Although a lovely full sound is awesome…
Sometimes it’s fun to enhance your sound with reverb or effects. But how do you do this?
Here are some options to consider:
First of all, it’s important to think about why you are using any effects at all. Like many things, effects on your sax sound should always be thought of as the “icing on the cake” or the extra you add to something that’s already great. It’s always important to focus on having an awesome sax sound first, then if needed think about enhancing this with effects.
When listening to saxophone recordings we can often identify effects on the sound. But, these effects will vary depending on the style of the music being played. It’s interesting to note how the trend for effects has changed over the last 50 years or so. Before the advent of digital technology with recording, any effects on the sound was purely down to the “sound” of the recording studio.
Here’s an example of a pure unadulterated sax sound by the master Coleman Hawkins from the late 1930’s. Just a great sound, recorded in a nice room.
However as things progressed, technology became available and tastes changed, we all became used to hearing saxophone with effects added. The most commonly used effects is “reverb” which in most basic terms, is similar to the sound of playing in a room where the sound bounces around. The larger the room, the longer the reverb . Think about how your sound would change between playing in your bathroom, or a concert hall.
On recordings, the amount of reverb used varies greatly depending on the style of the music and fashion of the time.
Here’s a classic 1970’s pop sax sound with a nice reverb.
Too much reverb though can really overpower your sound though. Here is an example of excessive reverb that worked on the original recording but wouldn’t normally be thought of as appropriate today:
Here’s another example of a HUGE reverb. This was a cool sound in 1970 – but possibly not the most popular sound to go for today.
Big reverbs were all the rage in 80’s pop music too. Check out this iconic sax solo from 1983 (listen at 3:00):
Other effects are sometimes added to reverb to create a certain sound. Check out this iconic 80’s sax solo. Here a “chorus” effect is added along with reverb to create a big fat sound. (listen at 3:05):
Another effect sometimes used is “delay” where a copy or multiple copies of the original sound are repeated. A good example of this is iconic sax solo in Pink Floyd’s “Money” (listen at 2:00).
Or, checkout the “Maneater” sax solo for another example of this (listen at 2:40):
So how do you get effects on your sax sound?
There are different ways to get effects on your sax sound depending on how and where you are using your sax. If you are recording your sax at home, the easiest solution is to add the effects to the recording using your recording software.
All main recording software packages have this as a standard built in feature. Programs like Logic, Garageband, Cakewalk and Sonor also have built in preset effects settings so you can quickly recreate an effect from a template. Usually these effects can be added to the channel or track that you are recording your saxophone to. It’s standard practice to add reverb to a recorded sound as opposed to recording audio with the reverb already applied. That way you can adjust the settings of the reverb or effects before finally exporting your audio to MP3 or CD etc.
For an even easier solution you could use the SaxTracks app for iPhone or iPad. SaxTracks lets you easily adjust the amount of reverb to your sound using a slider on the main screen. You can then export your recorded track along with a backing track with the reverb applied. Simple.
What about live?
For live performing there are a couple of easy ways to add effects to your sound. Typically on a gig where you are part of a band using the same sound system or pa, you would add effects from the mixing desk. Most modern mixing desks have built in effects units that you can apply to any signal connected to the desk before that signal is “mixed” and sent with the other signals to the speakers. This is a simple, common solution although you don’t always personally have very much control over the type of reverb etc depending on how friendly the sound guy is on your gig!
Another solution which gives you much more control is to use your own personal effects unit similar to what a guitarist might have. I’m sure you’ve seen guitar players with an array of pedals at their feet. These are individual effects units that guitar players love to tinker with. Show me any electric guitarist and I could pretty much guarantee they have a collection of them. As a sax player I wouldn’t always recommend just using a guitar effects pedal although it would work. Instead I would suggest checking out pedals designed for vocalists. These are designed to have microphones connected to them (not guitar signals) and so in generally are better suited for use with saxophone.
I currently use a VE-20 Vocal Performer pedal on gigs. This is a great (and powerful) effects tool. There are a bunch of preset effects ranging from reverbs to doubling effects but my favourite feature is that you can create a bunch of your own presets. I have setup a few of these and use them for specific songs on gigs. This makes selecting different effects dead easy. For example, I do a lot of shows each year with a 1950’s style artist Dominic Halpin. For that band I have a standard effect (slight bit of reverb) but also have a 1950’s preset (reverb and delay) and a doubling preset that gives the effect of two horns for some of the big numbers we do.
The VE-20 also has a neat looping feature where you can build up a track and jam along yourself. Not something I’ve used on a gig but it’s great fun to practice with.
There are several other pedals with these functions to consider if you’re looking for this type of device but for me the Boss VE-20 has the right combination of features and is very robust and reliable.
Another option for controlling your own effects is to simply use a rack mounted effects unit. Again there are tons of options on the market with prices ranging from £150 upwards to thousands of pounds. The quality of the circuitry has a big impact on the price with the more expensive units producing a much cleaner sound. That being said, even lower priced units will deliver a good result for most situations these days.
With either a pedal or an effects rack unit, you simply connect your saxophone microphone to the unit, then the unit to the mixing desk or amplifier. If you like the flexibility of changing the effects settings easily and discretely during a performance then the pedal style unit is definitely the one to go for. Conversely, some people would argue that a rack unit will give you a better quality of sound and is more likely to be used for recording as well as live performing. With the huge range of products on the market I would definitely suggest spending some time reading reviews and checking out demos of the various devices online before making your decision.
One final bit of advice: remember that less is more with effects! Used sparingly, effects can enhance your sound without completely distracting the listener. Refer to your favourite recordings to get an idea of what sound you are going for and if you’re unsure, use a little less!