Saxophone Intonation: Uppers, Lowers, Mids Cut in Half

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 possible. 

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 substantial. 

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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