Monday, July 27, 2015

A Glance Into Tone

I've always guessed at what mix of harmonics or overtones result in different timbres, and I recently discovered that there are spectogram programs/apps for computer and mobile devices. A spectogram analyzes audio and shows you the strength of frequencies in any given sound. I used a program called Spek for the following experiment.

Tenor Comparison

A quick test lent some interesting results. I recorded my stencil Super Dynaction against my Mark VI. For both of these I played long tones on low B-flat, regular B-flat, and B-flat with the octave key. The sound clip, which is rather boring but available here, consists of six long tones. The stencil SDA is first and the Mark VI is second. My personal impression from playing the horns (and from listening to recordings of them) is that the Mark VI is punchy, centered, and contains a mix of both dark and bright elements. The SDA is more spread and has a warmer sound. However, it still has a large presence. Now let's see what those differences look like in the spectogram image of the sound file:

 Looking over the image, you'll notice several differences. One that sticks out to me is the significantly higher amount of green at higher frequencies in the three Mark VI long tones on the right. The other is the more intense amounts of red seen in the lower frequencies in the SDA long tones, except perhaps in the highest long tone on each horn.

Trumpet Mouthpiece Comparison

My brother, a trumpet player, was visiting so we tried recording a trumpet with different mouthpieces. We pitted my son's 7C mouthpiece against my brother's "GR". The GR was clearly more focused and powerful. Here are the two tracks: 7C vs. GR, and following are two spectogram images. The first is of the 7C and the second is GR.

Interestingly, if you examine images in their full size, the clearest difference is increased and more defined amounts of green in the higher frequencies. Considering this shared ground between the examples of the tenors and the trumpet mouthpieces, an educated guess is that the stronger higher harmonics can represent a more focused and punchy sound. I bet this could be easily confirmed or refined with a little study of timbre and acoustics. Either way it is all very interesting, and I'm looking forward to learning more about it.

Looking Forward

What's the take away from all this? One idea, is that technology could help you in analyzing sound. I think it could be particularly helpful when you try brand new equipment in a foreign space. In a situation like that it can be really difficult to get a realistic idea of what the equipment sounds like. I could imagine that at some future point players will want to see spectogram images of how they sound on a horn or mouthpiece before they buy it (or at least I can imagine myself doing that). Happy spectogramming...

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Saxophone Sale!

I've decided to sell practically all of my saxophone equipment to raise funds towards a Balanced Action. The links are to detailed ads.

Mark VI
1963 Original Mark VI Tenor 108587

Florida Otto Link Super Tone Master Tenor Mouthpiece 7*

Stencil Buffet Super Dynaction Tenor 

Various Mouthpieces and a ligature
Bari WTIII metal tenor mouthpiece, Rico Metalite M5, Selmer S90, 1920s no name hard rubber tenor, 1920s 2 screw metal ligature for hard rubber tenor

If you have any questions or want to make an offer, contact me at or 443 995 4727. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Timbre Trainer: Ottolink Super Tone Master NY

Otto Link STM-NY and Timbre Trainer
Last year I test drove a new idea embodied in a little device called the Timbre Trainer. The trainer is a vibrating speaker you can attach to your instrument or mouthpiece (or whatever). It then vibrates the instrument at various frequencies, and these vibrations are a lot stronger than how the horn or mouthpiece would vibrate when played, even when you play really loudly. The packaging of the device sports a little spectograph showing how the amount of overtones in the instrument's sound increases generally after a certain number of hours of using the device. This should mean that the sound gets richer and most likely louder. Last time I tried the device on a vintage instrument with noticeable effects. I also tried to tackle some of the science behind it, and probably got quite a few things wrong. That being said, I wanted to try it out again, this time on a mouthpiece and preferably something modern.


I settled on an Ottolink Super Tone Master New York Series. These mouthpieces are notoriously "hollow" sounding, like you are playing subtone all the time. That hollowness can sound uncentered or like it doesn't have enough core. I hoped that through using the device we could hear that element of the sound change so that the tone would sound more centered or have more color to it.

For the experiment I set aside two Rico Jazz Select Filed reeds and labeled them. I set up a controlled recording environment where I would be a consistent distance from my microphone, and I made sure the microphone's recording level was consistent. I recorded both reeds before I used the Timbre Trainer, and then I recorded both reeds again afterwards.

There was one hick up in the process. I was planning on using the device for around 100 hours, like I did in my test last year. However, the device stopped working entirely sometime between 20-25 hours. I'm not sure what is wrong with it or if it's repairable. It just stopped working, and that is after approximately 120-125 hours of use total over the time I've owned it (maybe there is a warranty?). Anyways, I only ran the device for 20-25 hours on this mouthpiece, so whatever changes we hear in the after clips most likely would have been increased if I kept running the device.

Sound Clips

Reed 1 Before
Reed 1 After

Reed 2 Before
Reed 2 After

What I Hear

To my ears, there is no contest between "Reed 1 Before" and "Reed 1 After". Clearly, "Reed 1 After" has more core and a richer sound. It also sounds cleaner.

In terms of richness of sound and core, the "Reed 2 After" clip also beats out "Reed 2 Before".  This is in spite of an interesting development in how the reed played. When I recorded the before clips, reed 1 felt much softer than reed 2. Reed 2 also felt a bit stuffy, and both it's hardness and slight stuffiness come across in the before recording. Interestingly, when I recorded the after clips the reeds had switched and now the reed 2 felt softer than reed 1 and softer than when I originally recorded the before clip with it. It still felt slightly stuffy however. Despite the softening of reed 2, the "Reed 2 After" clip still has a noticeably richer sound and more core compared to the hollower "Reed 2 Before" clip.

Overall, I'd confidently say there is a marked improvement in how the mouthpiece sounds. I'd also say that the experience of playing the mouthpiece after the trainer is more enjoyable than before. This is likely simply due to the improved timbral quality, making the tone easier to hear and more beautiful to listen to.


Should you go buy one? Maybe. It is possible we are actually seeing some of the physical process behind why vintage instruments generally play or sound "better" to most musically mature ears. If you're playing vintage equipment, I probably wouldn't mess around with Timbre Trainer. However if you're playing on a modern setup that you wish had a richer sound, then go practice. ; ) If after years of practicing you still want a richer sound, this is possibly one way of modifying your sound.

This was only my first test on modern equipment (and my device broke), so I can't endorse it with 100% confidence. Certainly, this is one direction that will hopefully investigated further in the future.