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Yamaha YSS62R soprano saxophone

Yamaha YSS62R sorano saxophoneOrigin: Japan
Guide price: £1200
Weight: 1.24Kg
Date of manufacture: 1984 (serial range 07xx)
Date reviewed: May 2016

The "No, I haven't dropped it" soprano

Following on from the recent review of the Yamaha YSS61 soprano, we now have its successor - the 62 - up for the old treatment.
Two things are notable about this particular horn; the first, and most obvious, is that while it's still a single-piece body, it has a curved crook/neck section. The second is that the serial number places it within the early years of production (for this variant - the 62 hit the market in 1978). Ordinarilly this would be of little consequence - but because Yamaha were soon to redesign this horn, it stands out as what you might call a 'transitional' model. In showbiz terms I suppose you could say the 61 was the rehearsal, the 62 MkI the preview and the 62 MkII the full Broadway production.
As I've already covered much of the history and development surrounding this model in the 61's review, I'm going to get straight into putting this little beauty on the bench...

The big difference between the 61 and 62, at least in terms of construction, is that the 62 is of ribbed construction - as opposed to the individual pillars used on the 61.
Other than that, everthing else is pretty much the same. The tone holes are all drawn and level, and nicely finished too; there's an adjustable plastic thumb hook and a flat plastic thumb rest - and a small sling ring...which, due to the curved neck section, is going to be slightly more useful than one on a straight soprano.
The only other bodywork changes are focussed on the size and placement of the toneholes - and as life is still far too short to go measuring toneholes, I'm going to skip on to the keywork.

Yamaha YSS62R top stackThere are some minor changes to the keywork, and I'm not sure that all of them were for the better.
For instance, the layout of the regulation screws has changed - and whereas the 61 had the A key's adjuster attached to the Bis Bb key, with a correspondingly 'stubby' bar on the Aux. B key, the 62 has a more conventional layout...with a long adjuster arms coming off the A key.
I really liked the old layout - it was more compact, and that means there's less chance of key flex. And while you might not think that key flex will be an issue on keys this small, I can assure you it is. Granted, it won't be much...but it will still have an effect.

The layout of the Aux.B keys has changed too. The vented 'doughnut' key has gone and has been replaced by a pair of key cups - which are just visible below the front top F key touchpiece (another upgrade over the early 61).
This feature seems to be one of those that's in a constant state of flux - rather like the design of the side trill key connectors. There was the doughnut design, then the double key, then a single key cup (unvented), then back to the doughnut...
I guess you could say it was all down to Yamaha striving for perfection - but then again that's such a tenuous goal on something like a soprano sax. Whatever you change will always have a knock-on effect...and the best results can often be had by balancing the compromises rather than trying to address particularly problematical areas.
Other than the above, the layout of the top stack remains the same - with the Bis Bb being mounted on the main rod screw, with its lower half being mounted on the G# screw.
Likewise, the top E and F plam keys remain pivoted on a shared rod screw.

As before, you get a full set of regulation adjusters on both stacks, and the slightly concave key touches are proper Mother-of-pearl. Beautifully fitted, too - it must be said.

Yamaha YSS62R bell keysI mentioned the rather mean base on the 61's compund bell key pillar - which made it rather more prone to being knocked off if the horn took a tumble - and someone at Yamaha was clearly of the same mind. There's now a larger base to this pillar, and while I feel it could be larger still, it's nonetheless a nice improvement.
The bell key table is much the same - it's still not a tilting mech - but the B spatula now sports a chamfer on its leading edge and the C# has one on its rear edge (where it meets the low Bb spatula). It's a small modification, but it means that when you slide your finger from low C# to low B and from low Bb to low C, it's presented with a sloping face rather than a square one.

The low C# mechanism mirrors that on the earlier 61 - and so suffers with the same mechanical problems as noted in that review. On later models the C# tonehole was moved into line with the low B and Bb toneholes, which allowed for much more mechanically efficient keywork.
In some ways it points up how arcane the upgrade procedure can be; on the one hand you get beefier pillar bases and sculpted key touches, and yet a kludgy key layout gets overlooked. I'm sure a lot of changes are down to the R&D team - forever tweaking the tone and the tuning - and rest is down to customer feedback. If enough people moan about something, there's a good chance it'll get changed (which is why you should always write to the manufacturer of your horn if you feel there's something about it that's not quite right).

Yamaha YSS62R key barrelThe point screws have changed, too. Gone are the shoulderless points - replaced with shouldered screws. I'm in two minds about this because I quite like the constant adjustability of the shoulderless screws - but it has to be said that the new screws have some adjustability built in, and they're still proper points.
The keys that are mounted on them have an interesting feature; a recessed face.
At first sight it looks like a means of reducing friction where the key barrel meets the pillar. The less surface area of the barrel that rubs against the pillar, the better. This is true, but in practice such key barrels shouldn't touch the pillars...there should be a fraction of a gap, so that the only point of friction is where the point screw contacts the barrel.
It's a feature that would perhaps work better with parallel point screws - which rely on the barrel ends contacting the pillars to prevent end-to-end play.
I'm inclined to think that it's a reservior. You'd pack the recess with grease and this would ensure a good supply of lubricant to the point screw - and it'd be far less likely to be squished out in the event of the barrel pushing up against the pillar (as would happen once the action wears).
It's a neat feature, and one that must have been relatively expensive to implement - so it's a bit of a shame that they decided to mill slots in the point screws.

Yamaha YSS62R point screwAgain, I'd imagine this is to aid lubrication - the slot would allow oil to pass freely between the face of the key barrel and the bore of the screw hole. However, the action on a horn simply isn't precise enough to warrant this sort of feature; simply pressing a key down will cause it to flex sufficiently to create gap large enough for lubricant to flow.
And there's another problem. Cutting a slot in a point screw is fair enough - but if the edges of the slot aren't smooth you'll just create, in effect, a cutting edge. As you can see from the photo, these edges aren't smooth at all. It's a nice, if rather unecessary, idea - and one that need to be very carefully implemented if it's not going to make make things worse.

Yamaha YSS62R octave mechThe octave mech has been completely redesigned and is now based around a standard swivel mech, rather than the lever-based mech on the 61. In design terms I guess it's an upgrade, but I quite liked the old mech - for all its quirks and olde-worlde charm it was nevertheless quite slick in use.
I wondered how Yamaha would accomodate the curvature of the neck. Would they separate the top octave key cup from the rest of the mech, and link it with a lever - or would they build in a sort of stepped design to take up the rise of the tube in relation to the thumb rest?
No, they just took the standard mech and bent the top key cup arm a bit. I can't really say it's elegant, but it works - and it's certainly extremely cost-effective. About the only caveat is that the uppermost pillar looks to be a little more exposed than I'd like to see...but that's about it.

Incidentally, take a close look at the mouthpiece cork. When this horn cam in for a service I could tell straightaway that it wasn't putting out the usual Yamaha punch - and nor was it due to a few small leaks from the pads. It turned out to be the mouthpiece cork - which had been badly glued on and had a slit cut down its length...so not only was air was leaking through beneath the cork, it was also leaking past the mouthpiece via the slit. And whoever took the original cork off would have made a truly awful surgeon....you can see where the knife blade has been run along the lacquer before meeting the cork.

Completing the action is a set of blued steel springs. Many players would regard this as an upgrade to the 61's stainless springs - but the action on the 61 was superb, and the springs, being stainless, would practically last forever. Not so much of an upgrade then...more of a side-step maybe.
That said, the 62's action has been designed around these new springs...and, as is typical for Yamaha, it's still superb.

Finally, a quick word about the case.
I love the old Yamaha 62 cases. Proper box-shaped jobbies, with meaty catches. Sure, it's a bit bulkier than some of the modern shaped cases (not that straight soprano cases tend to be that shaped), but you get plenty of room for storing your bits and bobs, and there's no doubting the level of protection it affords your precious instrument.

In the hands the 62R feels just fine.
To be frank it's rare to find a soprano that doesn't feel good under the fingers - and even the Chinese do a pretty good job (though Jupiter manged to bog it up on the 547). However, the action on these old 62s is legendary. The ergonomics (such as they are for such a small instrument) are good, the build quality is there, the springs are fine - what's not to like?
Even the factory setup tends to be reasonable - but with a bit of light tweaking you can really make the keys fly. In particular I loved the feel of the bell keys - I'm not that much of a fan of tilting mechs anyway, and on a soprano I feel they just get in the way (but feel free to disagree).

Playing the 62R is a delight - which is saying something, given that I'm not that keen on the soprano as an instrument.
What wins it over for me is the Yamaha's clear and precise approach. It has, dare I say it, almost almost oboe-like quality to it. With a sax as small as the sorpano you can pretty much forget about going for a brooding, smoochy approach - and rather than attempt to force the focus on what the horn plainly hasn't got, it's much better to focus on what it has. And what it has is plenty of bite and a shedload of clarity.
Tonewise it's a very neutral horn - and while that can sometimes be a drawback on a larger horn, on the soprano I feel it's more of an advantage. Pick up and alto or a tenor and you'll nearly always notice the tone broadens out at the lower end and gradually tightens up as you go up the scale - but the transition is more or less seamless (on a decent horn, at least).
The soprano tends to accentuate any such differences, to the point where it almost sounds like you've started of playing on brand of horn at the lower end, picked up another when you hit low G, and picked up yet another when you reached top A. Granted, you can even these transitions out considerably with your embouchure - but the Yamaha does the job for you by virtue of its remarkable evenness across the scale.
Yamaha YSS62R purple logoIt's interesting to compare it to the earlier 61, which stands as a sort of transitional marker in the development of Yamaha's tonal approach. The 61, I feel, tried to hang on to the 'old school' soprano tone while also trying to freshen it up with a more modern outlook - and it didn't quite work. Perhaps because Yamaha, at that time, weren't quite brave enough to let go of the notion that the soprano ought to be able to compete with the larger horns on equal terms.
The 62 is more ethereal, more haunting. It's less about smoky dives and more of misty moors - it's more at home in a cathedral than in an intimate basement club.
And as well as being more even-toned than its predecessor, the tuning's also more dialled in. In many ways this is the classic payoff for a more neutral tonal presentation....the tone may well be less complex, but the stability really ramps up.
But the killer feature is that it's possible to modify this tonal aproach by simply changing the mouthpiece. Now, that's true of any horn - for sure - but while a mouthpiece may well bring you a different tone, it's seldom the case that it does much for the accuracy and stability of the horn (ay least not with some cost to the tone). This isn't the case with the 62...the stability is built in, you don't have to give it a second thought - all you have to be concerned about is what kind of tone you want to get out of it. This is perhaps why Yamahas were often criticised for being characterless horns. Put mouthpiece on, blow horn, meh. But if you take some time to find their focus, you might be surprised at how versatile they can be.
And that's just this early model - with the changes made to the later models, Yamaha refined the precision still further.

Does the curve make any difference to the tone? In a word - no.
Players sometimes think it does, but this is because the curve means the bell is angled more towards the floor. It's the same effect (though in reverse) of a curved soprano, where the bell points upwards.
It might sound different to you - but that's because some of the sound is being directed away from or towards you. To anyone listening, it makes no difference at all.
About the only difference the curve makes is that you can angle the horn downwards without straining your embouchure (good for marching, or reading the dots), and it makes the use of a sling a more practical proposition. The only other difference is that players who are rather less savvy about curved sopranos will often assume you dropped the thing...

I guess it's inevitable that players will ask whether or not it's worth going for the early version over the later one, and I suppose it boils down to personal preference. The MkII has a slightly better key layout and is a little more dialled in with regards to tuning - but the earlier model is a little more free-spirited, and it comes with the caché of being rather rare (and hence collectable). I'd say that if you were a classical or light popular player, you're probably going to value that extra precision - if you're jazzer, it's maybe not as important as the presentation. Either way, there's not a lot in it.

The YSS62 remains my favourite horn of the genre, even up against some formidable competition from the likes of Yanagisawa and Keilwerth (who made some extremely interesting sopranos). And yeah, even the MKVI. Finding an early 62 soprano in good nick isn't such an easy task these days - and if you're drawn to the curved neck of the 62R you're in for an even more prolonged search. It's quite a rare variant, which is also why, when you eventually find one, you can expect to pay a premium for it. And its not just because there simply weren't that many made...it's also because the players that own them tend to want to hang onto them. Can't say I blame them at all.

 

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2016