Understanding Saxophone Mouthpiece Design

By Dr. Eugene Rousseau

There has been a debate over the years regarding the question of materials used for manufacturing both instruments and mouthpieces. A great number of saxophonists believe that metal mouthpieces are exclusively for playing jazz, and that hard rubber mouthpieces are for playing classical performances. Actually, there are excellent mouthpieces for all genres in both materials. The great Marcel Mule for many years used a metal mouthpiece for his classical performances. It stands to reason, then, that mouthpiece design is the most influential aspect of quality, not the material.

During my studies and efforts to create a line of superior saxophone mouthpieces, I found that proper mouthpiece design is not an easy task. While in Paris in 1960-61, and in working with and studying under the eminent acoustician, Charles Houvenaghel, I became extremely interested in the design and construction of saxophones and of mouthpieces. In 1964, while a faculty member at Indiana University, I made the acquaintance of Bernard Portnoy, an eminent clarinetist who encouraged me to develop the first E. Rousseau mouthpiece. As I became more interested and knowledgeable about overall saxophone design and acoustics, the development in the design and construction mouthpieces became ever so much more clear.

For example, all most models of E. Rousseau mouthpieces are made from the finest quality hardened rubber. During the manufacturing process for those made of rubber, a stainless steel core is used for each model. This becomes the mandrel in the exact shape of the mouthpiece’s interior dimensions. It is placed into a mold, and then surrounded with rubber. The rubber is hardened through a process called vulcanization, and then the mouthpiece is finished and faced, providing the exact contour for the two identical curves of the side rails. The jazz metal alto and tenor models are made from solid blocks of fine quality brass. Using digitally controlled computer programs, the entire manufacturing process is completed with a high degree of remarkable consistency. Once the brass mouthpiece is finished, it is then gold plated.

Response, projection, and dynamic control are important qualities of a mouthpiece design, but tone quality is certainly one of the most critical. It is probably the determining factor in a player’s decision of which mouthpiece to use. The opening and length of the facing, balance of the side rails, appropriate chamber size and a well-designed baffle are among the first four factors to consider. For a player to have flexibility and control in all registers and at all dynamic levels there needs to be good balance in these design features without sacrificing tone quality. 

Field-testing mouthpiece design has been, and still is, the most important method of establishing guidelines for the highest quality mouthpieces. As with virtually all aspects in the manufacturing of wind instruments and mouthpieces, the final product is determined by trial and error; this is why it is an art! Maintaining a balance among all of the important qualities of a mouthpiece – tone quality, response, projection and dynamic control – requires imagination, skill, knowledge and a passion for the best.

Different mouthpieces provide different results for the player, and determining which model to use will be based on many design factors. A well-designed baffle is one key factor, bringing together the best balance between each of the four main features of a mouthpiece. The tendency of a mouthpiece towards a “bright tone” (more presence of higher partials) or a “dark tone” (fewer high partials) is also considered. The use of several different reeds affects the choice of a mouthpiece since a favorite reed might work fine on one model, but not on another. The way that a performer uses his/her air is critical also. The mouthpiece characteristics are essential to achieving a good tonal response. Playing primarily classical music will encourage the player to choose a model with certain attributes like that of the 4R or NC4 in the E. Rousseau line that are not required when playing jazz,. On the other hand, if a program requires an extremely high level of volume no matter what genre is being played, a Studio Jazz or JDX model mouthpiece should provide a more desired musical response.

There are many individual differences and players will get varying results that sometimes are exceptional, such as producing excellent pianissimo passages with a mouthpiece intended for extremely loud playing, and also the reverse of this. Since there are so many models designed for specific musician demands, the saxophonist must experiment and test a variety of mouthpieces in different situations to determine his/her best course of choice. E. Rousseau Saxophone mouthpieces are state-of-the-art designs, precision made, affordable, and the best in the industry for the demanding saxophone musician. There are a variety of designs each offering a unique difference in sidewalls, facing, materials and price. Having a complete understanding of what is a good or great mouthpiece, and how to choose one, is an important part of playing music.