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Saxophone Intonation

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [BG]' started by wulf, Jun 11, 2003.


  1. wulf

    wulf

    Apr 11, 2002
    Oxford, UK
    Having recently enjoyed a very enlightening thread about trumpet intonation, I'm wondering if we have the same rich resources available regarding saxophones.

    With a trumpet (or other brass instruments), the player can produce a harmonic series of notes using their lips on the mouthpiece and then adjust the pitch using various combinations of the valves. The intonation issues they have to cope with are primarily to do with minor inconsistencies with certain combinations of valves.

    How about saxophones? That's the other part of our two part horn section, and if I'm going to push for certain keys to support the trumpet player, I'd like to make sure it works for the sax as well.

    So, saxophonists of Talkbass, tell me how it works!

    Wulf
     
  2. moley

    moley

    Sep 5, 2002
    Hampshire, UK
    Well hello there again Wulf :)

    I do play a little sax, but I'm not sure how much I can help you here.

    I'm really not clear on how the sax produces the notes, but I know that, unlike the trumpet, you don't produce different harmonics by tightening your lips. The trumpet is essentially based on tightening your lips the requisite amount in order to get each note of the harmonic series, for each of the seven basic fingerings.

    With sax, you can, I think, tighten your lips to produce different harmonics - but the sax doesn't rely on it quite like the trumpet does. I think :)

    I can't really play the highest notes on the sax (I play an alto), so I could be wrong about that.

    On the sax, there is an octave key, which is used to go up an octave.

    So producing different notes on the sax is much more a case of just using different fingerings.

    What confuses me on the sax is that there are so many damn keys - trumpet only has 3 :D

    Still, I'll get the ol' alto out tonight and do some experiments of ya like :D
     
  3. brianrost

    brianrost Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2000
    Boston, Taxachusetts
    Yes, the saxophone has intonation issues as do all brass and woodwind instruments. The intonation issue gets worse as the horn gets smaller, soprano saxophones are harder to play in tune than an alto or tenor.

    As moley pointed out the way pitches are produced on a woodwind is much different than on brass instruments. As a former clarinetist, for years I wondered how bugles could play music when they had no keys :rolleyes:
     
  4. wulf

    wulf

    Apr 11, 2002
    Oxford, UK
    Are there specific notes, ranges or keys that tend to be 'dodgy'? Or is it very much to do with the quality of the instrument (presumably a smaller instrument makes tiny discrepancies more apparent)?

    And, for my third question ( :D ), does the logic work the other way, making Baritone Sax easier to play in tune than tenor or alto?

    Wulf
     
  5. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    I'm sure I've epxerienced the opposite - that is, that soprano players tend to be very much in tune with good intonation; while Baritone players tend to sound as if they are struggling with this?

    And this is in Jazz classes with a wide range of abilities...
     
  6. moley

    moley

    Sep 5, 2002
    Hampshire, UK
    Well, that may just be down to whatever mental defect it is that baritone players have that makes them want to play a sax that sounds like a farting foghorn :D
     
  7. Pacman

    Pacman Layin' Down Time Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 1, 2000
    Omaha, Nebraska
    Endorsing Artist: Roscoe Guitars, DR Strings, Aguilar Amplification
    IME, and I've worked with probably 50 or 60 sax players, the sopranos are much harder to play in tune. Most sax players will tell you this, too.

    They find the curved sopranos (the ones that look like tiny altos) tune easier.
     
  8. wulf

    wulf

    Apr 11, 2002
    Oxford, UK
    I remember when I was in a big band, quite a while ago. I got the impression that the members of the sax section tended to play a range of related instruments - the different sizes of saxophones (not to mention flutes, clarinets, etc).

    With your more recent experience, have you heard the same player on a range of different saxes? Is it the player or the instrument that seems to make more difference?

    I suspect that the choice of instrument size makes some difference but on a bell shaped curve, with alto and tenor being relatively easy but very small (soprano) and very large (baritone) being harder. (Pacman - any idea why the curve makes intonation easier?)

    Wulf
     
  9. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    I suppose it may also be the case, that Soprano players know it's harder and also that their mistakes will stand out more, as the range is quite piercing and very audible - so they practice more!

    Whereas Baritone players often tend to be part-time and just filling in, as they are needed for particular arrangements - so maybe they don't practice it so much as their 'main' instrument? Plus they know that slight intonation differences will be lost in a big band and most people don't hear low notes as well as high ones...
     
  10. DaveBeny

    DaveBeny

    Mar 22, 2000
    London, UK
    Wulf mentioned something in his initial post that I'd like to bring back up, and that's keys for horns.

    My knowledge is this area is pretty poor - am I right in saying that saxes and other instruments are tuned to a different key than, say, a bass? I seem to remember readin something about this a long time ago, but it doesn't make sense to me. :confused:

    I've wanted to ask about this for ages. I would love to eventually put together a band with a horn player - if I were to write a part for horns, are there only certain keys that would work? :confused: :meh:
     
  11. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    Saxes,Trumpets,Clarinets are transposing instruments - so everything they play is shifted.

    Sax, Trumpet players tend to like playing in Flat keys as these are easier for them - so F, Bb, Eb, Ab etc
     
  12. Pacman

    Pacman Layin' Down Time Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 1, 2000
    Omaha, Nebraska
    Endorsing Artist: Roscoe Guitars, DR Strings, Aguilar Amplification
    Wulf, I suspect it's the phsyics of the instrument itself, although I don't know why the curve would make a difference. Everyone is on summer leave right now, so I can't just grab a sax player and ask him.
     
  13. wulf

    wulf

    Apr 11, 2002
    Oxford, UK
    All keys would work but some would be easier than others for the horn players. Whereas we fortunate bassists can go from E major to F# major just by starting everything two frets higher, our windy friends have to practise and learn a whole bunch of new fingerings.

    Trumpets and similar brass instruments with valves do have certain keys that don't sound as sweet as others (see the trumpet intonation thread for a pretty thorough discussion of that) - I'm still waiting to see if there's similar wisdom about saxes and the like, although moley has promised to dig out yet another of his extraordinary collection of instruments tonight to investigate further ;)

    Wulf
     
  14. Christopher

    Christopher

    Apr 28, 2000
    New York, NY
    Those are "sopranino" saxes. The curve adds a little bit of resistance to the horn, which makes the margin of error for intonation slightly wider.

    Straight tubes require a fair amount of air circulating through the horn in order to maintain constant pitch.
     
  15. Nope, Sopranino saxophones are the sax higher up than a Soprano. A curved soprano is just called a Curved Soprano. I would assume that the curve allows for more "saxophone"-like resonance, instead of making it sound like a metal clarinet.

    As for intonation, the smaller the reed, the harder it is to keep in tune. And, like wise, harder to play vibrato with. Tenor, the sax I am (and possibly stopping) playing, is in my opinion the easiest saxophone to keep in tune.

    As for the origin of the sound, you blow into the mouthpiece and thus vibrate the reed, a concept much like plucking a string on the bass. It is then the mouthpiece that is similar to the pickups and electronics of a bass, for different mouthpieces give off different tonal qualities (ie bop, jazz, classical and rock mouthpieces). Then it is the neck and body of the saxophone, and the pads and resonators within the keys, that amplify and shape your tone, much like a bass amplifier. I believe Selmer even put out a saxophone that had a piezo mic in it and an on board "effects" (reverb, chorus and something else) unit.
     
  16. moley

    moley

    Sep 5, 2002
    Hampshire, UK
    Many wind instruments are transposing instruments - including trumpets, saxes, clarinets, and horns.

    Trumpets are usually in Bb, but there are C trumpets, and Eb trumpets, and others. Clarinets are usually in Bb. Saxes alternate in keys - Baritone is Eb, Tenor is Bb, Alto is Eb, Soprano is Bb. I presume, therefore, that Sopranino is Eb, bass sax is Bb, and contrabass sax (they're huge!) is Eb.

    What this means is - with, say a Bb instrument, a C comes out as a Bb. So, when a trumpet player plays a C, the actual pitch is Bb. So everything a trumpet player plays comes out a tone lower. Or, conversely, in order to play in the same key as the rest of the band, he has to play a tone higher than they are. So if the band are in C, the trumpets are in D.

    So, if you're going to write for trumpets, you need to put the parts up a whole tone, in order for them to come out at the correct pitch when played on a trumpet.

    Now, saxes, are in various octaves. The soprano sax is at the same pitch as the trumpet. Alto is a 5th lower than that. So, when writing for alto sax, you'll need to transpose it up a major 6th, for it to come out at the correct pitch.

    The tenor, and baritone, sound an octave lower than the soprano and alto, respectively. Now, I *think* that they are actually written at the same pitch, though. By that I mean that they're not written an octave lower, they just sound an octave lower. The idea, I think, is that when reading sax music - whatever sax you're playing, the notes on the stave always correspond to the same fingering, regardless of what octave it comes out in. The idea is that if you play one sax, you can pretty much play any of them, and read the music in the same way.

    In answer to your last question - no, there aren't only certain keys that would work. Any of them can play in any key. And if you're working with good players, hopefully they won't whinge about being in awkward keys :D

    Just be aware that keys that are easy for the piano, guitar, and bass might not be easy for the horn players. In general, flat keys are good. Think of the keys a lot standards are in - C, F, Bb, Eb...
     
  17. when i was a kid, i found it a lot easier to play in stuff written in concert C or F... but, with just a little experience and practice a sax player should be able to play within any key. i got past my fear of a flat planet (heh) by the time i was in high school.

    as far as intonation goes, i found tuning to open c# (concert B) the best way to start, and then adjusting around that. that particular note is the most "relaxed" for the instrument...