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Interesting Questions . . .
Flex-Lite at work in alto body ...

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1) Harmonics
What are those strange sounds & vibrations my ax makes, anyway?

2) Regulation
How do I know my ax is regulated?

a couple interesting issues raised in one email…
Q.  I have a Buescher Big B Aristocrat Alto. The serial number puts it close to the end of its production run. It has a minor amount of tarnish and scratches but I would rate it in very good condition. I use a Meyer 5m mouthpiece and V16 (#2) reeds. I have few questions.

Is it common for the Bb palm/side key to buzz like a tuning fork when you play a loud middle E or F? I fixed this by double-stick taping a lead weight to the bottom of the spatula.

Also I find that I don’t have a whole lot of volume below the low F. I can play a very soft B flat so I feel it is sealing well. Could the right hand stack be set too low? Is there a rule of thumb for the clearance between the pad and tone holes in this stack? I have a MK VI tenor and in thirty years I have twice had to have the action opened back up after a bad (or miss informed) tech has tuned it up. I now trust this horn to only one tech. Regards, Glen…

1) Harmonics

A. The sound of a saxophone is composed of not one tone, but a complex of tones underlying a principle tone – the principle tone being the one our hearing perceives as the music we play on any given note. These underlying harmonics sometimes separate out – intentionally, or non-intentionally – and different saxophones, different notes, show more of the tendency for their harmonics to separate. We need these sometimes pesky harmonics because they enrich the sound of our instrument. Simply put: a saxophone would not be the emotional, complex musical instrument that it is if it weren’t for the very special harmonic structure provided by its conical brass bore, shapely curves, and the reed-induced vibrating air column that our keywork so effortlessly & efficiently controls for us.

Sometimes harmonic separation is desirable & beneficial to us as musicians. It makes playing in separate octaves off of one body tube possible, for one important thing. All an octave pip does is change (lower) the air pressure in our air column so that the octave harmonic can be released. Another example of useful harmonic separation is in the altissimo range. In making altissimo sounds all we do is set up a fingering that does not easily sound a complex harmonic, and then intentionally seek out a separated harmonic in a discrete pitch that is accurate enough to incorporate into our musical performances. Of course youngsters just learning to play saxophone have a completely different take on these sounds that their horns can sometimes emit — seemingly all on a whim of their own.

As saxophone grow larger certain harmonics become easier to separate. Bass saxophones, for instance, have a tendency to separate out the fifth of any particular note. This makes it very easy to take the bass sax that is keyed only to high Eb on up above its physical keyed limit in our musical performances. I general, the fifth interval is the most separable in any saxophone, though some separate it much more readily than others. In beginners this is problematic, however masters use this fifth separation in order to produce polyphonic sounds from what it otherwise a monophonic instrument. 

If you will examine the notes with which you are having these ghostly manifestations, Glen, you will see that there are fifth relationships at work. Bb is the fifth of Eb, and F is the fifth of Bb. Hmmm. Perhaps you are familiar with intonation issues within an individual saxophone – where intonation in this case refers to the accuracy of the interval between each half step in the instrument’s full chromatic scale — caused by certain traits in design & regulation. In addition to tone hole size and location, factors such as pad lifts & heights, types & sizes of pads & resonators, and even damage or manufacturing irregularities influence a saxophone’s internal intonation.

Where are we going here with this intonation discussion? Well, for one thing, the relative interval between any two notes on any saxophone — or any two saxophones — is likely to be different. Maybe this difference is measurable only with precision scientific equipment, but it’s a difference, none-the-less. The point: When two pitches come within a certain range of one another a sympathetic vibration is set off. The sympathetic vibration may be so faint that we barely perceive it – or strong enough that we both hear & feel it – or it may be that we perceive the sympathetic vibration only as a single harmonic separated from our saxophone’s (or an inanimate object’s) complex harmonic structure.

Over the years I’ve had two different alto saxophones that would ‘light up’ a room on certain notes. This happened years apart, and at two different shop locations. In one instance I surmised it was the window glass vibrating in sympathy to the instrument. In the second instance the effect was less pronounced, so I wasn’t able to track the source of the sympathetic vibration. Strangely, this second instance was also a Buescher Big B alto. Many inanimate objects in our environment have a potential to vibrate at a certain pitch. Metal & glass objects are especially prone to do so. I would suggest that your Bb vibration is one of these instances. I would look to the spring as the source of the problem. Rather than damping the whole key perhaps simply tweaking the spring tension will change the pitch of the key’s vibration potential enough to move it out of the range where your E & F are eliciting a response. That’s my story, anyway — and I’m sticking to it…:-)

2) Regulation

Now for your pad height/lift issue. There is no one right answer. There is a factory spec, and there is also a range of pad heights/lifts within which a saxophone will function correctly as a musical instrument. There is also definitely a trade-off relationship between sound potential and the resting pad heights among your naturally open pads. As we narrow pad resting heights we also close off & ‘pinch in’ a saxophone’s sound potential. As we open up your pad resting heights we also open up the sound — to a point. After raising resting pad heights past a certain point no more sound benefits are gained, and we start to see detrimental effects such as sloppy action, or erratic response (the ease with which an instrument sounds every note, regardless of volume, articulation and whether in passing or initiating play) and intonation issues — especially in the extreme upper range of the instrument. If you’ve ever played an old Conn Chu tenor and loved the gutsy sound — but hated the sloppy way it felt and the lousy intonation in the palm key notes — chances are all the horn needed in order to gain your complete favor was lowering the stack pad heights to a reasonable level.

A problem within the problem of pad lifts/heights is that there are a number of set up/regulation issues that the tech must address when selecting an overall static pad height regime. Simply put, each pad cup within each discrete stack (upper & lower, or right & left hand) is tied to all the others by virtue of its relationship to that stack’s slave pad (the pad that closes when you press other keys within that stack), and then, the two stacks are tied together by virtue of the bis Bb arm’s interaction with the lower stack. G# is also a part of the interaction between your stacks, and in cases where the G# is articulated, your extreme lower notes (all the way down to low A, if present) are tied to your stacks at G#. Front F, if present, brings yet another interaction into play that can affect your stack keys. 

If you’re getting a bit queasy thinking about all these relationships — and their potential to cause havoc in your saxophone’s mechanics — well, welcome to the world of the saxophone tech. The best techs (at least — for there are those out there who would present themselves to you as your sax tech who have not a clue about how all these key groups are tied together) implicitly understand ALL of your saxophone’s mechanical relationships. 

So how does this all relate to your question about your lower stack pad heights? No single stack – nor single key, for that matter – can be set up in a way that is not in harmony with the rest of your instrument. IOW, we would not look to change just your lower stack pad heights unless they were not in harmony with the rest of the instrument. Your whole saxophone must be examined, for only then would a qualified tech know exactly what was not in sync with what. If you would like to read more about the intricacies of your saxophone’s set up & regulation, we have a Q&A article that explains step-by-step how the best techs go about performing this intricate & tedious task.

As for your comment about certain techs setting your pad heights too low for your taste, I would remind you that if you do not discuss your hair style with a barber in advance you may not get a haircut to your liking. Did you get a bad haircut? Maybe. But it may also be true that this is a very talented barber who, left without guidance, simply made some decisions on your behalf that had to be made in order to complete the task for which you had engaged him.

It may very well be that your lower stack is in need of some attention, but that decision cannot be made in a vacuum. Look to see if the bis arm is touching the lower stack slave cup’s activator arm when all keys are at rest. If it is, then look to see if the bis cup is also resting against the under side of the ‘A’ key (absolutely no visible gap). Another way to put these relationships is to say that the slightest movement of either the ‘A’ key, or ANY of your key touches in the lower stack will cause an immediate motion of the bis Bb cup. If this is NOT the case with your saxophone then at least ONE stack needs some adjustment. It is impossible to say which/what adjustments are needed without further study.

I’ve just described a simple acid test to determine if your saxophone is correctly regulated. There are other relationships that could still be off, but no saxophone is correctly regulated until the bis arm is properly tied to its dual height regulation points. Another simple test is to (in turn) press each of your primary touches (B, A, F, E, D) in each stack and observe if there is immediate motion in the respective slave cup. If you see any lag before motion at the slave cup, or feel any jerkiness or gap in any one of these touches before it engages the slave arm, you have a regulation problem. If your sax passes both these tests your pad heights might still not be set at the optimum height for your personal musical performance preferences, but at least you know that the vital relationships between your stack keys are in sync. At this point you simply need to discuss your hairstyle a little more before you set your very competent barber to work. It’s when your sax won’t pass these simple tests immediately after a servicing that you need a new barber.

I’ve heard tell of would-be sax techs that address intonation issues by attempting to raise or lower the resting heights of individual pads within a stack. That’s simple ignorance. We can deal with that. In other cases a would-be tech lays out cork bumpers of uniform thickness for each stack key foot, glues them all on in one quick & dirty maneuver, then calls the pad heights good. This is laziness – a condition for which there is no known cure. Guess what level of regulation work that you get on your handy-dandy eBay $199 repad? Bingo! In the end, the effect of both ignorance and laziness upon your musical performance is the same. The work of neither of these would-be sax techs is likely to pass the acid tests just given you to check your saxophone’s regulation (discounting the felicitous accident).

An improperly regulated saxophone feels like a ride in daddy’s old GMC pickup down a washboard, red dirt Alabama country road. While a seven year-old may find a certain charm in the experience, this is no criteria for regulating your saxophone. Your properly regulated saxophone feels more like a Lexus rolling at 70 mph down freshly surfaced interstate 85 – headed for a big time in Hot ‘Lanta. That same seven year-old will find the ecstasy of sweet dreams, fast asleep in the back seat of your Lexus — with a big smile on his face, no less. Of course daddy never saw a Lexus, but the back seat of our old ‘fastback’ Hudson was a great place for childhood dreams — dreams destined to come true when daddy bought me a saxophone… :-)

Additional Comments
What’s the difference between ‘set up’ and ‘regulation’? To put the answer into a familiar form: all ‘set up’ is regulation, but not all ‘regulation’ is set up. Every saxophone requires regulation, which is simply putting all of its mechanical elements into the correct relationships with one another. Set up takes regulation a step farther, seeking to make all the mechanical elements of the instrument completely harmonious, to improve the workings to the extent possible within the instrument’s design restrictions (overcoming such restrictions where feasible), and to tailor the variables of key positions, heights & lifts to be most efficient (doing things right) & effective (doing the right thing) — all while considering the player’s expressed preferences. Obviously some communication must go into a saxophone’s set up. After all, no help can be provided without first reaching accord on what actually constitutes help.

There are some set up principles that every player appreciates, of course. Among these are optimum innate intonation, a smooth & harmonious flow to keyboard movement, and quiet mechanical operation. Past these givens, set up addresses friction reduction, advanced intonation leveling, a precise & uniform feel, and the trade off between close, fast action, and sound potential. It’s that last item where we techs need to seek the guidance of our client in order to avoid the ‘bad haircut’ syndrome. Only when proper regulation is present can the art of set up be taken to its extreme, so the two processes are forever joined at the hip.

Where the two activities (and concepts) separate, though, is that a properly regulated saxophone is exactly as its designers conceived it. That means all of the innate design limitations will affect the player — and consequently their musical performances. In overcoming the mechanical restrictions innate to a saxophone’s design — to the extent to which that is both feasible & doable — the set up artist transforms the instrument into something that allows the player to excel in their musical performances using that instrument. Just like the best haircut is the one that only you and your barber know has occurred, a saxophone with a great set up has no distracting qualities — at least none that are not designed into the instrument so that they cannot be overcome.

Judging by the state of the saxophones that come into my hands — and by the comments of those who receive the saxophones that receive our ‘Total Saxophone’ set up/regulation process here at CS — I would have to say that most players have never experienced playing a saxophone that is truly the best musical instrument it can possibly be. Amazing things can be done to even modest saxophone designs to elevate their musical performance potential far beyond what the player would expect (especially considering what is written about certain instruments in the web boards). Our great sounding 1920s saxophones with their modest mechanical systems are perfect examples.

You would simply be amazed at the difference a conscientious set up artist can make in your old Conn Chu, Buescher True Tone, or Martin Handcraft saxophone. We have CS clients who play these very horns in sections right along side the Top Hats, Super 20s and Mark VIs (proving that if you can play you can play anything — and if you can’t it ain’t gonna’ matter anyway). Of course we can make huge differences in the superior design saxophones, too. The important thing is that the saxophone you choose to play is the best musical instrument it can possibly be. And making it so is what we do here at CS… :-)

follow-up exchange

Q.  Thanks for your reply. The tech that opened my actions the first time did so to solve low register problems I was having since the previous adjustment. The second time they were set down, it was against my requests. I think I will discuss the Big B with my present tech. I really love this horn. Regards, Glen…

A. It’s unfortunate that a tech ignored your instructions, Glen. It’s acceptable to discuss your reasons for not wanting to honor the client’s wishes, but if the client persists in the face of what you believe to be an improper election your only viable option is to decline to accept the project. Of course every tech does not have a public accounting background to provide professional ethics guidance, and unfortunately, many techs need to accept every engagement in order to make the house payment.

I’ve done some more thinking on your side Bb buzz. The first thing I would have you do is pull the key off the horn and check to see if the screw that holds the flat spring in place is tight. Snug it down as need be. While you have the key off the horn, insert the rod into the ferrule in a position near where the rod rests when the key is installed. Now attempt to wiggle the two ends of the rod to determine if there is ‘play’ in the fit. In a correctly fitted rod you don’t get any play to speak of. Looseness at the spring’s attachment screw and play in the rod fit will both exacerbate a tendency for the key to vibrate.

Some things you can do on your own: Make yourself a paper washer to place between the spring and the key bottom, and also install a slip of paper under the spring foot in its resting cradle. These paper appliances won’t be permanent, of course, but they will allow you to observe if these buffers quell your vibrations. If so, your tech can fabricate buffers of a lasting nature for your spring at these two critical locations. You won’t be able to swedge your ferrule to proper clearance if you detect rod play, but you can apply some heavy grease to the rod (pack it as you would a bearing) to help quell vibration tendencies. These two maneuvers should help if your spring is the root of your sympathetic vibration problem.

The single part side Bb is one of the design flaws of the Big B. Prior Aristocrats had a two-part side Bb that I doubt would behave as does the single part mechanism. Evidently Buescher was looking to reduce costs in the Big B since the Aristocrat was no longer their top line saxophone (the 400 Top Hat was). There’s no other explanation for this ‘design regression’ that Buescher applied to the Big B. Dual part mechanisms replacing longer key runs are standard saxual engineering practice today.

As for your lack of power down low, see if that responds to changes in mouthpiece/reed combinations. I agree that if you have no response problems on your lowest notes you should not have significant leaks, neck fit issues, or an octave mechanism synchronization malady. You are definitely not playing a power mpc/reed combination in the Meyer 5M/#2 reed pairing. See if you can get hold of a metal Link STM in the 6 to 7* facing range, and try a 3 or 3½ reed with it.

Let me know how you come out..

Additional Comments
It’s important to choose your tech wisely. There’s a reason some techs have a significant backlog and premium prices. In general, if you have a valuable instrument, think twice before sending your horn to the shop that quotes bargain prices and quick turnarounds. Thankfully, the web has made it possible for players of world class saxophones to have their work done by world class techs. Caveat: The shop you want working on your prized vintage saxophone will never be fast, nor cheap.

If you can’t detect a real pride in workmanship and a genuine love for vintage saxophones in your tech’s remarks, run for the hills. You never want your prized vintage instrument in the hands of someone who works on saxophones just for the money.

Multiphonics, Altissimo

We have had some inquiries about these subjects, and requests for fingerings. There are charts around the web if you search them out under these individual topics. There are also books on these subjects. If you’ve looked at altissimo fingering charts you know that there are multiple fingerings for any particular pitch. I have personally documented no less than 12 possible fingerings for high F# alone. Some of these will work better on different brands and types of saxophones than others, and some that work great on Conns may not work at all on Selmers. Why is this? Differences in the instruments — both in terms of design and in set up/regulation choices that you and your tech make. In the design area there are things like tone hole size & location, plus tube shape and dimensions.

How many ways are there to draw a plain letter ‘J’? Now, how many ways are there to draw a three-dimensional letter ‘J’ — one that slopes from a skinny start, to a really fat end? The answer to both questions is the same, though the answer is more obvious when the question is asked in the second form. As far as set up/regulation choices go, those form infinite combinations of factors, as well.

Pad rest/lift heights — taken in combinations of 22 to 30 possibilities — quickly account for thousands of possible differences in set up from one sax to the next. What about resonators? They take up space both inside your saxophone (when the pad is closed), and in the air vent space above your tone hole rim (when the pad is open). And what about rim impressions? Deep rim impressions allow your pads to encroach into your saxophone’s air column. Conversely, pads with little or no rim impressions (properly sized & installed Conn Res-O-Pads) allow your vibrating air column inside the sax body to stretch to nearer its maximum volume potential.

We don’t usually think about our saxophones in engineering terms, but the whole instrument is designed to manipulate a vibrating column of air that is moving through the body tube under pressure. Sure, the tube is open at the bell, and potentially at numerous intermediate points where our tone holes are located, but there is measurable — albeit constantly changing — air pressure inside our saxophones. You can feel the wind on your face in totally open space, right? So you know that fluid dynamics can occur just about anywhere. Well, there is a whole set of physical laws that describe how our saxophones operate as a system for managing moving, pressurized air: Open tube fluid dynamics.

Getting back closer to earth, all these minute differences between one saxophone and the next hopelessly complicate our ability to make up a ‘cookbook’ for complicated, extra-design phenomena such as multiphonics or altissimo. Are these things possible? Yes. Are they manifestations of the saxophone’s complex harmonic structure? Yes. Can I give you a fingering and a technique that you could expect to work for any particular facet of either technique on your own saxophone? No, and I’m not fool enough to try. Those who become proficient at these extra-design techniques (meaning physical phenomena occurring outside the engineered design parameters of the instrument) study & practice them for years.

If you will note from your readings on our web site, we never seek to instruct our visitors on how to play the instrument. We inform you about saxophones as a music making machine, explain their design features, and discuss how to diagnose & fix problems with saxual operations that occur within their design parameters. You can only teach saxophone performance in a physical teacher-student environment. Those with enough innate musical talent can LEARN to play saxophone on their own, but no one can teach playing techniques from afar to those who do not instinctively & intuitively take to them. 

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