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Buffet Super Dynaction alto saxophone

Origin: France (www.buffet-crampon.com)
Guide price: £800 +
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: 1957 - 1974
Date reviewed: February 2005

A pro level horn that was built to compete with the Selmer

Buffet SDA allto (early example)I think it's fair to say that Buffet never quite achieved the reputation for making saxes that they perhaps felt they deserved. I'm not entirely sure why this is, but it could well be that their horns never quite had that certain something that pushed them into the limelight. More often than not they have quirks that seem to work against them.
Buffet's chief claim to fame (at least where saxes are concerned) was that they were the 'other' French manufacturer - and while this perhaps brought them some kudos, it also served as a bit of a millstone given that whatever they produced they were always going to be compared with their competitor's products. And when your competitor is Selmer, that's quite a millstone.
If nothing else, you have to give Buffet a lot of credit for forging ahead in the face of such competition - and while their saxes may not have been as mainstream as other brands, they still managed to cultivate quite a following. This is even more true today, and I dare say you could suggest that these horns are rather more sought after now than they were when they were in production. This could, of course, be down to the fact that you can pick them up reasonably cheaply...which makes them a bit of a bargain. In its day the SDA was a top-level professional horn, and would have cost a suitably eye-watering amount of money. It also had a build quality to match - so being able to pick up such a horn in good nick for less than a grand is definitely something worth thinking about.

But before you dig out your saving and rush off to buy one, there are one or two things you need to know...

In some areas the construction leans more towards the old than the new, what with the soldered bottom bow joint, the lack of adjustable bumper felts on the bell keys and the non-adjustable thumb hook...which although static is nonetheless quite comfortable. Single pillars are used, and these have large bases...which means they'll tolerate a few light knocks before they'll shift or fall off. Saddles (a pair of pillars fitted to a common base) are used for the side Bb/C keys and there's a single plate for the palm key pillars. I noticed some sloppy soldering around one or two of the pillars, and a few scratches where some excess had been removed, but other than that the build quality was really rather good. The toneholes are drawn, and nicely finished and there's a decent-sized sling ring fitted.
On such an old horn that's seen a fair bit of use I've no way to know for sure how level the toneholes were from new, but I've no reason to assume they weren't. I think it's safe to say they'd have been at least as good as those found on an equivalent Selmer of the day.
Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that the toneholes are 'inline' (they run in straight line from the top of the horn to the bottom). Later models, such as the S1, moved over to offset toneholes. Personally I've never had any real preference, but some players find the ergonomics rather trickier with inline toneholes - and, of course, there's plenty of debate about whether it makes a difference to the tone.

The lacquer is very good, and when new there were a choice of options which included 'sparkle' lacquer. I thought this might have been down to metallic particles in the lacquer, but I've since been informed its actually a 'cracklature' finish - which is, essentially, a smooth finish over a wrinkly one...with the wrinkles providing the sparkle. There was also a silverplated option, I believe, though I can't recall ever working on one.

Buffet SDA alto bell braceThe bell brace is a rather poor design and harks back to the braces fitted to horns of the 1940s, and earlier. It's got a bit more 'bulk', by virtue of the logo medallion, but the important parts of a bell brace are the mounting points; where they're fitted and how they're fitted.
The worst possible design for a bell brace is one that has small mount points and that runs in a straight line from the centre of the rear of the bell to the centre of the body - if the horn takes a tumble the force of the impact will be transferred directly into the main body tube. You can offset some of this potential for damage by increasing the size of the brace mounts, thus spreading the load somewhat. The SDA doesn't do too badly on the bell side of the brace - it's got a reasonably large mount...but the one on the body side is really rather small.
I see a lot of horns with this type of bell brace fitted, and whenever they've taken a whack to the bell there's almost always a corresponding dent in the body...which usually distorts the toneholes on either side of the brace mount. In severe cases it can lead to a significant bend in the body.
As long as you're careful when handling such horns there shouldn't be any problems - and it'd be worth investing in a decent case that provides plenty of support and shock protection.

The keywork is refreshingly simple, and far less cluttered than later Buffet horns (there's a later transitional model of the SDA, with some S1 keywork).
I noticed that the keywork was a tad on the soft side, and whilst this isn't too much of a problem from the player's point of view it could still have implications for the heavy-handed player.
Some of the keys feature holes instead of posts for the spring cradles. This isn't going to affect the player in any way (unless they like to tweak the odd spring every now and again) but it's a real bind for the repairer...it's so easy to forget that the springs on these keys have to be inserted into the holes before you assemble the action - and the one you miss is usually the key that requires you to dismantle a whole section Buffet SDA alto spatulas (early model)again in order to fit the spring. It's that mix of the old and the new - if I'm working on a very vintage horn, I expect to find these 'captive' spring cradles and so I look out for them...whereas on a modern horn I wouldn't. The SDA sits right inbetween, and it's only when you've completely reassembled the action that you notice there's a 'captive spring gotcha'. Gets me every bloody time.

The layout of the main stacks is fairly modern, what with the Bis Bb and G key on separate pillars (point screw mounted) to the main upper stack - but there are a couple of throwbacks. The G# key cup is mounted on the lower stack rod, there are no adjusters for the Bis Bb and G#...or indeed anywhere else, and the bell key table is pretty basic. There's no compound bell key pillar, as such, with only the G# and low C# keys sharing a pillar. This is no bad thing - it means the key group is less susceptible to knocks, and in the event of a significant bash you're unlikely to find all your bell keys lying in a pile on the floor.
Not that a significant bash isn't cause for concern...it just means you've one less thing to worry about.

I don't mind not having a tilting table on the bell keys, but the design and layout isn't the best I've encountered. It's functional, sure, but it's not what I'd call slick - and it's not helped by the rather old-fashioned 'cross lever' bell key linkages.

Buffet SDA alto bell key leversThis system separates the bell key cups from the lever arms, and connects them by an arm which contacts a pin on the cup arm. It's far less efficient than modern single-piece keys, and it's something of a puzzle as to why Buffet went with this design. It's not that it doesn't work, or that it doesn't work reasonably well - it just doesn't work as well as it ought to on a horn of this quality, and one built at a time when everyone else had moved over to more modern designs. The low C# also suffers in that there are three keys in the mechanism...the main lever, a link key and the key cup itself. That's at least one too many keys.
There are certainly a few things you can do to improve the feel of these keys - with the biggest bang for bucks coming from replacing the standard cork buffers between the key arms with something a little more slippery. PTFE is a common option, but I find it makes the mech clunky and prefer to fit a good quality well-ironed woven baize. It's as slippery as you like and has just enough give to prevent bounce and slap.
It also helps to ensure all the keys are nice and snug on their pivots - and it's just as well that the SDA uses proper point screws.

Buffet SDA bell key spatulasHowever, you can't do much about the flex in the keywork - and the more individual keys you have in a system, the more flex you'll end up with. Matters aren't helped, either, by the design of the low Bb touchpiece, which sports a rather long, curved arm - as seen on this shot of the bell key cluster from a later model. You'll also notice that the G# touchpiece is fitted with a 'pearl'. The worst-case scenario for this key group, then, is having wear in the key barrels, squishy old corks or felts as buffers, heavy-set springs on the low B and Bb and badly seated or soft pads. If you've got any one of those problems you really ought to get it sorted...and if you've got all of them you might as well pack up and go home...

Buffet SDA alto key cupThere's a hidden feature on the SDA, and it's that the key cups were originally fitted with a threaded stub into which the reflectors (or resonators) were screwed.
There's no particular advantage to this design other than it gives you the option to have the pads fitted without any shellac - as per a standard flute pad. This could, in theory, mean that anyone could replace a pad; simply unscrew the reflector, lift the old pad out, pop a new one in and screw the reflector back in.
Unfortunately it's seldom that simple, as anyone who's successfully repadded a flute will tell you.
There are also a number of disadvantages, the main one being that you're more or less limited to using the reflectors that came with the instrument. No big deal if you like them, but what if you don't? And then there's the extra faff factor. What if one of the threads gets stripped? What if a stub drops off?
In any event, the market has spoken and such design features are nowadays largely confined to a dusty box labelled "Whose damn fool idea was this?"

As you can see in this shot, the stub has been removed at some point in the past. It was soft-soldered in place - so it wouldn't have been a difficult job, but on some horns with similar features these stubs can be silver-soldered in place...which usually means they have to be ground off rather than unsoldered.
All that said, I'd advise some caution if considering such a mod because it severely affects the 'originality' of the horn, and thus its value...and I'd certainly be wary of a repairer who wanted to rip them out as a matter of course without first discussing the options and the ramifications.

Buffet SDA alto octave keyA rather less hidden feature of the SDA is the oval thumb rest. It might seem a bit quirky at first sight, but it's actually not a bad idea. I'm often asked to make custom thumb rests for players who either have physical problems with their thumbs (arthritis etc.) or who simply want a more comfortable replacement for the typically small rests that are fitted to older horns - and these custom rests nearly always end up leaning more towards the oval than the round. It gives the player just a tad more support for the top joint of the thumb and makes for a smoother action, whether the player rolls the thumb up or across. If there's a problem with the design it's that your thumb sits on the rest at an angle...and for the rest to be really effective it needs to be set at an angle to match the thumb...which it isn't. For me this meant that I found the back of my thumb would sometimes lean over the lower edge of the rest. Someone with a smaller thumb may well not have this problem.
On the plus side, the octave key touchpiece has been shaped to provide more 'meat' for those player who prefer to push the thumb across rather than roll it upwards.

There's no swivel on the mech (a la Selmer), rather there's a plate with the pin key mounted on it which connects to the body octave key.
It's quite a simple design - and thus quite sturdy - and you'll find a similar mech on the ubiquitous Yamaha 23. It's a design that works as well on the SDA as it does on the Yamaha, being both slick in action and rather more tolerant of wear than swivel mechs are.

The action on this horn is powered by blued steel springs, but some models were fitted with gold-finished springs - apparently as an optional extra. There'd be no benefit to this, it being merely a cosmetic feature. The springs themselves are quite long in places. I like long springs - when Selmer shortened the spring length after the MKVI, their horns lost some of the agility the keywork was famed for. It was a bad move.
But you can go too far the other way, and once a spring gets past a certain length it loses its strength...and then you run into other problems when you have to fit a thicker spring. Most of the springs on the SDA are fine, but the low Eb is huge (as was common on older horns) - and unless this spring is in good condition, and very well balanced, you might run into problem with the low Eb key being blown open...often characterised by a slight buzzing on the low B and Bb and a general lack of oomph from the bell notes.

Finishing up the keywork is a set of real mother-of-pearl touches, all slightly concave.

Buffet Super Dynaction altoBefore we move on to the play-test, here's a shot of the later SDA, complete with a top F# key. I sat and looked at this horn for quite a while - there was something about it that looked a little odd - and then it occurred to me that it's down to the placement of the top F# tone hole. It's right on the crook socket. What's missing is about another centimetre or so of socket - and what's extra is about the same on the length of the crook.
This is no big deal, though it does mean that there's a section cut out of the crook tenon that generally corresponds to the tone hole position. In normal use this cut-out lines up perfectly, with a little bit of extra to spare - but if you were playing the horn sitting down with the horn to your right you could find that the angle needed on the crook caused the edge of the cut-out to impinge on the tone hole.

Under the hands, the horn feels comfortable, everything's pretty much where it ought to be. The early model was set up with a very light action - much lighter than you'd normally get away with, but because of the long springs it retained plenty of 'snap'. This is a major advantage of having such springs, though the drawback is that it can sometimes be a little harder to get sufficient tension on some of the keys that are normally held closed, such as the low Eb.

The later model had the optional gold-finished springs fitted, which lent the horn a unified look. These were set rather harder than the plain blued steel springs fitted to the earlier model and weren't nearly as responsive when slackened off. I originally wondered whether this was down to the weight or the geometry of the keys, but it's clear now that it's simply down to the springs being a bit poor. Not that it's a deal-breaker, even with a slightly harder action the newer SDA still felt nimble under the fingers.

I stumbled a bit over the low C# mech, but because of the nature of the design (there are three distinct keys in play) I can't see that it can be improved much without drastically reworking the mechanism. Likewise, the bell key table is perhaps a touch clumsy - for the reasons discussed earlier.
In contrast, the plain fork and pin arrangement on the side Bb/C once again shows why it's really the only way to implement this mechanism. Simple, fast and effective - no messing.

In playing I found a few problems with the horn.
The first thing of note (excuse pun) was a tremble on the top C. This isn't uncommon on older altos but I'm always disappointed when I come across it. There can be several reasons for it being there - but all too often it simply boils down to the design. Other causes include leaks, flapping pad skin, rattling reflectors, loose action or sympathetic vibrations...the lyre screw being a typical culprit.
The great shame of it is that it limits your choice of mouthpiece. This tremble seem to get worse as you go brighter or louder, so you'd need to match the horn with a more laid back piece. In fact, laid back is a pretty good description of the tone.
I found that if I played loud the horn seemed to unwilling to respond. There are some horns that like to be driven - the harder you push them, the more they give you - but this is a lazy horn that responds so much better if you back off. I'm thinking that this is perhaps a Buffet feature - I noted much the same effect in the S1 tenor review.
When you back off, the horn really shows its true colours. Tonewise it's light and playful, considered and refined. Very Paul Desmond, I felt. The top C behaves itself, and the tone seems remarkably uniform right across the range.

I noted a small tuning problem with the low D and C. I didn't have the same problem with the mid D, which rules out an action height mismatch - so I suspect that it has something to do with the design of the crook and its socket. I couldn't find a way around the slight flatness, and as soon as I dropped past the C to the C# it came back in tune.
It could even be down to the design of the bottom bow - but once again it improved somewhat when I backed off with the volume.
It also improved when I adjusted the tuning. I'm used to fitting my mouthpieces on about three quarters of the way up the crook cork - but given the non-standard length of the crook I found I had to make a suitable adjustment. This helped the tuning, and the tremble on the top C to a lesser extent - and I think from that you can infer that you need to be spot on in order to avoid problems. You should always be spot on anyway with regard to overall tuning, but sometimes you might have to tune slightly flat or sharp in a horn section.
I didn't find any significant tonal differences between the early and later model, though I felt that the tuning on the older horn was a little more dialled in. It's probably something to do with the crook/top F#.
Given the choice I'd probably go for the earlier model.

To sum up then, this horn follows steadfastly in the Buffet tradition. It's a quality horn that works within quite a narrow set of a parameters. This probably explains why Buffet saxes never quite achieved mass appeal - but if the horn fits your style of playing then it represents a very respectable choice, and at a significantly lower cost for a similar quality horn from the 'other' French manufacturer.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015