It’s a feature perfected by junior high school orchestra members – mostly clarinettists, in my experience – that emerges immediately after a musician makes a grating mistake during a performance. The player will stop and look down at his instrument in shock, as if it had just become sensitive and created the previously ugly sound of his own will. They will shake their heads as if to say, “Wow, it’s so hard to find a reliable instrument today,” and then join the show in the hope that the audience bought the action.
I was thinking about this phenomenon while playing Yamaha’s YDS-150 Digital Saxophone the other day. I played alto and tenor saxophone regularly for about 10 years, from fourth grade to marching orchestra in my final year of high school. After that I played less often, and today I rarely touch the tenor that is stuck in my closet. It̵
It turns out I did. I uploaded a few songs on Flat and tried them on YDS-150, and my fingers flowed naturally. I was about halfway through the solo from “Oh Bondage! Up yours! “By X-Ray Spex, happy to play again and incredibly happy that I had kept some skills, when the sax suddenly stopped making sound. I increased the air pressure and – nothing. I pulled the instrument away from my mouth and saw confused down on it, as if it had developed its own mind.
Only this time it had kind. The batteries in YDS-150 had died in the middle of my song, and the scissors turned off. It made me believe that these secondary schools could, after all, be involved in something.
“The sax shut off off” is a strange phrase to write, and I find it difficult to express the exact feeling of surreality that comes with replacing batteries on an instrument that in my mind is solidly acoustic. But it’s my own attachment. After replacing the four AAA batteries over the thumb restraint and restarting the scissors, I quickly forgot my anxiety about the incessant advancement of technology, and continued to have a great time playing old favorites.
The YDS-150 is striking: it is almost a soprano saxophone in size and shape, and the body is matte black with mother-of-pearl keys and a brass finish on the watch. The contrast between black and metal is tactical and sharp. The YDS-150 is also light – so light that I did not feel the need to use the neck strap most of my playing time. As a restorative tenor player, this is a dream come true.
The electronic benefits of the YDS-150 far outweigh the potential for it to turn off in the middle of a song, especially considering that it flashes a warning light when batteries are low and comes with a micro-USB power cable that can keep it going as long as it is connected.
Sax can connect a speaker or headphones via a stereo mini cable, and it can receive entrance via Bluetooth from a phone, tablet or computer. This allows players to hear and play along with backing tracks from these devices. However, it can not production audio via Bluetooth, which means that connecting wireless earbuds is not an option. Wired headphones work just fine, but this feels like a missed opportunity for AirPods time.
The instrument has 73 pre-programmed voices for soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and non-saxophone sounds, and also allows players to enter and store custom channels. These can be edited in the YDS Controller app, which is incredibly convenient. After connecting scissors to the app via Bluetooth, the players are able to edit voices, as well as permanent settings such as tuning, key response, reverberation type, breathing pressure resistance and breathing response, all of which are applied immediately to the instrument.
There is a separate tab just for finger information and editing, so players can not only look up the default settings, but also change the button arrangement for any note. This is useful for accessibility reasons, and it provides potential shortcuts to performing difficult or experimental songs as well. The coolest feature of the fingerprint is how it reacts in real time to any buttons a player presses on the connected YDS-150, and automatically swipes to the corresponding note diagram.
This feature is especially useful for people who use the YDS-150 as a practice tool, this is where I see the benefit. Although the variety of voices and settings in the YDS-150 are impressive, the sounds coming from the instrument are thin and keyboard-like. While some voices are more realistic than others, there is no mistaking this thing for an acoustic saxophone. YDS-150 is not quite performance quality, from my perspective.
One of the saxophonists who helped tune the YDS-150 could do this:
And this is closer to what I can get out of it:
The YDS-150 costs $ 1,078, significantly more than a midrange or tenor, and Yamaha markets it as a studio instrument. And hey, that’s fair. The YDS-150 is impressive; It contains a wide range of voices in a variety of styles, from jazz to electronica to classical, and it packs four separate instruments in an elegant, lightweight container. The scissors carrying case is slim enough to sling over your shoulder like a yoga mat. It’s magic.
The YDS-150 is worth the entry price, although it is not a replacement for an acoustic soprano, alto, tenor or baritone. It’s a ridiculously adaptable exercise tool, an abnormal performance unit and a beautiful instrument all around.
Even when the batteries die.