C-ducer Saxman & Sax FX Unit
In our continuing effort to expand the variety of our reviews, we recently gave respected saxophonist Jan Steele (whose credits include collaborations with Brian Eno on the Obscure label) a novel pick-up device manufactured by C-Tape Developments and saxophone effects unit, both designed to provide the wind player with a valid alternative to recording via a standard microphone. Below are his comments.
This useful pick-up preamp unit is an extremely handy alternative and improvement to using either a standard microphone or one of the many patent transducers which invariably fit into a hole drilled in your saxophone mouthpiece, crook, or clipped onto the bell.
I've always steered well clear of these 'bugs' in the past because they always had the extremely undesirable effect of making the saxophone sound like an amplified kazoo, and although they eliminated the problem of having to stand rigidly glued to a spot directly in front of the mic, and mollified one more feedback problem for the sound engineer (always welcome), the microphone gave a much more faithful reproduction. However, the C-ducer 'Saxman' contact mic is definitely worth considering for the reed player who regularly works in an amplified situation.
The unit comes in a good case complete with contact mic, preamp, leads, and various clips and straps for experimenting with different arrangements of mounting the preamp (on belt, bell or mic stand) and where you want the wires to come from (direct from the crook or from the bell).
The simplest arrangement appears to be to mount the preamp on a mic stand, and fit the ¼" jack to the bell. You'd then need to buy an extra lead (¼" jack socket to ¼" jack plug) to get you to the preamp, and if you wanted to use this arrangement for doubling you'd need pick-up, lead and clips for each extra instrument. Switching instruments would then simply mean unplugging one and plugging in the next, which although slightly hassle-inducing when you've got a tight routine to perform, is a vast improvement over trying to adjust a recalcitrant boom stand to a different height for your soprano sax or clarinet. What usually happens to me is that I have to lean backwards to point the soprano sax bell into the mic - either that or the mic ends up falling out of the clip.
The contact mic itself fits not onto the body of the instrument but onto the reed, which by analogy is presumably the nearest thing to fitting a contact to the bridge of a stringed instrument. Fitting it meant I had to change my habits of putting my reed on. Normally I soak the reed in water, put it on the mouthpiece, and slide the ligature carefully over the reed. With the 'Saxman', you have to fit the contact to the reed with a blob of 'flexible compound' as they so quaintly describe it in the manual (actually it's Buddies), so that the metal tongue of the pick-up is in contact with the bark of the reed butt.
This means that, first, the part of the reed where the blob sticks has to be dry (which mine wasn't first time!); second, the ligature has to be opened wide enough to accommodate the metal tongue as well as the reed; and third, the ligature has to be in place, but loosely, before you slip the metal tongue and reed in.
This meant learning a bit of extra co-ordination, but presumably you get used to it and learn not to damage too many reeds in the process. I use a conventional screw-type ligature turned upside down with the screws on top, which was fine, but if you use a Lawton-type mouthpiece and ligature, it would be well to check that the contact fits into this before investing your money. Likewise, if you use Olivieri reeds, which have an extra thick butt, you should check that there's going to be enough room left between the reed and the ligature.
The next thing is to fit the neck-clip, which has a mini-jack socket on it, to the crook. The first time I fitted this it took some lacquer off my sax, which I was none too pleased about, but I solved this problem by putting a scrap of polythene paper between the clip and the Crook which lubricated the clip and protected the lacquer. Here is where my first (minor) criticism comes in - it might be better to have a clamp-type clip with rubber or felt guards which would protect the instrument. After the clip is fitted, you can choose whether to go direct to the preamp (on bell, belt, or mic stand) or to a socket fitted on the bell.
The sound reproduction was of good quality, better than most PA type air microphones, and much, much better than other 'bugs'. I experimented by stuffing the saxophone bell with a duster (something I do for an effect sometimes), which although eliminating the bottom six notes of the saxophone, also cut out a lot of the sax's direct acoustic sound, allowing a cleaner amplified sound from the transducer. This brings the sax closer (though only slightly) to the concept of an electric guitar or solid body electric violin.
The only other criticism I have of the 'Sax-man' is that in a PA application, after going to the preamp, you've still got to go through a DI box to get to the mixing desk. It would therefore seem to make more sense to have the DI box incorporated into the preamp box, so that you've got a balanced output straightaway, without having to have yet another set of leads and connections which have to be checked if anything goes wrong. It also means that you won't be stuck when it turns out that the PA company hasn't got enough DI boxes!
I'm much less enthusiastic about this little box of tricks. On the face of it, it seems well designed. For your money you get a robust floor box with the following features;
- Direct sound
- VCF (voltage controlled filter) with 'Effect' control
- ADT with Depth and Speed controls
- Octave device
Each of the four 'modules' has a strong, unambiguous footswitch with an LED to indicate what's operating, and a volume pot. The three effects have switches for routing to one of two outputs so that you can have two channel effects (which would require two DI boxes and two channels on the mixer). The connections are all unbalanced ¼" jacks and the only monitoring indicator is an overload LED.
Before delving into how this unit actually performs, it seems a good idea to find out what conventional effects are already available to the sax player. Here are some of the techniques I use or have used in the past when playing:
1. Very wide dynamic range.
2. Normal, legato, accented, slap and flutter tonguing.
3. Tongue filter. (Like filtering the harmonic series as one does in playing a jew's harp, or the kind of movement one makes with the tongue in whistling).
4. Diaphragm vibrato (mainly an amplitude effect with slight timbral modulation).
5. Jaw and embouchure vibrato. Mainly a pitch effect with slight amplitude and timbral modulation.
6. Portamento using jaw, embouchure and tongue.
7. Diaphragm accent.
8. Throat rasp.
9. Multiphonics by fingering, singing or overblowing.
10. Vibrato or portamento using crossfingers.
11. Harmonic series on Bottom Bb, B, C, C#, D. Tongue filter sweep of the harmonic series.
12. Altissimo register.
13. Speaking or singing into the saxophone, using the sax body as a resonator and the keys as a bandpass filter.
14. Doughnut, duster, beer-can and beer-glass mutes.
15. Wide range of tone colours through experimentation with different types of reed, mouthpiece, ligature, etc.
16. Frequency modulation by overblowing, cross-fingering and singing.
17. Wah-wah type effects by pushing a microphone in and out of the sax bell.
There are probably a lot more effects that other players use, and many of these effects can be used in combination with each other. Anyway, onto the C-ducer effects unit itself.
The first problem with the 'Sax FX Unit' is that to get a consistent performance from the effects you have to play within a relatively narrow dynamic range. Otherwise, playing the unit is like trying to play through a noise gate - the effects tend to keep cutting out on you just when you decide to do an expressive soupy slur! You can minimise this problem by setting the volume controls in the manner suggested in the manual, but the best control to prevent this from happening is to be your own 'compressor', in other words decide on what volume to play at and try to stick to it as much as possible. You can keep your eye on the overload LED (keep it on!) to help you to adjust to this way of playing, because the ear, of course, isn't usually a good judge of what sound energy level is being emitted.
The next and most serious problem for me is that the effects just aren't that interesting. The ADT section does produce an ADT (automatic double tracking), but how useful is this in a live situation?
Remember that a powerfully and correctly played saxophone which is also amplified will produce a natural ADT in an auditorium anyway, because you'll get live and amplified sound occurring together. In a recording studio, you can get a good ADT easily enough with any number of different tape, analogue or digital delays, which even the smallest budget studios have.
The low pass filter produces a 'wah' sound on the attack of a note, but after that it is mainly ineffective. You can't modulate the filter, for instance, except by playing solely with the left hand and turning the 'effect' knob manually. There aren't the benefits of having resonance or modulation controls available as on a synth, for example, with an external input. You can't create a slow opening or closing filter effect which would have been interesting to try on a saxophone with its rich natural harmonic spectrum. You would get a much more expressive filter if you used a standard wah-wah pedal (which, of course, sax players have done in the past).
The octave device (one octave below) produces the most substantial effect, in that it gives the sax an effect similar to a sub-octave on an analogue synth. However, it doesn't sound remotely like two saxophones, and in fact it has the effect of reducing the instrument to the standard of a cheap analogue monophonic synth.
It could be useful perhaps, in those situations where a band has only one player playing one sax, where there's a tendency to give the saxophone solos and nothing else, because other more structural parts don't seem to suit the saxophone's individual sound. The octave device does make the sax sound a bit more anonymous (I damn with faint praise!) so the sax could, for instance, be given a bass riff to play without sounding incongruous.
What might have been more interesting would have been to have had the option of producing a Perfect 12th note above whatever note is being played. This might have made a most distinct and perhaps more interesting timbral change, akin to the 12th stop on an organ.
Using the different effects in combination with the other sax effects listed above gave the best results. Some pleasant and more natural sounds were achieved by a gentle flutter-tongue in combination with the VCF 'Effect' knob turned up high and a natural tongue filter modulation. The octave device with ADT in the bottom register of the alto sax gave a very powerful, beefy sound which could be useful in some situations.
However, all in all, I found this a limiting rather than an expanding device. If I was looking for an effects unit to use live with the saxophone, I'd save my money on this one, keep practising, and aim to get one of the many digital delays which are on the market. These devices can give some saxes some really different sounds. Try for instance a really slowly swept flange on a steamy night club alto sax, which gives the sound of an 'otherworldly' harmonica. When you've heard that, you'll never, ever want a simple ADT on a saxophone! Even so, you should still give the C-ducer unit a thorough audition.
The 'Saxman' retails at £80.21, the FX Unit at £195.00 both inclusive of VAT.
Further details from: C-Tape Developments Ltd., (Contact Details).
Review by Jan Steele