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Yanagisawa S800 (Martin) soprano saxophone

Yanagisawa (Martin) 800 soprano sax reviewOrigin: Japan
Guide price: £750
Weight: 1.22kg
Date of manufacture: 1980 (Serial range: 00102xxx)
Date reviewed: June 2017

Almost the last stop on the Martin line

When is a Martin not a Martin? When it's a Yanagisawa, of course. Yes, it's a stencil horn.
So how did the once proud and venerable name of one of the giants of American sax manufacturing come to be stamped on a Japanese horn? The simple answer is money (as it so often is). Having produced some of the finest horns of the era during the mid 1900s, Martin were struggling by the end of the 1960s - and in 1971 the name was sold to Leblanc. At this time Leblanc were distributing Yanagisawa horns in the States under a variety of names - so it would have been a very simple decision to turn the once-proud Martin brand into a stencil for these, then, up-and-coming horns.
By the time this example hit the shops, Yanagisawa were building a name for themselves in their own right - and I guess you can think of this horn as the start of the swansong for the Martin brand. From almost this point onwards a Yanagisawa horn would be stamped with the Yanagisawa name. And I say almost because you can still find a few 880 series Yanagisawas with the Martin name stamped on them.
It's quite probably not the fate the original Martin company would have hoped for, but at least the name had the dignity of being placed on a decent horn. Many other noble names ended up on quite mediocre ones.

For the canny and well-informed buyer, such horns represent a golden opportunity to pick up a quality horn at a bargain price - provided, of course, that some loudmouth hasn't bunged an article up on the internet that tells prospective sellers that their seemingly unknown horn is really rather nice. But hey, it's not like I'm breaking an exclusive here - this information has been out there for ages, and you don't really have to look very hard to find it. OK, so now maybe you have to look a little less harder.

From my perspective this is a very interesting horn. It was built at a time when Yanagisawa were beginning to break their own mould, so to speak. They were very clearly influenced by the great marques of the day, but strove to improve upon industry standards. If you look at (and play) their range of horns in chronological order, there's a very definite upward progression. And so while this horn may well have been the herald of the end of Martin, it was also that of the 'old' Yanagisawa. From here on in the gloves were off, and the company would go on to become one of the industry's brightest stars.

Yanagisawa 800 soprano thumb hookThe 800 is a single-piece soprano (the detachable crook would be a feature of the next series, the 880) with single pillar construction, featuring a single, and rather crude, saddle for the side Bb and C keys. It's functional, but not very pretty. The pillar bases are on the small side, but nevertheless well-fitted to the horn.
The toneholes are drawn - at least up to the top B, whereafter they're silver-soldered on. This is a typical construction technique on modern sopranos, and probably comes about because of the inherent difficulties of drawing such small toneholes out of the body and the need to reduce bore deformation to a minimum in this critical area.
I noted quite a few uneven toneholes. On a horn of this age (and one that's clearly seen a few knocks) I'd have to give the benefit of the doubt - but I found rather more warps than a few knocks would suggest...so make of that what you will.

There are few body features, which is pretty typical for a soprano. You get a large adjustable plastic thumb hook, a large plastic thumb rest and a sling ring. And that's yer lot. The sling ring is less of a ring and more of a loop - but it's large and fitted to a stout base, so no complaints there.

Yanagisawa 800 soprano pillarsOn the keywork side the point screws are of the parallel type. These are of an unusual design, being rather fat and stubby. They still suffer with all the disadvantages of a parallel screw, but the correspondingly larger holes in the key barrels should make it easier to swedge the barrel ends to take up the inevitable wear.
Note the spring hole in the nearest pillar (low Bb upper pillar). That's not a missing spring. It caught me out - I went to all the trouble of selecting a spring of the right diameter, flaring the end and fitting it into the pillar...before checking the length against the key. That's when I discovered that the spring cradle was fitted to the other end of the key. This hole's a dummy.
I'm not sure how it got there. They wouldn't have simply drilled all the pillars out as a matter of course (as you can see on the pillar behind) - so either it was a mistake, or the key was originally designed with the spring cradle at this end - and when they changed the design of the key they forgot to change the design of the pillars. Who knows? A poster on Cafesaxophone says that the same hole appears on his Yanagisawa S6 soprano - so it's clearly something that's being going on for quite some time.
And I guess that now would be a good time to mention that the action is powered by stainless steel springs.

Yanagisawa 800 soprano bell key tableAs per the body there are few bells and whistles on the keywork. The bell key table is of the non-tilting type. I quite like this layout - it's simple and uncluttered, and on something the size of a soprano you could argue than anything more complex would be overkill. It has a nice 'connected' feel, which is something that tends to get a bit lost with a tilting table.
It's also quite a robust design - one that can tolerate the odd knock without being shifted out of whack...and with each key being mounted on its own pillar (as seen above) it'll be resistant to damage from case shock.
That said, this was the last outing for this layout - from the 880 onwards a modern tilting table was a standard feature.
Sticking with simplicity, the side Bb and C keys are single-piece designs. It might seem rather quaint, but it makes sense for keys of this size. The only niggle is that they have to be fitted as a pair, which means removing the top F# lever key to gain access. This stops being fun after a couple of goes.

Yanagisawa 800 soprano octave mechThings get a little more complicated on the octave key mechanism, where there's a ball and socket joint to connect the mech to the touchpiece.
This is a bonkers-mad idea on many levels. For a start it's an inherently sloppy mechanism; unless it's built to precision standards (which saxes aren't) there's always going to be play where the ball sits on the swivel arm pin, and likewise where the ball fits into the octave key touchpiece. And that's from new. The moment you start using the horn, this joint will start to wear.
You've already got a number of points of play within the mech (the ends of the swivel bar, and its central pivot), and this will translate to lost motion at the touchpiece. As these parts wear, the lost motion will increase...and that's before you add in any wear in the key barrels themselves.
Of course, there are steps you can take to prevent this wear - of which the main one is keeping the mech well lubricated and the ball joint well greased. But hey, how likely is that?
It would have been far cheaper to have gone for a simple fork and pin connector here, and in the long term it'd have meant a slicker, less noisy octave mech. If you were so inclined, or you somehow managed to lose the ball joint, it wouldn't be too difficult to convert this link to a fork and pin.
Other than that it's a good mech, and although the octave key touchpiece is flat it's at least profiled to curve around the thumb rest.

Adjusters are a bit thin on the ground. You get the usual trio (Bis Bb, G# and low C#) but there's only a single stack adjuster - on the top B, which means that the regulation for the A key is via a piece of cork on the arm that sits beneath the Bis Bb touchpiece.
It's better than nothing, but I like to see regulation adjusters right along both stacks. Makes my life easier, makes your bills smaller and it allows the more experienced player/tweakers to dial in adjustments as and when required.

The stack layout is quite modern, with the Bis Bb and G keys mounted on their own pillars. Note the G key's nickel silver barrel.
It's often said that the manufacturers use nickel silver because it's stiffer - which it is, though not by enough to make a difference in such applications - but it would make far more sense to use a stiffer barrel on the bell keys, which are both longer and subject to more stress in use.
Yanagisawa 800 soprano top stackA far more likely explanation is that it looks nice and provides a little accent to the rest of the horn. It's also true to say that it's a feature that Selmer were quite keen on...

You also get a dual Auxiliary B, with a lower 'donut' key and a plain key cup above it.
In normal use these two key cups act as one - but when you play a top C#, only the lower key closes (via a link to the octave mech)...with the hole in the 'donut' providing a little venting to the note. This helps improve the tuning, tone and stability of this otherwise tricky note.
And you get a full set of proper mother-of-pearl key touches. These are almost, but not entirely, flat - with just a hint of concavity.

A very curious omission is that of a front top F key.
By this stage in horn development the front top F key was pretty much a standard fixture - and as the whole point of a soprano is to play high notes you'd think that anything that aided fluency in the top register would be a dead cert. Apparently not.
What's even stranger is that this horn is fitting with a top F#. It seems like an odd oversight, but then again Yamaha did much the same thing with their 61 soprano - so they're in good company.

Yanagisawa 800 soprano palm keysSpeaking of which, the palm keys are a bit of a throwback - and perhaps, like the nickel silver G key barrel, point up some (shall we say) 'references' to the Selmer MkVI. I initially found this layout to be very cumbersome under the fingers, though I got used to it after a while. One nifty feature is that pressing down the Eb key also open the D, which might save a bit of time in the right circumstances. However, it makes the action really rather heavy when using this feature.
This layout was never a great design, even on the Selmer, and it's not much better on the Yanagisawa. They missed a trick here, and would have done better to have taken a leaf out of Yamaha's book, who were fitting 'proper' palm keys on their sopranos at around the same time.
Note the pitting on the touchpieces. This is classic acid sweat damage, and the only reason the D touchpiece (in the middle of the group) isn't similarly affected is because the player's finger would tend to rest on this key, thus constantly 'polishing' it.

The horn still had its original case - a simple box affair with a couple of sturdy catches. It's not a great case - it was built in the days when a case was seen simply as something to put the horn in and carry it around. There's hardly any padding in it and every time you lift the case up you can feel the horn rattling around inside. Owners would be well-advised to invest in some 'auxiliary padding' (AKA a couple of dusters). It's highly likely that this case is specific to this stencilled model, and that the case that comes with the 'proper' S800 is rather more modern. If in any doubt, the stencil case presents a square profile when viewed end-on, the Yanagisawa case is more rectangular.

In the hands the 800 feels nicely balanced and the action feels swift and positive. To be honest it's pretty hard to go very far wrong with a horn the size of a soprano, but you nonetheless get a sense that action's got some finesse. The original stainless springs were still doing their job, and although capable of being set quite light I found this horn feels better with just a bit more weight to the action.
The only two issues of note were the palm keys - which took some getting used to - and the bell key layout. This wasn't down to a problem with the keywork, rather it's that so many horns use a tilting table these days it can sometimes take you a little by surprise when you handle one that doesn't. And, of course, there's the missing front top F key.
Other than that, everything worked very well and was where I expected it to be.

Yanagisawa 800 soprano bellTonewise the 800 comes across as a rather restrained horn. It's not unpleasant - in fact it's got a nice, rounded tone...albeit with some resistance, which makes it a slightly stiff blow. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - lots of players prefer a horn they can get their teeth into rather than one that tends to run a bit wild.
I tend to prefer the latter, so I found myself feeling like I needed to coax the horn into action - but to be fair it responded quite well. Bear in mind that this would be on the same mouthpiece I test all the sopranos on (HR Link 5), so I daresay that a more extrovert piece would liven things up a bit.

It's quite even-toned, and this, perhaps more than any other feature, highlights Yanagisawa's steady progression towards a more cohesive soundstage. They haven't quite nailed it at this point (there was some slight pinching and fuzzing on the top C), and some of the vibrancy has been lost in the mix - but it's still a step up from the variability that often plagued sopranos of this era.

In a strange kind of way it seems that they set out to make a go-ahead, thrusting, modern horn and ended up with something that would probably appeal more to vintage players than contemporary ones.
So it's a bit of a blend of the old and the new - which, coincidentally, is something Martin horns of old were very comfortable with. So maybe that name on the bell isn't so wide of the mark after all.

If you're after a quality soprano on a budget and you prefer a more rounded, softer approach, the 800 'Martigisawa' should do you quite nicely - but keep an eye on the price as it's possible to find 880 and later models for not much more.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2017