Neck Strap hook analysis results

  Several weeks ago I posted here and on SOTW that my new Just Joe's neck strap (with a large brass hook) noticeably changed the timbre and volume of the sound of my saxophone. This kicked off a long debate on SOTW in which many people scoffed and said I was crazy (or that my ears were deceiving me). Most of those SOTW members who believed my claims had not even bothered to try the large brass hook test themselves. Some of these players were well respected saxophonists and authors and many of them were weekend warriors. I was totally convinced that the large brass hook on the neck strap brings out certain overtones, on some notes more than others. It was perfectly clear to my own ears, which at this point in my life I tend to believe. About 80% of the saxophonists who tried the hook comparison test also believed that it made a difference. The 20% who did not hear any difference were usually either very inexperienced players or experienced players who were totally convinced before they even tried the test that it was impossible that a brass strap hook could change the sound of the horn. There were admittedly a few serious players who didn't notice a difference and seemed to have an open mind about the idea, like Ellery Elskelin. My theory is that the different makes of saxophones have the strap hook in different places, which causes different degrees of effect because the hooks may not be sitting right at a vibrational node. This means a large brass hook may have a greater effect on a Selmer than on a Conn.

  My testing with different saxophonists wasn't very scientific, so I turned it over to some pros. I have a saxophone student named Randal LeNeve who is an engineer at Rodgers Instrument corporation (which manufactures organs and is a division of Roland) and has a Masters degree in physics. Randy noticed a significant difference in the brass strap and was just as puzzled as I was about why a hook could make a difference in the sound. One theory that Tom Garcia and Sammy Epstein (who taught acoustics at Berklee) had at first was that the difference in timbre was more noticeable to the player because of the increased vibrations traveling up the strap to the players jaw and ears. This theory was shot down by Randy because of the fact that neck strap cord is a poor acoustical conductor. One of Randy's theories was that the large brass hook acts as what he called a 'resonating antenea'. This means that the hook itself puts off extra higher frequency overtones when the horn is played. Randy also thought that the point on the horn where the strap ring sits could be right at a critical vibrational node of vibration, which could explain the greater difference of change to particular notes on the horn. One thing that Randy really stressed was just how acoustically complicated the saxophone is. Just the driver (mouthpiece & reed) alone is highly complex and unpredictable. The instrument is actually quite mysterious and even scientists are not totally clear on some of the details of its workings.

  Randy took the Just Joe's strap into the Rodgers labs, enlisted the help of his colleague John Pospisil and they did some testing. John also heard a noticeable difference between the Joe's strap and a strap with a plastic hook and, being a saxophonist himself, was intrigued enough to join the project. They tested the Just Joe's strap against a strap with a plastic hook and one with a small thin steel hook. Randy played alto and soprano and John was the recording engineer. Randy tried his best to play as close to the same volume on all of the tests and they recorded eight different notes on each horn. John used the Roland R09 recorder, sampling at 24-bit, 48kHz and analyzed the frequencies using Sony Sound Forge, using a Blackman-Harris algorithm with 65,536 sampling points.

They found that the Just Joe's strap amplified some of the higher partials. It also appeared as if the strap eliminated a small amount of the frequencies between the overtones, which might account for a 'clearer sound' (this is my theory). Their conclusion was this:
"Certain notes on the Alto showed higher peaks on frequencies above 6 kHz which implies that the harmonic ratios of sound pressure levels are being altered i.e. a change in the timber of the sound, not the frequency distribution. Also G# on the Alto showed considerable added frequency content starting at about 200 Hz. The Soprano shows considerably more frequency content above 10 kHz for some, but not all notes.  It is perceivable that the Just Joe's Saxophone Gel Strap has an impact on the frequencies at or above 10 kHz for the Soprano sax setup used in this experiment and on certain notes on the Alto sax on frequencies above 6 kHz and in one case for G# starting as low as 200 Hz."
Randy added:
 "So in the case of Joe's Neck Strap the report shows that certain harmonics of the fundamental frequency were amplified. This means that those notes are LOUDER and the TIMBRE of the note was altered. That is, the horn still sounds like a saxophone but has 'brighter' and 'louder' harmonics. The LOUDER is pretty obviously a good thing. The TIMBRE being brighter can depend on what a player wants." 

Here is one of the screenshots from the analysis. It is middle A on the alto:
click on above graphic for a larger view

 They also felt that further testing would help to make these results more concrete and that these tests might include:
  1. Recording several takes of each note using each strap and averaging the frequency response of the resulting recordings.
  2. Using several straps to compare the differences in frequency response between each strap.
  3. Recording in a more acoustically "dead" environment.
  4. Using several microphones for recording including contact microphones on the saxophone body.
  5. Determination of the fundamental frequency and harmonic distribution of the metal piece(s) on the strap itself when not attached to the saxophone.

 So although this question should be investigated more thoroughly to discover exactly what is causing the difference in timbre between the Just Joe's strap and a typical strap (with a plastic or small steel) hook I feel like I have been vindicated by the testing that was done in the Rodgers labs. No amount of scientific testing be enough to convince some who are convinced that a strap hook cannot change timbre, so I fully expect that this post will set off another 20 page thread on SOTW. Fortunately I will save myself the aggravation and not be reading that thread. I had the wisdom to have my SOTW membership suspended indefinitely.

If anyone is interested in reading the full report from the Rodgers labs email me and I'll send you a copy.

I can say this will a fair amount of certainty though......

There is a difference in timbre!

Just Joe's Neckstrap


ericdano said...

Great article. This strap is on my to get list this year.

Bret said...

Very interesting, and surprising. In addition to the future testing you mentioned, I would also suggest double-blind testing, in which nobody knows which neckstrap is being used until after the tests are over.

mrG said...

I love a happy ending. Several times in my career, rare times, but more than once I've had this experience of being vindicated completely after having been vilified, and I know how good it feels, so congratulations absolutely, job well done, bravo. After your prior post on SOTW I didn't have the opportunity to try the brass hook, but I did take a closer notice of the difference between the utility-plastic strap and my steel-hook string-strap, and I'm pretty sure there is a brighter sound with the steel and string vs plastic and belt, so I'm already changed in that regard, but thanks for posting this follow up, and thanks too to your students for arranging the test. Slay 'em with Science I always say ;)

Eddie Rich said...

I got one of these neck straps a few weeks ago and noticed a difference immediately. It was kind of like having a personal monitor. It just felt like the sound was coming back to me really clearly.

Steve said...

I suppose it's just physics. Metal reverberates. The next step would be to have the neck strap hook attached to a metal chain.

Craig said...

I too bought one of these neck straps after reading your article. There was definitely a difference between it and the Neotech strap I was using. The sound seemed somwhat brighter, plus it was more comfortable on my neck.

JasonMescia said...

You guys are crazy...don't you know that Charlie Parker proved that material doesn't matter when he played that plastic saxophone? The only reason they make saxophones out of brass is so that those bastards can get away with charging thousands of dollars for a horn. I made my own horn out of mud and it sounds just as good as a Selmer Mark VI thank you very much.

Bob said...

I bought a Joe's strap after reading your article. First and foremost, it's one of the most comfortable straps I've ever used. Right there, it was worth the cost. But, beyond that, it has given my sound a bit more depth and presence. Thanks!

GFC said...

I tested the effect of a metal hook by Jerry-rigging a case shoulder strap with large steel snap hooks as a neck strap, while deciding what to replace my Ray Hyman strap with. The increase in richness and presence of the sound was surprising. I also blind-tested the two straps with a non-musician friend and he also heard the difference the way I did. I could also minimize the difference by dulling my sound, so YMMV. Of course I ended up going for the Just Joe's strap with the large hook.

File this one under the category of things we know happen but don't really understand. My horn is a Conn tenor with a strap ring placement quite different from the Selmers.

Stick a fork in the credibility of the various self-promoting pseudo-experts who call the shots on SOTW, including the author of the Haynes manual.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Well said GFC! Thanks.

Unknown said...

Interesting, well-written article.

After reading it, I bought two of these straps, for may tenor and alto, and I find them incredibly comfortable.

I did want to pose another question and see if anyone besides me has the issue of the metal hook wearing a groove in the ring on their instrument?

I noticed on my YAS-62 this morning that there is a deep wear mark that I believe in the not-too-distant future will go all the way through the ring. I am hoping this is something not too expensive to repair.

I didn't check my tenor yet to see if I am having the same issue.

I bought the alto used a few months ago, and I don't believe there was a gouge in the connector ring. Before I bought the new neck strap, I was using one with a plastic hook.

Thanks in advance to anyone who answers my query

GFC said...

@unknown 12:15

I had a similar problem some years back, from using narrow steel hooks. Brass is softer than steel. The hook on the Just Joe's strap is brass, so the wear should be shared between the ring and the hook. It is also thicker than a typical steel hook, so the wear should be more distributed.

Kevin Sun said...

Thanks for the detailed investigation into this topic—I recently heard Greg Tardy testify to the difference a metal neckstrap hook makes for a player's sound, and I've been looking around on the Internet for some options to replace my current Neotech ever since.

I'm just curious: have you investigated differences in sound related to switching between plastic and metal RH thumb hooks? Greg Tardy also suggested replacing plastic hooks with metal to improve the resonance of a horn, so I'd be interested to hear your take. Thanks again for this and everything else on this blog!

David Carlos Valdez said...

I already have a metal thumb hook, but I do believe that that also makes a difference in the sound. Ishimori makes a brass 8va key thumb rest, which is also supposed to make a difference. I gave one of Joe's straps to Charles McPherson and he said that he noticed a difference,"Hands down, no question", he said. He said it made his sound louder, more resonant, a little brighter and changed the response of some notes. He also thought that the brass hook slightly changed the way certain notes vented. He talked about how he used to play a Super-20 that had the three hook rings at different levels and how each ring made the horn play and sound totally different. The saxophone is a wonderful and mysterious thing.

Tobias Leon Haecker said...

I came to this nice article through Doron's page (BSWE) ant left there a similar comment.
It’s interessting that on your side of the ocean many people think that material doesn’t matter. I had also “big fights” about that on SOTW and finally got banned about that.
There are people who say, the physics say, that it can’t matter. But they are interpreting their physics wrong.

The saxophone vibrates in resonance with the air column. It’s just the air column that produces the sound. But the system saxophone has an backwards influnce on the air column.
So everything that dampens the vibrations of the horn “steals energy” from the system.
So everything that changes the Eigenfequences of the saxophone CAN has an effect on the sound. It doesn’t mean, that everything is hearable.
But this explains why material, finish and the mechanic has an influence.

Now the weight of the sax is hanging on this hook, so of course it interferes with the eigenfrequence.
But in my experiences they are not that big.
There are a lot of “resonance weights” which can alter the sound a bit but in the end this are just toys. None of them really improves YOUR SOUND. None in the audience will hear if you play a metal thumphook oder one of plastic, but for a pro player himseld this small difference.

But there is a practical reason for plastic hooks. Metal hook will wear of the ring where it hooked in.

It's nice that someone finally made the work of backing up the heard scientifically.

GFC said...

@Tobias You might be interested to know that about 90% (!) of the energy of the air column in a saxophone is imparted to the body of the horn. That's referred to as "thermal loss," as most of that energy ends up as heat. But on the path to becoming heat as it courses around the body, there is plenty of opportunity for that energy to re-radiate into the air column as harmonics. It doesn't take a whole lot of energy at the frequencies of upper partials to have an audible effect.

Don't worry about a brass hook wearing out the strap ring, per my previous comment.

Tweaking mass distribution for resonance seems to be the frontier of neck design. Theo Wanne, Steve Goodson, and Rheuben Allen have different but related approaches in their products. Players have been rigging neck weights since the big band era, and the concept seems to have caught on among producers of high end equipment. But, as your post implies, none of that cutting edge stuff matters if the player is weak (which I suspect is behind a the inability of certain people to appreciate its value).

Here's another weird science thing to do that's kind of fun. Take your horn and have a friend hold the bell in a light strangler's grip. Blow some long tones as your friend gradually increases the pressure.

bb55chevy said...

I made my own brass hook fro a trumpet 1st valve slide finger hook. I played it against the plastic hook. I noticed s difference.