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Blue Notes

Does freezing an instrument to 350 degrees below zero really make it sound better?

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By David Harrell

If you hear the local jazz ensemble Stew's Brew, you may notice something unique about the tenor saxophone: somehow it seems bigger, richer, livelier than other horns. Sax man John Kutten has been playing woodwinds for over 20 years. His tenor sax is a classic 1972 Selmer Mark VI. He's finicky about finding the right mouthpiece ("There are hundreds of mouthpieces out there--it's like finding the Holy Grail") and reed ("Only about one in five reeds is any good"). He's had his tenor and baritone horns delaquered in the belief that laquer deadens an instrument's resonance. As if that weren't enough, he's also had two of his horns cryogenically frozen at minus 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cryogenic processing can increase the strength of steel items such as tools, golf clubs, razor blades, and engine blocks; it's also used on plastic products such as nylon stockings. But can it also make saxophones--or flutes or euphoniums--play better? Mark Ponzo, a trumpet professor at Northern Illinois University, says that this application of cryogenics is little studied and its benefits may seem more like folklore than proven science. Yet some musicians swear by it. Wayne Tanabe, owner of the Brass Bow music repair shop in Arlington Heights, has performed the treatment for more professionals than he can remember. "I used to keep track," he says, "but now I've given up."

For $205 the Brass Bow will ultrasonically clean and then freeze your tenor saxophone. For a 6/4 tuba you'll shell out $375. After the instrument is cleaned, all keys and exterior parts are removed. The body is covered by a protective wrap and placed in a freezer resembling an ice cream cart--only this freezer contains supercold liquid nitrogen instead of Good Humor bars. Over the next 30 hours the temperature is carefully lowered less than one degree per minute, to 325 below, only 134 degrees above absolute zero. It's held there for several hours, then gradually brought back to room temperature.

Kutten says he hasn't played his alto saxophone enough to notice whether cryogenic treatment has improved it, but he believes his tenor sax is significantly better. Not only do the very highest notes seem to be "released" and more readily available, but there's "more evenness of response and an increased tonal palette throughout the range of the horn. It's easier to make the notes sound the way you want them to. The overall playability of the horn has been opened up." He says he's so impressed with the effects that he plans to have his baritone sax frozen too, but he stops short of a blanket endorsement. "It's a subtle difference, and I don't think everybody's that attuned to the subtleties of sound."

John Hagstrom, second trumpet for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, had five or six of his horns processed at the Brass Bow, including his Bach C trumpet--his "money horn." Hagstrom also believes the horns sound and feel different. Like vocalists, instrumentalists often have a harder time playing the soft notes gracefully than belting out the loud ones. "We [the CSO] play extremely soft and extremely loud, and you need an instrument that doesn't just have one direction," he says. He cites a certain pianissimo passage in Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, which the orchestra performed recently. "It goes like this," he says, dropping his voice. "Bum-peeee...bum-peeee...very soft, very delicate. You have to get a very nice point on each note, without playing them too loudly." Hagstrom says that after cryogenic treatment his horns sound richer and play more easily, especially at low volumes.

In addition to the problem of soft playing, instruments may have certain "dead" notes that are difficult to make sound good at any volume, especially at the top and bottom of their range. Needless to say, says Hagstrom, this limits a musician's expressive palate. "You're just kind of concerned with the basic function of getting the note out, not with what you're doing artistically," he says. But after cryogenic processing, he says, his horn's dead notes tended to come alive, sounding fuller and richer, and playing more easily. Because the scientific evidence is skimpy, most trumpet makers remain skeptical, he says, but their horn testers are "typically marginal players" who can't discern or take full advantage of the subtle improvements. Serious musicians take every little advantage they can get, just as serious athletes are always trying the latest motivational technique or nutrition supplement. "There was a time when people thought nutrition supplements were hocus-pocus, too."

Nick Drozdoff, who used to play trumpet with the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra and now teaches physics at New Trier High School in Winnetka, had his gold-plated Bach C trumpet treated at the Brass Bow and agrees overall with Hagstrom: "I just like the way it plays. It seemed to make it more responsive, easier to play, and a little more brilliant in tone. The higher partials get amplified slightly, which makes the sound a little brighter."

Partials--also called harmonics or overtones--are the subtle elements that make up an instrument's unique timbre or tonal color. When you hear middle C on a piano, for example, you're not only hearing the fundamental pitch C; if you have a good ear, you'll also hear a complex series of higher tones that combined give the note its characteristic ring. Without these overtones the piano would sound lifeless and dull. When an instrument produces louder overtones in relation to the fundamental, its tone is "brighter" or edgier; softer overtones create a darker or mellower sound. Before it was treated, says Drozdoff, his horn's overtones would only emerge fully when he played loud. "When they froze it, I didn't have to blow so hard to make them come out." Result: a richer, more even tone at all volumes.

Last December, Tanabe contributed his facilities and know-how to the "great freeze-off," a small study conceived by members of the Trumpet Players' International Network. Four players--Ponzo, Hagstrom, Drozdoff, and amateur Stanton Kramer--tested and rated four trumpets for various qualities before and after cryogenic treatment. Unbeknownst to them, one trumpet--the Bach--was left untreated. Drozdoff found the results fascinating. "I liked the Besson a lot before freezing, but I liked it even better after. The Benge played well before, but noticeably better after. And the Blackburn didn't impress me a whole lot before, but afterward I would've given any amount of money to buy it. It was incredible. I think most of us really picked the Blackburn as the one most improved. The Bach I didn't notice anything better about." The other three participants responded likewise: they noticed improvements in the three treated trumpets but not in the control.

Others who've tried cryogenic treatment are less enthusiastic. Trombonist Bob Lustrea, who has played in the musicals Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Fosse, had his bass trombone frozen ten years ago. "I was fascinated by what I got back. It seemed like the horn was just smoother. Of course we're talking in very subjective terms, but it seemed more even in the high and low registers, maybe a little darker. It was also easier to play." He also had his Edwards tenor trombone treated at the Brass Bow but was "underwhelmed" by the results. "I don't think it did anything that time. I basically have become dissatisfied with that instrument."

Lyric Opera principal trumpeter Brian Perry had Tanabe freeze two of his four trumpets: his Bach and his very expensive David Monette. The first time he had the Monette frozen, "the tonguing became much crisper. It had a much quicker response [and was] very focused. "Then I did it again," he says a bit ruefully, "and that effect sort of went away. I never was able to duplicate it again. I guess you can overdo it." He ended up selling the horn. Asked if he'd give cryogenics another try, he says with a laugh: "I'd put all my tools in there. But if I was buying another horn, I think I wouldn't do it again. I'd try out 20, 30, 40, 50, 70 horns over a period of time. If I found an instrument that played really great, I'd buy it and leave it alone." Trumpet players should realize there's no shortcut, he says, nor is there a perfect trumpet--to design one of those "would take something like the Manhattan Project."

Not much is definitely known about what happens on a molecular level when a metallic musical instrument is deep-frozen. A popular explanation is that the metal's literally stressed out, and cryogenic treatment relaxes it. Bill Bryson, an author and cryogenics consultant in Cincinnati, says that two layers of stress are built into every instrument: after manufacturing, the skin or surface of the brass cools more quickly and therefore contracts more tightly than the inside, creating instability--residual stress. In construction and industry this residual stress, combined with other stresses, can lead to fractures and catastrophic accidents. In musical instruments all it will likely do is change the resonance and sound of the instrument. The metal takes even more of a beating as the instrument is heated, cooled, stretched, squeezed, bent, pounded, and finally brazed and soldered together into a flute, flugelhorn, or saxophone. As the molten braze and solder cool, they contract, tightening the metal even more.

According to popular theory, all this stress disrupts the crystalline molecular structure of the copper and zinc, in turn affecting how the metal will resonate when a musician blows air through it. David Hutchison, who owns a cryogenics business in Branson, Missouri, says that flaws in metal can reduce resonance, just as a cracked tuning fork won't sound the right note. He believes that cryogenic treatment of brass and steel closes the gaps between molecules that were spread apart, realigning them into their original lattice structure and allowing the metal to resonate better. Cryogenically treated metal becomes smoother, according to Bryson: its microscopic "peaks and valleys" evened out, it not only machines more easily and takes on a brighter sheen but is less subject to friction. Musicians playing brass instruments with valves or slides find that the parts move more easily. "They say it feels smooth and silky," says Bryson. Hutchison treats wind and brass instruments with their keys still attached, and because cryogenics makes the springs stronger and more resilient, the keys or valves snap back more quickly upon release, enabling the musician to key the instrument more easily.

Mark Ponzo, the professor at Northern, also believes cryogenic treatment relaxes the silver solder that holds instruments together, further improving their resonance. He believes there's something to cryogenics, even though its benefits haven't been scientifically proved. Yet many musicians are willing to try anything that might improve their music. "Trumpet players are the kind of people who, if you tell them 'Go out and buy this mouthpiece, it'll make you sound better,' we'll all go out and buy it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Machnik/copyright Stanton Kramer/EImageChicago.

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