Does the Finish of a Saxophone Impact the Sound???

The music industry is filled with opinions.

One of the problems with opinions is that you never know for sure whose opinion is the most reliable.  Many times, people form their opinions based more on emotion and small-scale testing rather than factual evidence and large-scale testing which can lead to an opinion that is not necessarily right, but might not be wrong either.

Note: I am not going to present scientific evidence and claim to be 100% right but rather will speak from a larger scale experience than most can claim. I do not profess that I will give you undisputable answer to this question but I am going to give you my opinion based on my experience and further will give you a possible explanation behind the differing opinions on this subject.

So if you want a definitive scientific answer, stop reading. If you want someone who will talk sense and give you an explanation that will make sense … keep reading!

Understanding the “Sound of a Saxophone”

First and foremost, we need to understand that there is not one single “sound” as it relates to the saxophone. In fact, there are 2 ways to look at the “sound” of the saxophone as it relates to this discussion and we need to create a separation of the term “sound” as it relates to saxophones. In my opinion, this is actually the core culprit behind the difference in opinions on this debate. There are :

  • Out in Front of the Sax
  • Behind the Sax

Out in Front: this is the position of someone listening to another player play the saxophone. This person, whether they are 5 feet away or 50 feet away, is only going to hear what I like to call the “true sound” of the saxophone; the vibration of the air column that exits the horn interpreted by their ears/brain. ALL this person hears is the sound.

Behind the Sax: this is the actual sax player. Due to their proximity to the sax, they have a very different relationship and hear a different version of this sound than the person out in front. Additionally, the player has an extra set of influences from the saxophone that will impact their perception of the sound. Some of these variables include vibration in their hands as they hold and operate the horn, vibration in their teeth from the top of the mouthpiece and the physical feel of the vibration of the horn as it impacts their body.

The problems with testing…

The other issue with this argument as I mentioned at the start of the post is that there is a general lack of large group testing. Most opinions on this concept are based on a small batch group of testing that the player/person making the opinion has personally experienced.

There are also issues of consistency relative to the instruments used in testing that can GREATLY impact the person’s opinion and many times these issues are not accounted for. For instance, if they tested a lacquered sax and then another silver plated sax, are they 100% sure that everything else about the saxophones were 100% identical? Were they both perfectly setup and regulated? Did they have absolutely the identical key height? What about the fit of the neck? These issues (and many more) can have huge bearings on the performance of the saxophone and yet are not commonly considered by the end-user.

My testing examples…

So in an attempt to try to eliminate as much of these variables as possible, my testing references were Yanagisawa saxophones. I choose Yanagisawa saxophones because they manufacture their saxophones to the highest quality and consistency on the sax market. Furthermore, we have had a large sampling of Yanagisawa saxophones over the years as my family music store (shameless plug time) Kessler & Sons Music has been one of if not the largest Yanagisawa dealer in the USA for MANY years.

Over those years, we have had pretty much every finish & every option possible come through our doors, specifically though, we have had the A991 come through in virtually every finish possible. So every time we would get a unique finish (or lack of finish in the case of the un-lacquered, bare brass version), we would do some side by side testing. This side by side test has then been repeated on separate occasions with different production batches that verified the findings.

Please once again keep in mind that this is just my opinion. If you feel strongly against my opinion, I understand and I am not saying you are wrong or even that I am right, just rather sharing an opinion.

The Findings…

The most common testing instruments were the A991 (lacquered) vs. A991-UL (un-lacquered) vs. A991-S (silver plated). There have of course been plenty of other testing subjects from Selmer Paris, Keilwerth and the myriad of other intermediate saxophones as well as our own Kessler Custom saxophones. But for the purpose of this blog, I focus on the Yanagisawa saxes and what we found was this:

  • Out in Front: No Difference At All
  • Behind the Horn: HUGE Difference…

This test was repeated with many different horns, using multiple players and in different environments. Furthermore, many times a player would first start out as a listener or vice versa and then would switch positions and either play or listen. This way they could experience both sides of the sound. The perception was the same that while they were PLAYING the sax, the felt that there was a noticeable difference but when they moved to the position of listening to someone else play, they could not hear a discernible difference.

I would argue that the “true sound” of the saxophone, the vibration of the air column as it leaves the instrument and that vibration as it is heard by someone else’s ears, is not going to impacted by a cosmetic finish. However, all of the additional sensory input that the player receives behind the saxophone while playing can be impacted.

In the testing scenario above, when someone was playing the horn, they felt that the Un-Lacquered was brightest & edgiest, the Silver Plate was bright but a bit more refined and that the Lacquered was the mellowest but didn’t feel quite as “alive” in their hands compared to the others. I would argue that the un-lacquered and silver plated finish provide an “all metal” contact with the player (whereas a lacquered horn, the player is not directly in contact with the metal of the sax) thus allowing the “feel” of increased vibration whereas the lacquered finish would slightly dampen that same “feel”.

We have also tested the 992 (bronze model, lacquered) vs. the 992PG (bronze model, Pink Gold Plated – a plating consisting of 80% gold and 20% silver) on alto, tenor and soprano and on each occasion found that the PG option sounded the same out in front but behind the horn felt more lively and a bit richer in tone.

End Result and Opinion

I am of the opinion that the finish of the saxophone really does not impact the sound as heard by the audience but it absolutely can effect the perception of the saxophone’s sound to the performer. Furthermore, when you combine that concept with my original precepts of “The Saxophone Sound Equation“, I can argue that since the saxophone’s actual impact on PLAYING the saxophone is more for the benefit of the player rather than the audience, then logically the perceptual impact of the performance generated by the finish will only build on the player’s ability to project outward the sound that they have in their own head.

Unfortunately, many of the finishes come with a negative impact in either maintenance to the cosmetics via tarnishing (un-lacquered, silver plate, pink gold, rose gold) or in actual production cost (anything with the word gold in it). Some finishes also show wear and use worse than others (black lacquer where scratches can be bright brass scratches on your black finish). These reasons are the primary reason why I lean towards the standard lacquered finish. It is low cost, easy maintenance and in my opinion, really doesn’t make that much of an impact to the sound anyways. 😉

(Updated after posting to add clarification on statement)