Yanagisawa SWO1U soprano
Guide price: £2700
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.