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Melody Maker baritone saxophone

Origin: 'Foreign'
Guide price: Don't pay too much
Weight: Not light
Date of manufacture: 1970s
Date reviewed: Dec. 2016

Bargain basement bad bari

Melody Maker baritone saxAnyone familiar with the Melody Maker brand might well be thinking "Why the hell is anyone reviewing one of those old bangers?" - to which my answer would be "Well, why not?".
Although it's nice to review top-notch horns from the past and the present it's still quite entertaining to look at some of the 'also rans', if only to remind people that just because a horn is old it doesn't necessarily mean it's any good.

For those not familiar with the brand, here's a little history.
The Melody Maker range was cheap. Very cheap. Not quite as cheap as the much-reviled Parrot and Lark range, but still cheaper than the two main budget brands of the day (the Czech-built Cortons and the East German B&M Champions...both of which were sold under a variety of names). And that's about it.
No, really, that's about all I can tell you about these horns without descending into speculation...most of which surrounds where these horns were built and who sold them.

Some say they're Chinese, but it seems to me that the build quality is a bit too good when compared with what China was producing back then (the aforementioned Parrots and Larks). Others suggest that they might be European in origin...which could mean a Czech, East German, Italian or Romanian origin.
And then there's the Taiwanese option, though it would have been very early days for them.
There's also much confusion over the brand name. Were they a standalone brand (that anyone could sell) or were they a budget brand of a bigger name? There's some suggestion that they may have been a Selmer (London) brand...but they were already selling the cheap Pennsylvania, and it wouldn't have made much sense to sell another, cheaper brand.
I have some vague memories of seeing them advertised in a brochure in my youth, but even back then these kind of horns were rather off my radar.
Anyone who knows for sure where these horns came from and who sold them is more than welcome to write in and let me know.

Despite its low-rent status, this horn would actually have been quite a desirable piece of kit in its day.
Baritones weren't all that common, let alone low A versions - and choice at either end of the price spectrum was very limited. Many players found themselves virtually forced into buying a cheap baritone - simply because work they were doing demanded they have one, but there wasn't enough of it to justify shelling out for a hugely-expensive pro model. It's much the same today - the big difference being that there's an astonishing range of choice as well as a healthy secondhand market. I think it's also true to say that the baritone is rather more popular today, but this might just be because they're more affordable (let's face it...who doesn't want a bari?).
But yesterday's cheap is very different from today's cheap - so lets pop this beast on the bench and see just what you got (or didn't got) for the money...

The thing that's most evident on first sight is that this is unashamedly a Selmer copy. The characteristic bell brace ring is a dead giveaway, but much of the keywork follows the Selmer pattern. This perhaps explains the suggestion that these horns were sold by Selmer (London), and it also gave the Melody Maker a distinct advantage over the competition...which had proprietary (and often ungainly) keywork designs.

The body features a seemingly random mix of mod cons and throwbacks. For example, you get individual bell key guards mounted on nicely-sized stays...but none of them have adjustable bumper screws (just a decorative plastic key pearl), and there's no trouser guard. There's a comfy plastic thumb rest, but the thumb hook is small and non-adjustable - and there are no detachable body sections. If you needed access to the body tube for dentwork, either the bottom bow or the top bow joint would have to be unsoldered. This is a major disadvantage for a horn that's prone to taking a few (hefty) knocks.

Melody Maker spatsThe construction is pretty good - which is one of the reasons I don't think this is a Chinese horn. The pillar bases are reasonably-sized, the toneholes are neatly drawn and the soldering's nice and tidy. Early Chinese horns tend to be rather more slap-dash than this.
The Selmer-style bell brace is a bit of a weak point - the stay on the bell side is nice and large, but the body mount is rather small. Sure, it's big enough to resist being popped off in the event of a knock, but there's not enough surface area to spread the load of an impact. As you can just about see, this bari's taken a whack - look at how the light seems to curve around the base of the stay. The bell's taken a shunt and it's pushed the brace into the body tube. Fortunately it's only a small indentation, which means it's possible to work around it with a few tweaks here and there. A larger dent would need to be taken out...which is where detachable body joints really earn their keep.

The toneholes were all level, though it's quite possible they've been worked on down the years - though some roughness on the rims suggested that this was how they came out of the factory. However, they were also nice and round - and, again, that's something you don't often seen on old Chinese horns (or indeed on some modern ones).
Melody Maker thumbhookPerhaps the biggest quirk of the body design is the placement of the thumb hook.
It was originally fitted slightly to the right of where it's shown now - it's edge would have lined up with the point where the bare brass meets the lacquer. It was unbelievably uncomfortable in that position - so much so that it almost lined up with the base of the thumb rather than the knuckle. I can't think why they would have put it there, other than to accommodate a player with extremely small hands - but with hands that small they'd never have been able to reach the low C/Eb keys.
I moved it over to the left a way - I'd have like to have moved it further, but it seems to have been designed to work only at a particular angle, and the client didn't want to shell out to have a modern adjustable one fitted.

One final note about the body - the lacquer's in pretty good nick, and as you can see from the solder job, it's pretty tough stuff. This too would tend to suggest it's not an early Chinese horn. If it is, then somewhere along the line they've lost the recipe for decent lacquer...and someone ought to go find it again. The nickel plating on the keywork was similarly robust.

On to the keywork now, and this too was reasonably well-built. In fact in places it was rather good. It was also quite sturdy. Early Chinese horns are renowned for their butter-like keywork - and I've often wondered how on earth they managed to find a brass alloy that was so soft.
No such problems on this horn - and while I wouldn't say the keywork was super-strong, it certainly wasn't going to bend without a concerted effort. It was, however, rather springy...which would prove to be the cause of a few problems later on.

Melody Maker octave mechThe octave mech features a Selmer-style swivel, and was surprisingly well made. It had some wear and tear on show, but even in this state it was at least as slick as many mechs I've seen on brand new budget horns. No complaints there.
And although the body tubes aren't detachable they've at least put a removable brace between the body and the crook socket - which means that should you ever need to take the top bow off there'll be one less soldering job needed. It's a small victory, and one rendered slightly academic by virtue of the central bow brace (just visible in the centre of the shot, behind the thumb key's upper pillar) being soldered at each end rather than being fitted with a screw in its top.

And can you spot the deliberate mistake...or at least the glaring omission?
A big problem for baritone players is the amount of moisture that collects in the top bow. If left to build up it results in a curious burbling tone - which tends to be rather distracting (if faintly amusing for listeners). This is why baritones are fitted with a water key (or spit key/valve) on the bottom of the bow...but not this one.
This is a rather large drawback, because when (and not if) the burbling starts, you're going to have to remove the crook and tip the whole horn end-up to remove the water. This'll get tedious very quickly - and the only way to sort it is to have a water key fitted.

Although the layout of the action is modern - with the Bis Bb mounted separately from the top stack, and the G# on its own pivot - there are few bells and whistles. There's not a single adjuster on the horn...not one, not even for the G#/Bis Bb.
This isn't much of an issue for the player, but for the unfortunate repairer it's a proper in the arse...especially given the flex in the keywork.
Another thing that doesn't help is the use of parallel point screws. None of them were a particularly good fit (and it's unlikely that it's down to wear and tear) which meant that quite a few of the keys were, shall we say, a touch on the wobbly side.
This is always going to be a problem - but on a large horn with keys that tend to flex, it's a big problem.
On a brighter note, the action's sprung with stainless springs, all of which seemed to have withstood the test of time.

The low A mech is a fairly simple affair, with a large (and comfortable) thumb key that connects to a lever on the low A key that arches over the top of the upper key stack. Its not a great design because it maximises the effect of flex in the keywork - which lends the mech a very spongy feel.
It's also not very slick, but this is largely due to what happens at the other end (as we'll see shortly) and because the link between the thumb key and the low A is just a simple sliding affair (modern versions of this design incorporate a roller, which makes things a bit smoother).
Some Teflon tube and a spot of silicone grease is about all you can do to keep things moving sweetly.

Melody Maker side C keyThe side Bb and C keys are worth a mention, if only because there's a geek-related point that's worth making.
Both key cups are spring closed and have unsprung lever keys to open them (not an uncommon design). I've tinted the side C lever key in red, and you can see where the tip of the key rests on a stub off the side C cup key...and to the lower right you can see the regulation foot for the lever key.
When the side C key is pressed, the tip of the lever key pushes down on the cup key and raises it...and when the side C key is released, the cup key closes under the force of its own spring and pushes the tip of the lever key back up.
At this point the lever key is free to rattle about in the wind...which is why it needs a foot with a piece of cork or felt on it to prevent it doing so.
If the cork is too thin the lever key will still be able to rattle (and you might feel an occasional thunk when pressing the side C key) - but if the cork is too thick it'll prevent the side C cup key from closing properly...which will mean you have a leak.
So it's all got to be quite well regulated.
However, when you've got a bit of free play in the action, and when you're dealing with large keys that have quite a lot of flex in them, you have to make an allowance for it...otherwise there's a good chance the key cup will end up being held open. So you have to put up with a bit of free play in the mechanism..which means the mech is always going to rattle eventually.
And it's also got a couple of weaknesses built in. The first is that the pad, which is sprung closed, will settle over time. This will raise the stub and thus push the lever key up. If there's no allowance for this in the lever key, it'll lead to a leak. The second is that this group of side keys often takes quite a bit of bashing...either through 'exuberant' playing or simply because many players will grab the horn around this area, which can lead to some slight bending of the keys that might throw the regulation out.
The point to take away from all of this is that if your horn has this kind of mech it's as well to be aware of these potential issues...because a leaky side Bb or C key will stop a horn dead in its tracks.

Speaking of leaks, setting up the bell keys was something of a chore.
When you press, say, the low B key, the pad comes down and seats (hopefully) on the tonehole. However, because the key is so long, the barrel will always tend to flex slightly (this is true of any horn) - but the amount of flex will depend on the stiffness of the key and its length. A long, springy key will flex quite a bit...which is what it did. This cause the pad to lift at the rear...so it leaks..so you press the key harder...which causes it to flex more...which causes it to leak more...so you press - well, you get the picture. And then there's the play in the point screws...so you have the key flexing and lifting the pad, and then the whole key shifts on its pivots, which lifts the pad still further. It's bloody nightmare.
Melody Maker bell keysNow times that by three...because at some point you've got to get the low B, the low Bb and the low A all closing at once...and they're all flexing, and they're all mounted on wobbly pivots. And then it gets a little bit worse, because the means of regulation between these three keys are these three arms...and they're as springy as the rest of the keywork.
The low B/Bb gets a little help from the (tilting) table mech, as there's a small regulation tab between the two touchpieces, but it still isn't enough to overcome all the problems in the keywork.
Fortunately, though, baritones aren't terribly demanding when it comes to the low notes - and provided you don't mind using the old 'gorilla grip' you'd be surprised at how badly one has to leak before you get no bell notes at all.

It's all a bit disappointing, because the action on the rod screw keys was pretty good. A few needed a bit of swedging to take up wear and tear, but on the whole the keys were at least as well fitted as on any modern student horn. As for the padding, the best that I can say about it is that it's indifferent. What original pads remained were quite soft and squidgy - which is very likely how they were from new. On a horn like this it's not such a bad thing - if you're having to accommodate some flex in the keywork the very last thing you need is firm pads.

Under the fingers the Melody Maker didn't feel too bad. I wouldn't go so far as to say it was clunky because where the keywork was nice and tight (on the main stacks) it felt rather slick - rather better, in fact than the action on a Corton or a B&M Champion. Of course, the play in the point screws detracts from that - and the flex in the larger keys detracts from it still further, but it wasn't the worst I've handled.
The layout's not too bad. There's more than a nod to the Selmer layout, and aside from the awkward placement of the thumb hook, everything seems to be where it ought to be.

Tonewise it's a bit all over the place.
There's a distinct change in the response as you go up and down the range, and the mid D's rather on the stuffy side.
If you were hoping to use this horn in a laid-back solo setting you're probably going to have a bit of a fight on your hands - but if you're part of a section or just pumping out some grunty R 'n B, you'll be fine. Just use a nice, bright mouthpiece and all will be well.
If all you need to do is belt out the odd low A, or perhaps noodle around in the lower octave...interspersed with the occasional blarty solo, this bari will do the job. For anything that requires a bit more finesse I think you'll find it rapidly displays its humble origins.

As for the tuning...
Well, on the whole it's not too bad. You'd be quite hard put to make a baritone that's noticeably out of tune because there's such a lot of leeway when it comes to 'placing' the notes - unlike, say, with a soprano...where you really do have to hit each note bang on. If a baritone has any tuning problems you're likely to find them up at the top end of the horn - and in this respect the Melody Maker doesn't disappoint.
You may have noticed that although this baritone is keyed down to low A, there's no top F# key. If that means you're about to cross this horn off your list (though I can't imagine it would still be on anyone's list at this point), stay your hand...because it does have a top F#.
Yep - there's a top F#. There's no top F though...it goes straight from a (slightly sharp) top E to a very, very sharp F. And it doesn't matter what fingering you use...the top F comes out as an F#. Given that the rest of the horn is, more or less, fine, I'd say they simply bunged the top F tonehole in the wrong spot.
I mentioned it to the owner who, with the stoicism typical of baritone players said "Oh, that's not a problem...if I wanted to play up that high I'd use my tenor".
But for those of you who have one of these horns and want an in-tune top F, it shouldn't be to hard to flatten the note with the aid of a carefully sized and placed crescent in the top F tonehole. It's very accessible...and if you're lucky you might even be able to fit a rudimentary one made from Blu-Tack without removing the key.

Melody Maker baritone logoWhen all is said and done the poor old Melody Maker has to get the old thumbs down. The build quality isn't truly awful, the design is a bit quirky but essentially sound, the keywork is largely OK - though the bell keys (at least) would need some attention...and it all seems to come together well enough to make a recognisably baritone sound. However, it's not an even blow and the tuning at the top is AWOL - and chances are you'd have to spend a fair amount of cash just to get it working this well. It's just about feasible if you can find one for a couple of hundred quid...but beyond that you'll be better off going for one of the Czech or East German horns...or modern Chinese.

And so it's back to that opening question - why even bother reviewing it in the first place?
Well, for one it's as well to know what to buy as what not to buy...or at least what not to pay too much for - but it's also interesting to compare this old banger to its modern counterpart; namely the Ultra Cheap Chinese baritone.

I often see Ultra Cheap horns getting a good kicking on various forums and suchlike, and I think that perhaps a lot of people have either forgotten about or are completely unaware of what a cheap horn was like back in the '70s.
Cheap horns back then weren't particularly cheap. I don't know what this one used to sell for, but I'm willing to bet it wasn't much cheaper than a Czech-built Corton that would have set you back almost two grand in the early '80s. And these horns weren't just cheaply made - they were also cheaply designed.
A modern Ultra Cheap horn is also cheaply made....but because almost all of them are copies, they have a very significant advantage in terms of key layout and tonehole placement. So while this old Melody Maker might achieve, say, 50 or 60% of the performance of a decent bari - the Chinese models can often push the 90% mark. And for around a grand. That's, essentially, twice as good for half the price.

So if you're offered one of these baritones - don't buy it, unless the price makes it too good to pass up. Keep your expectations (and your notes) low and your mouthpiece bright...and it'll make for a cheap 'n cheerful knockabout horn. But if you want something you can actually use, get yourself a modern Chinese baritone.

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