Phil-Tone Equinox D Review

This is probably the first of several reviews of mouthpieces from Phil Engelmann who makes and refaces mouthpieces under the name of Phil-Tone.  Over the last few years I have bought several of his mouthpieces, had him work on one of mine, and bought one of his refaced mouthpieces as well.  Today I’m going to be talking about one of his custom pieces called the Equinox D (for dark) but first some explanation about why I wanted to get this mouthpiece.

I had previously talked about the reunion concert I did.  Well that was concert band music and I didn’t feel like I had a mouthpiece that would do that kind of music justice so I started to hunt around.  When I was in college I used to have an H. Couf 5* Artist Regular that I used for “legit” playing and I really liked it a lot.  James Houlik had come to my school for a clinic and he was talking them up a lot so I ordered one and it was one of the best moves I ever made.  Unfortunately I must have lent it to someone and never gotten it back because it’s nowhere to be found…a story I seem to repeat a lot.

Fast forward a few years.  I was getting ready to go on the road with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and I bought an Otto Link Tone Edge 6* that I also ended up loving dearly.  It felt perfect for what I was doing at the time.  Unfortunately, I think that one suffered the same fate as the Couf.  The guys I knew back in the day were pretty fast and loose about lending mouthpieces around and I guess I wasn’t real good on follow up myself.

Anyway, the Couf would have been absolutely perfect but I couldn’t see my way clear to invest money in a mouthpiece that was strictly for concert band play because I so rarely do it.  I started thinking about just getting a Tone Edge in a 6* because I figured it could work for the concert band but it might have other applications as well.  I contacted to Phil to ask about one of his reface jobs on a TE (since he does great things with them) and while we were talking I I decided to take the plunge on the Equinox D as it sounded like a better choice for me.  It was and here’s why:

Phil makes a regular Equinox that is very focused and I thought the extra focus would be better than the Link which I would normally describe as more spread even when they’ve been worked on.  But I also wanted to blend, hence the “D” model.  I can say for sure that this mouthpiece has a great mix of focus and “darkness” although darkness is a rather subjective term…one person’s dark is another’s tubby.  Maybe the best description would be “smoky”.  It’s equally subjective but possibly more descriptive.

The first time I used it other than trying it in my practice room was on the first rehearsal for the concert band.  I was very happy with it right from the start.  I was able to play very evenly across the whole range of the horn (especially well in the lower register when playing quietly) and it blended well in all of the situations that came up.  In concert band music it seems like the tenor can be part of the sax section,  the trombone section, or the French horn section depending on the intention of the composer or arranger and I had no problem blending with any of the groups.

The next time I tried it was for a jazz sextet gig I played.  Nothing crazy, just a summer bandshell concert with alto, trumpet, and me on tenor and three rhythm playing standards.  This was a lot different, though because I was playing with more edge and presence than in the concert band (obviously) and with the addition of some altissimo.  Once again, I was very happy with the blend but I was also very happy with the freedom I felt to play whatever I needed to.  We did a mix of standards including funkier stuff, swing, and ballads and I always felt like my tone fit and I could play with the whole arsenal so to speak.

Always two there are

Always two there are

I also use the Equinox D when I teach.  I don’t teach much anymore because I’m generally too busy but I do have one lone student right now (like a Sith Lord).  It’s great for lessons because I can easily go from playing etudes and classical duets to playing standards in the second part of the lesson and it all sounds idiomatic.

The mouthpiece is very clean and refined looking and the finishing work appears to be immaculate.  It is very reed friendly – in fact it easily uses the same reeds that I have broken in for my usual gig mouthpiece even though that one is a 7*.  Phil himself is an absolute joy to work with.  We generally handle our business via email and he’s always very helpful and supportive.  I was under a bit of a time constraint from when I decided to order the mouthpiece until my first rehearsal and he got it to me just in time even though we are on opposite coasts.

I’ve tried the mouthpiece on my more commercial gigs like with my usual wedding band but I haven’t pulled the trigger on making it my only mouthpiece.  It’s not a problem with the tone, volume, or response – in fact, it plays very well…it’s just easier to execute my concept for that style of music with my other setup.  I keep pulling it out so it’s possible I could get there with this piece or possibly either a 7 or 7* in the D or maybe switching to the regular Equinox…but I’m saving for a new backup horn right now so that will have to wait.  That said, I would not hesitate to recommend this mouthpiece, the regular Equinox, or anything Phil touches to students or other pros because the workmanship is great, the price, which is amazing for the level of quality, and Phil’s personality and work ethic.   Check them out and you won’t be sorry.

Here’s a little mindless noodling:

While writing this I was listening to If Dreams Come True by Carolyn Leonhart and Wayne Escoffery.  Great album!

Gig Notes

Played an interesting gig last night for several reasons.  It was a 45th anniversary party for a nice couple and the gig was on Gibson Island.  I was playing with my usual wedding band, New Monopoly.  I mentioned before how huge the book is and even after nearly two years on the band I’m still amazed that we will pull up charts I haven’t seen before.  Because of the nature of the event we ended up doing a lot of 50’s and 60’s music although the number of grandkids there did cause us to play Poker Face and Firework so I got to play EWI – didn’t set it all up for nothing.  🙂

The next thing will probably lead to a longer post in the future about gig survival kits but here’s what started the idea at least.  Our lead singer, Jessica Deskin, is a wonderful young singer and she also doubles on keys, flute, and alto on the band.  Before the gig her alto wasn’t playing at all and they were trying to figure out what was wrong with it so I asked to take a look.  It turned out she lost a cork on her octave key mechanism so that lifting the G key did not cause the neck mechanism to operate.  Of course there are no techs on the gig so enter duct tape.  Over the years I’ve fixed all manner of emergency sax and clarinet problems with duct tape to hold me until I could get to the shop – everything from holding in pads that had come unseated to replacing corks to holding a key together. In this case I cut several small squares of tape and layered them on top of each other until they were the right thickness and then I attached them to do the job the cork used to do.  It got her through the gig and that’s all that really matters in these situations.  Luckily, the band had duct tape handy but I don’t like to rely on other people so I usually have some duct tape available in case I need it.  I used to just stick pieces to the rack that housed my synths, mixer, and in-ear system until I switched my rig.  I found a couple of cool ways online to have duct tape handy at all times.  You can check them out here and here.  Always keep some handy.

One more thing.  Most times when you play a lot of weddings, private parties, and corporate events you get fed.  Sometimes you get to eat off the buffet but often there is some kind of spread in a back room or an unused conference room somewhere.  I think you can find out a lot about people, whether it is the clients, the caterer, or the venue by how they treat the band.  For instance, this is an actual picture of a dinner that was supposed to “feed” an 8-piece band at a gig.  DISCLAIMER: I was not on this gig but one of my friends was.  The band, venue, and caterer shall remain nameless to protect the innocent:



It looks like two wraps cut into 4 pieces each…so it’s technically 8 servings.  Notice there are two small bags of chips as well…maybe they thought the band needed to lose a little weight.




One of the many great things about New Monopoly is how well they front every job so all of the details are taken care of before we ever get there and that includes food.  Of course, it’s not always  the greatest food and I’ve had my share of “bandwiches” but last night was above and beyond the call of duty.  Check this out:

Now This is More Like it!

Now This is More Like it!

Maryland Eastern Shore crab cake with asparagus and potatoes with a wonderful side salad and bread.  It was served to us an hour before we went on so we had a chance to sit and really enjoy it.  Great venue and great people for clients make a happy band.

My Gear – Acoustic Version

I thought it might be interesting to fire off an opening volley about some of the horns I’ve been playing.  Some of them I’ve been playing for quite a while and some are relatively new additions to the arsenal but all have stories associated with them.

I’ve always considered myself to be primarily a tenor player and I’ve been playing on the same horn since 1980.  It’s a Selmer Mark VI and I bought it to replace my previous VI that had been run over by a car – but that’s probably a story for another time.  I was working at King’s Dominion in VA at the time and I needed a new horn right away so I went to Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center in Wheaton, MD and tried out the only used VI they had in the store at the time.  I really had very little time to try it out and I just bought it and hoped for the best.  Fast forward to today and this tenor has been my nearly constant companion  for 32 years.  I absolutely love this horn.  I have no idea whether it’s a “holy grail” VI but I imagine it isn’t (the serial number is 144K) but all I know is I know this horn like the back of my hand and it’s paid for itself many, MANY times over.  I have a back-up horn that I really only pull out when the VI is in the shop because it is so completely different from what I am used to.  It’s a Conn 10M but it’s definitely not one of the sought after ones.  From what I can tell from the serial number it’s probably one that was made after they moved all production to Mexico.  It plays fine actually but the ergonomics are very uncomfortable for me and the position of the strap hook should really be moved.  It’s also so much more spread than my VI.  I am currently using a Phil Barone Super New York 7* with Van Doren Java 3.5 (Green Box) reeds.

My second sax has been bari for many many years as well.  I have a Selmer bari as well but I really don’t know anything else about it (model, etc.).  It really doesn’t say what it is but the serial number range seems to fall in the Mark VII period although I’ve been told that Selmer never made Mark VII baris.  I bought this horn new and it has also paid for itself many times over.  It is a low A bari but it doesn’t have any fancy engraving on the bell other than the Selmer logo.  I’ve never really thought much about looking up what it is or when it was made because it always plays and it’s held up from years and years of work so it really doesn’t matter much to me.  It’s just a great, honking horn and I love it.  I use a Lawton 8*B with La Voz Medium Hard and I’ve been using that same setup for almost as long as I’ve owned the horn (although I used to use regular Rico 4’s back in the old orange box days).

My alto and soprano are pretty recent acquisitions and both are Asian made horns.  My alto is a Buffet 400 which I believe was made in China.  It’s actually a really nice horn…a little on the darker side than some other horns out there but I probably couldn’t play alto with a real shrill sound after spending so many years at the lower end of the sax spectrum.  I use a Phil Tone Custom .080 (which is now called the Aurora) with Van Doren Java 3 (green box) reeds.  My soprano is a Phil Barone Classic and I think these horns are made in Taiwan.  Both of these horns have antique bronze finishes by the way.  This is the newest sax for me (I just bought it a couple years ago) and I’m still trying to get my head wrapped around it conceptually but it plays really well and the intonation is actually pretty good.  I just use the Phil Barone hard rubber mouthpiece that came with it (7) with Java (green) 3’s.

I’ll spend another post talking about the two Phil’s and the work they do later.

I also play an Armstrong flute (I think it’s the 80 model) that I have owned since I was in high school with a handmade wooden head joint made by a guy named Juan Novo and a Buffet R13 clarinet I bought while I was on the road with the Glenn Miller Orchestra many years ago.  I pretty much only pull the clarinet out once a year when I do a big band Christmas concert but it’s a nice free blowing clarinet.  I use some kind of Bay mouthpiece with Van Doren 3 reeds (really not sure which one right now but it’s one of the classical varieties and might be considered new old stock by now.

I also play a lot of EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) but that’s a story for another day too.

Can I Teach Myself to Play Saxophone?

I wanted to start having some “Beginner’s Corner” posts and this seemed like the best place to start. I see and hear this question a lot whether it’s in online forums or in person. People want to learn to play the saxophone but they would like to just learn it on their own. The first thing I think about is the difference between possibility and probability. Yes, it is technically possible to teach yourself the saxophone but I really don’t think it’s probable to do so in the vast majority of cases. Here are a few reasons why.

I think it’s more likely someone could learn a keyboard, percussion, or string instrument on their own although I still believe it would be a tough road without a feedback system. The big issue for learning wind instruments is tone production. You have to consider all kinds of factors like embouchure, breath support, tonguing, and intonation and all of these are very different from anything people would normally have knowledge of unless they came from another wind instrument…in which case this could be a different conversation. Never mind the fact that all of those factors change rather dramatically depending on what notes you are playing and at what volume. I think new beginners could get a tone out of a saxophone but I really doubt they would ever have a chance of playing out with a group with any kind of competency. The fingerings and reading music are rather rudimentary by comparison and I do believe that anyone who is determined could learn these things easily.  On the other hand there are other considerations like choosing your first horn and mouthpiece, selecting reeds, or knowing when your it’s your equipment and not you.

I made brief mention of it above when I talked about a feedback system but I really believe that anyone who is serious about learning the saxophone or any wind instrument needs to have a good teacher or at least a mentor/guide. You need someone who can get you started with the basics, explain and simplify some of the more esoteric things, and listen critically to provide constructive feedback. You might be able to listen critically to yourself and you should probably know if you’re getting closer or farther to your target but there’s no way to know what to change with so many moving parts. I don’t think you have to sign up for years worth of lessons but I really think it would make sense to start with 4 or 5 to get yourself started and then maybe schedule a lesson every month or so as a check up on your progress. Of course, if you are expecting to get really good really fast then you will want to find a teacher that you click with and stick with them.

There are literally thousands of teachers out there and some even teach via Skype including some top pros like Bob Reynolds, Eric Alexander, or Tim Price. Ultimately, it’s up to you. I would never discourage anyone from trying something they think they will enjoy – in fact, I’m all for it. I just think that having a teacher/mentor will make the process faster, easier, and more enjoyable.

An Unlikely Piece of Indispensable Gear

After my horns and my EWI (which uses my laptop as a sound engine) my next most important piece of gear is my iPad. I use it for all kind of things and it has become practically indispensable for me. First and foremost, it is a great portable music reader. I use two apps for this task: Good Reader and Gigstand. Good Reader is amazing especially for my regular wedding band, New Monopoly. We play a HUGE variety of music, everything from 40’s big band to Lady Gaga and LMFAO and everything in between. The horn book alone has over 500 charts and I have even more because I play a lot of EWI especially on the modern tunes.

God Reader

God Reader

Good Reader lets me have all of those tunes in one place and easily accessible. I can scroll through the alphabet very quickly and get any song up in seconds. The app also allows me to connect directly to the band chart server and download any new songs or updates before I walk out the door to go to the gig. I’ve used Good Reader for lots of other quick charts I’ve entered into MuseScore (a free, open source notation app on Mac and PC). I just “print” to a PDF and then email the chart to myself. The only drawback to Good Reader is the way it handles page turns but there are page turn pedals you can get that connect with bluetooth so I may try that soon. Until then, I also use an app called GigStand mainly because of two cool features. First, it scrolls through all of the pages as one long entry so I can get by bad page turns by constantly dragging the chart further along on each rest. Second, it allows me to set up an entire set of music and then move through it without having to back out and find the next song…this wouldn’t work for the wedding band because the set is a fluid thing and we would never be able to stick to it with all of the requests and changes that come with playing weddings. I use GigStand for Technicolor Motor Home gigs because they are shows and we stick exactly to the set list.

SL Remote

SL Remote

New Monopoly uses a Presonus Studio Live board for front of house and monitors and there is, as they say, an app for that as well.  SLRemote is an app that allows total control over all aspects of the mixer so the leader of the band can walk around the room and adjust the main mix on the fly.  What makes it really useful to me is that I have total control of the mix that comes to my in-ear monitors as well.  I can change levels and even edit the EQ, effects, and compression that comes to my mix without affecting anyone else.  It’s a great setup.



Another great thing about having the iPad with me on gigs is I have both tuner and metronome apps installed. For the tuner, I use iStroboSoft and I use an app called Tempo as my primary metronome although I have numerous other apps that would work as a metronome including several drum machines and even Garage Band…I just find it easier to have a dedicated app that is ready as soon as I select it.

iRealB - Note that it even transposes for you. It's currently in Bb mode.

iRealB – Note that it even transposes for you. It’s currently in Bb mode.

Another app that could work as a metronome but is so much more useful for what it is really meant for is iRealB. iRealB is a Band in a Box type app that allows you to put in chord changes and then have the app play them back with a MIDI rhythm section in a variety of styles. You can practice a variety of tunes from jazz to blues to latin in various styles and at any tempo. When the app first came out it had chord changes for numerous jazz standards built in but they were on some shaky legal ground so they were removed. Of course, now it’s just a simple matter of trolling their online forums where you can find all of the songs that shipped with the original version and many more or you can enter your own. You can buy additional styles as well. It’s not as full-featured as Band in a Box but it’s portable and much cheaper.

I’ll probably post more about apps that I like on the iPad but the last one I want to talk about today is Garage Band. As a Mac user I’m already well versed in using GB on the Mac but they have a really powerful version for the iPad as well. It allows music creation with a variety of styles, “smart” instruments, and a fully functional MIDI keyboard. It also allows direct audio recording and that makes it a very powerful scratch pad if not a full on recording tool for many different situations. I record in it but I also use the drum grooves as a metronome alternative and I will use the keyboard and built in synth sounds for learning songs quick and dirty when I’m away from home.

Garage Band iOS

Garage Band iOS

These apps are just the tip of the iceberg and there is a lot more to talk about including the fact that quite a few EWI players are starting to experiment with some of the synth apps that are out as engines for the EWI (using the EWI USB and a camera kit that gives you a USB port for the iPad). I love the fact that all of this power slides right into the side pocket of my case and I never leave for a rehearsal or gig without it anymore.

Let’s Talk About Reeds

Over the years I’ve tried a lot of things to deal with the reed situation.  I’ve done everything from the “slap it on and play” method to synthetics and plasticovers to the whole reed rush and glass method and I’ve developed some pretty particular opinions about what I want to do and what I expect to get out of my efforts.  I’m going to try to explain what works for me and what hasn’t worked for me and give some insight into how I got to where I am.  It’s important to note that this is what I think and what I do.  It’s in no way an indictment of other methods or products nor is it a “this is what’s best for everyone” treatise.  As always, your results may vary and I just want to express an opinion that may help you out or at least make you think.

For me, there has been no bigger disappointment than synthetic reeds.  The promise of them is off the charts.  If I could buy one reed and leave it on the mouthpiece and know that every time I pick up the horn it’s there ready to play like an old friend it would make life so simple.  It should be the absolute perfect solution except for one thing…I would have to commit to playing on what feels like a mediocre reed for the rest of my life.  Something I would always be thinking I want to change rather than something that just lets me play.  Now many other players have way better luck with them than I do and I envy them terribly but for me it’s just a big flop.  I’ve tried tons of different synthetics in many different strengths and have always ben disappointed.  The only benefit I’ve ever gotten from them is that I have an old Fibracell reed that stays in my case because I know I could get through a gig on it if every other reed I owned was somehow broken or exposed to kryptonite or something.  For reference, I’ve never had to use it.

I did go through a phase where I used Plasticover reeds for a few years because I thought they lasted longer but I ended up realizing that really wasn’t true.  The plastic would peel off the bottom where the reed vibrated against the mouthpiece and I think they ended up breaking down just as fast if not faster than regular reeds once that happened.  This system did last for several years however.

Two other failed experiments were at either end of the “break them in” spectrum.  I went through a phase when I was in college where I was constantly trying to adjust reeds and I went through a “slap it on and play” phase.  I abandoned the former because it was terribly time consuming and I really ended up not getting the kind of results that would warrant that level of commitment and energy.  I abandoned the latter because I ran into some situations where I was on a gig and was struggling to find a reed that was comfortable for me and I realized that I had higher standards for my performance and the ability to be comfortable and repeatable.  Ultimately these two methods allowed me to finally hone in on what I do currently which for me is the best combination of repeatability, playability, and time management.

I now use this method for all of my reeds on any horn and it means I’m ready for any gig even if I haven’t touched that particular horn in a while.  I like to start with ten reeds so that might mean two boxes of Van Doren’s for tenor but all of the other reeds I use come in boxes of ten.  One quick note: Van Doren has these humidity seals for each reed and they don’t fit into my system at all so I like to start by opening up those packs the day before I need to work on reeds when possible.  On the first day I get a cup of water and my ten reeds and sit down for a bit…this process takes about 50 minutes an evening.  I soak the first reed in the cup while I put the horn together and then I put it on the mouthpiece while I put the next reed in the cup.  The first day I play pretty lightly on the reed and only for a little less than 5 minutes…no altissimo and nothing really loud. When I take the reed off I place it on a flat surface and rub down the vamp towards the tip to seal up the fibers a little.  NOTE: I find that rubbing reeds in this fashion seems to help a lot of problems like tubbiness on the gig and it especially helps when reeds feel a little hard (in case you’re doing the “slap it on and play” method…it seems to always help if I just rub in the same fashion with my thumb while it’s still on the mouthpiece).  I then wipe it off, flip it over and put it on a flat surface to dry for the next day and repeat this with each of the reeds in turn.  I don’t do any selection or grading at this time because they adjust and change over the next couple of days.  I repeat this process over the next couple of days.  Three days is the minimum effective time but I find that up to five days seems to work a little better but more days doesn’t gain you anything beyond that.  On the last day I’m planning to work on them I also run the table of the reed on some plain white paper until it feels glassy to seal up those fibers as well.  When I’m done I grab the four best to put in my reed guard and I then mark the rest as either reeds for the next round, reeds for practice or whatever (harder reeds might be better for small group playing for instance) and then I take any “rejects” and just put them in a big box for later.  The reeds I take out in the case will get exchanged in rotation by sets.  In a three set wedding gig I will switch out on every break.  In longer concert situations I try to change at a mid point.  When I trade them out like this they can last for 6 to 8 weeks easily depending on how much I play and this is true for all of my horns.

This may sound like a lot of work or wasted effort but the beauty of it is that I have stuff that I play and work on while I’m working on reeds and I’m guaranteed to play/practice from 3 to 5 days in a given week in preparation…it’s a great excuse to get some face time with my horns even when other parts of my life are trying to keep me from playing so I think it’s a great tool for improvement or at least maintenance since I no longer play full time.  Also, I mentioned the big box of reject reeds above.  The cool thing about this method is that “bad” reeds aren’t always lifelong rejects…some will age and get better, others might be better suited to a change of setup although I tend to stay on the same setup for quite a while.  I think every reed has potential and I recently got a Reed Geek that I like very much for helping with that…but that’s a topic for another day.