Wind instruments must cope with water vapour from our breath, as well as saliva and food remnants, as gross as that may sound. It's an inevitable side effect of how they are played, and some even say it's a feature rather than a bug.
Modern brass instruments usually have a keyed port, called a spit valve, that is opened so condensed water vapour, and other contaminants that enter the bore or tube may escape. But you might be wondering if alto saxes, specifically, also have this feature.
Do alto saxophones have spit valves? Alto saxophones don't have spit valves. These are reserved for baritone and contrabass saxophones, probably owing to the design of their embouchure being more open, their longer bell, and heavier body, making it more difficult to turn the instrument upside-down to drain the condensed water out.
In this article, we'll discuss what a spit valve is and how it operates, what types of wind instruments have it, and some examples of spit valve designs.
As mentioned, spit valves are reserved for brass instruments and larger sax types because of their complex body specifications.
The shape of a baritone saxophone, for example, provides several locations where condensed water will pool, and a spit valve makes it easier to drain any condensed liquid built up in them. Note that most saxes and woodwinds can be dried by other mechanisms, which are beyond the scope of this article.
To give some context, the spit valve – correspondingly called a “water key” – was patented by William V. Allen on February 4th, 1909. This valve is spring-loaded and normally closed. It has the sole purpose of releasing any accumulated saliva, water (condensed from the airflow blown into the instrument's tube or bore), and any other impurities.
“Water key” may be a more accurate descriptor, basically because the liquids gathered in the instrument are not saliva exclusively but rather a mix of spit and condensed water.
As you may already know, our bodies are composed of 70% water (technically fluid). It should be expected that our breath will carry some trace of water vapour, and in fact, air from our lungs has a great concentration of water vapour.
When a musician starts playing, warm, saturated breath comes into contact with the metal's normal temperature, which is cooler than the breath. The water vapour in the breath proceeds to cool and convert into liquid water.
There can also be some condensation of vapour when the temperature decreases on the inside of the instrument during playing, which normally happens after drops in air pressure.
Without a spit valve, this accumulated liquid will build up and eventually disturb the airflow, messing up the pitch and intonation of the instrument or drowning the sound altogether. The spit valve serves to liberate the liquid. This, in turn, prevents any liquid from being sprayed into adjacent tubes or corroding the tube's interior by tarnishing or leaving any mineral trace.
The spit valve is normally placed at the site where liquids tend to collect due to gravity, such as the U-shape elbow of the instrument.
The Types Of Instruments That Require Water Keys & The Case Of The Alto Saxophone
For one, most modern brass instruments have a very complex tube construction and shape – especially tubas, flugelhorns, and trombones – making it very difficult for them to be thoroughly cleaned on the inside.
On the other hand, the weight of some instruments makes it very impractical to flip them to drain any water accumulation.
Classic brass instruments, such as the natural trumpet, consisted of a fairly simple design, so the presence of a water key was not required or warranted. Some were assembled with shanks or crooks that could be detached and cleaned separately. Over time, these un-valved instruments were superseded by valved instruments that allowed for instant changes in pitch.
Naturally, as valved brasses became the norm and other wind instruments turned more complex in valve structure and build, the need to find alternative mechanisms for water removal arose.
Conversely, woodwinds such as clarinets and flutes don't come equipped with a spit valve or water key. The main reason for this absence is that they don't require it, as opposed to most valved instruments.
We'll now turn to the alto saxophone.
What About Alto Saxophones?
Alto saxophones, which are the main target of this article, are traditionally easy to clean and get rid of moisture, thanks to the relatively lightweight and simple design.
Usually, a good swabbing session should remove a sizable chunk of water, spit, food particles, and mineral debris from the bore.
Turning the instrument upside down and shaking it will furthermore help expel any considerable amount of built-up water through the bell.
Some musicians would argue that saxophones, including alto saxophones, don't need spit valves. Their argument is only the mouthpieces on brass instruments require an embouchure that produces spit in great quantities.
However, while the last statement might be true to an extent, we've already shown that spit is not the only liquid substance that accumulates in the tube. There is also condensed water from our breath, which alto saxophones are prone to collect, too.
Alto (and tenor) saxophones have a pretty straightforward conical section that comprises the neck, body, and bell, with an accessible elbow or “curl”. This elbow (also known as “bow”) can be wiped on the inside by introducing a plain piece of cloth or chamois inside the bell or by using a pull-through swab.
Assessing the structure of the alto saxophone, one may safely conclude that Installing a spit valve could be considered overkill and would only increase its production costs.
Moreover, the process for swabbing an alto saxophone is fairly simple. The swabs are pieces of cloth (commonly of a chamois-like material) with a string attached to a weight.
To properly swab an alto sax, the weight is tossed inside the bell and passed through the neck by flipping the instrument upside-down. In the meantime, the cloth is pulled through from the bell to the neck, dragging away and removing all the moisture and contaminants stuck to the tube walls, including any water puddles formed in the curvature.
With that said, a question may arise: Why do baritone and contrabass saxophones have spit valves, then?
Initially, baritone saxophones were also swabbed, but the process was tricky due to their elongated bell design and greater weight during handling. Needless to say, the difficulty increased considerably in the case of contrabass saxes, being borderline impossible even.
In these scenarios, the presence of spit valves is very handy.
Types Of Spit Valves
This key or valve is ordinarily a lever pushed at one side to allow the lid on the other to be lifted, opening the valve to the interior of the tube and letting all the liquid out in the process. It can also feature a cork instead of a pad.
The Amado key, devised by Raymond Amado and filed for a patent in 1970, is a cylinder with a button on the side that activates a stopper valve held closed with a spring. Moreover, it has a hole at the bottom side through which the water is drained. It's less intrusive and cumbersome than a cork but can get stuck at times, requiring a pin-like tool to close it.
The Pollard water key, named after its inventor Jerry Pollard, is a variant of the Amado key, and it's supposed to fix some of the problems associated with the original Amado and the cork-type keys, like sticking or dripping.
The Saturn keys operate by rings that can be pressed in any direction to release the ball-shaped cap blocking the drain hole. It was invented by Denis Wedgwood.
Finally, the JotKey, designed by hornist Andrew Joy, allows for continual draining without compromising the instrument's sound, thanks to the use of a replaceable metal filter.
This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.