Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Thoroughly Modern Sax

When I began this blog 5 years ago, it started on a whim.  I never wrote much of anything in the past except for what I had to write for school, and that never turned out too well anyhow.  However, I love the saxophone and saxophone music and sax players (most anyway), and so it is a natural thing for me to just sit down and write my thoughts and to be able to play different saxophones and write about them in order for people who want to play, or even those who have played for a while, choose a saxophone that would be right for them, both musically and financially.  I am lucky that I have worked in the business and though retired now, still know lots of people in the business and so always have access to new and vintage saxophones that I can play to my heart's content and then when I come across something new or different, I can write about it here. 

For anyone who has been reading my blog from the beginning, you know that I started out still thinking that vintage saxophones were superior to their modern counterparts in build quality and tone.  At one time I believed that if it wasn't made in the USA, Europe (particularly France and Germany) or Japan, than it was simply not very good.  At one time I would have been right, but there have been developments in the industry and improvements in saxophone design and production that have made me do a complete turnaround in my thinking.  When saxophones like the Conn M series, Buescher Aristocrats and 400's, King Zephyrs and Super 20's, Martin Committees, and of course Selmer Balanced Action, Super Balanced Action and Mark VI's were made, they were the best of their time.  There are still a number of players who prefer to play vintage horns today, particularly Mark VI's and would not even consider a modern saxophone.  They still have the belief that the old horns sound and were made better back then.  The reason for this thinking stems mainly from the fact that the more a fine instrument is played and the longer it is played, the more resonant, or "broken in" it will sound.  However, if an instrument is not well made, you can play it every day for a hundred years and it will still sound and play like crap.  

For many years, there wasn't any saxophone, including any Mark VI I've played that sounded better than my old Conn 6M.  Of course, the ergonomics of the horn left much to be desired, but for the longest time I thought that had to be the trade-off for a saxophone that I considered better than any modern horn, and I thought that for a long time.  I have changed my mind considerably in the last five years.  I have also completely changed the way I look at saxophones coming out of Asia other than Japan, particularly Taiwan.  When I lived in Taiwan from 2000-2001, I had seen and played many saxophones made there, and they all looked good, but quality was still questionable.  It was mostly quality control.  The metals were traditional brass, and they built horns with copper, silver and nickel finishes, and they sounded alright if they were properly regulated.  Most of the time I found there was a little sloppy work in the soldering of the posts, regulation of the key heights and placement, and there weren't any real qualified sax techs anywhere in Taiwan that I knew of, except for maybe one or two in Taipei (I lived in a city called Tainan in the south west) that could properly set up a horn.  However, since that time, as a necessity, they have upped their game considerably and at this point there are Taiwanese companies producing world class instruments, something that was unthinkable 15 years ago.  For some time, the Taiwanese companies were and still are building student and intermediate saxophones for the more established names, but now they have established themselves in the world market, with their own brands and in my opinion, are building some truly great saxophones, and very importantly, at prices that a working professional on a budget can afford without compromising on quality, sound and playability.

The next country for ultra-cheap saxophones of dubious quality has been China.  Again however, things are improving there as well. Because of the cheap labor, many established companies have contracted Chinese manufacturers to build student and intermediate saxophones for them under their name.  The thing about Chinese and Taiwanese factories is that they are new and modern, and they use the same kind of machinery that all of the major manufacturers use.  It's really all a matter of quality control, quality of the brass and the individual parts and properly training the workers to perform the tasks required in building saxophones.  The majority of the process of building a saxophone is repetitive and done by machine, and it doesn't take any great skill, just being conscientious in doing the job well.  The rest is up to quality control.  If strict guidelines are in place, and each instrument is thoroughly checked and gone over by a qualified technician before it is packed and leaves the factory, then no matter where it's made, it should be a decent enough instrument.  This is why Yamaha for example, builds their 26 and 480 saxophones in China with no loss in quality, because of their quality control.  Indonesia and Vietnam are other Asian countries where passable instruments are being made.  There are no more saxophones being made in the US anymore because it's just too costly to do so.  The Powell Silver Eagle was a noble effort to bring a superior US made saxophone to the market, but it proved to be too costly and so the project was discontinued.  

As for the big 4 manufacturers, Selmer, Keilwerth, Yamaha and Yanigasawa, they continue to build top grade saxophones and their product is improving all the time.  They all utilize computer programs to better analyze brass composition and create a more consistent alloy, key placements and heights, acoustics, etc.  This alone has helped make modern saxophones better than ever.  It was a necessity anyway.  Music has changed quite a bit in the last 150 years or so since the saxophone was invented.  The modern saxophone player must play a greater variety of styles and an increased range from the 3 1/2 octave range of older saxophones to having to play a 4 plus octave range, and that requires extra keys, tone holes and a change in bore size, neck diameter, etc.  Intonation is also more accurate on modern saxophones because of the improvements in design.  Also, let's face it, ergonomics are better and keywork is slicker and more positive than on old saxophones, including the Mark VI.  While the Mark VI was the template for all modern saxophone design, there has been a continuous tweaking and improvement in key placement and heights, and the newest saxophones feel better in my hands than even a Mark VI, at least in my experience and opinion.  There have also been other design improvements that make having to adjust keys and key cups less often than like on many old saxophones.  Braces and posts that secure key rods so they remain more stable and do not bend or move as easily.  Stronger bell to body braces that also add to the resonance of the saxophone, improvements in the neck, a very crucial piece of the sax, as well as expanding the bell bow.  These improvements allow a freer flow of air and less turbulence in these parts of the saxophone, allowing the sound to come out cleaner and freer, and in the newest saxophones, playing down to Bb is easier than ever,  as is reaching the highest notes.  I recently played the Buffet Senzo, and if you read my review of it, you know that they redesigned the bell bow, and low Bb was the easiest and smoothest I have ever played on any saxophone thus far, and they utilized computer programming to come up with just the right dimensions for the bow.  

Before the advent of computer design, workers had to rely on their experience and lots of guesswork in building the saxophone.  As I noted in my article on the Mark VI, Jerome Selmer had told me that during the run of the Mark VI, workers did not work from a set of plans or blueprints.  They used their experience and a little imagination and initiative in building the Mark VI, and they continuously changed things without any consistency in how it was done.  Jerome Selmer even joked to me about it, and said if the worker had a good night before, like in the company of a lady, he did a good job the next day.  If he had a lousy night or was in a lousy mood for whatever reason, it was not so good.  This certainly would explain why I find each Mark VI different from one another, and it makes no difference what the year of production or serial number is, regardless of what anyone believes or has been told.

Another thing about saxophones being built today compared to vintage saxophones is that modern student and intermediate saxophones have achieved a quality at a price point that was not possible even 10 years ago.  In fact, many of the so-called intermediate saxophones that are coming out of Taiwan for example, look and play like a top grade professional saxophone without the price, which makes them an attractive and very practical alternative to the Big 4, regardless of how one might wish to own a Selmer, a Keilwerth, Yamaha or Yanigasawa.  The Yamaha 480 is marketed as an intermediate saxophone, and it's made in China, yet it's still a quality instrument, and having played it fairly extensively, I found it to be a good alternate or back-up horn for a pro player.  Excellent keywork and good tone at a good price.  The Buffet 400 line is a saxophone I have written a lot about, because it's another saxophone made in China under a company that is known for top notch instruments, and their quality control is also very much in place, and so here is another intermediate priced saxophone for the pro player that doesn't skimp on quality.  Chateau saxophones, made by Tenon Corporation of Taiwan, is making excellent saxophones at a price that seems impossible for an instrument of such high quality, playability and tone.  This is a new line that so far has impressed me the most of all the new brands that have hit the market.  P. Mauriat saxophones were one of the first new saxophone brands to have established themselves in the marketplace when it was completely dominated by the Big 4, which was not easy to do, but they were able to do so by offering a saxophone that was a little different than what the others were making, and then getting endorsements from top level pros.  

At this point in time there is a greater choice of quality saxophones for players of all levels than at any time in history, and that's a good thing. It puts instruments in the hands of more players or would-be players than ever before and at prices to match one's budget.  With improvements in design and technology, a student can now afford a saxophone that will not just be "good enough to learn on", but actually good to play and that the student doesn't have to fight so as not to get discouraged early on.  For the working pro, who may often need to double and have more than one instrument, it's possible to have a pro level horn without the cost, since the majority of pros are not famous headliners pulling in thousands or millions a year, but just getting by doing what they love.  Most of the working pros I know are playing saxophones like Cannonball, Jupiter, Yamaha 62's or 480's, and others that are not the Big 4, but certainly are performing as they need them to, and looking the part on stage.  Even my old friend Chuck, who for years would only play Conn Chu Berry altos, has gotten a greater number of gigs, as well as having to play a greater variety of music, and realized that the old Conn did not cut it for many of these gigs, and so he finally broke down and got a silver plated Jupiter, which is made in Taiwan and he found he likes it.  Even a few well-known players I know have traded their Mark VI's for Selmer References, P. Mauriats, Yamaha, Yanigasawa and Selmer Series II and III saxophones.  So there it is.

As  for me, as much as I still love my old Conn, I am finding the newer saxophones just so much better in every way.  Sure, there is a special quality about the Conn because it has been played for many years and also the sentimental value it has and still holds for me.  Just the same, there are things that I cannot do on the Conn that I can with modern saxophones, especially in the range of the horn itself.  As for sound, well, they are sounding great out of the box, and can only get better with time.  I no longer hold on to the belief that vintage is better, because I have played enough of modern saxophones to convince me that they are better now than ever.  

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