Jan 2, 2012

Pay Me Now or Pay Me Later

I thought it would be fun this month, BTW: Happy New Year, to talk about what to look for when picking out an instrument. I've had a certain reputation for picking out horns for people over the years and I want to give you what I think are the things I look for in a new or used horn. First, I want to give you my theory about what makes one instrument play better than another. It's important to realize that on every instrument there is a certain dynamic range possible. This depends on the skill of the player of course, and this can change according to the time devoted to developing a large dynamic range. At any one time however, there is a specific dynamic range possible by each player, and the question is; in what end of the dynamic spectrum do you want the range to be? By that I mean do you want it to be at the far end, ie. loud end, or the soft end? If it's in the loud end, chances are the response will be slow and take some time to reach full resonance. This will appear as an especially dark-type sound for that model instrument. Since the response is slow, and feels like you must push air through rather than just blow, it probably will feel as though it will be capable of pushing the loud dynamic farther than a horn that responds quicker. What's happening however is, the dynamic range has been moved toward the louder end of the spectrum, with a loss of instant response and therefore the desired core in the sound.

If a horn responds quickly, with very little effort required to move air through the horn, the dynamic range will be situated towards the soft end and will probably reach the extreme louder dynamics more quickly, and it will seem like the sound will reach "the wall" sooner. Think heavy-type bell as opposed to thin-type bell. Visualize a dynamic range that is a specific length, say the length of a yard stick. Now imagine a space that is slightly longer than the yard stick, one end represents the soft dynamics and the other end represents the louder dynamics. The yardstick can be moved to one end or the other, but it moves in one piece, representing the amount of range the player is capable of producing.
The question is; which end of the spectrum do we want the stick to be at?

Without a doubt I prefer the soft end. A free blowing horn with little or no resistance will pay big dividends later as far as fatigue, sound quality etc. Besides that, response at the soft end is much more desirable to me than pushing the loud a decibel or two farther. It is a simple matter to adjust the air stream to moderate the louder end on a free blowing horn. This instrument will appear to have a brighter sound, which in itself is not an undesirable thing. When I say free blowing I mean a sound that reaches full resonance instantly, with the bell feeling like it vibrates as soon as air is moved through it. I like horns that have no trace of dullness which is sometimes mistaken for being "dark." The amount of "darkness" is determined by the bore size we choose, not the blowing characteristics of a certain instrument. My idea of a concept for choosing the size of an instrument for someone to play would be; as big as possible while being able to get a clear, vibrant, lively sound with plenty of core, or fundamental.

In general I prefer red brass to yellow brass because while being a tad softer in dynamic range, it has much more "color" ie. overtones in the softer dynamics. I play a Bach red brass, thin bell with a stock 50 lightweight bass trombone slide. I play a bass slide not because I want to sound like a bass trombone, but because it is very free blowing. I prefer a lightweight slide because though the bore is larger I can produce a clearer, brighter-type tenor sound. Again this is representative of my idea that the bore size determines the size of the sound, not the deficiencies of an instrument. It is no accident I believe, that all the old sought after instruments such as Elkhart Conns, New York and Mt Vernon Bachs
all seem to have the characteristics I describe in this article.


This article has been translated into Italian by Alberto Tortella.

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