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Selmer Reference 54 tenor saxophone

Selmer Reference 54 tenor sax reviewOrigin: France
Guide price: £6200
Weight: 3.37kg
Date of manufacture: 2014 (Serial range: 774xxx)
Date reviewed: October 2017

Selmer's modern retro tenor

It's been a little while since I reviewed a top-end Selmer horn, so when this Reference 54 came in I couldn't resist the opportunity to give it a bit of a 'scrute'.
I think it's fair to say that Selmer's performance on my workbench these last few years has been - shall we say - sketchy. I've noticed their tendency to overcomplicate things, along with a selective lack of attention to detail - which is something of a dangerous mix given the strength of the competition.
But the business of making horns isn't a static one. There are always things that can be improved or tweaked - with both the design of the horn and the process of manufacture - and as the Reference series has been around for quite a while now, I was understandably interested to see whether there'd been any ongoing development on the build-quality front.

And there's only one way to find out - by putting the thing on the bench and taking it apart.

The construction is semi-ribbed (or 'mini-ribbed'). Most horns these days are either ribbed - with the main stack pillars fitted to long plates, which are then fitted to the body - or single pillar...where each pillar is fitted individually, with perhaps a few grouped together on plates (typically the palm and side keys).
Semi-ribbed means that some of the stack pillars are fitted to plates, and some are individually attached to the body - so it's a mix of the more common methods of construction.
I've no doubt that claims will be made as to effect this has on the tone, but from a practical perspective it means the body benefits from a degree of stiffening from the ribs, and some weight is saved by the use of standalone pillars.

The way in which the pillars are fitted to the body bears some examination.
On examining the horn I noticed how very neat the soldering is. In fact there's very little evidence of it...which is unusual. Even with the neatest soldering job you'll always see a seam of solder between the joint.
And then I noticed the bore had several pock marks on it. Most of them showed up a small round marks, but one of them exhibited some very distinctive pitting.
Here's a close-up - it's beneath one of the bell brace mounts.

It seems that Selmer are using some sort of electronic 'pick and place' technique, and these marks are made by the machine's electrodes.
But this pitting suggests that quite a lot of current is being shunted through the metal - which perfectly fits the profile for resistance welding.

Selmer Reference 54 tenor boreIf this is the case, it throws up a number of issues.
On the plus side it means that pillars so fitted will be very securely attached to the horn. This is a good thing. Mostly.
It also means that the joints between the body and the fittings will be very neat and tidy. This is also good.
But what happens when you need to take a fitting off? It's often the case that a pillar will get damaged by a fall - the impact pushes the pillar into the body (leaving a big dent) and distorts the base of the pillar. It's a joyless exercise trying to remove a large dent beneath a pillar, and you'll get nowhere fast if the pillar's base is distorted. It has to come off - at which point the dent can be taken out and the base reshaped before refitting. But if the pillar's welded to the body, what you gonna do?

Either way I'm not terribly impressed by the size of this pock mark in the bore (when it came in it had a couple of threads from a pull-through stuck in it) - not so much from any effect it might have but more from the point that I'd expect better on a horn of this price.

Thankfully there's some evidence that the bell key guard stays have been soft-soldered on, as these are often the first things to get bent out of shape following a fall. I'd be interested to hear from other repairers about their experiences with this construction method. I seem to recall having to deal with it before, but (annoyingly) can't remember where or when - and I'm now wondering if it's this method that accounts for the tidy fittings I noted on the SA80III.

You get the usual raft of body features; a detachable bell, a triple-point bell brace, semicircular compound bell key pillar (not removable), adjustable bumper felts and adjustable metal thumb hook...but only a flat plastic thumb rest. The sling ring is also a little on the mean side, coming in at a measly 14.3/8.6mm.
Selmer Reference 54 tenor bell braceThere are a couple of curiosities - the first of which is the profile of the bell brace ring. It's got a flat on the underside. It just seems a bit odd to go to all the trouble of using round stock bar to make the ring, and then milling a flat on it. At a guess I'd say it had something to do with making it easier to fit the lugs during manufacture, but I still reckon it looks a bit odd.

And what d'you suppose this little gadget does?
What you see here is the low C# lower pillar. The top screw is the point screw (on which the C# lever key pivots) - and the lower screw simply butts up against the cradle that helps to locate the position of the bell in relation to the body.
Selmer Reference 54 tenor low C# pillarBut why the screw?
I doubt it's any sort of adjuster, because it simply wouldn't be able to exert enough force to make a difference.
Perhaps it's intended to act as a brace, adding stiffness to the bell section - but by the time the force of an impact to the rim of the bell gets down this far, I doubt this setup would be very effective in resisting it. And besides, the bell usually gets knocked to the right...which would make this brace wholly ineffective.
All I could come up with is that it's some sort of acoustical voodoo...perhaps to 'transmit resonance' from the body to the bell. I can stand to be corrected, of course.
And what about that spring hole below the screw heads - what's that for?
You might suppose it's simply a superfluous spring hole - perhaps put there by the machine that churns the pillars out. But this is a one-off design, there's nothing else like it elsewhere on the horn - and as not all the pillars are drilled, it's fair to assume that Selmer have a number of 'pillar patterns' stored in the machine that makes them.
It's also quite a large hole - much larger than any spring you're likely to use on a tenor. And that's a bit of a clue, because it suggests that something's supposed to go through this hole rather than sit in it. Now look at pillar next to it. This is the lower stack lower pillar - the low D key sits here - and with these two pillars in such close proximity, you'd never be able to replace the D key spring...at least not without a lot of bending and cussing. Hence the hole in the C# pillar. Neat, eh?

Selmer Reference 54 tenor octave pipThe toneholes were nice and level. Well, almost. A few needed a little very light touch with a file here and there. It would be nice to expect this degree of attention to detail at this price-point, but this sort of fine levelling is typically way beyond a factory set up. They get an 8-9 out of 10, which is about the best you can hope for these days.
However, the body octave pip gets a 3 - you can see that it's rather wonky. It's unlikely to be much of an issue with the stock pad that's fitted (though it's likely to mean it fails sooner rather than later), but if you were to install a firmer pad, or even a cork one, you'd soon run into problems.
It might not look very significant, but a leak here will affect the response of the entire horn - and at this price-point it's a big fail.
Easy enough to fix, though - and something that's well worth asking your repairer to check next time you have your Ref.54 serviced.

While we're here, I'm led to believe that the octave key pip is brazed onto its plate...which is then welded to the body. If that's the case (I haven't yet had to remove one), it's going to be a bit of a problem if you ever need to get a large dent bar down the horn.
Let's just say that this is beginning to look like a horn you really wouldn't want to drop.

Selmer Reference 54 tenor lower stackOn to the keywork now, and it's something of a mixed bag when it comes to features.
From a repairer's perspective (and that of the advanced DIYer) the lack of any regulation adjusters on the main stack keys is a proper nuisance. There's really no good reason not to fit them these days, and they provide a real advantage when it comes to dialling in minor adjustments...or compensating for the inevitable flex in the keys.
I guess it's a 'tradition' thing - which might also explain the lack of modern buffering materials. Sure, there are few plastic tubes here and there, and one or two felts, but the vast majority of the buffers are plain old cork. Nothing really wrong with that - as long as they're neat and not overly thick and squishy - and at least they seemed to have ditched the awful rubber buffers they used in the past.
In this case I'd say the quality of the corkwork was indifferent, and if you're going to go with no adjusters on the main stack then these regulation corks are way thicker than is ideal. A far better bet would be thin felt or composite cork.

Selmer Reference 54 tenor side adjustersNot that there aren't any adjusters at all - oh no, you get the usual ones for the G#/Bis Bb and the low B to C# link...and you also get adjusters on the side Bb/C keys.
On the face of it this seems like a brilliant idea - being able to adjust the opening height of the side keys at will. And I'd agree, it certainly makes the job of tweaking the tuning/response of these two notes a breeze. But how many times are you likely to do this job? Once or twice in a lifetime? Maybe every time you bought a new mouthpiece? It's not that they don't work - it's just that I'd rather have seen the cost of them spent elsewhere.
At least you get plain old fork and pin connectors for the side keys - which are slick and quiet in operation.
I should also mention that the side key rod screws were a touch on the short side. It's no big deal, but I like to see rod screw tips that sit flush with the face of the pillar. It makes access to the screw easier and lessens the risk of someone chewing up the pillar when using a screwdriver that's a touch too large for the job.

And speaking of slick and quiet, I was very impressed with the key fit on the rod/hinge screw mounted keys. Not bad...not bad at all - and just what you should expect at this kind of price. When it comes to the point screws, however, I'm rather less enthusiastic.
Selmer Reference 54 sprung point screwFor some years now Selmer have been using a sort of self-adjusting sprung insert mechanism in the point screw key barrels. It has its pros and cons, but I've always felt its biggest drawback is that it leaves the action feeling just OK. Not bad, not brilliant, but just OK.
I wouldn't say it was a dealbreaker, and it'll quite probably be ideal for the player who's less fastidious about getting their horn serviced on a regular basis - but I find I miss the sense of precision you get from a truly tight action.
They also use a sprung rod on the low C/Eb keys, and I'm definitely not keen about this feature. For more details and info on these sprung pivots, take a look at my article on the Benchlife Blog, where I go through the pros and cons of the system and show how I upgrade the C/Eb rod.

Selmer Reference 54 tenor topstack rodAnd while we're on the subject, the design of the top stack rod screw bears some comment.
On most horns these days the rod screw runs right down the entire stack - but on this horn it terminates in a point when it gets to the A key...which means the A key pivots, effectively, on a pair of point screws (arrowed).
I'm not sure why they've done this. Maybe it's a way of addressing the wear that the A key seems susceptible to - and ordinarily I'd say it's a good solution. However, you have two sprung pivots in the A key...which couples to the Bis Bb, which also has sprung pivots.
I think it's asking for trouble, given that this key group (A/Bis Bb/Aux.B) is traditionally a regulation blackspot that relies greatly on the precision of the keywork - and it seems a little absurd when you consider that the small but nonetheless welcome gain in precision you might make by pivoting the A on points is likely to be lost by the inherent vagueness of the sprung-point mechanism.
Suffice to say I'm all 'Hmmm' about it, and although I don't mind the basic idea of converting the A key into a point screw action at all - it does rather make removing the A key something of a chore (you have to undo two screws instead of one. Yeah, I know, it's a hard life).

Selmer Reference 54 tenor palm keysOn a brighter note I really liked the design of the octave key touchpiece and the palm keys - specifically the top D. It's not that the design makes them work any better - it's simply that it's unusual, and it lends the horn a bit of character. It shows that someone's put a bit of thought into it - a bit of flair, if you will.
They could have stuck with the same old design that everyone else uses, and all would have been well - but they pushed the boat out (a little bit) and went for a more distinctive look.
So it's just a bit of a shame that they decided to plonk a flat plastic thumb rest on. Would it have cost so much more to put a slightly domed metal one on? I mean, c'mon guys - the horn deserves it.

They could also have done with splashing out a few bob to fit Teflon tubes to the ends of the octave swivel arm.
The mech itself is fine - just a bog-standard Selmer swivel...a design that's been tried, tested and copied down the decades - but it has a tendency to get a bit rattley as wear and tear takes its toll. Some of this will be down to wear on the central swivel pin, but rather more will be down to where the tips of the swivel arm sit in their sockets.

I think what particularly grates on me is that the connector from the touchpiece arm to the swivel has a Teflon sleeve on it, as does the pin that actuates the crook key - so why on earth couldn't they have gone the whole hog and 'tipped' the ends of the swivel arm? And while they were there they could have just as easily fitted a sleeve for the central pivot.
Selmer Reference 54 tenor octave swivelIt's a simple tweak, but it makes such a lot of difference in the long term. It reduces wear and tear, it keeps the mech slick and quiet, and it reduces servicing costs down the years. It also solves the problem of players who're too damn lazy to pop a drop of oil on the mech from time to time.

And this is precisely what I find so frustrating about Selmer - their selective attention to detail.
You get the snazzy top D and octave touch, and then they skimp on the thumb rest. You get adjusters on the side keys, but none on the stack keys. They convert the A key to point screw action, but forget to tip the octave swivel with Teflon sleeves. It's infuriating I tell ya.

And just to rub my nose it in, they fit a custom spring to the low C# lever key.
Just look at that. Isn't it neat? It's the flat spring that holds the pin off the low C# key cup captive. Nothing particularly special about that, it's a design that's been used for decades...but there was always a (small) risk that the spring would come loose and slip sideways. This would be very unfortunate, if rare, but Selmer have neatly addressed the issue with a custom spring that's folded down over the arm on which it's mounted.
Selmer Reference 54 tenor low C# springThis isn't just dotting the i's and crossing the t's - it's putting a shine on them and then getting someone in to make sure they're sensitively lit.
And yes, I'm easily pleased. Sometimes.

A quick word about the pads. They're fine. Modern Selmer pads had gleaned something of poor reputation among repairers in recent years due to their tendency to be, shall we say, rather sticky. This was reckoned to be down to some sort of coating that was applied to the pad as a means of waterproofing it. I noticed no such coating on these pads and nor did I find they were inherently sticky.
I'm also pleased to report that the pads sported domed nylon reflectors as opposed to metal ones. Nothing wrong with metal reflectors...as long as you don't make them out of steel (which Selmer did), because they go rusty (which they did).

Wrapping up the action you get a full set of slightly concave proper mother-of-pearl touches, plus a domed one for the Bis Bb and flat ovals on the G# and side F# - and the action is powered by a set of blued steel springs.
As for the cosmetics - the horn is finished in what's variously described as matte, vintage or antique finish - but it's essentially a two-tone matt lacquer over a scratched brass finish. I'm in two minds about. It looks neat and tidy at the moment, but I'm not sure how well it will degrade over time (as all finishes do) - and somehow I feel it lends the horn a very two-dimensional look. That aside, it seem very well applied - so no complaints on that score. One thing I noticed, though, is that dirt and grime seem to stand out on it...especially oil/grease marks. They seem to sink into the matt finish and then spread out, and it takes a fair bit of wiping to get shot of them.

The horn comes with a shaped semi-soft zippered case (made in Thailand) and Super Session ebonite mouthpiece. There's very little storage space in the case - you get a dedicated slot for the crook and another for the mouthpiece, and there's a 'tray' beneath the lower body which'll take a small bag. I'd consider this a light duty case - and although it holds the horn snugly it's rather more flexible than I'd like. It'll protect the horn from light knocks, but a meatier impact could deform the case...and whatever's sitting in it at the time. If you're planning on taking this horn out on the road I think you'd be well advised to consider buying a better case for it.

In the hands the horn feels nicely balanced, with a nimble action. It doesn't quite have the snap and zing of a MKVI, but being a tenor it suffers less from having shorter springs than the alto version does.
The factory setup is fair, but some judicious tweaking will pay big dividends. Bear that in mind when trying one out in a shop.
I'll knock a point or two off for the use of a round pearl touchpiece on the front top F, which despite some tweaking still isn't as slick and effective as a teardrop touch - but add a point or two on for the layout of the palm keys...which felt immensely comfortable to me.
I still don't like the sprung point screw thing, mostly because I know just how good an action can feel when it's super tight - and I miss that 'goes like a train' feel. Other than that I had no problems getting around the horn.

Selmer Reference 54 bellBlowing the 54, the first impression it gives is that it's a very mature horn. Tonewise it seems like it's thrown off the trappings of youth and exchanged the sneakers, surf shorts and T-shirts for a nice pair of brogues and a comfy tweed jacket. Not that it's dull, mind you...it's just relaxed, more mellow, more confident. There's some wisdom too, because there's a sense of gravitas about the tone. It's rich, it's deep, it's complex.
There's still a twinkle in the eye though, because there's a nice touch of top-end shine to the notes. Not too much, but just enough to add a bit of fire to the notes without allowing them to 'come over all unnecessary'. This, coupled with quite a resistant blow, makes the presentation naturally soft. You can push it and it'll go there - but there's a sense that the horn is pushing back at you...trying to get back to that comfy place.
It's smooth rather than percussive, thoughtful rather than shouty. It's the SA80's dad, if you will.

Much is made of the 54's nod to the past - specifically the MKVI (hence the 'Reference') - and while it's definitely got that typical Selmer depth, it doesn't quite have the petulance of the VI. Then again it also doesn't have the instability, nor the tonal variability over the scale. This is classic 'win some, lose some' territory - focus on the stability and you lose some of the brilliance, even out the response and you reduce the attack.
But it's not as if you don't get anything in return, because this horn gives you a full-fat, double-cream tone that's bursting with richness.
Using my tried-and-trusted test of letting the tone dictate the tune, I ended playing "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" - which fits this horn like a glove. It's melodic, it's not in your face, it's relaxed and joyful...it's no trouble at all. It'll get busy, but it won't make a fuss about it.

As an aside, I felt that the tenor worked less well as a 'nod to the MkVI' than the alto did. It still has the same rounded approach, but the alto's natural brightness tends to give the overall sound a lift...which isn't quite there on the tenor. You can, of course, alter the presentation with a brighter mouthpiece - and while this will undoubtedly give the horn a lift, I think you'd be missing out on where this horn excels. I don't mind saying that this isn't the horn for me, but I equally don't mind saying that I really enjoyed playing it. In fact I liked it rather more than I did the Ref.54 alto - simply because it does a better job of being a tenor that the alto does of being an alto...at least as far as my own personal preferences are concerned. But that's not so uncommon - lots of players will prefer 'Brand X' for a tenor and 'Brand Y' for an alto, it's just the way things work.

On its own the Reference 54 tenor stands up really well. It very clearly flexes its six grand's worth of muscle - and backs it up with a decent build quality. When put up against the competition (such as the Andy Sheppard Autograph) it becomes more clear where this horn prefers to sit.
But that's the wonderful thing about horns, they're as individual as their players - and all you really need to know is whether the package is worth the price. I'm pleased to say that I was quite impressed with the way this horn was put together (a few niggles notwithstanding) - and as much as I find myself having to pick holes in the way manufacturers put their horns together, my impression of this horn is that Selmer have upped their game in recent years. Can they do better? Yes, of course - and they ought to - but this is an encouraging step in the right direction.
And I liked how it played - and as such I feel it's safe to say that if you're out shopping for a £6000 horn, you can put this one on the list.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2017