Saxophones are highly sensitive instruments, and things can go wrong if you're not setting them up properly. Sometimes, you will not notice something is wrong with your woodwind until you try to play along with a band and realize that the saxophone is not playing in tandem with the rest of the instruments but, rather, a tad lower.
What causes a saxophone to play flat, and how can you fix it? A saxophone is likely to play flat notes if the mouthpiece is not correctly pushed further down the cork. Thus, the air column gets longer when you try to blow into the saxophone and renders lower notes than usual. Using grease on the cork and pushing the mouthpiece towards the neck should fix this.
In this article, we'll discuss the science behind the saxophone's flat sound, along with tips on preventing and solving the issue.
The Reason Behind The Flat Notes On A Saxophone
A saxophone can deliver flat notes due to an incorrectly-installed mouthpiece, as was disclosed earlier. However, this is not something that occurs arbitrarily. There is a physical aspect to this phenomenon.
Just as a reminder, when we speak of flat notes, we refer to the situation by which the instrument renders notes approximately a semitone lower than what it's designed to render, regardless of the instrument's tonal quality.
A myriad of variables is involved in a saxophone's tonal character. The most important ones are the size and shape of the conical tube. These create the framework under which the air molecules and soundwaves resonate.
The length will largely determine the note, while the shape will define other aspects such as the timbre. The latter can be palpably verified when comparing a straight soprano with a curved one, as the curved one renders a noticeably rounder and more soothing tone.
Regarding length, the laws of physics state that the frequency is inversely proportional to the pipe's length. Following that line of reasoning, the longer the saxophone's body, the lower the frequency of the soundwave, while the shorter the body, the higher the frequency.
A pipe organ is a perfect example of this axiom since we're able to see the pipe arrangement and its performance at different lengths. Same with a string instrument.
But, how is this relevant to the perceived flat sound of a saxophone?
At the beginning of this article, we described how the air column gets longer when the mouthpiece is not adequately pushed towards the neck.
Logically, considering that the mouthpiece is an extension of the neck and, consequently, of the whole instrument, it's conceivable that the above-laid principles regarding frequency/length will also apply when the mouthpiece is factored into the instrument's tube length.
The difference may not be perceivable when playing on your own, but this could be very apparent when in an ensemble or when playing along with other instruments. It can be an uncomfortable experience, particularly when you're not able to ascertain the cause of the dissonance. Luckily, there are ways to solve this and, furthermore, to prevent these situations from occurring.
How Do I Solve A Saxophone's Flat Sound?
As uncovered before, provided that there are no additional issues affecting the saxophone's tone or timbre, the simplest way to solve the problem is by shoving the mouthpiece towards the cork until there is just a tiny bit of the cork frame in sight.
Admittedly, it's very easy to miss this the first time around because of how tightly fitted the mouthpiece may appear at first. Notwithstanding, it's one of the most important factors to look after before a gig.
Sometimes you'll need to use grease so that the mouthpiece is able to slide across the cork smoothly. If you push the mouthpiece beyond its optimal point, you'll risk compromising it, so be careful not to force it too much.
One way to determine whether you are placing the mouthpiece in the correct spot is through the help of a tuner (more on this later).
It's also crucial that you use the correct mouthpiece for your saxophone. When we consider that a saxophone's neck is able to fit nearly all mouthpiece types, it's relatively easy to mess up the configuration by wrongly combining an alto neck with a tenor mouthpiece, for example, especially if you're not versed in these matters.
Use An Electronic Tuner
Even experts in the saxophone world can seemingly skip this crucial step before engaging in a live performance or a studio recording.
By using a tuner, you'll be capable of detecting whether the mouthpiece is placed correctly or has not slightly shifted from its optimal position.
Generally speaking, it's very unlikely for a saxophone to lose its tuning after being properly calibrated. However, by making a habit out of using a tuner often, you'll detect any inconsistency in intonation and, consequently, any problems that may arise in the instrument's body, such as leaks.
Using a tuner is especially useful in two specific situations:
- When purchasing a new saxophone.
- When changing the mouthpiece and/or the reed.
Possibly the most important tool available for modern saxophonists is an electronic tuner. There are analog alternatives, such as a tuning fork, albeit grossly impractical by comparison.
These electronic tuners can identify if the notes rendered by the saxophone match their proper concert key. The Korg TM60BK Tuner Metronome (link to check the price on Amazon) is a great option for people who want to have both tuner and metronome in the same device.
There are also apps you can install on your mobile phone or tablet that can fit the bill- such as Tuner – Pitched! – albeit far less reliable than dedicated hardware for these goals.
Regarding the four primary saxophones, alto and baritone are normally more tuner-friendly than soprano and tenor. These are, nevertheless, the most suitable tuning notes for each primary member of the sax family:
- Soprano and tenor saxes: Concert Bb and F.
- Alto and baritone saxes: Concert A and Bb.
When playing into the tuner, adjust the mouthpiece until you've matched the correct intonation, just as you would adjust the tuning machine on a guitar.