There have been a great many pleasures and benefits that I have derived from my association with The Saxophone Journal over the years, and there is no question in my mind that first and foremost among them is the contact I get with my readers. It is an enormous source of encouragement to get the emails and telephone calls with questions and suggestions about saxophone design, and I thank publisher Ken Dorn and my ever patient editor, David Gibson, for affording me this opportunity. I have noticed over the years that I have been authoring this column about saxophone design that the same questions seem to pop up again and again, so in this issue, I’m going to discuss in a question and answer format, a few of the issues that come up again and again. I’m very interested in what my readers think and want to know, and encourage you to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments and questions.
I HEAR A LOT ABOUT INEXPENSIVE SAXOPHONES WITH SOFT KEYWORK…..COULDN’T WE MAKE THE KEYS OUT OF TITANIUM? IT WOULD BE LIGHT AND WOULD NOT BEND…..
Well, there’s a lot to discuss on this issue……first, I’ll admit that titanium would significantly reduce the weight of the keywork, and that it would never bend in the course of ordinary usage. That being said, there are a few problems…..First, titanium is very expensive (they might as well call it “unobtainium”), and notoriously difficult to form and machine, so manufacturing costs would skyrocket. It is impossible to shape and form with ordinary lathes and milling machines, so entirely new specialty machine tooling would be required. Even if you win the lottery and can form the parts, titanium is one of the most difficult metals to weld and requires highly specialized welding equipment to join it. So for a bit of weight saving and stability, you incur significantly more manufacturing expense. But wait, dear reader….there’s more! If you were to ask most saxophonists how the horns are made leak free during the manufacturing process, they will tell you that the pads are “floated” on a bed of shellac. This is not correct. The pads are installed in the key cups with a minimum of shellac (or other adhesive) and leveled with respect to the cup itself. The keys are than installed on the horn and are made leak free by slightly bending the key cups themselves. It is important to realize that the amount of key bending required is usually quite small, since at least in theory, the keys, cups, and posts have all been manufactured in accordance with the original design specification. After a saxophone has been in service for a while, these components are often found to be significantly different from where the designer intended them to be, so more adjustment is required. Therein lies the major problem with using titanium: in order to keep the horn in proper adjustment, you must be able to bend the keys! If you accept this premise, then you know that, to a degree at least, soft keywork can be a good thing! Of course, excessively soft keywork can be a source of considerable frustration, and a manufacturer has to find a happy medium. Almost all saxophone keywork currently being manufactured, including that used on even the most inexpensive brands, is stamped from brass stock under high pressure. This process actually makes the brass significantly harder (it’s called “work hardening”), adds a bit of brittleness, and gives some manufacturers the opportunity to claim that their keywork is “power forged”. It’s all in the words you use for the description, folks….. Keywork stability is most often a problem with larger key cups, such as those used on the low C, low B, and low Bb. The stability issue is easily corrected (while retaining the requisite flexibility needed for future adjustment) through the addition of an additional rib on these larger cups. This additional rib easily prevents them from moving.
COULD WE GET A SAXOPHONE MADE WITH A PARABOLIC BORE LIKE THE ORIGINAL ADOLPHE SAX HORNS AND EARLY BUESCHERS?
Sure, not a problem. The manufacturing of a horn with a parabolic bore is not rocket science in any way. All that is necessary is to make a mandrel of the desired shape rather than the cone currently used to form the body tube. But why? First, a little background history: the very first saxophone made in the United States was made by Gus Buescher in 1885. At the time, Gus was the manager of the C. G. Conn factory in Elkhart, Indiana and used Adolphe Sax alto number 36 to copy. This original Sax instrument was acquired by the Buescher Band Instrument Company when Gus Buescher left Conn, and was later presented to Sigurd Rascher, who was an enthusiastic endorser of Buescher saxophones. The instrument is currently owned by Sigurd Raschers daughter, Carina Rascher. This instrument absolutely and positively does not have a parabolic bore. No Buescher saxophones were ever manufactured with parabolic bores, and Buescher never claimed to do so in their advertising. Where did this parabolic bore stuff come from? From none other than Jaap Kool, who was not a saxophone player himself, who wrote a book, “Das Saxophon” in the 1930’s complete with diagrams of this imaginary bore configuration. His line of reasoning was that since the naturally occurring overtone series becomes progressively sharper as pitch increases in frequency, and that an increase in bore diameter reduces pitch, it would be theoretically possible to temper the scale of a saxophone by inserting a parabola into the upper portion of the cone which is normally used as the pattern for a saxophone bore. This is a nice idea on paper, but unfortunately it doesn’t work in practice. It never has, and it never will work, at least as long as we need our saxophones to play more than one note! If you tune the octaves of a conical tube to match with a parabola, which is possible, you do so at the expense of all other possible notes. A parabolic bore would actually limit the playing potential of a saxophone and result in significant intonation difficulties. Resolving pitch issues is fairly easy through the use of tone hole size and placement. True, our saxophones are still not absolutely perfect with regard to pitch, but modern instruments benefit from 150 years of experience in bore design, and are immensely improved over saxophones manufactured even 20 years ago. We simply learn as we go along, and we learn a little more every year!
WHY CAN’T WE HAVE SAXOPHONES WITH THE RANGE EXTENDED DOWN TO LOW A OR BELOW?
Well, you can. It’s not at all difficult to extend the range down to a written G, or even below if you so desire. The question is, of course, why would you want to do so? This is something that has been tried before, most notably by Selmer with their Low A Mark VI alto. This was a well built horn with an additional mechanism which functioned beautifully, yet it was was a clear commercial failure. Why, you might ask? The answer is quite simple: there was not any music written for an alto saxophone with a range extended to low A. The horn simply had no reason which justified the additional expense, and was soon dropped from the Selmer line after an extremely limited production run. On the other hand, standard saxophone literature now expects players to command pitches far above the high F# found on the vast majority of saxophones currently manufactured. Some manufacturers are now offering horns with high G keys (nothing new at all: I believe the first ones were made in the 1920’s) and a very few have additional mechanism to facilitate the altissimo (also nothing new….) because the music being played today requires it. Extending the range below low Bb requires using a different, longer bell. The expense of making such a bell, which is considerable, is just not justified.
WHY CAN’T WE JUST BUILD EXACT COPIES OF THE GREAT HORNS OF THE PAST?
You could, but why would you want to do so? If you were going to enter the Indianapolis 500, would you do so with a 60 year old car? I didn’t think so….. Actually, this copying business is fairly common in the industry. Recently, a great deal of publicity was given to the fact that Kenny G was having his beloved Mark VI soprano exactly copied by the Jinyin company in China. They did an amazing job, and produced an instrument dimensionally identical to Kenny’s horn. I’ll let you in on a little secret: several years ago when I was in charge of design and manufacturing for a very well known saxophone company, the bore and tone hole placement of our top line tenor was identical to a 224,000 Mark Vi. The keywork was a little different, but the things that control the playing characteristics were absolutely identical. The metal used also had the same “recipe”, and if you closed your eyes, you simply couldn’t hear the difference. We did a number of “blind” tests, and were able to fool everybody’s ears! There are currently quite a number of companies making excellent copies of various saxophones from the past. There is a Chinese company which makes a Mark VI copy that is faithful down to the style of engraving used on the lower stack clothing guard, and insofar as I can tell, is faithful in every other detail, no matter how small. It is quite a simple matter to have a metallurgist analyze the alloy used (I’ve had this done myself) and there is nothing magical about the assembly process. Yes, you can make an exact copy, and people are doing it every day. I think the honest answer as to why somebody is not making, say, a Conn 10M copy and marketing it as such is that although it is quite possible, I don’t think a retro-duplicate horn would stand a prayer in the marketplace against modern horns which play more in tune, are more responsive, and much more ergonomic. Conn even tried to “split the difference” in the 1990’s by duplicating the 10M body and tone hole configuration but fitting modern keywork (the ill fated 34M), and were forced to withdraw it due to poor market acceptance. The new horn buyer has proven time and time again that they want the “latest and greatest” while the vintage horn buyer maintains a nostalgia for the older designs, in spite of their obvious shortcomings. There has recently been introduced onto the market a line of mouthpieces which are exact duplicates of the original mouthpieces owned by famous players of the past, right down to the tooth marks on the bite plate! I believe they are making resin casts of the originals and then recasting in another material…..I don’t know how well this has been received.
WHAT ABOUT PLASTIC OR CARBON FIBER BODIES?
Of course, there was the well known Grafton acrylic saxophone which was produced in limited numbers in the mid twentieth century. The Grafton made use of the plastic technology of the day, which was quite primitive by modern standards, and proved to be extremely fragile and prone to cracking. The biggest problem, and one which faces modern manufacturers of plastic saxophones, is how to deal with mounting the springs so they are able to remain stable under torsion. The Grafton used coil type springs, a system which gave a “feel” which was quite foreign to most saxophonists. Another issue facing the makers of a plastic based saxophone is that the heat normally used in the padding process has a very adverse effect on the body! Carbon fiber is quite another matter. While it is exceptionally strong and light, it is also difficult to work with during the manufacturing phase. In order to shape carbon fiber, it must be “baked” in a high temperature oven under high atmospheric pressure, a most expensive process. I believe it may be quite a while before we see carbon fiber saxophones in any significant numbers! In future issues, I’ll explore some other “why don’t they?” ideas, including interchangeable bells, alternative synthetic materials, and other topics. If you have a suggestion, don’t hesitate to let me know!