Electronic Effects for the Saxophone
By Ken Fink
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,
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.
If you are using the house mix with multiple monitor mixes or one that the vocalist is not monopolizing here are some tips.
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:
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.
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:
Figure 1 shows the proper equipment interconnection. Note:
Hmmm, what to say? It's hard to say something valuable, because different people want different things. So, here are some random thoughts.
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.
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.
Here are some rules for the harmonizer.
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: