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Selmer Reference 54 alto saxophone

Selmer Reference 54 altoOrigin: France (www.selmer.fr)
Guide price: £3500
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: 2005
Date reviewed: November 2005

Selmer's reincarnation of the legendary MKVI alto?

Gather any group of saxophone players, 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 too 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.

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.

Ref.54 bell stayOtherwise, the build quality was quite good. No wobbly tone holes (hooray!), and nicely fitted pillars and fittings.
The 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 - as indeed is the bell key pillar, which uses the modern semicircular arm arrangement.

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.

The 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.

Ref54 / YAS62 F key 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.

I was 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 pivot (such at the fitment of a nylon sleeve, 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.

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 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 the curious sprung rod screw 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.

A quick note about the use of rubber buffers on the right stack rear bar.
Rubber is a fantastically useful material, with superb properties for all manner of applications - but one application that it is 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 are no nice screw adjusters on this bar), 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.

Given 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.
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 and the use of pseudo point screws.
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.

I 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.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015