One of the great challenges we, as saxophonists, have to overcome is learning how to consistently play in tune. In this post, we pick out our favourite saxophone tuner, the best tuning apps and a few alternative methods for improving your ear.
Playing in tune is often considered a prerequisite to making good music.
Of course, there are many examples of seminal recordings by world-class musicians where the tuning is far from immaculate – enter Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh totally smashing this incredible yet dubiously tuned rendition of J.S. Bach’s Invention No. 1. We doubt they were using a saxophone tuner during rehearsals!
Although not conforming to twelve-tone equal temperament, Konitz and Marsh are still in sync with each other. Their ability to play accurately in tune with the rest of the band should be the goal of all saxophonists and musicians alike.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the best digital saxophone tuners for improving your technique and explore some useful tips and tools for developing your ears and tone.
Our Top Pick: Korg TM60C Combo Tuner Metronome & Contact Mic
The snappily named ‘Korg TM60C Combo Tuner Metronome & Contact Mic’ is hailed as a market-leading digital saxophone tuner and could be a great next step if you’re looking to buy a product to help you on your tuning journey.
How To Keep Your Saxophone In Tune
Playing the saxophone is not as simple as merely pressing the right keys down, there is a multitude of factors that affect the tuning of a saxophone. The shape of the instrument is naturally imperfect and in general, the low notes have a tendency to be flat, whereas the high notes tend to be on the sharp side.
This can be problematic when trying to find the perfect position for the mouthpiece to be on the neck of the horn.
Remember! To make the instrument sharper, push the mouthpiece on. To flatten the instrument, pull the mouthpiece back. It’s recommended to take the neck off first so as to avoid any unlikely but potentially devastating neck bending disasters.
We’d also advise tuning to the note F# on the saxophone as that tends to be the most stable note on the horn. So that’d be concert E if you play tenor or soprano saxophone and concert A if you play alto sax or baritone.
Tuning issues on the saxophone can also be exacerbated by the temperature, the mouthpiece/reed you are using, and your embouchure technique, so there is a lot to think about.
These variables can be constantly changing, so it is important to be aware of them and work on your ability to adjust to different musical situations.
Most importantly, we’d recommend working on long tones to develop a supported yet relaxed embouchure that isn’t biting on the reed. Following from that, be aware that warm weather, small mouthpiece tip openings, and hard reeds are likely to produce sharper intonation and the opposite will achieve flat intonation.
Cleartune – Digital Saxophone Tuner App
For anyone looking to ‘tune up’, the first port of call would be to consider a digital saxophone tuner and where better to look than on your phone.
There really are a multitude of apps that can supply an accurate visual descriptor of whether you are in tune, sharp or flat.
Our favourite for its simple design and usability is ‘Cleartune’. It will listen to you play using your phone’s microphone and tell you on a dial where you sit in relation to your desired pitch.
You can also change the transposition in the app so alto sax, tenor sax and baritone players don’t have to transpose to concert.
Cleartune tells you whether your instrument is in tune when you play a single note, which is definitely important. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole saxophone is in tune.
Be wary of relying too much on visual tools like Cleartune as you may prevent yourself from developing your ear; the quickest way to improve your tuning.
Korg TM60C Combo Tuner Metronome & Contact Mic
This battery-powered unit has been specially designed for wind instruments. It detects which note you are playing and tells you visually whether you are sharp or flat.
It boasts a ‘Contact Mic’ which clips onto the bell of your saxophone and uses the vibration of the horn to give a more accurate reading. It also has a great little in-built metronome that can go as slow as 30bpm – a handy feature for anyone who likes a lot of space between clicks!
Similar to Cleartune, The Korg will give an accurate visual reading for each note, but it also has a great additional feature that we’d recommend using.
The ‘sound out mode’ will play a pitch for you to play along with, allowing you to develop your ear by matching the pitch the tuner is emitting as opposed to relying on the visual display to tell you if you are in or out.
Great though this feature is, there may be other ways to achieve the same gains.
A drone is a sustained chord that you can play along with and make for a great tuning, tone and ear development tool.
Drones are great because they force us to use our ears to tell us whether we are in tune or not, making them an effective alternative to a saxophone tuner.
We recommend drones that are perfect fifth dyads (two note chords), these dyads can be stacked in octaves but the openness of these drones allows the saxophone player to get creative with how they use it.
Again, there are many out there but these cello drones are free on YouTube and can be found in all 12 pitches!
You can practise matching the sustained notes, but also running scales and working on long tones at different pitches to the drone.
You could practise playing major and minor thirds between the drone and hearing how it sounds for you to complete the triad.
The same applies for any other degrees of the chromatic scale; some will yield greater tensions than others, which will help build your knowledge of intervals. In other words, it allows us as single line instrumentalists, to hear chords.
‘Tonal Energy Tuner’ app is another digital saxophone tuner like Cleartune but with the added function that allows you to create your own drones.
Although we find it slightly less logical to use than other apps, we’d definitely recommend it for the drone feature alone.
Transcribe solos and songs is easily one of the most enjoyable and effective ways to work on your tuning.
Practice playing along to your favourite solos, and in turn, build your language and ability to match your tuning to other musicians. Miles Davies on ‘Freddie Freeloader’ is a wonderful place to start.
Play with Other People
Finally, nothing can build your musicianship faster and help you work on your tuning more than playing with other musicians.
Tuning-wise, the most effective things we could do as saxophonists would be to work with horn sections, big bands and to play with harmony instruments.
These can all train your ears to pitch more accurately and of course, it’s just great fun to make music with other people!
Even though it should be all of our goals to play as close to in tune as possible, it is important to try and remain philosophical about it and to enjoy the journey of developing your ears.
Being slightly sharp can sound great if the performer is playing with enough intention. It didn’t stop Dizzy Gillespie sounding incredible over this early version of ‘All The Things You Are’, did it?
We hope you found this article helpful. We have plenty more informative articles about the best gear for jazz instrumentalists in our Discover Jazz Section. Our post on the Best Saxophones for Jazz is a great place to start!
Have a favourite saxophone tuner? Let us know in the comments!
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!