How I became a Mute Maker, By Denis Wick
My long-suffering wife said, “You’re just never satisfied!”. Many a true word is spoken in exasperation. I had tentatively suggested, in about 1969, that somebody ought to design mutes that actually played in tune and worked in every register. We had been recording film music with Bernard Herrmann, who had helped to make all those Hitchcock films such a success. He was contemptuous of the old fibre mutes that I and my LSO trombone section were using. He called them "psychological mutes” and we knew what he meant. Our trumpet colleagues were using a famous US make but they always played slightly sharp with a very tinny sound and we did not blend at all. I had found a newer American trombone mute since then, thinking that it would solve our problems. Great sound! Unfortunately, they were just too big to handle easily and on one (for me) memorable occasion refused to come out of the bell of my trombone, then finally slipped from my fingers with a tremendous clatter during a BBC Prom concert live broadcast relay. Something had to be done. At the time I had a student who was also a brilliant graphic artist, with talent that enabled him to make a perfect freehand drawing of anything, instantly.
I assembled every trumpet and trombone mute that I could find. He drew them all in a few minutes. I then superimposed all the drawings for trumpet mutes, discovering a curious phenomenon. If I drew (with the aid of compasses, I should add) a kind of median line between all of them, the proportions seemed just about perfect. There was a symmetry between height and width and all the curves were proportionate. The same happened with the trombone mute, arrived at in the same way, although this was more difficult as I was determined to make it grip-able by my not very big hand. I remember the day well; December 26, 1969. With 3 children, Christmas had been a busy time; after having done my family duty, now I could relax.
So when I next visited the small engineering firm that had been making my mouthpieces for a few years, I asked Bill Cox, the engineer, if these mutes could be made. He said “You need a metal-spinner.” I had no idea what a metal spinner might be and must have looked puzzled. “Leave it with me” he said, “I’ll get some prices for you.” A week later, he told me “about £2 each for the trumpet mute” he said. By now, Boosey and Hawkes had been selling my mouthpieces for 18 months, so I asked Bill Martin, their buyer, if they might be interested, and for about how much I could sell to them. “About £2” he said.
It had seemed a good idea, but there was no margin, so I more or less forgot about it. That is, until almost a year later, I was returning home after an LSO recording session at the marvelous Kingsway Hall (now long gone) when I saw a discarded newspaper on the next seat on the tube train.
In the classified advertisement section it proclaimed “Metal Spinning Capacity Available” Where had I heard about metal spinning? Yes, of course. A phone call later and an appointment to visit a Dickensian–looking workshop in Camden Town, London. I showed my drawings to the three elderly odd-looking characters there. “How much?” I asked. They consulted. “Abart ten bob” was the reply. A quarter of what old Bill had quoted! I picked up the first samples a week later. They had produced some hardwood tooling and the arrangement was that if the mutes worked, I would order 100. The first batch of a half-dozen looked good, if rather dirty. At home, a search in the trash-can produced some discarded cork table mats, I cut out some pieces of cork, glued them on and next day, recording again at Kingsway, I passed one down to Howard Snell, then our 1st trumpet. “What’s this?” he asked, rather suspiciously. “A mute” I replied. “I know it’s a mute –where did you get it?” he said “Never mind that –what do you think of it?” He tried it. “This is fantastic!” then passed it down to George Reynolds and Willie Lang. They all turned round like a close-harmony chromatic triad. I handed out two more. They loved them. The rest you might say, is history.
Of course, I checked out the trombone mutes myself, made a few slight changes, but essentially stuck to my drawings of December 26th 1969. Thirty-five years later many, many, thousands have been sold. Several metal spinning firms have made them; they have been anodized from almost the beginning. They have been copied by various rival companies (imitation and flattery?) and I am grateful for the muse that seemed to have visited me all those years ago. These were the first of more than 30 models, that have formed the backbone of my business for all that time.
Over the last few years, I have heard it said that the 30 or more-year–old examples were better than current production. Of course, re-tooling has taken place, probably 5 or 6 times over the years. The new tooling has always been made to conform with the latest production. I looked for the original 1969 drawings and eventually found them--there was a (slight) difference. So I had the tooling remade. The new/old models are indeed MUCH better. That extra 2mm on the base diameter and 1.5 mm on the height have added a bit more volume, although the intonation has remained good. These new (original) mutes have been on the market for some time now, so although there was nothing wrong with the slightly reduced version, these originals are something rather special.
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