Thursday, December 30, 2010

Zoom H4N Reviewed: Sax-Related Recording

I received a request to review the Zoom H4n hand held digital recorder, and I've finally had enough time to fully explore the thing.  As far as saxophone goes the H4n is fantastic, and I'll go into the details of close micing a sax using the H4n.  Of course, its also useful for a number of other things, and I'll talk about those as well.

The H4n is one of Zoom's newer handheld recording devices, and so, of course, it needed the best features of the old device and some new features to set it apart.  What stands out from the get go is its ability to plug in two external microphones (phantom powered if you like).  You can record simultaneously with the built in mics and the two external mics, which results in a number of possibilities for making a mixable live recording.  For those of you who are wondering, you can use the accessories that come with the H4n to mount it onto any microphone stand.  Handy, right?

Another standout feature is the Zoom's new ability to do 4 track recording on the device.  Not only can you record up to 4 editable and mixable tracks but there is an easy to use click track feature and even an array of digital effects like reverbs and oscillators.  Another important mention is its ability to record in number of different WAV and mp3 formats.  The only drawback is that you cannot simultaneously use the stamina mode (two double A batteries last you 11 hours in stamina mode) and record to mp3 at the same time, but its easy enough to convert to mp3 afterward using iTunes or a similar program.  Two double A batteries in normal mode last closer to 6 hours, and you can always just plug the thing in.

Now, for all of you saxophonists, how well does the H4n record saxophone?  Well, barring the studio, this is my favorite way to close mic my saxophone, meaning playing into a microphone someplace between 6 inches to a foot from the bell.  The sound quality is fantastic and really captures the entire breadth of tone coming from the saxophone.  I like the Zoom much better than my middle class Shure condenser microphone simply for the H4n's ability to capture the full spectrum of the saxophone's tone.  If you like you're able to get a very live sound including little details like the clicking of the keys, or you can adjust the microphone sensitivity down and get a much closer to studio feeling while still capturing the entire depth of tone.  The following tracks are two examples of close micing the saxophone using the H4n.  I also used the H4n's 4 track recording capabilities to make these tracks.

My Favorite Things and Fifth to the Throne

The live setting is the most obvious place for the H4n, which it excels at.  I've recorded a number of different events, and the Zoom has surprised me with its excellent sound quality and accuracy.  The automatic microphone level adjustment feature makes live recording especially easy.  The feature prevents clipping by adjusting the microphone level lower automatically as it records.  The small let down here is that the only way to turn the microphone level back up is start recording a new track or simply turn off the feature, which could cause a problem if you were using the feature and had some uncharacteristically loud sounds in the middle of the track.  Here are two examples of live recording I've done using the H4n.  Both of these were recorded live at Chris' Jazz Cafe in Philly with my group Unconventional Riot.

Ben plays Beatrice and Introduction to Ducks In a Row

Now that you've heard all the positive, I should also inform you of the negative.  The menus and navigation system are a little elaborate and require a little exploration to get to what you need.  The features are straight forward and easy to use, but the click wheel and multiple sub menus sometime make you wish you had something a little more intuitive.

There was one particular problem I found which was very surprising.  The first 4 track recording I did I had recorded the electric piano into my computer using Audacity.  I then grabbed the WAV file and put it onto my Zoom without a hitch.  The second time I attempted this same procedure I recorded the electric piano using Cubase LE 5, which came with H4n.  When I attempted to import the WAV file the Zoom would not recognize the file.  Instead I had to use the H4n's stereo mic input to rerecorded the track directly onto the device.  I haven't spent much time trying to figure out why the H4n wouldn't recognize the WAV file produced by its accompanying Cubase software, but it wasn't anything obvious.  That has easily been my most negative expeience using the Zoom.

Conclusion: Zoom's H4n is fantastic for close micing a saxophone, and it excels at recording in live musical settings.  The positive, in this case, easily outweigh the negative including an expansive and less than intuitive menu system and some partial incompatibility with its accompanying software.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Throwdown: Yamaha's Custom EX Tenor Saxophone vs. Selmer's Reference 36 Tenor Saxophone

Last week I wrote that Yamaha's Custom Z tenor sax was similar to the Selmer Mark VI at least in the focused, warm yet punchy sound it produces. If the Custom Z reminds me of the Mark VI, Yamaha's Custom EX reminds of Selmer's Super Balanced Action even more so.

Yamaha Custom EX Tenor
I've also recently play tested a Selmer Reference 36 Tenor, which is Selmer's modern horn "built in the spirit" of their original 1936 Balanced Action (similar to the SBA in feel and tone), so I thought it would be remiss if I didn't comppare the Custom EX and the Reference 36 for all of you looking to get a saxophone similar to the SBA without paying anywhere from $6,000 (Ebay) to $14,000 (Roberto's in NYC).

For those of you who are feeling out of the loop Selmer's SBA (Super Balanced Action) is their model that came after the 1936 Balanced Action and before the 1954 Mark VI.  Both the Mark VI and SBA are two of the most coveted saxophone models of all time. For those of you who are in the loop, here is a lesser know fact for you. The SBAs were actually labeled Super Action and not Super Balanced Action by Selmer.  Despite the 'Balanced' of the previous model being formally changed to 'Super' as the new line launched, Super Balanced Action is the name most of the sax community uses today.

Before I get started I should mention that I originally played the Custom EX with its Custom G3 neck, which was good, but the EX played even better with the Custom G1 neck I borrowed from the nearby Custom Z.  I believe you can get the best results out of the EX with the Custom G1 neck, and I'll go into the details on the necks later.


The Custom EX's tone is similar to an SBA.  The tone is big and a little spread.  There are plenty of deep overtones present in the tone also similar to the SBA.  I believe the SBA has a little more core or meat to the tone than the EX, but there is a marked similarity between the two.

The Reference 36 tone reminds me more of a Mark VI than an SBA or the earlier Balanced Action.  It has a big focused tone and sounds less spread than an SBA.  The Reference 36 tone has plenty of core or meat to it.  Its tone reminds me a lot of Yamaha's Custom Z which I reviewed last week.

Response and Feel

Selmer Reference 36 Tenor
The Custom EX really shines in the feel of blowing through the horn.  It is very free blowing and has very little back pressure.  Its not quite as free blowing as my SBA but it comes closer than most modern horns I've played. This means the Custom EX requires more air support and focus, much like a vintage horn, to maintain a supported tone as you move from note to note.  A horn with more back pressure or resistance requires less air support and focus for quick response from note to note, one of the advantages and what some consider to be a crutch of most modern horns.  That crutch can also be a disadvantage because it often results in a less malleable tone.  The free blowing feel of the Custom EX does require the added air support and focus, but it also adds a greater flexibility and range of color to the tone.

A quick note on the Yamaha necks - The main reason I prefered the Custom G1 neck over the Custom G3 neck is because it provided a nice balance between a free blowing feel and quick response while moving up and down the horn.  The G3 neck didn't respond quite as quickly.  The
G1 neck also provided a little more core to the sound.

Selmer's Reference 36 seems to take the more modern approach.  It feels less free blowing than an SBA, your average Mark VI and the Custom EX.  This results in a quick and easy response while moving from note to note, again similar to the Custom Z I reviewed last week. Though it comes closer than many modern horns it doesn't really recreate the feel of blowing through a vintage horn like a Mark VI, SBA or Balanced Action.

Conclusion:  In my opinion, Yamaha's Custom EX comes closer than Selmer's Reference 36 to feeling and sounding like the SBA or Balanced Action tenors of yesteryear. Saxes vary even within models, so take this conclusion with a grain of salt and try them for yourself!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ben Britton's Unconventional Riot

A little shameless self promotion and a short recording for your enjoyment:

I've started a new group, and we're playing our first show this coming Tuesday at Chris' Jazz Cafe in Philly.  For more details on that head over to the facebook page or my website.

So,  I recorded a demo today (on keys and sax) of one of the compositions we'll be playing, Fifth to the Throne.

Ben plays Fifth to the Throne

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Quick Tip #1: Pull Your Neck Strap Up

Just a quick lesson for young and old alike.  Adjust your neck strap up high enough so that your head doesn't lean or tilt down at all when you play the instrument.  This will aid you in producing a fully supported tone.

Throughout the history of the saxophone we have heard unsupported tones from amateur and even professional saxophone players, but the best players, even the ones with a much more inflected approach  like Sonny Rollins or Grant Stewart for example, play with fully supported tones.

Adjusting your neck strap won't fix all your problems, but it will make a notable difference.

Sound Clips: (Sorry for the soft talking!)

Neck Strap Down (head tilting down slightly)
Neck Strap Up (Head level or slightly up)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Yamaha Custom Z Tenor Saxophone

This past Saturday I got to play Yamaha's Custom Z and EX tenor saxophones.  I know Yamaha is a highly recommended brand, so I wanted to throw in my two cents for anyone who is thinking about buying one.  Today, I'll tackle the Custom Z and you can expect to see something on the Custom EX next week.

The Custom Z, in my estimation, is Yamaha's attempt at a Selmer Mark VI similar to the Reference 54, Selmer's most recent attempt to recreate their Mark VI model saxophone from the 50s, 60s and 70s.  The good news is that it has all the modern conveniences you would expect from a horn made today.  The intonation is of modern design, which is more naturally in tune than most vintage horns.  It has a high F# key, which many people find convenient, and it has Yamaha's modern style key work, which will feel perfectly comfortable for anyone coming from another Yamaha or similar saxophone.  The bad news is that Yamaha has not managed to recreated the free-blowing resistance-free feel so important to the Mark VI and other similar vintage horns.

The tone quality is similar to the Mark VI.  It's focused, punchy, clear and remains even throughout the horn.  The response of the horn however, though more free-blowing than many horns on the modern market, does have more back pressure or resistance than many vintage horns including the Mark VI.  The Custom Z's altissimo register also feels resistant though the overtone series feels effortless and sounds beautiful in all registers of the horn.

The key work matches the rest of the Yamaha horns and feels equally as convenient as other modern key work designs.  The horn's overall design conveniently allows for the traditional altissimo fingerings using the front fork F as a launching pad up through altissimo G and eventually reaching the palm keys for altissimo B through D and again for E through G above that.

Conclusion: The Yamaha Custom Z tenor is a throwback to the Mark VI that lives up to its aspirations in the sound department but is somewhat too resistant to really feel like a modern Mark VI.  It will almost definitely appeal to the saxophonist who feels more at home on modern horns but wants the Mark VI sound.

Monday, December 6, 2010

My Favorite Things

I started experimenting with my new zoom recorder and I've managed to coax a fantastic recording quality out of it as a direct sax mic (Not that I had to do much).  The following is an arrangement of "My Favorite Things" that I recorded on it.  I recorded the electric piano-rhodes sound directly into the computer and then overdubbed the sax using my zoom.  I apologize for the slight clipping on the electric piano-rhodes during one section of the tune.  I didn't catch it until I was too far into the recording to want to start over.

MP3 - My Favorite Things MP3 and a high quality WAV file of the track - My Favorite Things WAV

I would like to make recordings like this more often.  If you'd like to hear more of my music please donate 99 cents or whatever amount of money you'd like toward my next track using the pay pal donation button below.  I'll be posting tracks on the regular basis, and with your support I could even hire other musicians to play with me.  Thanks to all who support my music!

Rico Final Episode: Rico Reserve Classic Alto Reeds

Today's subject, and the final Rico product in a series of reviews, is the Rico Reserve Classic alto reed.  This is a brand new reed Rico has recently designed and released, and it is being advertised as the "most consistent reed available".  I'll be examining the reed and that important claim.  It's also important to note that the classic reed is only available for Alto saxophone though the normal reserve reed is availble on the other saxophones.

The reeds' tone could be described as pure, balanced, and slightly dark. At softer strengths the dark overtones are less pronounced, and naturally as you progress to a harder reed strength the sound darkens.  I found I could play on either a 2.5 or a 3 reed strength and the 2.5 varied in its the darkness of the tone while the 3's weere consistently slightly dark. The tone seems most appropriate for classical playing, and most would probably find that the tone isn't punchy or fat enough for a jazz setting.

The reeds response and flexibility is fantastic though somewhat variable.  The box of 2.5 strength reeds I played through had a couple reeds that responded very easily to articulation and inflection, a majority that responded well, and a few duds that seemed unresponsive and even became less responsive in the lower register.  The box of 3 strength reeds I played on had more consistensy in their responsiveness and flexibility.  They tended to respond very quickly and easily from the bottom of the horn to the top.  In general the reeds sing into the altissimo register and feel effortless as you ascend into that extreme upper range.

Finally, let's examine the claim that these are the most consistent reeds available.  They do seem to be very consistent, but, as I have described above, the box of 2.5 strength reeds was somewhat inconsistent.  I had 7 or 8 good reeds and 1 or 2  less responsive reeds.  Happily, only one reeds was unplayable due to being so soft it sounded unsupported.  The strength of the reeds was pretty consistent overall. The box of 3 strength reeds was very consistent and the box of 2.5 strength reeds was pretty consistent.  I think the lessons here is that no matter how consistent the cane and cut is there are still other factors that also determine overall reed consistensy.

Conclusion:  These are pure and slightly dark sounding reeds most suitable for the classical saxophonist.  They are very consistent though no cane reed can claim 100% consistency yet.