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Electronic Effects for the Saxophone

By Ken Fink

In my playing experience there are many reasons both for and against using effects on the sax. On the "against" side,

  • The music might not require it,
  • It's a lot more equipment to lug around,
  • There's already a sound man working the gig,
  • Working with electronics takes me away from playing the horn
  • Aesthetically, less is more, and I don't want to make the band muddy.

On the other hand, there are some compelling reasons to use effects or other electronics, such as a monitoring system.

  • I can never hear myself,
  • There is only one monitor mix, and the vocalist get to dictate the mix,
  • My sound needs to sound more modern, or in keeping with the musical style,
  • I like to experiment,
  • The music requires it.

I recognize that these pros and cons are subjective, but they should always be considered before purchasing any electronic equipment. Thinking about these things will determine what you need, how much you spend and maybe even how you will get to the gig!!

A CONDENSED HISTORY

My first experience with these toys was through the Maestro octave divider (one octave up, one or two octaves down and chorus). It also required you to drill a hole in your mouthpiece or neck to place the pickup properly. AAAHHHH!! No way!! I couldn't afford a mistake, so I just let it ride. But after I heard the sax using a wah-wah pedal on Zappa's "Chunga's Revenge" album (and also on Traffic albums), I started experimenting with a Cry-Baby wah-wah. The problem with a wah-pedal is that the Q (resonance) of the filter is so steep that anyone using it on a microphoned instrument is very susceptible to feedback. You therefore have to be very careful where you place your mic (and body!). Nowadays, if you want to use a wah-pedal, there are two ways I would go. The first is to use a variable Q pedal so you can adjust the resonance if necessary. The second is to use a wind controller (I use the WX-5) and use the wah as part of the sound. An example of this is the VL70m's trombone sound. Sounds great with a wah! By the way, the wah is part of that particular sound, no pedal required.

Recently I have heard separate recordings from the late 60s/early 70s with Rusty Bryant and Sonny Stitt using the Maestro unit. Interesting stuff. The bottom line is that it will add body to your sound. But personally, I prefer to use a soprano sax instead of harmonizing up an octave, and I will only "double-down" if I am trying to emulate a baritone sax. Taking a cue from the last "con," I do not want to make the band's sound muddy.

As an aside, this is a consideration everyone regardless of instrument needs to consider. You do not want to give the band or sound person a hard time and muddy-up the sound with "too much stuff." A good historical example of this is the Yamaha DX-7 keyboard. It was bright, it did not have a lot of low end, and the other band members loved it. Part of the reason was that it took up a very defined portion of bandwidth and did not get in anyone's way. So, the soundman or producer did not have to use a lot of EQ to prevent it from taking away from the other instruments in the band.

The next phase for me was playing two saxes at once, like Roland Kirk. I did not really know how to make that work right and did not want to do the prerequisite homework. I also wanted to use various effects (delays, gated reverbs, choruses, etc.) But when my band opened for the Average White Band, their horn player did all the horn parts and effects with an Eventide Harmonizer. Epiphony! When you couple that with the fact that I never had my own mix during live gigs, I solved all my problems with an effects rack and speaker. In the proper situation I was a one-man horn section. In others, I had a very clean controlled mix I could send to the board, and I did not have to rely on anyone to get it.

THE "HOW TO" PART

First things first. If all you really need is a stage mix, there are two ways to do it.

House Mix

If you are using the house mix with multiple monitor mixes or one that the vocalist is not monopolizing here are some tips.

  • Do not assume that the sound person knows what you need. Take some time to talk to him and make sure s/he knows what to do for you.
  • It's OK to bring your favorite microphone. For live, I like the sure Beta vocal (not instrumental) mic. The Beta mics have greater dynamic range, more gain and more sparkle. And, if there has to be one mic for 2 or three horns, the omni microphone pattern (versus the cartioid pattern of the instrument mic) is perfect for the occasion!
  • The philosophy is simple, and a good sound person should already know this. If there is a proper balance between the house volume and the monitor volume, you should not be "eating" the mic because you cannot hear yourself in the mix. Similarly, you should not be a mile away from the mic because the mix is too loud. If the sound person sees that, s/he should adjust levels accordingly. And get the hand signals right so if you need to signal him during a set s/he knows what you mean.
  • NEVER play at your loudest volume when close to the mic during the sound check. There are two reasons for this. The first is if you overload the mic, the sound person will lower the input level or add compression. No net gain. If there's no sound person and the band checks the overall level, remember that they'll get louder over time. Guitarists, keyboardists and bassists can turn up the knobs; you will probably not be able to reach the PA. So leave yourself some room to grow!!

Personal Mix

Now it starts getting interesting. Whether it's part of an integrated mixer or there is a separate power amp and mixer, the four things you definitely will need are:

  • Microphone & accessories (cable, stand, etc…)
  • Speaker (powered or unpowered)
  • Amplifier (either separate, part of the speaker or part of the mixer)
  • Mixer (volume, EQ)

You may also need an effects device, such as a reverb unit, but we'll get to that later. Again, your choices will dictate how much money you will spend. What follows are what you should consider before purchasing or renting the equipment, and some set-up tips.

  • Do you need to be wired or wireless?
  • As a corollary to this question, clip-on mic or traditional micing?
    • As an example, I was in one band where the leader felt that traditional blues needed a traditional mic, if only for show.
    • If you're playing in a section, you need traditional micing unless all section players are miced the same way.
    • If there are only two horn players, and can make do with one omni mic, the sound and blend will be better, however, if it's sax and trumpet, the trumpet player will probably need his own mic because of the volume differences between the two axes.
  • Will your personal mix ever need to be a section mix?
    • In other words, will your speaker be the monitor for you AND the other horn players? Better say "yes" if you play in a section! That requires a sub-mixer or multiple inputs.
  • Do you need a separate vocal mic?
  • Will you be using external effects?
    • Separate rack mount or pedal effects distinct from the mixer/amp.
  • Will a head-set monitor be sufficient and appropriate?
    • Sure is a lot less to carry!!
  • What type of effects do you need?
    • This topic could be an article unto itself. And it really is the crux of the matter. What do you want to do?? If you are not interested in doing very special "stuff" there is a wide range of effects boxes which combine reverb, delay, chorus, etc. Most of them are adequate. BIG ADVICE: Go on EBay and buy something USED. Play with it, use it, learn from it, and then sell it and buy what you REALLY need. You will wind up selling it for almost as much as you paid for it, so you will have a very low-cost learning experience! If you want harmonizer capability, the two companies I know of are Eventide (the absolute top-shelf) and Digitec. I've seen both the Eventide GTR-4000 (which I have) and Digitec devices (which I used to have) on EBay. If you buy an Eventide, you probably won't need anything else except memory expansion (for sampling) and cards (for programs and programming). PS-It is almost impossible to program the Eventide GTR-4000 unless you have a PC or MAC. There is a free editing program Eventide has which makes things very convenient.
  • Do you need signal conditioning?
    • Do you need limiting, gating, compression and gain stages? The answer is probably "yes" if you are harmonizing or using a wireless mic. Note that limiting is part of most of the new integrated mixer/amplifiers such as the Mackie 406M.

Signal Conditioning

Everyone should go to the DBX web site and read the article on compression (Compression 101). It is far more articulate and easy to understand than I can be.

My Set-Up

As a guide, I will tell you what I used to do and what I currently do. I'll also tell you why I did it that way. Finally, I will provide some wiring diagrams which may help the non-technical.

My old gigging setup was:

  • Simmons 8x2 programmable mixer, (Try finding that item! I liked it because it was a single rack space. Noisy, but OK for live!)
  • DBX166 gate/compressor,
  • Digitech ‘256 reverb unit,
  • Digitech ISP–33 harmonizer,
  • Yamaha Stereo 75 watt stereo/150 watt Mono power amp,
    • Strapped for mono operation. This doubles the available power.
  • JBL G-350 with 12" speaker and horn,
  • Sam Ash wireless with AKG409 mic OR Shure Beta 58 (vocal) mic,
  • Keyboard stand,
  • One 6 space rack to hold all active electronics except the wireless mic.
  • MIDI foot pedal to send MIDI program changes
  • Miscellaneous cable adaptors, passive transformers and cables. I also kept a direct box in my cable bag in case the sound man required it.

Advantages to this setup:

  • Total sound flexibility and control
  • Components may be upgraded separately
  • Can add other horns, keyboards (which I occasionally play), etc, as needed.

Disadvantages to this setup:

  • A lot to carry!
  • Again a lot to carry!

My current gigging setup is:

  • Mackie 406M powered mixer
    • What a great piece! No, this is not a commercial, but it gives you Mackie quality with separate nine-band EQ for you MAIN and MONITOR sends (!!), an amp switch which permits you to split the power amp between mains and monitor (as opposed to all mains) if you want, 6 inputs, and the ability to set levels without having the volume raised. Has inserts! And it contains the usual on-board effects (reverbs included) that these types of units offer with the ability to control how much effect is sent (separately) to main and monitor. Refer to http://www.mackie.com/sr/mixers/ for general and technical information on this product series.
  • Eventide GTR-4000 Ultra Harmonizer. Includes reverb, of course. The Mother of all Effect Boxes in 1998. Balanced and unbalanced I/Os, pedal jacks of course. Digital I/Os optional. See http://www.eventide.com/profaud/harm.htm
  • JBL G-350 speaker
  • Mics as above
  • Rockman All-Axxess pedal board

Advantages:

  • Much simpler setup,
  • Cleaner than setup with the Simmons. (In fact, it's better than many bands' PA systems.)
  • Can use the Eventide on an "insert" basis for effects on one channel, but still have the internal effects available for all channels if Eventide not needed. When I say insert, I mean that I can use it on a channel basis (up to two channels, since the unit is stereo capable), or it can replace/bypass the internal effects available on the Mackie if the master effects I/O is used.
  • Can leave the Eventide home if it's not required.
  • Less to carry!
  • Total sound control.

Disadvantages

  • Not a modular set-up, so if requirements change I would need a different Mackie or other components
Equipment Configuration

Interconnection diagram

Figure 1 shows the proper equipment interconnection. Note:
  • Observe proper grounding practices. I "Velcro" a power strip to the inside of the rack to which all items are connected. Only the power amp should have a 3-prong connection. Use ground lifters for all other devices to prevent hum. They'll cost you 50-cents each at a hardware store. You can always remove them, but you should start off each gig with this configuration.
  • Even if you can control all power switches with the power strip (that is, you leave all devices on), the power amp should be controlled separately to control speaker pop (which can damage the speaker). Shut the power amp off first, and turn it on last.
  • For clean power and sound, the power rating of the power amp should be at least the same as the speaker, with ample headroom. Of course, you do not have to turn it up to full volume!
  • Do not set your microphone in front of the PA speaker.
  • Angle your speaker so that your body is between the speaker and mic. You'll get a lot more gain before feedback. Try to elevate the speaker.
  • If you have enough power (say 150 watts into 8 ohms,) and are playing a small room, you can probably use your setup and not go through the house system at all. In that event, find a nice, elevated spot to put your speaker. Make sure you have enough speaker cable. And feed the house anyway, just in case!
  • Don't blow your ears out. If it's too loud, be smart and refuse to play. Don't crank up your volume!
  • I generally place the rack on top of the speaker stand and the speaker on top of the rack. I put the wireless on top of the speaker, which maximizes the wireless range.
  • If you need to, make yourself a pre-gig checklist of what to bring and what to check in your setup. For example, my most embarrassing moment occurred about 15 years ago. I had my keyboard hooked up to my setup and couldn't get any sound. It took me 15 minutes to figure out that I had my keyboard under MIDI, not keyboard control. I pissed off the club owner and the band! That should have been on my checklist. Live and learn!!
  • From the mixer channel input, use the pre- not post-send for the effects. This allows you to control the amount fed to the effects unit without touching the amount of dry (channel) signal fed to the master mix. So, another way of looking at it is you don't reduce the amount of effect when you turn the channel volume down. I like it because I can mix the effect separately.
    • Some people like the fact that the volumes/signal feeds are linked. If you like that, use the post-send. (This assumes you have both types of sends available.)
    • Here's another wrinkle, for control freaks! Instead of bringing the last effect in the chain to the effects return, bring them to other channel inputs. Now you can EQ the effect. CAUTION!! If you do this, make sure that the sends on the effects channels are set to zero. Otherwise, tremendous feedback!

Effects Tips

Hmmm, what to say? It's hard to say something valuable, because different people want different things. So, here are some random thoughts.

Reverb

If I'm playing straight-ahead jazz, I like the mix on the old Blue Note recordings. Reference Dexter Gordon's "Doin' Allright" as one of his best albums and having a great mix. In it, there is a plate reverb with the dry horn panned left-of-center and the wet sound panned right-of-center. Sounds great! For live situations, you generally have a mono mix. Depending on the room and other factors, I like a ½ to 1.5 second plate reverb. Don't make it too wet! It will confuse the listener.

If I'm playing pop-jazz (such as Kenny G. or the other easy listening horn players), you may consider other reverbs. Also, a slow chorus or phase shift may work. Personally, I do not like gated reverbs.

Delays

A nice effect is to give a little slap-back pre-reverb. In other words, a suitable delay (1/4 to ½ second, or per taste, with the feedback set so that you hear the repeat 2-4 times. This can evolve to what I call the "John Klemmer" effect-for those of you old enough to remember his "Waterfalls". Just vary the delay time and the feedback, and start playing chords with yourself!!

The question I am always asked is "how do I compete with the guitar players?" Well, the answer is that you generally can't. They have a chordal instrument, and that plays into the distortion part of their sound. For example, a distorted minor third interval bent to a major third is very difficult without a proper harmonizer setup. That's difficult to create, and, in my opinion, not worth the hassle. However, there are times when the smart-aleck (I won't say what I really feel) guitarist has the first solo, and, without considering what comes next, rips it up. Then it's your turn. What do you do? Well, if you're a sideman, chances are that the band is not musical enough to follow you if you want to bring it down and start anew. So, for that situation, I have a special sound. You will want to emulate the guitar or vocalist's "smear." It's kind of a watercolor kind of sound because you create it with a very short delay and use a relatively high feedback setting. In the mix one hears the entire bend at once. For those of you in my generation, it generates aural "trails." You hear it on Zepplin albums and the like. It's a good hammer to have in your tool kit. Very Hendrix-ish.

Harmonizer

Here are some rules for the harmonizer.

  1. Close harmonies. Prevents that "sampled" sound
  2. No more than 3 part harmonies. Gets muddy. Besides, how many (for me) tenor saxes can you have at one time and still be clean?
  3. Custom scale/interval set-up are great because you can play solos as though you are a big band horn section! (I used it on tunes like Caldonia.)
  4. Clip-on, close field mics work best in this situation. You don't want to harmonize the band noise.
  5. Use a noise gate!!
  6. MIDI foot pedals for quick changes. My setup for each bank of 5/key when in a blues band: I/IV/V/Thick (5 ms delay w/feedback and reverb/standard sound). The "Thick" sound is the one I mentioned in the Delay section.

General

Use your MIDI pedal to your advantage. They come in a variety of configurations. There are 15 switch pedal boards and 5 switch pedal boards. For the 5 switch pedal board, you want to have at least one effects bank. Because this is generally for a fusion or rock gig, I use (1) plate reverb only, (2) bari sax mix + reverb, (3) chorus/flange + reverb, (4) Thick + reverb, (5) Delay/Echo + reverb. I also have some a standard blues setup for every key so every bank of 5 is identical.

If you are using an Eventide, the 15switch pedal setup is recommended. Use 5 switches for program changes, and 10 switch for changing parameters within the program. (Of course, you should set it up the way that works best for you. This is just what I do. It does not necessarily work for someone else!)

Well, that's about it. Someone could write a book about each of these topics, and I'm sure someone already has. Just remember:

  • Decide what you need before you buy
  • Allow yourself some flexibility
  • If it works well for you, it's "right."
  • Experiment and have fun!


©2002-2005 Ken Fink


Follow-up discussion in SOTW Forum


Hal Leonard Instant Pro Sound Advice on Microphone Techniques
Hal Leonard Instant Pro Sound Advice on Microphone Techniques

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About the Author:
Ken Fink has been playing bassoon as well as tenor and soprano saxophone since high school. He has a BA in Music Education from Hiram College, and attended the Mannes College of Music in NYC where he studied the bassoon. He quit to go on the road to play the sax with the Gary Toms Empire, an MCA artist. After playing with many original acts, he went back for his BS in Electrical Engineering, but continued to play and record. Among the many bands he played with was Chop Shop, a top blues band in the early '90s in NYC. He has also done some movie and jingle recording.
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Created: February 12 2002.
Update: April 10 2005.
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