My instrument setup
Last week, I talked about my tech setup for composing and producing. This week, it's all about the mix of parts that create the tone I produce on each instrument.
If you're like me, you probably have a favourite brand/make of instrument, which will always be your go-to. It's also possible you might not have discovered it yet (you'll notice later on what my favourite make is). I mentioned before how I started out on a 3rd, possibly 4th-hand tenor saxophone (an armstrong to be precise), and at the same time I was also using an old buffet clarinet rented from school.
It wasn't until my GCSE's when I was told by my clarinet teacher, my school-rented clarinet was not going to hack it during the grade 7 exam (being told the old instrument wasn't good enough was a pattern for all my purchases). In 2006, there were no woodwind specialist shops in Bristol yet and the instrument shops there were didn't have a huge selection for trying, so off we went to a certain woodwind and brass specialist shop in Taunton. Because the choice was so great there, over the next few years, all my major instrument purchases came from this one shop (they must have loved our custom).
A trying-out session usually lasted half a day, sometimes all day, and would consist of playing different clarinets/saxophones, slowly honing the favourites down to a select two or three. Naturally, what ended up happening was to find your final two and realise they're both professional models (which are expensive). Looking back though, I've never had an issue with my purchases and feel no need to replace them, making it money well spent.
For almost fifteen years now, I've been playing on a Buffet Crampon Festival. It's made from Dalbergia Melanoxylon, otherwise known as Grenadilla or African Blackwood. Because of this, it's a weighty instrument in comparison to plastic or hard rubber, but it also has a fantastically warm and mellow tone, which I fell in love with instantly when I tried it all those years ago. The key response is also really quick, soft, not too clicky, and it's handy to have the extra Eb key on the left side.
For the mouthpiece, I use a Yamaha Custom 5C (and its default ligature), which adds to the projected volume and creates a rich tone. Paired with this, I use Alexander Superial DC (double-cut) 2.5, which has some jazz inflections, allowing me to have better manipulation of the pitch for note bending but also giving power to the volume and a darker timbre.
For almost as long, I've been playing on a Yanagisawa T992. When I decided on this instrument, it was because of its quick response to playing notes, especially the lower tones, which required so much puff on my old tenor. Again, no clunky keys here, soft and fluid in motion. The warm yet evenly balanced sound that came out sounded like heaven to me.
I didn't much like the mouthpiece that came with it and have since purchased two. The first is a hard rubber Berg Larsen for jazz. It creates a rich, loud volume that carries well within a big band context but also adds mellow inflections to lower tones when playing solo.
The second is a Vandoren Optimum TL4 for classical music. It creates a more 'polite' tone in comparison to the Berg Larsen, with a brighter timbre and, what I find, more response for quick vibrato. Paired with this, I bought the Vandoren Optimum ligature which comes with three swappable plates with different pressure points, altering the sound, meaning I can use this on both mouthpieces should I wish to. I prefer the plate with the four round bumps in each corner, which seem to give more freedom for reed vibration and vibrato.
Some of you might not like to hear this but I use Rico La Voz 'soft' reeds with both mouthpieces. Yes, they are technically a jazz reed so why would I use them on a classical mouthpiece? Honestly, I feel like there's much more freedom to the sound, high notes sing, and low notes are such a breeze. Yes, it's a little sensitive to too much force but I know my limits when it comes to dynamic range and diaphragm support.
Probably my most recent purchase, I started with a basic student model which didn't last long due to tuning being impossible to master. I settled on the Yanagisawa S991. Noticed the pattern yet? Yes, I love Yanagisawa saxophones. This particular model is fantastic at maintaining tuning, even in the higher register (with some help from embouchure). Again, low notes are easier and warmer for such a high-pitched instrument. This soprano comes with a straight and curved neck. Technically, because I'm also a clarinet player, I should have no trouble using the straight but for some reason I prefer how the curved one sits, allowing for a more comfortable embouchure.
The mouthpiece is a Vandoren Optimum SL3 with a leather ligature. I've found this to be a nice all-rounder, giving ease to note producing but adding balance to tuning. Paired with Alexander Classique reeds, I'm able to produce a subtly darker tone, bringing those high tones back from being too sharp-sounding.
I have to admit, I don't often use my alto for performances. If I'm asked to do a gig or to dep in a band, it'll usually be tenor or soprano. This is why I've not yet had a reason to upgrade my alto from the student model I use. What I have done, however, is swap out a Yamaha 4C mouthpiece for a Jody Jazz Jet 7. What was once a bit weak now has great projection and a bright, punchy sound that makes the higher tones super funky. It's a much cheaper way to revitalise the sound of an aging or cheap instrument. Again, Rico La Voz 'soft' reeds only enhance the funky nature, and allow for more ease in producing the notes.
Since I'm a Yanagisawa lover, I do hope to purchase an alto model in the future to add to my collection (a baritone might be pushing my budget too far) but for the moment, the setup I have works well.