The Silent Brass mute is, like its name suggests, a practice mute which is produced by Yamaha. The mute consists of a plastic shell, rubber seal, and microphone hidden inside of the mute. The microphone serves as a pick-up mic and delivers the sound to a small module which is sold with the mute as part of a ‘Silent Brass system.’ The module, Yamaha’s ST-9 Personal Studio, is a small, wallet-sized amplifier which allows for an input connection from the mute, and aux in to connect to an mp3 player or other sound source, and an output for headphones.
The Silent Brass mute is, in many respects, no different from any other practice mute, but when combined with the rest of the system, there are a number of additional capabilities which sets the mute apart from all others. For the mute itself, it is a very good practice mute which will dramatically soften your sound, making it possible to practice at a place or time you’d never normally be able to, such as a hotel room at 3 o’clock in the morning. The mute does have some back-pressure when you play, as all mutes do, but it tends to be a bit easier to play than most practice mutes, albeit not as free-blowing as regular straight mutes, let alone an open horn.
When playing with the Silent Brass mute, the capabilities of the horn are altered a little bit. The range of the horn is left intact. Although the notes beneath middle C are a little more difficult to make speak, especially an octave or more below middle C, it is still possible to play any note which you could play without the mute, even as low as the pedal C below the bass clef (two octaves below middle C). On the high end, the horn speaks clearly throughout the entire range but the horn’s tone tends to become very brittle once you get above the treble staff, especially above high Bb (octave and minor 7th above middle C).
Overall, the Silent Brass tends to deaden the sound of the horn a little. Flexibility with the Silent Brass mute can be difficult. Lips trills and lyrical passages will be much more difficult to play, but not impossible. Articulation tends to be a little less precise. Everything that is played with the mute is a little more difficult endurance-wise than without. This characteristic can actually be an advantage because it makes a great endurance training tool since playing with the mute will wear you out faster than normal. Anything that you can play well with the mute becomes a breeze without it. It works very well with those passages notoriously known as chop-busters (Strauss, Wagner, etc.).
Composition and Extended Techniques:
In composition, the Silent Brass mute (also most any practice mute) can be thought of a kind of straight mute. Any techniques possible with the straight mute is possible with a Silent Brass mute; this includes partial muting (holding the mute only partially in the bell), changes (inserting/removing the mute), etc. Certain other physical techniques such as flutter-tonguing, double buzzing, multi-phonics, etc., are also possible but less effective since the mute tends to deaden the sound. This is especially true of any multi-phonic effects.
Since the Silent Brass mute softens the horn so much, the mute can only be used for the softest dynamics; mezzo-piano is basically the limit. Because of this, the Silent Brass mute should only be used in a small chamber setting and only in situations where the horn is isolated because virtually any other sound will completely cover the horn’s sound. Even the performance location should be taken into account, as it becomes incredibly difficult to hear the Silent Brass muted horn at distance of greater than 30-40 ft. Also keep in mind that not every hornist owns a Silent Brass mute or even a practice mute of any kind.
Notation is always best when it is as clear and simple as possible. The use of Silent Brass mutes/practice mutes in composition is rare, but not unheard of. But since practice mutes are an unusual request, it is better to avoid typical mute notation, i.e. con sordino, mute, etc., because these will be assumed by the performer as meaning a regular straight mute. The best notation is to simply write “Practice Mute” above the music you want played with it, and if you specifically want the sound of a Silent Brass mute write that instead.
The most off-putting thing about the mute is its cost. As of this article’s posting, the average price for a horn mute alone is about $110 (US), which is a bit much for any hornist on a budget. This is especially true considering that some resourceful trumpeters out there have created a respectable substitute mute from a Renuzit air freshener for about a dollar (seriously). Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite fit the horn properly, but this does highlight the most frequent complaint about the mute, that it’s good but just isn’t worth the money.
While the mute is very well-built and can take a lot of wear and tear, it has an usual but very pointed weakness. The microphone inside the mute is very susceptible to shock, meaning if you drop this mute, there is a very high possibility that the microphone will be damaged and begin to resonate and buzz with certain pitches on the horn. This is very annoying.
I’ve also had some fellow musicians complain about the module that comes with the Silent Brass system. The module feeds the sound from the mute into a digital ‘practice room’ effect for which there are several options including clean and echo. The problem with this is that the altered tone can trick your ears into thinking that your tone is better than it actually is and has the tendency of lowering the quality a player’s tone and cause to become harsh if they rely too heavily on the practice module. I’ve personally observed this phenomena in a trumpeter from a local community band who never practiced without the module. This seems to only occur with the module, not the mute alone which is still purely an acoustic sound.
The module is able to connect to other microphone/electronic systems but the quality of sound produced by this kind of set-up is mediocre at best, especially when played ‘clean.’ Now certain electronic effects like distortion work fairly well because the distortion pedal (or whatever other effect) tends to overshadow the module, but there are much better processers out there.
Overall, the mute is good. I would recommend it but I hesitate because of the cost of the thing. If you can find a used mute somewhere, or be fortunate enough to find a new one at a discounted price, then those are good options. The module on the other hand, just isn’t worth it. It has too many drawbacks for its cost and there are lots of better options out there, just ask a sound technician for advice if you’re interested.