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P.Mauriat PMXA-67RUL alto saxophone

Mauriat PMXA-67RUL alto sax reviewOrigin: Taiwan
Guide price: £2650
Weight: 2.61kg
Date of manufacture: 2017 (serial range: 0801xxx)
Date reviewed: October 2017

It's nice...but...

In my review of the Mauriat System 76 alto I commented on the 'retro' presentation of the horn - and this theme is repeated with the 67RUL...except they've taken it one stage further by kitting out the horn with rolled toneholes. Whether this a good or a bad thing remains to be seen.
Many of the features on this horn can be found on the aforementioned System 76 - and although I can't say for sure, it seems to me that the 67 is all but identical to the 76 save for the toneholes. As such, I'm going to sketch over most of them and focus mostly on the salient differences (to save my time, and yours). If you're still interested in this horn by the time you get to the end of this review (I'm giving nothing away, folks), the 76 review will fill in a few more details about the design and build.

So let's crack right on and heft this alto onto the bench...

The construction is ribbed (pillar are fitted to straps, which are then fitted to the body) and what few standalone pillars there are have generous bases. This bodes well for resilience and reliability.
There's the usual list of modern features, such as a detachable bell, a triple-point bell brace, an adjustable metal thumb hook, a large and slightly domed metal thumb rest, a full set of adjustable bumper felts on the bell key guards, a detachable semicircular compound bell key pillar and a sensibly-sized sling ring - which comes in at 17/10 (O/D:I/Dmm), as opposed to the more common 15/8.
Perhaps the two most obvious features are the large bell, which measures 135mm (approx 5 1/4") across the rim, and the bare brass finish. In both instances you can consider these to be cosmetic features rather than anything that's going to have a remotely significant effect on the tone. The bell is extensively engraved, and this continues round the bottom bow and up the main body tube.

Mauriat 67 crook tenon boreA rather less-noticeable feature is the 'rifling' in the bore of the ' Super VI' crook tenon sleeve. In fact it's more like a screw thread than rifling, and its purpose (apparently) is to affect the airflow through the body and thus the tone. I've seen this feature on a few other horns, but haven't as yet found it makes a difference over and above the difference you get when you compare any pair of crooks.
And, of course, there are the rolled toneholes.

The keywork also follows in the System 76's footsteps, but eschews the glitzy abalone pearls in favour of a set of more modest plastic ones. These are all slightly concave - save for the G# and F# ovals, which are flat, and the domed Bis Bb. They're also really rather tough, and quite tolerant of a bit of heat.
Comments have been made about the hardness - or lack thereof - of Mauriat's keywork, and in other reviews I've noted that it's been just fine. In this case, though, I found the keywork very definitely tended towards to the soft. This doesn't mean it'll bend in a stiff breeze, but it's certainly softer than the keys on the majority of the horns I've had on the workbench.
This shouldn't present a problem if you're as careful with a horn as you ought to be - but if you're a bit on the heavy-handed side it might throw up a few issues...none of which will be helped by the fact that there are no regulation adjusters fitted to the 67 (though you get the usual ones on the G#/Bis Bb and low B/C#).

I've also noted problems with the accuracy of the action on Mauriat horns, and while I found some issues on this horn I still feel that things have improved slightly.
The point screw action was mostly fine, with just a little evidence of free play on the Bis Bb and G keys. Mauriat seem to have ditched the weird spear-headed points I saw on the 76 and have reverted to plain parallel screws - and also seem to have taken more care when drilling out the key barrels.
The palm and side trill keys were a bit wobbly on their pivots, and required a spot of swedging the bring them into spec. I also spotted a slightly oversized pillar hole on the lower stack top pillar, which allows the stack rod screw to wobble slightly. Given that this is a fairly new horn (just a few months old) it's quite clear that these are build quality issues rather than fair wear and tear.
What hasn't improved is the corkwork. It's not terrible - it's just a bit indifferent and scruffy. It's mostly natural cork, with a few bits of felt thrown in for good measure - and at this price-point I think it's fair to expect rather better.

The horn comes in a semi soft shaped case. There's not a great deal of room inside for your bits and bobs - though you do get storage slots for the crook and the mouthpiece, and there are a couple of accessory pouches attached to the exterior of the case. And everything's zippered (and I hate zippered cases).
It's presentable, though, and should stand up to moderate lugging about - but if you're taking this horn out to gigs on a weekly basis you might want to think about a better case.

Types of toneholesIf you're a regular reader of my reviews you'll no doubt be wondering what's going on. I'm half a dozen paragraphs in, and I've already reached the overview of the case - which usually signals the end of the bench section of the review. The reason for this is that what follows rather renders the above academic...because it's now time to talk about the rolled toneholes.

In case you're unfamiliar with the terminology, the toneholes on a sax rise out of the body of the instrument and provide a means by which the effective length of the body tube can be altered by opening and closing the keys. On very early saxes the toneholes were soldered onto the body, but it soon became common practice to pull or 'draw' them out of the body tube itself. This led to them being known as 'drawn toneholes'.
Once the tonehole has been drawn out it has to be filed down to height and levelled off - and it's important that the toneholes are level across the top, as this is where the pad will sit. If there's any discrepancy here, you're likely to end up with a leak.
All of this leaves you with what's known as a straight tonehole.

And then someone hit upon the idea of turning the rim of the tonehole back over itself to present a larger surface area against the pad - and this is what's known as a rolled tonehole. This larger surface area was touted as an advantage, giving more material for the pad to close against - but this is a bit of a double-edged sword because if you increase the surface area of the tone hole rim (which provides a wider seal from the pad), you spread the force acting against it (which provides a weaker seal from the pad). It also tends to mean that there's more stiction, which can result in recurrent problems with pads sticking.
Mauriat 67 alto low D toneholeThere's perhaps a mechanical benefit from rolling the toneholes inasmuch as it stiffens the toneholes and adds some (slight) strength to the body - but the payoff for this is that if the body is damaged, they make the process of repairing it rather more difficult because, unlike a straight tonehole, you cannot file a rolled tonehole in order to bring it back to level. Or rather you can...but you run the risk of filing through the roll - and you can never really be sure just how much filing the tonehole's seen in the past.

It's this last point that's the killer. Whatever benefits you might gain from having rolled toneholes, they're more than offset by the sheer hassle (and cost) of sorting them out after the horn's taken a tumble. And even if there's a tonal benefit (for which the evidence is scant), you can more than match it simply by changing the mouthpiece.
It all adds up to being a rather dubious feature.
And there's another problem. Because it's difficult to level off a rolled tonehole you're completely at the mercy of how much care and precision went into forming the rolls at the factory...which is where we come back to the Mauriat 67.

Here's a shot of the low D tonehole with a reference level placed over it. What you should see is a tonehole with a level sitting on top of it and no visible gap between the two - but you can clearly see that the level is resting on a hump in the middle. Depending on your perspective this means that either the sides of the toneholes are sunken or the middle is raised. Either way the thing's way off level.
How far off? Well, this is a curve - so by the time you see light shining through you're already well into a 'leak state', and thereafter it just gets worse.
If this was a single example, a one-off, I'd put it down to either an oversight at the factory or an external event that threw the tonehole out of true...such as a dent or a bend in the body. The former is unfortunate, the latter can be dealt with.
But this wasn't a one-off. In fact every single tonehole from the low Bb to the G was uneven. There's simply no way you could write this off to damage...at least not without there being some very obvious evidence of such. This is a straightforward manufacturing error, probably caused by the flexing of the body tube during the rolling process (which explains why the errors tail off as the tube diameter gets smaller, and thus stiffer).

So what can be done about it?
You can't take a file the toneholes, and there are no body defects to correct that will bring the toneholes back to level - so your only option is...to put some in. Yep, you'll have to get tooling underneath the toneholes and either raise or lower the body tube beneath the holes. It won't be cheap.
Mauriat 67 alto low D keyAlternatively you can opt for matching the profile of the pad's face to match that of the tonehole rim. This isn't an ideal solution - for a reliable, long-lasting pad seal you want a level pad against a level tonehole. Any deviation from that is going to lead to problems later on down the line.
If you go for this option on the Mauriat, you're going to come across yet another issue - because the pads aren't so much 'set' as merely stuck into the key cups.

Here's the low D key cup with its pad removed - and you can see that someone's simply swirled a glue gun around the centre of the pad and then shoved it into the cup. There's precious little coverage of the pad base - and none at all at the edges. All the pads I removed were like this.
You can't reset a pad that's been fitted like this - at least not without removing it and adding enough glue/shellac to completely cover the base of the pad and fill the dish in the centre of the cup - and the fact that there's a seating impression at all on these pads points to them having been vaguely stuck in the key cups and then subjected to heavy compression against the toneholes. So you have an unreliable tonehole rim, and unreliable method of securing the pad in the cup and an unreliable method of seating them. It's not good, and it's rather a waste of the good quality pads they've used.
If you want to know more about such problems, check out the article on warped toneholes.

I mentioned that you couldn't/shouldn't file rolled toneholes, but I noticed several that had been so treated.
Here's the low C#. There's just one spot on this rim that remains untouched - it's just at the 4 o'clock position, where the file marks tail off and the green verdigris (which causes the pad to stick) cuts in - and the area from the 6 to the 9 o'clock position has taken a very heavy filing.
Mauriat 67RUL low C# toneholeIt's important to consider the implications of this. For a start it means the surface area between the pad and the tonehole rim will vary in width. This isn't a major problem, but it may well mean the pad seal is less reliable over time. It also means that the heavily-filed area is now presenting a far wider face to the pad, which increases the tendency for the pad to stick. This is especially not good on a key that's held closed at rest, as these keys are always the ones that are the most prone to sticking. But by far the biggest issue is that you have no idea how close that heavily-filed area is to cutting right through the roll.
If this horn takes a tumble there's a fair chance that the front of bottom bow will cop a whack, which will leave a dirty great dent under the front of the tonehole (a very common result of a drop). The repairer will need to remove the dent and do their best to bring the tonehole back to level by manipulating the bore beneath the tonehole. You can get it pretty close - but you nearly always need to 'dress' the tonehole rim. Dressing is very light, very selective filing - and it's more about smoothing off the bumps and troughs rather than levelling the rim. This will make it easier to manipulate the pad to form a seal over a non-level tonehole.

But how much metal do you have to play with? If the filed section gets pulled down in the fall, will it be strong enough to cope with being pushed back up? What if the horn ends up in the hands of a repairer who's a bit too keen to file the toneholes? What happens if the horn takes yet another tumble later on?
I see this sort of thing all the time on vintage horns (such as Conns) that have led a hard life - and it's fine, it's almost expected because they're old horns that have been around the block a good few times. You work around the problems and do the best you can because it's all you've got to work with - but it's not the sort of thing you'd want to see on a brand new horn. And if the worst comes to the worst and the roll breaks through, then you're in big trouble.

But is this a factory defect, or has it been done subsequent to its leaving the factory? In all fairness I can't say for sure. The horn's only a few months old and had never been serviced - and I feel it's unlikely that a retailer would go to such lengths as part of a setup process. Reset a few pads? Sure. Tweak a few corks? Of course. But strip a horn and have at the toneholes with a file? It's not very likely because it'd tear a fat chunk right out of the already modest profit margin...and it would make far more commercial sense to send it back and ask for a replacement.
If I see a few more with this sort of damage I think it'll be safe to say it's a factory bodge - but until then you'll have to make up your own mind.

Mauriat 67 alto G toneholeIn the meantime, here's another issue that's definitely straight off the production line...
This is the G tonehole. The rim hasn't so much been rolled over as 'rounded off a bit'. I mean...why bother?
Granted, something like this isn't going to affect the integrity of the pad seat (assuming it's seated in the first place) as long as the top of the roll is fully formed - but you're paying for fully rolled toneholes, and fully rolled toneholes is what you should expect. I'd have moaned about this on a cheap horn, but at this price point this sort of defect ought to have been caught at the production stage and flagged up as one for the scrap bin.

In the hands the horns feels nicely balanced and well laid out. I can't imagine many people will have problem with the ergonomics - save for those with very large and long fingers, who might occasionally find that the rim of the large bell is precariously close to the bell key table...though I'd (respectfully) suggest the cure for this would perhaps be to not flap your fingers around quite so much.
I think you'll be disappointed if you were looking for an alto with a light action. Sure, you can set the action (powered by blued steel springs) up as light as you want...but the issues with the toneholes and the pads means you're going to have to accept that this is a horn that's going to work better with a heavy hand.

Tonewise I'd say the horn tends towards the slightly warm - it's quite easy on the ear, and the upper harmonics of each note are polite rather than pushy.
It's also quite a 'soft' horn - which isn't to say that it's muffled or muted, rather it lacks some percussiveness. This is especially noticeable when playing fast runs...the notes seem to blend into each other rather than pop out one-by-one. Is this a bad thing? I guess it depends on your style of playing; if you wanted an alto that had bags of cut and definition, you'd find this horn a bit challenging - but if you were after a smoother approach, it'd fit you like a glove.
I found, too, that it doesn't like to be pushed. You know how it is - you're playing fast and loose, and the band cranks it up a notch...and it's the perfect opportunity to have a bit of a wail. The 67 will get louder, but it hangs on to its smoothness like a dog hangs onto a bone. It just won't let go. I dare say a different mouthpiece would tweak the response somewhat, but I think in the end you'll have to accept that this is a quality that's built into the horn. Aside from that it's quite even-toned across the range and comes across as a pleasant blow...and would probably appeal to players who were looking for an alto that has something of a tenor-like quality about it. And the tuning's fine.

In these respects it's uncannily similar to the 76, which I described as having a 'creamy' sound - hence my feeling that the only real difference between the 67 and the 76 is the rolled toneholes.

Let's have a look at some of the competition. One thing's for sure - when you have two and a half grand to spend on a horn, you're not going to run out of options in a hurry. The first contender has to be the venerable Yamaha 62 - which, at a shade under two grand, comes well within budget and leaves you with some spare cash to spend on a fancy case or a very posh mouthpiece (or both, if you're canny). Don't be fooled by the relatively low price, this is still the horn to beat at the two grand price point. Tonally it's a much brighter, punchier horn though - and if you like your horns and your music on the smooth side, you might find the Yamaha's eagerness a bit wearing.
Next up is the Yanagisawa AWO1 at around £2300. In years gone by, my recommendation for the old model (the 901) would have been largely based on the build quality as I never (personally) found these horns terribly exciting to play. The new AW series changes that, and brings more shine and glitter to the party. It's weightier in tone than the Yamaha but doesn't quite have as much get-up-and-go...but this tends to make it more of an all-rounder.
And then there's the very big fly in the ointment in the shape of the TJ RAW - with both the standard RAW and the XS being within budget. The RAW treads a very fine line between the punch and cut of contemporary horns and the subtle warmth of vintage models, which makes it about as versatile as it gets. Most of this versatility is available at the mere tweak of your embouchure, but if you double up on your mouthpieces (one for show, one for blow - as we say in the trade) you have a horn that can cross all genres.

Mauriat 67 alto lower stackAs it stands, then, I can't recommend the 67RUL.
I'm well-known for being very picky about build quality (someone has to do it) - but there's a world of difference between something that causes me to raise an eyebrow and something that makes my jaw drop in disbelief. Speaking very frankly, I wouldn't touch a horn like this with a proverbial bargepole. The integrity of the toneholes is central to the reliability of a horn - and if any problems with them can't easily be rectified, you're stuck up a certain creek without an effective means of propulsion.
I'm willing to accept that this example might be a one-off - at least until I've seen more examples - but it still leaves you, the potential buyer, with a bit of a problem. It can be hard to detect the issue; the compression-set pads will disguise the problem for a while, which means the horn will probably test out fine in the shop. But once the pads start to swell or shrink (as they all do over time), the performance of the horn will drop incrementally. You might not notice this either, because your embouchure naturally compensates for small leaks - but each leak will knock a percentage point off the horn's output.
You could examine the horn - but even with a practised eye it can be quite hard to spot all but the most severe tonehole warp without the aid of a reference standard placed over the rim.
All of which adds up to some uncertainty should you find yourself tempted by the tone of any of the 67 series, which is a sobering thought when you're about to hand over two and a half grand. If you simply must have one I'd recommend taking it straight round to your local repairer and having at least the bell key toneholes checked. If it comes up short, throw it back at the shop and try another. Otherwise, stick to the 76 series - but bear in mind that even disregarding the toneholes, the competition still trumps the Mauriat on build quality.

 

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