Water keys, a.k.a. spit valves: In the world of brass instrument design, they would seem to be an afterthought. Usually we don’t even give them a second thought unless 1) our horn doesn’t have any or 2) we have problems with them. Yet, they can be an important component of a horn’s design, and there are several options on the market.
First is what I’m calling the “traditional” water key, which is made up of a lever and spring, usually with cork or neoprene for the pad (image at left linked from de Haro Horns). I have the most experience with this type of key, and one or more of them are often standard issue on many types of horns, both custom and mass produced. If well maintained – meaning the springs and pads are kept in good working condition – the traditional water key in my experience is fast and efficient. One benefit to having one or more of these is that a string can be attached to a hole in the end of the lever and used to rig a pull for even faster operation. Ok, now for the downsides – springs can break or get stuck, corks need replacing, and they can be messy if you blow through them with all your might. From what I’ve been told, placement of the keys is also very important so as not to interfere with the acoustics of the horn. Common placements include the lead pipe, f branch, and third valve slide.
Next is the Amado Water Key, which I’ve also used on various horns, though not as much as the traditional water key. One of the positives for the Amado key is that there are no corks or neoprene to replace, and the key and its hardware take up less space on the horn. They are also much cheaper than traditional water keys. One thing to be aware of is that the Amado key can get stuck, which I’ve seen happen a few times. You can try pushing the key back to the closed position using a pin or similar device, or you may have to disassemble it. Here’s a great video which shows an Amado water key and explains how to fix a stuck one.
When I was in school the traditional and Amado were the only two water keys I was aware of. Recently, there have been two revolutionary designs to come on the market, both having definite advantages over the earlier models. One of these is the Saturn Water Key, designed by Denis Wedgwood. The picture at left is linked from his website, Wedgwood Brass. The website includes the following description and rationale for this new design.
The birth of the ‘Saturn’ water key began with the background clatter and hiss of CNC machines in my friend Brian’s production-engineering factory. Always heralded by an aural fanfare when parking my motorcycle – to musicians, I’m an engineer, to engineers I’m a musician. Yes, he thought he knew what was needed. Nothing to block the exit hole when open; can be activated in any direction 360° left or right handed; minimum deformation to the fixed tube when closed – the whole thing designed for mass production – and no cork. Plus a complimentary flying pig with every purchase. And so the ‘Saturn’ water key evolved. One fixing to the instrument. Press on the ring in any direction (any hand) to dislodge the stainless steel helical sprung ball from its airtight seating. Virtually clear route from instrument to floor. Release ring and the stainless steel ball returns to its seating once again to make an air-tight seal.
In addition, Denis includes a brief history and explanation of the traditional and Amado water keys, which his invention attempts to improve upon. Though I’ve never used a Saturn water key, I would be very interested in talking to someone who has.
The final, and I believe the newest, type of water key is the JoyKey, designed by professional hornist Andrew Joy. Quoting from the product’s website, the JoyKey seems to have many advantages over other designs.
The heart of the JoyKey® is the the high-tec WaterWick® replaceable metal filter.
Moisture in brass intruments gravitates to the lowest point possible. Here, the JoyKey® allows the water to continuously drain out of the instrument. This ensures that the inner taper remains constant by completely eliminating water build up in the targeted tubing section.
Most importantly, the WaterWick® maintains the integrity of the air column of the instrument. Replacement packs are available from your dealer.
From a marketing perspective, the JoyKey has got a lot of things going for it. Their website is very well designed, with lots of great images of the water key, and there are several glowing testimonials from well known professional players and teachers. Additionally, there is a demonstration video (shown below) of the JoyKey in action, in which you can see the water draining from the instrument with no noticeable effect on the sound. The hornist (I assume) is Andrew Joy, performing the famous solo from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.
So which water key should you choose? Good question! I suppose the only real way to know is to try a horn with one of these types of water keys installed, or to have one installed on your current horn. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages, but it is certainly nice to know there are lots of options out there. There are some great minds at work on making our instrument more comfortable and accurate, and I look forward to what will surely be more developments in the future.