George Bryant

Electro-sax: An introduction

Playing the saxophone is loud - there are very few ways around that. It’s hard to practice while living in a flat, without worrying about annoying your neighbours (especially if you’re as bad at it as I am!). I wanted a way to have fun playing the saxophone, silently. It would be nice for it to feel like playing a real saxophone, although not an absolute requirement.

Prior art

There are existing solutions to this problem, but when you want to make something they don’t feel quite right. Instead, I’ll take inspiration from what already exists.

I set out to make an electronic saxophone, so while sax mutes exist they’re not the solution I’m looking for. Wind controllers like the Akai EWI have a good shape and do basically what I want, but the tactile feel of the ones I’ve seen isn’t sax-like enough. There are more realistic options like the Yamaha YDS-150 but they lack some of the expressiveness of the EWI. The closest things I’ve seen to what I want to make are portable practice saxophones like the Emeo Practice Sax and the Travel Sax.

But most of all, it was lockdown and I was itching to make something. Let’s be honest - buying something off the shelf was never really an option.

There are some existing DIY options - most notably Jeppe from KontinuumLab’s work on the OpenHornMidiSystem and the KLIKSophone. Jeppe has fully embraced the synth sound and a less natural feel - I wanted to make something closer in feel to a real alto sax.

The idea

So what I set out to make is essentially a particularly realistic feeling MIDI wind controller. It’ll have a subset of an alto sax’s buttons, sense your breath pressure and bite through a somewhat sax-like mouthpiece, and output MIDI data to a computer. Later on in the project there was some scope creep to include an analog synthesiser, so you can play the instrument without a computer.

This is quite a long-term project - it’s been running for 2 or 3 years so far! I’ve been gradually experimenting and making improvements when I have time and motivation. To avoid writing one huge blog post that nobody wants to read (and I don’t want to write!) I’ll write about each section of the instrument in its own post.