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SML (or Buffet??) baritone saxophone

SML baritone saxophoneOrigin: France
Guide price: £1500 +
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: 1976
Date reviewed: April 2004

A seldom seen quality horn with many interesting features from an enigmatic manufacturer

Now this is a rare beast!
SML saxes always seem to attract a lot of attention - some of it good, some of it not so good.
In some ways that pretty much sums up my feelings about this particular horn - it's a curious mix of the old and the new, with features that delight and disappoint in equal measure.

SML seem to have had a chequered history, and much of this has to do with the relative secrecy that seems to surround the company. To this end, it's hard to be sure about dating these horns from their serial numbers (to my knowledge, SML have never published a list of numbers), and there's some speculation that some SML horns weren't even made by them.
Without the benefit of an official statement it's difficult to know exactly what went on - but you can make an educated guess by looking at the design of the horn.
It's been said that Buffet had a hand in making late model SML baritones, and this could be backed up by an examination of the bell key guards. Pictured (below) left and right respectively are the low Eb guards from the SML bari and a Buffet SA tenor. Other common features include the low C/Eb spatulas and the design of the crook brace. Of course, it may well be that only certain parts were outsourced...
As far as what is known -SML stopped making saxes around 1982, and the serial number on this horn indicates a likely production date of around 1976.
It has been remarked that, in later years - like so many other grand marques - SML cheapened the manufacture of their horns. I think this to be likely, given the curious blend of the old and the new on this horn.

SML and Buffet guardsThe first thing of note is the heftiness of the horn - it's extraordinarily rugged, with huge pillar bases, a very substantial bell to body brace and a positively gaping sling ring (and yet rather twee top bow brace mounts and a tiny ickle lyre screw that wouldn't be out of place on a pocket watch). All this adds up to quite a lot of metal, and the SML is a baritone that feels quite weighty around your neck.

Another thing you notice when you put the horn around your neck is the odd angle it hangs at.
The sling ring is set a little too high, and a tad too far to the left, so that the mouthpiece tends to push against you and pull slightly to the right. This is very uncomfortable, and will lead to fatigue as your hands are forced to push the horn away.
The solution was to move the ring down 4cm, and right 5mm, after which it hung just right.
It leaves a mark where the ring used to be, and on a lacquered horn you'd lose a bit of finish around the new position - but it increases the playability of the horn immensely. I suspect that the ring was originally positioned for the seated player.

The tone holes too are quite meaty, and well finished on the whole - though I did spot a couple that were very slightly warped...though given the age of the horn and the fact that it's a baritone I'm prepared to let it slide on the basis that these beasts tend to get knocked around a bit.

SML bell key spatulasThe keywork is almost industrial in build quality, though designed well enough to ensure that it doesn't lend a heavy feel to the action. Unfortunately, industrial is a term that can be applied to the finish - with visible file or machining marks under the nickel plate.
It's here too where the blend of the old and the new is most noticeable. For example, there's the rather cleverly designed brace for the low B/Bb key barrels...but then there's the rather ancient one-piece low C# key. Similarly, the rather basic bell key spatula arrangement conceals a switchable articulated C# mechanism (missing on this particular example).
Other features of note include an adjustable octave key thumb rest and a very chunky octave key mech, which works very well nonetheless - and, according to the blurb issued at the time of manufacture, key arm rollers on the low B/Bb keys which were designed never to seize up. They'd seized up - but a light dressing with a file got them on their way again.
There are no adjusters on the keywork either - and although it's not really an issue for the player, it's still rather unexpected on a horn from this era...and no adjustable bumpers on the bell key guards.

Good, strong point screws have been used throughout, and the action is finished off with gold finished steel springs.

SML crook socketThere's a feature on this horn that I can only describe as 'lovely'. It's simple in design and yet so spiffingly useful and logical that I seriously wonder as to why no other manufacturer seems to have adapted the design for their own horns.
I'm referring to the crook socket. As can be seen, the socket has four slots cut into it - as opposed to the usual single slot. This allows for more flexibility and less strain on the socket, and ultimately a tighter fit for the crook tenon. It gets even better though - the lock screw is fitted to a rotating ring, which means you can place the screw in whichever position best suits you. More than that, you can flip the ring over - to accommodate either left or right handed players. Marvellous!

The action's quite sprightly under the fingers, though the feel owes slightly more to a vintage horn than a modern one - perhaps striking a nice balance inbetween?
The bell key cluster in particular showed the limitations of the design, particularly the stiffness of the single-piece low C# key - though the low B and Bb improved considerably after the key arm rollers were freed up.
It's quite a noisy action too, with assorted clanks and clunks - most of which were due to keys clashing.
This can be a common problem on baritones, and it's usually due to the 'whip' inherent in the long key barrels - not a problem SML's case due to the stiffness of the keys, rather it was simply down to compound stack keys being fitted a tad too close together...most notably the G and Bis Bb keys.
A spot of judicial filing here and there helped to resolve this issue.

In blowing, the horn reveals a very soulful disposition.
I should clarify 'soulful' - it's not a particularly warm tone, there's too much bite in it, but it does have a nice grittiness that very usable.
Plenty of punch too from this remarkably easy blower, particularly at the top end where baritones are inclined to get a bit thin and nasal sometimes. The tuning was good - initially a tad sharp at the low end, but coming into pitch after a few minutes of adjusting the embouchure to suit.
I would imagine an open mouthpiece would warm the tone up, but it would be a shame to do so at the expense of the horn's expression - you might be in danger of making a waffler out of a wailer.
Conversely, putting too close a mouthpiece on this horn could result in it being rather brash.

The lack of a low A might limit the horn's potential in contemporary music, but the SML is both a horn that people will want to look at and listen to.

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