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B&S Blue Label tenor saxophone

B & S Blue Label tenor saxophoneOrigin: East Germany
Guide price: £500
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: Late 1980s
Date reviewed: January 2015

An intermediate quality horn from behind where the Berlin wall used to be

B&S and I go way back. When I first started working in this business my main source of income was via the Inner London Education Authority. Every Wednesday we'd send our van out, and at the end of the say it'd come back laden with broken instruments collected from the various schools around the city - and a large proportion of these instruments would be Weltklang saxes (also often sold under the B&M Champion brand, and sometimes Lafleur too. These were B&S's basic horn. They were cheap and...well, that's about it really - they were cheap.
Most of the repairs needed centred around fixing bits back on that had fallen off. Not due to damage, mind you - just simply fallen off. Guard stays were the most common, but it wasn't at all unusual to find pillars that had popped off.
They weren't great horns, but then neither were the other cheap horns on the market at the time.

So I approached the B&S Blue Label with some trepidation, given that its place in the B&S range puts it at a step up from the Weltklang. The big question was - how much of a step up...?

The construction is fairly standard - ribs are used for the main stack pillars (known as ribbed construction) and the rest of the keywork is mounted on small plates or individual pillars. These pillars have quite small bases, which means they'll be less resistant to light knocks.

The toneholes are drawn, and about a third of them were off level. Only slightly, mind, but that's still enough to cause a leak. They were also quite roughly finished on the rims, which means that the pads would have been trying to accommodate hundreds of small peaks and troughs. It's not such a big issue for the pads that are normally held closed (the pad leather eventually compresses over the peaks) but for the rest of the pads it means there'll be a whole series of micro-leaks...and lots of micro-leaks equals one big leak by the time you get down the bottom end of the horn.

The body features most of the 'mod cons' - you get an adjustable thumb hook (plastic), a large thumb rest (plastic, again) and a rather nifty triple-hole sling ring.
This is a neat idea - the different heights of the rings allows the player to tweak the horn's centre of gravity...so you might, for example, find that fitting the sling into the top ring gives a better angle at the crook when standing, and using the lower ring when seated provides the best angle. Or vice versa. And if you can't make your mind up, there's always the middle ring.
All good and well, save for the awkward fact that the rings are quite small and you might not be able to get the sling's hook through them. I struggled with my Cebulla's hook, which only just fitted.
You could, of course, fit keyrings to them and hook the sling to these...or you could get a sling with a smaller hook.

The bell key guards feature adjustable bumpers - and if they look familiar it's because they're exactly the same as fitted to the cheaper Weltklang. Not that that's a problem - they're quite sturdy.
I was relieved to see that the guard stays were nice and large - the original Weltklang stays are tiny things that seem to pop off as soon as you look at them.

There's no detachable bottom bow joint - so it'll either be a glued or a soldered joint (most likely the latter). On the plus side this makes for more secure, airtight joint - and on the down side it means a more involved job if the bell ever has to be taken off. There's a removable bell brace though - and although it's pretty basic it's at least reasonably strong, with a nicely-proportioned stay on the body tube. It probably won't offer as much protection as a triple-point mounted brace does from a side swipe at the bell, but it'll certainly handle a front-on impact reasonably well.
And it's this bell brace that gives the horn its nickname - the Blue Label (or Blue Shield) - although you might find a few examples fitted with a gold label/shield.

I'd rate the body construction as 'tidy', with some bonus points for a good lacquer job.

Things aren't quite so rosy when it comes to the keywork - which shares many features of the cheaper Weltklang model.
The biggest issue is the fit of the main stack rod screws in their pillars, there's way too much free play. This is less evident in the key barrels, which suggests that the pillars have been over-reamed. The fix for this is either to fit inserts into the pillars (complicated and fussy) or ream out the key barrels and fit larger rods. Fortunately the key barrel walls are rather thick, so there's plenty of 'meat' to play with.
You could, of course, just leave it as is - and there a few tricks-of-the-trade that can help (none of which I'd advise the home DIYer to try) - but it will mean having a less precise action.
Not that it's much of a concern on this horn, because the pads (original) are pretty squishy. They're definitely an improvement from those strange and terrible pads that were fitted to the Weltklang, but not by much. They also appear to be glued in with something approaching an epoxy adhesive.
When I tried to remove a pad I applied the usual heat to the key cup and waited...and waited some more...and then waited some more still. By the time the key cup got hot enough to melt the glue the cup was so hot that any lacquer on it would have burnt. Fortunately the keys are nickel plated, but I had some concerns about melting the plastic key pearls.
And the pads are 'just glued in'. There's no bed of glue, no full coverage of the pad base - just a ring of glue around the outside.

On the plus side most of the rod screws (bar the smaller ones on the palm/side keys) are stainless - they're a nickel alloy. This means that rust won't be an issue, but on the flip side it means that if the rods jam (they can still corrode, it just won't be rust) the screw heads won't take as much torque as steel ones. Keep the action lubricated and it won't be an issue.
Another plus is the use of proper point screws, making it a cinch to adjust for wear and tear on the keys that pivot on them.

B&S Blue Label tenor spatulasThe general design of the keywork is quite simple. Although it's a modern action it's a bit industrial in places, with 'blocky' touchpieces and slightly clumsy ergonomics. There's no tilting table for the bell keys, though I quite like that simplicity - and neither are there any adjusters on the main key stacks, which I don't like quite so much. There's also no link between the low B and the C# key cups. This link is used to prevent the low C# key cup from opening if you're a bit clumsy when you're whizzing around the low notes. No big deal though, because I've yet to find a low C# link that actually worked properly.
There's a single pillar for the bell key table with a rather small base - which makes it rather vulnerable to shock damage if the horn cops a whack while in its case. This, combined with the basic bell stay means you'd be especially unwise to tote this horn around in a soft gig bag.

The action is powered by a set of blued steel springs - which would have imparted a nice 'snap' to the keys were it not for the fact that all the key corks were synthetic. As with the pads, these 'corks' are step up from the awful red rubber buffers used on the Weltklang - but, again, not by much.
Cutting them off and replacing them with felts made a considerable difference to the feel (and noise) of the action.

In terms of overall build, I'd pitch this horn as a 'deluxe' Weltklang.
I realise that's a little harsh, but almost all of the build problems found on this horn can be found on the Weltklang. Iffy toneholes, sloppy rods, crappy pads and spongy buffers combined with a design that's a bit of a throwback and that won't withstand a great deal of punishment. They've just taken a bit more care in putting it all together.

B&S Blue Label tenor side keysIn the hands the horn feels nicely balanced, but the limitations of the action design soon make themselves known. While I wouldn't go so far as to describe the action as clunky, it's undeniably chunky. Slick it ain't - but then again it's by no means slow.
I didn't have any trouble with the non-tilting bell key spatulas - I actually quite like this arrangement, but the low C/Eb touchpieces were a little awkward (easy enough to fix with a spot of judicious bending) and I trapped my finger underneath the Bis Bb touchpiece a couple of times. Which hurt.
The rounded pearl on the front top F doesn't help much, and the blocky side F#/top F# touchpieces were a bit fiddly.
But you could get used to these foibles, and it would certainly pay to have the Bis Bb tweaked so that the pearl sat lower. Don't be tempted to bend it yourself though, you'll almost certainly bend the key cup at the same time.

The action redeems itself somewhat through the use of simple fork and pin connectors for the side Bb/C keys and a decent swivelling octave key mechanism.

Whenever I do a review I try to keep an open mind on what a particular horn might play like - I've been caught out enough times in the past, especially by Italian horns which aren't often all that well put together but make up for it with sheer playability - but after spending quite some time tweaking and fettling the mechanics of this horn I was beginning to think that it's highly likely to turn out to be nothing more than a souped-up Weltklang. So my first note was somewhat apprehensive.
As is turned out, I needn't have worried.

B&S Blue Label tenor octave keyTonewise this is a horn that leans to the bright. Not excessively though, but enough to give the tone a nice crisp edge. With a 'standard' mouthpiece (say a Link 5*) the brightness is nicely balanced...but soon becomes a bit overbearing with a brighter piece. It's also quite a well-spread tone - when played against a Yanagisawa T901 it's clear that the 901 is more introverted, more withdrawn...which surprised me somewhat.
In fact I'd go so far as to say that this horn has shades of my old Yamaha 23 - which is something I noted in my review of the B&S 2001 model...so perhaps it's B&S's 'in house' sound. It's not a 'big' sound, but it's not shy either - it's bright, but not piercing...and it's responsive.
Perhaps a little too responsive at times, I noticed a bit of instability as I ran around the scales. That's not uncommon with horns that lean to the bright, it's just a matter of learning how to handle it. In contrast, the 901 is a very stable horn...but the payoff for that stability is, arguably, a lack of excitement.

The tone is reasonably even across the range. I noticed some deadening of the middle D, but in most cases the fix for that is simply nailing the 'centre' of the note and drawing it out. Similarly I felt the top notes tended to be a little dry, but with a bit of embouchure tweaking it didn't take long to round them out a bit more. I didn't have any major problems with the tuning - though at one point it seemed to me that the palm key notes were a bit out, but a test against the tuning meter showed otherwise. May just have been that initial dryness.

It's worth noting that when I tested this horn prior to benching it I was very unimpressed by its response. For sure, I knew it was leaking - but even with a few leaks in a horn you can still get a sense of its capabilities (hence my feeling it might just be a Weltklang) - but after a thorough service it's pretty clear that the tiny leaks from the rough tonehole rims would have been knocking back the response substantially. If you have one of these horns I'd recommend you have a very close look at the tone holes, and if they look a bit rough it'd be well worth having them dressed (lightly levelled and smoothed off). You'll be amazed at the difference.

I'm glad I resisted marking this horn down as a 'posh Weltklang'. Granted, from a mechanical perspective there are some strong similarities but the playability is a whole world away from the turgid, asthmatic cheaper models. OK, so it doesn't have the oomph and clout of what many would consider to be the vintage sound, but neither is it quite as sterile as many of its modern counterparts.
While I would mark it down on the mechanics I think it's fair to say that playability-wise it's up there with the basic Yanagisawas and the Yamahas - which makes it a very respectable horn indeed. Given the reasonably cheap price these horns fetch (steer clear of chancers asking four figures for these horns) I think it's worth a punt if you're in the market for something a little different - as long as you're mindful of the mechanical limitations and are prepared to shell out for a decent set-up.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015