In the realm of music and audio, there's a fascination with vintage equipment, including instruments like saxophones. We can find many examples of this being the case, especially regarding abused vintage musical instruments. Nonetheless, some saxophone enthusiasts claim tarnished and old saxophones sound better than they did originally.
Do saxophones get better with age? There is no consensus on whether saxophones sound objectively better with age. Some experts swear a difference in sound can be ascertained as a saxophone ages. Detractors point out the metal or plastic material itself does not change in tone as it ages, unlike guitars and wooden instruments that do.
In this article, we'll discuss how saxophones produce sound, the factors that shape a saxophone's sound and tone, and how age plays a role in saxophone performance.
A Saxophone's Sound
As stated in the previous answer, it's debatable whether the material used for the saxophone's manufacturing, as well as its age or status, alters the instrument's tone in any discernible fashion.
In the same vein as other woodwinds, the saxophone produces sound through the interaction of moving air with the reed attached to the mouthpiece and its upper lip side. The reed vibrates as air is blown across it and into the saxophone body. This projects an enclosed air column through the saxophone's bore to the bell. Along the way, the air column passes by all the keyed orifices used to create individual notes.
There are various theories posited concerning the exact factor that makes the saxophone a woodwind instrument, considering most of its structure is made from alloys, such as brass or copper. The reed is sometimes singled out as the source of the sax's “woodwind timbre”, though some will attribute this sound quality to the design of the keys and holes closed off or opened during a performance.
Sound Shaping Factors
When it comes to the material that makes up the tube, some experts assert that there is no proven correlation between tone and common saxophone materials. Physicist Arthur Benade highlighted the instrument's inner wall as the chief aspect shaping the saxophone's tonal attributes, rather than the material's dimensions and resonance faculties.
Benade also stressed that the material itself does not affect the sound in the same way a wooden soundboard would on a guitar. Woodwinds rely significantly on the vibrating air column produced by the reed and projected into the bore and not so much on the resonance of their tube material.
In short, he believes differences in tone are caused by differences in the manufacturing consistency and solidity of the saxophone's body construction rather than the alloy's essential properties.
The only parameters to look for would be the ruggedness and heat conduction capacity of the alloy and the quality of the instrument finish. As an example, how sound waves bounce and disperse in an air column passing through an instrument with a uniform and glossy internal finish can be quite different when contrasted with how sound waves act while passing porous and opaque surfaces. As we'll see shortly below, this may carry some significance in discussing old versus new saxophones.
It bears reminding readers that Charlie Parker, who is accepted as a true saxophone virtuoso, once used a plastic Grafton sax that went virtually unnoticed by those accustomed to listening to his metallic alloy sax offerings. This can give some indication of how accurate Benade's findings are.
Finally, it should be pointed out that other experiments have apparently reported some notable distinctions, at least on paper. However, these differences may only be perceived if one looks for them.
How Age May Affect A Saxophone's Output
Saxophones can suffer a myriad of changes to their constitution and equipment over the years.
In terms of their constitution, they can lose their lacquer (in the case of lacquered builds), or they can get tarnished or oxidized. In terms of equipment, their key mechanisms can wear and become loose, pads can wear out and need replacement, and the mouthpiece may also be replaced or damaged. It is a given that the reed will be replaced regularly if the instrument is played regularly.
For the purposes of this writing, we'll focus first and foremost on the changes in the constitution and finish.
All saxophones develop signs of ageing over time, even those with owners who take extreme care when playing, handling, and cleaning their instrument. However, some owners are not fond of cleaning their unlacquered saxophones as often and prefer to allow them to “age” under the premise this will improve the sound of their “horn”.
Next, we'll be analyzing both sides of the debate. Let's look at the arguments affirming age improves a saxophone's sound and those denying it.
Randy Jones, a renowned saxophone maker, believes the instrument's material finish definitely imbues the sound with distinguishing traits or, rather, improvements.
His most prominent assertions on the matter of age and sound are:
- Older unlacquered horns with oxidization signs sound warmer and better than new.
- It's better to leave the brass untouched and not treat it. Using Brasso (a brand metal cleaner) will worsen the look of the old horn while affecting the tone negatively.
Looking closely at some of the statements, they make sense once we know how sound waves travel through air columns and across different surfaces, as described above.
For example, in tarnished or corroded saxophones, specifically, those that have experienced corrosion at the bore level, sound waves will travel slightly differently from a new instrument. This is due to the ageing processes changing the consistency and compactness of the build.
In other words, alloys or metals that have been exposed to oxidization or tarnish will develop a rugged surface and, consequently, interact differently with air molecules travelling through the tube. As air molecules moving along the tube walls often get caught between ridges, the sound will not be as compressed and bright because they will not travel as fast as other unimpeded air molecules and do not arrive at the bell at the same time.
This change in consistency is perfectly explained by reviewing the corroding processes and how they work on the atomic level.
Oxidization is a chemical reaction consisting of the loss of electrons on the part of a compound (the alloy) that has come into contact with oxygen. Tarnish is an uneven and dull layer resulting from the reaction between a metal and non-metal compound (normally sulphur dioxide). The end result in both oxidized and tarnished surfaces is roughly similar in that the surface of the metal or alloy suffers a significant change in texture.
The main issue with these claims is that, in most instances, differences will be hard to distinguish with a naked ear. Furthermore, perceptions can sometimes be masqueraded by other factors like the player's affinity with the instrument.
On the other hand, the notion that tarnished and/or oxidized metal or alloy will invariably improve the feel of the sax's timbre is not totally accurate, strictly speaking. It may be said That oxidized and tarnished surfaces improve tone from the point of view of certain players who favour a certain tonality out of their instruments. Still, on paper, it's not a technical improvement in sound quality.
Lastly, Benade, as mentioned in the previous section, focused on the tube's inner structure, not merely on the instrument's outer appearance. While the visible portion of the instrument could conceivably signal what to expect on the inner side, there is not always a necessary correlation.
On the flip side, others discard any semblance of change due to corrosion or tarnish with age whatsoever. They argue most impressions or perceptions of tonal “enhancements” are due to the design of old vs. new saxophone horns, along with nostalgia reasons.
Furthermore, the article linked above rightly points out that pads wear out with age and could actually render the saxophone unresponsive and faulty-sounding (these can be easily replaced, as acknowledged by the author.)
However, as much as we could grant that claims of drastic changes in tone may be a tad exaggerated in some circumstances – and probably in the hopes of selling vintage gear at greater prices – to disregard the idea of any noticeable change in sound could spawn some controversy in itself.
The author's approach, nonetheless, is worth analyzing in light of the often disproportionate drive to sell overpriced vintage saxophones just on account of their age and the unjustified disdain for new gear, which, in many cases, improves over older formulas.