Thursday, April 2, 2015

Alto Mouthpiece Roundup Review

Alto Mouthpiece Roundup Review Header Photo

Today, I'll be reviewing and comparing 19 different alto mouthpieces from a variety of companies. This roundup review is going to be quite detailed and nerdy, so please consider setting some time aside to read through it.


The mouthpieces included in this review are as follows (in alphabetical order):

       - D'Addario Select Jazz
       - James Bunte Model 42
       - Jody Jazz DV
       - Jody Jazz HR*
       - Jody Jazz JET
       - Kessler New York Short Shank
       - Marantz East Coast Legacy
       - Marantz Scroll Shank Legacy (prototype)
       - Morgan Fry Ebonite
       - Mouthpiece Cafe Espresso
       - Mouthpiece Cafe NYC
       - Phil Tone Aurora
       - Phil Tone Rift
       - Phil Tone Solstice
       - Selmer Metal Jazz
       - Selmer Spirit
       - Selmer Soloist
       - Vandoren V16
       - Theo Wanne Gaia


The idea for this roundup review came after seeing so many posts on various message boards asking for mouthpiece advice. The best way for a saxophone player to pick a mouthpiece remains to try it in person but unfortunately this is not always easy depending on where you live and how well your area is served by music stores. The mail order alternative can quickly become quite daunting. Although I don't believe this review will answer every question a musician may have about these mouthpieces, it may help define a choice of a few mouthpieces for further investigation, to order and compare, and at the very least be a confirmation of quality and value.

Where I'm coming from

Before we get to the review itself I think it's important I describe my "philosophy" regarding mouthpieces and gear in general, my aesthetic preferences and what I'm familiar with playing. I play a modern Meyer modified to vintage specs by Phil Engleman in a .080" tip opening. My saxophone is a Selmer Mark VII which is a slightly darker and spread horn for a modern Selmer alto. My influences are varied but I think it would be fair to say that when it comes to the saxophone, jazz of all denominations is what shapes my taste. I equally love Bird, Lee Konitz, Kenny Garrett, Ornette Coleman, Will Vinson, David Binney, Ben Van Gelder, and many generations of tenor players as well.

I believe the most important part of the sound equation is the person behind the horn. You are the source. Then, in order of how much impact it has on ease of execution, tone and articulation, come the reed, mouthpiece, ligature, the saxophone itself and finally the combination of all of these. Different musicians on the same setup may sound radically different. A change of reed may make tone production easier or harder, articulation easier to execute clearly and accurately or prevent it, make tone brighter, darker, more focused, more spread. Certain reed cuts work better on certain facings.

It's my personal preference that a mouthpiece gets out of the way as much as possible. It can and should facilitate your tone conception, articulation, extended techniques; it may naturally enhance or weaken certain frequencies of the spectrum but ultimately it should let a player shape the sound that's in his/her mind.


The following mouthpieces will be presented through 7 parts, including introduction and conclusion. This will help keep web page loading performance under control. Just use the drop down menu or numerous links to navigate through this roundup review.

A note about the photos: they're very detailed close-up shots and as a consequence reveal much more that you would otherwise see at first glance with the naked eye. I believe they're a great representation of the visual attributes and geometry of the 19 mouthpieces included in this review; just keep in mind the amount of details is very much enhanced on these.

I kept all pieces for several weeks and had the occasion to spend a considerable amount of time with each in various settings which also let me try different reed brands and cuts. I did not track how much time I spent on each piece but I tried to be fair, only deviating for the ones that I felt the most unfamiliar with. Spending slightly more time with these allowed me to assess them properly. Having access to 19 mouthpieces at the same time, as opposed to over months and years, was certainly an enlightening experience although confusing at times.

I've recorded 1 sound clip for each mouthpiece. I wanted to play something that would let me hold notes while allowing me to play faster runs, to use a variety of dynamics and let me cover the entire range of the horn. Although I tried to present each mouthpiece in a similar way by using a common approach through these sound clips, some slight variations naturally occurred but I don't think they will detract from the goal set here.



All mouthpiece clips were recorded with a pair of Artur Fisher RM-5 ribbon microphones. The RM-5 is a high quality, long ribbon microphone hand-made in Latvia. I've been very impressed with the quality of these microphones and how well they capture the sound of a saxophone.

Artur Fisher's RM-5 Blumlein Pair
Artur Fisher's RM-5 Blumlein Pair

Many microphones aren't really well suited to record the instrument: most condenser microphones usually are too bright and harsh, especially microphones the budget-minded musician can afford, while dynamic microphones lack the detailed reproduction and usually sound honky, metallic and thin. The RM-5 captures a very natural, un-hyped, yet musical reproduction of a saxophone's sonic image.

I found the RM-5 ribbon microphones soften the harshness that most other microphones capture or even sometimes magnify. I've had the occasion to play and record through quite a few ribbon microphones and I've preferred long geometry designs as opposed to the short ribbon construction like the Coles 4038 most of the time. While they may be well suited for many applications, the shorter ribbon microphones I've played through had a tendency to emphasize the mid and upper mid frequencies too much. This may be desirable if you're looking to cut through a mix, or on tenor in a contemporary setting, but the more neutral frequency response of the RM-5 sounds more appropriate on saxophone in jazz or classical settings, especially on alto.

Artur Fisher's RM-5 in action
Artur Fisher's RM-5 in action

The provided microphones, arranged in a stereo Blumlein pair, went into my Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 and I recorded everything straight onto my iPad in Steinberg's CubasisCheck this past blog post entry for a tutorial on how to use the 2i2 with an iDevice.

Cubasis Screenshot
Cubasis Session

The fact that the recordings sound so good going through such a modest recording setup is a testament to the RM-5's quality of construction. I had to use about 3/4 of the Scarlett 2i2's available gain but that's not unusual for ribbon microphones to need a little more gain. Using these microphones and the stereo Blumlein technique yielded more natural results than using a single microphone, or close-miking with condenser microphones. You will hear the sound of the room and it may have emphasized or de-emphasized some frequencies as a result but a lot of the body was lost to close-miking with a cardioid condenser microphone.

Artur Fisher's RM-5 in action
Artur Fisher's RM-5 in action

Artur Fisher's RM-5 ribbon microphones are available for purchase directly from the company's website as a DIY kit for €199 ($215) + about $20 shipping to the US. The RM-5 is also available as a fully assembled microphone for €295 ($320) + shipping.

The DIY option may seem intimidating, but what you'll be doing is just putting the parts together. The most delicate task would be soldering a few wires. Check out the manual to decide if this is something you'd be comfortable doing yourself.



In addition to Artur Fisher helping me out with a pair of RM-5 ribbon microphones, BG France has generously offered to help with the review by sending me a few of their ligatures to compare and pick one from for the review. The idea was to eliminate a variable by using the same ligature on all mouthpieces. I used the BG DUO LD1 exclusively on the recordings and for most of the time when evaluating the mouthpieces. If a ligature was provided with a mouthpiece I however briefly compared them.

BG DUO gold plated ALTO photo montage

I chose the BG DUO LD1 because I felt it offered the most neutral feel and let the various mouthpieces included in this review come through fully. It's also a ligature that's very secure once fastened. With so many to test, a ligature that allowed me to quickly swap mouthpieces or adjust them on the cork of my horn was essential, and the DUO LD1 performed this task beautifully.

Stay tuned for a review of the complete line of BG ligatures in a future post on this blog.

In the meantime, you can visit the Facebook page for BG FRANCE, their websites, as well as watch this video demonstration of the BG DUO LD1 below.



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