Music professor retools and retunes the sax

Michael Brockman

Michael Brockman -

Michael Brockman shows the "Broctave Key," a piston-operated device which allows the musician to play difficult keys, such as middle D, in tune. 

Photo by Joshua Bessex

Professor Michael Brockman recently created a modification to the saxophone that allows musicians to play the saxophone with much greater resonance, better tuning, and clearer intonation.

Already co-artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, director of the UW Jazz in Paris program, and player in his own octet, Brockman’s debut invention garners him a new accolade: inventor of the first U.S. patented item from one of the UW Arts divisions.

“The saxophone has some very special problems … it’s a flexible instrument in tone and tuning … very susceptible to going out of tune,” Brockman said.

A sax’s narrow mouthpiece broadens and swoops into a brassy curve, with multiple octave vents, called keys, in the tubular sax body to allow fluctuations in pitch by jumping an octave. With air blowing through a reed down the sax’s length, the amount of openings can make control difficult.

“When holes are open along the body of an instrument, and when you close holes, the air column inside gets longer and longer, so notes get lower and lower,” Brockman said. “Like the flute recorders in grade school, when you add a finger, it lowers the notes.”

In addition, there are not enough octave keys on a normal saxophone to capture all the pitches of a normal chromatic musical. There are 12 different keys on a given piano, so ideally, a saxophone would have 12 octave keys to allow full versatility. Yet a normal sax has only two octave vents.

“Only two notes would be played perfectly correctly,” Brockman said. “Ideally there would be 12.”

With a low-grade sax and some tinkering, Brockman inserted vents at appropriate places along a sax’s length. He calculated the correct placement, employing some basic physics of sound and air velocity, and eventually perfected what he dubbed the Frankensax. However, the problem with 12 keys trailing over a saxophone is that it is notoriously difficult to play, requiring considerable dexterity and breath control.

“In the process of building the Frankensax … I drilled a new key, and then put this piston-operated valve on top,” Brockman said. “I just did it in my garage and thought, ‘I’d like to have that.’”

Brockman’s altered key consists of a piston-operated valve in a key installed atop an existing octave key. Depression of the valve on top of the key already in place can allow further modulation and control of a given note, increasing a player’s ability to play in tune and with flexible artistry.

“It sounds perfectly natural,” Brockman said. “It takes a note that usually sounds stuffy and sharp and makes it sound resonant and full-bodied.”

Given the increased quality of the sound, after Brockman invented the “Broctave” key, he contacted the UW Center for Commercialization (C4C) nearly two years ago regarding filing a patent. Deborah Alterman, an engineering technology manager, worked with him on the patent application.

“Some of the things that make this valve novel and valuable are that it has been designed to have an optimal air flow rate,” Alterman wrote in an email. “It’s easy to use while playing the instrument, and has the flexibility to be implemented on either a replaceable key or an existing saxophone.”

Alterman and the C4C also helped Brockman secure funding to develop and test prototypes for what may become the initial version of the Broctave key product. With modified designs created in a machine shop, along with feedback from potential users, Brockman and the C4C are currently fine-tuning the final version of the Broctave key.

“It fills a very specific need, [and] does so quite effectively … Brockman understands the potential users extremely well,” Alterman said.

The appeal of his modified key, according to Brockman, is that sax owners can retrofit their instruments, and try it out. New saxophones could be outfitted with the key, so that new buyers can begin with the key that enables better playing.

“The last thing in the world [musicians] want to do is change their favorite instrument,” Brockman said. “Having a way to back out of the change is important.”

Licensing and manufacturing questions are yet to be resolved, yet as Brockman stated, changes to an established device such as the sax take time to build up. Customer demand may eventually popularize the Broctave key.

Reach reporter Garrett Black at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @garrettjblack

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