Superba II bari sax

 

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This is a H. Couf Superba II baritone sax that I recently repaired for a school. When it came in it was really beat up: Almost all the pads were unusable, bent body, large dents, un-soldered bell brace, just a real mess. Once it was all put back together and everything was set up right and tight it played really well. These have a nice big sound, feel compact in the hands, and have decent key work. My manager Russ, at Coles Music Service in Sewell NJ where I work part time, actually has this same horn for sale currently only his is in much better shape. If you’re looking for a nice vintage horn with a lot of bang for the buck, the Superba II is a good one to check out.

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Quality of instruments getting worse and worse

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There’s a disturbing trend in musical instrument manufacture: Companies are producing lower quality instruments with a higher price tag.

I’ve worked on thousands of instruments. As I’ve repaired, cleaned, and tested, and sold these horns, I’ve gotten to see all sorts of levels of quality in their manufacture. I’ve worked on $89.99 purple clarinets made in Chinese sweat shops to $10k bass saxophones made in the 1920s. Anyone who’s done a decent amount of repair work can tell you there’s a wide spectrum of quality in instruments. It’s from getting my hands dirty tearing these horns apart and building back up again that I can give you my opinion regarding the general state of the musical instrument manufacturing business: It ain’t what it used to be…mostly.

The good ol’ days!

A hundred years ago, there were no student level or pro instruments. All the instruments¬† were generally offered in one standard. There were different models available; a trumpet suited for jazz vs a trumpet for orchestra work; but all the instruments were suitable for a professional player. No one would know what you meant if you said you wanted a ‘student level trumpet’ back then. Different manufactures were known for certain instruments and models and they were all constantly trying to out-do one another with the latest advances in instrument design. It’s one of the reasons you’ll find such huge number of models of vintage instruments. It worked somewhat as the consumer electronics industry works today with iPhones and Samsung Galaxies, this tablet pc and that HDTV. And this sort of competition drove advances in instrument manufacture and design.

The original student  level instruments:

At some point the instrument companies decided to split their production into student and pro level instruments. The idea was that the student instrument would be more affordable than a pro instrument, more durable as far as accidental damage, and easier to play for a beginner. Take for example, the original Bundy line of instruments from Selmer. These horns were tanks: You could drop them, never clean them, forget to oil the valves and keys and they’d keep playing. The construction was solid and well designed. You can find them today relatively inexpensively and have them overhauled or cleaned and they’ll play for another 50 years. Student instruments opened new markets for the manufacturers and and new opportunities for the masses to get involved in music.

Corporate management and the ‘intermediate’ level horn:

With the successes of the student level horns, companies now had an entirely new market and a new system in place to mass produce instruments. Eventually, someone came up with the idea of the ‘intermediate level’ instrument. From a business standpoint it was a clever move. Lots of other consumer products had entry, mid, and upper level products being sold, so why not musical instruments?

The intermediate level horns being offered then and today (for the most part, yamaha saxohpones being an exception to the rule) aren’t really much different than the student horns apart from some cosmetic upgrades and a few changes in materials here and there. Some would disagree with me, but in my experience, you’re paying for silver plating and some mildly interesting engraving on intermediate horns and that’s about it. Intermediate horns, in my mind, are best left alone. They may look somewhat like a pro instrument, but when it comes to actually playing them, they’re really not any better than a student instrument and in some cases are actually worse. I see them like I see those Hummer H2 SUVs that were popular in the mid 2000s: They may look similar to an actual hummer, but try to drive them the same way and you’re going to get yourself into some serious trouble. But hey, they sold! And that’s why they’re there.

The big problem(s)

So intermediate horns sold well. But the companies still wanted to make more money. But how? Shorten production time. Musical instrument are still made mostly by hand, automation simply hasn’t been completely developed nor integrated into instrument manufacture and for some work, like padding a woodwind instrument, it probably won’t be any time soon. So you could hire more workers or you could increase the load on each worker. It’s much cheaper to simply increase work load and since there’s still only 8 hours in a workday, now a trumpet bell maker in an instrument factory might have a quota of 20 bells a day vs the 15 he had ten years ago. All of that means less time spent on each part which inevitably leads to lower quality.

Another example of the cost of the speed up can be seen if you look at clarinet manufacture: They’re made of African Blackwood and the wood should really sit for a few years and dry out before it’s machined to ensure the piece won’t crack. But while in the past the wood might sit for 3 years before it was made into a clarinet body, negating most instruments from developing cracks, today it might only sit for a year. The result is a whole bunch of unstable clarinets cracking.Finally, and this is something that really bugs me, there’s a growing problem with the finishing of brass instruments; specifically the buffing and degreasing process but I’m going to write about that in a later post.

A conclusion (sort of) to my disjointed rant

SO! What we have today is a multifaceted issue but the driving force that’s causing most of the problems is modern business management techniques: More work + less time x marketing spin = more profit. In some fields that might work fine, retail for example, but in manufacturing, it isn’t conducive to a quality product. If I was wrong, why do serious musicians often seek out vintage instruments and hold them up as examples of quality not seen in modern productions? Heck, look at Selmer; they have the Reference series of saxophones that are supposedly a sort of copy of their famed Mark VI line. They’re basically admitting they can’t make their own horns the way they used to! The Bach part of Selmer is doing the same thing with their Artisan series trumpets. There’s even some company that bought the old Bundy name and is slapping it on junky Chinese instruments and you know what their slogan is? Bundy: The return of a legend! I don’t know who thinks the Bundy name is legendary, but anyway, it proves my point, the instrument manufacturers are seriously lost.

Sneak peak at the new Haynes piccolo

Back in March I went to a piccolo clinic right outside Philadelphia and was shown a new Haynes piccolo that wasn’t on the market yet. The picture above is the piccolo. It’s made of a type of compressed wood material similar to what some modern gun stocks are made of that can be made in different colors. The keys and posts are stainless steel and the touch pieces are square instead of the usual circle shape. The design is supposed to be an art-deco kind of thing. There was a piccolo player there who tried it and said it played nicely. Some concerns were raised over the stainless steel posts possibly causing the spring wire to fail prematurely as the steel would bite into the springs at the sharp edges of the posts. On most piccolos the posts are made of either silver or german silver which are both softer materials than the springs themselves thus avoiding that problem. The other concern was that the keys, being stainless steel, wouldn’t be able to be swedged and refitted when the wore down. The designer of the flute claimed that the steel would not wear down. However, the prototype I got to look at already had key fitting problems and it was brand new. Maybe because it was a prototype…but still, I would think a company like Haynes would be a little more careful in that regard, especially when giving them to repair techs to inspect. The Haynes representative also stated that the piccolo is intended for the mid-range market, below 2k. Haynes is known for high end flutes. It doesn’t make sense to me for Haynes to be trying to get into the mid-range market as it doesn’t fit with their image. Time will tell. Either way, it is nice to see new designs being built instead of the copying of every old instrument of note.

Blue saxophones, purple clarinets, black trumpets, and Off-Brand Instruments

Not everything that comes out of China is bad. Not everything that comes out of the U.S. is good. A well known brand name doesn’t guarantee a good instrument. A name that used to mean quality isn’t necessarily the same company anymore. Just because an instrument costs more, doesn’t mean it’s better than a horn that costs less. How do we make sense of all this crazy stuff?

Which horns you should absolutely never ever buy

There are a bunch of horribly built instruments coming from Asia right now. I’m talking major manufacturing problems. Some people call them ‘instrument shaped objects’ meaning they might look like a saxophone but they really can’t be played and by that I mean, you’ll never get anything approaching a decent sound or intonation out of them. On top of that, they won’t last long either and you can’t get replacement parts for them so when they die, that’s it.

So which companies am I talking about? Cecilla, Cecillo, Simba, Jean Baptiste, Barrington, Etude, Selman, Selmar, The Woodwind, etc. There are a ton of really poorly made instruments out there, more than I can name, so research before you buy! Unless the instrument is a Cannonball saxophone, stay away from anything that has a green, blue, purple, anything other than brass or silver finish(for metal instruments) or black(for clarinets). But remember, just because it’s brass or silver colored doesn’t guarantee anything.

Horns you can buy and probably be satisfied

Yamaha, Conn-Selmer, and Jupiter are all pretty much safe to buy, but they each do certain instruments better than they do others. In general, Yamaha is probably the safest bet for quality across the board if you had to make a quick buy. One exception is Yamaha trumpets, I’m not a fan.

Another thing you have to watch out for is that some old names that used to mean quality, have been bought buy other companies and simply slapped on some junky new instrument. The Bundy, Artley, and Gemeindhart names are not the same companies they used to be. Now they’re basically junk.

This is too confusing, how do I know what to do?

Contact me! Find a reputable repair person and ask their advice. I’d advise you not to listen to someone if they are really pushing one particular brand. Usually that means they are A) trying to sell you that brand because that’s what they sell or B) so closed minded that they can’t give an objective opinion. Beware of those people. I will tell you this, though; Yamaha instruments will have the highest re-sale value of the big three, that’s simply the fact of the matter at this time.

The scope of this post is limited, so feel free to contact me if you have any questions!

Which valve oil???

To keep our piston valve brass instruments running smoothly we need to always have valve oil on hand. But which valve oil is the best? This is a largely subjective area (many things in music are) and everyone will swear by different products. I figure I’ll give my two cents on the topic…

The ideal valve oil would be long lasting, cheap, and effective. Can any of them meet these criteria? You have to also consider that every brand of horn has different valves; the tolerances between the valve and the valve casings vary from brand to brand and model to model. That means that one oil may work slightly better or worse depending on which horn you’re using it in.

The standby valve oil that you’re most likely to encounter is good ol’ Al Cass. It was the first valve oil I used when I started playing and it’s what all the other kids used too. For those bundyish horns, Al Cass is a great oil. It’s inexpensive and effective on horns with a moderate to large amount of tolerance between the valve casing wall and the valve. It’s good for the youngsters because they tend to dump buckets of oil into the valves and because it’s cheap, there’s no harm in letting that oil flow.

After I went through my Al Cass phase, I was looking for something with a bit more performance. The next oil I got into using was Blue Juice. More on the expensive side, Blue Juice gave me smoother action. At this point I was using a Bach Stradivarius and at first I liked this oil…but that changed pretty fast. I found two major problems: First, the oil smelled particularly bad (my teacher commented on the smell as well as peers), second, when I went to clean out my horn, the valves had developed blue flakes all inside the valve ports. Blue Juice also seemed to evaporate kind of fast. It was time to move onto something else.

Then one day the clouds parted and down from the heavens descended a bottle of Hetmans! Ok, maybe it didn’t happen exactly that way but it might as well have. Hetmans comes in three varieties for trumpets (not to mention the various other lubricants they sell for brass): Classic, Piston, and Light Piston. Developed by a New Jersey chemist, Hetmans is the best oil I’ve come across and it isn’t likely to be beat. I really can’t find any flaws with this brand other than it’s slightly more expensive than the others. However, it is well worth it. Hetmans lasts a long time after you apply it so you don’t need to use much of the stuff and it provides the fastest and most consistent action in every trumpet I’ve used it in. The three types are very useful as well: For your average trumpet with average tollerances, use the Piston variety. In high tolerance valves that are prone to sticking, use the Light Piston. If you happen to have a vintage horn that may be getting close to needing it’s valves redone, then you can try the Classic Piston which does a good job taking up the wide valve clearance and smoothing out worn plating spots.

So there you have it! You’ll have your own preferences when it comes to oils but these three brands are the standards. Personally, I stay away from the Blue Juice; there’s just too many negatives for my tastes. Actually, I prefer the Al Cass over Blue Juice. But I think, hands down, Hetmans is the top of the line.

But there’s only one sure way to find your favorite oil…try them yourself!