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Conn 6M 'Underslung' alto saxophone (Mk VIII)

Conn 6M alto saxophoneOrigin: US
Guide price: £600 +
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: 1944
Date reviewed: April 2006

One of the finest altos ever made in the 'Golden Age' of vintage horns

"Vintage envy" is a funny old thing. In general, the 'average man in the street" is most likely to experience it whilst driving his fairly nondescript 4-door family saloon as he pulls up alongside an old MG Roadster, or an E-Type Jaguar. One can't help but admire the classic styling, the earthy rumble of the engine and the undoubted cred that comes from simply sitting in such a vehicle. And yet having owned a few distinctive vehicles myself I can tell you that it isn't all smiles and smugness. There's the sheer running costs, the lack of any modern conveniences, the difficulty of maintenance and the constant prospect of the whole thing simply breaking down.
Once you learn to live without the admiring glances you actually start to realise just how marvellous it is to run about in a car that's fast, safe, quiet, cheap and comfortable - and very likely to remain where you parked it the night before.
So it is with vintage horns.
I long ago gave up my vintage horns in favour of nice, shiny modern horns - and I can't say I've ever regretted it. I get the tone I want, I get the unstinting reliability, I get the speed and the efficiency - and sometimes I even still get the odd wink or two.
But if there's one vintage horn I'd be happy to own and play as my main instrument, the Conn 6M alto would be it.

This horn breaks right across the vintage/modern boundary - not so much because of its production run (approx. 1934-69) but because of the combination of its (at the time) revolutionary keywork and the flexibility of its tone. That alone sounds like enough to encourage anyone to go out and buy one - but it's not quite that simple.
Most sax makers followed a progression with regards to models - Model A was replaced by Model B, then C and so on. Conn tended not to have these distinct cut-off points and were constantly tweaking and re-tweaking production models to the extent that two identically named models can sometimes be very different horns indeed.
The 6M was no exception, and there are important differences between those models made at the start of the run and those at the end.

This particular model is the MK.VIII version, one of the last to feature rolled tone holes (produced until 1947). This particular feature is most important as it's reckoned that subsequent plain tone holed models aren't quite as good in terms of tone - and having played both versions side by side I'm inclined to agree.

As far as build quality goes, these old Conns are nearly always superb examples of the craft of sax building and it's rare to find anything to moan about concerning the construction. My only real concern is the bell to body brace - being a single rod design with a relatively small mounting plate on the body it means that a severe knock to the bell can do a hell of a lot of damage to the that's something to bear in mind when it comes to choosing a case for this sax.
The rolled tone holes complicate matters when it comes to dents in the body.
In general the tone holes are usually spot on in terms of flatness - but it's not uncommon to find the odd example that has one or two holes out of true. This far on from the date of manufacture it's impossible to say whether such faults were built in, or whether it's due to damage - but one thing's for sure, levelling rolled tone holes requires a great deal of care and expertise.

Another significant feature is the 'reversed' crook socket. On most horns the crook has a tenon that simply fits into a corresponding socket on the body. The 6M's crook fits over a tenon that protrudes from the body. This feature is no cause for concern save to the repairer when it comes to tightening the crook joint up.

Conn 6M octave key mechanismThe 6M gets its nickname 'Underslung' from the design of the crook octave key mechanism. The principle behind this mechanism is that a normal crook octave key runs over the top of the crook. This makes it quite vulnerable when it comes to fitting or removing the crook, and it's extremely easy to bend a crook octave key in this fashion. A bent octave key can also stop a horn dead in its tracks (though it's easy enough to fix, if you know what you're doing), and this design attempted to alleviate that problem.
You'll see modern horns advertised as having underslung crooks, but in fact they're simply variations on the ordinary crook key - a true underslung also has the octave key hole on the underside.
It might seem like a particularly bad idea to place the octave key hole on the underside of the crook, given that there'll be a lot of moisture running around at this end of the horn. Conn thought about that and made the tube tapered to prevent any bubbles of water from forming in the tube. Seems to work, I've never encountered any moisture problems when playing these horns.
The underslung mechanism also has a slightly different feel to an ordinary octave key mechanism insomuch as the pin which actuates the crook key does so by forcing the key down (rather than up). It gives the mech a very precise and fast feel.

You'll also notice a rather unusual lump of metal on the end of the crook.
This is the ubiquitous Conn Microtuner. The idea behind this was to provide a means of tuning the horn without the player having to move the mouthpiece. It sounds like a neat idea, but in practice it can cause all manner of complications and often ends up being regarded as something of an Achilles heel. Prospective buyers should check out my article on servicing the Microtuner, as this may help you to understand why it's important to check the integrity of the unit.

Conn stopped fitting the Microtuner in the mid 1950's, but I've noticed that some earlier 6M's appear to have done away with the unit. Seen here on the right are two crooks superimposed - both from 6M's.
The example beneath (in red) is from a non-rolled tone hole model, the upper (in yellow) from an early 1940's rolled tone hole model - note that the later crook is quite a bit longer.
Note too that on the upper crook, the step appears just after the octave key hole - and if you examine the photo of the whole horn you'll see that the octave key hole actually sits on the base of the Microtuner itself.
Conn 6M later crooksIt would be quite a complicated affair to remove the Microtuner and replace it with a plain tube - and not exactly the sort of job the average repairer would undertake lightly, which leads me to believe that this would have been done at the point of manufacture. I'm sure if anyone knows better they'll soon let me know...

This particular horn had a fixed thumbrest, but you can find examples that are fitted with an adjustable one, albeit a simple swivelling type (similar to that found on the Buffet S1).

The keywork has its pros and cons.
On the plus side it was, in its day, quite advanced in terms of design and ergonomics. Players who own exclusively modern horns will often baulk at the feel of vintage actions, but the 6M feels as slick and comfortable as most modern horns. It might not seem like much of a big deal now, but back in the 1940's it was quite a breakthrough.
You'll notice too that the bell keys are fitted to the rear side of the bell. This wasn't quite so much of a revolution - this setup had been seen on earlier saxes from other makers - but in terms of Conn saxes it continued the departure from having a tone hole on each side of the bell for the low B and Bb, with a corresponding rise in the immediacy and precision of the bell key action.
Another feature is the design of the G# key, being a relatively long lever - as opposed to today's quite compact designs.
I still feel this design to be a winner in terms of feel and response.

When it comes to the cons it's rather ironic that the one thing that tends to let the 6M down is one of the features that was supposed to be a plus; the point screws.
These feature the use of tiny grub screws to lock the point screws in place, the theory being that the action would then be constantly adjustable. It is too - but the grub screws often work loose and fall out, or they get chewed up during adjustment. Either way, it's very common to see these horns with the most appalling play in the action due to badly adjusted point screws.
For more information have a peek at my review of the 10M tenor.

You might have spotted an extra key on the right hand key stack, inbetween the F and E keys. This is a G# trill key. It always struck me as a rather curious addition as the 6M's G# mech is superb, and shouldn't present any problems should you wish to trill on this note (though from a purely personal point of view I would encourage you to avoid trilling wherever possible...can't stand it, sets my teeth on edge).
Some versions also featured an Eb trill, as seen in the above mentioned 10M review, and this would indicate an earlier model.

A quick word about the pads. Conn used a special type of pad called a 'Resopad'. This pad featured a metal ring that sat round the circumference of the pad felt, with a lip that sat over the rim of the cup. A standard pad sits within the cup and so the size is limited by the internal diameter of the cup - the Resopad, with its metal ring was effectively the size of the external diameter of the cup. It only amounted to a few millimetres difference, but given that some of the cups were hardly much bigger than some of the tone holes, those few extra millimetres made a difference when it came to getting a good seal on the rolled tone holes.
The horn can still be repadded with standard pads - it just takes a bit more care - but some people insist on using Resopads, which means either finding a new set or having the old pads rebuilt around the existing rings. I've played examples with both types of pads - makes no difference at all.
One point to note; saxes with rolled tone holes tend to suffer more with sticky pads. This is simply down to the increased contact area on the tone hole - and if this is a problem you can either opt for having the springs set a little harder, or keep the pads as clean as possible.

I said at the start of the review that this was a vintage horn I could be happy to play on a regular basis.
There are two reasons for this, and one caveat (which is that I'd have to secure the action - I wouldn't be at all happy at the prospect of forever having to tinker with those blasted locking screws).
Reason No.1 is the action.

It's fast. Not just a bit fast - it's blindingly fast.
There has to be a magic combination of key weight, cup angle, spring length and tension that allows an action to move this fast - and the Conn has it. I'd go so far as to say no other sax comes close.
Sure, the Selmer MK.VI has a great action, so does the Yamaha YAS62 - but the 6M has something extra. It doesn't seem to matter how light you set the springs, the action remains responsive where other actions would start to feel distinctly floppy.
It fits right under the fingers too...none of that tiresome reaching for keys that you get with a lot of other vintage horns (from back in days when everyone, apparently, had deformed fingers). Everything is right where it needs to be - and even the relatively quaint bell key spatula layout is comfortable and slick.
The 6M often requires a bit of tweaking around the palm keys - they're set quite tight in, and many players need to have them opened out a little. This is simply a matter of (carefully) bending the keys. Don't be tempted to have a go yourself though - there's only so many times you can bend a key before you run the risk of breaking it, and there's no way to tell how many time the keys might have been bent in the past.

The height of the action is variable too. On all horns there's a limit to how far open or closed you can have the keys in relation to the cups, but the 6M seems to be far more generous in its latitude. I've played on some extremely close actions on 6M's, and without any apparent loss of tone or detriment to the tuning.
Set up one of these with a light, close action and you can really shift!

Reason No.2 is the tone.
I make no bones about my preference for a bright tone. A full, lush tone is all good and well - and can be very nice - but I like a nice bit of cut to my tone. That's not to say I want a thin tone...I want breadth and depth, but I still want that edge too.
Plenty of modern horns have a sort of 'set menu' tonewise. What you get is pretty much what's built in, which is fine once you've found the horn that gives you the tone you want. The 6M's tonal menu is 'a la carte''ll do anything you want it to, and it'll breeze over that traditional boundary between the warmth of a vintage horn and the clarity of a modern horn.
It all appears to be very rosy, but there are one or two thorns.
The tone can vary across the scale. This is the price you pay for such overall variety of tone - the very things that make this such a distinctive horn also make it quite a tricky beast to master if you're not a confident player. Ditto the tuning - the experienced player shouldn't have any problems, but a newcomer might stumble a bit...especially if they've gone for quite an extreme mouthpiece. Once you've got the handle on it though it's an incredibly expressive and soulful horn.
It's worth reiterating that the later models (with plain tone holes) seem to have nowhere near the same amount of flexibility of tone. This isn't anything to do with the rolled holes, it's down to the physical dimensions of the horn. That said, at the right price these models are still worth having if you feel you're getting what you want from them.

Finding a decent example is worth the search, but you'll need to do your homework with regard to dates and serial numbers - and I find one of the best resources is the excellent Saxpics page on this model.

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