Read about how the geometry, material and the finish can affect the sound of a saxophone. These are the 3 big variables affecting a saxophone's sound.
Geometry : This factor is the most important one affecting a saxophone's sound. The neck, body, bow and bell form a conical tube. The rapid opening and closing of the reed as it vibrates creates pressure pulses which cause the air column in the tube to resonate at a particular fundamental frequency. This is the origin of the sound we hear.
At the same time, the air column also resonates at frequencies corresponding to fractions of the air column (1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5 etc..) These produce some of the harmonic content in the sound we hear, not as distinct notes, but as coloration to the fundamental note. The basic contribution of the tube to the sound will vary based on the tone hole locations, sizes and the geometry (shape) and volume of the tube. Small bore saxophones (e.g. Selmer Serie III, all Yanagisawa, all Yamaha) have a distinctly brighter sound. Large bore saxophones (Keilwerth SX-90(R) and Rampone & Cazzani R1 and R1 Jazz and the bottom of Selmer Référence saxophones) have a more powerful fundamental component in their sound and they are warmer sounding. In soprano saxophones, curved designs have a darker, throatier, more saxophone-like sound when compared to straight designs which are more pure sounding.
Material: Not as important as geometry, this is the 2nd most important variable. Vibrations in the column of air cause the body of the saxophone and all of the parts attached to the body, to vibrate. These vibrations contribute additional harmonic content to the resulting recipe of sound we hear as a saxophone's particular unique voice.
High harmonics contribute to what we describe as a saxophone'sbrightness. A saxophone which has a strong fundamental tone and relatively less powerful harmonics will sound warmer, darker and sultry. A horn with more harmonic content will sound brighter. Too much harmonic content and the sound can become edgy, tinny and even annoying. Student horns sound like this because they are, typically, thinly constructed of lightweight and inexpensive metals. On the other hand, too little harmonic content and the horn will be very dark and lack power. (e.g. recent Yamaha 62 models)
The larger, heavier and the softer a metal part is, the lower the resonant frequency produced. The smaller, lighter and harder the metal, the higher the resonant frequency produced.
Most saxophones are made of brass. The brass can be polishedor brushed (Selmer Serie III and Référence Brushed, Keilwerth Solid Nickel-Silver) for two distinctly different looks. Sound character is not affected by this variable alone.
Some horns employ the use of a red brass (Rampone & Cazzani R1 Jazz) or a bronze alloy (Yanagisawa 992 series) which are softer metals with a higher copper content and this darkens the sound.
Yanagisawa 9930, 9933 and 9935 series models offer tubes of partially Solid 95% Silver while 9937 series models are all Solid 95% Silver. Selmer Paris offer Serie III saxophones made of allSterling Silver (92.5% pure silver). Either way, solid silver is a precious metal that imparts a particular sweetness and a velvety charactrer to the sound and removes the edge that brass instruments can have.
The latest version of the Keilwerth SX-90R is made of a solidNickel-Silver alloy (an alloy containing nickel, zinc and copper). This alloy is harder than brass and adds a significant richness of high harmonics over the otherwise dark fundamental sound produced by the SX90R.
Decorative engraving on the bell and bow is a cosmetic treatment which is typical of professional caliber saxophones. It has no effect on the sound. However, unengraved saxophones are becoming more common at this level as well. "No Engraving" options are available with certain finishes from Selmer (Paris). This can save you money versus engraved horns.
Finish: The third most important variable. A finish will never overcome the effect of a saxophone's geometry or material. But finishes can influence the final sound produced.
To protect the a saxophone's body and parts from oxidation and tarnishing, a surface finish is applied. The finish can be a spray applied lacquer or an electroplated metal. Yamaha currently offer certain models without any lacquer at all and these instruments will corrode and look very bad... very quickly.
Lacquers (Clear, Matte, Honey Gold, Rose Gold, Black, Antique Matte) tend to damp a little of the very high harmonic content in the sound. This gives lacquered instruments a slightly warmer sound when compared to identical plated instruments. The color of the lacquer has no influence, only the amount of lacquer applied.
All saxophones of the same geometry and material with the same amount of lacquer will sound identical. Black lacquered models are lacquered with several coats of black lacquer, engraved and then clear lacquered again. The additional coats of lacquer can make these models slightly darker sounding than other like lacquered models.
Gold or Silver-Plated saxophones tend to play a little brighter and with a little more power for the same effort due to the absence of a lacquer coating. Silver-plated instruments will tarnish and can be kept new looking for a lifetime with a few tricks we recommend(3M Silver Protector Strips). Gold-plated saxophones will not tarnish.
Nickel-plated Keilwerth saxophones are either polished or anodized black. And then all of them are also clear or gold lacquered and these saxophones have darker harmonic content due to the effect of the nickel plating AND lacquer over the sound tubes.
Remember, finish is the third most important variable. Don't expecta YAS-82Z with black lacquer to sound warm and don't expect a Rampone & Cazzani R1 Jazz with gold-plating to sound bright.
Remember, it is the entire system that produces the sound. Player and mouthpiece affect tonal quality to a far greater extent than finishes do. The brand and model (geometry) of the instrument also has a much larger effect than the finish alone or the material alone. And even small things can have a small effect such as the choice of reeds and ligatures, though these are REALLY small in their effect.
Size matters. The larger the saxophone, the more noticeable the effect of finish and tube material on its sound. Baris and tenors are larger with bigger parts and they are also pitched lower. Consequently the relative presence or absence of high harmonics is easier to hear. On altos the effect is discernable, but smaller. On sopranos, the effect can be very difficult to perceive.
People matter. An individual's ability to hear high harmonic content can vary. Generally, as we age, we slowly lose our ability to hear high harmonics well. And the resulting debate between individuals on this issue can make for some interesting sport.
Players must choose a sound they like and seek to achieve it through the selection of a saxophone, mouthpiece, playing technique, finish, reed and ligature...in this order of importance.
There is no one sound that is ideal for a particular type of music. Different players select different instruments for the same type of music, based on personal preference. WARNING: If you ask us "What is the best saxophone for Jazz (or any other genre)?", we'll ask you what the best cars are for driving to make the point.