The saxophone is a classic and great sounding instrument that can heat up any rock or jazz arrangement. However, sending your sax through a microphone and leaving the track untouched in a mix can really kill the mood and effectiveness. Throw on a little slapback delay and a bit of eq and that sax will jump right out of your speakers and into your room. Home studio engineers need not fear. The tools for sending your sax over the top are simple and included in nearly every DAW. These tips will help you get great sounding sax tracks in your home studio!
The saxophone big four: space, heat, body, quack
Many of the best recorded sax lines evoke the image of sitting in a smoky club, groovin to the music. This is the feeling we are going to reproduce on our home recording.
Space is the sound of the sax bouncing around in our imaginary venue. Giving your listener the sense of being in the room with your musicians is the best way to draw them into the music. A conventional delay configuration is more like an echo with several diminishing repeats. This is not the effect we’re going for. In a small, smoky jazz club you are going to hear the immediate sound of the sax followed quickly by the sound bouncing off the back wall of the venue. This type of delay is commonly referred to as a slapback. To get a good slapback delay set your delay time in the 70-140ms range with no feedback. Our ears start to hear distinctly different attack on a note somewhere around the 60-75ms range. If you take your delay down below this range you will start to hear it as more of a thickener instead of our desired slapback effect. If you get too far above the 130-160ms range your sax will sound a bit unnatural, or at least certainly not the effect we are going for here. Turning the feedback to minimum will cause the delay effect to produce only a single repeat. This will put the slap in slapback. Keep the mix or wet control of your delay fairly subtle. 15-30% wetness can really work wonders on your sax.
Heat gives your sax a sense of excitement. Great horns (and even most mediocre) ones will have a lot of natural heat to their sound. In these cases you may not need to do any warming up on the track. But if you lost something in translation, mic positioning, or just didn’t have a very high quality sax, doing a little warming up of the track can work wonders. Sometimes the sax can have a hard time finding space in the mix around guitars or other horns. The easiest way to fix this is by adding a bit of heat around the 2kHz area. A boost of 3-4dB should give you plenty of heat on an already great sounding track. You may have to get a bit more agressive with a larger boost if you track is poorly recorded or the horn was not that great sounding in the first place.
Body is the thick part of your sax sound. I do not often need to EQ the body of a sax track. The saxophone’s body is probably the easiest part to capture on a recording. Also when you are mixing, the body will be the most identifiable part of the sax sound. Your brain will tend to judge all other elements of the sax in relation to body. For those occasions when your sax track is a bit thin, you can use a 1-2dB boost somewhere in the 700-900Hz range to thicken it up a bit.
Quack is a nice quality of the sound of the sax but only if it is kept in check. Fortunately, the natural sound of a great sax will have only a very subtle quack. Unfortunately, the process of capturing the sax in the studio can accentuate the quack and get your horn sounding more like Donald Duck than Charlie Parker. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to find the quack and nail it with some eq. Unfortunately, the quack usually lives very close to our precious heat and can negatively affect that quality when we tame it. If you need to remove quack you can cut 1-2dB around 1.0-1.6kHz. If you want to add some quack you can increase your search area and give a gentle boost of 1-3dB somewhere in the 900Hz-2.0kHz range. The search range for adding quack extends a little lower and a little higher than removing it. This is because we want to protect the body and heat of our sax sound so they don’t get removed with the quack. While adding quack it can be helpful to add more of the quack that overlaps the body or the heat to keep it from getting too honky.
Saxophone big four quick chart
More space: 120ms delay, 0% feedback, 20% wet
More heat: +4dB at 2kHz
More body: +1dB at 700Hz
Less quack: -2dB at 1.5kHz
More quack: +1dB at 900Hz
Saxophone mix recipes
- Start here for a warm, ambient sax sound
- Delay: 135ms, 0% feedback, 30% wet
- EQ Band 1: +2dB at 800Hz
- EQ Band 2: +1dB at 2.5kHz
- Start here for a hot, immediate sax sound
- Delay: 90ms, 0% feedback, 15% wet
- EQ Band 1: -2dB at 1.2kHz
- EQ Band 2: +4dB at 2.7kHz
- Start here to help an already great sounding sax cut through a mix
- Delay: 115ms, 0% feedback, 20% wet
- EQ Band 1: +3dB at 2.5kHz
I’m not generally a big fan of reverb on a sax track. I much prefer the sound of our slapback delay. An added reverb will often muddy up the sound and make it much harder to get the sax to cut through in the mix. If you do want a reverb on your sax track then try starting with the same type of reverb you might use on a vocal line. This can work well but I would set the wet mix to about half where you want it on a vocal. Reverbs sound great on a lot of things but they often serve to draw an instrument in to the mix while a slapback will help push it out of the mix and into the listener’s room.