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Borgani (1970s) soprano saxophone

Borgani soprano saxophone reviewOrigin: Italy
Guide price: Don't pay a lot
Weight: Not heavy
Date of manufacture: Early to mid '70s (serial range: 5xxx)
Date reviewed: May 2017

It could have been so much worse

Funny old things, Borgani horns.
Back in the '70s, when I was just starting out in this business, the Borgani brand was synonymous with cheap and (not so) cheerful horns that could always be found at the bottom of a pile of instruments at the back of a school's music room store cupboard. Unwanted, unloved...and typically unplayable.
I can't remember who they were distributed by in the UK (Bill Lewington's, possibly - or was that Grassi horns?) - but I do remember that they occupied that forlorn part of the product catalogue where you'd go when you decided you couldn't afford a 'proper' horn. And then one day, completely out of the blue, the prices rocketed. At the time I think my reaction was along the lines of "That much? For a Borgani?? Are you !*^%ing kidding???"
But they weren't kidding - and time has proved that these modern Borganis are very creditable horns. Indeed, when I was in the market for a new tenor the Borgani Vintage 09 was number two on my wish list (just below the formidable Inderbinen).

So they've shaken off the dusty past and stepped into the limelight - but what of those old, much-maligned horns? Were they really that bad?
The internet seems to think so - but when this wee beastie came in for a service evaluation I found myself facing something of a conundrum.
Sure, it wasn't the best-built horn I'd ever seen, and it was in very poor shape (with some major body damage) - but what few notes it could play it did so with gusto and charm. I suspected something of a diamond in the rough. Well, perhaps not a diamond - but maybe a sapphire.
Was I right? We'll find out in a while - but first let's bung it on the bench and see what it's made of...

From the start it's plain to see that this is an old horn. Not so much in terms of its physical age but rather because of its design. I could easily have put the build date at around 1930 and I doubt whether anyone would have raised an eyebrow. There's no top F# - there's not even a front top F - the action looks more 'rounded' than angular and the octave key mech look like something you'd see on an old C melody.
The body is reasonably up to date, featuring drawn toneholes for the most part with those above and including the Auxiliary B being silver soldered. This is quite common even today.
The construction is single pillar, and aside from a (broken) plastic thumb rest there are no other get a lyre holder and a non-adjustable thumb hook, and that's your lot. There's just one adjuster, fitted to the octave key mech - there are none on either of the main stacks and none on the G#/Bis Bb bar. And there's no sling ring.

Borgani top Eb keyIn terms of build quality this old Borgani certainly lives up to its dubious reputation. Aside from the problems with the action (which we'll deal with in a little while) there's a general sense that it's all a bit slap-dash.
Actually, I take that back - it's not all slap-dash, it's just a bit crappy here and there.
For example, here's the top Eb key. It's quite neat and tidy save for the small issue of how they've drilled the pillar for the rod screw. It's completely off centre. There's no need for it to be drilled like this - it's not like they found they needed some extra clearance below the key barrel (there's plenty)...they simply drilled the hole in the wrong place.

In many respects it's a bit like a modern Chinese horn. Some parts are fine, some are pretty dire, and if you look closely enough you can see where all the corners have been cut.
This shot of the top stack lower pillar is a good example. Note how the base of the pillar looks a bit distorted. Rather than pre-forming the curvature of the body onto the base, someone's just given it quick tweak with a pair of pliers...hence that visible dip on the lower side. If you look very carefully you can see a similarly-distorted base on the next pillar up. And when they fitted the pillar they didn't bother to tidy up all the excess solder.
Borgani pillar solderingNot that any of this is particularly important, at least in terms of how the horn will work or how reliable it'll be - it's just an indicator of how much or little care and attention has gone into the manufacture, and thus serves as a marker for the price of the horn. That said, I'm awarding some brownie points for the lacquer. I know it looks rather tatty now, but this horn is almost 50 years old and it still has most of it intact.

It's in the design of the keywork that you'll find the most archaic features. The top stack is entirely mounted on a single rod screw - as is the lower stack. There's also no additional key for the top C# - which, on early implementations, would have added another tonehole above the Auxiliary B (the small one just above the B). Later designs amalgamated these two toneholes into a single one with a 'doughnut' key cup on the bottom and a smaller closed cup above it. The Borgani gets halfway there by virtue of a link from the rear of the Aux.B key that connects to the octave key mechanism. It's perhaps not the best solution but it seems to work well enough.

Borgani top stackThe plastic key pearls are quite chunky, though somewhat indifferently fitted. Originally this horn would have had a matching concave pearl on the Bis Bb, but as it was missing I took the opportunity to make a domed one up as a replacement.
The regulation for the top stack is a bit of an arse. With no adjusters you're left with using buffers fitted beneath the key arms. You can see the two regulation points in this shot - the first is beneath the B key arm and the second is to the left of it, on that stubby arm that's connected to the Bis Bb key. You can also see the Auxiliary key bar running beneath them.
It's a real labour of love setting up the regulation on such a small horn - you very quickly reach a point where the need for precision is hampered by the inherent flex in the keywork. This is where adjusting screws really earn their keep - it's so easy to dial in the compromises required 'on the fly'. If you get it wrong it's a simple matter of giving a screw a quick turn...but without any adjusters you have to rip the buffer off and start again.
Fortunately the Aux. bar is pretty short and sturdy, which makes it stiffer - but a design like this has absolutely no tolerance for any free play in the action (of which there was much. Very much). That said, the keywork is incredibly tough. You'll find it very hard to bend a key accidentally on this horn, and even deliberate tweaking will require a fair bit of grunt.

Borgani  soprano rod screwThe rod screws are worthy of note. As is quite common, there are two sizes of rod used; typically the main stack action and the larger keys will use the thicker rods while the smaller keys will use thinner rods. The Borgani has two thick rods for the upper and lower stack, and one for the low C/Eb...and that's it, all the other keys use thinner rods. Nothing very special about that, except that the thinner rods really are quite thin. Perhaps the thinnest I've ever seen on a sax (save for those rods that are often used for the crook octave key, the rollers and the tilting table on the low Bb). They measure just 1.96mm - which is about the size of rod screw you'd find on a flute or a clarinet.
As you can see, the thin rod screw looks quite small when compared against the thicker rod for the low C/Eb.

Speaking of which, the main stack action was dreadfully loose, despite some signs of previous attempts to swedge the key barrels. There are two ways this happens; either through advanced wear and tear or by sloppy manufacturing. It's usually quite easy to tell one from the other, given that wear presents itself rather differently from poor build quality. In the Borgani's case it was all down to build quality.
In such cases it'll be a lot of hard work to make the keys and pillars match the existing rod screw (2.96mm) - and the better fix is to increase the size of the rods. As it happened a 3.05mm rod was a perfect fit in the pillars and most of the key barrels, leaving only a few keys that needed further swedging to bring them to size.
As for the thin rods - I doubt there are any particular advantages/disadvantages to using them on a small horn - or at least none that don't cancel each other out - so I'm inclined just to note it as a point of interest and leave it at that.

Borgani  lock nut and spatsAnd as for the point screws, they're proper points - but shoulderless. I very much like this style of point screw because it allows for constant adjustment as the action wears. However, without a shoulder (or head) on the screw, there's a very good chance that the screws will work themselves loose over time. This is easily dealt with on a modern horn by the use of threadlocking fluids or, in some cases, nylon inserts fitted through the body of the screw.
Back in 'the old days' they tended to rely on more mechanical means of securing such screws, which is why nearly all the point screw are fitted with a locking nut. You can find exactly the same arrangement on many King horns - and it's still used today by Eppelsheim (he of the Tubax).

In theory it's a perfectly good way to lock a shoulderless point screw in place - but in practice it has a few drawbacks, the first of which is that it looks bloody awful. And if you take the horn apart to service it you've got the added risk that you might drop and lose one of the nuts. It's also rather more difficult to set the screws accurately. The idea is that you turn the point screw in until you're happy with how it fits the key, and then tighten the nut against the pillar. However, as you tighten the nut up it tends to turn the point screw...which throws out your careful adjustments. So you need to keep a screwdriver in the screwslot to prevent it from turning while you tighten the nut up with a spanner. But then the spanner will exert more torque than the screwdriver, so you have to add a little reverse force to the screw...and...and...well, it all gets a bit fiddly.
A drop of threadlock solves all those problems (in this instance, Loctite 243 or 245 is the one to go for). It'll hold the point screw just where you want it with no fuss or bother...and a little drop on the nut will mean it's more of a cosmetic fixture and needs only to be snugged up against the pillar.

Note the low B/Bb pillar at the top left of the shot - you can see there's no locknut fitted. It's not been lost because you can clearly see the head of the screw isn't protruding far enough to accommodate a nut - and the most likely explanation is that someone made a boo-boo in the design stage which led to there being no room between the pillar and the low C# spatula arm to get a nut in. And just to make it look like they meant to do this, there's a similarly short screw and no nut at the other end of the key...despite there being plenty of room for one.
While we're here, take note of the height of the G# spatula compared to the bell spats. Quite a step, isn't it? You'd really want the top of the G# key to be level with the bell keys - but you can't because there's a hefty plate on the bottom of the G# spatula which forms part of the articulation mechanism.
Nothing's been bent or twisted out of whack - this is how they built the horn. The fix would be to either fit a riser to the G# or remove the articulation plate and refit it lower down the key.

Borgani octave key mechThe octave key mech is positively ancient in design, with three levers extending off the main key. Compared with the mechs being fitted to other sopranos of the day it's extremely crude - though once properly set up and tweaked it's not too clunky in use. It's here where you'll find the horn's single adjusting screw, which sets the closure of the upper octave key pad when the G key is pressed down.
Setting up this mech is akin to playing with a Rubik's cube - if one part of the mech is even slightly out of spec, it'll lead to problems right down the horn. The first thing you have to get right is the thickness of the lower octave key pad. This, and the corresponding arm off the G key, is responsible for regulating the height of the entire stack action. The upper stack height is controlled by a buffer beneath the G key touchpiece, which in turn is controlled by the arm over the octave key, which in turn is controlled by the thickness of the octave key pad - and the lower stack height is controlled by the Bis Bb arm...which is controlled by the G key. Make sense?

There's precious little room for error, which is why I fitted cork pads to the octave keys...the last thing you need is a pair of pads that might shrink or compress over time. You're also completely reliant on the geometry of the octave mech being set correctly, and likewise the arm and the foot off the G key. If the horn takes a tumble and cops a whack on this mech, it'll be a proper nightmare to get it all lined up again. And when you think you've got it right, you've then got to account for the link to the Aux.B key.
From a repairer's perspective the very worst thing that could happen is that they set the mech up and then the client says "Could you raise/lower the action a tad?"
On the plus side the touchpiece is quite nice and comfortable, though the factory-fitted thumb rest is a bit too small (you can just see a hint of the replacement I made).

Borgani F key springAnd here's something for all the folks who're adamant that you should never put a sharp bend in a spring.
Not one, but two kinks on the low E key. Given that this horn turned up with its original pads in place it's more than likely that it also has the original blued steel springs - so this one's been chugging away quite merrily for nearly half a century.
Note the captive spring cradle in the key's foot - another example of 'olde-worlde' design.

So the design of the action is quite old - but apart from one or two quirks it's really quite plain and simple. The payoff for this is that once cured of excessive free play and properly set up, it's actually quite nimble. Granted, being a soprano helps - had this been a larger horn I think there would have been 'issues'...but with light and small keys it all works rather well.
The layout's not too bad either. The palm keys aren't best placed for speed, but the simple bell key table works quite well - with the only stumbling block being the relatively low height of the G# touchpiece. It's by no means a deal-breaker, though - and if you were desperate you could pretty much fix it by supergluing a strip of wood onto it.

Borgani soprano logoTonewise - well, this is where we come back to my opening point about the diamond in the rough. On the face of it this horn was a scrapper; indifferent-to-poor build quality in places, some hefty structural damage and a reputation for being a thoroughly nasty piece of work. But it had more than a hint of quite a well-balanced tone. Certainly enough to shift my recommendation from "Forget it, it's not worth the expense" to "It's borderline, but if it were mine I'd take the gamble". And that's a pretty good recommendation bearing in mind that I don't make a habit of betting with other people's money.
And, I'm pleased (and relieved) to say, I was right.
It's got a lovely tone, and if that sounds a bit naff then maybe this will put it into perspective. When I've finished prodding and poking a horn, I settle down to a session of playtesting. Typically this will involve lots of scales and patterns which help to map out a horn's functionality and test the integrity of the action. I'll then shift to intervals, which help to determine how responsive a horn is and how easy it is to nail the tuning.
After that I'll generally noodle about, to get a feel for the characteristics - I now know the horn works and I know how it responds...but this is about how it plays.
When I blew the Borgani after its repair I managed a couple of scales and broke straight into 'On A Clear Day'. Yep, it's that kind of horn.

It's got that curious hollowness in the midrange that gives the soprano its ethereal quality - but either side of it it's got a nice warmth to the lower harmonics and a creaminess to the upper ones. It's not a brash, shouty horn with bags of cut and edge - but it's also not muddy and indistinct. When you blow harder it ramps up very nicely and maintains its tonal balance. I was impressed...and I'm not even a fan of sopranos.
It's a straightforward nice blow. Nothing too demanding and very easy to get along with.

The tuning? Surprisingly good. Sopranos are always tricky, older sopranos even more so...and older, cheaper sopranos are pretty much the worst hand you can be dealt. But about all the Borgani threw up was a slight flatness around the low C/B. The rest of the horn was well within the expected norms for a workable soprano.

On the face of it, then, a rather nice soprano. It wears a noble badge, it's certainly distinctive and it has the playability to back it up. So would I recommend you rush out and buy one?
Absolutely not.
Disregarding the structural damage this horn had suffered, the cost of bringing the action up to spec and dealing with the build quality issues means this horn is unlikely to ever be a bargain buy. You'd be extraordinarily lucky to have any change out of half a grand for the sort of work of these horns is likely to need, and that's assuming you can find a repairer who's willing to take on such a job. If you can find one for a couple of hundred quid you might stand a chance of coming out even - but after you'd shelled out for the repairs you'd be well into the sort of price you can pay for something of a known quality like a Conn, a Buescher or even a Martin. The Borgani gives them a run for their money - but that's this Borgani...and I wouldn't like to swear that all the others will be quite as playable.
And what of the comments on the internet about the poor quality of Borganis from this period? To be fair I suspect a lot of it's to do with the mediocre build quality. It's hard to get a feel for a horn's potential if it's struggling to work at all. There's also perhaps something of a technique to 'blowing past the faults' to get to the core of the tone - which is something a repairer does on an almost daily basis.
If you've got one stashed in a cupboard or under the bed then, sure, it might be worth getting it up and running - but if you're thinking about buying one on the basis of this review, I'd advise caution.

If you'd like to read a bit more about the work that went into this horn, check out the accompanying articles on the Benchlife Blog - the first of which details the repairs to the body, and the second of which deals with the broken thumb rest.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2017