog, we looked at how mouthpiece material might matter.  There is a great deal of mythology about how a certain material might "resonate" and have some effect on how a mouthpiece sounds.  Using material science, available evidence, and common sense, we could find no evidence to support such a claim and, in fact, the more the claim is examined the more ludicrous it sounds.  

We could not find the "material matters" proof that some players were hoping for but there actually are some areas where mouthpiece material does matter.  At the beginning of the prior blog, there is a list of those areas where material makes a difference (production costs, weight, electrical conductivity, etc.).  Unfortunately, we couldn't find any evidence that related to sound production.  

We tried to decipher the statement that "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."  Here, it is difficult to determine what is being stated.  Metal mouthpieces tend to be thinner than hard rubber pieces.  So maybe the claim is that the thinner the metal, the less vibration?

I devised a test to see whether thin metal had a damping effect on vibrations.  Here is the test equipment.

It turned out that not only could vibrations pass through metal, but the vibrations could be transmitted via a string to another piece of thin metal and heard at a considerable distance.  I call it "metallic resonance string theory."  Try doing that with a vulcanized rubber can!  

Maybe I have misinterpreted the "vibration in metal" assertions.  I do think that the thickness of the mouthpiece material can make a difference in how a mouthpiece plays.  But it is not in a way that is generally discussed when talking about mouthpiece material.  

To test a "material thickness matters" claim, I purchased two identical mouthpieces.  One showed up free in the case of a saxophone that I purchased on Ebay.  It is a Buffet mouthpiece that is embossed with the name of Buffet's line of Evette & Schaeffer saxophones made from the 1950's to the 1980's.  It is sort of a generic student piece, probably produced for Buffet by Riffault, and almost always seen in the common "C" facing.  

Although these are relatively common, when shopping for an identical mouthpiece for my test I learned a bit of saxophone lore.  The "C" facing used on Buffet mouthpieces has been interpreted as meaning that Buffet mouthpieces were made by Charles Chedeville!!! Charles Chedeville is another figure that has his own sax lore about using super-duper rod rubber in the creation of his mouthpieces.  There is no evidence, of course, but it drives up the prices of old mouthpieces if they are claimed to be connected to Chedeville.  Ignore the fact that Mr. Chedeville was dead and gone by the time Buffet tossed one of these mouthpieces into the case with every new student saxophone.  I assume that this sax myth explains why I lost several auctions and finally had to bid $30! for a matching old Evette & Schaeffer (E&S) student mouthpiece.  

Here is what they look like.

Now for testing the theory that the thickness of mouthpiece material matters.  

The E&S mouthpiece has a beak* that reminds me of a clarinet mouthpiece.  Other than one white plastic mouthpiece, like one of mine shown in this blog, I had never had a mouthpiece with this steep of a beak angle.  It felt like I was playing my contrabass clarinet.  The beak is actually not quite as steep and thick as the contrabass, but it has a much thicker beak profile than my vintage hard rubber baritone saxophone piece.
E&S tenor in front, BBb contrabass in rear.

That made me curious as to just how "thick" is a thick beak?  And from where does one measure?  For me, I found several old mouthpieces that I had used with tooth guards.  They had indentations that showed approximately where my teeth had rested on the beak.  It turns out that my right front tooth (the "upper right central" for you dentistry types) was the primary point of contact.  That was about 15 mm back from the tip.  But I'm not convinced that that point is always my point of reference when deciding whether a beak feels thin or thick.  It may actually be my lips (further along the beak) that gives the sensation of thickness and where to place the mouthpiece.  Regardless, I decided to use 15 mm as my reference point.

Here is the basic measuring technique.  Outside calipers

Measuring beak material thickness at 15mm from the tip.

Thickness of the E&S mouthpiece at 15 mm.

It turns out that whether the mouthpiece beak feels thin or thick doesn't directly correlate with whether the beak material actually is thick or thin.  Using an outside caliper shown above, I measured my hard rubber Link Tone Edge as being 3 mm thick at 15 mm back from the tip.  My metal Super Tone Master has a thickness of 2.2 mm at 15 mm.  But, my hard rubber Babbitt Artist (which shares a large chamber design with the Links) has a beak thickness of only 2 mm at 15 mm.  Finally, the E&S hard rubber mouthpiece has a thickness of a whopping 4.9 at 15 mm.  

It turns out that the metal STM has the second thinnest material but the thinnest profile.  By "profile," I mean the distance from the reed to the top of the mouthpiece.  That's what I actually feel when playing the mouthpiece, not the thickness of the beak material.  Again, I looked at that measurement based on the mouthpiece profile at 15 mm back from the tip.  Because of the steepness of the beak profile, this measurement can also vary.  It is possible to have a steep profile and a high baffle (by increasing the material thickness) or a low profile and a large chamber with little baffle (by thinning the material).  Or you could have the same beak profile and a large difference in material thickness.  Compare a Dukoff Super Power Chamber with a Link Super Tone Master.  Similar beak profile but a huge difference in material thickness (creating a high baffle in the Dukoff).

Here is how I measured the mouthpiece profile, again at 15 mm back from the tip.  This mechanic's ruler is 1 mm thick and end indexed, so it made measuring simple.
The hard rubber E&S.

The Link Super Tone Master.

The Link STM was 7.7 mm and the E&S was 10.7 mm, both measured 15 mm from the tip.  That means that my mouth is open an additional 3 mm when using the E&S mouthpiece.  Or, if I insert the mouthpiece based on the profile thickness, I would insert the E&S only 9 mm (not 15 mm) to get the same profile feeling.  Turns out that I don't do that.  I measured my right front tooth contact point on various mouthpieces.  It appears that I prefer to put the mouthpiece in 15 mm regardless of the beak profile (probably for ease of tonguing).  So a mouthpiece profile directly effects how wide my mouth is open.

The thickness of the beak material on the E&S mouthpiece (4.9 mm) means that I can alter the beak quite a bit.  Most people who make changes to a mouthpiece concentrate on modifying the lay, the baffle, the chamber, or all three.  But what might be the effect if I leave the lay and the interior alone and simply reduce the beak profile by reducing the thickness of the material on the top of the beak?  In other words, does material thickness matter?

I used a fairly aggressive woodworking rasp for the initial reduction in the beak thickness (while taking occasional measurements).  Then I used a file, then sandpaper, and finally metal polish.  Here are the two pieces shown in profile.  I ended up with a little bit of a "duck bill" profile on the mouthpiece in front.

The mouthpiece in front had the beak material reduced by over 2 mm right where my tooth makes contact and reduced even more further up the beak.  An interior 2 mm difference in the chamber shape and size would be substantial change and one would expect it to make a difference in how the piece played.  But a 2 mm difference in material thickness only on the outside of the beak?  It turns out that the exterior change also makes a difference.  The original piece seems sedate, almost bland.  Just what a student needs.  The modified piece played a little livelier.  They also tune a little differently.

It is the second characteristic that makes me believe that it isn't really the thickness of the material that is making the slight change.  It is likely that it is the size of the oral cavity that is the difference.  My mouth is closed by an additional +2 mm on the modified piece, which means that the profile is now 8.7 mm at 15 mm from the tip, closer to my STM than to the original E&S mouthpiece.  By making my oral cavity smaller, the piece is livelier.  Or it could be that, with the thinner profile on the beak, I'm putting it into my mouth slightly further, thus getting a slight boost in volume and a livelier reed action.  Or it could be a combination of the two.  

Closing my mouth more would also make the piece tune slightly higher.  Nobody uses a pitch pipe anymore, now that there are accurate digital pitch producing gadgets.  

But if you've ever used one, you know how much the size of your oral cavity can change the pitch.  If I can find mine, I'll add a video showing the effect of simply changing my oral cavity while blowing a concert C on a pitch pipe.  


(7/26/17 update:  I found my pitch pipe and made a video.  Here is what you are looking at.  I first blow a C on pitch.  For me, that means reducing my oral cavity smaller than what feels "normal."  Then, I reduce my oral cavity about as small as possible without squeezing off the air passage.  Then, I make my oral cavity as large as possible, both while trying to maintain a constant air flow (as that can also change the pitch.)  Then a little large and small.  All I want to show is the effect of changing the size of the oral cavity.  How wide my mouth is open effects how large and small I can make my oral cavity.  In other words, even the thickness of the pitch pipe will effect how the pitch pipe tunes and plays).

I don't own enough metal mouthpieces to measure a sufficient sample to see if and how much they differ from hard rubber pieces in their exterior dimensions.  It seems strange to think that the claim that metal pieces play louder and brighter may have some validation, but all due to metal being generally thinner and therefore the oral cavity being generally smaller and/or the mouthpiece inserted generally further.  That would mean that the difference isn't directly because of the material, it is because the material allows for a different oral cavity profile and placement in the embouchure.  

I could try putting the original mouthpiece further into my mouth, but I would have my mouth open considerably further and changing too many variables at once.  Because of the steepness of the original profile, I know opening my mouth wider offsets any gain in liveliness and (for me) makes reed control more difficult.  I tested this by fabricating a ridiculously thick "tooth guard."  My ridiculously thick tooth guard only required me to open my mouth an additional 5mm on the original E&S mouthpiece, but it was like trying to speak without being able to close your lips.

So I have found another way in which material matters acoustically on a woodwind mouthpiece.  The thickness of the material can effect the size of the oral cavity because it can control the profile of the beak.  The thickness of the material can also effect where you place the piece in your mouth.  Not very exciting to those who were hoping for a secret mystical resonance created by a proprietary blend of ingredients.  Sorry.

P.S.  When I was done with this experiment, I couldn't help myself and decided to put a different facing on the already modified E&S mouthpiece.  Nothing radical.  Just opening it up to .095" (a Link 6*) from the original .080".  The combination of thinning the beak and opening the tip really changed the piece.  Or maybe, Buffet-Crampon mouthpieces, including their Evette & Schaeffer student mouthpieces, really are made from a super-duper Charles Chedeville secret rubber recipe formulated in the nonexistent "Chedeville factory."  Like Aladdin's lamp, when I rubbed the Buffet mouthpiece (with a file), it released a Chedeville musical magic genie.  

I just added that for those of you who like fairy tale endings.  Google "Chedeville factory."  You will find that it never existed except in the minds of those who believe in a super secret hard rubber recipe that produces superior acoustics.  Those who can hear the difference can also imagine a fictitious factory.

Where's Charlie?

*  I know that a lot of players reading this blog use a different terminology for parts of a mouthpiece.  For this article, a beak isn't the entire mouthpiece.  The beak is only the thin area placed in the mouth.