School of Music’s invention solves the saxophone’s tuning troubles

Michael Brockman is the kind of guy that, if something doesn’t work, he takes it to his workshop and fixes it—even the saxophone.

The professional saxophonist and School of Music faculty member tackled the saxophone’s notorious tendency to play out of tune by inventing the Broctave Key—the first U.S. patented invention from one of the UW Arts divisions—that is now on its way to being manufactured.

The conical bore of the saxophone begins with a narrow opening at the mouthpiece and flares dramatically over its length, making it hard to keep in tune.

Saxophones operate by blowing air over a reed, causing an airstream to vibrate inside the tube. Along the instrument are a number of holes; closing the holes lengthens the air column and creates a lower tone. An octave vent is a very small hole that causes the note to jump an octave, say from low C to middle C, like moving up seven white keys on a keyboard, by allowing a very small amount of air to escape at strategic locations along the horn. But the octave key creates intonation problems. Saxophonists combine a multitude of special fingerings with mouth and throat manipulations to bend the sound to their will.

Brockman, director of the UW’s Jazz in Paris program, teaches and performs both classical and jazz. He is co-artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra and a frequent soloist in the Seattle Symphony Orchestra for recordings and live performances.

The perfect solution to the saxophone’s intonation problems would be an octave key for each of the chromatic pitches on the saxophone, hence Brockman’s first effort: the Frankensax, which has 12 octave keys.

At his garage workbench, armed with a tape measure, propane torch, drill and vise, he started experimenting with new octave vents on a $25 garage-sale saxophone. He carefully calculated placement of the vents based on physics theories found in texts by Arthur H. Benade, and some ancient wisdom of Pythagoras. He attached small lever operated water vents from trumpets to open and close the vents.

The Frankensax is a good demonstration tool; however, as its name implies, it’s also a challenge to control. He needed something flexible and portable that could be manufactured at a reasonable price to solve the most egregious tuning issues. His answer: The Broctave Key, U.S. Patent No. WO-2010-068909A2.

Here’s how it works: A small vent is drilled anywhere along the body of a saxophone where an octave key is desired. To avoid permanently altering the instrument’s main body, the small vent can be drilled through any existing key on the saxophone. The Broctave Key, a piston-operated mechanism, sits on top of the newly drilled vent and gives the saxophonist the option of using it for notes most likely to be out of tune, such as middle D. Using a piston instead of a lever solves space problems and simplifies installation.

Brockman sees a future when the Broctave Key is sold as an option with all saxophones. Though the piston could be applied to any key, Brockman considers the high D key to be the most likely candidate because of the difficulty of playing middle D in tune.

Brockman became fascinated with saxophone design and acoustics as a student of Joel Allard, his mentor at the New England Conservatory of Music in the ’80s and one of the most renowned saxophone instructors in the country.

Remodeling a saxophone was nothing new for Brockman. His Russian- born grandfather brought his handyman skills to this country and taught them to Michael’s father. When Brockman was 10 years old, he and his father dismantled a saxophone to clean it up, and “to see how the thing worked. There were hundreds of parts, and we carefully labeled each one and noted where it went so we could get the instrument back together,” he says.

With the patent secured, Brockman is looking for a local company to manufacture the Broctave key, and for professional musicians to use and endorse it.