Are Metal, Plastic Or Rubber Mouthpieces Better? (Woodwinds)


If you're a clarinet or saxophone player, you may already know how important it is to choose the correct mouthpiece for your instrument. For some, dimensions are not the only criterion to consider, but also the build material. Most mouthpieces are made of plastic and rubber, but some manufacturers make metal mouthpieces with a plastic/rubber patch for the embouchure.

With that said, are metal, plastic, or rubber mouthpieces better? When it comes to resistance to the elements, plastic and rubber tend to withstand moisture better, while metal resists heat more. Tonal differences are disputed, with some experts claiming to hear them while others claiming the material has no bearing on the sound.

In this article, we'll discuss the various mouthpiece materials and the perceptions voiced within the woodwind sphere.


What Is A Mouthpiece?

As the name suggests, a mouthpiece is a component – present on some woodwind instruments – designed to be placed inside a player's mouth.

We should not confuse woodwind mouthpieces with brass mouthpieces. Brass mouthpieces, while serving a similar purpose, are built with different characteristics and made for different kinds of embouchures.

The most common woodwind mouthpiece today is a relatively new creation. It was designed for the clarinet at the beginning of the 17th century and then adapted to the saxophone by Adolphe sax almost a century later. Nevertheless, even the earlier designs were a bit different.

Related article: Why Are Saxophones Made Of Brass? (Since They're Woodwinds)

Saxophone and clarinet mouthpieces are very similar in outward appearance, but the saxophone's mouthpiece has no tenon underneath. Both mouthpieces are designed to fit a reed, which is placed on “the table”, as in, the surface facing the user's bottom lip. The earliest mouthpiece samples would have the reed sit on top of the mouthpiece, but that specific design was later scrapped.

Other less conventional mouthpieces are the wooden pirouette (utilized in the medieval shawms and the Italian piffero), a peculiar type of double-reed configuration surrounded by a disk. These types of mouthpieces are rarely used in popular settings.


What Materials Are Woodwind Mouthpieces Made Of?

The most common materials used for woodwind mouthpieces are metal, ebonite (hard rubber), and plastic. Other mouthpieces are made of glass, crystal, and wood, though these are rarer to find.

At the beginning of the 1930s, Master Link was one of the most popular saxophone mouthpiece models. These mouthpieces were made of brass comprised of 70% copper and 30% zinc, which is a similar configuration to the one used for bullet cartridges.

Later that same decade, Otto Link manufactured its “New York” Slant Signature mouthpiece made of hard rubber. The motivations for using hard rubber instead of brass were solely economic in nature, with brass not being accessible to people with tighter budgets. Otto Link decided to advertise these hard rubber mouthpieces as a budget line.

Clarinet mouthpieces can also be made of metal, but these are harder to find than hard rubber or plastic ones. Glass (crystal) clarinet mouthpieces are not as popular either. Still, you may find some renowned brands like Pomarico capitalizing on them.


Which Mouthpiece Material Is More Durable?

Durability varies between materials, for these can get ruined in different ways.

Metal mouthpieces, even stainless steel Berg Larsen ones, are still prone to oxidation or “rust spots”. In theory, stainless steel is resistant to rust, but under constant wetting, the protective chromium oxide layer can get destroyed and leave the naked steel exposed to corrosion.

Rubber and plastic mouthpieces will not develop rust and are highly resistant to water and bodily fluids like saliva. However, they could give in to extreme heat. Furthermore, they're prone to get chipped or cracked with relative ease as they wear out.

Contrary to what you may surmise, metal mouthpieces are not out of the woods yet regarding heat resistance. Surely, metal is much more heat resistant than plastic or rubber, for the latter ones come with a lower melting point. Nevertheless, metal mouthpieces tend to sport a plastic or rubber patch on the top for teeth protection. These pieces can wane over harsh temperatures, although the damage is admittedly minor.

While some claim that glass mouthpieces have a greater projection than most others, they are excessively fragile and even require a special pouch to safeguard them. Glass mouthpieces are undoubtedly some of the weakest in the market in terms of endurance. However, glass is a better heat conductor than plastic.

In summary, technically speaking, no material is objectively better than the other in terms of durability, as all of them have specific strengths and weaknesses. Your decision should depend solely on your environmental conditions and your preferred material.

A metal mouthpiece is ideal in the event that there are risks of accidental bumps or falls (though it could still form dents). However, if your environment is overly damp or humid, rubber and plastic are the better alternatives due to their resistance to the corrosive action of water.

Nonetheless, you ought to keep in mind that it's easier for a mouthpiece to get spoiled by humidity than by heat. For a mouthpiece to succumb to heat, the temperature would have to be close to that of boiling water, and no climate ever gets that close.

Related articles:
Can Saxophone Mouthpieces Be Boiled?
Can Saxophone Mouthpieces Be Washed In The Dishwasher?

You should be cautious about leaving your mouthpiece resting in a car or under a windshield on a sunny summer day. However, other than specific circumstances like these, there is no danger of a rubber or plastic mouthpiece warping or melting due to regular exposure to normal summertime temperatures.

Now that that's out of the way, let's discuss whether the mouthpiece material makes an impact on the woodwind's sound.


Does The Woodwind Mouthpiece Material Make A Difference In The Sound?

This is one of the toughest questions to answer when considering how perceptions vary, even when comparing mouthpieces made from the same material. For this analysis, let's focus on the most common materials used for mouthpieces nowadays: Metal, plastic, and hard rubber (or ebonite).

Let's start with the “popular” consensus, which goes as follows:

  • Rubber or plastic mouthpieces produce darker sounds.
  • Metal mouthpieces render brighter sounds.

There's no definitive proof that both the horn's build material and finish would have any bearing on its sound profile. While some manufacturers swear by these distinctions, they may not stem from the material's constitution but from its treatment. It should logically follow that the same assessment would also apply to the mouthpiece's material.

Furthermore, there is another factor to take into account, and that is the mouthpiece's vibration capacity, which is closely correlated with the material's density. A reed's vibration is heavily influential in a horn's output, not only because of the vibration but the purpose of that vibration, which is to propel the air we blow.

This same consideration should be made regarding the mouthpiece's beak. For example, if the beak is flexible, your sound may end up simulating a double-reed effect whereby both the mouthpiece and the reed would vibrate at almost the same frequency.

You may already see this happening with soprano saxophones. Since their mouthpieces tend to be thinner and smaller, their interaction with the reed tends to be more likened to the interaction between reeds in an oboe, delivering a sound with similar traits.

With that said, while metal is denser than plastic polymers, metal mouthpieces are normally thinner. Rubber and plastic mouthpieces tend to be built with bulkier bodies due to their propensity to chip or crack, so their vibration capacity is not necessarily greater.

We should also discuss the mouthpieces' inner chamber design and baffles, which are the greatest factors behind their sound. This is because it has been largely established that minor dimensional changes could entail big changes in tone.

Considering that hard rubber and plastic mouthpieces have larger external dimensions, this could mean that either the dimensions of the mouthpiece's interior chamber are reduced, or the mouthpiece has more external volume.

In both scenarios described above, the tone will shift drastically. Particularly in the second scenario, which is the most common one, the oral cavity is increased, so the sound could lose some brightness in consequence, as suggested in this study.

In a nutshell, there is no blatant correlation between the material of the mouthpiece and the sound it renders, or at least not a proven one. Rather, geometrical elements are far more relevant when ascertaining the type of tone that would ensue from using a specific mouthpiece and its build quality. In addition, the number of variables you should take into the equation makes it even more difficult to establish a clear relationship.


This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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