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Boosey & Co. Ltd 'The Regent' soprano saxophone

Boosey & Co soprano saxophoneOrigin: UK
Guide price: No data
Weight: Not a lot
Date of manufacture: 1930 (27xxx)
Date reviewed: February 2014

A rare little horn that's packed full of surprises

Regular readers of my reviews will know that I'm a sucker for a curiosity - and despite having been in this business for more years than I care to remember, I'm still just as thrilled as I ever was when I come across something new...especially if it's old, and good. And rare.
So when it's all of these things, and it's also built on home soil here in the UK (something of a rarity in itself for a sax), it really presses all the switches.

As a brand, Boosey & Hawkes enjoyed a significant presence in the marketplace - particularly with their range of clarinets. For many years the Symphony 1010 was the professional's clarinet of choice, usurped only by the Buffet R13...and then (perhaps) only because the Boosey & Hawkes brand ceased to exist. They did OK too with their budget range of flutes - though admittedly this was more due to lack of competition than quality, but saxes never really featured in the company's home-grown repertoire...and as far as I'm aware most, if not all, of their saxes were stencilled models.
But before Boosey got hitched to Hawkes, both companies were doing pretty well with their own lines - with Hawkes, in particular, having some success with their 'Double Century' range of saxes. These are not uncommon - in fact I've reviewed one here - and unwary buyers are still getting caught out by the old high-pitched Hawkes Excelsiors that turn up from time to time.
Boosey & Co had other interests, but are perhaps less well-known as a saxophone manufacturer - though there are some clear links to other manufacturers, especially in France.

What really surprises me is that I haven't come across one of these sopranos before.
Now, I've probably said that about any number of vintage lovelies (such as the Couesnons and the Pierrets), but these are 'foreign' horns - and their rarity is often down to the simple fact that they were never really retailed over here. But Boosey was British company - and their horns ought to be turning up at least as often as the Hawkes & Son models.
It's a bit of a mystery, and one that I'll touch upon a little later - but in the meantime let's have a look at this lovely little soprano...

It's quite an elegant little horn - for a soprano, at least. The relatively simple design coupled with the art deco curved touchpieces against the backdrop of a matt silverplated finish just seems to work. It looks 'approachable', tactile, friendly - which are adjectives you'll not often hear thrown at modern sopranos.
The design of the body is straightforward enough - it's a single-piece tube with drawn and rolled tone holes (and mostly level ones at that) aside from the palm key and side Bb/C tone holes, which although drawn are not rolled. I didn't think it particularly unusual that the palm key tone holes weren't rolled, but I was bit surprised that the side Bb/C ones weren't - given that they're no smaller that the Bis Bb tone hole, which is rolled. I had a good look at them to see if there was any evidence that the roll had been filed off, but there didn't appear to be any - so I can only assume there was a manufacturing difficulty which meant it was easier to leave these tone holes plain.

Typically for a horn of this era, the pillars are all standalone save for the side Bb/C keys, which are mounted on saddles (a pair of pillars sharing a single base).
They're all very neat and tidy, and well-fitted too. There are few bells and whistles when it comes to fact there aren't any at all. You get a fixed thumb hook, a metal thumb rest and a lyre holder - and that's your lot. There's no sling ring - because this horn was made in the days when sax players stood up straight and had proper backbones...and anyone who couldn't heft a soprano would have been debagged and sent to Coventry.

The body is finished in matt sliver plate. I'm not that keen on silver as a finish, but matt tends to look easier on the eye than shiny - but it's a sod to keep clean. The tarnish really gets into the 'pores', and keeping a matt silver horn looking tidy can be a real labour of love.
I suspect the interior of the bell has, or had at one time, a gold wash. It's a bit hard to tell because either it's a very thin wash (probably through wear and tear) or it's just plain brass. It looked a little bit too shiny to be plain brass, and I suppose it's just possible that it might have been a shiny silver wash that's just about on its last legs.

Boosey soprano octave mechanismThe keywork is where things start to get really interesting.
The most obvious feature is the black key pearls. At first sight I thought them to be replacements, but the owner of the horn told me they were completely original - and I've since heard that other Boosey & Co saxes were fitted with the same type of pearls. I thought they might have been ebonite, but I rather suspect they're some kind of plastic because they're extraordinarily susceptible to heat - far more so than ebonite is. Even the briefest play of the flame from my Bunsen burner is enough to set them a-cookin' - so much so that getting the pad cups hot enough to melt the white shellac holding the pads in proved to be nigh on impossible.
I have a sneaking suspicion that these pearls would have been fitted after the pads had been set - and a close examination shows that they're not crimped in place.
The trouble is, they're quite firmly glued in place...and probably with a heat-soluble glue, so removing them (which would probably be very wise if new pads were to be fitted) would mean tearing the pad out as best as possible and heating the cup from beneath. I doubt a hot air gun would be any more successful either.

Being a vintage sax means there's a vintage octave key mechanism, and I always feel a slightly morbid sense of delight whenever I come across one of these. Some of them can be astonishingly complex - and figuring out quite how they're supposed to work can sometimes be what Sherlock Holmes might have referred to as a 'three pipe problem'.
Fortunately the octave key mechanism on the Boosey soprano is relatively simple - and, it has to be said, surprisingly slick and efficient. The thumb rest, though small and not overly rounded, is nonetheless comfortable - and the teardrop touchpiece is too...though years of playing modern sopranos meant my thumb sometimes wandered off to the right hand side, and missed the touchpiece altogether.

Boosey soprano sax spatula keysMuch of the rest of the action looks pretty standard for the period - and where point screws have been used, they're proper points.
The main stacks are exactly as you'd expect; there's a Bis Bb key and an arm extending off the Aux. F key cup for the articulated G# (though the G# touchpiece isn't linked to the bell keys, as per a modern horn).
Some of the touchpieces look a little quaint - the side trills in particular, though on a horn of this size they're still quite effective.
The bell key spatulas are fairly plain, though the addition of a pair of rollers helps to keep things reasonably slick.
The keys work quite well, but as with the side trill touchpieces this is more because of their relatively small size rather than their design.
There's a fair old gap between the G# touchpiece and the rest of the table - but then this horn was made way back when sax players had big hands, and anyone with small fingers would have been debagged...etc etc.

Boosey soprano sax palm keysIt's up at the palm keys where the real surprise is to be found - and this comes to you courtesy of a patent mechanism designed by a Mr C S Macdonald, details of which can be found here.
I tend to view such gadgetry with a cautious eye, especially when fitted to a vintage horn. Time itself tends to be a great leveller, and the world of saxophones (and other musical instruments) is littered with oddities and oddball designs that popped up on one model and then disappeared on the next...never to be heard of again. There's usually a very good reason why this happens.

Which is all well and good, but what does it actually do?
Well, for a start it makes the top stack a right sod to regulate. Nothing knackers the already questionable accuracy of a sax's mechanism than the addition of a few levers buffered with strips of cork. In terms of playing, though, the idea of the mechanism seems to be to allow a trill between C# and D to be played in the middle and top octaves.
On its own that doesn't doesn't sound particularly useful, but as with many of these patent mechs there are always a few 'extras' - and here's what I was able to a determine with a bit (a lot) of fiddling about...

First up, the layout: D is the middle key, Eb is top, F is the lowest. The F key opens all the palm keys at once.

The fingering is slightly unusual - the left forefinger is used to play the D, though the position of the touchpiece is such that the touchpiece hits the finger between the base and the first joint rather than right on the first joint. For the Eb you need to roll the forefinger up rather than across the horn - and for the F you'll be lucky if you can get any finger at all to hit the touchpiece, and I found that it naturally falls on the fleshy part of the palm between base of the second and third fingers. It sounds a bit messy, but after playing the horn for half an hour or so I found I was able to get around the palm key notes relatively easily. I wouldn't say it was a slick layout though.

Note the key barrel that runs across the top of the photo (above), and, where it terminates at a pillar, the lever that runs over to the palm key cups. This is the side top E key, which opens the palm D, Eb and E pads together - which makes it possible to trill between top C# and E simply by pressing the side top E key. And this seems to be the 'meat and potatoes' of the patent...that pressing any single palm key will open that key and any other below it.

Boosey soprano sax D mechAnd then there's the key that runs up from the low/mid D to the top D.
As you can see, it's a bit of a tortuous path; there's a lever which sits over the foot of the low D key, which runs up to another lever above the thumb rest, which in turn connects to another lever which takes the power up to another connection that links it all to the palm keys.

These are all the 'legit' fingerings the mech allows. At a (small) pinch you can trill between C and Eb - but because the C key holds the D and Eb pads down, the Eb tends to come out as a sort of 'hint' of the note. It's just about passable if played very fast.

It's all very complicated, and I can't in all honest say that it adds anything to the feel of the action.
I've never seen anything like it before, and it leaves me wondering what on earth could have possessed someone to design such a mech...and persuade someone to actually put it on a horn.
I guess, as with the rear Eb trill that's often seen on vintage horns, it's a mechanism that would have been seen to have been useful when playing the popular music of the day. As this would have been in the 1930s it would have meant that lots of trills were required. I can't stand trilling, so I'd be inclined to whip those levers off (and put them somewhere safe in case I decided to sell the horn).

Boosey soprano sax compound keyAnd as if that wasn't enough, the keywork had yet another surprise up its sleeve....compound keys.
The way in which they work is pretty simple. You have two keys (the low B and the low Bb), and on some saxes (mostly older ones) they're mounted on a single rod screw. The low B is a standard key...with the touchpiece connected to the key barrel at one end and the key cup at the other. In order to get power to the low Bb the touchpiece is connected to an additional (solid) rod that runs parallel to the low B key barrel and connects to the low Bb touchpiece. It's not a very elegant arrangement and it makes for a very clunky feel when it wears - which is why modern horns tend to have their bell keys mounted individually.
The compound key, however, uses the pivot screw itself to transfer power from the touchpiece at one end to the key cup at the other...and this is done by locking a touchpiece and a key cup of one of the keys to the pivot screw (the low Bb, in this case).
When you press the low B, it pivots on the rod screw...just like most of the keys on your horn - but when you press the low Bb, it rotates the pivot screw, which in turn bring the low Bb key cup down.
The advantage of this mechanism is that it reduces weight and clutter - but it's costly to implement and it's not as robust as the more traditional mechanism. If you bend the traditional mech it'll probably still work (after a fashion), but if you bend a compound key, that's it...everything stops. It can also be prone to wear where the pins go through the key barrel...but this is easy enough to fix (fit bigger pins).
It's also worth bearing in mind that compound pivot screws are liable to snap should they require straightening...because of the holes drilled though the pivots.
They're very common on flutes and harmony clarinets...but I've never seen one on a saxophone before.

One final point of note with regard to the keywork. Having dismantled the keywork, perhaps with a view to cleaning and oiling it, you'll soon find out that this is one of those 'arsey' horns on which the top stack has to be reassembled in a very particular non-standard order. Failure to do so will leave you holding the last key of the group...with the realisation that you'll have to take the whole lot apart again to get it on. Been there, done that.

Once the keywork is back on the horn you'll find that it feels quite good under the fingers. To be fair, sopranos usually do - even when the mechanism's less than wonderful.
No such problems with this horn - it's as slick as you like, though rather let down by what look to be the original pads...which were soft, squishy and rather the worse for wear (it only came in for a 'get it going to try it out' job). Even the top stack, with its extra levers, didn't fare too badly - and with some decent, firm pads and some tightening up of the lever action I'm sure it could be even better.
In terms of layout it's quite comfortable - everything's where it ought to be, though as mentioned earlier the palm keys take a bit of getting used to.

The side Bb/C/E touchpieces are nice, being more like those found on a clarinet - just much larger. As mentioned earlier, the octave key felt quite comfortable and responsive - except when going for the palm key notes. The unusual layout had me twisting my hand somewhat, and that's where a touchpiece that extends around the thumbrest would really be useful.

And how does it play?
Well that's where things really, really get interesting.
Tonewise this horn is a giant killer - and I don't say that lightly. There's something almost alto-like about the timbre - it's rich, it's deep, but it avoids being overblown or 'quacky' like many sopranos. It has a certain softness to the tone too - though some of that, admittedly, is going to be down to the type and state of the pads. Nevertheless, this is never going to be a bright horn - but that's not to say it doesn't have a bit of sparkle. It does, but it's almost like it's focussed on the midrange rather than the upper harmonics.
If I were to say it had a very valve-like response I'm pretty sure quite a few hi-fi buffs would understand precisely what I mean.
I've never disguised the fact that the soprano (and those above) is my least favourite sax, but I really enjoyed playing this little beauty. It had that 'head down, half past midnight, smoky 50s jazz dive ballad' feel to it.
And that's coming from someone whose preference is for horns with a splash of brightness and edge. I've played many sopranos that have had that warm thing going on, but somehow it was never enough - never so all-encompassing as to really give you that sense of hot chocolate on a frosty day. It's a horn that stops you in your tracks and makes you go "Ooh yeah".
To that end I feel that anyone planning to overhaul one of these horns should think very carefully about the choice of pads. I've no doubt that fewer leaks and firmer pads would brighten things up, but I'd want to preserve that smokiness as much as possible. That probably means reflectors are out, and white kid (or roo) pads are in.

The tuning's not bad either, and for a vintage soprano that's really saying something.
Yes, there are places where you need to give it a bit of lip - but it's by no means excessive, and the horn responds very well. It's definitely not a horn you have to struggle to live with.

Boosey soprano sax stampAs I said earlier, the rarity of this horn is a bit of a puzzle. I could understand it if it were an alto or a tenor - you can build a one-off model using parts from standard models, and with the clear association between Boosey & Co and Hawkes & Son I doubt there would have been any problems with Boosey sourcing the necessary parts from Hawkes. But a soprano would require the manufacture of a specific set of pillars and keys, and that's a hell of a lot of work for a one-off horn. Perhaps this was a prototype then - but the playability of the horn more than proves that it works. Sure, the patent palm key mech is a bit of a strange brew - but it would have been a relatively simple job to have swapped it out for a more standard set of keys.
And what of the name - 'The Regent'? This was subsequently used as Boosey & Hawkes student-level brand name, with the Edgware being the next model up followed by the Emperor, the Imperial and the Symphony. I don't recall seeing the Regent brand on anything else this early (though I could be wrong), and perhaps this was the very first Regent.
So what happened?
Well, the serial number dates it to 1930, which is about the time of the merger - so perhaps it was developed beforehand and subsequently abandoned when plans were drawn up for the new Boosey & Hawkes range, or perhaps it was decided that it was more cost-effective to concentrate on brass and classical woodwinds, and bring in stencilled saxes.

Also, it's often been suggested that Boosey & Co never made any saxes and those that bear the company's name were probably made for them by other companies, including Hawkes & Son. It's certainly true to say that after the merger, the new company continued to use the Hawkes serial numbers - and still turned out instruments under the Boosey & Co brand until around 1932.
I did consider that it might have been a Kohlert stencil - there are clear connections between Boosey & Hawkes and Kohlert, though these didn't seem to bear fruit until much later - but the horn is quite clearly stamped 'British Throughout'. Or perhaps it's not as rare as I think it is, and someone out there is about to write to me to tell me that they've got 750 of the things sitting in a basement in Preston...

All-in-all I'd say this horn presents a double whammy - on the one hand there's the rarity value coupled with a build quality that matches any of the better-known American brands of the era, and one the other hand there's the sheer playability and tonal interest of the horn.
But more than that, it raises the question as to why British saxes were never that prominent in the marketplace. Here we have a truly excellent example from the workbench of Boosey & Co - and their soon-to-be partner, Hawkes & Son, were turning out the equally commendable XX Century. When the two companies merged they quite clearly would have had the knowledge and experience to go on to greater things. But it didn't happen - at least not for their saxophones.
I can't help but wonder what might have been, and had things been ever so slightly different we might now be speaking of their horns in the same reverential tones as we use for the likes of the Conn 6M or the Martin Handcraft.
And what are your chances of finding one of these sopranos? Pretty slim, I'd say - and it would be a real shame if this is the only example. If it is, however, you'll be unlikely to ever get your hands on it...I told the owner to never, ever sell it.

Boosey &Co soprano sax 26xxxAddendum: March 2017

As the saying goes - you wait all day for a bus and then three turn up at once.
Having said that your chances of finding one of these sopranos is pretty slim, I was amused to find that just a few days after this example arrived on the workbench, I spotted yet another on ebay. Typical.
This is an earlier model, bearing a 26xxx serial number - and there a number of differences, the most significant of which is that the toneholes aren't drawn and rolled - they're soft-soldered on...and the G# tonehole is placed round the back of the tube (though it's still articulated). The more minor changes are that the 'Regent' model name is nowhere to be seen, the Macdonald patent mechanism isn't fitted and neither is the lyre socket.

Boosey & co soprano sax 26xxx G sharpRather curiously, the one on ebay is a slightly later example (27xxx) and is identical to this for plain spatula keys. Yep, that's right - no rollers on the low C/Eb and bell keys. It's a distinctly retrograde step, and given that they're fitted to the 29xxx model reviewed above, I suspect that it quickly became quite clear that the players didn't like it. Similarly, the ebay model has no low F# trill key...which reappeared on the later model.
I'm not really sure why they'd make such changes. I suppose you could argue that rollers are largely unnecessary on a soprano, and that the F# trill is hardly the most well-used key - so maybe they were just trying to make it all a bit sleeker. Or maybe they were simply trying to cut costs. We may never know for sure.

But the big question is, does this earlier example play like the later model?
Well yes, it does.
Without having both horns to compare directly I can't really give a blow-for-blow account, but it's all there - the warmth, the smokiness, the alto-like quality. I figured a new set of pads with (flat) reflectors would brighten up the sound somewhat, but I can't say that I really noticed it. It seems pretty clear that the body tube is essentially the same, give or take the position of one or two toneholes - and I guess it's akin to modern brands that sometimes feature a pair of identical horns save for the fact that one has a top F# and the other doesn't.

However, if you're interested in acquiring one of these horns my recommendation is to hold out for the later model with rolled toneholes.
This isn't from a tonal perspective - it's purely from a practical one. Soldered toneholes are prone to selective galvanic corrosion - which means the solder securing them to the body breaks down over the years. This leads to leaks. They're quite hard to spot, and reasonably expensive to fix.
Boosey & Co soprano sax 26xxx toneholesIt's a problem that particularly affects old Martins, but the important difference is that the toneholes on the Martins are far more substantial that those on this soprano. In other words, the problem is likely to be more acute. With such little surface area between the body and the tonehole the corrosion will advance that much more quickly, and the leaks are likely to be larger.
And should the soprano take a knock and require a bit of straightening and/or dentwork, there's a very good chance that some of the toneholes will simply ping off and bop you on the nose (ask me how I know).
This example needed more than a dozen toneholes resoldered.

By-the-by, I figured out how to overcome the problem of dealing with the almost-flammable key pearls. It became clear that it wasn't going to be easy to remove them, and then I remembered that I have a pot of 'instant jig' on the soldering bench. Instant jig is a sort of heat-resistant fibrous putty. You wet it, mould it into shape and use it to support delicate items when soldering. It also doubles up as a pretty effective heat sink. So I squished a blob of the jig over each pearl prior to heating the key cup...and it all went without a hitch.
If I sound smug, it's because I am...particularly because I noticed the ebay horn had a new set of modern pearls fitted.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015