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Robert Martin Macon Constellation tenor (Dolnet M70)

Dolnet M70 tgenor saxophoneOrigin: France
Guide price: £800 - £1200
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: 1970s
Date reviewed: November 2009

An unusual and relatively rare horn from one of the smaller French manufacturers

This very unusual tenor is a stencilled Dolnet - made by Dolnet but rebadged by another company. The Dolnet (pronounced doll-nay) company started making saxophones in the late 19th century and continued right up until the mid 1980's. Over the years they've produced some fine and distinctive horns, much sought after by those in the know - though unlike similar companies like Couesnon and Perriet, Dolnets tend not to be quite so refined in terms of build quality.
Such horns can be quite a bargain for the player who does a spot of research. The majority of players are well aware of the biggest names in saxophones, but horns from smaller and less well-known companies can often prove to be as good or better than many mainstream horns, and considerably cheaper to buy.
It gets a bit more complicated if there's a "collector's" interest though, perhaps due to a design feature or some association with a famous player - or even just rarity, and that'll mean a premium will be added to the price - as with this Dolnet stencil. Is it worth it though?

Dolnet M70 bell angleBy far the most noticeable feature of this horn is the angle of the bell. With the average tenor held so that the top stack tone holes point directly forward the angle of the bell is typically around 40 degrees to the left - the Dolnet's bell sits at around 65 degrees. Quite why the bell was placed at this angle has been the subject of some debate, but I suspect it has something to do with marching bands (I considered a bell angled for playing when seated, but it doesn't work with this horn).

The bell of a standard tenor sticks out quite some distance when the horn is held straight out in front, and a knock to the bell could result in a painful injury to the player's mouth. Angling the bell to the left makes it less susceptible to knocks...and it might also explain why the Dolnet is fitted with the heftiest lyre screw I've ever seen.

Another reason to suppose this was the horn's intended use is the build quality. It's really not that good - mediocre, in fact.
The body itself isn't too bad, but the fittings point to a degree of cheapness. The simple bell brace isn't particularly sturdy and the thumbhook isn't much more than a thin plate of brass bent at 90 degrees.
The bell key guards look to have been designed with strength in mind, they're made from slightly heavier gauge brass than normal and each foot has a 'step' in it - presumably as a means of absorbing the shock from a knock. They're functional, if perhaps a little industrial in design.
I wasn't pleased to see that the low B and Bb guards each have one of the mounting screws facing into the tone hole. This means that in order to remove the guard you have to get your screwdriver in under the key pad - or remove the key beforehand (as opposed to the other screws which can be removed from the 'outside'). It's not a complaint as such, just a grumble - it makes it a right royal pain to get the guards off and on in a hurry.
The bottom bow joint is soldered, and fitted with a rather nicely patterned joint ring - similarly the lower bell ring on the opposite end of the bottom bow is attractively patterned. These rings, and the engraving on the bell, are this horn's only concession to elegance.

Dolnet M70 pillarThe pillars are very poorly fitted in places, with clearly visible gaps under the bases where the soldering has been less than careful. The pillars themselves aren't that well finished either, with machining marks and crude bases. This seems to jar with the fitment of heavy bell key guards (as does the simple bell brace), as there's little point in ensuring the bell keys won't get damaged in the event of a knock while leaving the rest of the horn somewhat vulnerable.
This theme continues with the keywork, which turned out to be rather soft and easy to bend - though to be fair it's neatly built. The design of the action is also rather crude, particularly the very basic octave key mechanism and the slightly clumsy bell key spatulas - and a closer inspection reveals indifferent fitting of the rod screws, with rather more free play than can be attributed to wear and tear. I think 'functional' is about as complimentary as it gets, and unless such an action is kept in tip-top condition it's likely to become quite noisy in a very short space of time.
Dolnet M70 bell key spatulasAll these factors add up to an action that's more likely to be found on a student-quality horn rather than a professional one - and what really seals the deal is the cavernous gap between the top B and Bis Bb key pearls.
While servicing the horn I came across a number of action issues, particularly the collision of the right hand stack keys with the bell key barrels. This limited the height of the right hand stack action and required the careful attention of a file on the cup arms in order to allow the stack keys to reach their optimum height.

The lack of finesse would seem to support the idea that this is a horn designed for marching band use. It has specific design features that would make sense in this situation, and is built to a standard that would be adequate for a horn that's probably going to get rained on. It might also explain the large Bis Bb wouldn't be a problem if you were wearing gloves...

Dolnet M70 top F#One very interesting feature is the addition of a top F# key. It's very clearly an addition as the tone hole has been brazed (non too neatly) onto the body - the rest of the tone holes are drawn. It's also made from noticeably thicker tube too.
Having said that it's just possible that the manufacturers considered it too problematical to draw out a tone hole so close to the end of the body tube, and may have decided to resort to soldering it on instead - although the add-on theory is supported by earlier version of the horn without a top F#.

Under the fingers the action feels slightly clumsy, though in fairness this may have been due to the rather weak springs and the poorly fitted rod screws - however, even with a tweak I suspect it wouldn't improve that much. The Bis Bb gap, the simple bell spatulas and the old-fashioned round button touchpiece on the octave key all conspire to make the action less than swift.

Dolnet M70 octave keyTonewise the Dolnet has what I would call a very gentle sound. Its tendency is to the warm, but without being stuffy or muted, and with enough brightness to add a bit of sparkle to the tone - and although it's perfectly possible to push this horn, it seems to always drift back to its natural, easy-going, relaxed tone. It's also quite an introverted horn, the sound doesn't seem to want to project too far away. Some horns seem to throw the sound right out in every direction, others seem more focussed - but the Dolnet like to wrap its tone around the player. Such a horn would benefit from close-miking techniques while being blown only moderately hard, though it might take a while to get the hang of keeping the bell positioned under the mic.

It gets quite interesting when you apply a bit of rock 'n roll growl though - the warmth and relaxed approach adds up to a distinctly creamy tone...very thick and filling, but with a nice 'lazy' feel about it.
This all sounds very positive, but in some ways it can be quite limiting and can leave you feeling the horn is a bit of a one-trick-pony. If you wanted to use the horn in anything other than a small combo or solo miked, I think it would struggle to cut through both in terms of tone and volume.
Another curious aspect is the effect of having the bell at such an offset. Granted, not much of a saxophone's sound comes out of the bell but there's enough to make it noticeable when the bell is oddly positioned (which is why the Keilwerth straight alto sounds odd, and players swear that curved sopranos sound different to straight ones). As such, the Dolnet's sound seems to be accentuated in your left ear - which leaves you feeling a little unbalanced. The unexpected result of this is a tendency for the player to keep turning to the left, almost in an effort to chase the sound with the right ear. Given the horn's probable intended use as a marching band horn, it's probably not a good idea to put a row of these saxes at the front - the band would wander around in a circle...
It becomes very evident to the listener when the player hits a low B or Bb - it's almost like they've taken a step sideways. Very disconcerting.

The tuning was good. Some Dolnet's have a reputation for poor tuning, and it occurs to me that if anyone finds problems with this horn then it might well be due to the design flaw that limits the height of the right hand stack. With this stack set low I wouldn't be surprised if there were some issues at the top end. I think too that this modification would resolve any unevenness in the tone, should you find any.

The Dolnet is undoubtedly a very curious horn - the offset bell and the quirky action stand out, and the subtlety of the tone is quite unique, and as such it presents a difficult choice for buyers. In terms of build quality alone I'd find it hard to recommend this horn, and the introspective tone rules it out as an all-rounder. Dolnet have made some extremely nice horns, but this isn't one of their best efforts...and while there's no denying it's a unique instrument, and as such can command quite a high price, I'm not too sure it's ultimately worth the expense.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015