I have been planning this article for a while and just kept putting it off. Why? Because it seems like it should be simple, which it is in some respects, but is gets a bit complicated pretty fast. I decided to concentrate on the simple part first, so understand that what I am saying is not the whole story but it is a very important part of the whole story, and without this basic knowledge, the rest becomes very difficult to comprehend.
So, let’s begin.
Simple fact: the sound you make when you play saxophone is produced by the reed that is vibrating. The reed does not vibrate, then there is no sound. We cause the reed to vibrate when we blow, and that vibrating reed creates the sound.
As saxophonists, we all know that different reeds create sounds that are different, one from another, to some degree. And we can often hear those difference quite plainly. That is one reason that we all have certain preferences for certain brands or cuts of reeds. It is not the only reason we may have those preferences, but it is certainly one of them and perhaps one of the most important reasons.
Ok. Now, many of us know that we can actually get different sound qualities from the same reed by merely moving the reed slightly on the mouthpiece. Move the reed a little away from the tip and the sound will get a little more brilliant or bright. Conversely, move the reed more forward (toward the tip) a little, and the sound will get a little darker or less brilliant to some degree.
Other things may also happen, but remember, we are only investigating the sound, and nothing else at the moment.
So, a little brighter one way and a little less bright the other. Well, what has happened? Simply put, by moving the reed away from the tip, you have shortened the effective vibrating reed. And you have shortened it by taking away a bit of the firmest part of the reed, the heart. And you have proportionately more of the thinner parts of the reed vibrating.
The opposite happens when you move the reed forward, toward the tip. Now, you have effectively lengthened the vibrating portion of the reed, and you’ve done so by increasing the vibrating portion of the reed by adding more of the firmest part of the reed to the vibrating portion of the reed.
This can be tested in the extremes, by the way, until the reed refuses to cooperate. But the most information is gained when moving the reed in modest increments and testing it.
Ok. So, you might think ‘”so what? I kind of knew that already”.  However, you have also tested something entirely different in doing this: you tested, in a small way, the effects of another very important aspect of a vibrating reed.
You tested the effects of slightly different facing lengths on a vibrating reed.
Same mouthpiece, same horn, same reed. But, by altering the reed position you caused the facing length to become, de facto, a little shorter or a little longer. Of course, the actual facing length did not change because we did not alter the mouthpiece. But, by moving the reed, we shortened or lengthened the “effective” facing length.
Think about it like a diving board that can be adjusted to modify the way it will bounce for a given diver.  A short board is fast and hard; a long board is more bouncy and slower. Same diving board but its effective length (call it its “facing” length) has been altered and that means a change in the way it performs.
The same is true for your reed, in its way.
Now, moving the reed around can and does cause other things to happen, but we’re not interested in that now. We are just interested in sound and reeds.
Your mouthpiece has the facing length it has, whatever that may be. Some of you may know what it is, but most of you will not. Moreover, many of you will “think” you know because it said so on the box your mouthpiece came in. Don’t believe it unless you checked for yourself. Don’t get me wrong. You may love your mouthpiece. But do not assume what you love about it has anything to do with what might be written on the box or engraved on the mouthpiece. All you really know is that you like it, whatever it may be.
Great. But knowing the actual facing length is valuable information to have. It will put a real fact to an important part of your preferences, and it will help you to select mouthpieces in the future. It will also help you in selecting a brand and cut of reed that will likely work well for you. Knowledge is power.
Now, let’s change reeds.
Slap a different brand or cut or strength reed on that mouthpiece and do the same thing, moving the reed as before and testing the sound. Don’t worry about how it “responds” so much, just the quality of the sound itself.
And do it again. And maybe again.
You will begin to notice which brand, cut and strength of reed tends to play better for you, and which do not.
Make a note of what you have discovered. For instance, filed reeds seem to play better than unfiled (or the opposite); firmer reeds seem to play better than softer reeds (or the opposite). And so on.
The next time you are considering what reeds to buy, you will have a clearer picture of how to make your selection, and that can save you some money in the long run.
A filed reed is nominally thinner than its unfiled counterpart. Or, said another way, an unfiled reed is nominally firmer than its filed counterpart. How much firmer or softer? Well, that depends on the brand. Some brands have a substantial difference but most brands have what I call the “half strength” difference, meaning that an unfiled reed plays about a half- strength firmer than its filed counterpart, maybe a tad less or a tad more. The firmer unfiled reed has a slightly darker or woodier sound than the filed reed. Said another way, the filed reed has a slightly brighter, crisp sound compared to the unfiled reed of the same brand and strength. These terms are all subjective but are intended to describe a general impression of the sounds.
The unfiled reed offers a little more reed resistance compared to it filed counterpart. That is neither bad nor good. Said another way, the filed reed offers less reed resistance than its unfiled counterpart.
That “reed resistance” is just the general pliability or responsiveness of the reed to the air being blown across it. We know it in the extremes, as when we try to play a very firm reed for the first time, and we get almost no sound. That very firm reed does not want to vibrate as quickly or easily as a softer reed on the same mouthpiece. But “too soft” a reed can create a different kind of resistance: not “reed resistance” but a mechanical resistance that occurs when the soft reed just “closes down” and stops the sound and the airflow.
These things are not solely related to the reed. The mouthpiece itself plays an important role. That very firm reed can play with little reed resistance on a mouthpiece that is set up to accommodate it. The same is true for a very soft reed, which will play fine on a mouthpiece that is set up to accommodate it.
Just yesterday, I had a very well-known alto saxophonist come by my shop. He just wanted me to lookover his Claude Lakey 7*3 mouthpiece because he thought it was developing a crack. Luckily, it did not have a crack. His 30+ year old mouthpiece was fine. I measured it up just to let him know what I found, and I was quite surprised. The facing length on this alto piece was almost the typical length of a tenor mouthpiece. That is quite long on alto. The facing curve itself was also very close to a rather standard tenor facing curve. Of course, he loves his piece and we left the facing as we found it, but now he knows one of the reasons he loves it. He has played dozens of other Lakey 7*3 pieces and did not like any of them at all. Now, we have a pretty good idea why.
Facing length determines how much of the reed is available to vibrate freely. The shorter the facing length, the less reed is available. Not only that, but the portion of the reed that is available is also predominantly the thinnest or softest portion of the reed.
The longer the facing length, the more reed that is available to vibrate freely and the more of the firmer, thicker portion of the reed is added to that vibrating portion.
Because of that, the facing length has immense influence on the way a reed “responds” to the stimulus of the air blown across it. In general, the shorter the facing, the quicker the response. The longer the facing, the slower the response. These differences can be quite stark or subtle depending upon the differences in facing length.
Do you remember what we learned by moving the reed placement up or back on your mouthpiece at the beginning of this topic? We experienced, to a small degree, the impact of facing length changes on your mouthpiece. We were focused on the sound then, but you also would have noticed some differences in response to some degree. You may also have felt a little less resistance in one position, or a little more resistance in another position. What, in fact, you were experiencing was the impact of slight facing length changes on your own mouthpiece. So, what did you learn?
That is the question: what did you learn about the sound and the response of these subtle and perhaps not-so-subtle changes?
The brand and cut of reed made certain differences. The effective facing lengths produced certain differences. Of course, it is highly likely that the different reed position caused some other issues if you tried to play with abandon. That would be because we only simulated the different facing lengths. The facing curves would still likely be skewed to some extent because of the reed movement. In other words, the facing curve, from facing length starting point to the tip, would not be optimal for all those possible reed positions, of course. But that curve would not affect the sound and it would not obscure the impact of the different fencing lengths, and that is what we are actually doing here.
Once that vibrating reed has produced the sound wave, then the propagation of that wave, in both directions (into the mouthpiece and horn AND also into the oral cavity of the player) becomes the subject. It is all about resonance and the complexity and balance of the partials in that sound wave, because the “sound” is not a single thing but a “collective”. Just like a white light is composed of all colors, a supposedly single sound is composed of a multiplicity of aural “colors”. How those “colors” are muted or enhanced by a player and his equipment is another subject. And that subject is all about SIZE and SHAPE. And that is for another day.