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TJ Signature Custom RAW XS alto saxophone

TJ RAW XS alto saxOrigin: Taiwan, assembled in UK (www.tjsaxes.com)
Guide price: £2249
Weight: 2.57kg
Date of manufacture: November 2013
Date reviewed: February 2014

A pro-quality alto from TJ that sets new standards across the board

Having switched from my trusty old Yamaha 23 tenor to a TJ RAW, my mailbox has been inundated with queries from interested players as to how I'm getting on with the new horn (just fab!) - along with a fair few requests about my opinion on the RAW alto. I had some limited experience of the alto but felt that I could save everyone a great deal of time by running up a proper review of it - so I asked TJ if they'd send me one to put on the bench.
It took a while to get hold of it, which probably relates to the way in which these horns are produced - they're not just bunged out by the dozen - but I persevered, and pulled a few strings...which mostly involved my sending them a steady stream of emails along the lines of "Is it ready yet? Is it? Is it? Is it ready?"

And here it is.
This is the XS version. It's identical to every other RAW series alto, except that the original factory-applied 'tarnish' has been removed (by hand, no less) to give the horn a more 'lived in' look. I nicknamed it the TJ Ready Rubbed - which might prompt a few modest chuckles from any pipe smokers out there.
The construction is fairly typical with drawn toneholes (all nice and level), a removable bell and ribbed construction...which means that the main stack pillars, and a few others, are fitted to strips of brass which in turn are fitted to the body. The remaining individual pillars have decent-sized bases, which bodes well for long-term reliability.

TJ RAW XS alto thumb restThere's a triple-point bell brace, fully adjustable bumper felts on the bell keys, an adjustable metal thumb hook and a detachable side F# key guard.
There's also a generously-proportioned thumb rest fitted, and the addition of the Signature Custom logo on the top adds a nice bit of grip for when things get a bit hot and sweaty. As per the tenor, the rest can be removed by loosening the lock screw in the base. Note the slight bevel on the inner face of the octave key touchpiece - it's a simple thing, but it makes it so much more comfortable to use.

It has a large(ish) bell fitted - which measures 124mm (4 7/8"). That's slightly larger than the bell on my YAS62 MkI, which comes in at 119mm (4 3/4"). It's certainly not the largest bell I've seen on an alto, but then again I feel that if you go too large it makes the horn look a bit odd.
The sling ring is exactly the same as that fitted to the tenor - and whereas I'd liked to have seen a bit more 'meat' on the tenor's ring, it's just about right on the alto.

It's all put together very nicely, with neat soldering on the pillars and fittings and crisp, clean edges on the keywork.
The keywork itself has a few nice design touches that bear mentioning, particularly the double arms on the the lower stack keys.
I'm still inclined to remain sat on the fence over their effectiveness, but then again I can't say that they'll do any harm. It's certainly fair to say that the low F and D key cups can be prone to twisting due to the key pearls being placed on the side of the cups - so anything that helps to prevent this has to be a bonus.
As with the tenor I'm still a bit puzzled as to why the double arms aren't fitted to the low B and Bb key cups, given that these two keys are often inclined to twist a little over time.
There's also a slightly domed Bis Bb key pearl - which makes for a slicker transition between the B and the Bb, a well-positioned teardrop touchpiece for the front top F, and a very sensible fork and pin connection between the side Bb/C levers and their key cups.

TJ RAW XS alto table keysThere's a tilting table mechanism for the bell keys, and a nice touch is the bevelled low B touchpiece which aids the transition from low C# to low B.
I'm still of the opinion that the G# touchpiece is just a tad on the small size. I wouldn't say that it was too small - rather it's perhaps as small as it can realistically be without causing any real problems. I realise that some of you might now be wondering what the problem is - and I have to admit that while I pointed up the same thing on the tenor, I haven't actually noticed it giving me any gyp over the last year or so. However I'd TJ RAW XS alto enlarged G#still have liked it to have had just a bit more meat to it...maybe just a couple of millimetres longer, and perhaps one wider.

It might just be a matter of proportion - take a look at the mock-up image on the right, with a photoshopped larger G# touchpiece. Looks more balanced, doesn't it?
I just think the larger size adds a bit more security when the going gets a bit wild. You might never use that extra couple of millimeters...but it's nice to have it there, just in case.

The corkwork is worthy of mention. This doesn't usually get pointed up in a review other than my saying whether it's particularly neat or otherwise, but in this case it's exceptional. Much use is made of compression-resisting synthetic felt, and this gives the action a very smooth and quiet feel. To be sure, you could have such felts fitted to any horn - but to have such tweaks as standard out of the box is a real plus. It's very clear that someone with some technical expertise has given some thought to the matter, and that's something I find very reassuring.

TJ RAW XS alto point screwIn mechanical terms the killer feature of this horn is that it's fitted with proper point screws. Not silly pseudo points that only do half the job, or pointless (literally) parallel screws that do little more than hold the keys on - but proper, honest-to-goodness, no nonsense point screws.
What this means for me is that when the time comes to service the horn it'll be a great deal easier to take up the inevitable wear in the keys that pivot on these screws - and what that means for you, the player, is that the action feels more solid, slicker and responsive for longer, there'll be fewer wear-related leaks from the pads...and best of all, it'll cost you a lot less to have the action adjusted down the years. Proper point screws - everybody wins.
If you have an older RAW alto you'll be pleased to hear that the new screws can be retro-fitted to older models - and it's definitely worth having the upgrade done next time your horn goes in for a major service.
Wrapping up the keywork we have a set of well-set, good quality pads and a set of blued steel springs.

TJ RAW XS alto caseThe case provided is of the semi-soft, shaped variety - and on the whole it's a very good case. The horn is held nice and snug, and there seems to be a fair amount of protection to cope with the various knocks and bashes it's likely to see down the years. However, it's a zippered case - and I really don't like zips on cases.
I see so many broken ones, and tire of putting instruments back into cases where only one of the pair of zip fasteners works, or the zip only does up so far because some of the hoops are broken...or, even worse, you forget that in order to open the case the zip has to be opened right around the back of the case, and there's that chilling tearing sound as you rip the last couple of inches of the zip apart when you're in a hurry to get your instrument out of its case.
The RAW case has one extra gotcha - there's a carrying handle on the top of the case, which prevents you from sliding the zipper right around the back of the case (you have to poke your hand through the handle). This is a proper pain in the arse.

As it's a shaped case there's not a lot of room inside for bits and bobs - there there are slots for the crook and the mouthpiece. There's a little bag provided which will fit down the bell, but I'm always wary of putting anything down the bell of my horns.
There are also a couple of zipped pockets attached to the outside - and the one on the top is big enough to take a flute in a clutch-type case, which is a nice bonus given that many sax players double on flute. With a bit of careful wrapping in some cloth you could get a clarinet in there.

Something I'm frequently asked is how well do unlacquered horns stand up to corrosion. Well, brass doesn't rust - but it can go green with verdigris (a sort of brass mould) and in extreme cases it can even develop something known as red rot. This is why horns are usually lacquered or plated. However, there are plenty of vintage horns knocking about that have no lacquer left on them - and they've managed to survive quite happily for at least 50 years or so.
Much depends on how you care for the horn, the environment in which the instrument is played and stored, and your body chemistry. Some people sweat more than others, and some people seem to have more acidic sweat than others.
TJ RAW XS alto crookEssentially, this instrument is going to tarnish - that's the whole point - and hopefully it'll do so gracefully so that it ends up with that lovely crystalline brass patina that many vintage horns possess.
It doesn't take that long either - note the difference in the shine between the tube of the crook (which has had a fair bit of handling) and the crook socket (which hasn't). The more you use and handle the horn, the sooner it will tarnish.
Some players are going to find that their horn develops a few green spots here and there - though these can be removed (cigarette lighter fluid does a good job for light blemishes) - and I think it's fair to say that keeping an unlacquered horn looking neat and tidy is as much about post-playing care as it is about luck. If that sounds like too much hassle then go for a lacquered or plated option - it won't sound any different.
While we're on the subject, I noted that handling this horn left the smell of brass on my hands. It doesn't bother me that much (I'm used to it), but some players might not like it. It's more of an issue with 'fresh' brass - once it tarnishes it's far less noticeable.

The setup was spot on. As mentioned earlier I had asked TJ to send me one of these horns to review, and having previously spent some time with Dave Farley (TJ's sax tech) I expected it to be nothing less than bang on. But here's the thing - this isn't a one off, a special edition, a super-tweaked sample...they're all like this. This is the RAW's USP - they're assembled and set up in the UK by Dave Farley and his team. All of them, to the same high standard.
This means the springs are nicely tensioned and balanced, there's no niggly double-action where corks/felts have settled, there are no leaks from the pads and the height of the action is just how most players will want it. In monetary terms that's worth the cost of a post-purchase setup - about £60 - but in terms of knowing that your new horn will perform perfectly right out of the case, it's priceless. It's also no less than you should expect at this price.

For the playtesting I lined up a couple of choice competitors; my own Mk1 Yamaha YAS62 and a recently overhauled Selmer BA - the idea being to see where the RAW would sit when compared with two highly-regarded professional quality horns, with the YAS62 fighting in the 'contemporary tone' corner and the BA defending the vintage crown.
The YAS62 is well known for its punchy and bright presentation, the BA for its depth and richness - so it was a tough challenge.
Comparing the YAS62 and the RAW showed straightaway that there's far more depth of tone to the RAW, but it also retains a healthy touch of brilliance that serves to prevent the midrange from becoming too boxy. Better still, the brightness is a lot more controllable - on the Yamaha it's right there from the off, but the RAW seems to allow it to slide in gracefully as and when you feel you need it. It retains the punch of the Yamaha, but whereas the Yamaha comes across like a boxer's left jab (fast, precise and sharp), the RAW has a right hand uppercut waiting in the wings. It's more considered, weightier...and when it hits, it hits with a lot of power.
And as big a fan as I am of the YAS62 I think I have to say that the first round is a straightforward knockout to the RAW.

TJ RAW XS alto engravingThe BA is a far more even match, and I was very surprised to find a lot of tonal similarities. The RAW has that 'full spread' thing going on, but with a touch more openness and clarity - to the point where it made the BA seem a bit introverted.
It's certainly a touch more complex down the bottom end (thanks to the hint of brightness) and certainly a lot more powerful - but without becoming as strident or as 'barky' as the BA when pushed.
As you go up the range the RAW gets sweeter - as does the Selmer - but here's where it gets really interesting. The RAW is far more open at the top end than the BA, to the point where it almost makes the Selmer sound a bit, well, twee.
Now I'm sure that's practically a heresy, but it's really the only way in which I can describe it. Played on its own the Selmer is lovely at the top end, it really is - but the RAW seems to pick up where the BA leaves off.

Tonewise I feel the RAW achieves a remarkable balance between the lyrical qualities of the vintage era and the soulful edge of the contemporary, yet it does so with grace, poise and just the right amount of grit. It's also got that 'moreishness' thing going on that I found in the tenor - the sense that every time you pick it up, it has more to give.
But does that mean there'll be legions of Selmer/Yamaha owners chopping in their trusty horns in favour of the new kid on the block? Probably not - because there isn't 'one horn to rule them all', and while there's a lot of competition out there that shines by being different, the RAW seems to go a step further with a much more considered approach. It's a good looking horn too - There are some nice cosmetic touches, such as the series name engraved on the crook and the trouser guard, as well as the model name stamped into the bell ring...all topped off with a nicely engraved bell.

On the specs alone it's an impressive horn. The build quality, the setup and the whole package adds up to a very credible pro-quality instrument - and when you factor in the feel, the tone and the response I think it's fair to say that the RAW XS raises the standard for the 21st century alto.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015