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Keilwerth SX90 straight alto saxophone

Keilwerth SX90 straight altoOrigin: Germany
Guide price: £1200 (used)
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: Mid 1980's
Date reviewed: November 2006

An unusual and flamboyant professional quality alto sax

Now would you just look at this...isn't it amazing?
I think I'm probably luckier than most players in that in my role as a restorer of period instruments I've been privileged enough to work on some truly spectacular and unusual instruments, and I've often felt that the world lost something wonderful with the passing of the perfect marriage between engineering and artistry that blossomed in the Victorian era.
But looking at this instrument rekindles that sense of wonder - it's industrial art of the highest order.
Is it art for art's sake though...?

This being a Keilwerth horn my first port of call on my workbench inspection was the tone holes. Fortunately this is a plain SX90, and not the SX90R with the notorious soldered-on tone hole rings, and I was delighted, nay relieved, to see nice, neat, plain, level tone holes. And so they should be.
(I noted that the tone hole rims weren't plated, which indicates they've been levelled after the finishing process).
In a similar fashion the body is likewise nice and neat - though by no means plain.
I've always felt the Keilwerths have a sort of art-deco industrial look about them, and it's a look that works extremely well - in particular the angular pillars, which are both well made and fitted and beautifully combine style with function.
The guards and other fittings are equally good, and blend in nicely (I have my doubts about the bell key guard, shown later) - although the large thumb hook looks a little out of proportion on this straight alto...perhaps due to the lack of body curves?

The body material is brass - and the engraving on the bell section stands out beautifully against the plating.

The finish is black anodised nickel - and looks absolutely superb.

Fancy finishes have been around for a while now (indeed, since the 1920's, if you count matt silver and gold washes as a fancy finish) and for the larger part have been confined to coloured lacquers.
These can look great, initially, but once the finish gets scratched or starts to wear it makes the horn look shabbier than a standard gold or clear lacquer finish. Specialised plated finishes arrived on the scene next, black nickel seems to be about the most popular.

These finishes have the advantage of being considerably tougher than lacquer, but they're still subject to wear and tear - and the contrast between the body metal colour and that of the finish can still make the horn look shabby.
SX90 straight alto guard stayIn this horn's case the underlying metal is yellow - quite a contrast to the black sheen of the plating, and should the horn ever require any major bodywork or soldering you're likely to lose some of the finish.
Unlike lacquer though, touching up the finish isn't a practical proposition - so you'll have to make the decision as to whether to forego the inevitable cleaning up that such work requires in order to preserve as much of the plating as possible.

That's what's happened here, where someone has done a (slightly messy) soldering job on one of the bell key guard stays.

I'd imagine that, with a little care and patience, you could touch up small cosmetic defects like this with some appropriately coloured nail varnish...or even a spirit-based marker or felt-tip pen.

From the crook socket to the first bell joint the horn is as per the standard SX90 alto - thereafter the design is obviously radically different. Or is it?
In terms of the bodywork all that's needed to make a straight alto is straight tube to connect the standard body to the standard bell - there would be no need to redesign anything but the bottom bow, and not only does this make solid engineering sense it also makes sound economic sense too.

The keywork is just as well built as the body. Keilwerth have a very 'individual' approach to their keys, and this shows in various places.
There's the unusual key pearls, which sit atop the touchpieces rather than in them. I feel it makes the keys look a bit bulky, and raises the finger height very slightly - though you may well find them quite comfortable in use.

Keilwerth SX90 straight alto F keyThere's also the adjustable palm key touchpieces which, despite looking a little too industrial, work quite well - though inveterate tweakers might find themselves forever fiddling with them in an attempt to find the ideal setup, considering that both height and horizontal angle is adjustable.
You also have the anti-stick G# mechanism - which although not the most elegant solution I've seen seems to work reasonably well after a fashion, if a little clunky and hesitant sometimes.
Top marks go to the front top F key touchpiece which is a sheer joy to use, and to the bell key spatula arrangement which is slick and comfortable in use. I'm also pleased to see the use of simple forks and pins in the side trill keys, which makes for a fast and responsive feel to these keys.

Keilwerth SX90 straight alto key guideThe straight body calls for a few changes to the keywork below low D, the most notable of which are to the bell keys. The design necessitates very lengthy key barrels for the low C#, B and Bb - and I was very relieved to see that the potential for key whip (where the barrels flex when the keys are operated) has been duly noted and addressed by means of a rather sturdy guide just above the low C tone hole. The guide, which is adjustable, features a clamp which contains a buffering material which allow the key barrels to rotate freely and quietly yet prevents them deforming. An essential addition, though I think more could have been made of the design of the clamp, it's rather plain and the edges are a tad sharp.

I was rather puzzled by this adjuster bar on the low C#, which has two holes in spite of only needing one. Clearly this is a part off another horn (a G#/Bb adjuster bar). Given that Keilwerth would have had to have made at least a few custom keys for this horn, is it really too much to expect that they could have run to one purposely built adjuster? I seem to recall seeing this bar fitted to the F key on some Keilwerth horns...?
While we're here, I'm not sure too that the bell key guard fits with the overall look of the horn. I'm not sure why, but I have the feeling that it should be slightly different to the bog-standard guard used on the standard horns...seems to me it interrupts the line of the horn. Strictly a personal impression though, feel free to disagree.
Keilwerth SX90 straight alto guardProper points screws and blued steel springs complete the action.

In terms of feel the action is much the same as the standard SX90 - it's quite precise, though not quite as snappy as that found on Japanese horns, and doesn't quite have the deftness of an old Selmer...but it's good nonetheless, and a few weeks of getting used to its nuances will soon iron out any small niggles.
I did notice a very different feel to the low C and bell keys. This isn't surprising, as the C key arm is very much shorter than on a standard alto, and it makes the key feel much more immediate. Catches you out for a while. Some players may feel that it's quite a reach for the low C key spatula though.
The low B and Bb meanwhile feel a little heavier, and because of the amount of metal involved they can't be set quite as light as on a standard horn before they feel somewhat floppy. There's not much in it though, but certainly enough to bear comment at this price point.
I felt that the horn felt a little cumbersome. It ought not to, in theory - all the key touchpieces are where they are on a standard horn, but the overall balance felt quite poor, and I couldn't find a playing position where I was truly comfortable. I suspect though that this is something you'd get used to after a while, and I certainly couldn't find any keywork issues which I'd consider insurmountable.

You'd expect that such an expensive and outrageously flamboyant instrument would have quite a fabulous case to accompany it - and if you did, you'd be completely wrong. I mean, c'mon guys, the horn cost thousands of pounds when it was new - it ought to have, it deserved, a properly made and appointed case. As it is what you get is wafer-thin ply encased in even thinner aluminium. This isn't so bad, if a little tacky - it's the innards that beggar belief, being nothing more than crudely shaped lumps of foam covered in velvety fabric. I wouldn't mind, but the fabric isn't even stitched on, it's just glued - and not very well at that. The case as reviewed isn't all that old, and yet some of the padding has already come away from the body of the case.

Keilwerth SX90 straight alto case For sure, the exterior of the case is sturdy enough - but it's a fat lot of good if the innards are inadequate and poorly fitted. The one concession to accessory storage is a simple boxed off section at one end, in which the crook, mouthpiece and all your other gubbins are free to rattle around in. They won't be the only things that rattle around in the case - with no profiled support the upper end of the horn simply rolls around as the case is hefted about. It's honestly the worst case I've seen in a very, very long time - and from an aesthetic point of view you'd hardly call it attractive. Another problem relating to care of the horn is finding a stand for it. They do exist - but expect to have to hunt for them, and pay a premium for them.

Playing the horn is a very odd experience indeed.
The playing position isn't all that different from a standard alto, though the design of the horn means the balance feels a little off. I felt the horn seemed to push back against my right thumb. No big deal really.
Rather more important was the problem of my right knee knocking against the bell. This obviously isn't a problem for the standard alto - nor the tenor or bari, which you tend to throw down one side - but his horn really only feels comfortable if it hangs straight down...perhaps a little to the right. If you find yourself getting all 'inspirational' in the course of a solo and take a step forward, your knee is liable to hit the bell - and that pushes the crook into your mouth, with some force too. Believe me, it hurts.

I often hear people saying that curved sopranos sound different to straight ones - and this is put down to some mystical function in the bore....but it's really far more likely to be down to the simple matter of the bell being in a different position relative to the player's ear. It's the same with this horn, only the effects are rather more dramatic.
For a start, the bell is over three feet away from your ear as you play the horn, and faces outward and away.
Under the circumstances, what can I say about the tone?

Although my personal analysis of a review horn's tone isn't an exact science, it should give the reader a very general idea as to what they might expect to hear. So, for example, if you were looking for a seriously warm sound you'd know from reading the review of the Yamaha YAS275 that you'd probably have to work the horn quite hard to get such a tone. It's by no means impossible, there are just other horns that will do the job with less fuss.

So how do I comment on a tone I can't really hear?

From the player's perspective the sound seems quite muted, and rather distant. I felt like there was a wall between me and the horn...almost like the sound was coming from another room. I was assured by a listener that the horn sounded as normal as any other alto, but then we don't buy horns for how other people hear them (do we?).
What I missed most of all was the characteristic 'cut' of the alto - I found myself constantly pushing and pushing to get that little ringing in the ears which signals an alto is on form and singing. It just wasn't there - or rather if it was, I couldn't hear it. I can see how this would be a very severe drawback in an ensemble situation.
Things improved a little if I played into a corner - the reflected sound gave me a bit more feel for what was going on - and I'd say the the tone was quite rounded overall, though I didn't feel that it was all that full (in, say, the way a vintage Conn or Martin would be). Similarly there wasn't that much cut or brightness to the tone.
I'm probably going to get emails complaining about this, but I felt the horn was simply 'fair to middling' in terms of tone...nothing particularly outstanding either way, good or bad. Granted, a lot of this will be down to not having the usual feedback - but even so, I didn't get the sense that this was a horn you'd buy for its tone.

All in all I felt very conscious of the horn, and I don't believe that's a good thing. A good horn ought to be transparent, it ought to disappear under your fingers and in your hands. I've no doubt you could become accustomed to this, and there's no reason why you couldn't play one of these horns as well as any other alto - but why bother?
I'm going to lay my cards straight on the table - I feel it's a poseur's doesn't have any advantages at all over a standard alto, and quite a few disadvantages. Sure - it looks fantastic, but what would your expectations be if you saw someone wield one of these things on a gig? You'd probably expect them to be a very fine player...and they'd have to be, what with the attention the horn would propagate, and if they were that fine a player they'd probably have sussed a long time ago that a horn that feels good and plays well beats a horn that looks good hands down.
I'll give it top marks for build quality and looks (minus a few for being cheap with bespoke parts, and minus a lot for the crappy case), and I can see how appealing it would be to whip one of these things out on a gig and wow both the punters and the other players, and the 'fun factor' is undeniable - but I rather feels that's an appeal that can only go so far...and if I was going to wow anyone I'd rather it was with my playing than with my kit.

I don't generally post links to other reviews on the grounds that they're mostly written from the perspective of the player, and often by people with an interest (be it ownership or marketing) in the horns - but as this is such an unusual instrument I feel it merits a second opinion, which you can read here.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015