Mouthpiece Optimization


The first, most basic, and most important rule for conical bore woodwinds is this: For the instrument to function optimally the mouthpiece must be matched, in chamber volume and mouthpiece frequency, to that particular instrument. Short of having the instrument in good mechanical/air-tight condition, nothing could be more important for the optimal playing and listening experience.  Ironically, for most players, nothing could be more confusing and given less informed consideration.

Indeed, the currently published methods involving taking measurements are miserably incomplete and based upon incorrect principles. Probably 80+ % of the problems that players bemoan in the ongoing saxophone community discussions are due to a mouthpiece mismatch and the common view is that one must simply try another mouthpiece and blindly hope for improvement or resign to the fact that nothing much is to be done, it is simply the nature of the beast.

Fortunately for the interested player, there is a very easy way to evaluate how well any mouthpiece matches the horn for a particular player, and for monitoring mouthpiece adjustments in the case steps are taken to optimize the mouthpiece.. No special equipment is required, just a developed ear and sense of pitch, or a tuner for really "meticulous" work.

The essential saxophone is the tube that produces the D1 to C#2 range, and is then overblown to produce the D2 to C#3, second register. The notes below and above this range are just added on, each pitch having it's own dedicated tone hole. We can ignore those notes for optimization. The octaves of the D1 to C#3 range will tell us everything we need to know about the mouthpiece/horn relationship.

A few readers have questioned the appropriateness of using D1/D2 and C#2/C#3 as the reference points for this routine, as the pitch of D2 and C#3 are both affected to some degree by their respective register holes, that perhaps the more neutral F2 and B2 would be better indicators.
We need to remember that the saxophone is not perfect. Everything is a compromise. The objective is to make the compromises that yield the best overall results. By far, the most objectionable pitch characteristic of a mouthpiece mismatch is the pitch discrepancy between the short tube C#2 area and the long tube D2 area. Only a slight mismatch will create this unmistakable curve in the scale that not even the best player can compensate for. It effectively cuts the instrument in half. Using D1/D2 and C#2/C#3 as the reference points aligns the most critical areas of the horn - the C#2/D2 register change and the most troublesome C#3 - providing the most even scales and best response possible. With the ends of the tube aligned, the middle and extended ends just fall into place. Most musical tuning adjustments then are negotiated by accurately pre-hearing the pitch and the subconscious – hear it/play it – leaving the player free to concentrate on making music.

To minimize the conical air column effects on the scale of the instrument we must abandon musical considerations and the A=440 pitch center for a moment, and anchor the mouthpiece volume (i.e. where it is placed on the cork) so that the low end of our overblown tube (D1/D2 using register key) has optimal resonance alignment - it must produce a perfect octave. Easy. Pull out (or push in) until D1/D2 is a perfect octave - and here is where "meticulous" comes into play. Tune the octave using a tuner so that the center of your unavoidable pitch variations on D2 is at 0 cents deviation from where the D1 is (not necessarily 0 on the meter). One uses a steady, normal embouchure making absolutely no adjustments. No adjustments. No adjustments. We are halfway there.

Now, without moving the mouthpiece from that spot on the cork which produced the perfect D1/D2 octave, test the C#2/C#3 octave (B2/B3 for sopranos), using the register key, with a steady, normal embouchure, making no embouchure adjustments.  No adjustments.  No adjustments. If you are accustomed to lipping up to notes in the upper register, you will have to concentrate on keeping your embouchure steady. The idea is to place C#3 so that you can play it in tune with the same essential embouchure tension (note voicing aside) you use to play D1. So, test the C#2/C#3 octave. Unless we had a perfect mouthpiece to start with, our pitch center is off, as is the resonance alignment of the short end of the overblown tube (C#2/C#3).  

In most cases where the chamber is too small/pitch too high (vintage horn with modern mouthpiece), pulling out to align D1/D2 makes the pitch center very flat and the C#2/C#3, flatter still with a narrow octave - the mouthpiece is too long and narrow. Whatever method you deem appropriate for your tonal considerations, material must be removed from the mouthpiece chamber or throat. After removal, put the mouthpiece back on the neck and repeat the procedure below.

In the opposite case (large barrel chamber) where the chamber is too large/pitch too low, the pitch center may be a bit high and C#2/C#3 very sharp with a wide octave. The mouthpiece is too fat and wide. Material must be added somewhere. 

Whatever adjustment is necessary (chamber/throat diameter enlarging or reducing), we must maintain the initial, optimal mouthpiece volume alignment (Not the place on the cork, but the perfect D1/D2 octave) during all testing. Realize that the initial "pulling out/pushing in" adjustment changed two aspects of the mouthpiece, the volume AND the length, for a pretty gross change in the stretching of the scale. By making gradual adjustments to the length alone or the pitch of the chamber type, using the shortest overblown tube as our reference, we can eventally match the mouthpiece to the horn perfectly.. Making the chamber fatter while maintaining volume, raises the overall played pitch of the mouthpiece, affecting the upper register more than the lower. Making the chamber narrower while maintaining optimal volume, lowers it in the same manner.

Between repeated steps of checking the D1/D2 octave for perfection and then making the appropriate chamber geometry adjustment, raising or lowering the pitch to improve the C#2/C#3 octave, the short tube will gradually come into perfect alignment (same 0 cent deviation at center of pitch wobble) . With both ends of the basic tube perfectly aligned, the ends (bell tones/palm keys) and in-between (middle register) take care of themselves. The entire scale is within 5 cents of even (on my horn, verified by 3rd party), perfectly situated in the A=440 pitch center.


Matching Procedure

1. Find D1/D2 perfect octave postition.

2. Leaving mouthpiece there, test the C#2/C#3 octave.

3. If perfect, you are done. Go play your horn. If not, make the appropriate mouthpiece modification - remove or add material - and go back to #1. Could not be more simple.

One experiences a new playing and listening sensation - one voice - no perception of register changes. You can play relaxed. The sound gets a silvery "sheen" to it as successive tones resonate as “in tune” in the room and in our note memory. Now, after you experience this, from both the playing and listening standpoint, it becomes addictive. You immediately notice the conical air column effect qualities that you left behind, to varied degrees, in the playing of others - everywhere (or almost - some got lucky or were smart with their setup). It sticks out like wrong notes in Mozart. You can even start listening to the silvery sheen evenness more than the notes they are playing, as you realize that hearing the conical air column effects is tiring, even annoying.


1. Mouthpiece volume = hard-walled mouthpiece volume + reed compliance.  The player’s embouchure and reed choice are a parameter.

2. There is in fact only a fairly narrow range of mouthpiece designs which can be successfully optimized - extremely high baffles being the main design problem which raise mouthpiece frequency beyond that which can be balanced with volume.


Copyright 2013

Lance Burton


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