A disclaimer: I work for Vandoren USA in the NYC Vandoren Studio. This has given me a lot of insight into mouthpiece design, use and care but you should be aware of this fact as I obviously have inherent biases. I believe the following is correct as far as I understand it, but I want to be upfront about where my knowledge and experience come from. The views below do not represent any official sentiments from Vandoren and all opinions and thoughts are mine and mine alone.
-Andrew Hadro, Curator | JazzBariSax.com
3D printing has made great strides in consumer and small business availability. 3D printing creates objects from filaments that are heated up and then laid down by a movable computer controlled arm. There are many different filaments and each has its own pros and cons, things like tolerance/accuracy, how quickly it can be printed, how expensive it is, color choices, rigidity etc. I am not an expert in 3D printing though I find it interesting. Its uses are just beginning to be explored.
Recently, companies have begun to offer 3D printed mouthpieces, most notably the French company SYOS, but now a whole slew of others have followed suit. Initially part of the appeal was that the inner shape of the mouthpiece and baffle could be customized and shaped in new and interesting ways. I tried many of these mouthpieces with crazy ridges, bumps, and internal shapes. None of them played great, and it seems like the consensus is that the general traditional shape of a mouthpiece worked the best and I believe is what has become the most popular. One of the other appeals of these mouthpieces is that they can be made using bright colors. I personally am not interested in how a mouthpiece looks, rather how it sounds, but I understand that a huge portion of the market does care about this and enjoys having color options.
The other novelty about these is the ability to ‘design’ your own mouthpiece, kind of like the character creation bit of a video game. It is kind of fun to think about and play with the sliders but I believe it is vastly over simplifying how incredibly complicated acoustical physics is and making people believe you can just put in a larger baffle and increase brightness. Whereas in reality, the baffle, rails, chamber, facing length, and tip opening all affect each other and need to be designed in harmony (pun intended) with each other. The physics involved in vibration and air manipulation is incredibly complex. Again, I think this is why the more traditional mouthpiece designs have been what won out despite all of the crazy possibilities with 3D printing. Also as with any type of mouthpiece, you should try as many as possible. How it works for you will be very hard to judge just by descriptions or measurements.
So, if we are using traditional mouthpiece design and facing curves etc why use 3D printing? Well branding, popularity, trend-setting new computer-based technologies and cool colors. Of course, the mouthpieces do indeed work, there are plenty of great musicians using them. But are they better than non-plastic? Other than the customization options they don’t seem to be an improvement. I personally have heard a lot of people try them and switch to them. I have heard many people sound worse on them; I’ve heard many people sound great on them. I have yet to hear someone who sounded better on one than a traditional mouthpiece. So, it seems like at best it is a lateral move, with some aesthetic improvements if you don’t prefer traditional looks.
I can’t speak to consistency or tolerances with 3D printed mouthpieces. I know that the tolerance with consumer grade 3D printers would yield a very differently playing mouthpiece with each print because of the inherent tolerance level, but I am not sufficiently aware of the level of tolerance that exists in professional level printing machines.
Are there any reasons not to use 3D printed moutphieces?
To me there are two main concerns with 3D printed mouthpieces. First, they are plastic. Our world is finally starting to reckon with the wildly harmful plastic proliferation of the last 50 years. Plastic is forever and is starting to really pollute our world and oceans and is even being found in higher and higher concentrations in our own bodies due to its leeching into the food chain. So, do we want more plastic in our world? NYC, where I live just banned plastic bags finally, and I go to some trouble to avoid using or buying plastic especially now that we are finding out that plastic recycling is basically a charade and completely ineffective or non-existent. Hard rubber is not as biodegradable as natural rubber due to the vulcanization process, but it will eventually (albeit more slowly) harmlessly bio-degrade. Metal mouthpieces last much longer in a playable state and are obviously much easier to reclaim or recycle. So if 3D printed mouthpieces mostly offer the same as traditional mouthpieces maybe we choose less plastic?
Secondly, I have concerns about the long-term safety of 3D printed materials being put into mouths for potentially hours every day. Being bitten down on and vibrated harshly for long periods in the acidic environment of the mouth. Various 3D printed filaments have various health and safety concerns. Most are generally not considered ‘food safe’. Aside from the filaments there are other concerns such as micro-plastic residue and breakdown. All 3D printed items should be thoroughly washed before use regardless.
ABS plastic (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) is a commonly used filament, among other reasons because it allows for bright colors. You’ll notice styrene in the name which is a highly carcinogenic substance, however when in ABS form it is stable and non-toxic. Under normal usage it should not leech or breakdown. So 3D printed mouthpieces should never be played after damaged, or ever sanded and worked on. I am not saying the mouthpieces are poisonous, and I have no problem putting them in my mouth to try them for a bit. But I play many hours a week so my interaction with that material is judged in terms of years of use and a single non-toxic interaction.
This plastic is used for children’s toys and is non-toxic in case of accidental swallowing. You undoubtedly come into contact with lots of ABS daily. But in my mind putting something in your mouth for long periods necessitates a higher standard. I’ve tried to do some research on the safety of ABS 3D printing, but the research papers, articles, videos and everything is vastly conflicting so its hard to know as an industry outsider how large or small the risk really is.
There are other materials/filaments that can be used, Getasax.com has recently started offering mouthpieces made from a ‘biocompatible dental resin’ but are 3D printed. Though GetASax doesn’t list exactly what the filament is or any further details like laboratory testing. They are white, and I wonder if they aren’t offered in different colors due to the filament limitations. I wonder why SYOS chose not to use this possibly safer material. Maybe harder to work with, different heat properties, consistent printing, maybe more expensive, maybe slower to print, maybe worse tolerances, maybe limited colors, some other reasons… all information I don’t have.
We must trust that larger companies like SYOS have independent laboratories testing not just their filaments but their products since true food-safe 3D printing requires customized printers that remove lead based and other harmful tool tips. I worry that smaller companies will try to replicate SYOS’ success with much less regard to safety. People at home with 3D printers SHOULD NOT print their own mouthpiece – home use 3D printers are not safe for use in the mouth.
If 3D printing were found to offer significant leaps forward in musical results, I might be more inclined to dismiss the plastic concerns. But since they seem to be a lateral move that is trending right now for various reasons I am going to personally steer clear for now. Mostly for ecological and somewhat for potential long term health concerns. If you choose to use a 3D printed mouthpiece you’ll probably be fine, but these are things I personally consider.