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Some Thoughts on Saxophone Keywork

27 Aug


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It’s a testament to the genius of Adolphe Sax that our modern saxophones use a keywork system that is basically identical to what was used on the very first examples. It is true, of course, that the range of the instrument has been enlarged and that certain mechanisms have been improved. However, today’s saxophonist is still forced to use a system introduced over a hundred and fifty years ago. Numerous attempts have been made over the history of the saxophone to improve the mechanism for both acoustic and ergonomic reasons. Some improvements, such as the automatic octave key, have found universal acceptance. Others, such as the Leblanc “Rationale” system, were judged by players to be simply too complex to be used by mere mortals! A review of saxophone patents of the past will reveal hundreds of attempts to make the saxophone easier to play Unfortunately, many worthy improvements never saw the light of day due to the resistance of manufacturers to offer something a bit different. Many of these ideas are worth a second look. I can see no justification for making the saxophone difficult for the average player to use! Before you say it, I know that “Coltrane sounded great and he didn’t need any of that stuff!”. Of course this is true. However, I would submit that we will never know the greater heights that the masters of the saxophone might have achieved had their equipment been a little easier to deal with. Let’s examine a few ideas for improvements, beginning at the “top” of the horn:

The Neck: On most horns, we’re doomed to trouble just trying to put it together! The ring which activates the neck octave key is inconveniently located exactly where most players hold the neck when inserting it into the body receiver. A much better solution is to use an underslung mechanism, such as is seen on the King Super 20 horns, which allows the neck to be gripped on the tube so the mechanism is not bent during assembly. The end ferrule of the neck should be thicker and tapered so its edges do not present a vertical obstruction inside the mouthpiece chamber, which causes turbulence and resistance. The neck and body octave pip should always be threaded to prevent the annoying “hiss” of escaping air when they are opened. The neck tenon and body receiver should be manufactured of a much harder metal than the rest of the keywork to resist the distortion which invariably occurs when the neck is inserted into the body in a “less than perfectly straight” fashion. The tenon and body receiver should also be heavily chrome plated to resist both wear and corrosion. We would be remiss to leave the neck without a word about the octave mechanism. Under the best of circumstances it’s a compromise. In the perfect world there should be twelve individual octave pips, one for every semi-tone of the chromatic scale. In this same perfect world, the placement of each of these pips should be halfway between the tip of the mouthpiece and the tone hole that produces the note in question. Of course, a twelve octave pip horn is a mechanical impossibility. Most modern saxophones have a system of two pips which control different ranges. The problem with this system is that since there are only two pips controlling twelve notes, the pips must be in a “compromise” position. The notes at the extreme range of the pips suffer. A good solution is to add additional pips controlled by the same mechanism. By using two pips on the neck and two on the body tube, and no additional mechanism, response can be considerably improved. This would reduce the amount of compromise necessary, and would decrease the number of notes each pip would control. A couple of variations of this system have been used in the past, notably on the Conn 28M, the Buffet-Powell, and a few offerings from Unison. I have never believed that this possibility has been fully explored.

The Upper Body Tube: There’s no reason for all saxophones not to have a high G key. They have been successfully used on sopranos for many years, and the note G3 has truly become a standard part of saxophone literature. The front F key has been a source of continual frustration for many saxophonists, as venting from the F tone hole alone often produces notes that are thin and somewhat sharp. A better solution is to have the front F key open both the F and Eb palm keys slightly, and requires only a lengthening of the actuator bar. This gives much better venting and superior intonation and response. The high C to D trill key, as used on Holtons, Hohners, and some Selmers, should be brought back. This is a very difficult trill, and the system used by these makers (the key touch is adjacent to the high E key touch) allows it to be executed easily. As is very well established, the upper range of the saxophone tends to be somewhat sharp in pitch. A look at virtually any modern soprano will reveal an additional mechanism which operates in conjunction with the octave key and serves to close the small C pad partially, through the use of an additional “doughnut” pad. The closure of the C pad serves to lower the pitch of the notes C#3 and above. A similar mechanism was used on some Martin altos, and in the 1990’s on a model from the Unison company. This mechanism works quite well, and allows the use of larger tone holes for the upper notes, giving a voice lacking the thinness usually associated with the palm key notes. There are two areas on the upper stack where the problems are acoustic rather than ergonomic: the “middle finger C” and the G. Let’s examine the C mechanism first. You may have noticed that the “chromatic” C fingering usually speaks with a better voice and intonation than the commonly used “middle finger” C. This is due to the Bb and A pads which are closed by the mechanism in order to actually close the necessary C pad. The open B pad simply lacks enough venting to produce a C with the required strength. The elegant solution, first used on a saxophone by Taiwanese maker Shen Foo Pin, is to add a “speaker” key to the B mechanism. This is a small (about 12mm) tone hole located approximately halfway between the B and Bb tone holes which is actuated by the B key. The extra opening provides the necessary venting, and brings the C up to pitch and vastly improves the voice, particularly on C3. Improving the G is a more difficult matter to resolve. Our saxophones are built with the pad operated by the G key touch open and the pad operated by the G# key touch closed. This normally closed pad is between two open pads (G and F#) and tends to devour the sound and cause significant response issues. A good solution would be to have two pads operated by the G key touch, and an entirely separate mechanism for a G# pad located outside the plane of the main stack keys. Since the body tube of the saxophone is circular, the tone hole for G# could be placed at any point that allows the production of the G#. This would have the added advantage of potentially allowing the re-introduction of the G# trill key. This trill key began to disappear from saxophones in the 1930’s, Anyone who has owned a saxophone so equipped will assure you that it is a very handy item to have on your horn!

The RH Side Keys and LH Pinky Table: All of these keys are problematic because our saxophones are manufactured “one size fits all” and there is a tremendous variation in human anatomy. The chromatic side keys for Bb and C which are operated by the right hand are almost invariably located in a fashion that requires the player to leave the optimum playing position. Generally the touches for these keys are mounted too high on the body tube, requiring the player to lift the right hand from the thumb rest. The key touches are typically too low, requiring excessive motion of the right hand to reach them. The key touches also lack stops, so that when depressed with any significant pressure, they tend to flex. Moving the key touches for chromatic Bb, C, and high E down and out would aid players considerably in executing these notes. The chromatic F# key would also benefit from similar treatment. Needless to say, the high F# key on all saxophones is very inconveniently located and is difficult to use. A much better solution for the high F# would be to place the key touch below the palm key cluster. This would result in the elimination of the long rods and articulated mechanism, and allow the F# to be produced without the use of both hands. The low Eb/low C key touches are often located on the saxophone in such a fashion that they require contortions or full extension of the little finger of the right hand to operate. Both of these key touches would benefit from a significant increase in height so that they are easier for the player to reach. This would improve leverage, and would greatly facilitate speedy execution of these notes. The left hand table, which contains the key touches for G#, C#, B, and Bb has benefited from significant evolution over the years, yet still proves troublesome for many players. They key touches provided are generally too small and too low for most players hands. The usual placement of the low Bb key touch requires the little finger of the left hand to be fully extended, an uncomfortable position which limits speed of execution. The Bb key touch should be higher on almost all saxophones so that it is easier for the player to reach. Any discussion of the left hand table would be incomplete it we didn’t offer a solution to the infernal sticking G# pad. The fix is really quite easy, if we take a moment to consider how this mechanism works. The G# key cup is actually sprung in an open position by a relatively weak spring. It is held closed by a strongly sprung G# key touch. The problem of sticking is caused by the natural adhesion of the pad to the tone hole top being greater than the strength of the relatively weak key cup spring. The simple solution is to add an additional flat spring to the arm extending from the G# key touch which serves to assist in pulling the G# key cup up. The flat spring used needs only a slight amount of tension to perform the task at hand. Too much tension will change the “feel” of the G# key touch and make it difficult to operate.

The Lower Stack and Bell Keys: Our lower stack keys suffer acoustically from the nemesis of the entire mechanism: closed tone holes. The Eb and C# tone holes are both closed, and these closed holes present considerable problems in both intonation and voicing. The low Eb tone hole is always located at the back of the saxophone, just before the curve of the bow. In years past, different systems have been employed to provide an alternate fingering for the note Eb, usually through the use of a small tone hole located on the back of the body tube between the D and E tone holes. This system was notorious for leaking, and although it did provide a viable alternative fingering, the tone hole was too small to provide an additional venting which may have assisted the intonation of the other notes produced by the lower stack.

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