Damned saxophones

As I’ve mentioned a time or two, one of my current creative outlets is composing and recording podcast themes and incidental music. Lately, that’s meant scoring the weekly episodes of The Incomparable Radio Theater

This week’s episode presented a unique challenge. It’s like this.

The show’s writer, David J. Loehr, fills his scripts with puns and audio gags. The music that accompanies his work is part of the fun and he’s not shy about offering suggestions along the lines of “Something like the ‘Peter Gunn theme,’ or, barring that, ‘Harlem Nocturne.’” 

Sure, David. Two hallmark compositions from the 20th century. I’ll get right on that.

This week it was, “We need a jazz group, with a saxophone leading it, then a long break without the sax, and then the sax returns and plays really badly.”

Hoo boy.

The difficulty in all these requests is that they feature the damned saxophone to a greater or lesser extent. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love the sound of a well played saxophone (except, perhaps, the soprano sax). In the right hands, it’s one of the most expressive instruments on earth. Only the human voice can match it for its emotional and timbral range. 

But getting that range from the instrument requires breath and, regrettably, saxophone samples don’t breathe. When you load up such a patch (I use the saxes that come with Apple’s Logic) and plunk down a key, you get something that sounds like a sax blown in mid stream. You don’t get the first breathy tone, the modulation you can get by modifying the airflow, or the fall off when you deprive the instrument of wind. More often than not, it’s a fairly harsh blat or an overly reedy whine.

You can help this somewhat by using something called a breath controller. This is a device you connect to your controller keyboard and blow into. It can be configured to modify volume, key pressure, modulation, and other varieties of MIDI controller data. I haven’t touched one of the things since the late 80s and, even then, I wasn’t much good with it. 

So, what to do about the sax? In my case, avoid it as much as possible.

As for the first request (the Doll Tearsheet theme that you’ll find on the Music page), I worked around it by using a clarinet patch rather than a sax. Bass clarinet was my second instrument in college and a tone I really like. While not as nasty as a sax, a clarinet can similarly convey a smokey, slightly seedy atmosphere. Plus, its round tone can be reasonably faked with a decent sample. (If you listen to the show’s opening theme, you’ll hear that I used clarinet there as well.)

In the case of the nightclub scene, there was nothin’ for it. It demanded a sax and sax is what I provided. I embellished it a bit by using quick passing tones to start lines, EQed as much of the fakery out of it as I could, and added reverb to fatten it up. But you still have to rev up your imagination to believe it’s the real thing.

Ah well.

My hope is that David’s next request is something more achievable—a krummhorn ensemble, belting out a ditty in the style of “Makin’ Whoppee,” for instance.