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Myths & Materials

Of all the debates that surround saxes, the one that seems to endure is that of whether the material the instrument is constructed of makes a difference to the tone.

An offshoot of this issue is the debate about how and whether certain exterior design features make a difference - likewise the choice of finish.
In this article I hope to bring a little perspective to the debate, and offer some observations I've made in nigh on 40 years of playing and repairing saxophones.
I should start by saying that this isn't going to be a scientific appraisal. To be sure, the science exists - but for the majority of people it's way beyond comprehension, and to really understand it you need an in-depth knowledge of acoustics and metallurgy. I'll say this much though, there is scant scientific evidence to support the theory that materials make a difference to a saxophone's tone, and even less to support the idea that cosmetic finishes do either. But to be honest you don't need to delve into dusty old textbooks to find the answers, you simply need to read the manufacturer's product blurb.

Body materials and finishesSo let's start with a premise, which is that a saxophone made of a certain metal will give you a certain tone - and that by changing the metal, the tone will change.
If this is the case then such changes should be universally consistent. A brass saxophone should sound like this, and a bronze one like that. There should be a definable, repeatable quality that comes from using a particular material.
Here's a statement regarding a sax made in silver; "The resonance of silver is much a much broader and edgier sound". That statement appears to be backed up by a flute maker who comments on "The brilliance of silver". This is a very popular quality assigned to this particular metal - it looks bright and shiny, therefore it must sound much the same.
There is dissent though - and another flute maker has this to say; "The increased density from sterling silver results in a darker sound".
Now wait a minute - on the one hand silver provides brilliance, and on the other a darker sound. The two terms are somewhat mutually exclusive. To add further confusion another flute maker says "the silver flute has mellowness". So silver is mellow, dark and brilliant - all at the same time. If that's not enough then there's a sax manufacturer who adds yet another adjective thus; "The yellow brass...contains 3% silver that gives the sound some pop". Some 'pop'. Indeed.
The theme continues in much the same vein with gold - with one flute maker saying "Known for a dark and lush sound" and another saying "a sound with brilliance".
You have to bear in mind that those claims came from manufacturers of seriously expensive instruments, and as such you would expect them to know a thing or two about the qualities of the metals they were using. That there's very clear disagreement suggests that the tonal qualities are implied rather than being anything truly substantial.

And how about this statement? "Copper body - Remarkable ease of blowing". What particular characteristic of copper makes for easier blowing? I don't know, and I sincerely doubt anyone else does either. Does copper have special properties that allow air to flow over it rather more quickly than plain brass, or silver? What happens when the bore gets coated in a layer of saliva?
With even only half a dozen or so statements it's easy to see that there doesn't appear to be a universal and consistent pattern emerging, save for a sense that you can pick adjectives out of thin air and bend them around to suit your marketing needs - which is all good and well until another manufacturer contradicts you (or, as we'll see, you contradict yourself).
Mind you a lot depends on where you get your metal from according to at least one manufacturer, who claims to makes saxes from "top grade Japanese brass". Which differs from any other kind of brass how, exactly? How about French brass then? Well, that's actually a type of brass alloy as opposed to being brass made in France...but you won't see too many manufacturers shouting about it.

Some manufacturers appear to be somewhat cagey about assigning tonal characteristics to certain metals, but that doesn't mean they can't join in the fun.
In the last few years there's been a surge in the number of claims regarding the effects of manufacturing techniques on tone. This is something of a double-whammy for the poor old buyer as it combines the mysteries of science with the dark arts of engineering. As with materials, the trick is to look very carefully at the various claims.
Take these two, for instance; "This process of heating and cooling called annealing gives the metal optimum density for superior tone" and "A hand hammered body give this sax its beautiful tone". All sounds perfectly reasonable - until you consider the fact that by hammering brass you 'work harden' it, and annealing softens it. So, one the one hand if you treat brass to harden it, you get a better sound - but if you treat it to soften it, you get a better sound. And that's from the same manufacturer. Hmmm.
This particular chestnut continues with other manufacturers. "With special treatment of the material we get a certain hardness which is most positive for the vibration of the horn" and "Annealed bell gives this baritone sax the highest quality sound".
Are you confused? I certainly am, and I know a thing or two about the subject.

SML bell braceSo what about design features then? Plenty of manufacturers fit their horns with various bits and pieces, and then make grandiose claims about how they improve the tone - but, as before, the trick is to look for consistency. Take this simple statement "The two point bell brace allows the body to respond faster " and compare it with "a tri-point balanced brace to achieve a strong resilience that ensures a firm resonance". At first sight the two statement appear to mean the same thing - a particular bell brace will give you a better sound, though there's disagreement on which one seems to work best.
How about this one? "The new smaller cup diameter allows for better response and resonance". Sounds reasonable, a smaller cup means less mass...might make a difference....but what about "Fitted with oversized nickel silver key touches to...further facilitate natural vibration throughout the horn"? So that's more mass, right?
Fancy another one? How about the issue of pillars mounted on straps or ribs rather than individually fitted to the body?
"Mini-ribs quick response" and "This model features full rib construction for a quick and even response".
Still on the subject of ribs, what do you think of this statement - "Full ribs durable"? Well, are they? I mean, what happened to all those non-ribbed vintage horns? Oh yes, that's right...they're still around - and does that mean the mini-ribbed horns are going to fall apart? Oooer - foot-gun-shoot.

A particular favourite of mine is this statement - "Mounted with only four small points actually making contact with the body, the thumb hook has virtually no effect on the resonance of the instrument and the thumb rest, made of brass, permits a more consistent tonal range." In order to appreciate the statement in full you have to consider a number of points. The most crucial is that when you play a sax you have to press the keys down. Think of all those soft, squidgy fingers pressing down on relatively soft felt-filled leather pads. That's really going to help the 'resonance' - and let's not forget your thumb sitting up by the octave key. And how exactly does making a thumb rest out of brass 'permit a more consistent tonal range'?? What happens if you take your thumb off the hook, surely that should ramp up the resonance? Try it and see (hint: nothing at all).

You can see that before a horn even gets built there are a number of conflicting claims made about similar or identical features - but what about after it's built?
Well, the sorry saga carries on with even more aplomb. Remember the flute maker who said that gold has "a sound with brilliance"? Well, according to this saxophone manufacturer it's not so - "plated with 18K gold which adds to the warmth and depth of the sound". One manufacturer says "The absence of lacquer...overall sounds brighter" while another says "The lacquer finish gives the instrument a slightly brighter tone color". It seems too that if you scratch the finish up a bit you can change the tone yet again - "The matte finish gives the instrument a dark, more focused sound".
This one's a doozy though, talking about the tonal qualities of a coat of silver plate: "This additional weight does not actually make the tone darker but adds brilliance and projection" - so extra weight makes it brighter and louder, yes? Same manufacturer - "The absence of lacquer and/or plating allows the saxophone to vibrate more freely and overall sounds brighter and louder". If that's confusing enough, try this, from the same source; "The addition of two layers of plating creates a very dark, lush and warm tone".

By now you should be getting the picture - and I've hardly said a word about acoustic theory or metallurgy.
The really big question is; are the manufacturers the source of these myths and illusions, or are they simply responding to the public's perception?
Take this statement, for example; "Yellow brass body tubes and keys resonate across the entire timbre spectrum". It certainly sounds exciting, but what exactly does it mean? Well, if I bought a horn I'd bloody well expect it to work across the entire timbre spectrum - I mean, it'd be a fat lot of good if it was missing a chunk out of the midrange or it didn't have any treble response at all. What about those 'resonant keys'? In what way do they resonate? What would happen if they didn't? How do they resonate when my fingers are pressing down on them? Ever tapped a wine glass and listened to it ring? That's resonance. Ever put a finger on a ringing wine glass to silence it? Quite.
And what about "These hand made Rolled Tone Holes allow superior resonance throughout the entire saxophone"? In what way do they facilitate 'superior resonance'? A tone hole is what the soft pad sits down on - I can't see much opportunity for resonance there - and if there was you'd end up with some notes being more resonant than others according to the number of tone holes you closed.
Another buzzword is projection. Take this statement, for example; "The lacquered brass gives a warm tone and reliable projection".
We've already dealt with the brass/warm tone claim - but what on earth do they mean by 'reliable projection'? Does it mean that saxes made of any other alloy have unreliable projection? Do listeners suddenly find they can't hear the player?
These statements are meaningless, and yet vague enough to set up what I like to think of as an "Emperor's New Clothes Resonance Field". This field is powerful enough to induce otherwise rational people to pick up the marketing spiel and repeat it as fact, often vociferously and with passion - and yet, as you've seen, not even the manufacturers can agree on what effect materials, features and finishes have on the tone.

It gets worse though. All the quoted statements you've read here come straight from manufacturers' web sites. I very purposefully avoided using dealer statements (although many of them are based on the manufacturer's press releases) for the simple reason that I would have started with a false premise and then added yet another layer of, well, to be blunt, crap.
You can try it yourself - pick a premise, such as 'gold lacquer sounds warm' and have a hunt around. Sooner or later you'll find a manufacturer or retailer who says otherwise.

So what to do?
Well, what I do about it is ignore all the hype and play each horn on its own merits. I have no expectations, other than a general sense of what a particular manufacturer's 'in-house' sound is likely to be. Thus I expect a Selmer to play like a Selmer, and a Yamaha to play like a Yamaha. If there's a degree of crossover, no matter - either it works (for me) or it doesn't.
I've played enough seemingly identical horns with different body materials and finishes to know that there's no such thing as identical horns - and the difference between two Brand X horns of the same material and finish can often be larger than the difference between the same horn in brass and in bronze, or lacquered and unlacquered.
You can compare a lacquered horn with the same model without lacquer, or with plating - and if you find a difference in tone then it's up to you as to what you feel is responsible for it. If you want to adhere to the blurb then you'll have to take into account that for any given statement there's likely to be an opposing one from an equally authoritative source. If you want something more solid to work with you can think about the inevitable small but vital differences in each horn's bore.
If that doesn't sound feasible, try swapping the crooks of similar horns and noting the difference it makes - it can be quite an eye-opener.

I expect this article will generate a fair amount of controversy, but it shouldn't be aimed at me. All I've done is bring together apparently factual statements made by manufacturers about materials, features and finishes and put them into an order that very clearly demonstrates that there's no consensus about such things among those who design and build our horns.

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