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Mexican Conn 12M 'Crossbar' baritone sax

Mexican Conn 12M baritone sax reviewOrigin: Mexico (Nogales)
Guide price: £900 (in fair condition)
Weight: 4.77Kg
Date of manufacture: Mid 1970s (Serial range: N76xxx)
Date reviewed: January 2018

It ain't that bad

Now here's a horn that seems like it's been around almost forever.
The Conn 12M has had a long and illustrious history that few other horns can match. Some of it's down to the sheer length of its production run, and some of it's down to the fact that there was never as much choice with baritones as there was with alto and tenors. But most of all it's down to it being a reliable, sturdy and very capable bit of a kit that was as popular with section players as it was with top-of-the-bill soloists. And this still holds true to this day.

It first 'officially' hit the market in 1935, along with the other legendary horns in the Artist series (10M, 6M etc.) - though prior to this there was what's known as the 'transitional period', when Conn were changing their existing lines and experimenting with features and finishes. This initial run came to and end in 1948 when the rolled toneholes were replaced with plain drawn ones. This run lasted until the late '60s - until various things happened with the company and production was shifted to Nogales, Mexico...which led to such horns being nicknamed 'Mexiconns'.
In very simple terms the timeline can be broken down into three categories; the Classic (with a capital C) period up to 1947, the classic period (small c) up to the mid to late '60s and the twilight years thereafter. Out in the real world this tends to mean that most 12M fans want Classic baris; many players are more than happy with classic models...and noses get progressively turned upwards the further away you get from 1947 and the closer to the '80s.

This isn't uncommon, and it isn't confined to Conn horns either - it's just the general sense that the longer something's in production, the more corners will be cut in an effort to keep costs down. It even affects quite modern horns, such as Yamaha's 62 series - and although, sadly, there's often some truth in it, it doesn't mean that a once-great horn has suddenly become a steaming pile of poo.
It's this notion that perhaps led to a little bit of skulduggery on this horn, whereby someone appears to have made an attempt to disguise its origins...possibly as a means of pushing its perceived value up. You can read all about it in the Benchlife Blog.

So just how good or bad is the Mexiconn 12M, and does it still have what it takes to bear the weighty mark of Conn?
In spite of its relatively modern build date the design of the horn is much as the same as it was back in the '40s. Thus we have single pillar (post to body) construction and no detachable body parts (apart from the crook, of course) or braces. The toneholes are plain drawn, the bell key guards are of the wire type, the thumb hook is static and the thumb rest is a flat metal plate.
The overall construction is quite sturdy, though the pillar bases are rather smaller than they ought to be - ditto the bell key guard brace feet. That said, everything appears to have been neatly fitted - and the coat of lacquer is surprisingly tough. I can't really comment on how level or otherwise the toneholes were from new, due to the amount of damage this horn's seen over the years.

Conn 12M 'crossbar' bell braceThe most distinguishing body feature - and the one that gives the 12M its nickname - is the X-style bell brace...otherwise known as the crossbar.
It wasn't a bad design back in the day, and was certainly a big step up from the simple single-rod braces that features on most horns of the period - but it still has the usual flaws associated with the type of braces that mount in line with the toneholes.
If the bell takes a whack (a pretty common occurrence with baritones) the brace gets pushed into the body and distorts the toneholes on either side of it. The crossbar benefits from having two mount points on the body, so the load is somewhat spread. However, the force is still in line with the toneholes (where the tube is weakest)...and this usually results in the body tube bending forward. This is exactly what had happened to this horn.

And when something like this happens there's a very good chance that a bar will need to be run down the bore of the body in order to straighten it out - and this will mean dismantling the body.
These days it's pretty easy, what with detachable bells and top bows (also known as the pigtail) - but you get no such luxuries on the Conn, and the body tubes will have to be de-soldered, along with one or other of the braces. And to be fair it's not a problem that's specific to the Conn - it's how most vintage baritones were built.
While we're on the subject of braces, the top bow brace doesn't provide as much stiffness as it ought to - and if you're heavy-handed when fitting or removing the crook you'll be putting quite a lot of strain on the bow. It's not going to fold up on you or fall to pieces but it'll certainly pay to be suitably careful. This is especially important on the very early models because the crook receiver is also rather weak.

On to the keywork now, and this is where you really run into the limitations of a vintage design.
Mexiconn 12M top stackThere's been a lot of innovation in action design down the years, but the 12M has almost none of it. It's not such a big deal on an alto or a tenor, but on something the size of a baritone the keys are that much larger and longer - and that means they're more likely to flex in use. This makes the action rather 'approximate' in feel (and certainly in precision), and there's really not a great deal you can do about it. However, it's not the worst I've seen - and as far as vintage baritones go it's actually pretty good in places. It at least workable. One thing's for sure, it'll definitely pay to ensure the action is as tight and as snug as it can be. It's one thing to have to deal with the inherent flex in the keywork, but quite another if the keys are able to wobble about on their pivots.

The top stack is mounted on a single rod and features a 'front loading' regulation bar. This differs from the usual design that places the bar at the rear of the stack, so that it's lifted by the key feet rather than pressed down by the key arms. Back in the day this would have been see as quite a modern feature, if only because everyone else was doing it differently. However, from a mechanical perspective it's not a very efficient design - and while it works quite well on modern sopranos, it doesn't really scale up to something the size of a baritone. It's also a complete pain in the arse to adjust as there's very little clearance once the key feet buffers have been fitted - and it's even more fiddly on the lower stack.
You need the patience of a saint to set up the stack keys on the 12M - not only do you have to battle with a fiddly regulation setup, you also have to make an allowance for the flex in the keys. You can get it pretty close if you do it 'by the book' (i.e. with leaklights and feelers), but for optimum results you're often better off throwing the book away and setting the regulation up by playtesting the horn.
If ever a horn needed regulation adjusters, this is it (along with every other vintage baritone). Unfortunately there's not a single one on the horn. Anywhere.

Mexiconn 12M bell key tableThe bell key table is fairly simple. I hesitate to call it crude because it's actually not that bad a layout, but it still has a few foibles.
The G# touchpiece is a little on the short side and its connection to the low C#/B keys makes the whole table feel rather cumbersome in use. You can improve matters with some careful tensioning of the springs and the right kind of buffers, but ultimately you're at the mercy of mechanical design. As such it's not at all uncommon to see 12Ms with the G# link disabled (usually by bending the link tab down). This means you lose the option of having the G# cup key open when any of the table key are pressed, but you gain very considerable lightness in the table's action.

There's also a lot of flex in the table, and this is as much down to the length of the keys as it is to the design.
They've tried to mitigate it somewhat by making the bell key lever barrels substantially thicker than the barrels on the rest of the horn, but it hasn't really worked.
Mexiconn 12M bell key leverThe 12M uses two-piece bell keys, which means there's a link between the levers and the cup keys. This adds yet more flex and friction - and although it's possible to set these up to run quite smoothly they're never going to be as slick as a single-piece key.
Arguments rage over the best method of buffering these keys - and whoever last worked on this bari has gone down the route of fitting a tube over the cup key arm. It's not a bad solution, but can be a little noisy...hence the small disc of rubber on the lever arm - which might help with the noise but does nothing for the friction.
Note the guide for the low C# lever arm at the bottom right of the shot - and the small screw that secures it to the pillar. It's very common for this screw to work its way out, and once the barrel is free to move...it will. This'll make the low C# action feel bloody awful, and just to add insult to injury it'll clank like an old dustbin.
The screw's easy enough to replace, but if you find yourself caught short you can poke a cocktail stick through the hole. It'll get you out of trouble, and you might be surprised at how long it lasts. It also pays to rub a spot of grease around the guide ball from time to time - it just helps to keep things slick and quiet.

Mexiconn 12M octave key mechAnd if you think that all looks a bit complicated, wait 'till you get a load of the octave key mechanism.
I've always been somewhat surprised that Conn left this mech the way it is. It would be something of a major feat of engineering to redesign the stack layout or the bell keys, but the octave key mech is a largely self-contained mechanism.
You have your two entry points for power (the thumb key and the G key foot) and your two exit point (the body and crook key cup) - but everything in the middle is entirely negotiable.
By far the biggest problem is that there are lots of sliding connectors, so you never quite get that 'switchlike' feel that a good octave mech has. The keys are also quite large, so there's a fair bit of spring in the action - and it's very difficult to regulate the two cup keys with any degree of precision.
It's also quite intolerant of any free play in the mechanism and is often the reason that 12M baritones end up in the workshop with complaints about stuffy notes in one octave or the other.
If you have a 12M and a few quid to spare, it's worth having this mech overhauled from time-to-time just to keep it sweet. Or as sweet as it can be.

By-the-by, remember what I said earlier about the lacquer being tough? I took this whole top bow off, disassembled it, fixed it and refitted it to the horn...and most of the lacquer survived the soldering process. Not bad.

The horn is fitted with proper point screws (lower inset, right), so there's scope for taking up any free play in the keys that pivot on them - but rather curiously there remains a single example of the old Conn shoulderless point screw (upper inset, right) with its accompanying locking screw. It's on the top E lower pillar, and I wasn't really sure why it was there.
I did wonder whether it was deliberate - perhaps to afford some extra adjustability to the top E key (which is prone to copping the odd whack) and as a means of preventing the side key rod screw from working its way out, but it seems like a lot of extra effort to go to for the sake of an uncommon problem.
And then I noticed that the pillar had clearly been resoldered at some point - and that the top E key was bare brass while all the other keys were nickel plated.

Conn point screw pillar with lock screwWhat's happened here is that the original pillar has fallen off at some point (I did say I thought the pillar bases were a bit on the mean side), and in so doing the top E key would have followed it. The side key lever would have stayed put due to being mounted on a rod screw. Someone managed to find a replacement top E key - either from a lacquered horn or, more likely, from a plated horn that had lost its finish (note the telltale pitting on the touchpiece arm). However, they didn't have a spare top E lower pillar - but they did have a G# upper pillar from an older model with the Conn locking point screws.
It's about the same height and has two heads...but would have been threaded to take two point screws. No problem...just drill out the lower head to take a rod screw.
This explains why the point screw is of the older type, and the lower head has a lock screw. Actually, neither of the lock screws were present - but it would have looked odd to fit one and not the other...and besides, it'll help prevent the rod screw from spinning out.
I just hope that whoever works on this horn next notices it when they come to remove the rod screw...otherwise my slightly OCD addition might end up as a feature on someone else's Black Museum page...

And here are the side keys. It's a pretty tortuous arrangement by modern standards. The Bb cup key shares the same pivot as the C lever arm (with the Bb lifted by a separate key) - and you can see that the C lever is split, with the connecting bar that bridges the upper and lower portions running beneath the Bb cup arm.
Mexiconn 12M side keysNote the staple-style sling ring. The ring is nice and beefy but I think the mount plate could have done with being half as big again. Just in case.

Wrapping up the action you get a set of stainless springs. These look to be original (as were the pads) but in some places it looked as though the springs were only just fitting into the spring cradles. The horn would have been built to take blued steel springs, which would have been tapered to a point - but the stainless springs are the same diameter all the way along their length. It's no big deal but it probably knocks a few percentage points off the slickness of the action (such as it has), and you have to be quite careful with regard to spring alignment.

The horn came with its original case, which looks like a cross between a coffin and a bobsleigh.
The best that can be said of it is that it keeps the rain off your sax and provides some space to stash all those crisp tenners you got for playing 72 choruses of Mustang Sally as a dep in a soul band on the Irish theme pub circuit. Other than that it offers scant protection to the horn, and you'd be extremely well advised to find a more modern replacement as soon as funds allow. It'll pay for itself time and time again, trust me on that.

In the hands the Conn feels surprisingly light and well-balanced. It's not especially heavy for a baritone, and neither is it as cumbersome as you might think. I'm sure Conn aficionados will claim that much of the 12M's success lies in its tone, but the weight of a horn and how it feels around your neck after a couple of hours is a surprisingly important factor when it comes to choosing a baritone. Despite the relative crudity of the action it's actually quite nimble. Sure, the flex in the keywork makes the action feel a little soft and bouncy - and some of the leverages are rather less than optimal - but it all comes together quite well to give you a very workmanlike performance. In its day it would have been cutting edge, and while it pales beside the tenor-like feel of a modern bari's action it's still a very long way from the worst that I've seen.
And there's a lot you can do to improve it. With a tight action and some intelligent buffering you can make a big difference to the feel - and it would certainly pay to whip out the original pads (which are quite soft and squishy) and go with something a little firmer...but not too firm, unless you're a glutton for punishment. In terms of ergonomics it does pretty well. I wouldn't say that it was all plain sailing, but I also wouldn't say there was anything you couldn't get used to. You've always got to accept that a baritone is always going to be more of stretch than an alto or a tenor, but the 12M doesn't feel especially big under the fingers. And if it does, there's quite a lot of scope for bending those long key arms into more agreeable positions. See your local friendly saxophone repairer for more details.

Tonewise the Conn shows its heritage. It doesn't have quite the same slap and a tickle of the older models, and I think some of you will know what I mean when I say it sounds a bit 'dry' - but it's still got quite a bit of punch down the lower end and a bit of glitter at the top. It also has much of the response that the older horns were noted for, and will go from a roar to a purr in an instant. It's a very lyrical horn - a solo singer against the backing-vocalist neutrality of modern horns - and as such it's remarkably playable. Just when you think you've nailed its tone, it pulls another trick out of the bag...and round you go again.
Mexiconn 12M bellThere's a nice growl to the notes too. It's not overbearing - it's just there in the background, a little bit of turbulence that adds a soulful twinge to the notes.
From a personal perspective it has a bit too much midrange boominess for me, and I don't mind admitting that when it comes to vintage baritones I tend to favour the Martin - but you may well like that fatness in the middle range (and why not).
It's easy to see (and hear) why the Conn Crossbar was such a popular baritone, because (to un-coin a phrase) it's a master of all trades and a jack of none. You get the sense it'll do anything - but it won't be a free ride...you'll be expected to work for it.

The tone is rather variable across the range. Some of this is down to the natural tendency of a baritone to get a bit nasal in the upper register, but there are a couple particularly tricky notes - namely the octave A and the mid/lower D. This is nothing unusual on older horns (and even a few modern ones), and the way around it is to play these notes to death until you've nailed the core tone. Being a popular horn, there are lots of articles on the web about tweaking and modifying the 12M to alleviate some of these issues - so if you find them particularly troubling, there may well be things you can have done which will improve matters.

Tuning's not too bad, at least when the horn (and the player) has warmed up. The very early models were, shall we say, rather feisty when it came to pitching the notes - and although this improved over the years (perhaps to the detriment of tone) even the very last models could throw the unwary player off balance. Fortunately, baritones tend to be rather accommodating providing you're willing to put the effort into finding the centre of the note - so it's by no means an impossible task.
That said, mouthpiece matching can be crucial, so it's well worth taking to time to explore what's out there - but as a starting piece the Yamaha 5C is very well behaved, and my Link 6* does a nice job. High baffled pieces are going to be challenging on this horn (though not impossible), but if you're trying to make the 12M sound more modern you might as well go the whole hog and get a modern horn.
And you might want to think very carefully before you point a tuner at this horn...because you'll only end up scaring yourself. Set the concert A, by all means - then throw the tuner back in the drawer and use your ears to do the rest of the work.

I think it's fair to say that the Mexican Conns in general have something of a chequered reputation, and while some of that is built on the tired old notion that if a horn's not made in a certain place, it won't sound any good - a great deal of it boils down to notable inconsistencies in build quality.
This isn't ideal when you're buying a new horn - but once a horn's been round the block a few times and needs a bit of sprucing up anyway, it's rather less of a concern...provided you bought it at 'the right price'.
It's clear to me (at least) that the Mexican 12M doesn't quite have the poise and grace of the older models - but there's rather less in it than you might imagine. A few corners have been cut and less time has been spent on the details, but the underlying design is a proven one...and still shines through. If I really had to put a figure on it I'd say it lacks that last 10% of glitter that the older models have...and that 90% of the time you won't notice it's not there.
And this particular horn has been through the wars. Heaven knows how many times it's been attacked with a dent ball or had toneholes reshaped and filed. It's got some history, but it still manages to put on a show. Sure - it doesn't have modern action but it doesn't take long to get used to its quirks, and it's not tonally as dialed-in as a modern bari...and you will need to steer the tuning. But against that it has a richness of tone that you'll be hard put to find on a modern horn and plenty of the sort of flexibility that's been bred out in the race to place accuracy of tuning above expressiveness.
With that said, the Mexican 12M sits in a precarious position in the marketplace. There's no shortage of older 12Ms, and there isn't always that much difference in price between the Classic, the classic and Mexiconn (assuming equal condition and excluding some of the rarer early examples) - and while the Mexiconn represents a good budget buy for someone who wants a taste of vintage goodness, it really isn't that much more of stretch to go for the 'real thing'.

 

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2018