Unison Steve Goodson tenor saxophone
Guide price: £1200 (used)
Date of manufacture: 2003
Date reviewed: March 2006
A pro spec horn from Unison designed in association
with Steve Goodson
Oscar Wilde once said that it is better to be talked about than not to
be talked about at all, and it seems to me that there are two main ways
in which saxes get talked about. The first is simply by being of good
quality. Just about every sax player has heard of the Selmer MkVI and
the Yamaha 62, along with the Conn 6M and 10M, the Martin Handcraft...and
so on. The other way to get a horn talked about is...to talk about it.
With the former method the quality is implied by the reason the horn gets
talked about, with the latter reason it leaves the horn a lot to live
up to. So let's see if it does.
The Unison is an attractive looking horn. Despite having some extra gadgetry
on the keywork side of things (more of which later) it still manages to
look quite elegant and graceful. The pseudo underslung crook helps the
looks, though as it's not a proper underslung (whereby the octave hole
sits beneath the crook) it doesn't have any of the advantages. Or indeed
disadvantages. Its only real benefit is that it removes the rather vulnerable
part of the octave key that normally runs over the top of the crook, and
is forever being stressed when the crook is inserted or removed.
Opinions will differ as to the use of separate guards for the low B and
Bb. Personally I feel they make the bell look a bit too 'busy', and it's
just more weight, but others might well find it adds to the looks. It
does tend to add to the potential for damage - if you cop a severe whack
on a normal bell key guard you'll undoubtedly end up with a dent under
at least one of the guard stays...which will also deform the tone hole
- but you'd be unlikely to see a dent at the other end of the guard, as
it's the guard that absorbs the remainder of the shock. Make the guard
smaller though and it's less able to deal with the shock, so you could
see damage under both guard stays, and if that happens to be the middle
stays then both the B and the Bb tone hole will take some distortion.
It's worth considering such things, bell key guard damage is extremely
The pillars are nicely designed and fitted, with no messy solderwork
- likewise on the other fixtures and fittings.
There's a three-hole strap ring, a design not seen since the late 1950s.
The principle behind it is that it allows the player to vary the angle
the mouthpiece sits at by choosing one or other of the holes. It probably
won't be of much use to most players, but those who work in both standing
and sitting positions on a regular basis could find it a boon.
There's a very generously proportioned upper thumbrest fitted - but it's
in plain brass, and it's domed. I've played horns with metal thumbrests
and I've found that things can get a bit tricky of you get any moisture
on your thumb. This could be even more of a problem with a domed thumbrest
- but for as long as I was playing the horn I found it quite comfortable.
far as the body goes I found only one flaw, and that was...a chad!
Remember all that fuss in a US election about little punched pieces of
paper? Well, this horn had one...only in brass.
Have a peek at this picture, which shows the lower body octave key tube
through a palm key tone hole. See that disc to the right of the tube?
That's the 'chad' - the piece of metal that was punched out to make the
octave key tube hole. It's not exactly difficult to spot - it sits to
the side of the tube, so when you peer down the bore (as I did), there
it is. It's the sort of minor flaw that should have been caught by quality
I doubt it would have made any difference to the tone or the tuning, but
it was certainly sharp enough on its edge to catch a pull-through.
I noted no problems with warped tone holes, though I did have to knock
off more than a few sharp edges. I found that a little disappointing given
the makers have gone to all the trouble of fitting excellent (and expensive)
pads. Sharp tone holes will eat pads, no matter how tough they are.
Topping off the body work is some rather nice engraving on the removable
bell section, a decently proportioned bell stay and a pleasingly substantial
bell key upper pillar that's braced across the body over the A key tone
The lacquer job looks to be good - this horn is a couple of years old
and shows no signs of flaws or acid bleed in the finish.
so to the action.
What makes this horn stand out from the run of the mill are the number
of small additions designed with the player in mind (and believe me, not
all manufacturers seem to consider the humble player).
First up is the double body octave key mechanism. There's sound theory
behind this addition. In an ideal world the sax would have an octave key
for every note in the upper register (this is all to do with acoustics
and tuning). In the real world however it's possible and practical to
get by with just two holes - one on the body and one on the crook - but
you could say 'the more the merrier'.
It's an idea that's been seen before, and one that Yamaha have been using
to great effect for some time now on their baritone saxes.
Given that octave key mechanisms are at their best when they're simple,
adding another key can be a recipe for disaster - but this mech deals
with the complexity quite nicely. There's even an adjusting screw to balance
the two body pads, though this is perhaps a slight overkill.
Just down from this mechanism is a little lever that links the octave
thumb key to the left hand stack auxiliary key (the little key above the
top B key) in order to affect the tuning of the top C#.
I tend to raise an eyebrow when I see such modifications, being of the
school that believes that no sax ever played in tune...and that it's up
the player to make it happen.
We'll see a little later how just how effective these gadgets were.
front (or auto) F key is of an unusual design, being a flat key with a
roller. Given that you'll want to slide your B key finger up to get the
auto F, having a roller here seems like a great idea.
Unfortunately it doesn't seem to work at all well. The key itself isn't
that well designed - it sits too far back, and it's parallel to the B
key. I found that whenever I went for a top F the outer corner of the
key dug into my finger...so not only did I not get the F, I got a sore
finger for my troubles. It's possible to tweak the key a little, but not
by enough to make it a truly fluent action. For players who like to lift
their B finger onto the F key it'll be fine...though a 'lifter' doesn't
really need a roller. For those who like to bend the knuckle onto it,
you might find that having the key angles tweaked will help - but for
those of us who like to roll the forefinger up...tough luck.
The rest of the keywork is nicely built, with a couple of nice touches
viz the large adjusters on the right hand key stack. This is a good idea,
as small adjusters are inclined to bite into the cork or felt buffering,
and a larger contact area will lessen the chances of the buffer being
compressed. Unfortunately the theme isn't carried over to the left hand
The A key has an adjuster for the Bis Bb key, and this is a useful addition.
You'd be surprised at how easy it is to bend keys on a sax, and it's doesn't
always take brute force and a pair of pliers. The average decent player
is quite capable of putting a fair amount of stress on the keywork, and
with keys being slammed down several times a second it's no wonder that
the light but repeated hammering takes its toll. Given that a spot of
dodgy regulation on the Bis key can cripple a sax, an adjuster screw here
is a welcome addition.
Whist I'm on the issue of key strength I noted that the keywork on this
horn was a tad on the soft side.
During the course of a setup I generally have to bend keys - either to
tweak their positioning or to adjust cup angles. After many years of doing
this you get to anticipate the required amount of energy it should take
to shift a key. Some horns need more energy, others less - the Unison
needed quite a bit less energy than usual.
This was especially true of the right hand stack keys, and I noted that
the key arms were relatively thin - around 2 or 3mm less than a Selmer
MkVI tenor at their thinnest point. This is a shame really, because it
undoes all the benefits of having those lovely large adjusters on the
rear. It's just as well they're there...you might well need to use them
rather a lot.
This also makes the addition of double arms on the bell keys something
of a reassurance.
was delighted to see a leaf-sprung G# arm. This is an old but simple and
very effective way of tackling the perennial sticky G# problem. It comprises
only the addition of a thin flat spring fitted to the G# operating arm.
The arms sits over the G# cup lever and the spring wraps itself underneath
the lever. In the event of the G# pad sticking, the arm rises as per usual
and brings the flat spring into play. This gives the arm a bit of extra
'kick', and thus lifts the sticky pad off.
It's simple, elegant and cheap to fit (and has been a popular modification
since at least the 1960s) - and makes Keilwerth's overly complicated anti-stick
G# mechanism look positively Heath-Robinson.
It's a wonder that other manufacturers don't fit this modification, the
only drawback to it is that it makes the bell key mechanism fractionally
heavier in use, as the flat spring comes into play when the G# cup is
held down by the right hand stack and the bells keys are in use...but
that's a very small price to pay for the sheer convenience of not having
to worry about a sticky G#.
The point screws are worth a mention. They're a sort of ball design,
with a very distinct gap between the shoulder of the thread and the start
of the point itself. The reasoning behind this is that the gap acts as
a reservoir for lubricant. It does too - but where you really need the
lubricant is on the contact area on the point itself - and you'd need
a fairly stiff lubricant (a grease) to actually hang around in the reservoir...and
because it's stiff, it won't find its way to where it's really needed.
I would imagine that under certain conditions, such as the horn sitting
near a bright stage lamp, the keywork would heat up sufficiently to allow
the grease to flow...but then for every screw that let grease flow down
onto the point of the screw there'd be another screw at the other end
of the key that was letting grease seep out over the pillar.
Essentially though the profile of the point screws is that of the parallel
type - so once the key barrels wear laterally the screws are less effective.
Sticking with the action, the springs are of the blued steel type. In
the bumf that accompanies the horn much is made of the quality of these
springs - but they were all set way too heavy, including and especially
the palm key flat springs. Once backed off the action improved considerably,
though having a light action tends to emphasise the softness of the kangaroo
These are worthy of note in themselves, being a popular fitment at repad
time these days.
Roo skin pads suffer less from the stickiness that can plague leather
pads, and the skin itself is a great deal more resistant to wear and tear.
No issues here, save for to note that although the white skin pads look
attractive when new, they won't look so hot once they've got grubby -
and if aesthetics are important to you, you might want to consider that
it could be hard to find a repairer who stocks individual white roo skin
pads when you need the odd pad swapping out...so in a few years time you
might end up with a horn whose pads have a sort of chequerboard look about
The crook's angle is a little low for me - I tend to like a tenor that
feels like it's slung beneath you. This horn's presentation is a tad on
the high side (like a great many vintage horns), so you get a little of
that 'in your face' feeling you get with an alto. It's a small thing,
but if you're used to your mouthpiece being at a certain angle it can
be a bit off-putting to find you have to adjust.
The choice of three sling ring positions helped a little - I found I was
most comfortable using the lowest ring.
When it came to the blowing I was naturally interested to see what effect
the various gadgets would have.
I started with the C# mechanism.
This does exactly what it says on the packet - by adjusting the relevant
screw you can have the Aux.B key shade the tone hole to a greater or lesser
degree. If you like, you can remove the link key and do away with the
In theory it sounds like a great idea - but in practice there's always
a price to be paid, and the price is that if you shade the tone hole to
adjust the tuning, you also shade the tone.
If you have problems with your top C#, this horn allows you to spend an
hour so so tweaking and adjusting the mechanism to get the best balance
between tuning and tone.
As I don't seem to have any problems with tuning on the top C#, I bypassed
the mech by playing a mid C# and opening the crook octave key pad by lifting
the key up with a finger. I got a much clearer top C#, and in tune too.
I didn't notice any particular problems with the tuning elsewhere on the
I then looked at the dual body octave key system. As the two key cups
are independent of each other I was able to try the horn with both octave
keys open and, by wedging the lower one shut with a piece of cork, with
just the upper open.
There was very little difference between the two - though I felt that
there was a very slight growl on the top G with both keys open, and with
only one key open the notes from D to G seemed to me to be a little more
focussed. I also felt that the difference in tone between the top G and
A was a little too distinct and would require some work to even it out.
I found myself tripping up on this slight G growl from time to time, I'd
be in the middle of a fast passage and I'd just catch an iffy G. I suspect
it's something that would go away once the embouchure has accommodated
the necessary changes, but then that's a level of uncertainty I wouldn't
like to live with when buying a new horn.
The action felt quite comfortable under the fingers - there's nothing
in particular that sticks out as being tricky (save for the aforementioned
front F key). With the springs backed off it felt nicely balanced and
precise. I tripped up a couple of times on the placement of the low Eb/C
keys, but that's purely something you get used to on your own horn - I
can't see it being a real problem after you've spent some time getting
used to the horn.
I did feel though that the softness of the pads was a tiny bit disconcerting,
but then that's down to whether you like your ride hard or soft, so to
Overall the tone seemed quite warm. It's quite a fat sound, though with
not as much projection as I'm used to. There's plenty of grunt at the
lower end, but I would have like a bit more cut and clarity at the top
end - which is entirely a personal preference.
It's an easy blow though, there's good definition to the notes without
them being overly edgy, and the horn goes from a mellow subtone to a bootsy,
punchy tone in an instant.
It has a nice blend of warmth and edge, which makes it a very flexible
horn which will appeal to jazzer - but blues and soul player might want
something with a bit more grit.
I think I wanted more from the horn though, tonewise. With all the innovation
and design that's gone into it, and all the (ain't no other word for it)
hype, I was expecting and hoping for a bit of a slap in the face.
What I got was an adequate horn - not inoffensive, but then not that much
of a rebel either. I've played great horns that had a tone I didn't much
care for, and equally horrible horns that have really surprised me with
their response. The Unison sits between the two - some of the innovations
work, some don't...some of the fire is there, some of it isn't.
I'd say it sits between the Selmers and the Yamahas in terms of tone
and response, but at its original retail price it would have had some
very stiff competition. As a used horn it provides a decent enough instrument
at less than top prices, and some players may find the tuning gadgets
for ebayers and other auctioneers