Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Reviews from the repairer's workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
 

Unison Steve Goodson tenor saxophone

Unison Goodson tenor saxOrigin: Taiwan
Guide price: £1200 (used)
Weight: -
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 common.

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 thumb rests 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.

Unison Goodson octave pipAs 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 control.
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 hole.
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.

Unison Goodson octave mechAnd 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.

Unison Goodson auto FThe 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 stack keys.
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.

Unison Goodson G sharp mechI 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 skin pads.
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 them.

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 mechanism altogether.
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 horn

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 speak.

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 helpful.

Guidelines for ebayers and other auctioneers

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015