Once as beautiful as saxophones are, twice as complicated. These instruments can have up to 600 parts, which gives you intricate control over their sound, but also makes them liable to face a lot of hiccups and issues.
Some of these have to do with the sound of the sax coming out airy, spitty, squeaky, or muffled. There are different reasons for this happening, and some overlap, but it’s important to identify exactly what is off about the sound of your horn, and then you’ll be able to fix it effectively.
Why Does My Saxophone Sound Airy: 5 Major Reasons
A big portion of why there could be something off about the sound of your sax has to do with reed placement. It can also be that the reed is too hard, or that it’s unbalanced. Moreover, there could be a leak in the horn itself, and on rare occasions, the placement of the reed or the ligature on the mouthpiece.
One of the less common reasons is a poor embouchure, a broken octave mechanism, or a subpar mouthpiece quality.
So, as you see, the diagnosis can vary, and accordingly, the solution. And in this guide, I’ll present you with almost all the possible scenarios and what you can do about each.
1. A Defective Reed – The Most Common
The most common reason why your saxophone may sound airy is the reed being defective. This includes being dry, stiff, unbalanced, or warped.
Of course, you have to realize that the material of your reed plays a big role in how consistent it will sound, and on that basis, you’re more likely to face this issue with a cane reed than you would with a synthetic reed.
The biggest giveaway when it comes to verifying if the airy sound is caused by a defective reed is your horn sounding airy across all ranges, not just when you place a specific one.
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Check the D’Addario Reserve Alto Saxophone Reeds:
This is only problematic with cane reeds, and can be a reason behind the airiness. The solution is to moisten the reed, either by warming up or by submerging it in water for a couple of minutes.
Alternatively, you can resort to plastic (synthetic) reeds to avoid this issue altogether. However, you should bear in mind the differences between synthetic reeds and cane ones.
If you’re already playing or have tried switching to a plastic reed and you’re still hearing an airy sound to your horn, it could be that your reed is stiff, not dry.
To continue playing with the cane reed, you can try reed modification, assuming you’ve already gone through the process of breaking in your reed.
Moreover, make sure that you’re storing your reed in a proper manner. This means inside a case that is isolated on a glass or ridged surface, providing hydration and protection against warping.
The two concerns above are checked in the dryness department? Look into reed modifications. This can help overcome both stiffness and unbalance. And while this may not be the easiest skill to learn, it will save you some bucks in the long run and help you avoid any airy sound to your horns.
2. Either the Mouthpiece or Ligature Isn’t Properly Placed on the Mouthpiece – Common Among Beginners
If you’re still new in the world of saxophones, there’s a high chance you might be facing the very simple yet common issue of improper placement. Keep in mind, this issue usually leads to the airy sound being inconsistent.
You can start by removing the mouthpiece and holding it upright, where it’s perpendicular to the ground to check if both the tips of the reed and mouthpiece are aligned. If you see a little piece of silver from the mouthpiece tip from behind the reed, with the two tips very closely aligned.
Too much of the silver showing would produce an airy sound just as much as if you couldn’t see the tip. Accordingly, you should push your reed higher or lower on the mouthpiece to see how it affects the sound.
Moreover, it could also help to ensure the sides of the reed and the flat section of the mouthpiece are aligned. Otherwise, some air might leak out and give you subpar sound.
And it’s not only the reed’s improper placement but also that of the ligature. What you want to do is place your ligature over the thickest part of the mouthpiece. Moreover, it shouldn’t be too loosened or tightened, to provide room for the reed to vibrate without it detaching from the setup.
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3. Leaks – Very Common
If you only have a few notes that sound airy, there’s a high chance your instrument is leaking. One of the most common culprit keys is the G#, which will cause resistance on anything below it. Sometimes, it affects the keys below it without the G# itself sounding off.
A good way to verify this is to listen for an airy sound below a certain note but the horn sounding normal above that note. Also, if the leak is in the palm key, the high notes will play well but the ones at the lower range would sound airy.
You can also try pointing a flashlight into the instrument’s top while you’re in a dark room to check if you’ll see any light through the keyholes if you close all the keys on the horn. If you do, then the keys through which you can see the light are the reasons behind the leak.
Another surefire way to verify is to use the same setup (mouthpiece, reed, ligature) to play on another instrument. If all the notes seem to be playing just fine, then it’s definitely a leak in your own horn. In that case, you’ll have to pay your repair shop a visit.
Sometimes, it’s particularly the octave key that’s leaking, or its mechanism lags behind after it’s pressed, which also causes an airy sound.
To verify if it’s the octave key in particular, try alternating between low G and low A slowly. Do that once, and then add the octave key the second time around, alternating between the G and A above the staff.
Major changes while doing so indicate that there’s something wrong with the octave key mechanism, which also means that you should get your instrument to a repair shop.
4. Subpar Mouthpiece Quality – Not Common
While this isn’t a very common airy sound diagnosis, it never hurts to test for any issues. If you’re pairing a budget mouthpiece with a student sax, you’ll probably be getting an airy sound. Especially with a plastic mouthpiece, as those tend to be inconsistent, unlike rubber ones.
Not to mention, mouthpieces with relatively smaller chambers offer lower resistance, which reduces any airiness in the sound of the instrument.
5. Inaccurate Embouchure or Air Support – Common Among Novices
If you’re a complete novice, you might still be working on your embouchure and air support, which could lead to some air leaking out of the corners of your mouth.
To fix this, you might want to ensure that you’re applying equal pressure on the mouthpiece every which way. It also helps to align your top and bottom teeth and to take deeper breaths before blowing into the horn.
In this section, I’ll give you a little summary to recap the entire article.
|Issue||How to Test||How to Fix It||How Common|
|Defective reed||Replacing reed with a high-quality one||Properly break in your reed, follow good storage protocol, and look into reed modification||Highly common|
|Wrong mouthpiece or ligature placement||The silver of the mouthpiece shows from behind the reed||Align edge of the reed to the mouthpiece’s flat surface and the ligature to its thickest part||Common, especially among beginners|
|Leaks||Airy notes below a specific note only||A visit to the repair shop||Very common|
|Low Quality Mouthpiece||Probable with cheap plastic mouthpieces||Replace mouthpiece with a rubber one of high quality||Less common|
|Wrong embouchure or air support||Play G and A in both octaves and check the note quality||Practice good embouchure, learn from a good teacher||Common among beginners|
The first question you should ask yourself when you hear an airy sound to your sax is whether you hear it across the entire range of the sax or if only some notes produce an airy sound.
If it’s only a few notes, then it’s probably a leak somewhere, while the entire range means there’s something wrong with the setup or the playing technique. The former means a visit to the repair shop, while the latter means some trial and error to figure out what’s causing the airiness in the setup and taking suitable action to fix it.