In this case study, I’m going to use Intonation Station to tame a vintage Conn 12M Baritone Saxophone. We’ll find out what intonation quirks it has, and how they can best be overcome through mouthpiece choice, alternate fingering, and if necessary changes to playing technique and/or technician intervention. We’re not aiming to get every pitch at zero cents – this is unrealistic on any wind instrument – but we want to find out which pitches are really flat or sharp so that we can work on them as appropriate. Then when we play in ensemble, we’ll know whether it’s us or the next player who’s out!

This Conn 12M is a transitional model from 1931. It has a fabulous sound, superb response, and is light weight compared to modern baritones. It should also have excellent intonation, but I’ve struggled to keep mine in tune in ensemble playing. At some point, someone extended the neck by around 1cm (1/2″), presumably to accommodate modern mouthpieces, so we’ll be able to audition both modern and vintage pieces.

This study has been updated as of Jan 1st 2019 to accommodate some issues raised in the excellent online forum, Cafe Saxophone. The original version can be viewed here.

Important note

Please note that although we try out several mouthpieces here, this is NOT a study on mouthpiece comparison for the 12M. Such a study would involve a lot of technical and academic discussion on initial tuning, baselines for comparing the charts, and many other factors.

Instead, this study is intended as a ‘warts and all’ template to show you how Intonation Station can quickly reveal the intonation quirks of your sax. I hope that by reading the study, you’ll learn how to use Intonation Station’s various different functions to filter out fluffed notes, and to distinguish between the sax’s own intonation quirks and those that are due to the mouthpiece or your own playing technique.

Initial testing

I’m going to start playing a chromatic scale slowly three times over the whole range of the instrument – low B♭ to top F. Vintage saxophones can be very picky about the mouthpiece, so I have a small selection to choose from.

Selecting Key and Temperament

Baritone saxophones are pitched in E♭, so I need to set the instrument key to E♭ so that the pitches I see on the charts are the ones I played. Saxophones are equal temperament instruments, so I’ll keep the temperament at the default setting of Equal.

A technical note on Nomenclature

Intonation Station uses Absolute nomenclature when naming the octave you’re playing, in line with international standards on pitch where 440Hz is always A4. This means low B♭ on a baritone sax will appear as B♭1, but low C will appear as C2. On an alto sax, low B♭ will appear as B♭2, with low C appearing as C3.

Saxophonists tend to use Relative nomenclature by convention, where the bottom octave is always named B♭1 to A1, the middle octave B♭2 to A2, and so on. So low B♭ on both baritone and alto saxes are labelled B♭1, even though they actually sound an octave apart.

Intonation Station uses absolute nomenclature because it doesn’t know what instrument you’re playing. Hence it can’t know what your instrument’s bottom note is in order to apply relative nomenclature. A future update may include the facility to set this for relative nomenclature, but for now, the charts below stick with the absolute octave names.

Initial Results

My first run was performed using a Meyer hard rubber mouthpiece, since they’re known to suit the Conn well. Before starting, I warmed up, then tuned the sax to a middle C using Intonation Station’s standard tuner. Here’s my first Intonation profile:

There’s quite a lot of information to digest here. Overall, the intonation’s fairly good – within 10 cents – until we get into the upper register: F3 to B♭3 are very sharp, then the intonation’s pretty good again apart from a high F#, which we’ll get to soon.

The yellow lines show pitch consistency. I played three chromatic scales, so I played each pitch three times, but the tuning of each pitch was slightly different each time I played it. For example, when I played top D (D4), one time I played it 6 cents flat, and another time I played it 13 cents sharp! These are the worst cases – the other time I played D4, it would have been somewhere in between. At first sight, it looks like my pitch consistency was all over the place. B2, A♭3 and D4 are particularly bad, but in fact the overall pitch consistency is reasonable. It’s possible I hadn’t warmed up as much as I thought, and the pitches became sharper the more I played, but it’s more likely my embouchure was slightly different every time. While pitch consistency can tell us a lot about our instrument and playing technique, we don’t need to worry about it here. Intonation Station takes the average of all the notes we played of a given pitch, so the grey intonation bars represent a pretty accurate picture of the instrument’s intonation, and I want to concentrate on intonation for now. I’ll cover pitch consistency in more detail in a future case study.

One strange thing about this profile: it shows an F#4, but the Conn doesn’t have a top F# key. So what happened here? We can investigate by looking at the frequency chart:

Here we see the three chromatic scales as I played them. The gaps in between the scales are where I took a breath. Looking at the first scale, we see a ‘blip’ just before the last note in the scale – top F. I’m not sure of the reason for this. Intonation Station hasn’t detected the top E I played just before, and eventually interpreted the note as an F#. The most likely reason is I fluffed the note, and played something with very strong harmonics that confused the app. Another possibility is background noise. Either way, we can easily remove it from the Intonation Profile – I played long notes – around 1 second each, so we just have to exclude notes shorter than, say, 0.5 seconds, using the Settings tab.

Here’s the chart showing Intonation only, with any short notes excluded:

Looking at the chart, there are a lot more sharp notes than flat notes, and Intonation Station confirms this in the Details Table, giving an average tuning of +6 cents for the instrument. In fact, even the note I tuned up on – C3 – is slightly sharp. So either I hadn’t warmed up properly when I tuned up, or I compensated with my eyes when looking at the tuner. This is a pretty neat demonstration of the pitfalls encountered when relying on electronic tuners.

Since we’re sharp overall, let’s pull the mouthpiece out and play the scales again:

Intonation Station now gives the average tuning as zero cents. It recommends B♭2 as the best note to use when tuning up (I used the side key rather than the bis key to play the B♭). We see that some lower notes are flat, but just within 10 cents. E2 to E♭3 are largely in tune. However E3 to B♭3 are sharper than we’d like, while E♭4 and E4 are now very flat.

Alternative Mouthpieces

I conducted the same test with a number of different mouthpieces that I have sitting around. You might think that the mouthpiece only affects tone, but actually they can make a huge difference to intonation, so it’s the first thing we need to investigate.

Note: I’m not going to make any comments on the general qualities of the mouthpieces used in this study, except that they’re all excellent. I’m only interested here in how they suit me and this particular horn.

It would have been nice to present the results such that Intonation Station gave an average tuning of zero cents each time, but as we shall see, this wasn’t always possible because the neck was too short or too long for some of the mouthpieces.

Here are the results:

Vandoren B75

This time we see that even though middle C and C#3 are quite sharp, the high notes are really flat. This is typical of small-chambered modern mouthpieces like the B75 on vintage saxes. They seem to affect the intonation of the upper register far more than the lower register. I’ve seen technical discussions of the reasons why, on various forums – very complicated acoustic physics. They just weren’t designed for vintage horns like the Conn 12M.

Brendan Tibbs Silver mouthpiece

Brendan Tibbs designed this mouthpiece with a huge double chamber, and it’s highly regarded by players of vintage instruments for its dark tone and excellent intonation. We see that the tuning of the top notes is more in line with the rest of the instrument. To make this mouthpiece work with my Conn, I’d have to have an extra sleeve soldered to it. The mouthpiece would fall off if I pulled it any further out, but still the instrument’s sharp overall: +6 cents according to Intonation Station.

Even though we’ve only tried three mouthpieces so far, a pattern is emerging that tells us more about the instrument than the mouthpiece. Low B is consistently flat, and E3 to G3 are consistently sharp.

Conn Eagle

Now we’ll try a couple of vintage ‘Pickle barrel’ mouthpieces, that this sax was designed to be used with. The first is the Conn Eagle that was produced from the 1920’s to the mid 1930’s, and is the mouthpiece that would originally have been supplied with the sax.

Well, the E3 to G3 notes that we’ve already identified as a problem are the sharpest, while the top E♭ and E are very flat. But over the whole instrument, intonation is very consistent.

Conn Steelay

The Conn Steelay was introduced in 1934 – just a few years later than my 12M, and looks very similar to the Eagle.

Results are not quite as good as the Eagle, but still pretty consistent.

If you ignore the sharp E3 to F#3, the sax is flat overall for the Steelay and the Eagle. In fact I had the opposite problem to the Tibbs for both of these vintage mouthpieces – I had to push them onto the neck so far that I was afraid to break them if I pushed any further. This is due to the neck extension that I mentioned at the beginning of this study, and I couldn’t make the sax any sharper overall without excessive force.

So it’s clear that I’ll need to make a decision about the neck extension. If I want to use the vintage mouthpieces, then the extension will have to be removed. I’d still be able to use modern mouthpieces like the Tibbs by getting some sort of sleeve fitted to them.

Tone considerations

When playing with the modern mouthpieces, I found it very hard to make the high G and G# speak. This is because those pitches are just below the point at which the register mechanism swaps over to a higher vent. This issue is well known on vintage baritones, and some owners have the lower vent enlarged in an attempt to fix this. But I had no such difficulties producing a clear G3 and G#3 when using the vintage mouthpieces. So as well as better intonation, these mouthpieces make the sax much easier to play. Those old Conn engineers knew what they were doing!

Although the Eagle seems to have slightly better intonation than the Steelay, I prefer the Steelay’s tone. The Steelay also has a more open lay, which suits me better. So for now, I’m going to stick with the Steelay, and see how I can improve the problem pitches by other means.

Alternative fingerings

We’ve seen how the choice of mouthpiece can have a profound affect on a saxophone’s intonation. Using Intonation Station, we’ve been able to shortlist ones that suit the instrument, and reject others that don’t very quickly.

But we’ve also learned that this instrument has its own intonation issues that occur for nearly all mouthpieces. Low B is flat, E3 to F#3 is sharp, while E♭4 and E4 are usually very flat.

It turns out that the sharp E3 to F#3 issue is common on Conn 12M, and in fact is common on most saxophones, even modern ones. It’s one of the design compromises made to keep the same pitches an octave down from being too flat, and to keep the overall tone constant.

Accomplished players learn to minimise these issues, either by ‘lipping down’ pitches they know to be sharp, or using an alternative fingering. Lots of players find that keeping the low B♭ key pressed whenever they go into the upper register improves the intonation of E3 to F#3. I’ve found that pressing the low C# key instead of the low B♭ improves these notes even more, which is counter-intuitive because it actually opens a tonehole, so you’d think it would make these notes even sharper, but it doesn’t. Complicated acoustic physics in action again!

Here’s the same test with the Conn Steelay, using my C# key-based alternative fingering:

Here we see that E3 to F#3 are now well under control. Middle C# is flat, but it’s easy to lip up. E♭4 and E4 are flat, but the intonation of these notes is very dependent on the heights of the E4 and F4 keys. We know that someone in the past had the neck extended so they could use modern mouthpieces. I suspect they also had the E4 and F4 keys lowered to prevent them being too sharp with their modern mouthpiece. I reckon I can get my technician to raise them again to the proper height and they’ll be perfectly in tune. I’m not sure what to do about the flat low B. Maybe my tech can fix that, or I can lip it up when playing, but frankly, the intonation of the rest of the sax is now so good that I can live with it. In case you’re wondering, Intonation Station gave this last run scores of 79% (Intonation) and 94% (Consistency), which are both excellent for a baritone sax, vintage or modern.

Play test

When conducting these tests, I made sure not to look at the display while playing because I didn’t want to be tempted to compensate with my eyes. Nonetheless, playing chromatic scales feels a bit clinical. So I’m rounding off this case study by playing a piece I enjoy – Angel Eyes, by Matt Dennis and Earl Brent. I used the Conn Steelay mouthpiece, and opened the low C# key whenever I played E3 to F#3:

Ok, the sax is slightly flat overall, but I’ll be able to push the mouthpiece further in when I get the brazed neck extension removed. Even with the extension in place, the Conn’s intonation is as good as any other bari sax I’ve tried, including my new Yanagisawa B901.

Conclusion

I started out with a sax that, for all it’s great sound, I was uncomfortable playing in ensemble because I was forever wondering if it was me or someone else sounding out of tune. But now I love playing it. I have the right mouthpiece, and I’ve played it a few times with some extremely competent musicians and the whole thing sounds fantastic.

It only took me an hour to go through my mouthpiece selection and make the tests using Intonation Station. I’ve saved all the Intonation Profiles to the device so I don’t have to remember the quirks of each individual mouthpiece. In the past, I once tried similar tests using just a conventional tuner, but it took forever, and the results were so confusing that I just gave up. Now I have a sax than can hold its own with any band or ensemble, and I am one happy bunny!

I hope you’ve found this case study useful. Feel free to contact with any comments. I’ll post more studies whenever I feel they’re relevant.