Established 2013 in Philadelphia by Chinese-born bass trombonist Sun He, Ultimate Brass started as a brass instrument repair studio and later became an innovative company that designs and makes brass instrument mouthpieces, trombones, trumpets, and brass instrument accessories. Ultimate Brass Mouthpieces and accessories are being used daily by members of the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Aachen Chamber Orchestra, Singapore Symphony, Melbourne Symphony, Beijing Symphony, Shanghai Symphony, Shenzhen Symphony and many other brass musicians across the world. Sun has been kind enough to share some of his thoughts on getting all of this off the ground.
Can you talk a little about the background to getting started on this mouthpiece craftsmanship journey?
Before diving into the music world, I was a engineering student at University of Science and Technology in Beijing, in 2013. When I first move to Philadelphia, I was able to combine my technical skills and musicianship and start my own brass repair shop. At that moment I thought I would never get into the mouthpiece business, it is such a different world than building and repairing musical instruments. Around that time, I was searching for a good mouthpiece for myself, but I still had not thought to start my own project.
In 2014, a friend want me to modify a mouthpiece rim for him, eventually I did, and it was pretty successful. Around the same time, a “modified” mouthpiece can sell for a lot money in China. For example, some teachers and shops ordered stock Bach 1 1/2, drilled to #25 hole and sell to students for over $200USD. I was shocked, and I started to think about how to create a line of high quality product, and sell for a reasonable price. By the way, I still don’t understand why people are so obsessed with “modification”!.
It was Jeff Lang who finally encouraged me to get into this business, we would run into each other in the school lobby. Somehow we started to have a chat about mouthpieces, and he described how he felt about his current set up, and where he thought things could be improve. Then I started to experiment and finally created the Jeff Lang signature model for him.
Who or what were your inspirations?
Every mouthpiece maker I have ever encountered, every teacher I have studied with, and everyone I have collaborated with inspired me in some level, there are always things that I could learn from other people.
Did you set out with ideas of how manufacture could be improved?
Yes, I have a lot ideas, and I am always experimenting with new things – although sometimes the experiment can be expensive!
How do you bring other players into the design process?
I start with sit down with them for a coffee, a nice chat, learn about their personality; listen to their recordings, and recordings of their orchestra, in order to learn the sound concept. Then usually we start with a model from current product line, and tweak it to fit to the players needs.
Are there any unexpected challenges that you have met along the way?
This is a tough question. I am Chinese, and when we first started to promote Ultimate Brass products, some customers automatically connected our products with cheap price and lower quality… which is not true. And I remember when the first time at an exhibition, a customer came to our booth, asked : “What are these copied from?”, I said: “Excuse me? what do you mean?”. He said: ”You are Chinese, right? Everything from Chinese makers is a copy of something.” Then he pointed at another booth of a Chinese “Trombone Maker” and said: ”Look at their beautiful knock off.”
We have closely collaborated with many great brass musicians over the past few years, some of the models took over 2 years of R&D, just to get the product perfect. I wish I could just snap my finger and copy something, and make our artist happy. I could save a lot of time and money in the process!
Running a successful manufacture business takes a lot of time and commitment. How do you balance this with having a life outside of the workshop?
I work on other projects to rest from one project, always keep everything fresh. The most important thing is that you need to know when and where to stop.
Plans and ambitions for the future?
I have a lot other interests, mainly because I want to try out as interesting stuff as possible in a limited life time!
What are you looking forward to post-COVID?
I love to eat, the first thing I do when I arrive in a new place, is to open the local gourmet app, of course I’ll do my homework before arrival.
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