The Saxophone Tone and “The Edge”
by Paul R. Coats
The characteristic tone quality, or timbre, of a musical instrument is determined by the variety and amount of overtones added to the fundamental pitch being produced. These overtones, or multiples of the fundamental pitch, give the tone an individual characteristic sound that the ear can differentiate from other tones. The variety and amount of overtones is what makes the flute, clarinet, trumpet, saxophone, etc., sound different from one another.
The saxophone tone is, in turn, affected by the instrument, mouthpiece, reed, the player, and even the room acoustics. The instrument can affect the tone through variations in bore size and taper, tone hole size, and the type (or lack) of pad resonator. The mouthpiece and reed have a greater influence on tone, and are the easiest factors for the player to change.
The presence of overtones is heard by the ear and brain as a brilliance, or intensity, of tone. Try this experiment. Play a tape or CD of your favorite saxophonist on your stereo, and turn the treble control up and down. Listen to how it affects the tone quality. If you have an equalizer, play with the various sliders and listen to how increasing or decreasing the intensity at various frequencies affects the tone quality.
A bright tone is sometimes described as having edge. This edge, or brilliance of tone, helps the tone project. A classical player usually wants a dark tone, or tone with a lesser amount of overtones. This helps in blending in a quartet or concert band, but works against the player when it comes time to solo. On the other hand, a player who wants to project his tone needs edge in his tone. Players in theater, jazz, and rock bands usually chose mouthpieces that give them enough edge to project well in these more commercial settings.
There is nothing wrong with edge in the tone. In colleges today saxophonists are driven to produce an edgeless tone. This is not necessarily correct. Fine classical saxophonists such as Fred Hemke, Paul Brodie, and Jamal Rossi have a degree of edge that yields good solo projection and a lively, exciting tone. I urge you to listen to these three great artists.
When listening to fine theater and orchestra players up close the tone is sometimes frighteningly edgy and coarse sounding. But with distance the coarse edge is lost and a beautiful, lively, projecting tone is heard by the audience.
I had an interesting discussion recently with saxophonist Santy Runyon. Santy is well known as a manufacturer of fine woodwind mouthpieces and accessories, but in past years he played with big bands, did a ten year stint as first woodwind in the Chicago Theater Orchestra, played many radio shows in the forties, club work, etc. This is a saxophonist that can be heard all the way up in the balcony!
When he plays his tone is very edgy up close. Everything in the area is vibrating to its maximum intensity. At a music trade show I was on the opposite side of a convention hall from his booth, and Harlem Nocturn soared over the top of the hall. Everyone in my immediate area stopped to listen, and remarked on the beautiful tone. It was Santy, of course.
I told him about this, and we discussed the desirability of edge in tone, projection, and so forth. He related a story from his days in the Chicago Theater. A cello player behind him was sawing away, making all kinds of racket. Santy asked the cellist if he realized how edgy the tone was, the cello sounded like a buzz saw. The man replied, “I have to play this way, otherwise, they can’t hear me past the third row. It doesn’t sound the same out there.” And he was 100% correct!
Don’t get paranoid about the degree of edge in your tone. You may play in a band where the director does not want to hear the saxophones (we used to hear, “Saxes, I want you to sound like french horns.”). You may have to use a very dark mouthpiece and reed combination to satisfy this director. So be a pro, and produce what is asked for. But more often, composers for modern symphonic band are recognising the saxophone section as another distinct and useful voice. They are no longer hiding the saxophones in the low brass, but are utilizing the unique saxophone tone to great advantage. Solos and sax section soli passages are much more common. Composers can now rely on, and demand, a high level of performance from saxophonists. A more projecting tone, having a degree of edge, is required for these passages.
For this modern literature you may wish to try the same type of mouthpiece and reed setup as would be used for theater pit band or big band playing. These brighter mouthpieces will also usually produce the altissimo notes more easily than very dark sounding mouthpieces. The player should be aware that due to conduction of the tone from the mouthpiece, through the teeth, and into the bones of the head, his tone will seem reedier that what is actually heard by listeners. It is suggested that a player record himself (both up close and at a distance) in a concert hall in order to get a better picture of his actual tone. The player should not judge his tone on what he hears of himself in a practice cubicle.
The attack and release, or beginning and ending of a note, will affect how the listener perceives the tone of a player. I had a friend, a trumpet player, who was given consistent low marks on tone in her college juries. Her teacher advised that her tone was fine, but her tonguing and releases were sloppy. After a semester of concentrating on tonguing excercises, and working on release, she got A’s from all the jurists for tone. Several jurists remarked, “Tone much improved!”
And on a final note, be a theater player, not a parlor player. If the guy in the last row of the balcony can’t hear you, you aren’t doing your job. (Thanks, Santy)