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Brass Mutes

Discussion in 'Tips, Tricks & Talk' started by John Royski, Mar 27, 2018.

  1. #1 John Royski, Mar 27, 2018
    Last edited: Apr 4, 2018
    This is definitely not an exhaustive list, but there seem to be quite a few people asking about mutes so I thought I could help a little bit. I am still very new to writing - so this is more of a list from a brass player's perspective, than from a composers perspective.

    A few things first:
    Mutes all affect the tuning of an instrument (some more than others) and it is definitely appreciated when there is enough time to put in the mute and adjust tuning slides - though we do have ways to compensate when there is no time.

    Mutes add varying amounts of resistance to the instruments and generally make it more difficult for the instruments to speak clearly play in the upper and lower ranges. The cup, straight, and bucket mutes affect this the least, harmon mutes have the largest impact.

    There are varying materials and styles of mutes within each type - you generally do not need to concern yourself with this, the player will pick something appropriate. For instance - straight mutes can be made out of cardboard (beginners typically), aluminum, brass, copper, sometimes a mixture of different metals, or even wood.

    Mutes limit the amount of volume brass instruments can achieve, so be aware of this fact when making orchestration decisions.

    Tuba mutes do exist and tend to be quite a spectacle in real life performances. They are not very convenient to use and require a lot more time to put in place.

    Mute types

    Straight mute- The most commonly used mute on the list. Most of the time a metal straight mute will be used, which adds a metallic sound to the tone. It adds a bit of a nasal sound, and it blends well with double reeds. I've played with straight mutes to change the color, to sound like the trumpet is off in the distance (at lower volumes), or when echoing another trumpet part - to sound like it is more distant.

    Pixie mute - essentially it's a straight mute that sits further in the bell so the player can use a plunger at the same time. I've never seen a pixie mute called for without a plunger.

    Cup mute- Cup mutes also add a little tiny bit of nasal sound to the instrument, but it is more mellow than a straight mute. Cup mutes are used much more commonly in jazz, but I've used it in wind ensemble pieces as well. The cup mute seems to affect the tuning the least.

    Harmon mute - Adds the most resistance, affects tuning the most, and limits the dynamic range the most. You will want to specify whether you want it with the stem or not - in jazz context it is almost exclusively used without the stem. With a stem = Rhapsody in Blue, without a stem = Miles Davis. If you want the wah wah effect a stem has to be used, players cannot create the effect without it. Below the staff (for trumpet) it will not have a lot of volume, and above the staff it will be the same. This mute is often more effective in sections with smaller orchestrations, or used solo with a microphone. Sometimes this is also called a wah wah mute, jazz mute, or bubble mute, but you should refer to it as a harmon mute.

    Bucket mute - It makes the instrument quieter, while also making the sound more distant. There are two main types - one that is metal and fits inside the bell, and one that clips outside the bell. The in bell version makes the sound fluffy. In all of the situations I have used a bucket mute, it was usually to sound distant (with less of a color change than a straight mute), sometimes used when the trumpet was an echo, and rarely used to blend with lighter/delicate textures (although this is not usually necessary).

    In stand - Used much more often in big band than other contexts, it's really just used to help play quieter. Trombone players often will use a plunger and only cover half of their bell if they see "in stand" in their part to mitigate issues caused by having slides. In stand will not work for tuba or euphonium.

    Off stage - Used to create a sound that is distant. I've only seen this used in an orchestral context. Playing off stage will affect the tuning even though they are not changing or adding anything, and will make the instrument sound flat - experienced players will know this and adjust, if you use this in a live group with younger players you will probably have to tell them.

    Stop Horn (french horn only) - Be aware that doing this raises the pitch of the instrument a half step, so the players will have to finger one half step below written. If they are playing at the extreme low end of their range, it will cut off the very bottom note.

    Plunger - Beginners use it to create wah wah effects, players with advanced technique can create vocal like effects. If there is a specific pattern of wahs, closed is notated as +, and open is o, both are notated above the note, above the staff. Sometimes in big bands they use derby hats, which essentially serve the same purpose - but create less of a wah and change the tone less. Hats were really used instead of plungers to create more visual effects while playing.

    Practice mute, or silent brass mute - Literally used for practicing in places where you cannot play loud, like hotel rooms. These are not for performance.

    There are some other specialty mutes that I see for sale, but I've never seen them used or called for in any of my parts. I don't know anyone who own let alone carry these mutes in their bags, so I wouldn't expect anyone to bring one to a live session without specifically asking the brass players ahead of time.

    Soft tone, or velvet tone mutes - essentially they same thing as a bucket mute or playing in stand, so I wouldn't write for them. I would just choose buckets or playing in stand.

    Clear Tone, or Solo Tone mute - Sounds very similar to a harmon mute with a stem in it, or maybe a vintage recording of someone playing with a cup mute. If you want this kind of sound, just write for a harmon mute with stem.

    Buzz or Buzz wow mute - Essentially a cup or straight mute with metal pieces in the tip that are supposed to add a buzz to the sound, but it's not terribly effective. It sounds very similar to a metal versions of these mutes, so they are redundant.

    Distortion/effects pedals - Can be used, but are not common. I've only seen them used in jazz and fusion contexts, and I can only think of two trumpet players who have really used them in performances - Randy Brecker (and Michael Brecker on Tenor Sax), and Terrance Blanchard.
     
  2. As a brass player, I would also like to add the following graphic to assist non-brass players in their composing:

    brass mutes.jpg

    On a serious note - thanks for starting the thread @John Royski
     
    Aaron Venture and Paul T McGraw like this.
  3. Soon I'll create another message in this post with links to youtube videos with the mutes. Many of the videos readily available are created by either staff members of the companies that manufacture the mutes, or people who teach privately. In both cases, they tend to be lower quality videos, with people who are less than world class on their instrument. I'll try to find the best examples I can for each of the brass instruments, so it might take me a while to create.
     
  4. Making this thread sticky.
     
  5. This is interesting. Bernard Herrmann rehearses the same section for six trumpets and swaps mutes a few times. Mute swapping starts around 3:30.

     

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