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By Curt Altarac
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It is very possible to change the overall tone and intonation tendencies of
a saxophone by changing key heights alone. In my article, The Balanced
Venting Method (BVM), I discussed one process I use to set-up key heights
on a saxophone. The BVM splits the instrument into two types of notes:
"well-vented" and "under-vented. Under-vented tones are used to
establish a minimum key height and the keys are then set as low as
Once key heights have been set up with the Balanced Venting Method, it is
beneficial to balance the sections of the saxophone to one another. Doing
so can often greatly help to resolve intonation discrepancies, freeing the
player to just blow, rather than making constant pitch adjustments to
many notes on the horn. Conversely, a saxophone that is not "balanced"
may have unusual or exaggerated intonation tendencies that are difficult
for the player to compensate for. Simply understanding the sections of the
saxophone, as I am about to explain, may remove some of the mystery of
saxophone intonation and keep you from unwittingly making mistakes
with key heights and intonation.
Although it is often said that key heights are not an effective tool to set
intonation, I disagree. It is true that key heights will only change the pitch
of a note 5-15 cents before the note becomes too stuffy or the key too high,
but consider that the intonation is relative. When you balance intonation
between two areas, you double the usefulness of key heights for

intonation. For example, if two sections of the horn are 30 cents off
intonation-ally (that is a lot!), you can possibly get 10 cents from one
section and 15 from another. Although you only used key heights to get 10
and 15 cents, these two areas are now 25 cents closer; only 5 cents off.
To balance a saxophone, we must first know what sections we are
balancing. I divide the saxophone into 5 segments when I balance for
intonation. To help me remember these segments, I call the sections this:
Uppers, Lowers, Mids Cut-in-Half. Mids Cut-in-Half is an easy way to
remember three different sections, and all are outlined below.

High D,D#,E,F, and when there are tone holes for them, F# and G. These
are the notes above C# in the second octave, often called "palm key
notes". The great thing about the Uppers is that they have tone holes
where only one note in a single octave comes out, thus simplifying our
tuning process. Also, they are all Well-Vented.

Low C#, C, B, Bb, and when there is a tone hole for it, Low A. Just like the
Uppers, the Lowers have only one note that comes out of each tone hole
and they are all Well-Vented.
Low D to open C# in the first octave. These notes are all fundamentals.
This first section of the Mids is comprised of a bunch of tone holes where 2
notes come from each tone hole. This complicates the tuning of the Mids
and a division between the octaves becomes necessary.
Mids Cut-in-Half:
The second half of the Mids are the second octave tones. This could be
from octave D up to octave C#. However, for intonation purposes, it
makes sense to split up the second octave further. The logical split is
where the body octave vent closes and the neck octave vent opens, as this
shift between octave vents tends to give the two sections unique tuning
discrepancies. This happens between G# and A.
So, when I say Mids Cut-in-Half, I mean cut in half twice for a total of
three sections.
Mids1: Low D to open C#
Mids2: D-G# (Body octave vent)
Mids3: A-C# (Neck octave vent)
Now that we have these five sections to work with, we can balance them.
First, diagnose the overall intonation by comparing the segments to one
another. Assuming you only have this method and the Balanced Venting
Method to work with, you can still get good results. When you have more

skills, including toning tricks and intonation "tricks", you will find that
your options are much more open when balancing and you will be able to
do additional fine-tuning within the sections as well.
Play the instrument and warm it up well. Using a tuner, get the note F in
tune. Always tune to the same note but never forget that this note is also
being balanced and its in-tune spot is negotiable. If this is your horn, be
mindful not to make the intonation adjustments that you may be quite
accustomed to making automatically.
After playing the instrument to a tuner, note the general intonation
tendencies of the segments. Note how they compare to each other. You
might find something like this:
Uppers: Sharp (20-30 cents)
Mids3: Sharp (15 cents)
Mids2: Sharp (10 cents)
Mids1: OK (some flat tones)
Lowers: Sharp (10-20 cents)
Note that both the Uppers and Lowers are sharp. This is good news and
simple to improve by balancing. In this instance, you can do two things
that will instantly help. First, opening the key heights of the Mids (both
stacks) will effectively lower the Uppers and the Lowers. You will be
raising the pitch of the Mids to match the Uppers and Lowers. Now that
your tuning note is higher, you will have to pull the mouthpiece out more
to be in tune at F. By doing this, you will affect the pitch of your Uppers
more than your Lowers. This happens because that amount you move
your mouthpiece is a much higher percentage of the distance from

mouthpiece to uppers than the mouthpiece to lowers. Accordingly, you

will also be affecting the pitch of your Mids3 more than Mids2 and Mids 2
more than Mids 1.
Say you opened the stack keys enough to get 10 cents sharper (Mids1).
This is normal. Your Uppers will come down in pitch at least 10 but
usually closer to 15-20 cents. Your Lowers will come down in pitch 10c or
less. Your Mids1 are the same because you tuned to them. Your new
intonation will look like this:
Uppers: Sharp 10c.
Mids3: Sharp 5c.
Mids2: Sharp 5c.
Mids1: OK
Lowers: Sharp 5-10c.
So, by changing the stack key heights in a logical way, we were able to
make a saxophone with both normal and exaggerated tendencies into a
saxophone with very workable intonation. And more can be done...
Up until this point, you've lowered the pitch of the Uppers and Lowers
without changing the key heights for these notes. You still have not used
the key heights of the Uppers and Lowers themselves to affect intonation.
By adjusting the key heights of your Uppers and Lowers down, you might
be able to get another 5c. This instrument could be within 5 cents and
would look like this:
Uppers: Sharp 5c.
Mids3: Sharp 5c.

Mids2: Sharp 5c.

Mids1: OK
Lowers: Sharp 5c.
Now, remember that the Uppers and Lowers have the unique
characteristic of having only one note coming from each tone hole. So,
you may want to lower the pitch of your Uppers and Lowers further with
very small Crescents. Doing so would result in this:
Uppers: OK
Mids3: Sharp 5c.
Mids2: Sharp 5c.
Mids1: OK
Lowers: OK (Low Bb sharp 5c.)
Now compare that to what we started with:
Uppers: Sharp (20-30c.)
Mids3: Sharp (15c.)
Mids2: Sharp (10c.)
Mids1: OK (some flat tones)
Lowers: Sharp (10-20c.)
This is only one example and they do not all work out this easy. For this
reason, it is very good to have other tricks for setting intonation. For
example, consider the following scenario:
Uppers: Sharp 30c.
Mids3: Sharp 10-30c.

Mids2: OK
Mids1: OK
Lowers: Flat 10c.
In a situation like this, you can see that lowering the stack keys would
bring the Mids1 and the Lowers closer together. However, the Uppers will
only be more sharp and the Mids3 will also be sharper. Lowers will be
affected less than the Uppers so the initial change would need to be
Conversely, you might raise the stack keys to bring your Mids3 and
Uppers more in tune knowing that the Lowers will be affected less than
the Uppers and Mids3. Although this might help, any saxophonist knows
that flat Lowers (Bell keys) are very hard to bring up to pitch. So, ending
up with flatness in the Lowers is never a good option.
You could use Crescents to bring down the Uppers but not the Mids3 since
the Mids1 are in tune.
So, what could/should we do? In this instance, it helps to know what
problems you are able to solve before they arrive. It also helps to know
how the changes you make will affect other sections so you can proceed in
a logical and predictable manner.
For this example, I know of a trick to lower the tones from octave A up to
the highest note. This will lower the Mids3 and the Uppers any amount I
want. This particular trick is beside the point of this article (and it will
take an article in itself to explain!) so consider it to be a hypothetical for
now. In this instance, I would try lowering the key heights of the Mids

(both stacks) as much as possible and open the Lowers to bring their pitch
up. With this, the Lowers and Mids1 and Mids2 will be better in tune. The
Mids3 and Uppers will be very sharp. Intonation will look like this:
Uppers: Sharp 30-50c.
Mids3: Sharp 20-40c.
Mids2: Sharp 5-10c.
Mids1: OK
Lowers: OK
It appears that the intonation is worse now but the Lowers and Mids1 are
in tune. At this time, I could apply my trick which would lower the Uppers
and Mids3 to get this:
Uppers: OK
Mids3: Sharp 5-10c.
Mids2: Sharp 5-10c.
Mids1: OK
Lowers: OK
The end result is a very workable situation.
In summary, what we did here was assess the nature of a problem and
made a purposeful decision to fix that problem at the expense of moving
the problem to another area of the horn where we can more easily control
it. We moved the bad intonation to the upper end of the horn where we
had a trick to fix it.
When balancing a saxophone, it is very important that one considers tone

and intonation as parts of a whole. However, there may be compromises

that have to be made because we are working within the confines that
have been previously set by a manufacturer. When these compromises
are made, it will greatly help the player/technician to understand what
compromises are being made and what effect this will have on the rest of
the instrument. Once this understanding is in place, having a bag of tricks
that includes Bore Liners and Tone Hole Liners etc., will give you a way
out and open your options as you set up a saxophone. Always start with a
plan and know how your plan will affect intonation and tone. If you find
that your changes do not have the outcome that you intended, start over
and take some time to understand why your changes had the effect they
did and consider whether there are other avenues to arrive at the same
desired outcome.

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