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Electric Saxophones!

15 Jul

I’m old enough to remember the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and the fact that many of us who were making a living playing the saxophone during those days did something that would be absolutely unthinkable today: we had electronic pickups permanently installed on our saxophones, a procedure which almost always involved drilling a hole in the neck. As the rock music scene blossomed during this era, saxophonists found themselves unable to compete (on a decibel level, at least) with guitarists, and the microphones and sound reinforcement equipment generally available at the time simply wasn’t up to the job at hand. When Selmer gave their blessing to the concept of a permanently installed pickup on a saxophone through their introduction of the ill-conceived and notoriously unreliable Varitone system, the flood gates were opened and suddenly everybody was getting pickups put on their horns. The main problem (among many) was that the pickups were almost always installed by technicians schooled in band instrument repair, not electronics or acoustics, who didn’t have a clue as to the optimum location on the neck, so in addition to the limitations of the equipment available at that point in time, most of the pickups were simply put on the horn in the wrong location. As a result of the poor installation technique and generally bad quality of the pickups available, saxophone players began to realize that maybe this permanent pickup thing was not such a good idea. In addition to the previously stated problems, many players purchased the wrong type amplifier, and tried to utilize amps which were built to respond to the frequency range of an electric guitar rather than the range of the saxophone. After a few years, everyone had begun to understand that this was maybe not such a good idea, and the pickup holes were all plugged, the pickups removed, and everyone went back to using conventional microphones. The saxophone community was left with unsightly warts on their necks, which were difficult to remove in a cosmetically acceptable fashion. During the late 1980’s, wireless microphones became available, and as they evolved and decreased in size, saxophonists were freed from having to stand in one spot (at the microphone) and no longer had to carry an amplifier since they could just plug the receiver of the wireless unit into the sound system. Unfortunately, the wireless aspect of these systems was a little bit ahead of the sound quality aspect, so the result was not always musically acceptable. Fortunately for us, technology marches on, and now very small yet acoustically correct microphones are available. We are currently working to see if it is possible to adapt this modern technology to the saxophone at a reasonable cost. My current vision is to offer a system in which the microphone is correctly mounted to the neck and offer an entire package (neck + electronics) to the player. Of course, by necessity, you have to offer the correct neck for a given instrument (contrary to what some neck vendors would have you believe, necks are NOT “one size fits all”) but we already manufacture a large number of different necks which are instrument specific. We also envisage offering a “multiple” microphone system as is commonly used in recording studios. My thought is to have one microphone mounted on the neck, another on the bell, and perhaps one on the midsection of the body. I believe this would significantly improve the accuracy of the signal received and sent to the sound system. Of course, between the pickups on the horn and the connection to the sound system, a player can easily add a bank of effects processors. It’s really amazing what is available today! In the 1970’s, I was touring with a large wooden frame which held about 20 individual guitar effects pedals, from flangers to envelope followers, along with a voume pedal and a wah wah pedal….well, it was the 1970’s, and we all aspired to be every bit as hip and psychedelic as the guitar slingers. I also, to the great dismay of my roadies, carried an immense 200 watt Ampeg amp everywhere. We have today some amazing sounding keyboard amplifiers which are tuned to the right frequency range, which are much lighter, more reliable, and sound much better than the equipment of the past. Basically, I’m telling you that once again, everything old may be new again, and that we plan to investigate the possibility of electrifying the saxophone once again, hopefully with better results. I’ll keep you posted, and may even post some video sound samples of the prototypes when we have them available.

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