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Aquilasax Celeste ii C soprano

Celeste ii C soprano saxOrigin: China (www.aquilasax.com)
Guide price: £500 (without mouthpiece)
Weight: 1.075kg
Date of manufacture: February 2013
Date reviewed: March 2013

A modern incarnation of a rare saxophone, for enthusiasts on a budget

On paper, the C soprano has a few things going for it. For a start it's small - and thus very portable; a sort of take-it-anywhere horn. That portability suggests that it might be used on an ad-hoc basis - in situations where there might not be any written music to follow or, if there is, that it's likely to be written in concert (such as a piano, flute or violin part). In such cases an instrument pitched in C is a boon, especially if your sight-transposing's a bit iffy.
It's also a bit different tonally. Every sax has its own general tone, and while you can choose a mouthpiece and a style of playing that, say, emphasises the lower harmonics of an alto or the upper harmonics of a tenor, there will always be that alto or tenor 'thing' going on. Thus the C Melody (which sits between the alto and the tenor) has a very individual sound - and so it is with the C soprano.

In practice, though, the C soprano faces a few issues. Like the C Melody, little development has taken place with regard to design when compared to standard saxes - and it's always been the case that the higher the pitch of an instrument, the more critical the acoustic design is. A decent player can just about get away with an out-of-tune baritone, and most players can work around a few iffy notes on a tenor or an alto - but once you get to the Bb soprano it all becomes rather more difficult. Pitching a sax a tone higher increases the need for accuracy in design as well as demanding more from the player.
Aha, you say, but what about the sopranino? Yep, that's even more of a struggle, but the instrument has at least had the benefit of falling within the 'standard range' of saxes (following the alternating Bb/Eb pattern) and high-quality modern examples are readily available...such as the Yanagisawa. Even so, it's not a horn to be taken on lightly.
So it's a very brave manufacturer who chooses to produce one of these 'esoteric' models, especially at a budget price - and with that in mind I think it's only fair that certain allowances are made, given the target clientele (enthusiasts, in the main).

Before we begin I should point out that this soprano has come straight from the factory. In fact it simply turned up on my doorstep one morning, with no warning and no covering letter or previous correspondence indicating that one might be on its way. I recall some correspondence with a player about the Aquilasax C Melody a few months ago, but there was no mention of a soprano. The retailer, Aquilasax, states that they have a policy of play-testing their horns before sale (though it is not clear if play-testing includes any tweaking). There were a number of relatively minor setup issues with this horn and I am making the assumption that these would normally be addressed as part of the play-testing check-up, which this horn would not have had.

The body is built in a single piece (so no detachable crook) and is of semi-ribbed construction. That's to say that some pillar groups are fitted to plates (mostly at the top end of the horn) and everything from around G downwards is mounted on individual pillars. The body's quite neatly made - in fact it's surprisingly good on the whole, with no signs of sloppy solderwork or mangled pillar/rib bases.

Celeste C soprano bell key pillarOn the whole I'd say the body was pretty robust. Put it this way, it had come all the way from China in just the horn's case, which was put in a cardboard box and then enclosed in another - with a couple of completely ineffectual pieces of polystyrene that had been chucked in the box just so someone could tick the box marked 'With Packing'. That it arrived still straight and in one piece was amazing - that it played out of the box was even better.
It had managed to avoid one of the common symptoms of shock damage, that of a knocked-back bell key pillar. These are usually the first casualty when the case takes a bash, but the Celeste has a bell key pillar that's, proportionally, one of the beefiest I've ever seen. Given the relatively small keys, this pillar is a real brute - practically hewn from the solid. Of course, there's no point having such a hefty pillar if the base isn't up to the job...which, fortunately, it is.
Much the same could be said of the thumb hook - which although not adjustable is nonetheless hefty. There's no sling ring fitted, but given the thickness of the thumb hook you could practically bolt one on. Strangely enough, there's a sling supplied with the horn...there's just nowhere to hook it on.

Celeste C soprano top F tone holeMost of the tone holes were nice and level, with only a couple at the top that needed just a quick touch with a tone hole file to finish them off properly. A couple of the larger tone holes exhibited a spot of roughness, but nothing that would demand immediate attention (have them smoothed off when the instrument is next serviced).
There are a couple of hiccups though. The tone holes are all drawn...even the very smallest ones, and that's quite unusual. It's quite hard to do these accurately and so it's more common to find that these tiny tone holes (5-7mm dia.) are silver-soldered in place. A close look at them reveals that the manufacturer ran into a few problems when drawing such small tone holes and had to resort to filling in a few splits here and there. It's no big deal provided it's done with silver or 'hard' solder (which it is) and neatly (close enough for jazz).

The finish on the body is matt bare brass with a polished bell flare. Looks quite attractive, what with the polished keys (again, bare brass), but you should be aware that bare metal finishes can require a lot of upkeep. Some players will have no trouble at all, but others may find that they have a sort of anti-Midas thing going on - whereby everything golden they touch turns green. Keeping a bare brass horn clean is tricky enough when it's something the size of an alto, but with something this small it's going to be a very fiddly job indeed.

Celeste C soprano octave key mechanismThe keywork isn't too bad. In places it's actually very good. The main stacks are snug - there's barely even any free play on the front top F key...which on some horns is often so loose that it flaps in the breeze. This bodes well for reliability. If the keys are stiff enough (which they are) and the pads are well set (so so) then all that's needed is a nice tight stack action. Two out of three isn't bad straight out of the box.

The niggles start to creep in on some of the side keys. The thing is, it's not universal. For example, the top F palm key has a little bit of a wobble on it, as does the side Bb, but the rest of the keys are either acceptable or even excellent. The octave key mechanism is worthy of note, being relatively beefy for the size of the horn - though I would have liked to have seen a little less free play in the swivel arm. That's being particularly picky though, as the mechanism worked just fine. A worthwhile mod would be to have the swivel arm ends reduced in diameter and fit them with Teflon tubes. You'd get a slick and quiet mechanism for the price of about 15 minutes' work (you could even do the job yourself if you're handy with a fine file) - but even as it stands it's a vast improvement over the weird and not-too-wonderful mechs you'll find on many vintage sopranos.

Celeste C soprano point screwAnd, of course, the point screws get their usual drubbing. They're of the pseudo type and I'm afraid to say they do rather let the rest of the horn down.
The thing is though, if you tighten up the point screws the free play disappears...but it does so not because the screw points are sitting more snugly in the key barrels but rather because the pillars have been drilled a touch too deep...and the thread of the screw comes out the other side. This means that the end of the key barrel butts up against the thread of the point screw. It certainly takes up the free play, but it won't be for very long - the sharp edges of the steel thread will make short work of the softer key barrel.
The fix for this would involve either swedging the ends of the key barrels (sod that) or replacing the screws with proper points. The former tends to be a bit pricey as it's quite labour intensive and the latter can be tricky as its not always easy to find screws that will fit...and having them made won't be that cheap.
As it stands I wouldn't personally be put off buying the horn because of it, but I would urge the manufacturer to address the issue simply because it deserves it.

Celeste C soprano cup armThe cup arms are a bit variable. On most keys they're just fine, but on one or two they're just a bit thinner than I'd like to see. Much of this is down to the way in which these Chinese horns are manufactured (i.e. by hand). Sometimes the length of the cup arms are a bit 'approximate', and where the back of the cup doesn't sit fully home in the 'cutout' in the arm, you're left with quite a thin bit of metal on which to hang the cup.
I doubt it will be an issue in normal use, but it does make the key more prone to being pushed out of alignment in the event of some rough handling or a knock.

The pads look to be of the generic Chinese variety. They're not so bad, but one or two of them could be better set. A bit sticky too, but a dose of lighter fluid usually sorts this out. The vent key pad appears to be solid leather. This is actually quite a nice trick - it tends to be more reliable than a standard pad with a hole punch in it, and rather quieter in use than a cork pad - but in this case it's not particularly neat. That said, it seals just fine. Similarly, the corkwork (buffer, regulation corks etc.) is a bit untidy - but functional.

Celeste C soprano lyre socketThere are a few concessions to tweakers in the shape of a couple of regulation adjusters on the top stack and adjustable pins on the octave, front F, G# and low C# keys - along with the usual adjusters for the Bis Bb and G#.
Powering the action is a set of stainless springs which, it has to be said, were quite well set.

A very curious addition is that of the lyre holder. Nothing unusual about that, as a rule, but this one appears to have no provision for tightening up a lyre. It's also placed precariously close to the low C key foot and barrel, and not so far from the low C# key barrel - so even if there was a screw for holding the lyre in place (or a clamping screw on the lyre itself), you'd be hard put to get at it.

In the hands the horn feels quite good. Perhaps the key selling point is that it's a modern take on a type of horn that some would consider to be 'obsolete'. Those who disagree with this viewpoint would, up until recently, have had to make to do vintage examples...and thus vintage ergonomics - unless they had a spare couple of grand handy. Celeste thumb hookThe Celeste benefits enormously from a modern key layout, complete with a tilting bell key table, and they've made a pretty good job of it. I would perhaps liked to have seen the Bis Bb pearl further out (see below, right), and slightly raised and rounded - but it's a small point. The fixed thumb hook may cause problems for some players, in which case the options would be to have it moved or modified (or just get used to it). It seemed fine to me, though I would probably round off the leading face to get rid of a square edge that tends to dig into my thumb a little.

As mentioned at the start of the review, it's a factory setup...so there's some room for improvement, but it's by no means terrible. Just a few minor tweaks here and there improved things - and an hour's worth of work would really pay dividends. Some of that time could be spent removing the white powdery residue that seems to be plastered here and there over the instrument. Wax polish perhaps? One method of keeping a bare brass horn from going green is to give it a coat of wax polish - but it's also a good idea to apply it sparingly and to avoid getting it on the pads and corks, and to avoid gumming up the action. You needn't go looking for a 'proper instrument wax polish', just a good-quality vehicle wax will do - and you might find the liquid-based ones are a little easier to work with rather than the paste ones.

Celeste C Soprano polish residuePlaying the C soprano is a quite an experience. A standard Bb soprano can be quite challenging - and if you've ever spent any time with a sopranino you'll know that rather than using your embouchure to finely tune and shape each note it's more a case of indulging in a spot of all-in lip-wrestling. Much of this is due to the compromises that are inherent in the instrument - and the higher the pitch, the more pronounced those compromises are.
While the C soprano isn't as demanding as the sopranino, it's clearly rather more picky than the Bb soprano - so you'll need a good set of chops to get the best out of it, and a certain amount of determination. And that doesn't mean sitting there contemplating the wonders of life, the universe and perfect pitch - it means good old-fashioned practising.
The good news is that the Celeste appears to be up to the task. Granted, if you bung a mouthpiece on and play into a tuner from the off, you're going to experience a world of pain - but if you take the time to find the centre of each note and work on precise pitching, everything snaps into line...more or less. I say more or less because a saxophone pitched this high is going to be skittish...and if you think you can master it in a couple of hours, you're in for a nasty shock (and so is anyone within earshot).
I started off at note one thinking "What the ....!", but within ten minutes I'd figured out that precise mouthpiece placement is crucial for both tone and tuning, and within twenty minutes I'd roughly mapped out where my embouchure needed to be to even out the tuning between notes.

Tonewise it's a bit hard to comment with any authority...I mean, how many C sopranos have I played? Maybe a handful...a small handful?
I expected it to be quite shrill, but it's actually quite a rounded sound. I might even suggest that there's a touch of darkness to it.
OK, that might be stretching it a bit - but it's certainly not an excessively bright tone. I think 'playful' would describe it quite well. It doesn't have the gravitas of, say, an oboe, but nor does it suffer from the tweeness of the piccolo. And nor, strangely enough, does it have a tendency to 'quack', as quite a few Bb sopranos can do.
I noted some unevenness in tone across the range, but nothing that would concern me given this paragraph's opening sentence. Just as it's necessary to 'find' the tuning, you'll also need to shape the tone. With some more extensive playing I found it progressively easier to even everything up, and I'd even go so far as to say it seemed a little less demanding that one or two vintage sopranos I've played in my time.
What really surprised me was how soulful it sounded. It's much like the bass saxophone - you might be inclined to think of it as an 'oom-pah' instrument and yet it can croon with the best of them. Similarly, the C soprano seems to have a built-in plaintiveness that's very endearing.

C soprano mouthpiecesThe horn came with a hard rubber mouthpiece as well as a metal one (Note: the instrument is supplied without a mouthpiece as standard). Unlike a C Melody, which can sometimes work adequately with either an alto or a tenor mouthpiece, the C soprano may not work at all with a standard Bb soprano mouthpiece. Or so they say.
I suspect this depends largely on the design of the piece, because my ebonite Link 5* seemed to work pretty well. To be fair, although the Link gave me a better tone I still felt that the metal C soprano (a C6) piece made it easier to lock the tuning in, though tonally it tended a little towards the bright compared to the Link. The rubber mouthpiece was a little warmer but not quite as nice to play - and neither of them had terribly good ligatures.

So - the big question - is it worth it?
Well, what are the alternatives? It's either a vintage example - and you take your chances with the ergonomics and, especially, the tuning - or you dig very deep and splash a few grand on a specialist-built model. In that respect alone the Celeste wins hands down.
Were this yet another ultra-cheap Chinese soprano I'd probably not even bother to review it - there would be plenty of other models out there which would be better value for money - but this is a modern take on a very rare horn, and as such it deserves a bit of leeway. That leeway comes in terms of the build quality. Yes, it could be better - it deserves to be better (and that's a compliment), but it's good enough for the price and the rarity.
I've given it a tough review, but it's still won me over - and if I needed a C soprano I'd be quite happy with this one.
So the Celeste gets my recommendation - with the following caveats: It's cheap enough to buy, but perhaps budget for at least an hour of your tech's time to really lick it into shape. It'll be worth it. Read up on C soprano mouthpieces and decide whether it'll be worth your while getting one...or at least finding a Bb one that will work with the C.
Keep in mind that the case is of the generic zippered variety - when (not if) it breaks you won't find it easy to find a replacement. However, it will fit into a standard soprano case provided it's for one that has a detachable crook...though you might need to pad it out a little.
You may also want to consider the Eclipse (from the same company), which is essentially the same model but with a few extras such as a top F# and an adjustable thumb hook.

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