Just as a good reporter must be apolitical when covering the news, a product reviewer must suspend all skepticism and judgment when testing equipment. I know this; I believe this; I preach it. Of course, that all went out the window when Will Peak sent me a box of his Bell Rings for saxophone. I couldn’t help it, but when I opened the package, all I saw was rings made out of plastic tubing.
Saxophone mutes are designed to improve the pitch of the low register of the saxophone and to dampen the “harshness” the instrument can produce. They have been used, mostly for classical playing and have been the standard equipment for some of the most recognized names on our instrument. As someone who has spent the majority of his career trying to get the most resonance out of the saxophone, I could never really see the point in stuffing something, coated in fabric, into your bell that was designed to deaden your tone. The few times I have tried a mute I have hated the sound. Plus, they have moved, causing more detriment than benefits. So, skepticism was in full force as I stared at a box full of Bell Rings from Peak Performance Woodwinds.
I am happy to tell you that once again, a product has taught me a well-deserved lesson. I was stunned at how well the Bell Rings performed. As advertised, it did alter the pitch on the low Bb as well as take some of the brassiness out of the sound. I am reluctant to say that it removed the “harshness” of the tone as I have never viewed the presence of high overtones as a negative. I will admit that as someone who plays with a naturally bright sound, it did enjoy the effect the Bell Ring provided. If I could describe the change, it would be like rounding the point of the tone. Instead of affecting the core or the resonance of the sound, it merely took the edge and softened it.
Concerning lowering the pitch of the low B-flat I have to, once again, admit my arrogance. I never thought I played sharp on my low B-flat. Then again, low often do you play for a sustained period on a low B-flat? So, I got out my trusty tuner and set out to disprove Will’s theory. Sure enough, my low B-flat was consistently seven to ten cents sharp. I tested this on some Mark VI and Series III altos, and the result was the same. When I inserted the Bell Ring, I not only found it centered the pitch, it improved the response tremendously.
As if my ego was battered and bruised enough, I started to experiment with the various sizes of rings. Each ring is marked with a number 0, I, II, etc. The higher the number the further down the bell the ring fits. In addition to the size, the thickness can also be adjusted. For example, a "II" might fit further down the bell, but the "II+" will be slightly larger, thus changing the waveform.
I couldn’t argue with the fact that the Peak Performance Woodwinds Bell Rings worked as advertised. However, I started to notice other changes in response, particularly in the palm keys and as I transitioned into the altissimo register. I couldn’t tell if my experience was a placebo effect or the real thing. I spoke with Will Peak, creator of the Bell Rings and he confirmed that many players also experience improved response in the upper register. As my playtest went on, I became more and more impressed with this product. The theory behind its construction is logical, yet the effect is something one simply has to experience.
I kept thinking about how I wished I had these for a recent performance I did with a string quartet. It would have reduced my workload and allowed me to blend better with the softer string instruments. I was just astounded at how the various sizes could center or deaden the sound. And the effect it had was different with each player and each brand of instrument. I found myself gravitating toward the sizes “0”, and “I” size for my Yanagisawa WO10. Let me stress that the reader should not be influenced by what worked for me. This product is best suited to the customer’s taste. I had many students try them, and they were equally impressed with how they performed.
Typically, mutes are reserved for classical players. I wouldn’t even think about trying a standard saxophone mute in a jazz situation. That being said, these Bell Rings are not typical mutes. I did test the Bell Rings in my 57XXX Mark VI, and I was impressed with not only with the low-end response, but how it enriched the low end of the tenor. Where I usually look for more edge in my jazz tenor sound, I could see how these rings could take a bit out of the overly bright mouthpiece without losing the character.
Lastly, I tested these rings on my Yanagisawa soprano. The response not only improved, but the low end responded effortlessly. About the only negative ,I can see with these rings, is with their use on the soprano. One will have to be mindful if using a soprano stand. Many times I forgot about using the rings and almost pushed them into the body of the saxophone.
The Bell Rings sell for $12 (soprano), $15 (alto) and $18 (tenor) and are available in a variety of colors and designs. So, if you desire a little bling with your saxophone, you can express yourself however you wish.
The Bell Rings from Peak Performance Woodwinds highlight that despite the advancements made in instrument technology, the production-line saxophone is like an off the rack suit. You can find an off-the-rack suit that fits your needs, but you need to have the skills of a master tailor to shape it to your body. Where I used to view a product like this as a crutch for those not skilled enough to control their instrument, the Bell Ring from Peak Performance Woodwinds has shown me that this is a way to tailor the saxophone to be uniquely yours.