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Yanagisawa SWO1U soprano

Yanagisawa SWO1U soprano sax reviewOrigin: Japan
Guide price: £2700
Weight: 1.28kg
Date of manufacture: 2017 (serial range: 0036xxxx)
Date reviewed: January 2018

The 901 - all grown up

'Highly anticipated'. It's a phrase that's often overused, but ever since Yanagisawa revamped their altos and tenors it's been abundantly clear that soprano aficionados around the world have been waiting with bated breath for the upgrades to filter through to the rest of the range.
And who can blame them? They've been market leaders in the field for many years now - producing solid, reliable and personable instruments that have consistently set the pace in the marketplace. When they announced they were upgrading the venerable 900 series, you could practically hear the collective drooling of thousands upon thousands of horn players around the world.
The soprano series upgrade is particularly important inasmuch as it's always been fiendishly difficult to make a good soprano - and while the odd design foible might merely add character or quirkiness to an alto or a tenor, on a soprano it's likely to be as welcome as the appearance of a dirty great spot on the end of your nose...on gig night.
Yanagisawa know this better than anyone - which means that the question isn't so much 'Is the new model better?" as "How much better is the new model?"
Let's find out.

The basic structure is essentially the same as the 901/2 - which makes sense, given that it's a proven design. As far as the bodywork changes go, most (if not all) of it's in the bore and the tonehole dimensions...which is rather more difficult to see than it is to hear. The manufacturer's blurb says "newly designed, newly engineered and specially sourced brass material for improved sound and sonority." I have no beef with newly designed and newly engineered - these are things you can point at, that you can see and feel and even measure - but 'specially sourced brass' for 'improved sound and sonority'? Let me just pour myself a fresh glass of Hmmmm.

The construction is ribbed, with the few remaining single pillars having nicely-sized bases - all of which are neatly soldered to the body. There's an adjustable metal thumb hook, a domed metal thumb rest, an arched compound bell key pillar and a 15/8 sling ring. The toneholes are plain drawn save for those from the auxiliary B upwards which are silver soldered to the body (common practice on a modern soprano), and as far as I could see they all appear to be nice and level.
Yanagisawa SWO1U  bell keysAs sturdy as the bell key pillar is, I'd still rather have seen a fully semicircular one here than this (ho ho) half-arched design - but then again it's been a feature on Yanagisawa sopranos for many years now, and I can't in all honesty say that I've seen many that have been knocked out of whack.
As expected, you get a fully tilting bell key table - complete with Yanagisawa's nifty tilting roller between the low C# and the B key touches, which makes life a bit easier when you're sliding up from the C# to the B.

By now you'll have (hopefully) noticed that the body is of the single-piece variety. For those of you who are fans of sopranos with detachable crooks, fear not - these are available on other models...but personally I find the single-piece models to be slightly more solid in presentation, and rather more reliable down the years. Not that there's anything wrong with detachable crooks, but the joint is prone to wear and/or poor manufacture - which can be exacerbated by the relatively diminutive size of the soprano. It's something to bear in mind if you have no real need for a detachable crook.
The 'U' on the model number tells you that this is an unlacquered model. If you're a fan of the 'finish makes a difference' school(?) of thought then you'll be mightily pleased - but for everyone else you might want to think carefully before saddling yourself with a bare brass horn. If you're a 'dry' player who doesn't tend to sweat much, you'll probably be fine - but if not you run the risk of the horn going green rather than fading into a nice vintage-style patina. And if you're worried about keeping the brass nice and tidy a good quality car wax will help enormously.

Yanagisawa SWO1U  palm keysAs for the keywork, it's here where you're more likely be able to see the changes - though, on the whole, they're quite subtle.
Essentially they've just juggled things around a little - which is not to diminish the improvements but rather to emphasise that they're evolutionary tweaks rather than major differences. This is more or less to be expected, given that the ergonomics of the preceding series left very little to be desired.
With that said, I was a bit miffed to see that they've retained the U-channel pillars for the palm keys. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing really wrong with them in engineering terms (other than there's precious little room for the pivot screw threads) - it's more that they look rather inelegant and industrial.
Would it really have been so bad or cost so much to have put proper pillars here?
And maybe it's a personal thing but they look rather out of place next to the sensual curves of the domed thumb rest and the sculpted octave key touchpiece.

Yanagisawa SWO1U  side keysIt's all the more galling when you consider that the side key pillars used to be mounted on U-channel pillars (at least back in the days of the 800 series) and were subsequently upgraded to proper ones. I don't know about you but as I sit here glancing between the shots of the palm and side keys, it's perfectly obvious which type of pillar looks nicer.

Note that the side Bb and C keys are single-piece. This is standard practice on sopranos as the keys are really too small to be worth the fuss and bother of separating them into cup and lever keys.

The top stack features a pair of regulation adjusters -which makes setting up the stack a great deal easier than having to faff around with fiddly bits of cork. On keys this small the slightest error in the regulation between them will have significant effects on how the horn plays, so having the means to adjust it 'on the fly' is a real boon. I'm knocking a point off for the length of the bar that sits beneath the A key adjuster though - I really would have like to have seen a shorter (and thus stiffer) bar here. It might appear very picky, but you'd be surprised at just how much even small keys like this can flex - and when things start to wear (as they eventually must), that long bar will prove to be a bit of a nuisance.
The bottom stack has no such adjusters (save for the usual pair over the Bis B arm and the G# key cup), but at least the regulation corks are thin and made from composite cork - and you also get an adjuster over the low C# key cup to help keep it closed if you fumble your low B/Bb fingering.

Another slight disappointment is that the horn doesn't have the new front F touchpiece (as fitted to other models in the WO range).
That's not to say that the existing design is poor in any way (in fact it's just fine)...it would just have been a nice touch.
Yanagisawa SWO1U  top stackHowever, my bitter disappointment is slightly assuaged by the contrast afforded by the nickel silver key barrel on the G key. It's a nice cosmetic touch - and I suppose you could argue that because nickel silver is stiffer than brass, it adds a bit of a beefiness to the G key. And it probably does...but not enough to make any significant difference - and this assumes the barrel is solid nickel silver and not just plated (I forgot to check).
And while we're here, the key pearls are all proper mother-of-pearl with a concave profile - even the Bis Bb. It perhaps would have been nice to have seen a slightly domed pearl here, but on something as small as a soprano it's not really necessary...even if it is quite a nice thing to have.

Yanagisawa SWO1U  caseWrapping up the action you get a set of blued steel springs to power it, and a set of proper (elliptical) point screws - which provides some scope for adjustment as and when the action wears.
The whole thing comes in quite a snazzy case. It's an excellent box-type case that sports three proper catches (one hidden beneath the strap under the handle - which is a bit of a faff), two zippered external pouches, provision for shoulder strap carrying and a decent amount of internal storage space for your bits and a bobs.
They've changed the smooth vinyl covering for a mock-canvas one - and while it perhaps doesn't look quite so sleek it's at least rather less prone to scratches and tears
Did I mention it has three proper catches? I love proper catches.

Under the fingers the WO1 felt as comfortable as any Yanagisawa soprano - which I suppose will be good news or bad news depending on whether or not you like the feel of them. In terms of ergonomics I feel they've had it nailed for many years now, and although the new model boasts a few tweaks to the keywork I think you'd be hard put to detect them unless you were coming directly from a 9xx series horn. To be fair though, such tweaks are often quite incremental in nature and tend not to have a 'wow' factor - they just make things slightly easier over the long term.

Of rather more concern was the setup - and I have to say it was rather poor. As a practically 'straight out of the box' example it had leaks on the top B, the G, the low F and low E keys. They weren't huge leaks, to be sure, but they were still big enough to affect the depth of tone and the stability of the notes. I suppose I should shrug my shoulders and say that this is just how things are these days - but Yanagisawa have always had a good reputation when it comes to setups...and I wouldn't like to see this crown slip.
Yanagisawa SWO1U  A key corkThe corkwork was generally excellent - lots of composite cork (very stable and hardwearing) and a few bits of a felt here and there...which is why the scruffy buffer cork beneath the A key pearl stuck out like a sore thumb. It seems rather incongruous compared to the buffers on the rest of the horn - so I'm rather hoping it was put there by the retailer rather than at the factory. I was also quite surprised to note that the mouthpiece cork had been left far too thick - so that not even the supplied Yanagisawa piece would fit on. Experienced soprano players will know only too well how critical the placement of the mouthpiece is on a soprano, and even a piece that fits only halfway along the cork is likely to throw up noticeable tone and tuning issues. With a piece that barely sits on the end of the cork the horn will be around a semitone out of tune, and thus practically impossible to play without wincing in pain.
This is the sort of setup error you expect to see on a cheap Chinese horn - and it left me wondering how on earth they managed to play-test this horn before they sent it out.
Other than that the spring tension was spot on, as was the height of the action.

Yanagisawa SWO1U  bellBut by far the bigger question is whether or not any of the structural changes have made a difference to the way the horn plays and how it sounds.
And indeed they have.
Tonewise it's clear (to me, at least) that the WO soprano follows in much the same footsteps as the WO2 alto in that there's more oomph, more presence and more sparkle in the mix. Yes, you have the classic Yanagisawa stability and the lean towards a slightly dark tonal approach, but the WO1 improves upon this tried and trusted recipe by giving it a bit of a kick up the arse.
You may well disagree but I feel this is a very welcome improvement. It lifts the horn out of 'slightly staid but solid' and puts it more in the 'Where da party at??' category - but it does so with a degree of decorum and sensitivity...which should provide some reassurance to die-hard Yani soprano fans who may well be toying with the idea of upgrading from a 900 series.
Yanagisawa have always had a very good reputation for their sopranos. Some of this is undoubtedly down to the sheer range that's available, but a great deal of it is because they've always sat very nicely between the Selmers and the Yamahas. They're still sat there, but the chair is rather higher than it was before - and I very much suspect that they'll be pulling sales from the other manufacturers.

Taking everything into account I'd say that although I found the poor setup to be disappointing (easily rectified with an hour of bench time, at your expense) - the build quality, the new design, the snazzy case and the more exciting tonal presentation make the WO1 a gentle but credible improvement over the older models. And a clear 'must try' if you're out shopping for a new soprano.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2018