Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Alto Mouthpiece Roundup Review (Part 3): Phil-Tone Aurora, Theo Wanne GAIA, Morgan Fry Ebonite, JodyJazz HR*


Alto Mouthpiece Roundup Review Header Photo


In part 3 of this alto mouthpiece roundup review, we'll be taking a look at the Phil-Tone Aurora, Theo Wanne GAIA, Morgan Fry Ebonite JodyJazz HR*. Make sure you read Alto Mouthpiece Roundup Review - Part 1: Introduction first or use the navigation drop-down menu to jump around.








Photo montage of the Phil-Tone Aurora alto saxophone mouthpiece
Click for larger version



When matter and energy collide in a crisp evening of the north, a phenomenon of color and light reshapes the horizon. From stark empty space emerges definition and awe as music emerges from still air. Enter the Phil-Tone Aurora, from which one hears such a display of color; thick and rich, but with a defining, crisp clarity.

This was the first Phil-Tone alto mouthpiece model. It was designed with the classic Meyer sound and feel in mind, and it does a lot of what these great mouthpieces of the past do but with more depth, lush thickness and core. The goal was to make a piece that could blend as well as to have enough backbone for lead. It is the darkest Phil-Tone alto mouthpiece as well as one of the darker alto jazz pieces on the market.

The Aurora provides a powerfully expressive voice that is bold and full, never shrill, while still maintaining a focused core. The highs are rich and singing. Simultaneously, it invites you to explore its robust low end, which flows out of the horn effortlessly. Release the energy of your ideas so that they might be transformed into music with the Aurora.  

I've had quite a few Phil-Tone mouthpieces in my possession over the years, both on tenor and alto, so it was with familiarity that I took on evaluating the Phil-Tone Aurora.

Compared to other pieces in this roundup, finishing inside the mouthpiece is somewhat rough. Through discussing this with Phil, I discovered most of the texture comes from the steel core involved in the molding process. There are also quite a few tool marks that are rather obvious to the naked eye under the side rails, baffle, floor, chamber and under the table. The removal of material under the table is meant to decrease resistance. Tweaking this area also apparently dramatically alters tone. Phil's philosophy when it comes to finishing, is that while he takes great care in making the important parts of the mouthpiece as perfect as possible, the time involved in grinding and buffing these slight imperfections would significantly increase price and decrease value as they would not bring any sonic benefit. The priority is how a mouthpiece plays, not how it looks. Phil also told me he views tool marks as a kind of "artist's signature" which gives hints on the making process. Quite poetic.

With this said, although the interior of the Phil-Tone Aurora is on the rougher side, the areas that most obviously matter - the baffle, table and rails - look masterfully finished. The exterior is polished to a shine and features a simple engraved Phil-Tone signature filled with a white paint. The baffle is rather short and rolls over quickly after the tip rail, leading into a sloping curved floor that opens on a medium large chamber.

The Aurora is voiced in such a way that it tends towards a warm, fat and soft sound. It just invites you to explore your sensitive side and keep the sound "inside" the horn rather than blast it out. The medium resistance of the mouthpiece also contributes to this feeling. I found the amount of resistance made controlling dynamics in the low range trickier than I'm used to. Sub-tone was not a problem in this range but I had to be very attentive to my air stream when playing softly with a full tone from low Bb to D. Transitioning between sub and full tone, and vice versa, was also less intuitive than I would have liked. Altissimo was totally manageable, although, again, slightly too resistant to bring a feeling of confidence and freedom up there.

The Aurora may excel at making warm soft sounds but that's not all that it's capable of. If you start pushing it, a slight edge starts to appear, although it is quite thick and focused in nature rather than thin and buzzy. The piece doesn't get excessively loud, and the resistance brings a cut-off point where it gets awkward to blow more air through. Overall, I'd say the Phil-Tone Aurora would be best used in non-amplified, small acoustic ensemble settings unless you like having something significant to "push against". It is certainly possible to get a significant amount of projection on it, but you have to work harder at it than desirable.

Worth mentioning is that the beak angle on Phil's alto mouthpieces encourages taking more in. It felt more comfortable and the feel was more familiar with my lips and teeth positioned further on the mouthpiece.

The Phil-Tone Aurora is a warm, spread mouthpiece that will let you bring some heat if desired, while not overpowering an un-amplified small ensemble.





The Phil-Tone Aurora is available directly on Phil-Tone's website for $285. For more information, check out the product page. You can also reach Phil Engleman directly through email or through the webform on his website.


Photo montage of the Theo Wanne GAIA alto saxophone mouthpiece
Click for larger version


In my decades of mouthpiece refacing many musicians expressed their wish for an alto mouthpiece that maintained the feel of the classics, but also had the fullness of sound of a tenor. The GAIA is that mouthpiece.

We accomplished this thanks to our 'True' Large Chamber. Since the term large chamber has been used so liberally in the mouthpiece world, we coined the term 'True' Large Chamber to designate when the chamber truly is larger than the bore.

We have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in research and development in order to develop our manufacturing process. The complex interior geometry inside Theo Wanne mouthpieces is a challenge to design and machine. This is because tooling must get inside hard to reach areas, and create flowing shapes. Our new proprietary machining method has three benefits over hand finishing: the ability to recreate the best design, consistency, and continued product improvement.

Designing an alto mouthpiece suitable for Jazz around a ’True’ Large Chamber had never been done before. For many years this chamber design had been successful in the classical world but the low baffle of these mouthpieces are not suitable do not offer enough projection and flexibility. To get these attributes, one needed a design closer to a Meyer's, which utilizes a medium, and sometimes small, chamber. The GAIA marries the responsiveness of a Meyer with the fullness of a ’True’ Large Chamber which is a very unique and evolutionary design stemming from years of research and development along with a lot of customer and endorser feedback.

The GAIA uses a traditional beak design so it feels comfortable in the mouth, the highest quality hard rubber - which was chosen after extensive testing of virtually every material available - and a traditional medium facing curve. These features provide the classic, tried and true, benefits of the best vintage alto mouthpieces while adding the fullness and openness to the sound of a ’True’ Large Chamber too. This mouthpiece truly does 'stand on the shoulders of the greats' and is the next evolutionary step in alto mouthpiece design.

We use the highest quality materials, and create consistent products based on the most advanced manufacturing processes on the planet, creating everything from scratch. Our goal is to make the best mouthpieces in the world, and this is just what it takes.

As soon as you open the box the Theo Wanne GAIA ships in, it is obvious that you are dealing with a premium product and complete package. Inside the box, which was the largest of this roundup, you will find the GAIA safely stored in one of Theo Wanne's leather pouches which I've used in the past and which quality and functionality I can vouch for. The mouthpiece comes equipped with a (Patented) Reed Replacer cap. This replaces the reed and is clamped on by the ligature. Theo's idea with this unique design was to create a cap that would protect the mouthpiece tip better than any other cap made today. A more traditional cap, that you can use with the reed on the mouthpiece, can be ordered separately at the time of purchase or later on Theo's website, but it would have been nice to get it as part of the package instead. Along with this, you get the Enlightened Ligature with and additional pressure plate, and a branded precision screwdriver which seemed like a great quality tool, not something that would break after a few uses.

The mouthpiece itself is an impressive object. The matte finish has a slight texture to it and the rubber color tends towards a deep dark brown rather than black like most hard rubber mouthpieces. The shank is reinforced by a gold colored ring with the words "THEO WANNE MOUTHPIECES" stamped in. On the table side of the shank, the initials "USA" are stamped in the rubber, while the model name "GAIA" is stamped and filled with gold colored ink on the other side. The top of the mouthpiece is stamped with the Wanne logo, filled with the same gold colored ink. Unlike most hard rubber mouthpieces, the Theo Wanne GAIA features a built-in rubber patch which sits in a countersunk cavity on the beak. The table has the top opening and serial number stamped on it. The side rails look flawless and perfectly straight. The tip rail has a slight texture to it which I imagine comes from machining.

Although the exterior of the Theo Wanne GAIA looks stunning, peeking inside the piece was what I found the most interesting. The chamber is simply enormous. The long baffle gently slopes down through about 3/4 of the window where it abruptly dips into the chamber in a bullet shaped transition. The inner sidewalls are rounded like a standard Meyer although slightly shallower. The baffle displays very visible marks from machining. I asked the guys at Wanne mouthpieces about them as they look quite unique, and here's what they had to say about the baffle's texture: "We create the transition lines so they work to enhance airflow, through air direction and the use of 'boundary layer effect'. The boundary layer effect basically purposefully disturbs airflow, but in a way that has the result of making the air move more efficiently".

Okay, so how does the GAIA play? Well, the first thing that made an impression on me is just how loud I could get on this mouthpiece without pushing particularly hard. I quickly wondered how far I would be able to take the GAIA and when I did push hard, I had to pause for a few seconds as I was literally baffled by how ridiculously loud I could play on this piece. The amazing thing is that, although it got brighter as I pushed, the tone kept its core and strong low end and mid frequencies harmonics. The GAIA not only allows producing more decibels effortlessly, but as you push more air and open up your throat, it starts ringing and resonating massively. When I was exploring the limits of the mouthpiece, my whole practice room was vibrating. Wow!

I found the GAIA rather bright at first but after some time with it, I managed to get a more balanced tone out of it. After listening to some recordings of these tests, I also discovered that the GAIA seems to sound brighter behind the horn, as you play it, than on the front. This would be something to keep in mind and I think it can be used as an advantage when playing with larger or louder ensembles. The high frequencies are easier to hear, which means you'd have less trouble hearing yourself without monitors or with improper ones. I think the Theo Wanne GAIA is generally a tad brighter than what you'd expect from a middle of the road Meyer, but the fact that the chamber is so deep translates into a solid fundamental core that balances this edge. I found the tone generally somewhat dry and direct as opposed to spread and gritty.

The low resistance built into the design of the GAIA means this isn't a mouthpiece that you will have to fight in order to get the best out of. I had no trouble modulating dynamics in all ranges and the consistency of the feel made the GAIA especially effortless to transition and navigate the altissimo register and low end of the horn. The GAIA's tone remains solid whether you whisper or unleash the force of a thousand suns.

A quick note about the Enlightened Ligature: while it sounded as rich as the BG DUO, and offered a similar amount of resistance, I found the design a bit awkward to work with. The ligature tends to shift as soon as you decrease the grip which makes quickly adjusting the reed a challenge. Adjusting the mouthpiece also was more complicated with the Enlightened ligature. Although it's built as a lightweight ligature which makes as little contact as possible with the mouthpiece, the downside is that you have to be careful where you place your hand on the mouthpiece and how much pressure you use when adjusting the mouthpiece on the cork. I had none of these issues with the BG DUO.

The Theo Wanne GAIA is a unique alternative to the Meyer design with a splendid feel in a premium package.





The GAIA is available for purchase directly on Theo Wanne's website and at select retailers for $495. For more information, please visit the product page or contact Theo through email or call the following toll free number: +1 888 WANNE01 (+1 888 926-6301).



Photo montage of the Morgan Fry Ebonite Alto Saxophone Mouthpiece
Click for larger version



Adolphe Sax invented a mouthpiece with a large, round chamber to use with his invention. This fundamental design concept is still acoustically superior to all others, even today. The great mouthpiece designers of the past stayed true to this ideal, implementing subtle changes to baffle and chamber size to accommodate changing fashions in saxophone tone and playing style.

These now vintage collectible mouthpieces were the best available, but not necessarily the best possible. Using state of the art CAD (computer aided drawing) design to precisely manipulate chamber shape, we have achieved improvements in tone and response over anything that has come before. Morgan Fry Mouthpieces are not a copy of the great designs of the past, they are the next step in their evolution.

Starting with the right design is necessary, but executing that design precisely is also imperative. Even so, the final hand finishing is still crucial.

Morgan Fry Mouthpieces start with a CAD model loaded into a machining software which will tell the machine how to carve the mouthpiece out of a solid bar of ebonite or brass. After this stage the mouthpieces will play very well, but will be made to play better and still need polishing and “prettifying”.

Every mouthpiece is then meticulously hand finished by Morgan Fry. No matter how advanced the technology gets, we take care not to lose sight of the fact that we are making tools for artists. Acoustic design, manufacturing precision, everything is subordinate to this one goal -- making mouthpieces that play beautifully.

With that singular goal in mind, the only tools that matter in the end are the hands and ears (and chops!) of the craftsman. There is no substitute. Mouthpieces like this -- tools for artists -- should be made as works of art themselves. I hope you enjoy playing them as much as I enjoy making them for you.

The Morgan Fry Ebonite alto mouthpiece is a stunning beauty. It is one of the most beautifully finished piece I've ever seen. But looks would not mean much if the piece didn't play and sound great, and fortunately it excels in this department.

I really had a blast taking shots of this piece. The beautiful luster, in and out, marbled hard rubber, minimal branding and silver shank ring all made for a delightful photographic experience. There is a small stylized "MF" logo, stamped and filled with white paint on top of the mouthpiece, while the tip opening is located on one side. The silver shank ring reads "MORGAN FRY ENGLAND" and really contributes to the premium look. Finishing is truly flawless on this piece. The tip and side rails look perfect, the generous rollover baffle has an amazing organic appearance to it. The floor opens up with medium deep concave sidewalls and into a medium sized chamber.

The Morgan Fry Ebonite tends to favor the medium and high frequencies of the spectrum with a slightly more focused low end. They all combine together into a logical tonal palette. While it is slightly on the brighter side for a Meyer-inspired piece, the fact that the medium overtones on the Fry Ebonite are so rich balances this cutting quality. I believe those harmonics in the medium to high medium part of the tone really give this mouthpiece a unique color. The best description I could come up with for it, is that it sounds like a cranked up tube compression: rich, thick, focused and musical. Listen to Coltrane on Bags & Trane (Atlantic LP 1368); the session was recorded too hot and gives a similar quality to Trane's tone (when it doesn't distort). It is an intense and ringing quality that makes the whole horn vibrate under its pressure. It gives an amazing symbiotic feel with the instrument.

I believe that with enough time on the piece it would quite easy to take this mouthpiece in any stylistic direction. There are two clips on Morgan's website and these guys sound totally different than I do on the piece, as well as from each other. Although I found the focus and brightness of the Fry Ebonite quite strong, I was still able to tame it towards something that sounded more like I usually do.

While the resistance of the Fry Ebonite is in the medium low to low ranges, it remains easy to control and is very consistent. Although the lower range of the horn demanded a touch more air support, modulating from sub-tone to full tone wasn't a problem in any range. Blowing more slow air nicely spread and softened the tone of this piece. The palm keys and altissimo sounded very full thanks again to this beautiful mid-range focus. Talking about altissimo, transitioning from the regular range of the horn to this register and navigating through this unstable range was effortless and intuitive. This property was reinforced by the fact that the tonal quality between these ranges was very even.

The Morgan Fry Ebonite captures the quintessential qualities of the classic design of the past, with a splendid feel, slightly brighter and more focused but flexible tone, in a mouthpiece that truly delivers on the promise of being a work of art.





The Morgan Fry Ebonite is available for purchase directly on Morgan Fry's website for $378 (£245.83). There is also a lot of informational content worth looking through on this website.


Photo montage of the JodyJazz HR* Alto Saxophone Mouthpiece
Click for larger version


The JodyJazz HR* is a hard rubber saxophone mouthpiece aimed at professionals and students looking for a versatile mouthpiece in the traditional style. High quality control standards, a beautiful warm sound and a nice free blowing feel make the Jody Jazz HR* an amazing player.

The blanks are sourced in Germany and the material has the look, feel and sound of vintage hard rubber used on some of the most sought after mouthpieces. Facing is applied on a custom facing machine and then meticulously hand finished and play tested.

The JodyJazz HR* is a round chamber mouthpiece which provides a round sound in contrast to a more focused sound which a square chamber provides. This allows the HR* to produce a full sound while the medium chamber allows the piece to have very good projection when pushed. The facing curve used makes it a free-blowing hard rubber mouthpiece that allows the lowest and highest notes to speak with equal ease.

While our goal with the JodyJazz HR* was to offer a more traditional style of jazz saxophone mouthpiece, we also wanted the most rigorous quality control possible.

Every JodyJazz mouthpiece is hand finished to insure the absolute best quality. In addition, each mouthpiece is individually play tested by Jody Espina or one of our professional saxophonists on staff to insure a perfect seal with the reed and proper response throughout the range of the saxophone.

Compared to the JET, the JodyJazz HR * (pronounced "star") felt much more familiar to the Meyer style I'm used to, although the particular design of this piece gave it a character of its own.

The HR * comes in a similar packaging to the JET: a drawstring felt pouch inside a branded cardboard box. It also comes with a Rico H ligature and cap.

The piece is simply branded with a stamped logo on top and is finished in a matte black, unpolished surface. A quick caveat about unpolished hard rubber: this finish will tend to discolor and show marks more easily than a polished finish. This means, for instance, that if you leave a patch on the beak for a while and remove it, it will leave a mark. I removed the patch the HR * shipped with to shoot the photos and you can see a slight discoloration in its place. I discussed this with Jody and this is totally normal. Simply rubbing some mineral oil on the mouthpiece will bring it back to its original color.

The JodyJazz HR* features a very subtle rollover baffle after the tip rail, and a floor that drops at a sharp angle. Sidewalls are slightly concave although rather shallow. This matches the design of the chamber which is smaller than on a modern Meyer. It is not totally round either, which you can see by looking at the photos. The finish was very good, with a few tool marks and a slight texture from the molding process inside the chamber.

The bore was quite tight on the model I got and not totally even. If you look closely at the chamber shot on the bottom left of the photo montage, you can see how the floor of the bore is slightly narrower on the left side. This meant I could barely push the HR * far enough on the neck to be in tune.

The JodyJazz HR* was very easy to play and had a familiar feel, with a slightly brighter and buzzier tonal balance than I'm used to. I felt this buzzy edge was slightly separated from the rest of the tonal spectrum; it sort of sat on top rather than being integrated as a whole. This is not necessarily either a good or bad thing, just a matter of personal preference. This created a nice spread and air in the upper partials. The HR * had otherwise a very complex mid-range that I had a lot of fun playing with. This part of the frequency spectrum was very easy to manipulate, and I could either spread it out nicely and focus it with ease.

The mouthpiece was quite free-blowing at low and medium dynamics, but I felt it became restrictive when played loud. A larger tip opening would have most probably be more comfortable for me in this regard. Considering the low resistance, I don't think it would have impacted how easy it was to play the HR * and I would recommend picking a size larger than you're used to, especially since reeds felt just slightly softer on it.

Although the altissimo range was easily accessible, the response in this register felt a bit unstable, like I was about to squeak at any moment. Using a harder reed mitigated this problem, but also significantly increased the resistance of this piece.

The Rico H ligature provided with the HR * fulfilled its duty but the BG DUO tamed some of the buzz of this piece as well as the response in the altissimo register. Again, positioning the DUO or adjusting reeds was less finicky than the Rico H.

The JodyJazz HR* is a great option for someone looking for a mouthpiece that comes as a complete package, designed in the classic aesthetics.





The JodyJazz HR* is available for purchase directly on the JodyJazz website for $179. For more information, check out the product page, send an email or call the toll free number: 1-866-JODYJAZ (866-563-9529)









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