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What If Your Horn Rattles or Buzzes?

Rating: 2 votes, 5.00 average.
This is a very common question on my forum. Many players experience unpleasant and distracting noises from their horns, whether the instruments are new or old. The most common cause is metal-to-metal contact where it should not exist (or where it should be buffered).

The very simplest cause can be something you are wearing. Among the items that have caught me by surprise on my own person/horn are sweatshirt zippers, buttons, and the clip of my pen (shirt pocket).

Another simple cause can be something in the room. It can seem like it's from the horn, but mostly because of the cause/effect relationship of you playing a note and the sound accompanying you! Change rooms and see if it fixes the buzz. If so, check the room for any metal contact by metal or hard plastic. I've seen this from a paperclip on a music stand, the florescent fixture or other pieces in the walls or ceiling, a metal wire handle on a metal tool box, percussion sticks on a drum head... you get the idea.

There are so many other points where buzzes can develop, that you might as well start with the ones that are easiest to reach. In order, I would try these things:

  1. Lyre screw. If you can't tell if it is tight, just take it out temporarily and see if the buzz goes away.
  2. If you have a water catcher under the valves, remove it temporarily and see if the buzz goes away.
  3. Water key screws. The water key, or "spit valve," is held in place by a screw, which also serves as the axis for it to pivot on. Make sure the screw is relatively tight, and especially make sure that one end has not come loose. You could also try some heavy oil on the spring, which could help quiet it and keep it operating smoothly.
  4. Tighten the caps on top of each valve. (I suggest trying the top caps first because you remove those to oil the valves.)
  5. Tighten the caps on the bottom of each valve.
  6. Tighten the button on top of the valve step. While you are at it, make sure the stem itself is secure in the top of the piston (these usually screw in).
  7. If you have a trigger, check for any loose screws/fittings. If there are washers, see if they can vibrate easily and cause noise. If so, apply some heavy oil on each side. Apply heavy oil to the pivot points and to springs.
  8. If you have a trigger guard (or any other parts that fasten in place and can be removed), make sure the fittings and screws are tight and that nothing has bent into a position where it can lightly touch a tube or other metal part.
  9. Some horns have a simple tuning trigger, usually on the 3rd valve slide, that is a ring used to push the slide. This fastens with a fitting like a lyre screw and should also be checked. There is often a short shaft that goes into the lyre box, and it could vibrate if not tight of if it is bent. If you are in doubt, just remove the screw and the ring/shaft piece and see if the buzzing stops.
  10. If you have a 4th valve on the side, and if there is a locking mechanism, check it for integrity. The flap-type can swivel and come lightly in contact with the tubing, or its set screw could be loose. And the sliding-rod type can be bent so it vibrates, improperly fastened, or have a loose set screw.
  11. There have been reports that some horns with triggers (especially Besson) can buzz because of the looser fit of the main tuning slide, which is required by having a tuning-slide trigger. So hold on to the tuning slide and see if that affects the noise. If so, you could try a heavier grease.

Those are the easy fixes. If none of those work, the next suspect is a valve spring that is slightly askew and touches the side of the valve casing. Most bottom valve caps have an circle inset inside. That circle is the size of the spring's diameter. The spring should be seated inside that circle. If not, it can bend and touch the side, causing a buzz. Also, the spring should be "encouraged" to seat correctly in the bottom of the piston. In addition, you must check to make sure the springs have not been bent so the top and bottom of the spring are no longer parallel with each other. Here is the basic technique I use:

  1. Remove a valve.
  2. Turn the horn so that valve casing is upside down, and let the spring drop out into your hand (shake the horn a little if necessary). Notice which end is top and which is bottom (sometimes they are different diameters).
  3. Set the bottom of the spring on a flat surface. It should sit upright, perpendicular to the floor. Invert it so it rests on its top and make the same check. If either end is "off" slightly, the spring will lean to one side. You can either replace it with a new spring or straighten it. To bend it into shape, gently take hold of the last loop or two and bend it to make it more perpendicular with the sides of the spring. This may take repeated attempts, so go slowly and don't overdo it.
  4. When you have a correct spring, put it back into the valve casing. Turn the horn so that the valve casing is exactly upright and make sure it the spring is centered in its recess. If it is not, shake the horn sideways gently and see if it "jiggles" into place. Put the piston back in the casing until you feel it contact the spring. Rotate the valve back and forth a bit, which will help the spring find its way into the correct position for the piston bottom. Keep the piston depressed somewhat as you put the top cap back on and tighten it (this keeps the spring in position).

If none of that works, you may want to check that no small bits are inside the horn. Sometimes a small piece of hard material can find its way into the bell and slide further into the horn (where it won't fall out easily) and cause buzzes as you play. It can also happen when a burr or small dab of solder come loose inside. A good rinsing out of the horn can help if this type of misfortune struck.

You may also have a loose solder joint. It could be where two pieces of tubing are joined, or it could be where a brace is attached. This is not common among brand-name horns, but it can happen. It happens a bit more often with cheap instruments (although that breed is improving gradually, at least among the better "clone" manufacturers), and now and then with happen with an older horn. If you find a loose joint, you need a good repair shop to help you.

In my eyes, the worst possibility is that the bell rim is buzzing. Most bells have a rolled edge. The metal is formed around a metal wire to form the bead. The wire may be soldered or not, depending on the make/model. But sometimes the wrap is not tight against the bead in one or more spots, which allows a buzz. A repair shop might be able to help, but it's also possible the horn needs to be returned to the manufacturer.

Those are the fixes to try when you have a problem with little extra noises. You should also engage in preventative maintenance. Take care when oiling the valves to put them together straight and to tighter everything correctly. On a regular basis, oil the joints and springs mentioned above. And get into the habit of checking the valve caps, lyre screws, and other pieces regularly. A horn that is mechanically quiet is much more satisfying to play!

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