Seldom does this question come up in trumpet circles. But it should. Most players buy a mute, play with it (when ever required) and the rest of the time the mute lays either in your case, mute bag or on a shelf in the closet. Little attention is given to these heroes of darkened silence. I will try to share some information in this post on how to better respect and perform with your trumpet mutes.
General maintenance of straight and cup mutes
Every band hall has a store room. In every store room are Humes & Berg mutes discarded to oblivion because their only fault in life was the fact that they lost one of the three cork fittings or the bottom fell off. To rejuvenate these pathetic accessories requires only about ten minutes of simple effort. To replace the missing corks, first visit your local auto repair store and purchase a roll of cork gasket material and a tube of epoxy. When you get home, cut out a replacement section of cork, and if needed, build up the thickness to match the original sections. Then shape the replacement to match the original, sand to finish and glue it on. After the glue has dried, finish sanding so that the three sections match. If the bottom has fallen off and you can find the original, glue it back on. If the bottom is lost, throw the mute in the trash and buy another.
Repairing Harmon (Wa Wa) mutes
This replacement will require more time and measurement. First strip off all of the old cork so that its replacement will stay in place after gluing. The next step is to cut out a piece of paper which will be used to make a template for your cork replacement. As best you can, wrap the paper around the original area and carefully cut a pattern of paper which will, as close as possible, match the original shape of the first section of cork. Then use the paper pattern to cut out a replacement on the roll of cork. Glue it back in place and after it has dried, sand the edges to make it look better. The biggest problem you will have will be getting the matching edges of the cork to fit together. If you find this impossible, try a trick my father showed me when butting wall paper edges together. Overlap your material and carefully cut through both layers with a single edged razor blade. Both edges should butt into each other perfectly.
Repairs to bucket mutes
Bucket mutes generally have two problems- 1. They are difficult to slip on your bell and 2. They loose the original stuffing inside the mute.
Solution to problem 1.
Simply bend the three clips to fit. Be careful not to pull the rivets out when you are working the clips or you will have to add another step which would be riveting the clips back on the mute.
Solution to problem 2.
Eventually the stuffing will get lost so rather than throw it away, simply place your silver polishing rag in there. This will improve the sound of the mute as well reminding you where you placed your polishing cloth.
Repairs to a plunger mute
I am assuming that your plunger mute is the typical hardware store sewer plunger type. They come in two sizes and the trumpet requires the smaller of the two. Some of the newer plungers have evolved into hybrids which have additional extensions which don’t work for trumpet playing. You will need the simpler, old style plunger. Even the old sewer plunger can be improved a little. One problem when using a plunger happens when you close the plunger on the bell so that it completely stops the sound. You need to have a little space between the bell and the plunger so that this does not happen. This problem can be solved in several ways. 1. Squeeze the plunger slightly to change the mute to a more oval shape, 2. Cut out a one-inch hole in the bottom of the area where the handle is screwed into the plunger, 3. Trim a small U shaped cut on the edge of the plunger. If you think that the plunger looks too unsanitary on stage, try turning it inside out and now no one will recognize it. The only problem is the fact that you have now lost the handle to hold.
Adapting mutes for other horns
Many years ago, I played a brass choir version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It required a D trumpet with a cup mute. At that time there was no such thing so I purchased a piccolo trumpet cup mute and added extra cork to my Tom Crown to make it fit in my D trumpet.
Conditioning your corks
After extended usage, corks will begin to deteriorate and the once secure mute will begin to fall out. An easy repair is to lightly sand the contact points where the mute touches the inside of the bell. Corks tend to absorb the moisture, oil and silver polish which lines the inside of your bell and eventually these absorptions will loosen the sticking ability of the cork. In most cases a slight sanding will bring your corks back to life. If your problem is caused by the corks being too compressed through extended use, you will have to replace all of the corks. It is better to replace all than just one.
Customizing your mutes
Mutes will change your playing in three ways.
- Mutes change the timbre of your sound
- Mutes will change your volume
- Mutes will increase resistance to your air stream
- Mutes unfortunately can change your pitch
The first two changes are the very reason we use mutes. The third and fourth are less desirable features for most of the time when we insert a mute, there is seldom enough time to re-tune our instrument or get adjusted to the increased resistance.
To illustrate the intonation changes with various mutes, I ran a test to see just how far off my mutes were.
Mute Flat 1-2-3-4-in tune 6-7-8-9 Sharp
Tom Crown Straight- 7
Vacchiano Straight- 8
Humes & Burg Stone Line (1)- 2
Humes & Burg Stone Line (2)- 3
Humes & Burg Stone Line (3)- in tune
Humes & Burg Cup Mute (1)- in tune
Humes & Burg Cup Mute (2)- 4
Charles Davis Wah Mute- 7
Harmon Aluminum Wow-Wow(1)- 9
Harmon Aluminum Wow-Wow(2)- 9+
No Name Practice Mute- Sharp +++
Yamaha Silent Brass Practice Mute- 6+
Humes & Burg Bucket Mute- 3
Now that we have established the fact that mutes do change our intonation, it is time to start tuning our mutes.
I made audio recordings of three Humer & Burg Stone Line mutes which I had. Each was apparently the same with one exception; each could be inserted to different depths in the bell. The first mute I tested actually improved some of the notes on my horn. That was not expected. My test notes were more in tune than the open horn recording. That was a shock!
Now that I have recovered, we will move on. The second mute tested was consistently sharp and the third was drastically sharp. The next step was to find out why. I examined each mute and discovered the best in tune (#1) was in the best condition. In fact I’m not sure if I had ever used it before. The second mute had sections of the cork missing which told me that it must have been inserted into the bell further than the first. After measuring, I found this to be true for it was at least a ¼ inch further into the bell than the first. Great, now we know that the farther into the bell the mute is inserted, the more sharp it will play. That sounded reasonable until I checked the third mute which was the most sharp of the three. I had replaced the original cork a few years ago and had placed unusually high corks on the third mute which was the sharpest of the three. Well my theory sounded plausible but like many theories, it was incorrect. The sharpest mute extended into the bell deeper than the first and the one which was inserted into the bell the least, was also sharp. The only conclusion I can make is that you will have to adjust each mute individually to get the correct depth for your instrument.
I decided to do a triple test on the two Harmon/Wow Wow and the Charles Davis Wah Mute. The only information I gained in this test was that I will never play my Harmon Wow Wow again. The Charles Davis was as close to being in tune as I could expect. Although this was an eye opener on the two makes of mutes, it has little affect on this posting.
Each manufacturer has given us out of tune mutes and the only way to find out just how far out of tune they are is to do the old play in a tuner test. When I began this post, I was expecting to tell you that the depth was a controllable factor for good intonation but this did not prove to be the case. Each mute must be tested individually. The depth will effect the pitch but it seems to be less consistent and less predictable than I had hoped.