Monday, July 26, 2010

Buffet 400 Alto: Follow-Up Commentary

I've received a few emails in regards to my review of the Buffet 400 Alto Saxophone.  Most of them were good, but some of them were not, and some even hostile.  The good ones were from players that already owned one or who had given them a good tryout, and others from students and professionals looking for a horn that can play without breaking their budget and asking me questions in regards to its quality and sound.  The bad ones were mainly from people who simply could not believe that a great horn can be made in China.  The hostile emails accused me of everything from working for Buffet, or being paid by them to write the review, and all the way to I don't know what I'm talking about, I never played a Mark VI, I am not a saxophone player at all, etc.

I want to clarify a few things right here.  I do work in a pro woodwind and brass shop.  I sell many brands of instruments, and I don't sell anything I consider total crap.  If I feel it is, I let the customer know, even though that violates store policy which is that I should be impartial, just give the customer what they want and what they can afford.   All of our horns are given a going over by the repair shop before I put them on the wall or in a display case.  I test play them constantly so that I can evaluate the horns in order to make recommendations to customers, but also to make sure they stay in regulation.  If they need regulation, I send them back up to the shop so every horn I test is already set-up for optimum playability.  With the horn properly set-up, I can concentrate on its true strengths and weaknesses. 

No, I do not work for Buffet.  True, I have easy access to the Buffet NYC showroom, and I know the showroom manager, the regional sales rep, and the man who oversees the line of 400 saxes when they enter the country.  However, this gives me the opportunity to try as many of their horns as I can, and this does give me a good idea of its consistency.  Buffet does not pay me to write these reviews, nor have they given me any saxophones.  If they did, I would gladly accept it as I can use a new horn right now and my finances are not what I would like, but I would still gladly pay to own one of these saxes, because at its price point, it's simply one of the best deals out there.  Even so, if there was anything I did not like about the horn, I would say so.  For example, I still have reservations about the 400 tenor, but I also haven't played it as thoroughly yet as I have the alto. It plays well, but I haven't fully run it through its paces.  That will be at a later time, and when I do, I'll write a review and say exactly what I think, positive or negative.

I have played every brand and model of saxophone out there from vintage to modern including literally hundreds of Mark VI's.  I do have my own preferences for what a horn should sound and feel like, but then we all do.  I often disagree with the mass consensus that says that a particular famous model horn is the best ever made.  Often these comments are from those who never actually played one, or someone who knows a good player that does have one, and feels the saxophone equivalent of penis envy, or from one who does own one and probably shelled out so much money for it that they have to convince themselves that it's as good as all that.  Then of course some of them are as good as all that.  However, so are many other brands and models.  Where I beg to differ with people is that this famous horn does not stand alone anymore.  It's a new world, a different time, and things change.

There are probably more people playing music now than ever.  Not everyone is trying to be a professional.  Many people are taking up music because quite simply it makes one feel good, makes you smarter and healthier by putting your brain to work and giving you measurable goals and results, and because it's fun.  Most will never be professional players.  Does this mean then that they should be playing on an inferior piece of junk?   Does this mean they need to put up the house as collateral in order to play on a good instrument?  The answer to both questions is NO!

Instrument manufacturers have had to address this problem and create instruments that are well made, sound good and yet provide the kind of value that the average working person can afford.  Even professional players, especially studio players and session players that need to have more than one horn in order to get the gigs which are getting harder to come by, and to spend a premium on every one of those instruments would break them.  In order to provide such an instrument, they have to be made where the labor is cheaper, otherwise how can the average person afford it?

China has a bad reputation due mainly to the fact that most horns produced there are massed produced and thrown into the market, sold through dealers not so reputable, or on EBay where many people who know nothing about instruments, including the average cost of a good horn, look to find that special bargain.  In most cases, regardless of how cheap the horn was, it was no bargain.  You paid for its inferior craftsmanship with keys that bend easily, screws and pearls falling off, lousy shrill tone and bad intonation, etc.  More of an expensive toy than a real instrument, something that is more suitable for hanging on your wall than playing.   You paid for buying an instrument that dashed your dreams because you thought you were the one that couldn't play it, even though the horn was complete junk, but you didn't know that.  After all, when you bought that "Selmen"  you had heard that "Selmer" was the best horn made, and that's what you thought you were buying. However, while these factories still turn out crap, things are changing.

Taking advantage of the cheap labor and low cost of production that China offers, many major manufacturers have decided to take advantage of that, as well as the modern new factories that produce them.  They send their technicians and reps there to train the workers in the way to craft their particular instruments.  They keep a close watch on quality control.  Rather than a company that is randomly dumping its product on the market where it offers no warranty or guarantee of any kind, they are now backed by reputable companies that put their name and reputation on it.  They have to be better or risk losing business and their reputation.  They can also be aware of customer complaints or criticisms that help them improve their product.

For example, Buffet had a lot of criticisms about the 400 tenor.  The issue it seems was with the design of the neck, so they listened and made improvements on it.  Some players may still have criticisms, but at least what they have to say does not fall on deaf ears.  I know that the Yamaha 23 and 475 models are now produced in China with no loss of quality because Yamaha keeps strict tabs on it.  Matt Vance is product manager for the Buffet-Crampon USA headquarters and oversees the 400 line when it enters the US.  I know that he cares about his product, And he puts his money where his mouthpiece is by playing it on his own professional gigs.  I also know that Buffet wants to make bigger inroads into the saxophone market.  After all, they were making saxophones long before every other manufacturer did.  Only Adolphe Sax himself preceded  Buffet in making saxophones.      

One of the biggest things hurled at me about my review was to say that the Buffet 400 alto was as good as anything out there.  That couldn't be, it's made in China, I tried it and didn't think it was that good, it was only okay, it sucked, you're not a player, you don't know what you're talking about, they're paying you, they're giving you free saxophones, you're full of shit, etc.

I've been playing the saxophone for nearly 30 years.  I've studied with some good teachers, including a couple of very well-known players whose names you would instantly recognize if I were to post them.  However, I don't have permission to throw out their names randomly, and I don't want to act as if I'm a hot shot because I did study with them.  Living in NYC has given me the access to the music, the stores, the musicians and the teachers, so I am very lucky in this respect.  My father was also a musician, and I grew up with lots of music in the house, so in that way I feel I know what I'm talking about, and when I play an instrument, I'll judge it on its own merits and not by brand or reputation.  Mostly, I judge it by its sound.  

Well, I've had the opportunity to spend lots of time playing the 400 alto.  As I've mentioned, I haven't fully played the tenor, so I will not write a review until I've completely evaluated the horn.  As for the alto, I played it every day and spent as much time as one could with it without actually owning it.  I played it against other horns.  You have to keep in mind that I also judge a horn on many factors, price being one of them.  I will compare a horn like this to a Yamaha, Keilwerth, Yanigasawa or Selmer, and the newer brands like P. Mauriat to have an overview and see how sound and feel measure up. 

Keep in mind that regardless of brand or cost, every horn has its own qualities and will be different.  In some cases it is no longer a matter of something being better but more about what the individual player likes best about the horn they have chosen.  So in comparing the 400 to the other major brands, while I could nit-pick some things that were not as good as a horn that cost two to three times as much, I decided to judge it by its overall sound and quality, and in this respect, the 400 held up very well to the more expensive brands.  If I wanted to, I could nit-pick and tell you what is not perfect about the other brands too, but that would be missing the point. They are all fine instruments, and ultimately you'll choose an instrument that fits your criteria for sound and quality, fits your needs and your budget. 

So once again, the Buffet 400 is an excellent choice.  It is a horn that can do the job.  That's all.

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