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Saxophone Mutes

jbtsax

Distinguished Member
Distinguished Member
The use of a saxophone "mute" was first espoused by Marcel Mule of the Paris Conservatory. He brought that idea to the United States when he did his first concert tour and shared his methodology with American saxophonists and teachers. Larry Teal in "The Art of Saxophone Playing" describes Mule's mute on p.53.

"The most satisfactory device, introduced into this country by Marcel Mule consists of a wooden drapery ring wound with velvet ribbon sewed in place."

Rather than greatly reduce the volume as is the case with brass mutes, the saxophone "donut mute" cuts out many of the higher overtones (frequencies above "cutoff") that travel directly out the bell of the saxophone giving a more mellow or "darker" quality to the sound.

This type of mute in this instance for an alto sax is quite easy to make. The materials consist of a wooden ring with an outside diameter of 2 3/4" and a strip of velvet ribbon over 40" long that is 5/8" wide, both of which are available on the internet. The ribbon is held in place at the start and the end using thick super glue rather than being sewn. The first photo shows some completed mutes along with the materials used. The second photo shows the mute inside the bell of an alto sax.



 
Speaking of mute, I attended a Lee Konitz concert at a well known jazz club in Berne (Switzerland), some years ago. His sound was pretty horrid, muffled, until, after a few tunes, he took out... a towel from his alto. The ballad he played "clean" was superb. Both a friend of mine and I were convinced he had forgotten the damn thing is his sax..'till he put it back into the bell for the remaining of the concert. Apart from this strange sound "improvement", the concert was very disappointing, Lee, obviously bad tempered keeping arguing with his poor (and very good) pianist. That's life...
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
I'm not 100% sure on the overtones part making the sound significantly "darker." I suppose it's possible, but if you've got a reference for that, JBT, I'd be interested in looking at it. Otherwise I'm wondering if the listener is confusing "darker" with "muffled." And, if there's justification for the "dampening" effect of the mute, then we'd probably have to go into the discussion of what the horn is made out of seriously impacting what the horn sounds like. In other words, "This kind of plating makes your horn sound darker."

I definitely +1 the idea of this kind of mute not really being much of a mute -- except for maybe the lower half of the instrument. That's because you've got the open tone holes. That's where the majority of your sound escapes and why some folks are fond of the two-headed microphone: one head for the body and one head for the bell.

There were and are a couple of mutes that were designed to mute sound, like the newer "gig-bag-looking" ones and the ones that are put inside the neck (which I haven't seen in awhile).

I've had two 1920s and earlier horns that came with mutes and looked old enough to be 1920s vintage. They were essentially big foam donuts. The number one thing they did was to make about a quarter of the horn play out of tune :).
 

jbtsax

Distinguished Member
Distinguished Member
Pete, your old foam "mutes" had a larger surface area and closed off more of the bell that the mutes pictured above---hence more of the low register came out flat. With the proportions of the mutes espoused by Mule and Teal the intonation is not affected except for the low B and Bb. When playing a piece with those notes, the player simply turns the mute 90° and the pitch is not seriously affected.

To understand how the "overtones" affect the brightness or darkness of the sound a good analogy is an equalizer or more simply the treble and bass controls on your stereo. Taking out the higher frequencies removes some of the shrillness and "edge" to the sound and makes it for lack of a better word, more "mellow". One of the clearest explanations of "cutoff frequency" is from the UNSW website. Kymarto would have even more to add, I'm sure. I am fond of the way Benade explains some acoustic phenomenon to his students in the simplest and clearest terms. For example, he says the soundwaves above cut-off frequency don't "see" the open toneholes and travel past them and out the bell. He also remarks that when the soundwave goes around a sharp bend, it "sees" a tube that is larger than its geometrical dimensions.

My university band director, the late Dr. Max F. Dalby required the saxophone section to use the Mule style mutes in the symphonic band. The rationale was that the alto saxophones often play parts with the french horns, the tenor saxophones with the baritones, and the bari sax with the tubas and the mutes helped minimize the "reedy" quality to the tone in order for the saxophone section to blend better with their brass counterparts. I carried that into my own teaching with good effect. My second year 7th grade band would often have 12+ alto saxophones, and 6 tenors. The all had fluffed up "hankies" in their bells mostly for my own sanity having to listen to that many. Actually there were 3 sections of band with 4 altos and 2 tenors that rehearsed the music and then the day of the concert there was one big rehearsal with all the groups combined. . . . but I digress. I miss teaching and conducting, but not the paperwork and politics involved in dealing with the school system.
 

Helen

Content Expert Saxophones
Staff member
Administrator
A number of mid-century German horns (JK's and Hohner for example) came with a metal mute. My 1957 Toneking came with one. (Images inserted.) I have yet to try it again since I had the horn restored, and I haven't tried a mute like you show above jbt.

Have you ever compared these 2 different mute styles? What are the differences? Similarities? Or were these like the "foam mute" of Pete's that you commented on.

mute_inside_view.jpgmute_side_view.jpgmute_top_view.jpg
 
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