Thoughts on Straight Mutes

*Just a quick note that all of the mutes discussed in this post are Rittich-style mutes. Per Horn Matters, Eugene Rittich of Toronto, Canada, who was Co-Principal Horn of the Toronto Symphony for many years, is responsible for designing this most popular style of mute, used by professionals and advanced students alike. It is a simple cone shape, with a movable inner tube for tuning purposes.*

We as musicians, especially horn players, are truly blessed, because we have so many wonderful equipment and accessory options from which to choose. When I bought my first real straight mute, back in 2004, I didn’t have a lot of options. At the time, I had been using a Stone-Lined mute for years, and it was time to upgrade. I considered getting a Trumcor, but my teacher recommended a straight mute from Ion Balu, so that’s what I ordered. It was a Walnut Balu mute that cost $110, which I still have and use to this day. I had to replace the corks on it recently, but it has held up very well over the years. The market for wooden straight mutes has severely inflated over the past decade, so many of the top brands will cost anywhere from $130 to $250.

Today, a Balu mute will run you approximately $200 (US Dollars), so I’d say that the price has increased a little over the years. It has a great reputation, and it is still one of the best all-around mutes that you can buy. The Balu mute is heavy and solid, but due to its robust construction, it produces a warm and full-bodied sound that other wooden mutes tend to lack. When comparing to other brands, I am always very impressed with the quality of construction concerning the Balu mutes. I don’t feel like I’m going to break it when I hold it or put it in the bell of my horn.

Ion Balu Mutes
Balu Straight Mutes

A great “middle of the road” option, which is reasonably priced and well-made, is the Trumcor straight mute. There are a number of models available by Trumcor, but the most recommended wooden straight mute is the 45T model. The 45T is tuneable, which is what the “T” stands for, and only costs approximately $130 (it’s listed for $105 on the Trumcor site). It is also available from multiple sources, such as Woodwind Brasswind, Musician’s Friend, and even some local music stores. I know many professionals that use this model mute, and I do recommend this particular one for many of my college and high school students. It’s rare that a young student will be able or even willing to pay $200+ for an accessory that they may not use that often, so I’ve found that this Trumcor mute is a great compromise. It produces a nice sound, not stuffy or too bright, and it also feels very durable. It should be noted that Trumcor mutes are not completely made from wood, but are also made using “a specially formulated resonant fiber material.”

Trumcor Model 45T (Tuneable)
Trumcor 45T

Staying in the “affordable” range, is another wooden, Rittich-style mute produced by the Denis Wick company (sorry, no relation to John Wick). The Wick company is located in England, and it is well-known throughout the brass world for producing top-quality mutes, mouthpieces, and accessories. Like the Trumcor mutes, the Wick wooden straight mute is also lined with a special fiber that helps to dampen the sound. The sidewalls are constructed of birchwood, and the bottom panel utilizes marine plywood, which is a type of wood that is able to withstand lots of moisture accumulation. The best price for this particular mute may be found at Hickey’s Music, $108.50. Personally, I was only aware of the metal Wick mutes until recently, so I don’t have much experience with the wooden mute. I did try it once, and it seems like it would be a fine option for a younger player. It would at least be better than using the metal “silver bullets” by Wick or Jo-Ral. I would still recommend the Trumcor mute over this one, but this seems to be one of the cheaper options on the market.

Denis Wick

Another “affordable” option is the Moosic Mute, which I believe is only available through Pope Repair or Hickey’s Music. I thought that these mutes were made by Jacek Muzyk, the Principal Horn of the Buffalo Philharmonic, but I can’t find any information to support this claim. Either way, it has one of the most unique designs, and I have always wanted to try one. It is handmade, and the “design uses two layers of spiral-cut walnut and poplar veneer to create a responsive and resonant sound. It has no plastic or fiberboard and gives a very natural all wood feeling, (Pope Repair).”

Moosic Mute

The RGC mutes, which are available through Houghton Horns and produced in Spain, are a very affordable option offered in six different choices. There are three different conical versions: Ash (offers more clarity of sound and articulation), Black Ash (darker sound than the regular ash, but with same sense of clarity), and Solid Cherry (focused and projects very well, lighter than the previous two woods). All three are available for $119, and play well considering the price. Recently, after being able to try these three models at a workshop, I have begun to recommend these more often. The other three options utilize a 12-sided design, which raises the price a little, $125-$179, depending on the wood. Here are the 12-sided choices: Solid Cherry ($125, similar to the Conical version, bright sound, great projection), Cherry and Ash ($149, the Ash is meant to balance with the brightness of the Cherry), African Rosewood and Ash ($179, heavier, with a darker tone). I’m not a huge fan of the Cherry, primarily because it is a little too bright for my taste, but the African Rosewood and Ash is one of my favorite mutes. While being absolutely beautiful to look at, it also produces a very nice sound. I don’t personally own one, but after trying it numerous times at different workshops, it’s on my shortlist. My only complaint with the RGC mutes, and many of the mutes on this list, is that they are very light in comparison to my Balu mute. I’ve been using a Balu mute for so long that when I pick up other mutes, I’m always taken aback by the difference in weight. I know that all of the mutes on this list are well-made, but many of them feel flimsy when compared to my trusty Balu.

RGC Mutes Button

The last mute before we start looking at the more expensive options is the long straight mute by Don Maslet. It is currently available through Osmun Music and Elemental Brass at approximately $135. Unlike the other mutes in this list that are primarily comprised of some sort of hardwood, the sidewalls are constructed of carbon fiber, with the bottom plate being made of wood. Due to the materials, this mute produces a very bright and brilliant sound, while also being super lightweight and extremely durable. I haven’t tested this theory out myself, but I can only assume that this mute would work well for solo work or any type of muted passage that needs to cut through a big ensemble. It could also potentially work well in a brass quintet type setting. I didn’t find the brightness of this mute to be as offensive as that of the Cherry RGC mutes, but this could be due to the difference in material, carbon fiber vs wood.

Maslet_Straight
Maslet Straight Mute

Now, we’re starting to creep closer to that $200 threshold; however, we still have two makers that offer very nice mutes. The first is Marcus Bonna. We all know and love the cases, but the company also produces some very nice mutes. MB evidently has a carbon fiber option, but I’m only familiar with the regular wooden Rittich-style mutes. The latter can be found for approximately $175 from many of the major horn retail shops, and it is constructed of fiberboard and wood. MB does offer mutes with different designs on the sidewalls, but these options are also a little more expensive. Since Marcus Bonna utilizes fiberboard, their mutes are a little bit lighter than the Balu mutes, but otherwise are pretty similar in playing characteristics. If I’m already going to spend close to $200 on a mute, I would probably opt for a Balu mute over the MB mute, but at this point, it’s really up to personal preference. I prefer the solid, heavier feel and sound of the Balu mute, and I’m sure that other players might prefer the opposite.

Marcus Bonna Straight Mute for French Horn
Marcus Bonna

Horn-Crafts is a mute-making company based in the Netherlands. These mutes are sold by many of the big music retail companies throughout Europe. In the U.S., they are distributed by Dillon music, Osmun Music, Patterson Hornworks, and Pope Repair. Horn-Crafts currently offers three different models: Sylva (Beechwood), Betula (Beechwood), and Khaya (Mahogany). The Sylva and Betula models are the heavier options, 130 and 140 grams respectively. These two are also the cheaper options that are normally available for approximately $180. These models are very nice mutes, but the Khaya model, which is made of African Mahogany and weighs 125 grams, is my favorite. I normally don’t enjoy the lighter mutes, but this mute just feels and sounds better to me. It also costs about $250, which is the primary reason why I don’t own one of these models. The Khaya is a fantastic mute, but unless you have an abundance of money to spend, I would stick with the other two models. The Sylva and Betula models are very comparable in sound and feel to the Balu and MB mutes.

Horn-Crafts Horn Mute – Houghton Horns
Horn-Crafts

The Tom Snyder mutes, which are primarily sold through Pope Repair, are produced in Canada and available in the following options (wood): Koa, Walnut, Cherry, and Ebony. They are priced at $230, but I paid $200 for my Ebony mute back in 2016. I loved the look of the Ebony mute, and I loved the sound of it at the time. I tried all of the mutes that I could find at the 2016 International Horn Symposium in Ithaca, NY, and the Ebony won. It fit pretty well with the horn that I played at the time, which was a Wunderlich Schmidt. After I switched to an EB (Elemental Brass) Custom Yamaha 87, I did everything to make it work, but no matter how hard I tried to fix the issue, I couldn’t play in tune with it. I recently sold it, which is a shame, but if I couldn’t play it within a section, then the mute wasn’t worth keeping. It not only projected well, but technical passages were extremely clean on that mute. This just goes to show that a mute won’t work with every instrument, so be sure to try one before you buy it. Even though it didn’t work out in the long run, these are still great mutes, and I highly recommend them.

Snyder Mutes
Tom Snyder Mutes

This next one isn’t necessarily a new mute, because it is made by Ion Balu, but it is new to the market. It was designed by Dan Vidican, the maker of the wonderful Lukas Horns, and this mute is evidently the “Beast Mode” version of the regular Balu mutes. The Lukas mute seems to only be available through Pope Repair and is priced at $255. The site mentions that the process for making this mute is much more labor intensive, and the following characteristics are listed: “quick response, evenness across the range, and a brighter, crisp sound full of stage presence and projection in the hall.” I have not personally tried this mute, but due to my preference for Balu mutes, I can only assume that I would enjoy the Lukas mute. Would I buy one? If I performed regularly in a professional orchestra, I would maybe consider it, but as I stated previously, it’s difficult for me to justify spending more than $200 on a mute.

Lukas Mutes
The Lukas Mute, made by Ion Balu, designed by Dan Vidican

The Cadillac/Rolls Royce of the horn mute world, the Woodstop mute, which is available in Maple ($225), Cherry ($245), and Walnut ($255). These mutes are sold through The Horn Guys, Elemental Brass, and other places, but it’s actually cheaper to order the mutes directly from the Woodstop website. The Maple has a “very lively sound with a bit of edginess” and plays with great response. The Cherry is a free-blowing mute with immediate response that “gives the traditional sound with a bit more warmth.” The Walnut “gives a very warm sound with no edginess.” It is responsive and the playability is supposedly very “similar to that of your open horn.” These mutes are played and endorsed by numerous professional musicians throughout the United States. I have never tried one, mainly because it is above my pay grade, but the straight mutes and stop mutes are both world-renowned, so you’ll definitely get your money’s worth.

walnut stright compressed.jpeg
Woodstop Walnut Straight Mute

Well folks, we made it! I know that there are other mute brands out there, but the ones listed in this post are the most “well-known” horn straight mutes available today. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for some profound wisdom concerning the “perfect” straight mute, then you are out of luck. There will always be debate over which one is the “best,” just like how we constantly fight over which horn is the best. It all depends on personal preference, which is why you should always try it before you buy it, or you might just get stuck with a $200 mute that you never use.

Composer’s Corner: Caccia for Solo Horn

I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, and since I’ve been gifted some extra time due to the quarantine, now is the moment to start sharing more information about some of my compositions. This particular piece, Caccia for Solo Horn, was somewhat inspired by the 2019 Southeast Horn Workshop in Cullowhee, NC. I had made a few previous attempts to compose a work for unaccompanied horn, but I abandoned those projects with little to show from it. For some reason, I just didn’t have the right concept or melodic ideas to make it work. I was trying to write a piece that sounded like Interstellar Call or Laudatio instead of creating my own work.

There wasn’t a particular performance that inspired Caccia, but being at Western Carolina University and exploring the beautiful mountain region surrounding it sparked an idea. The image that came to mind was that of the hunt, and I immediately began to think of the various rondos that I’ve performed throughout my career. In the beginning, I envisioned something similar to the Rondo in B-flat by Arnold Cooke, and it would be based on this central motivic figure:

Ex. 1 – Opening Motif


The “tonic” key of the piece is technically B-flat major, another homage to the aforementioned rondo by Cooke, but the opening passages do tend to gravitate more towards the dominant, F major. The opening section serves as an “Introduction,” exploring the main melodic material, which is a fusion of two different ideas: hunting horn calls and heroic motifs. I didn’t want to just write a bunch of hunting horn calls, but rather an infectious melody that conjures thoughts of heroism. I also wanted the music to give off a sense of constant forward motion, whether through rhythm or the melodic material itself. Horn calls can often halt the motion in some music, because these musical ideas are used more to draw attention and can “stop the action.” I didn’t want this opening to be a “call to arms.” We are joining the story in the heat of the chase, as the horses and hounds are barreling through the forest at breakneck speed.

Even though the piece is fairly short, approximately 2-3 minutes in length, there are four distinct sections, and each section is separated by a measure of rest. This measure of rest should be a brief pause, with a quick emptying of water if needed. Since the first part serves as an introduction, the second part is a quasi “Development” section that takes the opening motifs and expands upon the material. It contains stopped horn, mixed meter, and lots of technically challenging passages. Even though the technical difficulty is more demanding throughout this part, the music should sound fluid and effortless, which is reminiscent of a fox bounding through the forest, desperately looking for a place to hide. The performer should keep the tempo constant throughout, but some liberties and rubatos may be taken at the performer’s discretion. Slurs are marked in the part for ease of playing, but speed and keeping this section from sounding laborious should be the primary goals. If more slurs are needed in order to achieve this objective, then add more slurs. The performer should have fun with this section and keep driving the music forward.

Ex. 2 – Technical Passages from “Development” Section

The third section is much shorter than the previous one, and serves as a “Segue” or “Transition” before the final section. Here, the melody is slurred, contains less motion, and is softer. This softer, more subdued melody then gives way to a light and playful sequence of arpeggios. If continuing with the narrative approach to the music, think of this part as a slight lull in the action (a change of pace). Imagine that the hounds have lost the scent of the fox, and the animal can finally breathe a sigh of relief for a moment. The horses slow to a stop, and just as the hunting party is about to move on, the scent is suddenly rediscovered, and the chase is back on. During this part, the tempo should not change, only the mood and style should be altered. This section is also written in bass clef using new notation.

Ex. 3 – Melodic Material from Section 3 (*Bass Clef)

The “Segue” ushers a return of the melodic material of the “Introduction,” which is often referred to as the “Recapitulation.” Obviously, this isn’t a real “Recapitulation,” but I am reintroducing the original opening motifs. I added a stopped section, seen in Ex. 4, before the mad dash to the end.

Ex. 4 – More Stopped Horn

In the end, I hope that people will enjoy this piece and have fun playing it. Like I stated previously, it’s not a long piece, so it isn’t meant to be a stand alone work. It should be performed in the context of a recital, and I think it would be a great “change of pace” type of addition to any concert. While I wanted to include a lot of technically challenging issues, I intentionally kept this work from being taxing on the chops. It isn’t a clear “low horn” piece, but it definitely does include some low horn playing. As of the writing of this post, Caccia for Solo Horn has yet to be published, but it will be published soon by Brass Arts Unlimited. If you have any questions about this piece, or if you would like to perform it, please let me know. I was supposed to perform the premiere at this year’s Southeast Horn Workshop, but due to COVID-19, it did not happen. I’m hoping that I can perform it soon, but I will gladly share the piece with anyone else that is interested and wants to perform it, even if that individual is able to perform it before me.

I will update this post when it is published, and when it is performed.