Our band's saxophonist has a bizzare intermittent fault with his soprano sax (so normally uses his tenor or alto sax).

Sometimes it's fine and sings beautifully, but other times it'll be out of tune by between a major third and a fourth. It's a Bb instrument, so when he plays C we should hear Bb but we were hearing something between Eb and E.

Normally he tunes by pushing the mouthpiece further on or off, but this is beyond the range he can achieve that way.

We had a close look at all the keys along the sax, and couldn't see anything that was blocked or anything out of place.

We'd like to fix this beautiful instrument (rather than work around the problem by tuning to Eb), but can't think what to try next.

What are the possible causes for it to go so far out of tune?

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    In the ed we took it to a guy who repairs & maintains woodwind instruments for some very pretigious orchestras. He said it was badly made and would cost less to replace than fix! – AndrewC Mar 31 '13 at 7:55

Is this a school band? As a band director, you should feel comfortable triaging each instrument yourself. Were I in this situation, I would go fetch my own soprano sax mouthpiece, take the instrument, and either verify it is working correctly or demonstrate the correct embouchure.

Those are really the only two possibilities: either there's a major mechanical flaw, or the player's embouchure is really poor. When you visually inspect the instrument, make sure you pay attention to the cork on the instrument neck (where the mouthpiece attaches), watching out for leaks; check the mouthpiece itself for chips or reed issues (perhaps have the player try a different mouthpiece and reed).

If the instrument is in tune above a certain note, and out of tune below; you should be able to isolate that note as the location on the instrument where there's a mechanical issue. Due to the way saxophones work, a problem at the bell end of the instrument is only going to affect one or two notes, while one at the mouthpiece end is going to affect all of them. A problem near the middle G key is going to affect the lower notes, but the ones above (until you reach the octave key) should be fine.

INCIDENTALLY: The octave key is one of the first places you should look for problems like this. Make sure you know how the octave key is supposed to work, and realize that there are actually two small pads in different locations that are actuated by the octave key based on whether the G key is pressed or not. One of these keys effects an interval of a 5th, so if that hole is clogged (it's very small), or the pad is not closing properly, it may be the source of your issue.

If everything is in full working order, then my guess is that the player is just not forming an embouchure correctly, and it is causing the instrument to be out of tune.

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  • That's very very very helpful advice, thanks. It's not a school band and the saxophonist in question is older than me! I'm a pianist. It seems to be uniformly out of tune rather than changing at different notes. The octive key and the interval of 5th sounds very plausible (couldn't have told you whether it was down by 4th or up by 5th anyway). – AndrewC Sep 14 '12 at 14:20

Actually, Unless the horn has specific markings on it that explicitly says that it's a Bb sax, my suspicion is that the horn is an Eb Soprano or Sopranino sax.

You should run the make/model and into a search engine for the model's details. (The serial number will give you at least an indication of the model year, but sometimes they can act like a car's VIN number, describing different features.)

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  • It's been a Bb sax for at least a couple of decades (that's as far back as I've known him), but started malfuntioning a year or two ago. I suspect the sax is older than I am, and I was born a good few decades ago. – AndrewC Dec 31 '12 at 16:20
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    Let me get this straight: You are saying that a Bb sax has relatively recently changed it's key, with no degradation of tone, performance, or inner intonation (each note is in tune relative to the other notes) to an Eb sax? – gWaldo Dec 31 '12 at 18:04
  • No, I'm saying "Sometimes it's fine and sings beautifully, but other times it'll be out of tune by between a major third and a fourth. It's a Bb instrument, so when he plays C we should hear Bb but we were hearing something between Eb and E." We did try one time is was malfunctioning just to tune to Eb, but he found that frustrating, so I'm guessing there was some "degradation of performance". I'm no saxophonist, but he's no internet user. – AndrewC Jan 1 '13 at 1:58
  • Let's separate a couple of things (I'm going to be pedantic here, but it's necessary); it looks to me like you're conflating tone/timbre with intonation. When you say "sings beautifully", you're talking about the quality of the sound; a horn could be consistently 30-cents flat, but sound lovely. (But it would be out-of-tune with accompaniment.) I ask because typically if a horn were to go that far out of tune, it would also begin to sound terrible (probably airy). – gWaldo Jan 2 '13 at 13:46
  • If you provide some of the horn's info (make, model, serial number - I don't need the whole thing; just the first half of numbers and the remainder in "x"'s so I can figure out the date of manufacture), I may be able to look into some things. – gWaldo Jan 2 '13 at 13:49

I see three possibilities, some of which have been mentioned here before:

  1. Some of the pads leak air - bring it to a professional to have it checked - pads don't last forever, so that's an explanation why it used to work and then started going bad. It's also possible that different pitches produce a problem if a rarely used pad is leaking that is used for only a few specific tunes.
  2. Embouchure - your player can experiment with slightly harder reeds that tend to make it harder to modulate the sound (on my clarinet in some ranges and using a soft reed, I can modulate by at least a 5th just using my mouth).
  3. Water/Spit - especially after I haven't practiced for a while, I produce a lot more water/spit in my instrument that tends to cause issues with some of the pads, e.g. bubbles. There's not that much you can do about that other than have lots of water absorbing paper along (on my clarinet, I use cigarette paper) and clean the instrument between songs if possible, and do lots of embouchure exercises.

Your answer has got to be one of these three.

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