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I don't think we've beaten this horse yet

1924 Views 14 Replies 11 Participants Last post by  Al Stevens
Ok so we've all read, heard, discussed and rehashed the merits, or lack of, different finishes and what not. The general consensus as I see it always ends up back to the phase, "it's the player, not the horn that matters". Ok fine and dandy.

So I'm looking at all this from a different prospective. Is a given player always tonally "bright" or "dark" no matter what setup is in hand and mouth? Does a person's physiology predetermine how their sax will sound? I ask this because as I'm now trying out a number of tenors, I feel like I tend to sound bright"ish" on all of them.

It maybe true that as a player matures they will have a natural tendency to increase the throat control thereby creating a rounder and perceived "darker" tone. Or, is it genetics that has things set in stone? I guess if my Mother or Father played sax I'd be able to answer this from experience.

So, here's a loaded question.... Anyone with opinion around here on this? :D
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I would think that most of us have a natural tendency, one wy or the other. We have different body geometry etc and also we have tend to get into habit mode with our air, throat, sound concept and so on. After reading Dave Liebman's book (Developing a personal saxophone sound) I'm inclined to think that we can shape our sound anyway we like, on a wide variety of eqipment. Provided of course, that we're willing to invest time rather than money. ;) :D
Dog Pants said:

I would think that most of us have a natural tendency, one wy or the other. We have different body geometry etc and also we have tend to get into habit mode with our air, throat, sound concept and so on. After reading Dave Liebman's book (Developing a personal saxophone sound) I'm inclined to think that we can shape our sound anyway we like, on a wide variety of eqipment. Provided of course, that we're willing to invest time rather than money. ;) :D
I have Liebman's book and the ideas are useful. After investing time and money (on lessons), I'm starting to sense a concept that comes from what I hear in my head. So I guess the it's a chicken and egg question as to what comes first. Do I hear what play or do I play what I hear?
No, I don't think one's sound is fixed as dark or bright. But there are many dimensions of sound, and it is likely that enough of them carry over from one setup to the next that a person's tone (or tonal style) may be easily identified. Bird played on "several" different setups on his various recordings, and while you can hear differences there are also similarities that make him pretty easy to identify.
I think a lot of "tone" is the player because:

  • as over time I've practiced on the same equipment I've heard my tone develop and change and improve
  • if I lend my sax and mouthpiece to someone else they still sound like themselves not like me
  • if I borrow someone elses sax and mouthpiece I still sound like me not like them
  • Steve Neff's recent blind test experiment with mouthpieces shows how similar it is possible to sound on a range of different mouthpieces
  • Charlie Parker
  • The science of sax playing shows that a lot of the things we might intuitively think affect tone (eg brass or bronze) do not in fact affect it

But I also think that part of the reason for the player being so instrumental in "tone" is because "tone" is actually not just the sound itself but the way the sound is created, ie articulation, dynamics etc.. We may think "nice tone" when we hear something but in reality it is other things as well that are making us think that (human perception being dodgy at best).

An example of this someone posted fairly recently about a student who failed an exam because their tone was marked down as poor and practised articulation for a year and came back and passed with the comment "tone much improved".
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Interesting replies, but I'm tending to not agree completely. Here's my premise... If I was a big Shaq O'Neil type guy with a deep raspy voice, I'd think there'd have to be some predisposition towards a deep raspy tone. OTOH, If I was a guy with Neapolitan statue and a Vienna Boys Choir voice, the opposite effect would become prominent. Not that either qualilty couldn't be overcome via training and practice.
I don't think physical size is the issue. I play with a guy who's maybe 5 feet 2 inches tall, he's got a big, powerful sound. I do think head, throat, and tongue demisions play a huge part is our baseline sound. Of course, with practice, knowledge, and equipment many can move from dark to bright or bright to dark. I started with a bright sound so I play a fairly dark set-up to compensate.

I view the natural tendency towards bright or dark different from tonal concept.
This is going to sound crazy.....but....

I have found it is the player's sound concept (dictated by the player's individual physiology). I tell my students to do an impression of kermit the frog. (or someone everybody knows) and 99.9% can do a serviceable impression of "it's not easy being green" in a psuedo-kermit voice. The reason is the student/musician has an idea of what kermit sounds like and can therefore reproduce the sound. I then ask the student to explain what they had to do to their body to get the kermit voice and this leads to: what do you have to do to get a warm/dark sound--or bright/buzzy sound, etc?

It is the same for saxophone. I'm not saying one should try to sound exactly like their favorite player (or kermit for that matter), but this "teaching technique" drives home the point. I follow this up by playing a jazz tune on my Rousseau set-up (followed by a nice ferling or something), then play the same classical etude on my jazz set-up (followed by the same jazz tune.) Because an advanced saxophonist can get the same core sound on any set-up (due to changes in the throat, tongue, air stream, etc) it has to be the player. I have found finish effects response more so than tone. Obviously, different mouthpiece choices do effect the tone, but at the end of the day it is all the player's sound concept and his/her physiology.
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All interesting posts. I'll add that the terms "bright" and "dark" don't mean the same thing to all players/listeners. Those terms are subjective, at best.

Example (cited before in other posts) . . . I played a gig with an old friend who uses a Martin alto from the 1920's. I had my Reference 54 Selmer alto that day. Now in MY hearing, the Ref 54 is very warm . . . "dark" if you will. My friend's Martin alto has always sounded sweet, but neither bright nor dark.

We switched horns before the gig and he said to me after blowing a few scales and arpeggios on my Ref 54, "Nice and bright." That would have been the one comment I wouldn't have made about my Ref 54. He heard it completely different than I heard it. DAVE
Good answer Blue Boy. Also, in regards to the hypothetical guy with the deep Shaq-voice - maybe that guy picks up a saxophone as a way to produce a noise that is inside his head, but unable to be expressed by his big manly voice.

I think music (and art in general) are more interesting when there are a multitude of factors involved. For example, one person may be concerned with letting the most pure, natural, uninhibited sound out of his horn, while the next may try to create a sound he hears in his head, but is unsuited to his given body/throat shape. What I'm saying is that there's a more interesting, personal and nuanced place in between these ideals where the player understands his personal abilities/limitations but also factors in the sounds in his head.

This feeds into something I've thought about for a while now. Without going any further into it, it's that extremes and ideals are important for the practice room but making real noise in the real world requires taking a multi-dimensional view of yourself, your music, and your audience.
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My darkness/brightness factor tends to be the same on all tenors I play, all other things being equal. That's not a lot of tenors, though. I've played a Vito, an 82Z, a King Silversonic Super 20, three Mark VIs, a Buescher TrueTone, and a SA 80 Serie II.

I do find that the mouthpiece and reed can influence it, however, which should not surprise anyone.

My sound is my own, equipment notwithstanding. I hate it and am always trying to improve it.
One of the most important lessons on tone quality I have ever learned was in a clinic given by the great trombonist and arranger Bill Waltrous. At the time for questions after his demonstration the trombone players in the room started to barrage him with questions about which mouthpiece and trombone he played on. He abruptly ended the questions and said that throughout his playing career he would buy a new trombone or a new mouthpiece hoping to get that great sound that he was looking for and find after two weeks of playing he sounded exactly like he did on the old equipment. He remarked that he did the same thing over and over and over again, until one day he realized that if he wanted to change his sound, he had to first change his concept. Once that was accomplished, he said the equipment issue just kind of took care of itself.

The equipment does not create the sound, it simply provides a pathway to achieve the sound that is in the player's head. If it does so efficiently, then the setup fits that individual. If the player has to work hard to force the equipment to produce a sound that conforms to his concept, then he would do well to find a more efficient setup.

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As I read your replies I'm thinking, I know there's no scientific way to measure the effect of a person's physiology on tone. Nor can anyone say that my idea of tonal quality is the same as others. Maybe that's why people get all rapped up into discussions over gear. It's much easier to identify what gear someone is using as opposed to explaining how they're using it.

Mastering the instrument is all about overcoming one's perceived limitations. However, we can all agree these limitation do exist. Otherwise we'd all be at near the greatest sax players ever. So it begs to question, how does our predisposed physical limitations, for lack of better word(s), effect the ability of creating the tone we what to hear? Is there such a type of individual who is a natural at any one sound? Or, is the "learned" theory more valid?
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Hmmm, I think everyone has a natural tendancy towards dark/bright, but it can be altered slowly over time. Of course the quicker, easier solution for me, for example, who plays very bright, is to get a huge open chambered mouthpiece (should be here soon!) free of baffles etc. and a dark ligature/reed combo. My sound is getting darker all the time though through long tones/over tones. For example, a guy I know who has the darkest sound you've ever heard uses a Dukoff, a Dukoff! He just has such strange facial geometry that using an evil Dukoff invention is the only way he gets any projection.
I supposer there are naturals to whom some things just come without a lot of effort. But I think the rest of us learn what we need by working. We hear what we like, imitate what we hear, mix our own physiology, experience and knowledge into the blend, iterate all the above endlessly, and our own sound emerges.

Tone is important, but in jazz a more important thing is selecting in real time better notes to play. Spend enough time learning that, and tone is a byproduct of that work. Why? Because learning to improvise requires a lot of playing. And a lot of playing is the main key to tone development.
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