Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Saxophone Review: Selmer Reference 54 Alto Saxophone

The Selmer Mark VI is probably the most popular and also most costly vintage saxophone on the market.  It was produced from 1954 through 1974, a twenty year run.  It was replaced by the Mark VII, which did not receive a warm reception from Selmer devotees and the saxophone market in general and consequently, after only a couple of years, was replaced by the Super Action 80, followed by the Series II and more recently the Series III.

Still, there were enough players and collectors bemoaning the fact that there was no longer any Selmer saxophone that could compare to their beloved Mark VI's.  Of course it was forgotten that when the Mark VI replaced the Super-Balanced Action, many players of the time were saying the same thing.  Time heals all wounds I guess. What was interesting about the Mark VI was that Marcel Mule, the eminent classical saxophonist had a hand in its design, yet classical players didn't take to it, but jazz players did in droves and soon it seemed almost no one played anything else.  With this saxophone, prominent American brands like Conn, Buescher, Martin and King would soon cease all saxophone production or be reduced to making only student level horns, or go out of business altogether.

Selmer realized that the increased demand for Mark VI's on the vintage market represented an opportunity for them to reclaim some of their prominence.  For one thing, companies like Keilwerth,  Yamaha and Yanigasawa were building quality saxophones, giving Selmer their first real competition in years.  Selmer was no longer the dominant maker of saxophones.  What they did was to take a 1954 Mark VI alto which they found in New York which epitomized the best aspects of the model in terms of sound, study its specifications and then reproduce it exactly, with only the keywork updated.  The only nod to the original as far as the keywork goes is a pearl for high F instead of the teardrop key more in use today, and a round instead of elliptical pearl for the side F# like you would find on a Mark VI.

The first time you look at one, you really have to admire its looks.  It really is one of the most beautiful saxophones I've ever seen.  The only saxophone I've seen that rivals it in the looks department is a 1926 Conn Virtuoso Deluxe alto that was gold plated and had engraving everywhere there was metal, and pearl on every single key touch.  Selmer used a deep honey gold lacquer which really gives it a vintage look.  The engraving is deep and really stands out and looks like the old Mark VI engraving, due to the fact that it was done after the application of the lacquer.  This also means that in time moisture will get into the grooves and then get under the lacquer and that will be the first area where the lacquer will flake off.  Of course it seems that Selmer did this on purpose so that in a few years down the road, the horn will look like a vintage Mark VI. 
When you pick up the horn, you can feel a horn of substance.  Plenty of weight behind it.  It feels good in the hands, and all the keys fit right under the fingers as you would expect from a Selmer.  Everything snaps into place, except the octave key.  So far on all the References I tried, I noticed that the octave key comes down with a pronounced thump or more accurately a heavy clunk because there seems to be a split-second lag-time from when you press the key to when it closes.  This also causes a split-second lag time in the response of the note.  You can also feel it in your mouth as you play as if someone tapped the neck with a stick.  This has been true on every Reference 54 I've tried.  This means that a tech will have to make the adjustment to this key when it comes out of the box.  Of course, all horns should get a good set-up, but at the price of the Selmer, this shouldn't be an issue on every horn. The other thing was the front high F key.  It was set slightly higher than the other keys, so that when I rolled my finger to press it down, it got caught in the space between the keys, again causing a slight delay in the response of the note.  Once again I found this true on all of the References I've tried.  How many have I tried?  So far I've played a dozen of them, and found exactly the same issues with the octave and front high F key.  Again, at the Selmer's price point, this should not be an issue as far as I'm concerned.

Now for what I consider the most important thing about any saxophone, and that is the sound.  Just by its looks and feel, not to mention the price, I expected it to have a sound worthy of its name.  The first time I held it in my hands I was eager with anticipation.  As always I used my usual set-up which is a Meyer 6M mouthpiece with a Rovner ligature and a LaVoz medium reed.  I put the mouthpiece to my lips and then I blew into it.  It was here that I couldn't figure something out.  Let me clarify.

The sound is rich and deep for sure.  It has the characteristic darker mellower tone that is normally associated with Selmer.  No doubt about it, it is a fine horn indeed.  The other thing is that the tone was consistent on all of the References I've tried, much more so than on the many Mark VI's I've played.  There is a plus side and a minus side to such consistency.  This really means that you'll end up with more or less a generic horn.  That's good for ensemble playing or studio work, but not so great when developing your own individual sound.  There really wasn't a lot of spread in the tone.  I don't know, I had no trouble finding the horn's center, but had difficulty going around the periphery of it.  I don't know if this description translates well, but this is my feeling about it.

The other thing was that I wasn't "wowed" by its sound.  Before I ever played one, I read a number of reviews which called it the greatest saxophone ever made, that Selmer has finally done the Mark VI one better, or at least got back its groove.  Then of course, just looking at it caused me to expect great things from it.  It has a very good tone.  It just didn't make me go "wow!".  At over 5 grand, I wanted the horn to make me go "wow!"  My Conn 6M makes me go "wow", as it does to every player that hears it.  The Buescher 400 tenor I recently tried made me go "wow!", as did that Conn Virtuoso Deluxe that I described earlier.  The P. Mauriat 66R and 67R saxophones have made me go "wow!".  Even the Buffet 400 I reviewed made me do that because the sound and feel was far above average for a medium priced horn that was made in China.  Rather than surprise me, Selmer gave me a horn that certainly fulfilled its expectations, but didn't do more.  At a price of around $5229.00, I would really expect more, and sorry, I didn't get it.

I will say that the Reference is a solidly built horn and is no doubt a good investment that will hold its value over the years.  The one thing I think Selmer has to watch out for is that it can no longer rely on just its name to get by and survive.  The competition right now is stiffer than ever, and there are saxophones cutting into the market and being played by noted pros that 20 or 30 years ago wouldn't have posed a threat to a brand like Selmer.  Times change, and now you can get a saxophone that plays every bit as good as a Selmer and often better without having to hock the farm. Of course Selmer has mid-priced and student horns on the market, but what the players want is a Selmer Paris, and you have to pay a premium to own one.  Yes, for snob appeal, I guess owning a Selmer is a good thing.  However, if you're a practical musician, and these days you really have to be, it may make more sense to try something else out, unless money isn't an issue.  If it isn't, I really do envy you.

Update(2014) Since writing this article, I've played a couple of dozen more Reference 54 altos, and I am happy to say that I didn't have any issues with the octave key, or any of the keys for that matter, and this time, the horns definitely made me go "WOW"!  Why the change? When I last spoke with Jerome Selmer, he told me that with computer modeling, they can more accurately place the tone holes, and in fact slightly raised the level of the tone holes, position keys and key rods more accurately, as well as make the brass more consistent by accurately measuring the ratio of zinc to copper. Another thing he told me was that now there is a lot more machining than hand work, particularly in hammering the bell, since so many workers were getting serious wrist, arm and shoulder injuries over repeated striking of the bell. So maybe it's a myth that hand hammering, the long and tedious process of shaping the bell makes a saxophone better.  In any case, the more recent References I've played are fantastic looking and sounding horns. They are far more consistent in tone than Mark VI's, but that doesn't mean a cookie cutter sound.  You can shape the sound any way you like, since they are free blowing horns. I really fell in love with the ones I've played, and if I find any problem with them it's that they're going for a street price of nearly 7 grand.  The bottom line here, is that I have still played other saxophones that make me go "WOW" but are not nearly as costly.  Sure, there may be a certain "prestige" to owning a Selmer, and certainly it will have a better resale value if you find yourself in dire straits and have to sell it, but if you're a working musician, not a "star", there are now plenty of less costly options that will take you to the same place. As much as I was wowed by the current crop of Reference saxophones, I can still be wowed by other saxophones that won't cost me nearly as much.  I don't care about names, just sound and quality.

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