The mouthpiece, not the saxophone, is responsible for over 80% of the tone a musician gets while playing. And half of the sound that comes from the mouthpiece comes from the baffle. The closer you get to the initial source, or creation point, of the sound wave, the larger the impact you have on the sound. Since the baffle is the very first thing that the sound wave hits, it is where the initial shape of the sound is created and has the largest impact on the resultant sound coming out of the saxophone/mouthpiece set-up.
This is why the baffle is the single most important part of the mouthpiece/horn configuration. For reference, the baffle is the section of the mouthpiece directly behind the tip rail that extends back into the mouthpiece about a half inch. While a good facing makes the mouthpiece easy to play and respond, the baffle is what creates the basic sound of your horn. The baffle is where the sound is first created. So while classical, rock, and jazz players may play the same horn, and even have the same facing and chamber size, where the basic sound difference comes from is the baffle. There are four fundamental baffle shapes that a mouthpiece can have: Straight, Roll-Over, Step, and Convex.
It is important to remember that many mouthpieces incorporate combinations of these baffle shapes. For example Berg Larsen has a semi-flat roll over section followed by an elongated step baffle, and Dukoff Super Power Chamber mouthpieces have a true roll-over baffle followed by an elongated-step.
The Straight Baffle
|A straight baffle extends evenly back from the tip rail into the chamber. This is a very common baffle on clarinet mouthpieces, and on small tip opening saxophone mouthpieces from the 1920's and 30s. In saxophone, any tip opening above a 4 in alto or 5 in tenor can sound a little dull and hollow with this baffle. The straight baffle has a very consistent sound in all registers and will almost never sound harsh or too bright.|
This is the baffle of choice for musicians who blow very hard. A person who blows hard creates a natural speed to the air-stream within the mouthpiece. This speed acts the same as a roll-over baffle. Because of this, the musician will sound too bright on a mouthpiece that has a roll-over baffle in it, and a straight baffle is needed to compensate. This baffle is also commonly used for soprano saxophone mouthpieces which have a tendency to sound shrill or ducky, particularly in the upper register.
The straight baffle is found on the first saxophone mouthpieces made by Adolf Sax at the turn of the century up until the early 1940's. Most of these mouthpieces also had very small tip openings and a large chamber.
The Roll-Over Baffle
|Here we have a convex curve right behind the tip rail, along the floor of the mouthpiece. This convex curve affectively creates a very short - very high baffle. After this short high-baffle, the baffle immediately straightens out. The roll-over baffle gives an edge or growl to the sound, which most jazz players like to varying degrees. A unique quality of the roll-over baffle is that while the sound initially seems brighter the general sound shaped by the rest of the mouthpiece interior is maintained. For example,in an Otto Link you can have a high roll over baffle to get a lot of edge and yet still get the fat spread sound that the large chamber and concave inner side walls produce.This is the classic sound of Florida Otto Links and many of the old Brass Dukoff mouthpieces from the 1940s.|
The roll-over baffle is an art form to produce correctly. It may look simple but a good roll-over baffle incorporates the shape of the tip rail, inner side walls, and floor of the mouthpiece. Oddly, if the roll-over baffle is too high or miss-shaped the sound will deaden and stop-up. Often, less material in the baffle, but with the correct shape, will make the mouthpiece both brighter and easier to blow. It can seem almost counter intuitive.
A properly made roll-over baffle will give a ballsy sound with a great attack, plenty of edge, and good projection while still maintaining a huge sound. The roll over baffle can be hard to see with the naked eye, as the variations in it are very slight. Interestingly enough, many mouthpieces that look like they have a straight baffle actually have a very slight roll over baffle. It is this slight roll-over that gives them the color and edge in their sound.
This baffle was big in the 1950's and 60's and is best known in the Otto link and Meyer mouthpieces. For a couple years in the late 1950s Otto link produced a mouthpiece with too much roll over. This is the very last of the serial numbered Florida. But in general all Otto Links made, to this day even, have a very nice roll-over baffle.
The Step Baffle
|A step baffle goes straight back from the tip rail starting much like the straight baffle, however a step baffle is very high, forming an internal wedge or step that then drastically drops down in the middle of the window into the chamber. With this baffle no roll-over is required to create a bright sound. It also has the benefit of having the best projection of all the baffle shapes. This shape was made popular by Dave Guardala with his famous Michael Brecker model. A step baffle is necessary for most R&B and rock and roll playing to cut through the rest of the band.|
Another benefit to this design is good intonation and evenness of sound through the registers. Its drawbacks though are that because the baffle is high so far back into the mouthpiece this design tends to want to play bright all the time, and gives a more focused sound in the midrange and bottom end. Hence they can loose the fat robust bottom end that the other baffle designs can have. Since you can get all the growl and edge you need from a good roll-over baffle, the real benefit of the step baffle is its projection.
A step baffle tends to play easier than the other baffle shapes as the air is moving quickly for a long distance, making the mouthpiece respond fast. Because of their ease to play, it is feasible to have large tip openings and long facing curves. Both of these features can add some resistance while blowing.
The Concave Baffle
|There is actually a hollow or indentation behind the tip rail with a concave baffle. This is a very rare and seldom used baffle as it produces a very dark, and almost tubby tone, and has a severe lack of projection. Hence it does not have much attack and sounds dim when heard at a distance. It is only suitable for those with a tendency to play very brightly, or those looking for a very dark sound, no projection, and some back pressure. The back pressure is due to the fact that the air-stream immediately slows down|
when it goes into the mouthpiece. I have found this shape to only work for some classical musicians, and for those jazz soprano saxophone players looking for a dark sound particularly in the upper register.
Blowing styles, interior mouth shape, abdominal pressure, and embouchure all impact the resultant sound a musician creates. It is important that the mouthpiece baffle work with the musicians blowing style, etc.
Have you ever wanted to sound like another musician, gotten an identical set-up to them, but then noticed you still sound nothing like them? This is all due to the above mentioned factors, and is why simply copying another's set-up from listening to them on an album or sound-bite is not very affective. Adjusting the baffle, but leaving the rest of the mouthpiece configuration the same, will usually compensate for these differences though. The baffle is truly the most magical and interesting part of the entire saxophone/mouthpiece combination.
Here are the four baffle shapes set side by side for comparison purposes: