Mutes and Muting
The stories in our small and unique community of how tubists have avoided using mutes are both numerous and humorous; the avoidance was understandable, frankly, mutes used to be quite terrible; they were a conical symbol of a sonic disaster! Composers, however, were clear in their minds ear of what they wanted with muted tuba, which was simply an extension into the lower register of a muted brass section with a sound they associated with the other members of the brass family. Things are a lot better now but we're still working on it.
I got my first mute in 1952; Mr. Long, the man who lived next door to my family home in Eagle Rock, a suburb of Los Angeles, was extraordinarily handy, resourceful and kindly available for the whims of his young 14 year old tubist neighbor, built me a mute. Retrospectively, it's almost unbelievable how lucky I was; it worked and it worked well. It was made from a flexible fiber material that Mr. Long got at the local hardware store, it had a quarter inch thick 10-inch disk for the top and the corks were taken from an old bulletin board. Mr. Long calculated the dimensions very carefully for my Heisner CC tuba and I suddenly was the owner of a new and very fine mute. Perhaps the only questionable aspect was that, since Mr. Long owned a light turquoise green 1951 Ford; he used his touchup paint in a spray can to paint the mute! It wasn't until six years later that that became a problem; Leopold Stokowsky, while conducting the Rochester Philharmonic, asked me if I would please paint it black before the concert, which I did. That mute served me very well until a Los Angeles Philharmonic world tour in 1967 when I gave the mute to a colleague tubist in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.
Many, most, tubists were not that lucky with their mutes. Designing a mute is not difficult but designing one that is compatible with the dimensions with our specific tubas is the hard part. Unlike trumpet, horn, tenor and bass trombone, the proportions of tubas differ radically and it is highly unlikely that a single mute will serve all tubas, and if a tubist's work requires more than one tuba it will most likely require more than one mute. It's because of these incompatible marriages of instrument and mute we have a community of tubists that would just rather not use a mute at all; an incompatible combination frequently results in sounding more like a bad bass trombone that a muted brass instrument!
In reality a mute is a sound filter that reduces the fundamental and lower overtones, leaving a much brighter and more penetrating tone. Like with tubas, the appropriate muted timbre varies from piece to piece and it's our responsibility to find that appropriate tone quality. Similarly, as with tubas, I've always looked to trumpet players for examples in changing equipment and that included mutes. When the trumpets change from a tight to an open sounding mute, or a metal or wood to a fiber mute, an ensemble conscious musician needs to be sensitive to those differences and make appropriate adjustments.
Tuba, however, is a conical instrument and to achieve that penetrating sound that is often expected from muted brass, we need to be especially aware how to achieve it. Frequently, because of our conical ness, the correct choice is not always fiber when the cylindrical brasses are using fiber or wood with wood; sometimes something quite different has the best results. That decision can only come with experimentation; however, I will say that often a metal mute worked very well in those circumstances. Like tubas, the choice is personal. Formidable changes in timbre can also be realized by how far the mute goes into the bell, which, of course, is most easily accomplished by modifying the thickness of the corks.
Perhaps the biggest problem we have with mutes is in the low register. Surprisingly, this situation can almost always be corrected by extending the cone of the mute by a few more inches. I had a wooden mute once that simply wouldn't play in the low register and by just attaching an extension of the cone 4 inches deeper into the tuba it had a wonderful low register and was a better mute generally.
There are, of course, various types of mutes for tuba just as there are for trumpet and trombone. In the seventies I enjoyed working with Mr. Willy Berg of Hume's and Berg in developing a Harmon mute for tuba, they worked very well for the instrument they were deigned for but were useless in equipment with a different bell size or especially in a different key. Harmon mutes, cup mutes and whisper mutes also work very effectively on tuba if the proportions are correct.
I've often wondered why instrument makers themselves couldn't build mutes especially proportioned for their specific modals. Mutes are not difficult to make, they're just difficult to make right for the bell size and key of the instrument. Surely, if the instrument makers could build a mute for a specific modal it would cost more; instrument makers like to make money! But wouldn't it be worth it if they were able to provide an excellent mute that worked?
Roger Bobo, October 2, 2006, Tokyo