Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals

Buzz off header

I've had quite a few triumphs this week.
If there's one aspect of my job I particularly enjoy, it's the diagnostic stage - the part where the horn is taken out of the case and placed on the workbench, and given a jolly good 'scrute' by yours truly.
It's an important part of the repair process. From the client's point of view their interest lies in your ability to spot existing and potential problems, and from the repairer's point of view there's a need to provide a good quality of service and to accurately assess the cost of the repairs.
For the most part it's a pretty run-of-the-mill process, but every now and then a real doozy turns up and you find yourself dealing with an apparently inexplicable problem. Or an aardvark, as I call them.
I started the week off with a stuffy alto (gunge in the body octave pip tube), followed by an intermittent but terminal problem on a flute (missing trill key point screw) and then a tenor with warbling on the low A/G (pinhole leak in crook socket joint). There there was a brief diversion to deal with the problem of a sax player whose mouthpiece only played in tune when it was no more than a centimetre on the cork (a Delrin extension shank to fit over the mouthpiece's own shank) and finally a real humdinger in the shape of a clarinet that simply wouldn't play a low C.
D was fine, if a bit muted - and no problem with B and below. Having checked both joints for leaks, and found none, I figured there might be some obstruction in the bore...but it was as clean as the proverbial whistle.
Working on the basis that, on an open key, the note you want comes out of the next open hole below the one you just pressed, I took the ring key off the lower joint...and found that when the manufacturer had milled the tonehole out, the toolbit hadn't gone all the way through and had left a paper-thin disc of plastic at the bottom of the hole. A quick prod with a stick and voilà! - normal service was resumed.

So by the time a Yamaha 275 alto landed on the bench, I was feeling rather pleased with myself. Smug, even. And what better way to round off such a week with a simple general service on a good quality horn. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, not a lot actually - at least not in terms of the job itself. Just the usual stuff - a few dodgy pads, some iffy corks and felts, a spot of wear and tear here and there...and a slightly offline bell. All grist to the mill, and very much what we repairers call a 'bread and butter' job.
By the time I'd finished I already knew what to expect when it came to the playtest; a clean, punchy presentation with an eager response and a lively action. Bog-standard Yamaha stuff.
And that's exactly what I well as a buzzing noise around the low F. Absolutely fine above it, no problems below it...but as soon as I hit low F, it buzzed.

There's an old showbiz maxim that says "Unexpected laugh? Check flies!" - and the sax repairer's version of that axiom is "Unexpected buzz? Check lyre screw!".
In case you don't know what the lyre screw is (and why should you?), there's usually a small socket fitted to the horn that allows the player to fit what's essentially a small clipboard to it so that you can read music and play while walking down the road. I know, I know, it sounds very quaint and rather bizarre - but I guess you could always bring it up to date by clipping your smartphone to the lyre on very dull gigs, and use it to catch up on a few YouTube channels.
Anyway, this little socket often has a small screw fitted which secures the lyre in place, and over time it tends to work itself loose. Once loose it's free to vibrate, and this can lead to an unexpected buzz.
And if that's not the culprit then the next most likely candidate is one or other of the ligature screws. This isn't so much of a problem if your ligature has only the one screw - because if it ever gets that loose, your reed will have dropped out long before the screw has started a-buzzing. But if you're somewhat old-fashioned, or a cheapskate...or just completely unconvinced by the claims made for fancy ligatures that cost more than the average gig pays, you may well be using a traditional metal lig with two screws.
So I checked the lyre screw, and the ligature screws, but all were done up nice and snug.

Guard screws are the next best bet. These don't often work their way loose, but when they do they often have a tendency to get juuuust so loose...and then just hang on in there, rather than dropping off the horn. This is usually because they don't get moved that often and various bits of gunge and grime collects around the threads, which acts like a crude form of threadlock.
But no, the screws were up tight - and had there been any bumper felt adjusters on this horn, I'd have checked those too.
From this point on it gets rather more technical, and less likely to be the cause of the problem. The Yamaha has a glued bottom bow joint, so there are no clamp screws to check - but there is a bell stay screw (just the one), but this too was tight.
With all the 'exterior' fittings checked, the probability of the buzzing being an issue with the action became increasingly more likely. Perhaps a loose pivot screw (unlikely, since I'd just serviced the horn) or a lack of lubrication (again, unlikely), or a missing or shrunken tube on one of the lever keys. What about the key guides? There are few of these on most horns - small 'cups' or channels that offer support or protection to particularly vulnerable keys. The crook key guide is a prime suspect, as is the double height guide (sometimes fitted with a cap) that sits halfway up the side E/F# keys.

In situations like this the disadvantage of working alone becomes all too apparent, because what you really need is an extra pair of hands. You want one person playing the horn, and another to poke, prod, wiggle and grip various parts of the action in the hope of tracking down the one part that's causing the buzz.
Without the aid of an assistant the lone repairer has to resort to holding keys down with cork wedges...but this doesn't always work. Or rather it works too well; unless you duplicate the precise location and closing force of a finger on a key, you sometimes find that the wedges cure the buzzing. It's not all bad news, because it at least helps to narrow the search area down.
So there I was, surrounded by bits of cork and using fingering positions you'll not see in any tutor book - and I still couldn't figure out what was wrong.

Completely flummoxed by the buzzing, I moved away from the bench and sat on my chair. I turned the lights off and set to examining every nook and cranny of the instrument's bore with a leak light.
I wasn't so much expecting to find a leak, as leaks, on the whole, tend not to buzz - but there was a chance that perhaps a reflector was loose, or maybe something had got stuck to a pad (such as a piece of cork). There's also an outside chance that the buzzing was down to the skin on one of the pads being a bit flabby...but this tends to be more likely on instruments that use skin (bladder) pads, such as flutes and clarinets - and in any event, the kind of buzzing this problem produces sounds rather different to the buzz I was looking for. It was more of a metal-on-metal noise.
But couldn't find a thing. So I set to examining the springs. It's sometimes the case that a spring can buzz - either because it's not tightly wedged in the pillar or not fully seated in the key's cradle...but again, nothing. So I blew the horn again. And it was fine. Absolutely perfect.

Well, these things happen. Perhaps there was a piece of cork floating about inside the horn after all, or a wayward spring - but in the journey from the workbench the the chair, it had sorted itself out. It's annoying though, because I like to see the problem and fix it...and thus know that it's fixed. If it just goes away on its own there's a chance that it might come back of its own accord too.
Back to the workbench then, and one final playtest.
And I'll be damned...the bloody buzzing is back again.
This was driving me nuts. I'd been through all the usual suspects, I'd covered all the oddities and I'd been over the horn with the kind of fine tooth comb you'd use if you wanted to comb your fine tooth comb. But I got nothing.

And then I spotted it.
I'd bought some fancy soap a little while back, which came in a rather posh tin - and being a typical workshop kinda guy, I nabbed the tin as soon as it became vacant. Not that I had any specific purpose for it, but a tin is a tin...and this one even had a hinged lid. I should mention at this point that the betinned soap wasn't bought for workshop use - it'd be wasted here, what with the kind of grime that gets onto my hands during the course of servicing a greasy, gob-smattered horn...and so I tend to prefer something with a bit more gumption. A mix of sand, industrial-strength floor cleaner, petrol and battery acid seems to work best - but failing that a squirt of washing-up liquid will do.
So I had this posh tin, and had plonked it on the bench while I considered what to put in it - and thereafter hadn't given it much thought.

This in itself should hint at the status such tins have. As a general rule nothing gets put on the workbench that doesn't have a function; there are plenty of shelves, cupboards and even spare floorspace for such storage - but a tin has its own set of rules.
You can't simply acquire a tin, bung a load of stuff in it, shut the lid and leave it at that. Oh no, you must take the dimensions of the tin into account so that you can maximise your tinnage. Cram too much stuff in it and you'll find yourself overtinned. Small nuts, bolts and screws are a common source of overtinnage. The whole point of a tin is that you should be able to open it and find exactly what you want within a few seconds. A bit of poking about is acceptable, but if you've overfilled the tin you'll just be moving the stuff you've searched though onto the stuff you haven't...and the only way around it is to tip the whole bloody lot out, sift through it for the bits you want, then stuff the whole lot back into the tin. This is the hallmark of the amateur tinner.

Undertinnage is just as much a crime, if rather less useless. Having only half a dozen items in a tin that can comfortable accommodate three of four times as much is just plain extravagant.
No, the correct use of a tin is to find things to put in it that maximise its potential. A shallow tin is good for small screws or a quantity of gloop - such as the Altoids mints tin I use to hold my swedging grease in. I don't need great deal of it, and I don't want my swedging pliers bashing into the walls of the tin every time I want to grease up the jaws.
The soap tin, however is quite deep - so it's perhaps better suited to housing a small number of things that are relatively large, or tall. I could fill it full of shellac flakes, but then I don't want to have to faff around with a lid when I need a pinch of shellac (and besides, I already have an old Duraglit tin for that particular job). I could put some essential oil bottles in it, but then I already have a little wooden box for that job - which works better than a metal one on the grounds that any spillage will be absorbed by the wood. It makes for cleaner bottles...with the added bonus that the box smells amazing when you open the lid.

So you can appreciate my dilemma - which is why I'd placed the tin on my bench...just in front of my 'holding tray'. This is a small aluminium dish where I keep various fixtures and fittings that relate to the job in hand on the bench, such as key guards and screws, adjusters, rollers etc. It not only prevents small items from dropping off the bench onto the floor, it also provides a quick visual reference at the end of the job as to whether I've forgotten to put anything back on. And this is a particularly useful feature for me because I have a certain 'superstition' about trouser guards (the long plate that sits adjacent to the lower key stack), which is that if this guard is fitted to the horn before the playtesting is complete, it's practically a certainty that I'll have to take it off again in order to tweak something. So the trouser guard is only fitted once I've 'signed off' the job, and just so I don't forget to fit it (it's happened, I'll admit), I've got into the habit of using this useful little tray.
With the tin in front of the holding tray and having only removed the trouser guard, I did what any sensible chap would would have done and popped the guard along with its screws on top of the tin...and the tin was acting like a microphone, picking up the sound of the sax and vibrating in sympathy. As it resonated, it shook the two little guard screws...with just enough vigour to produce a faint buzz.

I suppose I was quite pleased to find that I was on the right track with my reckoning that the noise was coming from a metal-on-metal source, and that I'd found the culprit - but I was less pleased to find that I'd been looking in completely the wrong place. I also wasn't especially pleased to note that it had cost me half an hour of my time.

But there you go - that's the thing about tins....they have an equal capacity to bring joy or misery...

The client called in later to collect the horn and, as is often the case, asked me how the job went. "Absolutely fine, no problems at all". I swear I didn't grit my teeth at all.
I played it for her (sans buzz), then got her to play it - and we followed up the testing session with a brief chat about mouthpieces.
I thought she sounded quite nice, and said as much - and she responded with "I hope so, I really like the way this sax plays. I was a bit worried that some people say that Yamahas can be a bit tinny....but I don't think it is. What do you think?"

"No, not tinny...not tinny at all".

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2016