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Come Freeze Your Horn



Todd Thatcher could probably sell sand on Oak Street Beach. Instead, whenever he's in Chicago he drops by jazz clubs to sell sound. Thatcher, an acknowledged musical ignoramus, wants musicians to pay him to freeze their instruments to the temperature of liquid nitrogen--a treatment that he says will make them sound better and play smoother than they do now.

Some of his customers are astonished and grateful. "You just can't believe how soft I can play now," reports a bass trombonist from the University of Kentucky. Others, like local saxophonist Greg Fishman, are hard sells. "Cryogenics? Did you make up this name?" Thatcher's generic reply: "Someone has to have the cojones to try it first."

Last year Thatcher, who's 34, worked for RPM Carbide Die in Arcadia, Ohio, persuading manufacturers and machinists to have their drill bits, saw blades, bearings, and the like deep-frozen and thawed in a particular way. The computer-controlled process is gradual--5 hours to cool the tools to minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit, 24 hours to hold them there, and another 5 to bring them back to room temperature. The tools look the same afterward, but many customers claim they last longer than nonfrozen tools. According to the January issue of Modern Machine Shop, when treated, "drills . . . make seven to eight times the number of four-inch-deep holes in cast iron; blades for cutting an abrasive rubber . . . get 37 times greater life; electrodes for spot welding [have] three times the normal life; and carbide dies for cold heading and cold forming . . . go for months in service rather than weeks before they need sharpening."

Cooling metal objects to make them last longer is an old idea--Swiss watchmakers are said to have tempered watch parts by storing them in chilly mountain caves. But it is by no means universally accepted. Tests during the World War II era were at best inconclusive. The American Iron and Steel Institute puts no stock in the process. In 1987, Popular Science's Phil McCafferty found no effect on store-bought tools.

Even those who believe in cryogenic treatment have no well-established explanation of how it works. What theory there is comes from Randall Barron of Louisiana Tech University. His unpublished research report from the middle 1970s builds on the accepted theory of heat-treating steels. When steel is properly heated and cooled, most of its softer crystalline form--austenite--becomes martensite, which is harder because its atoms form interconnected instead of self-contained units. Barron says that deep cryogenics turns any austenite left over after heat-treating into martensite, and also forms fine carbide particles that help the martensite atoms resist wear more.

Thatcher's sales job actually depended on deep cryogenics' being a marginally accepted technology. If it were either an accepted part of tool manufacture (like heat treating) or clearly wacko (like putting crystals next to the tools), then he would have little convincing to do. His job is rare enough as it is; according to Thatcher, "There aren't enough cryogenics salesmen/salespersons in the world to get a good bridge game going."

But earning a living selling a marginal process with unclear scientific support wasn't close enough to the edge for Thatcher. He was a little bored, and perhaps intrigued by his boss's habit of filling up any extra space in the cryogenic chamber with other items--disposable razor blades, golf balls, nylon stockings--just to see what would happen. The company once verified the importance of gradual cooling by dropping 100 marbles directly into liquid nitrogen. They all cracked. When frozen slowly, none did.

So Thatcher rented a couple of brass horns and put them through the process with no apparent ill effects. Then he called up the Toledo Symphony, and--despite his own uncertainty--somehow persuaded orchestra manager John Hancock and a friend to have their horns frozen.

"My boss . . . thought I had lost it," Thatcher would recall in a letter. "He wondered why I didn't fill up our 'freezer' with bits and blades. When he asked me how much I had charged these horn players to take up valuable space in our chamber, I didn't have the guts to tell him no charge. I wanted to say to him that chances were good that it would cost him four grand . . .

"For 24 hours these guys' horns were frozen to minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit. For 24 hours I didn't eat or sleep." When the horns came out, Hancock and his friend played scales for about ten minutes while Thatcher fretted. "During the highest notes the musicians' eyes would widen. Without sleep for 24 hours, I took these looks to mean that my boss was $4,000 poorer and there was one less cryogenics salesman in the world."

He was wrong. Their eyes were widened with pleasure. As Hancock wrote later, "Overall, the horn is easier to blow, more flexible, and more resonant. Several individual notes are more centered, and the high range above the staff seems clearer. On the concert stage, it seems louder. In the kitchen, my wife Jane says 'smoother and sweeter.'"

"I went to my boss," recalls Thatcher. "I said, eureka! He said, go back to work." Thatcher did, but not for him. He signed on with a small deep-cryogenics firm called 300 Below, in downstate Decatur, Illinois. In between the saw blades and drill bits, he met with Toledo Symphony brass players and persuaded University of Michigan professor of trombone Dennis Smith to have one of his instruments frozen. "It tended to even out the tonal coloration," says Smith--"more richness and a little darker quality. The sound is more chocolaty. I don't detect much change in the ease of playing."

At an Indianapolis 500 time trial, Thatcher found University of Kentucky trombonist Dale Warren playing in a band. Warren heard him out with some skepticism--then called Smith, changed his mind, and mailed his instrument to Decatur. Afterward he was glad he did: "I could hear a darker and warmer sound. It was easier to play both high and low notes. I'm real impressed."

Warren did not rely just on his own expertise, though. He carefully recorded the horn's sound on digital audiotape both before and after the treatment. Then he had a colleague, UK music education professor Allen Goodwin, use spectrographic analysis to compare the sounds visually.

"Frankly, I expected some very subtle difference," says Goodwin. "I thought it would be something detectable only by world-class trombonists, who listen to trombone sounds all day and who would tend to blow any change out of proportion. But the differences were not subtle.

"The treatment increased the relative amplitude of the lower frequency components of the sound, and decreased the relative amplitude of the higher frequency components. A layman might call it a more 'mellow' tone. You could have used a $15 K mart recorder off the shelf and seen the change.

"I don't have any idea why. I suppose the metal's tensile properties have somehow been changed." On the strength of Goodwin's analysis, UK musicians have since had more than two dozen instruments frozen with good results.

If the scientific understanding of cryogenic effects on cutting tools is in its infancy, then the theory of freezing brass instruments has barely been conceived. In fact, Goodwin implies that the whole physics of instrumental sound is pretty shaky. "When I teach music acoustics here, we always talk about how physicists say 'It's really the air column that's vibrating, not the tubing.' So, in theory, the air column could be bounded by anything. [A cardboard trombone?!] But in spite of that, there are differences between instruments."

Trial and error rules. Robert Osmun runs Osmun Brass Instruments in Belmont, Massachusetts, which sells, repairs, customizes--and freezes--brass instruments. He came to deep cryogenics from the musical side, but like Thatcher he had no idea what would happen when he first tried out the process two years ago. Unlike Thatcher, he knows enough about how instruments are made to explain what "stresses" cryogenic treatment might relieve, and, incidentally, to explain why many players think older instruments sound better and play better.

According to Osmun, the old-fashioned way of making a brass instrument's bell (its flared end) was to cut the metal in a flared pattern, bend it around, and solder up the lengthwise seam. The new way is to make the outer, biggest section of the bell from a disk and then solder that to the rest of the horn, creating a crosswise seam.

"Many people thought these new bells didn't sound as good, and they thought it had something to do with the location of the seam. What Walter Lawson [described by one source as "the primary experimenter in brass instrument treatment in the U.S."] figured out was that, in the new process, that end part of the bell had been deformed much more and was therefore much harder [than it would have been under the old system]. Copper-bearing alloys become harder as they're worked more." Lawson could restore the original relative softness by annealing (heating) the metal, a process that Osmun characterizes as often imprecise--and, in any case, not something you can do to a finished horn.

Another reason for unwanted tension in newer instruments, says Osmun, is that they're usually put together by semiskilled workers on a production line. The instrument's parts are held together by jigs, and if the parts don't quite fit as they should, the quickest solution is to tighten a wing nut on the jig, forcing the parts close enough together to be soldered. "I just took a horn apart that had never played right ever since it had a bell job 12 years ago," he says. "The bell must have jumped a good three-quarters of an inch from its braces when it was released."

The theory is that these stresses limit an instrument's range and resonance. But Osmun--who has frozen more than 100 trumpets, trombones, and horns--does not sell cryogenic treatment (he calls it "resonance enhancement") by promising dramatic changes. "It's subtle," he says. "We've only had two guys who thought it made no difference, and neither one of them could blow his way out of a sack. It's like buying a car: a suburban housewife going to the mall won't find much difference between a BMW and a Dodge Caravan, but Mario Andretti at 180 miles an hour can sure tell the difference."

Small differences matter in the extremely competitive world of professional music. "At every audition for even a hick town orchestra, you'll have 150 people show up, and maybe 20 or 30 of them can do the job with one hand tied behind their back. So you get down to very subtle differences," such as those that a course of minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit can create.

When it comes to describing those differences, Osmun shies away from the popular adjective "darker." ("One guy's 'darker' is another guy's 'duller.'") "It gives a more complex sound. The sound seems thicker, with more harmonics going on. You can feel you're in the pitch more, not riding on top of it. And I think [deep cryogenic treatment] extends the dynamic range of the instrument. It makes possible very quiet, controlled attacks on notes. You can play louder before the sound gets bright and jangly and edgy and unstable."

But why? Osmun doesn't know. He is working with Boston University physicist and amateur horn player B. Lee Roberts in hopes of presenting a paper at the International Horn Society workshop in Florida next spring. But fooling around came first. Says the University of Kentucky's Allen Goodwin, "Science likes to think it's completely objective and makes progress by objective methods. But in history, great leaps--like Curie and X rays--often get made by serendipity."

"Whenever I asked where all the brass and jazz players are," recalls Todd Thatcher, "I kept hearing Chicago." Now working for his own company, ThermalCurv, based in Findlay, Ohio, Thatcher started visiting Chicago clubs on his business trips. "At first I got blues and jazz mixed up," he told me in September. "This trip I've homed in on jazz."

At the Elbo Room, he chatted with a skeptical musician who told him, "Brass players are constantly changing horns and mouthpieces in hopes they will sound better. They ask me, 'I got this new mouthpiece, how do I sound?' Well, to me, they always sound like they do. If I want to play better, I'll practice." Thatcher also met trombonist Audrey Morrison, who decided to try having one of her horns frozen: "I'm hoping it doesn't darken the sound too much," she said. "I'm looking at it as more vibrancy and color, more resonance factor overall." (Morrison eventually decided to put off freezing her trombone until she could study the results of the big freeze at the University of Kentucky.)

In moving from metallurgy to music, Thatcher has been most amazed by the kindness of musicians. "I got a D in music in high school. It seems kind of presumptuous for me to go up to people who are playing so well and tell them I can make them sound even better. But I've never had anybody say, 'You're crazy, get out of my face.'

"I get a little tired of engineers. These people at jazz clubs are great. I could do this forever."

Saxophonist Greg Fishman--a 1991 DePaul graduate and winner of the jazz division of the 1992 North American Saxophone Alliance Young Artists Competition--doubts that a saxophone, with its leather pads shellacked to the keys and its intricate metal structure, could survive a freezing treatment, let alone be improved by it. And when he and Thatcher met, Fishman wasn't sure that most saxophonists would even want a darker sound. "A lot of guys prefer a real bright sound, to cut through. I'm kind of unique in that I like a darker sound."

"It's like trying a different mouthpiece," said Thatcher.

"But the difference," replied Fishman, "is that you can go back to the old mouthpiece! This horn is as perfect a horn as I've ever played. It has its problems, but I know them."

Thatcher: "Imagine that cryogenics could remove those stresses you're fighting."

Fishman: "That's a personal preference thing. Some people like a tighter horn--it gives them something to play against. Just having to put that much energy into it produces a different sound."

Thatcher, a marketer to the end, kept on plugging. "If cryogenics did do something good, what would you want it to be?"

"I think of notes," said Fishman. "To try to go for the core of the note. That's what I tell my students to do. Some horns have a great core. I played an old gold-plated Conn the other day--it had an incredible core. You could just fill the room with sound. Even when you played soft, it was a gigantic sound."

As a teacher and a realist, Fishman remains cautious of any easy outs. "You're always going to sound like you. Some guys relacquer their horns, or gold- or silver-plate them. Or they change mouthpieces. Lots of people have drawers and drawers full of different mouthpieces, and all different kinds of reeds. I heard that someone once put a horn on one of those machines that shakes paint, in order to change its molecular structure.

"A lot of musicians are very insecure people. If you say Go stand on your head, they will. If they think something will help their playing without their having to do any work, they'll go for it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Bloom.

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