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Yamaha YSS61 soprano saxophone

Yamaha YSS61 soprano sax reviewOrigin: Japan
Guide price: £800
Weight: 1.13Kg
Date of manufacture: 1974 (serial range 3xxx)
Date reviewed: March 2016

The birth of the contemporary soprano

1974. How far away it seems these days - 42 years at the time of writing. In Britain, Ted Heath started off the year in the driving seat but soon lost it it Harold Wilson. Nixon was on his way out as president of the USA, Germany won the world cup, Sweden entered pop's hall of fame with Abba's victory in the Eurovision Song Contest, McDonalds opened their first UK branch...and I'd just about started to learn the clarinet.
And the Yamaha YSS61 made its debut.

It's an important landmark in the history of musical instrument manufacturing. In terms of saxes it was pretty much a done deal for the larger models at this point. From the mid '50 onwards, the design of altos and tenors had matured (with the baritones lagging a little behind) - so there wasn't really all that much to do when the '60s turned into the '70s, aside from making the things cheaper and bringing a bit more competition to the marketplace. But the poor old soprano had been left in the doldrums.
It was always 'the difficult one' - being not so popular that it warranted a great deal of attention, but also not so useless (like the 'nino) that few people could find something for it to do. It remained an expensive purchase, suitable only for those who really needed one, and who were prepared to put the work into making it sound good and play in tune...or those who had more money than sense. And because of this rather awkward position in the market, hardly anyone was making the things. You had Selmer, with the MkVI and Yanagisawa with the S6...if you could even find one, or even find anyone who'd heard of one. There may even have been a Buffet soprano out there too...but few people ever took their saxes very seriously. And then there was the usual pile of vintage bangers. In short, the genre was languishing when the YSS61 hit the shops.

It's most immediate effect was that it offered an alternative to the entrenchment of the MkVI. As good as it was, it wasn't everyone's cup of tea tonally - but now there was a viable alternative. I say 'now', because although Yanagisawa were already out there, they weren't yet at the stage where they could be considered to be major competitors. The price was extremely favourable too...or at least affordable for a large number of pro players who 'needed' a sop without necessarily wanting one (doublers, pit musicians, studio house band players etc.) - and the build quality was spot on.
While these qualities are all well and good, it wasn't, in my view at least, the 61's killer feature. What Yamaha did was to give the market a damn good kick up the arse. The 61 wasn't perfect. Yamaha knew that, which is why its build only ran for a mere four years before the 62 replaced it. But it was at least good enough to make Selmer scratch their beards (eventually) and to rekindle interest in this member of the saxophone family.
The 61 set a new standard and revitalised a market - and in so doing fired the starting gun for all the other manufacturers we have today. It was an exercise they repeated with the 475.
So let's have a closer look and see just how they did it...

The body is of single-piece construction. I quite like this type of build - for some reason it always seems to me that single-piece sopranos have just a bit more clout and presence. It also means there's less to go wrong, what with there not being a crook joint.
There's an adjustable plastic thumb hook and wide, though flat, thumb rest (also in plastic) as well as a small sling ring and lyre socket...in case you find the urge to go marching. The sling ring's a bit on the wee side, but then again it's hardly got to take any weight.

Yamaha YSS61  upper toneholesThe tone holes are drawn, save for those from the auxiliary B upwards (bottom left in the shot) - which are soldered in place. This is a reasonably common practice for such small toneholes which, judging from some of the examples I've seen on Chinese sopranos, have a tendency to split during the drawing process.
It also allows for a greater degree of accuracy inasmuch as it dispenses with the inevitable distortion of the bore when you pull a tone hole out of it. Not such an issue for the larger holes, but the smaller they get, the more distortion there'll be in relation to the tonehole diameter. Or it could just be a vastly cheaper way of making small toneholes. And there's no need to be at all concerned about possible selective galvanic corrosion as they're silver soldered in place. I didn't notice any warped toneholes during the course of my work on this horn, but then it's been around the block a few times and there's every chance that any such issues will have been dealt with years ago. However, it's quite likely that they were bang on right out of the box. Ah, those were the days...

Note the position of the palm key toneholes - being offset to the left rather than in line with the top E/F# holes (as on the Selmer MkVI soprano). The advantage to this layout is that the upper section is a bit less crammed with toneholes, and it does away with the need for complicated key layouts. It also means it's rather easier for the player to tweak the alignment of the palm key touchpieces.
That said, I'm not very keen on the design of the palm Eb/F keys, what with their sharing a pivot. It's an old design that really doesn't have a lot going for it, other that it saves a couple of grammes and it probably saves the manufacturer a few bob. In mechanical terms it means the keys have very short barrels, and there's extra wear where the Eb's barrel meets the F's. When (not if) the barrels wear, there's very little meat for the repairer to play with - and the best solution would be to ream out the barrels and fit an oversized rod screw.

Yamaha YSS61 bell key pillarNote too that there's no front top F key. This is a very curious omission. You've got a top F#, you've got plenty of space due the offset palm keys...and yet there's a dirty great gap where the front F key ought to be (just left of centre in the shot). It's not like it would be a particularly complex key; just a touchpiece over the B key and a foot that sat beneath the top F key...so I really can't imagine why they didn't fit one. Unless they simply forgot to.
You do, however, get a split auxiliary key (lower left of the shot above). The lower portion of this key is linked to the octave key, and closes when you play top C# and upwards in an effort to tame the tuning of these traditionally 'wild' notes.

Individual pillars are used throughout - to the point where the need to place two pillars in close proximity has necessitated a reduction in the size of one or both of the otherwise generously-sized pillar bases. I find this a bit surprising, given that it's a lot more effort to profile individual pillar bases and then fit them to the body than it is to fit a pair of pillars to a single plate - and the smaller the pillar's base, the more likely the pillar will be knocked off if the horn takes a knock.
And here's a very pertinent example. The compound bell key pillar has a reduced base to allow it to fit between the G and G# toneholes, and given the particular vulnerability of this pillar I'd say it was a very bad move. I therefore wasn't at all surprised to see that it had fallen off at some point in the past...and will probably do so again if the horn cops another whack in the right place. It would have been so much better had they extended one side of the base to compensate for the lack of metal on the other.
In the interest of balance (I do try to be fair) it could be said that there's an advantage to a pillar giving up the ghost and falling off after a knock, rather than hanging on like grim death - because the force of that impact has to go somewhere...and if the pillar ain't budging, then body sure as hell will. What would you rather end up with? A broken off pillar...or a sodding great crease right through the G tonehole? It's certainly something to think about.

Something else to think about (don't spend too much time on it, though) is Yamaha's predilection for gluing bits of felt to the body.
This is one of those 'Marmite' things - you either like it or you hate it. Personally it doesn't bother me that much. I'd prefer not to see it done (purely from an aesthetic point of view), but there are times when the size of the key feet and the geometry of the keys mean you'll get a more reliable key buffer if you split its thickness between the body and the key.

Yamaha YSS61 adjustersRegulation adjusters are fitted to both stacks, and while this is a boon for the lower stack I reckon they're absolutely essential for soprano top stacks. One gotcha to watch out for is that the the regulation adjuster for the A key is actually fitted to the Bis Bb key. In practical terms it makes no difference at all, but it could cause a moment's consternation when setting the top stack regulation (yep, it caught me out).

There are actually a couple of major advantages to this setup, the most useful being that it means the overhang (shaded in red) on the auxiliary B bar can be significantly shorter than it normally is. Because it's so short - about half the length they usually are - it's far less likely to flex when you close the A or Bis Bb key. It might not seem like much, but even a very slight deflection can make the difference between a note that's crisp and clear and one that's a little bit fuzzy around the edges.
Another advantage is that it opens up the possibility of some interesting fake fingerings as it adds another key combination to the top stack (Bis Bb + Aux. in addition to the standard B + Aux. and A + Aux.). Whether it's of any use is an entirely different matter...
Note the key pearls - that's proper Mother of Pearl. They're slightly concave, save for a pair of flat touches on the side and top F# keys, and although the Bis Bb pearl isn't domed it hardly makes a differences on keys of this size.

Yamaha YSS61 low C# adjusterMind you, it's not all smiles - the adjuster between the low B and C# is pretty much a complete waste of time.
To be fair they nearly always are. If you set them up so that they hold the low C# closed while you play a clumsily-fingered low B/Bb, they'll prevent the low B from closing fully - and if you set them so that the low B can close, they won't stop the low C# from opening slightly. It's all a combination of disadvantageous leverages, imprecise key fit and just plain poor design. Chuck in a generous portion of key flex and it's a wonder these things ever work at all.
If you're trying to tweak one of these things yourself, always default to allowing the B key to close...and then spend the time you saved on fiddling with the adjuster on practising finger precision over the bell key table.

And while I'm having a moan, I noticed the keys are borderline soft...in places. That's to say that, on the whole, they're fine - but during the course of a set up I noticed that some of the key arms bent a little too easily. To be sure, I meant to bend them...but I would have liked to have seen just a little more resistance. Of particular note are the bell key spatulas (AKA the bell key table), which seem a little too weak given how vulnerable they are.
With appropriate handling there shouldn't be any problems - and if you're built like a gorilla, with a grip of steel and hands the size of dinner plates, then maybe the soprano isn't really your kind of horn anyway.
On the plus side the keys seem to be remarkably resilient to wear. This is an old horn, and one that's very evidently seen quite a lot of use. There's clear wear to some of the touchpieces, and some of the pearls are worn down on one side. This, coupled with the usual collection of marks and scratches a horn collects in its working life, shows it hasn't been a closet queen - and yet I was hard put to find any free play in the keywork...nor any evidence that it has been swedged. Not that this is entirely unexpected - these old Yamahas were always quite wear-resistant compared to the competition.
And this resilience to wear is given an extra boost by virtue of the 61 having shoulderless proper point screws. This means they're constantly adjustable, no matter how much the keys wear - and there'll never be any need to ream out the pillars. Marvellous.

Yamaha YSS61 octave mechThe octave key mech is a variation of the non-standard (i.e. not a Selmer swivelling type) mech as fitted to the 21/23 series horns, and works quite well. The layout looks a bit complicated, but at its heart it's quite a simple mech in mechanical terms - which tends to mean it'll be reasonably fault tolerant. Because of its length, though, it's perhaps less robust than the similar mechs found on the altos and tenors. A nice feature is the profiled touch piece, which can accommodate a thumb being rolled upwards as well as being pushed to the right...though in the latter case the mech feels slightly less responsive.
Incidentally, it's quite common for this mech to get a bit rattley over time, and this is due to the pair of pins that links the various parts of the mech together. They're sleeved with a plastic/nylon tube...and this tube either hardens up or simply falls off. It's a very simple fix, as long as you know what you're looking for - a spot of lube will quieten them down in the short term, and swapping them out for new tubes will see the horn right for another couple of decades.

The mech's a little bit quirky, but this seems to follow the pattern on the 61. In places it shows quite advanced design - the sort of features that might make other manufacturers say "I wish I'd thought of that" - and yet it also has one or two throwbacks, such as the lack of a front top F, the dual-mounted top E/F keys and this rather old Bis Bb key layout.
I've shaded it to make it a little clearer, and you should be able to see that the key has two separate barrels - with a solid bar that connects them.
So, the upper part of the key pivots on the top stack rod screw - which terminates at the pillar beneath the G key arm. The lower part of the key pivots on the same rod screw as the G# key cup.
Yamaha YSS61 Bis Bb keyThere's nothing essentially wrong with this design, its just a bit inefficient (and a right old pain if the body ever gets bent) - and it's made all the more incongruous by the fact that the Selmer MKVI soprano had long since sported the now standard arrangement of the Bis Bb key being suspended separately from the upper stack on it's own pair of point screws.
But at least Yamaha had the good sense to include adjusters for the Bis Bb arm and the G# key cup.

Wrapping up the action is a set of stainless steel springs. These are superb. Because the action's been designed to accommodate them, it feels slick, swift and agile. And even forty plus years on you can bend and tweak these springs just as safely as you could on the day this horn rolled off the production line.
The whole horn is finished in a coat of light gold lacquer - and bloody good lacquer it is too. Tough as old boots, as they say in the trade.
Topping the whole lot off is a smart box-style cases with proper catches and plenty of room for all your accessories.

Under the fingers the 61 feels superb. The action on top-end Yamahas has always been a very strong feature. Granted, they very often need a tweak to get the best out of them, but then that's true of pretty much any horn straight out of the box. About the only issue I had was the lack of a front top F key. I wouldn't normally worry about it on a vintage soprano - that's just the way things were back in the day - but the 61 feels and plays like a contemporary horn, and I guess I just kept reaching for the key because it felt like it ought to be there.
I had some reservations about the flat thumb rest, but in practice I can't say I noticed it at all when playing the horn - and while I stumbled, initially, over the positioning of the palm keys, I soon got used to them. I have quite long fingers, and while I rarely have any issues with palm keys on any of the larger saxes, I find the smaller ones can feel a bit cramped.
I liked the bell key action - it doesn't have a tilting table, and I've always felt this makes the key group a little more responsive...even on the larger horns.

Tonewise the 61 is perhaps something of a mixed bag. It's not as bright as you might think - what with Yamaha's reputation for producing quite neutral horns. That said, it's not warm either. It's also not as even-toned as Yamaha's later models. For example, I noted a bit of drop-off on the middle D coupled with a bit of a hiss from the body octave pip and a slight dulling of the middle and top C. These diminished somewhat as I played more, which suggests that these are foibles that can be largely overcome with a bit of embouchure tweaking and perhaps a careful selection of mouthpiece.
The tone is certainly crisper than earlier sopranos - there's more clarity and punch - but there's also a nice feeling of precision. It's more wistful than whimsical, more reflective than reminiscent. But it's also more laid back than the later 62...a bit less focussed, not quite so extrovert.
The owner remarked that it's a sweeter tone than many modern sopranos, and I reckon that's not a bad description.

Yamaha YSS61  bellI'll admit that I was perhaps a little surprised by the horn's response. It's been a while since I last played one of these - and I haven't played that many of them. With only a four year production run, and not being the most popular member of the saxophone family, they're reasonably infrequent visitors to the workshop. But I had it in mind that this horn followed in the footsteps of its bigger brothers - with a bold, precise presentation.
Well, it does...and it sort of doesn't. On the does side it's certainly more 'in yer face' than older sopranos, and the tuning's more dialled in - and on the doesn't side it hasn't quite got that ethereal hollow howl that the later Yamahas have. It's meatier, not quite so lean. It's rib to the 62's fillet (and I know my analogies are legendary, but that one surely has to take the biscuit). And you could see that as a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you want from a soprano.
It's certainly a different approach to that of the Selmer MKVI - about its only competitor at the time - and I dare say that, at the time, the differences would have been quite stark. It's not so noticeable these days, given how much development there's been in soprano design in the last 40 or so years. I can see, though, how very many players would have seen it as breath of fresh air.

I think it's fair to say that the YSS61 hasn't aged quite as well as the alto and the tenor - both of which can still square up to their modern counterparts. The soprano struggles a little - not because it's a bad horn, but more because what came later was so very good. That said, it's still streets ahead of most of the intermediate horns currently on the market - and given that you can pick a 61 up at very reasonable price these days, it's still quite a bargain.
I say 'most' because while I was researching the history of this horn I came across its page in the discontinued section of Yamaha's web site. In the entry for 'Current Model' they list the 475. My initial reaction was "Pffftt, yeah, right!"...but having spent some time tweaking and playing the 61, I think they've got a point.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2016