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Breath Vapor Condensation Issues
Q.  Thank you for your question and answer section. I have a problem and everyone I ask has a different answer so PLEASE help me!!! I am sinking!!! I have played Selmer, Conn, King (20 and Zephy) tenors, but just paid too much for a EX 90 II Keilwerth black tenor with gold keys, and got a silver neck to boot (I didn’t tell my wife the final price, so this is between me and you). The horn plays great … big sound … nice intonation … power, etc. But … on the middle B key, left hand, saliva shoots out the tone whole instead of running down the horn.  I have asked the best repairmen in the USA why … and from each one I usually get a joke and different answer … the best one was to only drink water before I play. Well, that would mean, I can only drink water for the rest of my life!! If you think you know why … if there is a flaw in the horn, please give me your take so I can make adjustments. Thank you, Larry …


A. Since the EX 90 isn’t exactly vintage (yet) we don’t pay a lot of attention to it. I did play a new one that seems very similar to yours (not that appearance makes any difference to your problem) recently, and have to admit that I didn’t like it near as much as I do my old Keilwerth stencil tenor. It didn’t spurt anything at me that I recall though …
 
Intuitively, nothing can come out of a sax that the player doesn’t put in it – and water from condensed breath vapor is a natural by product of playing (If it was really saliva running out your sax – and not condensation – I doubt that pretty wife of yours would even let you steal a kiss). So, if condensed water vapor comes out of this tenor in confluence it must have also come out of other saxes you’ve played in similar volumes – just not in places or in ways that got your attention. The part about where the water comes out is the issue, and by examining both the instruments you play, and your playing habits & positions, that result is quite predictable. We know that vapor condenses starting in the neck when you first start to play an instrument cold, and depending on how long you play in a given interval, that point where condensation begins will move down the horn as it is warmed by your breath & the ambient environment. Water flow is governed by gravity in a saxophone just as out in the street, and water will always seek both the lowest level to which it can flow and the path of least resistance.
 
That’s a long way of saying that water will be formed as high within your sax as conditions permit & will flow out the first place it can as it runs down the body of your sax. This explains why your pads deteriorate at the top of your sax first, starting with the palm keys – which are normally in closed position so that they don’t get to vent the moisture that collects around them. The other factor we need to look at is the keys that are open more often, and under what circumstances you would expect condensed water from your breath to run out of any one key in particular. 
 
To make an analysis possible we’re going to assume that you play every note on the sax an equal amount of time during a particular session (if you don’t, you can factor that into how the outcome might differ for you). The B is not the top most pad that has a normal open position on a saxophone, though it’s close. B is the second pad down the upper stack — that little slave pad just above it that operates off several key combinations being the highest normally open pad. Of course the little slave pad is close enough to the B pad that you may not be able to distinguish from which hole your water is originating, but in an even amount of time per note scenario it’s also true that the B pad is open more often than that combo pad. The reason is that the combo pad is also closed by the A key when you finger a C natural without using the side C key — which leaves the B pad open. 
 
So of all the keys on the instrument, that B key — from whence your problems flow — has the most frequently open, highest location on your saxophone. Some of the mystery fog should be clearing for you at this point, because the only other variable (apart from open pads) involved in where water will run from your sax is the physical orientation (versus the horizon) of that B key when you play … and when you rest. If you play standing up with the horn out front, and are playing most of the time, the condensation is going to run down the back side of your sax, crud up your low Eb key, and finally come to rest in the bow. Periodically the player will have to empty the water out the bell if that’s the case – and that describes my play habits. If, on the other hand, you play with the sax to the side – and especially if you play sitting a lot & rest a lot with the sax on your knee (as in section or pit work), the moisture is more likely to drain down the front of your horn. You’ll have to be the judge on how you play …
 
Now, after all this suppose you say, “Well, all that makes sense, but I really haven’t changed anything about my play habits and this new Keilwerth is draining in a way other tenors did not.” Admittedly, we could have started here, but then you wouldn’t have the understanding of the problem on your mind right now that we wanted to create. While it’s true that to play on pitch the B tone hole of every tenor sax has to be the same distance (area-weighted center) from the end of the neck (that’s not really true either – it’s the bottom of the reed windway — but humor me for now, ok?), all B tone holes do not have to be the same diameter, nor do they have to be placed in the same horizontal location on the body of a saxophone. As an example, look at the chromatic or trill F# placement & size on a Conn Chu tenor vs. a Buescher True Tone, or how the G# on 1920s Kings was on the back side of the instrument instead of in the stack line down the front. Another example is how Selmer moved the lower stack holes to a position slightly offset to the right to improve both key leverage & player comfort. As long as that magic distance from the design tuning point of the neck is maintained, a saxophone’s tone holes can be placed anywhere around the outside circumference of the instrument — keywork functionality notwithstanding.
 
The point is that your new Keilwerth may very well have differently placed & sized B & upper stack slave combo tone holes (or possibly even tone hole heights) than the other tenors you’ve played, and that in combination with your personal playing habits & positions, the condensation is going to run out of that horn at a certain place – though different from that on your other horns – but which will always be the very first place it can (whew, hat a mouthful!). An extenuating factor might well be found in the metallurgy of that horn, meaning either the thickness or alloy content of the brass, in combination with the silver neck, may be changing the condensation point (and possibly even the total volume of condensation) within this sax vs. the others you’ve played. 
 
When all is said though, there really isn’t a mystery at all. You just need to do a detailed comparison between the physical attributes of the Keilwerth and the other saxes you’ve played in the past, taking into consideration your personal playing habits. As for changing your drinking habits, don’t give it a serious thought. The moisture you introduce into your sax comes mostly from your lungs. Its basically a distilled vapor product for which the condensing element is your horn. Last time I checked, the only liquid substances you’re likely to ingest on a gig – and survive them – are water and alcohol (everything else is a dissolved solid that your body extracts from the basic liquids that carry them) … and the alcohol probably doesn’t even condense in a saxophone. If it does condense, the effect is likely totally positive, serving to disinfect & dissolve the crud deposited from what you’ve eaten. Its what you eat while playing that does the damage – and that gets oozed out in the small amount of saliva (in comparison to condensation) that gets injected into your horn in the process of articulation. So it’s the cheeseburgers & sticky BBQ ribs you need to resist on the gig – since water & alcohol actually tend to wash the harmful crud away …
Follow-up Comments
L. If I wasn’t a married man I’d give you a Bear hug for the response on condensation, not saliva. I am printing it and saving for future reference. As a follow up, however, I called Boosey and Hawkes in Calif. They suggested a small swab of Vaseline between the B key and that little key above. Tried it. Nope. They said there are two kinds of players: wet and dry ones. Emilo suggested spraying silicone down the bore. That scared me. Thoughts of WD-40 and silicone in my lungs didn’t turn me on. Roberto said some horns are that way. I am in NYC — can see ground zero from my attic … and yesterday, drove to Conn, to have horn checked for leaks. Chuck in Brookfield changed the small pad above the B key … two hours drive home and wham: “condensation” down my fingers. Playing ‘Giant Steps’ is uncomfortable … But … Breakthrough this morning with your analysis.

I got on my back on the floor and played … Condensation down back of horn. I am escalated when I can pour out the stuff from my bell. That worked, so I think it must be my posture from playing so many years with the thing around my neck. I now am in the process of learning how to play with horn way out front … bell facing up about 45 degrees … and when the condensation starts to come out the middle B key I know I need to stand up straight … that is the only thing that worked. Thank you for your letter. Someday I would like to show you my posture and what works with this horn and talk more about saxes … I have had a passion since I was 10 when my father took me to Lincoln Center to see Coltrane. Little did he know what he did to me … God Bless … Larry …

B. No problemo, Larry. Well probably put that exchange into our Q&A section at some future point [4/2/02]. We try to get people to think globally about their instruments because building, maintaining & playing saxophones requires a marvelous balance between right & left brain functions. Since individuals who possess the same balance in their approach to making music are rare, we frequently find ourselves acting as a sort of saxual spirit guide between the two worlds.
 
As for putting stuff inside your sax – nothing will stay permanently, so to be continually effective you would need to repeat the application over & over. Besides the big hassle, I share with you the concerns about absorbing foreign substances you might put into your sax bore. The painful truth about the ‘slippery’ approach is that if you succeed in diverting water from the B area it’s just going to run out the next closest spot it finds. The real issue is your playing position – and Ill bet there’s not a huge adjustment to be made. Being conscious of it will be a giant step …
 
Thanks for the kind words, my friend. Keep us posted how you come out …



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