The purpose of the mouthpiece is to create the instrument tone. The saxophones purpose is to amplify that tone and determine its pitch. While classical, rock, and jazz players may play the same horn, the mouthpiece will be very different. The part of the mouthpiece that creates the biggest difference is the baffle. The baffle is the section of the mouthpiece directly behind the tip rail that extends back into the mouthpiece about two centimeters. Since the baffle is the very first thing that the sound wave hits, it has the largest impact on one’s sound. The different baffle types can be understood visualizing a garden hose:
Flat Baffle: A Flat Baffle extends straight back from the tip rail into the chamber. This is a very common baffle on clarinet and soprano mouthpieces which can easily sound shrill or ducky, particularly in the upper registers. It is also common 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 dull and hollow with this baffle unless the rest of the mouthpiece is designed appropriately.
The flat baffle has a consistent sound in all registers and will rarely sound harsh or overly bright. This is the baffle of choice for musicians who blow very hard. Such musicians naturally sound bright due to the increased speed of their air-stream. They may sound too bright on a Roll-Over baffle, however, the Flat Baffle can balance their sound nicely.
The flat baffle is found on the first saxophone mouthpieces made in 1843 by Adolf Sax through the early 1940’s. Most of these mouthpieces also had very small tip openings and true-large chambers. Flat baffle on the AMBIKA shown.
The Roll-Over Baffle: A Roll-Over Baffle has a short high section right behind the tip rail, which rolls over into a Flat Baffle which extends to the chamber. This adds more overtones because the air stream goes at many different rates of speed. This is heard as extra edge and growl in the sound.
A unique quality of the roll-over baffle is that while the sound initially seems brighter, the general Flat Baffle sound is maintained. For example, a vintage Otto Link can have a high Roll-Over baffle to gain edge yet it still gets the fat spread sound that the large chamber and concave inner side walls produce. This is the classic sound of Florida Otto Links, New York Meyers of the 1950’s and the old Brass Dukoff mouthpieces from the 1940s. You can hear this in the recordings of Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Zoot Sims, Cannonball Adderley, etc.
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 and transitions into the floor in a very complex manner. 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 will make the mouthpiece both brighter and easier to play. The Roll-Over baffle can be hard to see with the naked eye, but is obvious once you know what to look for.
The Step Baffle: A Step-Baffle looks just like a stairway step. It goes straight back from the tip rail, then drops into the chamber. It forms an internal wedge or step. No roll-over is required to create a bright sound, as the height of the baffle makes the airstream speed up, creating a brighter sound. This baffle has the best projection of all baffle shapes. The Step-Baffle was made popular by Dave Guardala with his famous Michael Brecker model, and Dukoff with their Super Power Chamber D mouthpieces. A step baffle is necessary for most R&B and rock and roll playing to cut through the rest of the band.
The drawback to this design is that it often sounds bright all the time, and can sound thin. 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. To get a full fat sound with a Step-Baffle the rest of the mouthpiece must be designed properly. Just adding a wedge in a mouthpiece doesn’t work.
The added benefit to a Step-Baffle is it is easier to play than the other baffle shapes. Because of its ease of play, it is feasible to use a slightly larger tip openings when switching from a Flat or Roll-Over baffle to a Step-Baffle.
The Concave Baffle: This is not a common baffle shape, so I did not add it to the above chart. The Concave-Baffle has a hollow (or indentation) behind the tip rail. It produces a very dark, 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 air-stream immediately slowing down when it goes into the mouthpiece. When used, the Concave-Baffle is almost always used in conjunction with a Roll-Over baffle too.
Summary: Blowing styles, interior mouth shape, abdominal pressure, and embouchure all impact the sound a musician makes. 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 due to the above mentioned factors, and is why simply copying another’s set-up is not effective. So when looking to alter your sound, it is very good to understand the different baffle shapes. Find out what you are using now, then move close to the baffle style that produces the new sound you want to make. For example, if you play a Roll-Over baffle but want a darker sound, try a Flat-Baffle. If you want a brighter sound, try a Step-Baffle.
The baffle is truly the most magical and interesting part of the entire saxophone/mouthpiece combination. Here are the four baffle shapes side by side for comparison purposes: