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Adler Symphonie C soprano

Adler Symphonie C soprano reviewOrigin: Germany
Guide price: Not much
Weight: 0.73kg
Date of manufacture: Early 1900s? (Serial range 21xx)
Date reviewed: September 2018

A bit of a handful

Adler isn't a name you often hear associated with saxes - they're far more noted for their double-reed instruments - and yet it might surprise you to know that they dominated saxophone production in Germany for at least twenty years at the start of the 20th century. And they did so with a truly impressive range of horns. They built everything from the sopranino in Eb to the bass in Bb. And they did a bass in C. And a C Melody tenor. And both straight and curved sopranos. And, as in this example, a C soprano.
Back in the day they must have been chucking out horns left, right and centre - of all shapes and sizes - and yet I can easily count on the fingers of one hand the number of times one's crossed my workbench in 40 years (though if previous reviews of esoteric horns are anything to go by, I'll be knee-deep in the things by this time next year).

I could bang on at some length about the remarkable history of the Adler company, but in truth all I'd be doing is copying the info that can be found at Helen Kahlke's very excellent Bassic Sax site - and as my forté is examining the technical details of a horn rather than its historical aspects, I rather think (thankfully) that Helen does a far better job of it than me. Go have a read, it's a truly fascinating article - and has a very handy chart that details the differences between the various models they made. And boy did they make a lot of models.

I'm also not going to rattle on about the relative merits (or otherwise) of a C soprano as I've already covered that in my review of the Celeste back in 2013. Suffice to say it's as tricky a horn to build as it is to play, and the further back in time you go the trickier it gets - so let's pop it up on the bench and see what we can find...

The construction is ribbed, with the remaining standalone pillars fitted to adequately-sized bases. The main stack pillars look a little odd because they have very narrow heads. Now, I know that stack pillars usually have narrow heads (compared to the rest of the pillars on a horn) but these are way, way narrower - and put me in mind of the curious pillars found on the Pierret Competition alto.

Adler C soprano patchesAs you may have noticed, it's a single-piece body...well, almost. There's a soldered joint a couple of inches down from the tip, marked by a ring fitted to the body which, effectively, denotes the 'crook' section of the body. There are also a couple of blank plates up at the top of the horn. At first glance you'd think they were patches - placed on the horn to cover and seal a hole in the bore that got there by damage or wear. The upper patch fits the profile inasmuch as it's quite common for the body seam to split (typically through corrosion) in this area, but the lower patch is nowhere near any of the common areas that are likely to see such deterioration...and they both look like they were factory fitted.
So what gives? The easiest way to see what's going on is to look inside the bore - and yes, there are indeed holes under those patches. However, they're perfectly round - and as each patch is adjacent to an octave key pip I'd say that they were fitted when a change to the design of the keywork was made during the course of a production run. And because they're immediately adjacent to the existing octave key pips it's safe to rule out a change of position as a means of altering the tuning.
I'd be prepared to bet that they can't be many examples of these patched sopranos out there because I think it's hardly likely that Adler had stacks of C soprano bodies lying around, just waiting to be fitted with keys. Chances are they made them in small batches, or even quite possibly to order - and I'm willing to have a further bet that they first tweaked the design of the octave mech on the Bb soprano, and then copied that design over to the C. And this one got caught in the middle of that process. Makes sense to me.
And if you're thinking that the mouthpiece cork looks a little on the thick side, you're right - it is. More of which later...

As you might expect for horn of this age, the toneholes are all soldered on. As you might also expect, almost all of them were showing signs of selective galvanic corrosion - which means that the soldered joints had broken down and air was free to escape from the base of the toneholes.
The fix for this is to remove the toneholes, clean up the mating surfaces and then resolder them to the body. It's not a cheap fix, but as my remit on this job was only 'to get the horn going' I had to settle for using modern adhesives to get the job done - which worked quite well.
It's always worth bearing this in mind when looking to buy a horn with such toneholes, particularly as it's very often impossible to spot a leaky tonehole by eye.

As far as body features go there are just two - a static metal thumb hook and a small domed metal thumb rest. OK, three if you include a lyre holder. And that's yer lot. About all else I have to add is that the horn is finished in nickel plate.

Fortunately the keywork is a little more 'interesting', and has some features that are worthy of comment - the most obvious of which is the palm key arrangement.
Adler C soprano palm keysThere are four keys on the palm key stack (as opposed to the normal three), and the extra key is the E natural, which is usually operated by a key placed above the side Bb and C keys.
If you're wondering how such an arrangement would work, I think I can safely say 'not very well at all'. Some provision has been made to make the keys 'semi-automatic' inasmuch as the touchpieces are layered one atop the other. If you press the Eb key down, it opens the D...and so on up the stack. However, the ergonomics (which hadn't been invented at the time this horn was built) are somewhat lacking, which means that hitting the right key in a hurry is more down to luck than judgement.
With that said, I'm pretty sure that some time spent familiarising yourself with the layout would improve matters significantly....but I found it was much easier to think of the horn as being keyed only up to top D (top Eb at a pinch) and forgetting about the rest. The tuning gets a bit blue around there anyway.

Adler C soprano palm key barrelsThey're mounted inline, on a single rod screw, with interlocking barrels. What this means is that where two keys are next to each other on the same pivot, the barrel of one key will slide into the barrel of the other. It's a method of extending the barrel of a key that would otherwise be extremely short (or practically non-existent), and serves as a means of extending the bearing surface so as to prevent the key from becoming wobbly in short order. It's an expensive method of construction, and not terribly efficient in mechanical terms - and it can be fiddly to take up any wear and tear in the mechanism over the years. You're most likely to see it on older flutes and clarinets, but in general terms it's a largely obsolete feature these days.

Adler C soprano octave key mechThe octave key mech is quite simple - or rather, I should say, crude. When it's set up right it works just fine, but there's little or no room for error because the design of the mech has no allowance for even the merest hint of free play or misregulation. It's got to be bang on. All the time.
Pernickety mechs like this aren't uncommon on very old horns, and you can certainly do yourself a favour by eliminating as many variables as possible. This means getting the action nice and tight, using hardwearing buffers...and cork octave key pads. The latter is pretty much essential if you want to avoid the possibility of pad compression (and believe me, you do).
Once it's up and running though, it's surprisingly nimble...though that's undoubtedly because it's quite a compact mech. Similar mechs on old altos and tenors can feel bloody awful, what with all those big ol' lever arms flying about...and don't even get me started on the bari mechs.

And there's a really nasty gotcha on this mech. See the lower octave cup key? Its pivot screw is inserted from the right-hand side, which means its impossible to fit the key once the top stack has been fitted to the horn (access is completely blocked by the G key barrel). I have absolutely no idea why they did this, because it would make perfect sense to have the screw fit from the left hand side - thus requiring only the removal of the octave key touchpiece key to fit or remove it
Repairers generally assemble horns in a sequence. It varies, obviously, but I like to fit the octave mech after the top stack is fitted - so you can see how I got caught out right royally.
There's another nasty aspect to this arrangement, because when you're dealing with an unknown (and crude) octave mech, it's often the case that the only way you can ascertain the correct regulation is to assemble it sans corks and see what's required when the various keys are operated. This requires a fair amount of assembly and disassembly. To make matters worse, the top stack is all mounted on a single rod screw...which pulls out from the top of the horn. You can't just back the top stack screw out and ease the G key barrel to one side because when you pull that screw out, the entire top stack pings off the horn.
Adler C soprano G key springThe way around this particularly poxy piece of design is to insert a thin rod at the lower end of the stack as you withdraw the pivot rod, thus holding the stack keys more or less in place as the rod screw is withdrawn.

Note the spring on the G key. That's not an original fitting. The original spring is situated on the lower part of the (divided) barrel, down by the key cup.
Someone's soldered on an additional spring cradle (not very neatly either), and I'm not really sure why. Maybe the key was sluggish in operation (perhaps due to a bend) - but then it'd be easier to correct that issue rather than go to all the trouble of fitting a secondary spring. Perhaps a more logical explanation is that the pernickety octave key mech wasn't working properly, and someone fitted this spring to help take up all the free play instead of swedging the keywork to remove it. We'll never know...but once I'd tightened everything up, the mech worked fine without this spring engaged.

Adler C soprano G# and bell keysThe bell key table is pretty simple. Well, it would be, given that the horn is only keyed to low B and the G# is a single-piece key.
As with the palm key stack there are no concessions to ergonomics, and getting from the G# to the low C#/B requires a bit of dexterity on the part of your little (pinky) finger. It's not so bad once you get used to it, and it helps if you approach the horn as you would a clarinet...which, I appreciate, is not much use if you don't play the clarinet. On the upside, you can be sure that the G# will never fail to open just because the pad's got a bit sticky.

Note the point screw heads on the low B/C# keys. These are two of just four such screws on the entire instrument - the remaining pair being found at the other end of these two keys. I'd like to be able to add "They're proper point screws, naturally", but they're not...they're cylindrical points. I don't think I've seen this type of screw on such an old horn (or if I have, I've long since forgotten), and I'm wondering about the possibility that Adler invented them. If so, this is where the rot set in.

The lower stack features an Eb trill, and rather than opt for a separate cup key (and tonehole) round the back of the horn they've gone for the old doughnut pad on top of the D. If trilling is your thing it's a handy feature, but otherwise it simply adds a bit of clutter to the lower stack, a lot more height to the D key and a bit of clunkiness to the feel of the horn.

Adler C soprano padA quick mention about the pads. They need to be incredibly thin - thinner even than than the pads on the Couesnon GMN soprano I reviewed a few months ago. I would think this horn originally came with 'stuffed' pads - typically a white leather/kid 'bag' stuffed with loose wadding. These kind of pads are bloody awful, and if they work at all it's because all the wadding gets pushed towards the centre of the pad...which then protrudes into the tonehole. You obtain a seal in the same way that you'd seal a bottle up by stuffing a wadge of cloth into its neck. It does mean, however, that the effective thickness of the pads at the tonehole rim is little more than that of a piece of leather folded up on itself.
You'll be extremely lucky to find such thin pads off the shelf, and even rooting through my box of 'quirky pads' found nothing approaching the sort of thickness needed...so each pad had to be custom made. And you can forget about bending the cup arms to alter the cup angle...there's just no room to manoeuvre.

In the hands the horn feels understandably light - after all, it weighs practically nothing at all. The instrument's diminutive size (it measures just 53cm or 20 7/8 inches in length ) and simple design overcomes the crudity of the action for the most part, and with some careful tweaking of the springs the action borders on the sprightly. In other words it's all very manageable - at least until you get to the palm keys. Inline palm key touchpieces can be tricky at the best of times, and on a horn this small it can be something of a challenge to navigate your way around them with appropriate precision. The D and Eb aren't too difficult, but E is a bit of a struggle...and top F is, well, let's just say you might be better off pretending it's not there. I daresay a few weeks (months?) of practice will help you to find your way around this awkward key cluster.
Adler C soprano mouthpiece positionAs for the Eb trill, it works very well - if trilling between E and Eb is your bag. Other than that it's not much use at all, and as well as feeling that the raised D touchpiece rather spoils the linear feel of the rest of the stack keys, I found that the Eb tab would sometimes catch on the edge of my middle finger - which resulted in an unexpectedly dull and flat E.
As you'll no doubt have noticed, there are no key pearls - just slightly concave metal plates. These were very common on early horns as a means of keeping production costs down, and while they present no problems on a horn this small, they could often get a bit slippy on the larger ones. That said, they were unlikely to ever wear out.

About that thick mouthpiece cork. This is to allow for the use of a modern soprano mouthpiece - however, to get the horn to play in tune I found my ebonite Link needed to be pushed on so far as to foul the operation of the top octave key cup. A simple fix for this would be to turn off a little from the end of the mouthpiece shank, or simply file a chamfer on the shank where it contacts to the octave key. Better still would be to find a proper C soprano mouthpiece, as it's clear that the horn is designed for a smaller piece with a significantly narrower shank.

As I mentioned earlier, there was something about the tone that raised it above 'old banger' status - and now that it was in better shape it was possible to put the horn through its paces to see what it could really do. Tonewise it shares the appeal that most old and simple horns have inasmuch as it has a more of an ethereal quality than modern horns. It's purer, if you like. It's also noticeably warmer in its approach, which goes a long way towards limiting the tendency of such a small horn to become shrill and piercing. As such it's a surprisingly engaging instrument, but it doesn't deliver the goods on a plate - oh no, you have to put some effort into it. Perhaps the best description of it is that it's a bit of a tease. With such small keys, thin pads and a lightly-sprung action you can fairly whizz about on this horn - and the horn itself tempts you into treating it as something of a novelty or a curiosity. If approached in that manner it responds with an (albeit briefly) amusingly quacky tone and arbitrary tuning, but there's always a sense that there's something deeper behind the quirky facade - you just have to rein it in, slow it down and point it in the right direction.

Adler C soprano bellAnd keep in mind that you'll likely never quite tame it, because the tuning is always going to be (shall we say) temperamental on a horn this small, and you have the added burden of it being a vintage design.
Straight off the bat, mid C# is very, very flat - but you can get a good one by using the low C# fingering with the octave key on. The tone is surprisingly good for a 'fake' fingering.
As for the rest of the horn it's plusses and minuses (on the tuning meter), but well within what I'd expect for such a horn. It's perhaps not as good as you'd like, but it's not as bad as it could be - and spending some time getting used to its foibles will certainly pay dividends. I strongly suspect that significant improvements can be made with the right choice of mouthpiece. The thickness of the mouthpiece cork required to allow a modern soprano piece to be used is a pretty good indication that there's a volumetric mismatch going on - which is bound to make things a bit unpredictable.

Would I recommend this horn? I think if you've already got one, or you can pick one up for beer money, and you have a pressing need/desire for a vintage C soprano, then it might just about be worth the time and effort. It's a tricky call though, because its one advantage (its tone) is heavily overshadowed by its drawbacks - in particular the soldered-on toneholes, the rather crude action and the need for super-thin pads. And, of course, the tuning issues...though these will be more or less evident on any similar horn of the period. If you manage to find one it's likely to need a fair bit of work doing to it to bring it back into shape (some of which I've detailed in this Notes article)...and that won't be cheap, so bear that in mind when haggling over the asking price.

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Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2018