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.
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 faster...giving 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
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
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
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