Listening to trumpet and trombone players all day gives us a greater understanding of sound — and what sounds people want. Understandably, players often do not know how to put into words the definition of the tone they want to achieve, so I thought I would take a minute to write about what Ron and I listen for in an appointment. All of these tone components are a part of the equation needed to make a “complete” sound.

1. Response

How clean are the articulations throughout the registers? How quickly does the sound start? Is there any hesitation before the tone begins?

I try to have the sound line up with the articulations so that there are no gaps at the start of the note. Ron is also very good about listening for this. Many times he cues in on this part of sound very early in the appointment and is quick to dial these erroneous response issues out with the correct component (even if a custom part is needed).

2. Sound Width

Is the sound too wide? Too narrow? Does it have a fuzzy outer ring? Is the ring too clear? Does the ring need more color?

Sound width is as important as any other aspect of tone. Have you ever heard an individual play with a very diffuse vibrato? If the sound is too wide the edges of the vibrato can become nebulous. It can sound like the person is trying to manipulate a “tank” rather than tone. It is important to have a big sound, but it should be easily colored/changed so the musician can make the sound concept in his/her head a reality.

3. Sound Depth

If sound width is east and west, think of depth as north and south. Many people think of sound width as “presence” I don’t because I think that a tone with presence also needs to be thick, which gives sound many dimensions of color. When the sound depth is rich and thick I feel you can listen into the sound rather than just hearing a sound.

I have heard some combinations of instruments where the sound gets trapped in the throat of the bell and never fully comes out of the instrument. I have also heard many combinations that are too efficient for the individual — the sound can become too aggressive. My ideal sound is an enveloping tone that, when I close my eyes, it seems as if the player is about 10 feet from me when in reality he/she is 20-30 feet away.

4. Core of Sound

The core of sound will be hollow if the tone is unfocused. On the other hand, if the center of the sound is too tight, the tone will become nasally and disconnected from the outer ring. I try for a rich, centered core that attaches itself to the outer ring and allows me to “blossom” the note when the volume is increased (I want the blossom and not the explosion). If the core is balanced with the outer ring, the player will generally have more dynamic contrast and color in their sound palette.

I have heard a lot of brass musicians with good tone quality that miss dynamics because their instruments are not fully balanced. A great horn will have all the dynamics (ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, fff) and allow the player to manipulate the sound in all these dynamics without causing intonation problems. The horn should be consistent but still allow the player to manipulate the sound in order to achieve his/her musical goals.

5. Balance of Overtones

Is the tone too bright? Too dark?

I think of overtones like an old school audio equalizer. You have the lows (left side of the EQ), mid-range (center), and highs or upper overtones (right). This is an oversimplification, but let’s focus on these three so I’m not typing all night.

What many people hear as bright I hear as an oversaturation of upper overtones or a lack of low-to-mid overtones. When an individual says something is really “dark”, what I hear is “wow, that sound has a lot of fundamental and less in the middle/upper range of overtones.” I try to figure out what sound the player is striving for and then adjust the instrument accordingly. I think we can agree that most musicians want great sounds, which has a balance between lows, middles, and highs.

Every individual has a different physiology — resonating chamber, dental structure, throat size, and shape, etc. — which affects the way each of us produces tone. I feel that geography, language and speech patterns play majors role, as well, but that’s for another blog post. Taking into consideration all these differences, Ron and I are able to work effectively within the Edwards scheme to build great sounding horns for our customers.

My definitions of tone quality may differ from those of other players, but it’s not always easy to use words to describe sound. One player’s description of tone may sound different another’s, yet they both may mean the exact same thing. I was once in an appointment and the customer felt that that bell had “crunchy lows”. I’m still thinking about that one.