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Yamaha YBS62(S) baritone saxophone

Yamaha YBS62 baritone sax reviewOrigin: Japan - 'E' suffix for models assembled in Europe (uk.yamaha.com)
Guide price: £6000
Weight: 5.78kg
Date of manufacture: 2008
Date reviewed: May 2017

Possibly the definitive modern baritone

Aren't baritones great? No, really, they are, aren't they?
I've always felt them to be the most 'considered' choice among all the saxes. I think most people end up playing an alto or a tenor because that's what they started with. They get used to it, so they stick with it. Some go for the soprano - but I have a sneaking suspicion that most of them do so because the size appeals to them. I mean, let's face it, it can't be the tone.
But what does the baritone have going for it? Not the size - the bloody thing's enormous - nor the weight, of which it has plenty. It can't really be the tone because, as nice as it is, it doesn't really have the same range of expression as the alto or the tenor. About the only thing it's got in its favour it that it can really hit those low notes.
On paper that makes it a bit of a lemon - which is why, of all the saxes, you'd really have to have a burning desire to play one. You have to weigh up all the pros (not many)and the cons(quite a few) and then decide that it's the horn for you. If that's not a considered choice, I don't know what is.

And they're fun. Hand any other horn to a player and you might get an appreciative nod or some conversation about how it compares to such-and-such a horn. Hand them a bari and you get a great big smile.

Trouble is, baritones have always had a bit of a reputation as being a bit 'make do and mend'. They were seldom first to benefit from the upgrades and improvements that were showered on their smaller relations - and their sheer size meant that they were really pushing the limits of what was mechanically achievable...at least in terms of reliability.
Fortunately the baritone, in common with most bass instruments, is a very forgiving beast - and while the design improved considerably through the '50s and '60s, it wasn't until the 62 hit the shops that it seemed like someone had started to take them seriously. And by that I mean the designers didn't just 'make a bigger alto', they sat down and really thought about what a baritone needs.

And here it is - so let's get it on the bench and see exactly what the boffins had come up with.
The construction is largely ribbed. I say largely because with such a long body you're never going to be able to fit all of the pillars onto ribs (or even want to, unless you weren't planning on anyone being able to lift it), so there are quite a few standalone and grouped pillars. These all have respectably large bases.
The body is in three sections - you get a detachable bell and also a detachable top bow.

Yamaha YBS62 top bow clampYamaha have chosen to detach the top bow where it meets the main body tube (Yanagisawas detach where the 'U-bend' meets the top bow). I feel this is a very sensible arrangement as baritones are prone to taking knocks and bashes, and having easy and speedy access to the bore saves a lot of time (and thus money). Granted, you could always remove the bell if you needed to get tooling up the main bore, but it's one hell of a big job.
Remove a few keys and the detachable braces, pop the top joint off and Bob's yer uncle. What's not to like?

You get an adjustable plastic thumb hook and a large plastic thumb rest. It would have been nice had they been made of metal but they're at least very comfortable in use.
The sling ring is of the usual 15/8 ratio (15mm outer diameter, 8mm inner) which I find a bit small even on smaller horns. It it, however, fitted to a very large base...so it won't be dropping off in a hurry.

There's a full set of bell key guards mounted on rather beefy stays - including one for the vulnerable low C# key cup - and they're all fitted with adjusters for the bumper felts. The side F# guard, though, is fixed in place.
The toneholes are all drawn, and even after almost ten year's worth of gigging they were all nice and level - and with tidily-finished rims.

Yamaha YBS62 bell braceThere's a triple-point bell brace, and it's quite an interesting design - it's essentially a souped-up version of the one fitted to the altos and tenors. It's certainly larger (as it needs to be) but the real meat-and-potatoes is the addition of an extra arm fitted to the centre of the main body tube.
The whole affair is quite stiff and sturdy, and yet it's been designed to give way should the horn take a hefty bell-on impact. It seems to work, too - as I don't see many of these baritones with bells that have been knocked out of whack, and the ones that have don't usually exhibit the typical body damage that results from such impacts.
I'll say this much though - if you ever manage to bend the bell brace it's a complete sod to get it realigned again. You've got to get the axis of the lower crossbar just right, and then you have to match in the curvature of the body arm. It's an object lesson in going back and forth.

The overall construction of the body is very good - all very neat and tidy. I have to say that I've noticed something of a down-turn in the build quality of recent 62 altos and tenors, but the baritone seems to be maintaining the once-renowned Yamaha standard. I would imagine this is down to current models being the same design as earlier ones (baritones are always the last to get a look in when they come round with the upgrades trolley), and perhaps this means the production setup has remained the same? Who knows? I certainly have no complaints.
So far so good, then - a well-built body of modern design...but it's in the keywork where the real goodies are to be found...

Yamaha YBS62 low A keyOne such goodie is the Yamaha's low A mechanism.
It's always nice to find a killer feature on a horn - it means that no matter what negativity is thrown at the horn, you can always point to this feature and say "Yeah? Well, never mind that...look at this!" - and people will be duly impressed.
It's one of those designs that's so obvious once you see it - and when you look at what the competition has come with you can't help but wonder what on earth they were thinking. It turns what was once a clunky, mushy, typically approximate mechanism into something akin to a switch.
Low A goes on...low A goes off. It's that simple. No messing.
It does so by virtue of having two lever arms off the thumb key - one for the low B/Bb and a separate one for the A - as well as some provision for adjusting the relationship between the two. It also runs beneath the main stack rather than over it, so the lever are kept as short as possible. It all adds up to a sublimely functional mech - and in the saxophone innovation hall of fame I'd put it right up there with swivelling octave mechs, adjustable thumb rests and triple-point offset bell braces.
I have one of those infamous Chinese knock-off baritones that's fitted with this design of low A key. It's nowhere near as well-built - but here's the thing...even though it's probably only half as good as the proper mech, it's still streets ahead of the mechs you'll find on other baritones. Good design always works, and great design carries on working even when it's not quite so well built.

Note the simple fork and pin link on the side C key - just below the barrel of the thumb key. This is a simple, slick and efficient design. Nothing more is needed. Note too the pillar cap just below it. This helps to prevent the top E key barrel from flexing in use (It's one hell of a long key barrel). It also provides a degree of protection against knocks - and might just save your bacon if you're a bit clumsy when lifting the horn out of the case. Straightening bent top E baritone keys is a surprisingly common job.

Yamaha YB62 bell key spatulasYou get the usual bell key mech with the tilting table. Nothing much to write home about here - it works, and it works very well. Yamaha have done a good job in balancing the need for key stiffness with the need to keep the horn's weight down, and it's typically here where you'll most notice any flex in the keywork. There's some - there's bound to be with such long keys - but it's well within my expectations.
You can't quite see it here, but the bell key pillars are divided into two groups - low B and C# on one pillar, low Bb, A and G# on the other.
This is a sensible arrangement and will help to prevent the pillars being shunted backwards if the horn cops a jolt in the case (case shock). A small note to would-be DIYers...reasssembling the bell keys is a bit of a Chinese puzzle...it's one of those 'two steps forward, one step back' layouts where you have to get the keys fitted in just the right sequence or you'll end up holding a key that you can't fit.

Speaking of stiff and sturdy keys, it's perhaps a bit surprising that double key arms haven't been used for most of the bell keys (there's one on the low C).
They're a big feature theses days on altos and tenors - and while their worth on these horns is debatable, they'd make perfect sense on a baritone. Maybe it goes back to that 'upgrade trolley' thing - and if they ever decided to upgrade the bell keys they might also decide to knock back the build quality. I know which I'd rather have.

Yamaha YBS62 twin body octave key cupsIt's been at least a couple of minutes since we had a killer feature, so I reckon it's high time we had another - and this time it's the twin body octave key vents.
The transition between octave G (with the body vent open) and A (with the crook vent open) has always been tricky on saxes - and even more so on baritones. Having just two octaves vents on a sax has always been an acoustic compromise - and while the ideal would be to perhaps have an octave vent for each note, it's clearly not going to be a practical proposition. This mechanism goes some small way to evening out the compromises.
And it seems to work quite nicely. It also has the added benefit of making the midrange octave notes a little less pinched and nasal.

If there's a drawback it's that it makes the octave mech slightly more complex than it already is, and that means there's more to go wrong.
This mech's Achilles heel is the mechanism that regulates the height of the twin key cups. It's quite a clever design - the lower key has a flat spring attached to it, and this sits in a cradle that's fixed to the upper key cup. The spring provides a downward force against the upper key cup, while the upward force it provides to the lower key cup is overridden by the spring that power the octave mech as a whole. It's a neat, self regulating solution.
If the mech fails (outside of damage and normal wear and tear) there's a chance that it'll be because the small screw that secures the spring to the lower key has come loose through vibration, which leads to the tip of the spring bouncing out of its cradle (show by the red arrow). When this happens, the regulation between the two key cups is lost and the upper one will leak. The fix is to dismantle the mech and tighten the spring screw (a drop of weak threadlock, such as Loctite 222, is a good idea). It's not an especially common problem - just something to keep in mind if things go awry.

Yamaha YBS62 stack adjustersNice to see a full set of regulation adjusters on both stacks. I say a full set, but if you look at this shot of the lower stack Auxiliary F bar you'll see that there are only two adjusters - one for the F and one for the E. There's no adjuster for the low D because the Aux. bar simply doesn't extend that far.
Did they slip up? Did they simply forget? No, they wisely decided that there's always too much flex in this bar by the time it gets down to the D key - and because a D adjuster on an alto barely works and one on a tenor seldom does, it makes no sense at all to bother with one on a bari. It means you can't play an F# using the flute fingering - but I sincerely doubt it's a feature that's very high on the average bari player's wish-list.
As a general principle I'm a big fan of adjusters - even the most precisely-built action will flex a little in use, and the adjusters make it a cinch to dial in a suitable amount of bias or compensation. As the saying goes, you first set it up by the book...then you throw the book away and set it up by feel - and these screws make that job much easier.

And while we're on the subject of screws I'm delighted to say that proper point screws have been used throughout. I consider these things to be essential on any horn, but especially so on a baritone. There's so much natural imprecision built in to such a large horn that you really need all the help you can get - and while stiff keys and double arms are useful assets, they're not much good if the keys are able to flap around on their pivots.
Other than that you get a full set of proper mother-of-pearl key touches, and the action is powered by hefty blue steel springs.

The finish is up to the usual Yamaha standards, though I'd question the wisdom of buying a silverplated bari. Silver tarnishes, and there's a lot of silver on a bari. A lot. It's a vast amount of surface area to keep clean - and while most of it is easy enough to get to, you'll still struggle to get in underneath and around the keywork. And it an unfortunate fact that while a grubby lacquered instrument undoubtedly looks, well, grubby - a tarnished silver one looks distinctly shabby. And the bigger it is, the shabbier it looks.
Putting a shine on a silver bari is a four-part process. You start off with good intentions and a large bottle of silver polish. Then it gets boring. Then fatigue sets in - and finally you're overcome with an intense feeling of regret and envy...because your mate with the lacquered bari long since finished wiping a duster over it and is now sitting in the pub, having a cosy chat with the very attractive lead singer.
Personally I'd go for the lacquered version. Yamaha's lacquer is superb - so much so that you can (with a bit of skill and a pinch of luck) resolder a loose pillar or stay back onto the body without burning the finish. About my only reservation is that they cut the engraving through the lacquer. It looks sharper like this, but it makes for an ideal spot for blemishes to form. But keep the bell nice and clean and you shouldn't run into too many problems.

The horn comes in what can only be described as a very substantial case, complete with four hefty latches to keep the lid on. There are dedicated slots for the crook and the mouthpiece and plenty of space for all your accessories - though I doubt you'll be able to fit a bari stand in it. You probably won't want to anyway...the weight of the case and horn combined is 'impressive'. If it got any heavier it'd probably sink down towards the centre of the earth if you left it long enough.

Under the fingers the YBS62 feels remarkably like a tenor. I remember the first time I ever got my hands on one (it might have been a 61). It was in Lewingtons (on Shaftesbury Avenue), and I think I'd popped in there to buy some reeds and gawp at the shiny saxes. Back then I was still wielding an old Buescher baritone - which had all the poke of a lettuce and an action that had more spring in it than my bed. I managed to cop a feel of the Yamaha while the guy behind the counter was distracted, and I simply couldn't believe how nimble it felt.
I still get that feeling today - probably because I spend so much time fixing up broken vintage baritones - and I don't think I'd be far wrong in describing the feel of the baritone as being like a heavy tenor. Sure the keywork is more spread out, but rather than have to stretch your fingering position you merely have to widen it.

There's no sense that you're likely to fumble a note, or trip up over complex passages. Granted, you're never going to get the agility that you would from an alto or a tenor - but it's damned close call. And that low A mech is just a joy...so much so that you might find yourself going for it just for the hell of it. It never fails to impress.
Out of the factory the action is set quite heavy. It doesn't feel unnatural, but this is likely due to the expectation that a 6 kilo horn is going to be somewhat ponderous. But there's plenty of room for tweakery, and you might be surprised at how light the action can go before key bounce sets in (where the weight of the keys begins to overcome the spring tension).

Tonewise it's all you'd expect from Yamaha. Bright, crisp and clear with lots of body and an evenness of tone and tuning across the board. It also packs one hell of a punch.
In this respect it's very much a contemporary horn - and this has as much to do with it being a low A bari as it does with the design philosophy, and the inevitable tonal compromises that seem to come at the expense of more accurate tuning.
Yamaha YBS62 baritone sax bellBut let's face it, how many dedicated baritone soloists are there these days? Even in the heyday of jazz they were few and far between, and the vast majority of players seem to want a baritone that doesn't get lost in a section and that can kick low-end arse when needs be. But that's not to say that the Yamaha doesn't have poise and balance - it's there if you want it, and this isn't a horn that complains when you play it quietly.
It's also got plenty of 'bounce'. It's hard to express what this is - but with many bass instruments there's a tendency for the tone to 'fuzz' around the edges, leaving you with the impression of a sluggish response. When a note has bounce it's almost as if there's a percussiveness about it - a very definite start and finish. The Yamaha has bounce a-plenty - even a hardened bop altoist wouldn't find much to complain about.
If you're at all concerned that this bari will stick out like a C Melody at a funk gig when it comes to light ensemble work, simply do what most other bari players do and set yourself up with a pair of mouthpieces. One for the hard 'n heavy gigs and a more laid-back one for the lighter work. One for blow and one for show, as it were.

In terms of the competition the 62 doesn't have much to square up to. The most obvious choice would be the Yanagisawa 991. This is another well-built baritone - and in that sense both baris are very evenly matched. However, the keywork on the 62 is more advanced and refined - which makes a difference. Tonally the presentation on the 991 is more laid back, and while it perhaps doesn't have the bark and bite of the Yamaha it more than makes up for it with its richness and slightly warmer approach.
There are also a number of Mauriats to consider - and although it's been a while since I've had a Mauriat on the bench I'd still be concerned about the build quality of the action. The chances of finding precision on a bari are slim enough as it is, so you need all the help you can get.
And then there's the Keilwerth SX90. This would be an 'off Broadway ' choice, but not necessarily a bad one. At the very least it ought to be on the list.

Perhaps the strongest competition the 62 faces is from its sibling, the YBS32. You get the same keywork features and build quality, and you save around two grand. It doesn't have quite the depth of tone that the 62 has, but it's a very close thing...and careful mouthpiece choices would narrow that gap considerably, and quite possibly make it disappear altogether.

I said at the top of the review that this is possibly the definitive modern baritone. If you weren't a fan of how Yamaha's played you'd probably, and quite reasonably, say this was nonsense - but it takes more than one quality to make a horn definitive, and ultimately what you're looking for is a fine balance. I certainly take the tone into account, but also the action, the build quality, the playability...and the price.
Other horns might hit closer to the bullseye in other areas - for example, the playability of the Yanagisawa 9930 is astonishing...but then so is its price - but when the scores are totted up I reckon the YBS62 walks away with the prize.

All in all a very fine instrument indeed. If you're shopping for a top-line baritone and this one isn't on your list - get a new list.

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Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2017