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Selmer Reference 54 alto saxophone

Selmer Reference 54 altoOrigin: France (www.selmer.fr)
Guide price: £5300
Weight: 2.54kg
Date of manufacture: 2005
Date reviewed: November 2005 (updated May 2020)

Selmer's reincarnation of the legendary MKVI alto?

* I first published this review in 2005, and decided it was due for an update. I've added more photos, and gone into more detail about the construction - but the overall review remains much the same in terms of build quality. I've also revisited the playtest, which you'll find at the end of the article.

Gather any group of saxophone players together, give them enough time (and beer) and sooner or later the topic of discussion will turn to the ubiquitous Selmer MKVI - and it won't be long before someone says "If only they still made them".
I suspect that Selmer have thought much the same thing since the mid 1970's - and so here is their homage to arguably the most famous saxophone of all time...the Reference 54.
The design philosophy behind this horn was that Selmer took a 'good' MKVI alto and proceeded to build it anew, hoping to keep the blowing characteristics it was famed for whilst revamping the action and the tuning in line with modern standards.
The big question is, have they pulled it off?

Pretty, isn't it?
The most immediate and obvious impression is how dark it looks. It really is quite a deep gold.
The odd thing is that it's not a uniform finish. Looking closely at the horn you start to see lighter patches around the key cup arms and the pillar bases. It's quite a curious effect, and if I had to suppose how one might achieve such a finish I would say that it looks for all the world as though someone has lacquered the horn and then taken a flame gun to it to brown off the lacquer. If it's intentional then it's quite a remarkable finish - it it's not then it's probably due to a bad lacquer mixture.
I'm in two minds about whether I like it or not, it smacks a bit of a sloppy finish that's justified with a "We meant to do that!".
Looks great from a distance though...and if you don't much like the finish you can have it in matt for the same price.

It's probably largely academic anyway, the horn is impressively engraved on the bell but the engraving is cut over the lacquer...and where there's bare brass there will be tarnish, and where there's tarnish and lacquer there's soon no lacquer.
Again, they probably meant to do that.

Ref.54 alto spot weldThe construction is pretty much standard fare; ribs are used almost throughout the horn, and the few remaining pillars that are standalone have decent-sized bases. As noted in the Ref.54 tenor review, Selmer appear to have used some sort of welding system to secure components to the body.
In this instance you're looking down through the low E tonehole to the bore beneath the thumb hook - and right in the middle of where the thumb hook base sits is a spot weld (more or less dead centre of the tonehole).
There are lots of these little welds peppered along the bore that correspond with the position of large fittings - such as the ribs, bell brace and the thumb hook.
It looks like these components are spot welded in position and then soft soldered in the usual fashion.
It makes a great deal of sense - at least in terms of preventing vulnerable parts from dropping off...but it's not such a good idea if damage to the body requires such a part to be removed in order to effect a repair. In other words it looks like more of a convenience for the manufacturer rather than the repairer - and thus you, should you ever drop the horn.

You get all the mod cons - a triple point bell stay, detachable bell, adjustable metal thumb rest, large flat plastic thumb rest and a full set of bumper felt adjusters on the bell key guards.
Ref.54 bell stayThe bell stay is slightly different from the original. It's rounded on one side, flat on the other. At first glance you might suppose that it smacks of cheapening the design (the original MKVI bell stay was made from round bar formed into a circle), as someone commented to me in an email - but it looks sturdy enough and maybe there's some merit in having a flat surface here (something to do with stress and tension, no doubt). It's certainly substantial enough to do the job.

Ref.54 alto compound bell key pillarLikewise, the compound bell key pillar is quite beefy. I think I'd like to have seen a slightly larger base on the nearside foot - but given that its a fixed brace (as opposed to a detachable one) I reckon it ought to be sturdy enough for an alto.

I don't mind admitting that quite a lot of the things I have a beef about with regard to build quality probably go unnoticed by the vast majority of players. This isn't necessarily a good thing, as many of the problems I point up will have a bearing on a horn's reliability and playability - but when the client actually points out a fault you can bet your last good solo that it's a pretty serious problem.
The problem with this horn was a wobbly crook.
Seriously - it actually wobbled, and no amount of tightening up the crook socket screw would resolve the issue.
This is actually a very significant issue - a loose crook joint can completely knacker a horn's response, and just about any decent repairer will be able to tell you stories of how they miraculously restored the response of a horn that had foxed many lesser technicians simply by tightening the crook joint.
It's fair enough on a horn that's seen a good few years hard labour - and on some horns it's a job that might never need doing...but to have to tighten the crook on a brand new, top-of-the-range horn? I don't think so somehow.
I think I was even a bit cross about it...so while I'm still miffed I'd like to point out the weediness of the crook screw, and say that if manufacturers are going to turn out horns with loose crooks, could they at least have the foresight to pop on a beefier crook screw. Pop one on anyway, heaven knows it gets a lot of stick. Thank you.

Otherwise, the build quality was quite good, with no wobbly tone holes (hooray!). As a general rule Selmer seem do quite well when it comes to their toneholes - they're consistently more level than any other manufacturer. That's not to say they're perfect, mind you - but I find I have to do a lot less work on them than on other brands. That said, I'm knocking points off for a dodgy soldering job on the bell flare joint, just below the low B tone hole. I strongly suspect (or at least hope) that it's a one-off, but it wasn't very neat and really should have been picked up in quality control.

Ref.54 low C# pillarThere's a curious feature in the shape of the low C# lower pillar.
What you're looking at here is a point screw. Only it isn't a screw - it's press-fit into the pillar. I can see why they've gone for this - the action uses sprung key barrels (see my review of the Ref.54 tenor for more details) which precludes the need to ream out the pillars in order to take up any wear and tear. Plus - access to this particular screw would be impeded by the bottom bow. You could just about get a standard screwdriver onto the head, but it would have to be canted at an angle...and that's never a good thing when you're trying to apply a fair bit of torque.
There are ways around this, of course - but because there'll be no need to remove this screw it makes sense to make it a permanent fixture.

The keywork is pretty much as you'd expect on a modern horn, with all the usual features - and I was pleased to see that they've gone for simple fork and pin connector for the side Bb and C keys. However, there are no adjusters on the main stacks - which always gets a minus on my scoresheet. But Selmer have gone a step further by using rubber buffers on the lower stack rear bar. Rubber is a fantastically useful material, with superb properties for all manner of applications - but one application that it's supremely unsuited to is that of regulatory buffers.
Two reasons: You can't sand the stuff down to make subtle but crucial adjustments to the action, and there's give in the stuff. Oh, only a small amount, but it's plenty enough to make the action feel rather imprecise. It really shows on the F and E keys. Press either or both down and you're fine - but press the E down (as in fingering an F#) then the F and you'll notice the lack of that characteristic 'pop' as the F pad hits home - and when I say 'press' I don't mean hammer the key home; press it like you'd press it when you're playing. They tried this stuff on those ubiquitous East German student horns back in the 70's, and boy did it make the action spongy.
You can make a very significant improvement to the feel of the lower stack by having your repairer remove these rubber buffer and fit something more suitable than won't compress. You do get a few adjusters though - the standard trio on the Bis Bb, G# and low B to C#.

Ref54 / YAS62 F keyThe blurb that surrounds this horn makes much of its ergonomic design, which puzzled me somewhat when I went for a top F using the front key. It simply wasn't there. My finger rolled up...and...nothing. No note, no key. Gave me quite a shock!
I've noticed that there are three distinct styles of playing the front top F; some players, like me, will simply roll their forefinger up to engage the key, others will bend the finger and lean the first knuckle into the touchpiece, and the rest will physically lift the finger up and place it on the F key. All methods are viable, though the latter might be said to be slightly slower than the others.
The point is, the F key should be designed so that any and all methods work.
Here are a couple of shots - the first is the Ref 54, the second is a Yamaha YAS62. Note the position of the F touchpiece in relation to the forefinger. See how high it is on the Selmer.

This was how it came out of the box. With some bending and tweaking I made it more of a workable mechanism, but it still wasn't good enough to work reliably when rolling up the forefinger. If that's ergonomic then I'm Charlie Parker's aunt.

Ref.54 alto octave mechI was also a little concerned about the octave key mechanism. Whilst there's some merit in hearkening back to a bygone era, I think you can take the premise a little too far. Although the Selmer octave key mechanism was a pivotal design (neat pun eh?) it tended to wear quite rapidly, and subsequent designs by assorted manufacturers have made subtle improvements. Whilst the mechanism on this horn bears some improvements I still feel that an opportunity was missed to address the problem of wear on the central swivel bar (or see-saw, if you like) - such as the fitment of nylon sleeves, for example.
Picky, I know, but these horns aren't bought to be stashed in display cabinets, they're bought to work...long and hard - and a worn, vague octave key mechanism is not something that's a pleasure to play with.
Note the distinctly different shade of lacquer on the swivel bar. It's not a trick of the light - it really is that different.

The action, as factory set, was rather high - and very stiff. It was simple enough to shim the key feet to knock the key heights down just a fraction - but it's a great deal harder to get that classic 'snap' into the action.
The reason for this is the length of the springs (blued steel, incidentally) on the right hand key stack. If you compare them to those on the MKVI you'll see that they're about 30% shorter. This has implications for the feel of the action.
You can demonstrate how this works by taking a wooden ruler and placing it on a desk, with about six inches protruding over the edge. Give it a twang (the ruler goes 'boooing'). Now move the ruler so that only four inches protrudes and give it another twang. It's a very different feel, isn't it?
This is essentially what's going on with these shorter springs. You can bend them and tweak them to some degree, but nothing will replace that extra kick you get from a slightly longer spring.
I was rather disappointed about this - a killer horn should have a killer action.

Ref 54 low C/Eb keyI note too that a curious sprung rod pivot has been used for the low C/Eb key.
I've had to 'fix' a few of these since they first appeared on the market. The design principle is sound enough, two rods separated by a coiled spring. In theory it means that the tips of the rods maintain constant contact with the point screws...a self-adjusting action, no less.
What seems to happen though is that the spring sometimes distorts and rubs against the key barrel and what you get is a nasty little grating sound from the key. It's a simple fix, the sprung rod is removed and tossed away and a solid rod put in its place. Even without evidence of any grating it's a mod that seems to improve the feel of these two keys.
If you're interested in how this modification is carried out, check out my article about it on the Benchlife Blog.

In spite of all those slightly negative points, the action sits nicely under the fingers (top F notwithstanding). I didn't notice anything overly out of place, which is always the benchmark for a good feel to the action.
The key pearls are proper mother of pearl with a concave profile, along with a flat oval pearl for the G# touchpiece. Plus points awarded for the use of a rounded Bis Bb key pearl - but these are swiftly taken back for the exceptional stickiness of the pads.
I had to take a second look at the pads - I initially thought they might have been synthetic, so dense was the leather. But no, they're leather pads, just rather sticky ones. It might be a one-off, or it might not be, but I had to degrease the pads time and again - and they were still somewhat sticky when the horn left the workshop. I'm sure it will ease off in time (and perhaps with enough degreasing), but it's been a while since I've seen a new horn with pads this sticky.

There's a choice of case with this horn; a shaped case or a flight case. This horn came with the shaped case. Nice and stylish, quite well padded too - but zippered. I really don't like zips on cases - when they go, the whole case has had it.
A nice touch was a shiny top and a roughened bottom. I get the impression that this is so that when you sling it over your shoulder the rough bottom stops the case sliding about. It does too - but if you're left-handed and throw the case over your other shoulder it kinda mucks things up.

Time to blow the horn.

I'd heard great things about the Ref 54...lots of great things. Here and there on the web are dotted comments such as 'the best alto ever made' and so on, and so when I came to blow the horn I was more than a little puzzled. Let me explain it thus:
If there was one quality you could assign to the MKVI it was that it sang, or at least a good one did. It was even more so the case for the preceding models, the Super Balanced Action and the Balanced Action. Some may have not liked its rounded tone, others might not have liked the variable tone across the range, but there was no doubting its lyrical quality.
This was what I was looking for, hoping for, and didn't find.

What I did find was quite a contemporary sound tonewise, tinged with a hint of darkness around the edges. Very even right across the range, with a good balance between free-blowing and resistance (not everyone likes a too free-blowing a horn, some people like something to sail against), matched by even tuning right across the board. I kinda liked it in a way, and it prompted me to heave out my trusty old Yamaha YAS62 and compare the two side by side.
The Ref. has more body, but lacks the 'cheek' of the 62 - it also has more roundness, but again lacks the clarity...but there's really not much in it...and there ought to be. I get the feeling that what made the MKVI a great horn was precisely its imperfections. Maybe the price you had to pay for the tone was a little imbalance in terms of tone and tuning - in the same way that an exciting sports car sacrifices comfort and safety in return for an exhilarating ride.

To be sure, it's a good horn; it sounds good, looks good - but if I were to put it in a line-up against the Yamaha Z alto and the Yanagisawa 992 I think it would be tough to call it. If I dropped the Yanagisawa 9937 into the line-up it would make things look distinctly dodgy for the Ref 54 though - and with Keilwerth hopefully having resolved the tone hole issue, the SX90R alto more than squares up to the Selmer.

selmer Ref.54 alto bell key tableI think this horn gives Selmer a retrospective step back towards the tonal philosophy of the MKVI, and comes as a welcome and interesting break from the path the S80 series has followed - but in the time they've taken to get this model out other manufacturers have been shipping similar models that hearken back to a more rounded tone...and it's no longer a one-horse town.
Selmer devotees will probably love it (unless they already own cracking MKVI's), other players might find it a harder choice.

__________________________

It's 15 years since I wrote much of the above, so I thought it was high time I revisited my playtest notes to see if anything had changed. In terms of the build quality the answer is "Not a lot" - which at least points to some consistency.
But players change over time, so I thought it would be useful to perform the original comparison - and throw in another contender, just for fun...

I noticed that my original review made little mention of how the 54 feels under the fingers.
Up against the Yamaha and the RAW it's clear that the shorter springs in the Selmer show their limitations. Oh, it's not by much - to be sure - and chances are it's something that I'm more likely to notice than most players, given that I spend most of my working days tweaking the action on horns. There's just that little bit more snap and agility on the 62 and the RAW, but it's by no means anything approaching a dealbreaker.
The only other significant point of note is that I found the bell keys on the 54 to be just a little bit lower down than on the other horns, which caused a few fumbles. Again, not a dealbreaker - and something it wouldn't take you very long to get used to...unless, perhaps, you had quite short fingers. I still found the front top F key to be a pain in the arse.

Selmer Ref.54 alto bellAs per the playtest comparison I did back in 2005 I pitched a Ref.54 alto against my old faithful Yamaha purple logo 62...and time I threw a TJ RAW XS into the ring too.
There were no surprises between the 54 and the 62 - the observations I made all those years ago still stand. But the big surprise was between the 54 and the RAW. Given that (to me, at any rate) the RAW seems to stand between a Yamaha and a Selmer tonally, I was expecting it to be quite a close call. But I couldn't have been more wrong.
Not to beat about the bush - the Ref.54 is closer the Yamaha 62 than it is to the RAW.
The 54 is much cleaner than the RAW. Play the two side-by-side and the Ref sounds positively refined. Everything's balanced, just 'so' - there's no fuss, no bother. It's all very...discreet. All very 'cocktails by the pool'.
And then the RAW arrives and drives a Bentley into the pool.

But it's not that the RAW is harsh and uncouth, it's just that it seems to have so much more inbuilt expression. You have to push to get it out of the Selmer (and it's there, for sure), but with the RAW it's just sitting there...gently idling under your fingers. And it really shows on the low notes. The Ref is assured and confident, and focused too - but the RAW is like opening a door and stepping outside. It's way bigger.
I really wasn't expecting this - which led to a hell of a lot of going backwards and forwards. Slow phrases, fast licks, subtones, ballads, blues runs, scales and arpeggios - whichever way I tried it, the results were always the same.

I'm usually pretty confident about the impressions I get from a horn, but I was so taken aback by the stark differences that I had to have a peek at my review of the RAW to see what I'd written about it compared to the 62 and a Selmer BA. And straightaway I saw that I'd described the RAW as 'weightier' and having a 'full spread'. That fits.
Now, whether these characteristics are good or bad will depend on your style of playing - but I think it's very fair to say that the Selmer's somewhat discreet presentation makes it the better all-rounder, especially if you're looking to do anything that approaches classical repertoire. But if you're an out-and-out jazzer the RAW seems to have more to offer....and if you're into blues and soul I think it's a done deal.
From my personal perspective I'd say that any of these horns, if played in isolation, would impress - even if the tone wasn't quite your thing. They all have obvious quality...and a little something else that sets them apart from cheaper horn. This is what you'd expect. What you might not expect is that there's such a price difference between them.
However, when played head-to-head I'd still take the RAW. But that's just me, right?

So what's the conclusion? I think it's pretty much the same as in the original review. The Ref has oodles of precision, but if that's your bag then I'd recommend trying it against the Yanagisawa AWO33 - which comes in at around £500 cheaper. And if you're looking for an alto that's less of an all-rounder and more of thrill, then there are a number of contenders - of which the RAW probably heads up the list.

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