I just want to let everyone know about my trip to the Sax Pro Shop in Wilmington, NC. I was there for a few days last week, and if you don’t know about these guys, you really should!
The Sax Pro Shop is a division of MusicMedic.com, which is owned and run by Curt Altarac. MusicMedic.com makes and sells a large line of instrument repair gear – pads, tools, etc. – and then the Sax Pro Shop is where the magic happens. Curt has assembled a team of himself plus five to work exclusively on saxophones, and these guys are absolutely amazing at what they do. They’re all great woodwind players in their own right, so they aren’t “just” technicians – everything they do to your horn is extremely well thought out from a player’s perspective.
Each tech has a specialty area of work, so when your sax arrives for an “Uberhaul” (their word for their special brand of overhaul), it goes to each person in order, and then the saxophone ultimately ends up with Curt for the final touches, or any specialty work. It sounds like an assembly-line process (and they even use that term on their web site) but it’s really not that simple. In my case, my late 20’s Conn alto had been at their shop about a month for modifications and a one-year check up. (Before you let that worry you, about half of that time was Christmas vacation, when they were out of the office.)
So when I arrived, we went to work immediately on checking out the mods and making sure they suited my hands and playing style. What I witnessed was anything but assembly line work. At most every step of the way, it was very collaborative. Other than some specialty equipment, the entire Sax Pro Shop is in one big room, so everyone is in ear shot of what’s going on, and everyone discusses problems together when they have something to contribute to the process. (Click the picture for a full-size image.) Everyone was very aware of what the others had previously done to my horn, so when questions came up that dealt with someone else’s work, you could just walk over to that tech’s bench with the horn in hand and go over the issues. I was really impressed with this process. Not only does it lead to great work on my horn, but I can see how these techs are in a full-time learning lab with each other day in and day out. With this environment of continuous collaboration, the quality of the work, as great as it is, can only get better over time.
So after we got the keywork customizations finished, I began to work with Curt on what he calls “tuning and toning.” This is a process where we work to make the sax as in tune as we can, while also making sure that the tuning mods we make don’t adversely affect the tone of the sax. I would have done this a year ago, immediately after the “Uberhaul,” but I couldn’t make it to North Carolina at the time. In retrospect, I’m glad I had a year with the horn before undertaking this endeavor, because that year with the alto helped me to understand what areas were most out of tune, and also what areas had different blowing resistance.
Curt’s philosophy about this can be summed up as follows (and Curt, if you’re reading this, please correct me if I’m wrong):
- Make as few mods as possible to solve these issues.
- Make these mods as small and unobtrusive as possible.
- Whenever possible, leave the fundamental structure of the sax intact.
- Understand that every mod that fixes one thing has other affects which may or may not be acceptable to the player.
So with these principles in mind, we began to work on my main area of complaint, the D/D#/E. We first worked with key heights to try to solve this, and got some improvement, but we also noticed some tradeoff in tone. So we backed off a bit, and he tried some crescents, which had a negligible effect. So the next option was to explore putting a liner in the bore. This was an interative process where we tried various non-permanent solutions, which were helping Curt gauge exactly how much liner to put in, and exactly where it should go. Ultimately the solution was to put a liner in the neck. (In case you’re wondering, it’s a kind of cork/rubber compound.) Curt was very conscious to minimize the amount of material inside the bore so as not to affect tone or resistance.
Note that Curt told me before we undertook this process, that if we fixed this area of the horn, this was going to make the existing sharpness in the 2nd octave A-through-C area more noticeable. He was exactly right. When D/D#/E was fixed, I noticed immediately how this other area was hard to control. So we went to work on that. I will spare you the gory details, but after most of a day of back and forth, trying different solutions (always starting with the least invasive) Curt had a menu of different things to do to it during the night and following morning.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention – we also did work on the low B bubble. For the life of me I simply could not get rid of the bubble on low B for the last year, and had resorted to dropping my car keys in the bell every time I played (yes every time, even during my recital). Curt tracked this down and fixed this during the course of the day also.
So I came back the shop the next morning around 10 to find my alto playing like no other I’ve ever played. It is now the most even tuning, even blowing, tonally consistent alto I’ve ever played. When I went into the testing room and put my mouthpiece on, I set my embouchure and played from bottom to top, making a conscious effort to leave the embouchure and voicing as static as I possibly could, and the horn just played a sweet, in-tune scale that blew my socks off. The horn was great a year ago after the “Uberhaul”, but I never would have dreamed a 20’s alto sax could play with such an even scale and such even tone. This horn has truly become a one-of-a-kind, custom, lifetime horn for me.
This is all not to mention the great (and unique) choices these guys have made for all the different materials during the “Uberhaul,” and I’m leaving out how easy it was to work with these guys, both over the phone and in person, on a bunch of other custom keywork things that are now precisely to my liking.
If it sounds like I’m using a lot of superlatives, well I am. I’ve never encountered the level of expertise that I found at the Sax Pro Shop, and if I could afford it, I’d send ’em the rest of my saxophones right now. You owe it to yourself to see these guys in person. They go to quite a few conventions and conferences, so if you can’t get out to North Carolina, try to catch them at another event. Sometimes they even bring their repair equipment and do work on site. Their travel info is posted on their web site so you shouldn’t have any trouble keeping track of them.
If you have any questions for me about my experience, or what they’ve done to my horn, let me know and I’d be happy to take close-up pictures, as time allows. I left out a lot of details to keep this post from getting even longer. Thanks for reading!