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New Super Dearman alto

New Super Dearman alto sax reviewOrigin: Various - Eastern Bloc generally
Guide price: £100 upwards
Weight: 2.19kg
Date of manufacture: Mid 1930s (Serial range: 65xx)
Date reviewed: January 2018

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Back in the days when I was just a young horn player, nothing was guaranteed to send a shiver down your spine like the sight of a horn bearing the mark 'Foreign' on the bell. It was a sort of catch-all term for anything that wasn't made in the UK or America. There was no such thing as the internet back then, so your chances of finding out exactly where 'Foreign' was were pretty slim - and the term came with some pretty hefty negative baggage. Many cheap and awful horns were stamped with this mark, and many new players had to suffer the indignity of learning on an instrument that was, essentially, a badly-made copy of a copy.
This often led, understandably, to the notion that anything so marked was cheap junk - reinforced by the fact that many such instruments could usually be found languishing, unloved and in various states of disrepair, at the back of school music room store cupboard.
And yet in among the undoubted dross there were a few gems - of which the New Super Dearman arguably defines the genre.

There's nothing particularly definitive as to the origins of this horn. What's known is that Dearman was imported and distributed by the Dallas company - and while you might not have heard of them, you'll have almost certainly heard of the Grafton alto...which was one of their lines.
Other than the word 'Foreign' engraved (discreetly) on the bell, there are no marks to suggest where this horn was built, or by whom. However, it's generally known that these horns were Eastern Bloc stencils - most likely Czech or East German. In such cases it's often possible to identify a horn by its design and features - but the Dearman seems to be something of a mixture. This suggests that rather than being an off-the-shelf design from a single manufacturer, it's more likely to be a specified design that gets touted around various makers until the best price/lead time can be found. It may even be possible that more than one manufacturer was involved with the build (one to make the body, another to make the keys - for example). I'll come back to this point in the final wash-up, but in the meantime let's pop the horn on the bench and see what it's made of.

New Super Dearman alto thumb hookIt's immediately obvious that it's not an unattractive horn, and much of this is down to it having been refinished. As far as I can tell these horns were available in just two finishes - lacquered brass or silverplated - but this one's had the keys and the inside of the bell gold plated and then lacquered. I'm not sure why a coat of lacquer was applied over the gold plate, but it hasn't been done very well. This is rather surprising, given that refinishing back in the day was generally of a good standard...so maybe it was re-refinished at a later date.
One thing's for sure, the owner must have really loved this horn...because gold plating wouldn't have come cheap.

There's also some evidence that the body has been replated. Note the wrinkles on the thumb hook. These are down to wear - a combination of friction and acid sweat that's eaten into the metal over time - and there's no way a coat of silver plate would survive such an attack. Thus it's reasonable to assume the body has been replated...though it may equally indicate that only the thumb hook has been refinished.
This would be unusual, and there's no apparent evidence to suggest the hook's been removed and refitted - and what's also unusual is that the body seems to have a thin coat of lacquer on it, some of which can been seen hanging on to the lower right section of the thumb hook.

The construction is single pillar with generously-sized bases and the toneholes are drawn and rolled. And that's, frankly, yer lot.
There's no detachable bell, a rudimentary bell brace and fixed wire bell key guards with no adjusters. In fact there are no adjusters at all on this horn. Not one. You do, however, get a chunky sling ring (17/10) and the bottom bow plate looks like it was designed by the people who did Boudica's chariot wheels. Imposing, is the word that comes to mind. And just for good measure an equally imposing brace is fitted beneath the crook.
The overall body construction is rather good - the pillars and fitting are neatly attached and there's a general sense of solidity about it, despite being quite a light horn. The rolled toneholes weren't too bad either. I had to address a few warps, but nothing dramatic...and there's a good chance that most of them were down to previous knocks and bashes to the body. Even in this state they were considerably better than some modern examples I've seen of late.

New Super Dearman alto bell braceMy only real gripe with the body is that the simple bell brace leaves the body quite vulnerable to severe and expensive damage should the bell cop a whack. This is typical for horns of the period - a hefty knock pushes the bell into the body, and the foot of the brace punches a dent into it...which wrecks the level of the adjacent toneholes. It's a nasty affair, and one made all the more complicated by the addition of rolled toneholes.
Thankfully there's an easy solution. Just don't drop the horn. I know that sounds glib but it's essentially all you can do about the problem - unless you're prepared to shell out big bucks to have a bespoke offset bell brace made.

New Super Dearman alto  palm keysOn the keywork side there was a lot of evidence of 'butchery'. Horns this old have been round the block a good few times and don't always get the care and attention they deserve. This tends to show up in unfeasibly large amounts of free play in the action due to a combination of wear that hasn't been properly addressed and bodged repairs that have further reduced the efficacy of the keywork.
Here's an excellent example. At some point it's highly likely that the top D key got stuck on its pivot (most likely through a bent key rather than rust), and had to be cut off the instrument. It's not an uncommon procedure, but there's a right way to do it and a wrong way - and whoever did it got it completely wrong. It left the key barrel more than 5mm short, which is a lot of play to take up using the standard methods.
The easiest fix would have been to fit an extension to the key barrel, or even replace the barrel altogether - but I wanted to preserve as much of the finish as possible. So I made a judgement call and opted to take up the wear on the body by fitting a solid silver stub to the threaded pillar. It's far less cosmetically damaging, it's easy to reverse - and it mimics a standard feature often found on vintage horns.

The rest of the keywork was so badly worn that I opted to fit oversized rod screws throughout - and straightaway ran into a rather odd problem.
It has non-standard threads on the rod screws. The pitch of the threads checked out as 4-40 UNC, but with truncated thread forms (as seen on the left in the photo) - which means they were cut with a modified or custom die...or someone took a file to the threads after they were cut. I suspect the former, given that a standard 4-40 tap wouldn't fit in the pillars, which means they used a modified tap too.
New Super Dearman alto  rod screw threadsOn the right is a new thread, cut to the correct dimensions. It doesn't look much larger but you can clearly see that the threads are much 'sharper', and as such it won't fit the pillars. Time to make another judgement call, and this time I opted to file the new threads to match the original ones - for two reasons. Firstly, it retains as much originality as possible - and secondly it's a lot less work than having to run a tap through all the pillars to bring them up to 'official' spec. I've also opted to finish the threads with an undercut (that narrow, unthreaded portion at the base of the thread). This gives the screw a much more definite 'stop' when the main body of the screw hits the pillar, and it also helps prevent the screw from biting into the pillar and driving itself off-centre.

Incidentally, the rod screws are alloy (probably nickel silver). This seems to have been a popular option on Eastern Bloc horns, and you'll often find such screws on Czech-built Cortons and East-German Weltklangs. The advantage of alloy rods is that they won't rust, but they're softer and will wear more rapidly...and they're prone to gumming up. They're also quite tricky to remove if they get stuck because the screw heads have a habit of breaking if you apply much more than moderate torque to them. Given the pros and cons I opted to make the new screws from silver steel.
As for the point screws, I'm happy to report that these are all proper points - though many of them needed replacing. Not because they were worn, but simply because someone had previously replaced them with screws that didn't quite fit the threads in the pillars.

The design of the keywork is quite old - and I suspect this is because it is (I'm clever like that). The upper stack sits on a single pivot and the G# sits on the same pivot that holds the rest of the lower stack.
There are some mod-cons though; you get front top F key and the side keys feature fork and pin connectors - and there are some quirks, such as the addition of right-hand G# trill key and a rather clunky bell key table.
New Super Dearman alto  bell keysIn fact the bell key table is something of a letdown for this horn. The rest of the action is pretty decent - it's well-built and reasonably sturdy (perhaps juuuuust a touch on the soft side), but it's capable and comfortable. The bell keys, however, are a bit of a nightmare. Some of this is down to having the low B and Bb mounted on a single long rod (bad for friction and key whip) and some is down to having a single-piece low C# key (necessitating a heavier feel) - but the real killer is the way in which the link to the G# has been handled.
It's bloody awful.

For the link from the low B/Bb there's a sort of T piece that sits beneath the low B/Bb touchpieces. In terms of leverages it's very poorly placed. The action when playing a low Bb is fine, as you have the extra leverage provided by the Bb touchpiece - but playing the low B on its own is something of a chore.

New Super Dearman alto G sharp linkBut it pales beside the link to the low C#, which seems to have been purposely designed to be as inefficient as it's possible to get.
Yes, you could spend all day tinkering with spring tensions and slippery buffers, but you'd be fighting the laws of physics. I really think you'd be better off disabling the links (it can be done with some judicious key bending) and spending more time learning how to do without a linked G#. It won't take long, and it'll make the bell key action feel so much more responsive.

Note the flat pearl on the G# touchpiece. This features a crosshatched surface (known as a nailfile pattern), the idea being that it was supposed to provide a bit of extra grip when the going got hot and sweaty. It might well have done when the pattern was new and sharp, but once it wears down it's really not very effective at all...and it tend to pick up grime.
Note the mother-of-pearl rollers too. These were in surprisingly good condition considering the age of the horn - though given how fragile MOP rollers are there's a good chance they may have been replaced at some point.

The octave mech deserves a few comments. It's a relatively simple affair which has a floating bridge between the body and crook keys. In this respect it's closer to the mechs found on modern student Yamahas rather than the swivel types that are seen on Selmers. It's functional and quite slick in use - but I found it to be very picky when it came to adjusting the throw of the touchpiece.
New Super Dearman alto  octave mechMany mechs have 'break point' - which means that if there's too much travel on the thumb key it'll exceed the maximum movement of the other parts of the mech...which leads to an unpredictable response (typically it means the crook key pad will open when only the body key is supposed to). Most mechs have a fairly wide latitude around this point which, in practice, means you're unlikely to want that much throw on the thumb key.
The Dearman is rather more sensitive and its break point falls well within what I'd consider to be a practical amount of throw (if, for example, you preferred a slightly high action).
The way around it, apart from limiting the throw of the thumb key, is to beef up the tension on the crook key spring. This works well, but has the knock-on effect of making the mech a bit stiffer in operation. A more effective fix is to pay some attention to the thickness of the octave key pads. If your mech has this problem it'll typically show up as stuffiness in the octave D to G range - or even a complete failure to produce the notes.

Finishing up the action you get a full set of concave real mother-of-pearl touches as well as the aforementioned flat pearl on the G# - and the whole action is powered by blued steel springs. These will have been changed over the years, but it's safe to assume they're what's would have been fitted from new.

The horn came with its original case, which is a simple box affair with less padding than a Jiffy bag. As much as old cases often have a great deal of character, they're pretty damned useless when it comes to protecting the horns from knocks in transit - and given the risk of the bell brace being shunted into the body you'd be well advised to seek a modern replacement.

In the hands the horn felt well-balanced and responsive. The relatively light weight around your neck is noticeable (and welcome) and the speed of the action, once well set up, was surprisingly good...not withstanding the clunky bell key table.
The ergonomics are fair for such an old horn, but a lot of this is likely to be down to it being an alto. A tenor might prove slightly more of a challenge, but for most people I don't think there'll be a great deal in it.
The palm keys sit a little on the low side (hence the owner's set of risers) and the G key, being on the same pivot as the rest of the top stack, has a slightly vague feel about it - but these are characteristics rather than deal-breakers.
New Super Dearman alto  G# trillIt'll take quite a light action, which perhaps points up why some of the spring sizes seem to be a touch on the thin side. There were a few keys where I found myself wondering whether to stick with the stock size and tension it to the max, or ream out the hole and go for a heavier spring that's set light. The latter is likely to be more reliable in the long term - and on a horn with rolled toneholes you might well run into issues with sticking pads if you set the action too light.

As mentioned earlier, the bell keys are a bit pants. The G# touch is wide but not quite long enough, and because of its design it doesn't quite have that extra snappy snappiness that I like to feel.
Still, there's always the option of using the G# trill key (if you really must trill) - which works well enough in spite of the mechanism being somewhat industrial in design. As for the rest of the cluster, it's by no means impossible to use (grit your teeth, flex your finger muscles and think of England....it's only a flesh wound...no, don't wait for me - I'll only hold you back) but by heck is it a chore. I've seen and gigged on worse though - and I guess it only stands out so much because the rest of the action is more than up to par.

But never mind all that guff - how does it play?
It's bouncy. Yes folks, it's a bouncy horn. And what the hell does that mean?
Well, as you may know, I set a lot of store on how a horn feels when I play it - or rather how it makes me feel. Some horns push you into a rock 'n roll groove, some steer you towards slow ballads or perhaps a smattering of Be-bop. The Dearman just cries out for up-tempo songs. It's tuneful, it's breezy, it's nimble - and above all, it's joyful. It's what we call 'a darling little horn' in the trade.
Sure, this horn's an all-rounder tonewise - and it'll cut right across all genres. It's got a medium to slightly warm presentation with a lower end that's crisp and strident when pushed yet soft and smoky when subtoned - and a really nice, clean top end that doesn't seem to get all shrill and shouty when you give it some welly.
It's an easy blow too - not too stiff, not too wild. Just enough to get your teeth into.
It doesn't quite have the sparkle that you'd get from a Conn or a Martin (etc.) of the same vintage, but it's close. It's damn close, in fact - and in a blind test I wouldn't like to bet a bottle of scotch that I'd be able to tell the difference every time.
It's got that presence that sets it well above a starter horn, and the sort of tonal integrity you'd expect from a horn of the quality of (say) a Yamaha 62.

As for the tuning, it's not too bad at all. It's certainly true to say that it's 'of the period' - which means that a certain amount of steering by the player is in order...but it's not what I'd call excessively demanding. You'll just have to put some practice in, and some care in choosing a suitable mouthpiece will help. I suspect a piece with a large tone chamber will be a good place to start.
The only real issue I found was that the front top F leans a bit flat (the palm key F is fine), but can be brought up to pitch by adding the side F#.
Oh, and 'fake' top F# (front top F + side Bb) is rather a struggle. Some alternative fingerings may work, as may some practice...

New Super Dearman alto  bellFinally, let's return to the question of origin.
Without any concrete evidence I don't want to go on record as stating this horn was made by so-and-so, but I can at least say for sure that this horn was made by someone who knew what they were doing. If you do a bit of browsing you'll find half a dozen or so names keep popping up (Amati, Keilwerth, Kohlert, Huller etc.), all of whom had a reputation for producing some rather nice horns.
In its day this would have been classed as an intermediate horn - and indeed the Dearman was known as "The poor man's Conn"...most likely as result of the rolled toneholes, and as a nod to its quality. As with many things that were built back then, the emphasis was on quality-for-money rather than penny-pinching...and by modern standards this horn would comfortably fit well within the entry-level professional category.
We also have some definite information regarding the date of purchase and the cost (from the original receipt) - and when it was purchased in 1938 it cost a few bob over £20. This roughly equates to a modern-day purchase price of around £1200 - which is pretty much slap-bang in the middle of today's intermediate price point.

So far so good - but there's a bit of a problem when it comes to finding a good example.
There are plenty of these horns around - and for not much money at all (less than £100 in some cases). However, they're old horns and are likely to have been well used and less well looked after. The design of the horn means that some care and skill is needed when servicing/restoring them, and a poorly 'overhauled' horn is likely to be more problematical than one in original condition that hasn't been butchered.
A proper job is going to run into many hundreds of pounds - realistically at least £400 - so be very wary of 'restored' horns selling for two or three hundred quid. If you choose wisely and keep an eye on the budget, you should be OK.
If you buy a restored example it should sing like a bird - with no gurgling, farting, coughing or wheezing. If it doesn't, it hasn't been restored properly.

When all is said and done, I'm very impressed with this alto - to the point where I'm not sure that "The poor man's Conn" really does it justice.
No, I think it's rather better than that - and given the very reasonable price these horns could and can be bought for I reckon "The canny man's Conn" is a more accurate description.

Postscript March 2018:

I had an email from James Scannel, a Brit living in Berlin, for whom German and Eastern Bloc horns are something of a passion. He tells me that this horn is a Kohlert, built in the mid 1930s - and provided me with a wealth of information on the makers of the period.
So unless someone can trump that, I think it's safe to say that the origins of this lovely little alto have been postively identified. And when I said this horn was made by someone who knew what they were doing...it looks like I was dead right.

 

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2018