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Windcraft WAS-110 alto sax header
 

Windcraft WAS-110 alto saxophone
Origin: China
Guide price : £425
Weight: 2.6kgs
Date of manufacture: April 2012
Date reviewed : June 2012

Description : An ultra-cheap own-brand horn from one of the UK's leading woodwind specialists.

Windcraft alto saxophoneEver since the arrival on the market of ultra-cheap horns from China the standard advice has always been to buy from reputable sources. This goes some way to protecting the buyer from the vagaries of Chinese quality-control and ensures that in the very worst cases there's a chance of getting your money back.
For the most part this advice works well, but it still puts some emphasis on the buyer being able to assess the product with some competency - or at least pay for a repairer to check the instrument over. Fortunately a number of companies picked up on this problem and began to use repairers to carry out their own quality-control checks, and even tweak the horns where necessary. Most of these companies used hired technicians, but one or two of the larger retailers were able to field a team of in-house repairers.

One such company is Windcraft - a well-known supplier of instrument repair tools and materials, and the 'engine room' of the retail parent company Dawkes.
So what we have here is a budget horn that's been developed by a team of repairers, that's been inspected by a team of repairers and is sold by a team of repairers. Buying an ultra-cheap horn doesn't get much safer than that - and when you add in the fact that Dawkes is one of the longest-established instrument retailers in the UK, with one of the best reputations in the business, it all adds up to a very nice package indeed.
Let's find out if the same can be said of the horn after a closer look...

The body is quite neatly made and features a semi-ribbed (pillars fitted to straps) construction for the upper key stack and an almost fully ribbed one for the lower (with just the low D and C# pillars on a separate plate), with the remaining individual pillars having reasonably large bases. This should mean they'll stay put if the horn cops a slight knock or two.
All the usual features are on show: a removable bell, adjustable thumb rest, triple-point bell stay, arched bell key compound pillar, removable side F# key guard, a decently-sized sling ring - and the body is finished in gold lacquer, which looks to have been applied very nicely.

Windcraft alto adjustersThe keywork is similarly well-finished and sports a few nice features such as a teardrop front top F touchpiece, no-nonsense fork and pin connectors on the side Bb and C trill keys and a tilting bell key table.
On the minus side the key pearls are made of plastic, but that's only to be expected at this price point. Balancing that up though is the slightly domed Bis Bb pearl, which makes for a smooth and comfortable action when rolling your forefinger off the B key.

It was nice to see a set of height adjusters on the main stacks.
Ideally I like to see both height and regulation adjusters; the former makes it easy for players to tweak the key heights to suit themselves and the latter makes it easier for repairers to balance the regulation without having to fiddle with sanding off bits of cork - but even one set is better than none at all.
And these adjusting screws worked. Plenty of ultra-cheap horns feature these screws, and many more besides, but if they don't move because they're gummed up with glue (as opposed to properly stiffened with threadlock) or have broken threads that make them loose, they're next to useless. Overly stiff screws will get chewed up or break the moment you try to move them, and loose screws will drop out in use...and at best that'll mean the action goes out of regulation, at worst it means that bits will fall of the horn and could get lost.

Windcraft alto G# pinOn the subject of screws, one of the things I always check on an ultra-cheap horn is the tightness of the screwed-on fittings. These are usually such things as the little pins used to link one key to another, as on the G# (as seen on the right) and top front F key. They're often loose, and a quick check with a screwdriver will sort them...and reveal whether there are any dodgy threads (which means they'll never tighten up).
No such worries with this horn, most of the pins are soldered in place. This is a smart move for a budget horn given that youngsters are more likely to be using them - it adds a touch more robustness to the build.

None of this matters a jot, though, if the action is all loose and sloppy (and this applies to any horn, at any price). If a horn has poorly-fitting pivot screws the action will never work properly - it'll feel imprecise and spongy, the pads will leak no matter how well they're set and trying to get the low notes with a subtone will always be a lottery. In the very worst cases it's often barely possible to get the low notes at all, at any volume.
At this price it's obvious that you're not going to get a premium-quality action, but there's still no reason at all why it can't feel tight and responsive - and I was pleased to note that some attention had been paid to getting this aspect right.

Windcraft alto sax point screwsThe Windcraft alto uses parallel point screws - but they're easily the longest I've ever seen on an ultra-cheap horn. What this means is that instead of working as parallel points - where the pivoting takes place around the circumference of the screw tip - the tip butts up against the end of the pivot screw hole in the key, and so they work like proper point screws. Whether that's by accident or design doesn't really matter much to the player - all that matters is they provide a tight action with a degree of adjustability built in.
It might not sound like much, but believe me - it makes a difference.

Windcraft alto octave keyAnother thing it takes is a good set up, and that's what the Windcraft has. The blued steel springs are nice and responsive and set to a realistic medium-firm feel, and the action height has been set at medium-high - which will allow the horn to 'breathe' and provides a good balance between volume, tone and ease of playing.
There were a couple of things that stood out for me. The octave key mechanism was quite good. Practically all horns these days use a variation on the swivelling arm (or see-saw/teeter-totter), as first featured on Selmer horns back in the 1950s.
It's a nice design, but it does rather rely on all the component parts (typically 5 or 6 parts) all being accurately made and well fitted. Unfortunately a lot of ultra-cheap horns can't manage this, and quite a lot of them come ready-built with the sort of free play in the mechanism that you'd only expect to see on a horn that had seen thirty years of hard playing and no maintenance. In the very worst cases the octave key barely functions at all out of the box.
No such problems here, I'm pleased to say.

If you look carefully you can just catch a glimpse of the top F key pad. The pads are of serviceable quality. In recent years the Chinese have got a bit better at making pads, so they're not as uneven and squishy as they used to be.

I was also pleased to see proper felt used for the bumpers in the bell key guards. I've seen some examples that use soft rubber, and still others that use some kind of foam. Neither works terribly well - the bell keys either tend to knock or bounce. Proper felt has just the right amount of noise-dampening with just the right amount of stopping power.
About the only thing I had an issue with was the placement of the front top F touchpiece, being a tad too far back for my liking. Easily remedied with a quick tweak.

All of this adds up to an action that feels very presentable under the fingers. Everything's where it should be, I very much doubt many people will have any problems with the ergonomics - I didn't have to stretch to reach any keys and nor did I notice any feeling of my fingers being cramped.
Tonewise I felt this alto veered ever so slightly to the warm. This is a nice touch for a budget horn as most of them favour a slightly bright tone. This tends to mean that they're a slightly easier blow for beginners, but the Windcraft manages to pull this particular act off and give a fuller tone (which is somewhat easier on the ears for the listener) - with a nicely rounded lower end that was complimented by a full midrange and a slightly creamy top end. If that doesn't much sound like your thing, simply put a bright mouthpiece on and it'll add more edge.
As for evenness of tone across the range, and tuning - no problems at all, as one would expect with a modern horn.

The price, the build quality and the reputation of the retailer all go towards making this a very decent package. By the time you've factored in the accessories such as a chamois pull-through, a duster, a good quality Windcraft sling, cork grease, a very playable Windcraft mouthpiece and a spare reed it all looks even better.
I have a feeling these horns will be popular, and rightly so.

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Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2013