The saxophone is a real chameleon. This woodwind instrument has many different registers from the tiny sopranino to the enormous contrabass, and it’s so versatile that you can hear it wailing away on retrowave revivals or as a featured solo instrument throughout classic jazz albums. But the same emotive human element that makes the sax so appealing is a big part of what makes it so difficult to successfully sample. Plus, the sheer number of different playing techniques can make programming even the best virtual saxophones extremely tricky.
That said, plenty of determined developers have taken up the challenge of sampling the saxophone, and with some success. What’s more, plenty of the results can be had for free, provided you own the full version of KONTAKT. Below, we preset five of the best, including audio demos and download links. And while these may be no substitute for a session player, they’re all great sounding in their own way – as well as being great fun to play.
Kontakt Factory Library
Let’s kick off with some instruments that you may not realise you already own: Every copy of the full version of KONTAKT comes with a Factory Library of useful sounds. Tucked away in the Horns folder of the Band collection you’ll find 4 saxophone patches. The Alto, Tenor, Baritone and Sax Section patches all operate in a similar way and use the same interface. Solo instruments have just one articulation that adapts to fast or slow playing with punchy shorts or slinky legato. The Sax Section patch changes articulations via key switches and includes crescendo and fall samples for injecting some jazzy flourishes to your horn lines. Amongst the huge range of interface options, the performance controls are the most fun, allowing you to set chord, key and scale harmonisations to play automatically. Try layering up the sax section patch with the factory trombone and trumpets for a huge Tower of Power sound.
Playable right out of the box, Faycel Sounds’ OR Sax is a worthwhile download with a couple of peculiarities. Using your keyboard’s MOD wheel to control the vibrato effect is a great addition and the ‘intelligent legato’ works nicely as long as you deactivate the troublesome release samples. Although holding its own as a standard saxophone, OR Sax can be given a more Arabic flavour with the interface’s mini keyboard. Click the individual keys to detune them, creating maqams (traditional Middle Eastern scales). In addition to the saxophone, the Faycel Sounds site has a generous selection of free instruments, including some unusual ones from around the globe, plus some useful Kontakt scripting tutorials.
The Bigcat instruments blog is a regular hangout for fans of free Kontakt instruments. There’s a whole page devoted to sax samples in multiple formats. It can take a bit of digging to unearth the correct links, but it’s a single click from there to download each library. This instrument is part of the MSLP Project by Erick Kvist, a mammoth undertaking to sample 40 different instruments under creative commons licensing. At just 30 megabytes, the MSLP sax has a tiny footprint and only one velocity layer, but it does contain several long and short articulations (including runs). Use the onboard reverb to place the dry samples into a realistic room for added ambience.
Iowa Alto & Soprano Sax
Thanks to the University Of Iowa, a lovingly-sampled duo of soprano and alto saxes is available under public domain terms. Again, accessed via the Bigcat blog, these two instruments have been sampled at 3 velocity layers with both vibrato and non-vibrato playing styles. Even though the legato is simulated it still sounds pretty smooth, especially using the alto sax’s lowest velocity which has a really smoky jazz club vibe. If you feel the need to peek under the hood and change legato, glide or articulation settings, there are ample tweakable controls via the interface.
Club Tenor Sax
Another gem from the Bigcat blog, this tenor saxophone has a rather free-form approach to tuning but that makes it all the more fun to noodle around with (accompanying alto and baritone variations are available, but this one’s the clear pick of the bunch). Sampled articulations for this tenor sax include whole and half tone trills, bends, smears, growls and falls. The fact that this instrument doesn’t hit the notes at perfect pitch makes it useful for meandering improvisational cues and more interpretive pieces. Using the original samples as a starting point, try adding some external effects to create some interesting sound design timbres.