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By Soundfly Mentor Andrea de Carlo
The unique sound of the saxophone is a result of the way every part of the instrument works to shape air and sound energy flow through it — from the reed to the tone holes to the bell. I won’t bore with you saxophone acoustics science today (that rabbit hole can be found here), but I will say that the oscillating vibrations of the reed play a large role in defining the resonant character of each note and are responsible for producing “squeaks.”
Reeds have their own resonant frequencies and vibration patterns. When a player rests the reed on their lower lip, they can control it, but if left alone and given enough energy, the reed will vibrate itself and produce its own set of tones resulting in the high-pitched squeak. On the other hand, clearly articulated, tuned notes blown through a saxophone will produce a variety of harmonic overtones. This ability of the saxophone to create complex tonal and timbral sonic information is what makes the instrument so compelling.
But, how do we make sure what we’ve recorded actually sounds good?
Here are some tips from my own experience that can help you mix a saxophone recording. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be using the alto saxophone as an example — of course, every type of sax should be treated differently.
Alright, so the first thing that I usually do is add some gentle compression, just to tame the loud peaks and control the volume throughout the whole mix. Normally, if I’m looking for a natural sound, I’ll use a fast attack and a fast release time to avoid altering the tone, with a gain reduction of about -3 dB.
Then I insert an EQ (equalizer). The EQ settings will usually depend on how the sax was recorded and what sound you need to achieve to fit it in with the rest of the band, but typically I’ll roll off a little bit of the lows and slightly boost around 200 Hz (the body and warmth of the saxophone). If the sax has some boxiness, I’ll cut around 400-500 Hz.
Then, for the nasal-sounding tones, I’ll cut around 1.2 kHz. This will surely help to temper the mighty squeal of this wild instrument. Finally, if needed, I’ll gently boost the presence around 5-6 kHz. If you want to add more air, you might use a high-shelf at around 10-11 kHz.
Very often, I’ll put a saturation plugin onto the mix to add some harmonic excitement to the sound. Tape saturation can work really well on brass sounds if used in the right way.
I’ll then add a bit of reverb and delay to create space and depth. Generally, a room or a plate reverb will do the trick. The reverb time, of course, depends on the song and the genre. Sometimes, I have to EQ the reverb by cutting out the high frequencies.
In this case, use a stereo ping-pong delay in sync with the BPM of the track. A cool trick when the sax is playing along with the vocal is to sidechain the delay of the sax to the vocal, so that the delay doesn’t get out of control when the vocal kicks in.
Well, that’s how I do it. How do you do it? What are your personal experiences with mixing saxophone sounds? Share them in the comments below!
“Don’t squeak, I know just what you’re saying, so please stop explaining. Don’t tell me ’cause it hurts. Don’t squeak.”
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Last year, Andrea De Carlo won Italy’s prestigious Carlo U. Rossi Award for excellence in engineering. He’s worked at legendary studios such as London Bridge Studio (Pearl Jam), 123 Studios (Florence and the Machine), and Punta Rec (Lana Del Rey). Listen to his music and follow his activities here.