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Buffet (Keilwerth) Expression alto saxophone

Buffet Expression altoOrigin: Germany
Guide price: Unknown
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: Circa 1991
Date reviewed: May 2005

A pro level horn from the Keilwerth stable under another name

Here's one for all you 'stencil horn' fans!
In case that means nothing to you, a stencil horn is an instrument made by one manufacturer and stamped with the name or brand of another. This was a popular system of marketing way back around the 1930's, and almost all the big manufacturers produced stencil horns.
The drawback of this system though is that sometimes it can be rather hard to determine exactly what sort of quality your stencil horn is - and the advantage is that you can pick up a potentially very expensive instrument at a very reasonable price simply because few people have heard of the name stamped on it.
And so it is with this horn - the Buffet Expression.
I admit that I'd never heard of it before it turned up in the workshop.

Upon examination it was immediately clear that it was built by Keilwerth. What's less clear is precisely what model it equates to.
As far as I can tell, going by certain design features, it's an early version of their SX90. The keywork looks practically identical, as do a lot of the body features. One or two features are missing (such as the extra G# gizmo) which suggests that the mechanism wasn't around at the time this horn was built (I can't see why they'd exclude it and still leave the other features in).
Aside from a Buffet Crampon bell brace and some minor detailing on the crook and bell, this horn appears to be an SX series horn in all but name - and this review will most likely draw many comparisons with the SX90R reviews.

Build quality is good overall - the pillar design and placement lend the horn a reasonably neat and tidy look, and as per the SX90R I feel the pillar bases are a little unsubtantial...a wider base makes for a more secure pillar.
I had to level off quite a few tone holes on this horn. In fairness I have to say that the horn had seen some use, so it's only right and proper to make allowances for the years it's been out in 'the field'. However, some of the tone holes had rather strange notches in them - and as these were lacquered over they must have been built into the horn.
No big deal to put right though with a little dressing of the tone holes.

I'd say that the fitting of the pillars and fixtures was average - on the whole pretty good but with one or two exceptions. The lower Bb key pillar was sitting on a not insubstantial bed of solder, for example. Perhaps not a critical fault, but rather scruffy nonetheless.

Expression alto palm keysThe palm keys feature the same adjustable touchpieces as seen on the Keilwerth SX series horns. I'd commented before that I felt these were perhaps a little too lightly built but I saw no signs of stress where the touchpiece meets the threaded shaft, and this on a horn that's clearly seen some use. All the same, I still feel that these keys would be less resilient in the event of a knock, which is a common occurrence to these keys.
Having the facility to adjust the palm keys could be something of a double-edged sword - can you ever be truly happy with their placement when you know you can keep on adjusting them? I simply set them up so that they looked right and then forgot about them - but then maybe I got them in the right place first time round. Disregarding the potential drawbacks, it's an effective way of ensuring that the palm keys can be adapted to suit a wide variety of hand sizes.

Expression bell key spatulasThe bell key spatulas are nice and sturdy. I particularly like the rather beefy slot and pin arrangement for the C# link. It's a lot quieter than the usual enclosed arrangement and a lot easier to maintain. It makes for a slicker action too.
Similarly, the side Bb and C keys use a no-nonsense slot and pin arrangement that's both sturdy, slick and quiet in use.

Proper point screws have been used throughout, so there's plenty of scope for taking up any free play in the action as and when it wears. The keywork is powered by blued steel springs.
One noticeable difference from the SX series is the 'normal' key pearls. I'm not a fan of the thick pearls Keilwerth now use, and I felt that the plain pearls made the action feel a little slicker under the fingers.

In playing, the horn's a nice easy blow. I felt that the perhaps the mid/low D, which is always a tricky note, was a little more shaded than I'd like - and some careful adjustment of the low C key height helped to even this out a little.
Otherwise the tone across the range was even, and the tuning's just as even too.
In terms of tone I found the horn to be a little too laid back for my taste. I probably ask a lot, but I like a horn that can coast along quite nicely at a comfortable blow and yet keep up with me as I blow harder. I felt the Expression resisted a little too much, particularly at the top end.
That's not to say it's a bad sound, just a personal preference - and it perhaps points to a tone that's well-rounded and yet a little 'contained'. I guess it's fair to say that makes it a very stable horn, and one that will appeal to the player who likes a tone that errs on the warm side and doesn't need to wail! The flip side of that is that the horn won't 'shout', and that's makes for a more relaxed blow ( you don't have to exercise so much control over the top notes ).
I should imagine that a bright mouthpiece would shift that equation slightly - but perhaps not as much as on, say, a Yamaha or a Yanagisawa. Naturally, with a tendency to the warm the low notes were rich and full but the payoff was perhaps a little less attack and clarity.
The action felt fine under the fingers - the only issue of note was that I felt the bell key spatulas were a tad lower and angled too far into the body than suits me (something I didn't notice on the SX90R alto, so perhaps there's been a change here?) but certainly not beyond anything that you wouldn't become accustomed to - and it's not beyond the realms of possibility that the spatulas could have been adjusted for a previous owner.

I'm left with a favourable impression of the Expression, it's a very capable horn that will have an obvious appeal to players who like a well-rounded, warm sound tonewise- and without the issues that have plagued the SX90R series with its tone hole rings it's likely to be a far more reliable horn. Better still, its 'disguise' under the Buffet brand name should mean that you can pick one up for a very reasonable price...at least before this review becomes widely read!
I shall refrain from telling you what my client paid for this horn, it would only spoil your day.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015