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Intonation Tendencies and Sax Bore Design


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I have got quite a collection of saxes, vintage through to modern but I don't understand why diferent saxes seem to have such different tuning tendencies when I play them.

I have just bought from Milandro a lovely Mauriat alto - great tone and nice action. But when I blow it with a variety of mouthpieces I find that the upper octave is generally about 10-20 cents sharper than the lower octave. This is (honestly) with no alteration of the embouchure when going between octaves, just use of the octave key. And the difference holds true wherever the mouthpiece is positioned - in tune down below means sharp up top, in tune up top means flat down below.

This is the same thing I have experienced on other nice horns like Keiwerth SX90R (alto and tenor) and Maxtone (alto and tenor) - good saxes which seem almost identical to the Mauriat. Upper octave tending to be noticeably sharper than lower octave.

My usual alto and tenor are MkVIs and the octaves are pretty even (say within 5 cents), although there are rogue notes in each register.

Many other saxes I have played tend to follow the Selmer intonation tendency for me. That includes Buffet S1 (alto), Grassi (alto & tenor), Walstein (alto), Yamaha (alto). So those ones have got reasonably in tune octaves.

Can it be that I play better in tune on "Selmer-style" bore saxophones and out of tune on larger bore horns ? And if so, what is going on ?


PS I would love to play the Keilwerths and Mauriat a bit (for their tone), but not if that means learning a whole set of playing adjustments that just mess up my playing on the Selmers.
S'funny - I play Keilwerth alto and tenor and find them pretty easy to play in tune. Selmers tend to go sharp at the top for me if I play them in the same way. No idea what's going on. I guess it's just what you get used to.
I have noticed this on some horns.

The first thing to check is to try playing the upper register without the octave key, it should be possible. If the sharpness starts at A with the octave key but it's oK without, that points to something not quite right about the octave pip. I have noticed this, but mostly on older horns.

The other thing is mouthpiece mismatch, though it's just as possible that it's embouchure mismatch - you get used to one type of bore and have a set shape of your oral cavity.

The mouthpiece matching is quite interesting and is based on the "missing cone". The saxophone as we know has a conical bore, but is not a complete cone or it would end in a point, but this has been truncated so we can use a mouthpiece and blow into it.

To compensate the mouthpiece volume should equal the extra volume of the neck, if it were extended to "complete the cone" . However (I have heard) that lower register tuning depends on volume of mouthpiece (ie chamber size and position of mouthpiece on neck) but upper register tuning is by purely by length, ie by mouthpiece position and chamber volume is irrelevant.

Now put that in your pipe and smoke it:

Enlarging a chamber therefore flattens the lower register, reducing the chamber smaller sharpens it. But adjusting the position of the mouthpiece, ie lengthening or shortening the air column, will affect both registers

This implies that a sharp upper register can be cured by using a mouthpiece with smaller chamber, as this sharpens the lower register in relation to the upper register, and you then pull the mouthpiece off a bit to tune the whole thing.

However this is all theory, if you say you have tried a variety of mouthpieces, and I'm sure you have a few small chambered pieces in your collection, then it remains theory.

EDIT: however it is a very well respected theory which you can read about in Benade's acoustics book.

Another thing though: the strength of the reed and the individual player is also part of the equation, so it's maybe not that simple.
very nice explanation Pete and it could explain why I am finding most comfortable playing with a small chambered highbaffled mouthpiece Ponzol M2 80 on alto and M1 105 on tenor (with which I get pretty dark result ) and both with 3 1/2 reeds (Francois louis or Gonzales 3). I play mostly a King super 20 tenor and a HL sax alto (not a relation of P.Mauriat although they look and feel pretty similar). When I was playing a Grassi (my Wonderful Model also resides in England now, with Capitanbeeflat ) I felt the most comfortable and in tune with a round and large chambered piece, in that case a Ponzol Vintage 80 or a Phil Barone NY 6M.
Thanks for the ideas guys. I had a long experimenting session with six more mouthpieces, mainly higher baffle and smaller chamber pieces.

The results were pretty consistent: all the mouthpieces gave me a significant step sharper in tuning at the start of the second octave with D2, E2 and F2 being between 20 and 30 cents sharper than the notes in the first octave. Things were a bit better in tune above the G2, but on the whole I could not play the Mauriat sax with anything like as nice tuning as my Selmer or my Walstein.

Unless I can come up with a solution to this (technical on the sax, mouthpiece and reed or technique on my embouchure and blowing) then it looks like I will have to move the Mauriat on to a player that it suits better.

It's a cracking horn, but maybe just not for me.

Rhys, if you can't sort it with mouthpieces/reeds, it may be a neck issue. Can't remember exactly what, but in 'the saxophone is my life', there's a description of the effect of neck bore on tuning. And there are separate areas in the neck for each note. Closer to the tip of the neck, the higher the note affected. Will try and find it/details - but you may find that experimenting with different necks helps or hinders it.

May be worth an email to Phil Barone - he does aftermarket necks, maybe he's come across the problem.
May be worth an email to Phil Barone - he does aftermarket necks, maybe he's come across the problem.

But he is famous for saying his saxophones are P.Mauriats but cheaper. So I can't see how one of his necks would help.

I'd be interested in trying that horn if you are ever round the Soton area Rhys.
Fair comment Pete, hadn't heard it before.

It's 'The Saxophone is my Voice', author's Ernest Ferron. And there's a section in it on necks and how they affect tuning. And how to correct, but it's tricky. You need to narrow the section of the neck that affects the sharp notes... And not be much. Sounds like fun (not!).

May also be that neck, any chance of trying other Mauriat necks?
I've got Ernest Ferron's book and have just re-read the relevant bit which is interesting.

But I don't think it is that relevant to my situation, because it is not a rogue horn - I am getting similar symptoms with my Maxtone alto (another Mauriat clone), my Keilwerth SX90R and my Buffet (which is really a Keilwerth SX90).

So that says to me that there is something about me (e.g. the shape and size of my oral cavitiy) or my playing (e.g. embouchure too tight) that this style of horn doesn't like ! My long-time alto and tenor are Selmer MkVIs and they are pretty well in tune for me.

I remember taking my Buffet/Keilwerth to Steve Howard for some work and afterwards remarking on the tuning problems, which he said didn't happen at all for him - he blew it nicely in tune.

There is a current thread over on SOTW that is about something called "Pitch Slotting" This seems to be about saxes, on some of which it is difficult to bend the pitch as it almost "slots" into the frequency that the horn wants, whereas other saxes are much more flexible.

I wondered whether I need a sax that drags pitch from where my poor technique or strange physiology wants it to be playing sharp, back into tune.

I have also noticed that I tend to prefer horns whose sound is "focussed" rather than those with a spread sound. Could the characteristics of "slotting" (if it exists) be tied in with those of "focus" ?

'Focus' is a word that gets used a lot when talking about the sound of a horn. I have never known what anyone means by it. An explanation would be useful.
That's funny - that's what I think or at least thought.

When I recently tried taking my Maxtone tenor on a gig instead of my MkVI (but using the same mouthpiece, reed etc) I suddenly realised that I could hear a lot less of my own sound. This was in a venue we have played before and with me using the same "Soundback" reflector thingy. I interpreted that as being because the Maxtone's sound "spread out" (was less focussed) and therefore didn't sound so loud in the "direct line of fire" as I am used to with the Selmer.

That's probably a lot of old rubbish.

I know that some of Steve Howard's reviews of saxophones talk about the focus, like this one of the Bauhaus Walstein M2 tenor The Bauhaus has a focussed tone, you get the sense that you can point the horn in a certain direction and send the notes just 'there'. The Mauriat has more of a sawn-off shotgun approach - anyone in range gets an earful.

What do you think ?

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Well, my initial reaction is that it sounds like a load of cobblers. I find it difficult to see how one saxophone could project its sound in a particular direction more than another. I suppose if the key heights were all lower then more sound might project out of the bell but I feel I'm clutching at straws here. In your case of the MkVI versus the Maxtone I would have thought that the Maxtone was simply not as loud. But I don't mean to be rude, it's just not an aspect of saxophone sound that I've ever had cause to consider - or even notice.
Whenever I used the term 'focus' with regard to a horn's sound it refers to way in which the sound presents itself to the player.
The ears are pretty good when it comes to spatial awareness - it's one reason that surround sound cinema systems are get a more 3D soundscape as helicopters, trains, spaceships, Schwarzenegger in a bad suit appear to come from behind/left/right to finally end up 'centre stage'.

The majority of saxes are 'unremarkable' in this respect - they do pretty much exactly what you'd expect. You blow them, the sound comes out and wanders off in a more or less forward facing direction. But some horns seem to have the ability to direct the sound more noticeably.
It's probably not something most players notice if they're playing just the one horn, or several horns with similar properties - but when you switch between horns with very different focus you really do notice it.
It doesn't seem to be related to volume, I've found that the Mauriat 66R and the Borgani Vintage 09 are both loud horns and yet present very different soundscapes.

In theory it ought to be a load of old cobblers, and yet it's possible to hand these two horns to a player who's never before encountered focus and find that they too remark on it.
There's probably a very good scientific explanation for it - perhaps relating to the way each horn presents its array of harmonics?

Thanks for that explanation. So, if you faced a blank wall and slowly turned whilst playing, some saxes would give more of a distinct maximum when you're at right angles to the wall?
Well, a neck issue could be indicating a problem with a specific horn if this were the case with one horn alone of one particular brand but if this happens with different horns of different brands ......there could be a problem of personal compatibility with a certain type of design (which is what , I think, Rhys himself is postulating in his original post) . I am not saying that it is an ability problem (who am I to question an experienced player ability!?) that is not the point. The think is also that playing any wind instrument implies a certain level of " corrections" and when we get used to a particular instrument or type of instruments we might just have problems to adapt our normal correction to a new instrument which probably needs different adjustments.
Added to that I have a few different necks here that would be interesting to try.

Hi Pete,

That would be really fun to do. Work has gone mad until the end of November with silly deadlines driven by customers, but once we're into December it would be enjoyable to meet up and hear how the sax is supposed to sound. Maybe even take in a beer and a pizza as I should be back on the carbs by then !

Regarding the intonation on a Keilwerth, I remember getting similar advice to that given by Pete above - a mouthpiece with a smaller chamber should help tame sharp high reguster notes. This worked for me and good ones to try are Vandoren V5 series (say A28) for classical style or a V16 S chamber for a jazzier sound. I am sure this is true as these moutpieces did not work for me when I switched to a Buffet S1 and later a Selmer. I am glad I read this actually as my daughter has a Mauriat alto which is a bit flat right at the bottom and it has reminded me to re-visit this issue. I recently bought one of those new SD20 Selmer mouthpieces that isn't really doing it for me on my Mark VI alto but maybe I'll give it to her ladyship to try.
Regarding the intonation on a Keilwerth, I remember getting similar advice to that given by Pete above - a mouthpiece with a smaller chamber should help tame sharp high reguster notes. This worked for me and good ones to try are Vandoren V5 series (say A28) for classical style or a V16 S chamber for a jazzier sound. I am sure this is true as these moutpieces did not work for me when I switched to a Buffet S1 and later a Selmer. I am glad I read this actually as my daughter has a Mauriat alto which is a bit flat right at the bottom and it has reminded me to re-visit this issue. I recently bought one of those new SD20 Selmer mouthpieces that isn't really doing it for me on my Mark VI alto but maybe I'll give it to her ladyship to try.

Thanks for the suggestion - I am going to give it a go with a V16 6S and see whether that helps on the Mauriat.

What mystifies me is that on the Selmers I can play in tune (once I have got used to it) with a huge range of mouthpieces from high baffle screamers (Brilhart Level Air, Dukoff) through jazz pieces (Link, Meyer, Lawton, Brilhart) and classical pieces (Selmer, Buffet). On the Mauriat and Keilwerth, I play sharp in the upper octave on every mouthpiece I have tried to date.

I found this interesting article on tuning by John Robert Brown Here is an interesting extract:
"In the days before we were so concerned about hygiene, I remember a particular occasion when I swapped clarinets with a colleague. We had been discussing the use of a short barrel on the clarinet. At the time the most popular clarinet, particularly with orchestral players, was the Boosey and Hawkes 1010 model. Among those of us playing in theatre orchestras (and required to double extensively), some players had the notion that the 1010 played flat, and needed a short tuning barrel. I disagreed. In fact, on my 1010 I had to play with a full-length barrel, pulled out by about 2mm, to be at concert pitch. This frequently caused comment.

One night, curiosity took hold. My section colleague, Joe, always used a very short barrel on his 1010. That night he asked to swap clarinets with me for a few numbers. What we both discovered was a surprise. Playing Joe's clarinet, I still needed to have the barrel pulled out by about 2mm to get down to concert pitch. And Joe still required his short barrel to get up to concert pitch when playing my clarinet. That is, the tuning characteristics remained with the player. It wasn't a problem with the clarinet itself. Using the same clarinet and mouthpiece, one musician played relatively sharp, the other relatively flat. It seemed that naturally my pitch was higher and Joe's was lower. At the time, we didn't devote much energy to finding out why this was so. We put it down, slightly wrongly, to embouchure or reeds

The explanation lies in the different physical characteristics of the musicians, their morphology. When playing a saxophone or clarinet, all of our oral cavities are involved. They resonate, as they do when we speak or sing. If you've ever suspected that there is a connection between a reed player's speech quality and his instrumental tone, you are right. Yes, the late Jack Brymer's beautiful clarinet tone and his resonant speaking voice were related, because of his morphology, though of course the role of his clarinet reed was taken by his vocal chords when speaking or singing.

That is to say, our mouths act like a resonator. Just like the body of the saxophone or clarinet, they contain a series of displacement and compression nodes and antinodes. The node is the narrow part of the wave (at the mouthpiece tip, for example), the antinode where the wave is wide enough to touch the side of the bore. You've seen those diagrams of curved lines drawn inside the bore of the instrument. Those nodes and antinodes continue into the mouth. That is to say, between your tongue and the roof of your mouth (hard palate at the front, soft palate at the rear) there are displacement antinodes. If a displacement antinode is narrow (low), the pitch is lower. Conversely, if a displacement antinode is wide (high), the pitch is higher.

In other words, if one has a thick tongue and/or a low palate, the displacement antinode is 'squashed', and the pitch is lower. With a thin tongue and/or high palate, the displacement antinode is 'broadened', and the pitch is higher. Observe that singers open their mouths widest when they are singing their highest notes. From this, because I play at a sharper pitch, I can conclude that I must have a thin tongue or a high palate. This means that the antinode is wider, which in turn makes my clarinet (and my saxophone) play sharper than average, all other things being equal.

Therefore you can understand that a dental appliance with a plate against the palate is going to affect one's playing. The volume of the mouth is said to have greater effect between 500 and 2,000 Hz. That is, from an octave above middle C (512Hz, just above concert A) upwards for about two octaves. In saxophone terms, that will have most effect on the working ranges of the alto upper register and throughout the soprano range. With the clarinet, concert A is again your reference pitch. The affected clarinet range is from the second register upwards - *from the middle of the treble clef, that is.

But the situation he describes here seems a bit different to mine, where the tuning difference I experience compared with other people only affects part of the range of the instrument.



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