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Yanagisawa S880 soprano saxophone

Yanagisawa S880 soprano saxophoneOrigin: Japan (www.yanagisawasax.co.jp)
Guide price: £800-£1500 used
Weight: 1.26Kg
Date of manufacture: 1980s
Date reviewed: December 2014

Yanagisawa's 2nd generation pro level soprano saxophone - with some notes on the S900

If you're in the market for a pro-quality soprano sax on a budget, what're you going to go for?
A used Selmer maybe? A popular choice, but rarely a budget one. An old Yamaha? Maybe a 61? Another popular choice - but as much as I'm a fan of the Yamaha's bright and lively presentation, you might well feel you want something with a bit more warmth.
A vintage horn then? Welllllll...there are some truly great vintage altos and tenors out there, and a few baritones too - but good vintage sopranos can be hard to come by, and even the best ones are inclined to be, shall we say, somewhat quirky at times.
How about a Yanagisawa then?

OK, I know the current models are bloody expensive, but they've been making sopranos since the late 1960s, when the S6 made its debut - a horn very much 'inspired' (as its model number might suggest) by the Selmer MkVI. Indeed, many soprano players feel that of the two horns, the S6 takes the crown.
This was followed in the late 70s by the Elimona (800) series - culminating in the S880, which eventually gave way to the current 900 series of horns in 1990.
As such there's been a reasonably consistent thread of development for Yanagisawa's sopranos - so much so that you could arguably consider the S6 to be the MkI, the 800 series the MkII and the current 900 series the MkIII. And the best part of all this is that all the models are of pro standard. No student sopranos, no intermediate sopranos - only pro spec models. Better still, quite a lot of players are still rather vague about Yanagisawa's earlier models - which means they can often be bought at very favourable prices.

The horn on the bench today is the S880 - and here's a little history note for all you sax trivia buffs - apparently (so Yanagisawa claim) the S880 was the world's first straight soprano sax to feature a detachable crook. Now there's a thing.

The design and build quality are everything you'd expect from Yanagisawa. They've always been one of the better manufacturers, vying for pole position with Yamaha down the years. In more recent times Yamaha's build quality has, sadly, slipped - while Yanagisawa's has either improved or at the very least maintained its standard. Either way, they're now top of the heap in the manufacturing stakes.
The body is of semi-ribbed construction - with the main stacks being set on ribs and the rest of the pillars either in small groups or on their own.
The individual pillars have decent-sized bases (so they'll tolerate a few knocks), and where some pillar bases have been profiled to fit around an obstruction (there's not a lot of space for fittings on a soprano body) it's been done sensibly and neatly.

Yanagisawa S880 bell key pillarThere's an arched compound bell key pillar which, given its relative proportions, is quite a sturdy affair - and made all the more resistant to knocks and bashes by the secondary arched pillar which houses the thread socket for the G# lever key. Quite a tidy design, I thought.

The tone holes are drawn - and if memory serves (I forgot to check), I believe the palm key tone holes are also drawn. On later models these tone holes were silver-soldered to the body. It's of no real importance though, and I'd imagine the shift to soldering them on would have been down to the technical difficulties (and thus expense) of drawing such small tone holes from the body. I'm happy to report that all the tone holes were nice and level, and well finished too.

There's an adjustable thumb hook, albeit a plastic one, a sling ring and a large thumb rest - again in plastic, but with a textured finish to it, which should afford a little extra grip.
There's also the aforementioned detachable crook, and the horn comes supplied with a straight and a slightly curved one - both of which are fitted with a semi-underslung octave key. What this means is that a portion of the key runs beneath the crook, with the octave key pip situated on the top of the tube - as opposed to a true underslung design where the pip is fitted to the bottom of the tube.

Yanagisawa S880 top stackThe keywork is nicely put together too, with a few nice features.
Top on my list is a pair of regulation adjusters for the top stack (those two little screws to the rear of the key pearls). These are a boon on any horn, but particularly so on a soprano - where faffing about with regulation corks in confined spaces is a proper chore. Unfortunately there are no such screws on the lower stack, save for the usual adjusters for the G# and Bis Bb keys, and the low C#.

The front top F key is what I'd call 'chunky'. The current models feature the more ergonomic 'teardrop' style touchpiece - and while the S880's is perhaps not as slick in operation as the later design, it's still more efficient and comfortable than a round touchpiece.

And those key pearls are proper Mother-of-pearl - none of yer cheap, plastic rubbish.
At this point I'd usually knock a point or two off for not having a domed Bis Bb pearl, but because the keys are so small (compared to an alto or tenor), there's less of a difference in height between the B and Bis Bb keys - so it's not such an issue. Would still be nice, though, if only for comfort.

Note the rather crude 'box' pillars for the top F and Eb keys (also the D, which is not visible here).
There's nothing 'wrong', per se, with this type of pillar - and indeed, it makes sense where space is at a premium - it's just that it's not very elegant. It also puts me in mind of those bloody awful cheap East German horns, which made extensive use of this kind of pillar. It would have been nice to see a set of proper little pillars, just like you'd find on a vintage soprano - but I appreciate that this would undoubtedly add to the cost of manufacturing.

Yanagisawa S880 side keysThese box pillars pop up again on the side keys.
The Bb and C keys are a single-piece design. Many vintage altos and tenors were fitted with single-piece side keys, until someone figured out that a two piece design (with a lever and a cup key) was more efficient - but for a horn as small as a soprano, this design of key is just fine. Simple and slick in action. Perfect.

While I was adjusting the side key touchpieces (they'd been knocked out of alignment) I noticed that the keywork was just a touch on the soft side. I also noticed this when adjusting some of the key cup angles on the lower stack.
It's not much of a surprise (to me, anyway), as I've previously noted that Yanagisawa's keywork isn't as stiff as, say, Yamaha's or Selmer's.
That said, it isn't so soft that it'll be a problem - and I can't say that I've been inundated with Yanagisawas that have had their keys bent in normal use. If you handle the horn with due care you'll be fine - and as it's an expensive horn you should be handling it with care anyway.

Yanagisawa S880 bell keysThere's a tilting bell key table, and a nice touch is the 'bridged' roller between the low B and C# touchpieces.
This helps to eliminate that pesky gap between the touchpieces as you roll or slide between the two notes. It's a neat design, though I think it has to be said that if the bell key spatulas are well-designed anyway (as these are), the bridged roller is a bit superfluous. Think of it as an added extra.
Nice, too, to see a well-proportioned G# touchpiece.

Wrapping up the action is a set of blued steel spring and a decent set of pads - but best of all is the use of proper point screws.
They're of the elliptical type - which is just a posh point screw. Either way, it means there's some scope for taking up the inevitable wear and tear in the keys that pivot on them - which makes my job easier, and your wallet happier.

By now you'll have, hopefully, noticed how good the finish is on this horn.
Sure, it has a few wear and tear marks here and there - but for a horn that's knocking on for thirty years old it's in pretty good nick.
I was quite impressed, if only because I've noticed that Yanagisawas can sometimes be a bit troublesome when it comes to the longevity of the lacquer.

Finally, the whole outfit is housed in a sturdy, well-padded box case - complete with proper catches and a bit of storage space for your bits and bobs.

Yanagisawa S880 octave keyThere's not too much point commenting on the factory setup of a horn this old - but I did notice that many of the key corks looked to be original...and from that I could tell the original setup would have been quite good, at least in terms of the action height.
Under the fingers the action was as slick as you'd expect on a horn of this calibre, to the point where I don't have much to say about it other than it did the job without getting in the way (which is about as good as it gets).
As just mentioned, the bell key spatulas were smooth and precise - and the octave key deserves a special mention, the touchpiece being 'sculpted'. I found this exceptionally comfortable - and although the thumb rest is flat, the grippy surface really seemed to pay dividends.

As for key placement - well, you can't please everyone...no matter where you put the palm or the side keys, there'll always be someone who struggles with them, but I had no issues at all.
Yanagisawa S900 soprano saxI also felt the horn was very nicely balanced. This is, I feel, an important point for a soprano. I know some people like to use slings with these horns, but I can't abide them - much preferring to treat them like the clarinet. It's just a personal preference, but one that rather relies on the balance of the horn being just so...and on the S880 it's just so.

Tonewise the S880 shows its professional credentials from the very first note. It's a remarkably rich-sounding soprano - and had I been writing this after the sun had hit the yardarm and I'd watered down my cuppa with a shot of whisky, I might have been tempted to say it was luscious. Double cream rather than single; full-fat rather than semi-skimmed.
The stability is impressive, it feels very solid. A great many sopranos, especially cheap ones, can feel very 'flighty' - as though the notes have a very finely-defined centre. Stray off the beaten path by so much as a fraction and you might find that either the tone or the tuning goes to pot. No such problems on the Yanagisawa - you blow the note, you get the note...and if your embouchure wants to go walkabout, the note will hold - up to a point, naturally.
And it's where that point is that differentiates Yanagisawa's sopranos from Yamaha's. The stability comes at an expense, and for me that translates into a sense that the horn is a little restrained.
Now that's not a criticism, more of an observation of a personal preference. If the tone you want from a soprano lies within that inbuilt 'safety zone', you can't fail to like (or even love) the S880 - but if you want to push the boundaries a little you might find yourself butting up against a wall from time to time.
You can certainly push the S880, and it'll respond - and it also backs off very well. This is where a lot of cheaper horns really suffer...when the going gets quiet they don't have what it takes to maintain the tonal stability.

Something I've commented on before is the difference in tone between a single-piece soprano and one with a detachable crook.
In fact I don't think 'tone' is quite the right word, because it's more of a 'feel' thing. It might just be me, because although the soprano isn't my favourite sax I nonetheless find that I enjoy playing single-piece models more than two-piece ones. They just seem to be that little bit more 'together; there just seems to be a hint more clarity.
As it so happens, I had an early Yanagisawa S900 (pictured right) come in while I was reviewing the S880 - which gave me the opportunity to compare the two quite closely. As you can see there's not much in it, save for the crook. The design seems to be more or less identical - but who's to say what tweaks Yanagisawa have made 'under the hood'. At the very least, when the 900 is placed on top of the 880 in Photoshop, everything lines up save for the slight perspective differences at each end of the horns.
Tonally the two horns were much the same - give or take the subtle difference you'll get between any two seemingly-identical horns - but by the time you've factored in the obvious differences between a single-piece and a two-piece horn, the 900 just had a bit of an edge to it.
I'd be happy with either, but I'd be a bit more happier with the 900.

As for the tuning, it's as good as it gets (even for a soprano).

On the whole, I liked the playability of the S880 - perhaps even a little more than that of Yanagisawa's current sopranos. It's got that classic Yanagisawa sound, but there's perhaps just a hint of a few rough edges...and for me that means it sparkles just a little bit more. But given a choice between this horn and, say, an old Yamaha YSS61, I'd be very slightly more tempted by the 61 - but only because I prefer a bit more cut and edge. A brighter piece will close that gap, but I often find the price for that extra brightness is a loss of the essential character of a horn - and that's always a bit of a shame.

Make no mistake though, this is a top-of the-range horn - both in terms of build quality and playability. It's perhaps a little overshadowed these days by its own contemporaries, and by the YSS62 - but only because so many people simply must have the 'new best thing' out there. For the canny soprano buyer on a budget, the S880 is very, very hard to beat.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015