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Noblet (Beaugnier) Vito alto saxophone

Noblet Vito alto sax reviewOrigin: France
Guide price: £450
Weight: 2.4 Kg
Date of manufacture: Late '50s (approx) (serial range: 15xxx)
Date reviewed: December 2015

It's a Vito...but which one?

If you're a prospective buyer, looking around for advice about buying your first saxophone, it won't be long before someone suggests buying a vintage horn.
It's not a bad idea on the face of it - an old horn that once cost a very great deal of money can often be bought for very much less than a new modern horn of the same quality. Trouble is, lots of other players have had the same idea - and it's not uncommon to see sought-after vintage beauties fetching eye-watering prices.
The best way to get around this annoying problem is go 'off brand' - to seek out those less well-known horns that aren't so popular, yet that have undiscovered potential.
This area of the market can be tremendously rewarding, and with a bit (OK, a lot) of research and some luck you could well end up with a 'Selmer killer' for less than the price of a professional quality mouthpiece. Thing is though , you might equally end up with a proper pile of junk - because even in 'the good old days', they still turned out some right lemons.

To be fair, it's seldom the case that even a bad vintage horn is completely crappy. The build quality is usually at least decent, and I guess there's a certain amount of inbuilt character simply by virtue of the sheer age of the instrument - but then again the design of the keywork probably won't win any awards for ergonomics, there might be oodles of wear and tear to contend with, and at the end of it all it may well be the case that horn simply doesn't play that well. Never did, never will.

One way to mitigate some of that risk is to look for stencilled brands. A stencil horn is one that's made by a particular company and branded with another's name...in the same way that the VW Golf is available from a number of manufacturers. The shape and specs might be a little different, but underneath it all you're still buying into a known quantity (or at least you hope so).
Seeking out such horns requires even more research than hunting down off-brand goodies - because the retailers who sell stencilled horns can change their suppliers on a whim. What was made by Company X one year can be made by Company Y the next. Same name on the bell, completely different horn.
What often compounds the problem is that retailers are even less likely to keep records of who made what, and when, than manufacturers are...and the manufacturers aren't exactly very good at it either.
The information is out there, on websites and forums, but it's sometimes sketchy and contradictory if not downright subjective at times...but it's what you'll have to wade through if you want to buy such a horn. Stencil surfing, I call it.

And what we have here is perhaps the very definition of a stencilled horn - the Noblet Vito.
Nailing the true identity of this horn was, shall we say, a trifle difficult.
Brand identity is, generally, a good thing. If you find a product you like - be it a tin of beans, a car, a horn etc. - there's a certain expectation, a comfort even, in the assurance that if you bought another of the same product it'd be the same. Sure, time moves on and products get updated, but your experiences with a brand may well sway you when it comes to choosing a replacement. You at least have a fair idea of what to expect.
Manufacturers sometimes get it wrong - a small tweak to the recipe of, say, a biscuit or a fizzy drink may well result in a chorus of protest. Even the change of a name might cause some indignation (and no, I refuse to buy anything called 'Snickers').
But for a 24 carat, diamond encrusted example of 'brand dysphoria', the Vito range beats all other candidates hands down.
The bloody things were made all over the place; France, Japan, US, Timbukbloodytu...and all by different manufacturers.
There was also a range of models - but there doesn't appear to be much standardisation. Some had this feature, some had that. The bell keys switched from the left hand side of the bell to the right with seemingly carefree abandon - and it's almost as though whichever company was making the horns at a particular time simply banged out any old horn and stuck the Vito name on it.
I always like to preface my reviews with a little bit of history. Not too much (I'm really not that into it), but at least enough to put a horn into some kind of perspective. After a couple of hours of searching forums, serial number lists, ebay auctions etc...I gave up in despair (and boredom) - so if you're after a Vito (of any sort) you'll have to do your own research. The best that I can do is point you to Google with a cheery "Knock yerself out".

Noblet Vito alto bow jointWhat I can tell you about this horn is that it was very probably made by Beaugnier.
This is a relatively unknown company with a reputation for turning out some fine horns - but not everything they made smelled of roses. In my quest for details I found numerous articles, but nothing particularly cast iron. I can only guess at the year of manufacture and I can't put a model name to this horn - so we'll have to do this the old-fashioned way...by taking it apart, putting it back together again and then giving it a damn good blow...

In terms of construction the Noblet's pretty typical of the sort of horns that sit between the last of the golden greats (the Conns, Kings, Martins etc.) of the '40s and the 'new young upstarts' in the shape of the Selmers. That's to say that there's a bit of crossover - with modern features sitting cheek by jowl with archaic ones.
This often results in quite a curious mix, but it also means that you'll often find one or two odd features that don't quite fit into any kind of chronological progression. Trying to be modern for the sake of it is a pretty good description - but a better one is imagining your granddad breakdancing.
For example: The body features drawn toneholes and single pillar construction - but the bottom bow joint is neither soldered, glued or clamped on...it's bolted on. Seriously- there are three bolts holding it on, along with a dollop of sealant.
There's nothing essentially wrong with this design - it might well not have the strength of a soldered or clamped joint, but it's at least a step up from a glued one. It just looks a bit...industrial.

There's a static brass thumb hook, a simple round thumb rest fitted with a slightly domed pearl and a modern-looking set of bell key guards with reassuringly large stays...though none of the bumper felts have adjusters fitted.
Noblet Vito bell braceAnd then there's the bell brace.
This is strictly vintage - the dead giveaway being that in terms of functionality it meets the design criteria (i.e. it holds the bell onto the body) but makes no concession for what happens if the horn cops a whack to the front of the bell.
What's slightly unusual about this example is that it's detachable - which is very modern. There are a couple of bolts holding it in place, and these, coupled with the bolts on the bottom bow joint, mean you can whip the bell off without having to reach for the gas gun.
Note the G# lever key, just visible in the bottom left of the shot. Yep, another bolt.

The keywork follows a similar pattern - a blend of the old and the new, with a few curiosities thrown in for good measure...such as the adjustable Bis Bb/G# bridge as seen on the right. I'll come straight to the point - this idea is pants. Being able to adjust the buffers over the Bis Bb arm and the G# key cup is a wonderful thing - it makes life much easier for repairers, and it even allows the savvy player to make adjustments should they become necessary inbetween services.
This design, though, doesn't really work. It fools you into thinking it's adjustable by virtue of the pivoting bridge (secured in place by, yep, another bolt) - but if you try to adjust it you'll very quickly realise there are a couple of problems with it.
The first is that you can't adjust the regulation of the Bis Bb and G# keys separately. If you, say, needed to bring the bridge down a tad to ensure the G# didn't open when playing the bell notes, you'd slacken off the bolt, drop the arm down a smidgeon, retighten the bolt and...and you'd have brought down the Bis Bb arm as well...and now you have a spot of double action under your A key.
Similarly, if you wanted to bring the Bis Bb arm down a little, you'd end up with the G# key holding the Aux. F key off. I could go on, and I frequently do - but I think you get the gist.
And if that wasn't enough, when you come to tighten up the bolt that secures the bridge...the bridge will move slightly just as the bolt pinches home...and throws all your regulation out.
The best bet is to treat it as non-adjustable. Set it more or less level, tighten the bolt up good and snug (pop a drop of threadlock on it for good measure), stick your buffering material on and then adjust it in the old-fashioned way by sanding or ironing it.

Noblet Vito alto G sharp keyWhile we're on the subject of G#s - the Vito sports a selectable articulation lever. You might not have seen such a thing before, but it's actually not so uncommon. A similar gadget can be found on the Couesnon Monopole, and even on a few Czech-built student horns (Cortons, etc.).
The principle is fairly simple. Whenever you press down one of the bell keys on a horn, the G# touchpiece also comes down. This is because the touchpiece has a little plate (or a pair of plates) attached to the underside that sits below the low C# and B touchpieces. The reason for this is that if you're playing a low C# or a low B there's a good chance you're in one of the sharp keys (B major, for example) and that as you rise up the scale you're probably going to need a G#. So, instead of taking your finger off the low C# or B key and placing it on the G#, you can just keep it where it is...and when you hit a G you'll get a G#. Marvellous.
This is also why horns fitted with this mechanism require that bridge over the G# key cup...otherwise it would open when you played a low note and let all the air out...which is not so marvellous.
What's also not so marvellous is that such a mechanism adds the spring tension of the G# key to that of the bell keys. Naturally, this means that the bell keys will be slightly harder to push down. Normally this shouldn't be a problem, provided the spring tension for all keys concerned is set right...and the bell key mechanism is suitably light in the first place.

Noblet Vito alto bell keysAnd that's where it all falls down for the Vito because it has levered bell keys.
What this means is that the low B and Bb key cups are mounted separately from the levers that work them - with the connection between the keys being provided by a sliding joint. This always adds friction, and even if you negate some of it by using rollers, you still have a great deal more weight to contend with than on single-piece bells keys (as fitted to most modern horns). On top of that you lose some efficiency due to leverage, wear and tear and plain old flex in the keywork.
Such mechanisms are typically heavier in use than single-piece ones...so you can see that adding in the spring tension of the G# key would just make matters worse.
In practice it's not so bad. Sure, it's not so nimble as a modern design, but it's by no means unworkable.
Until, that is, you factor in the low C#.
Now then, just as you've got your head around the difference between levered and single-piece key mechs, it's time to reverse it all. Yep, on the Vito the low C# is a single-piece key...and that means it's going to be heavier in action than a levered one. Confused? I don't blame you - but the important difference is that the low B and Bb key are held open when at rest and the low C# is held closed. As a (very) general rule of thumb, levers to close keys on a horn are best avoided, levers to open keys are fine.
Once you total up the relatively stiff C# mechanism, the spring tension of the G# key...and chuck in a handful of less-than-optimal key design, you end up with a low C# that's rather less than nimble. The good news is that it's not the worst I've ever seen - and the even better news is that you can improve the feel no end by switching off the G# articulation. As with all things in life, there are plusses and minuses.

Noblet Vito alto G sharp key undersideHere's a better angle on the G# key.
The switch mech is mounted on a bolt, with another bolt in a slot which limits the movement of the key.
If you take a close look at that cylinder in the middle you'll see a small hole just above it, set into the touchpiece. This is the detent - there's a small spring inside the cylinder which pushes a ballbearing against the face of the touchpiece. When the switch is moved back (the off position), the ballbearing seats in the hole and helps to provide a bit of resistance against the switch being accidentally switched on. There's another hole that serves the same purpose for the on position.
As far as gadgets go, I don't mind this feature at all - and this is quite a nice implementation of it.

Noblet Vito alto octave keyI liked the octave mech too. It's a variation on the swivel mech theme (as seen on Selmers of the period) but it's actually rather better built. It's chunkier, simpler and rather more robust. It's also rather easier to take up any wear and tear and it's also very slick in operation.
The thumb rest is a bit on the mean side but it's at least fitted with a real Mother-of-pearl touch. The beauty of this design is that it's a cinch to pop the pearl out and replace it with a larger thumb rest - though because of the placement of the octave key touchpiece it'll have to be offset (as most custom thumb rests are).
The touchpiece isn't too bad either. Although it doesn't wrap around as much as modern one, it's at least more ergonomic than a plain teardrop one, and there's just enough meat on the right hand side to cater for players who like to push their thumb to the right rather than roll up.

Other nice features are proper Mother-of-pearl key touches, gold-finished (painted) steel springs and proper point screws, which allow for adjustment when the action wears. Speaking of which, I noticed remarkable little wear on the horn's action, despite plenty of evidence that it's been well used. Perhaps it's also been well cared for down the years.
I was also pleased to see simple fork and pin connectors for the side keys. These are no-nonsense, reliable, slick and quiet in operation.
The sling ring is slightly unusual, being a sort of U staple design rather than the more common ring. Nothing wrong with that, and I can't think of any particular pros or cons associated with such a design.

Noblet Vito alto side keysThe horn came in its original Noblet case - a simple rectangular box-style case. Nothing out of the ordinary, save for the fact that the horn fits in the case with the bell pointing downwards. I really don't like this arrangement. The bell is vulnerable at the best of times - and in an old-fashioned case with very little padding, having the bell resting on the bottom of the case is just asking for trouble. This horn came in with a dented bell lip, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if it had happened while the horn was in the case.
Unfortunately there's not much you can do about it, other than buy a new case...though I suppose at a pinch you could rip the guts of the case out and flip them the right way round (with the bell pointing upwards towards the handle).

Under the fingers the action's really rather good. The springs are of good quality, and they're nice and long...which always gives them a bit of extra zing.
The octave mech's nice and nippy, the main stack action is as slick as you like and the key layout is good enough for me not to notice any particular issues.
The only fly in the ointment is the bell key action, but even then it's not that bad...and it's rather better with the G# link switched off. I'd also knock a couple of points off for there being no adjusters on the main stacks...which is slightly unfair given the age of the horn.

On the face of it, then, a pretty decent horn. It's well built, it's tough enough to have lasted this long without any major issues, the action is decent...and it looks kinda cool too.
Sure, there are a few niggles - but one man's niggle is another man's quirk, right?
I guess the icing on the cake would be a horn that sang like an angel when you played it...

Noblet Vito alto bellI don't know about you but when I imagine an angel singing it's with a voice that's mysterious and beguiling, and with a clarity that cannot be ignored.
If you were to ask me to name some singers who might fit that bill I'd say Minnie Ripperton, Karen Carpenter and Harriet Wheeler (The Sundays). The Noblet Vito is none of these.
It's approach is rather more earthbound. Not that that's always a bad thing - plenty of singers have carved out a career with a voice that's more gravel than glitter (Janis Joplin, anyone?), but the Vito still doesn't quite make the grade.

It's a very inoffensive horn. It's got quite a warm approach tonally, it's a bit of a crooner - but it seems to lack that little bit of glitter that gives all the best crooners that little twinkle in their eyes. In short, it's a bit woolly. It's also a bit lazy, it's not a horn that likes to be pushed. Played at a moderate volume it's quite an even blow, with perhaps a hint of shading on the low B - but as you blow harder it seems to offer up more and more resistance.
Some of this will be down to the choice of mouthpiece - but my Rousseau 3R is a pretty medium to bright piece, and certainly has little trouble getting most altos to wail at will.
Maybe this horn needs a brighter piece, or maybe it just doesn't get along with the Rousseau - but either way I think some experimentation will be required to get the best out of this alto.
And I think the potential ought to be there. If nothing else, the tuning's very good - and remained so even as I tried to push it.
I know that spending some time with the horn will pay dividends - even in the relatively short time I had it, I found it was possible to tease a little bit more out of it the longer I played it.

That said, from the research I did it looks as though this horn was aimed at the intermediate market, and in that sense the tonal response seems to fit. This is a horn that holds your hand rather than tries to kick you in the goolies.
It's perhaps less of an 'undiscovered beauty' and more of a 'Well, what did you expect for the money?' kinda horn. And in that sense I think I'll give it a reserved thumb's up. The build quality is there, the quirks make it interesting, its faults aren't too serious and for the price you can find one for it's a pretty solid, dependable, stable horn for an improving all-rounder on a budget who doesn't want a modern horn.

 

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015