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Selmer SA80 III tenor saxophone

Selmer SA80 II tenor saxOrigin: France (www.selmer.fr)
Guide price: Around £4000 when new
Weight: 3.42kg
Date of manufacture: Late 1990s
Date reviewed: May 2015

Selmer's take on the industry standard tenor

Browse any saxophone forum and sooner or later you'll come across a discussion about why Selmer discontinued the MKVI, and why everyone thinks it'd be a good idea if they started making them again. I can see their point, but at the same time I can also see Selmer's point - which is that they didn't stop making it, they simply improved it.
Let's be clear - the MKVI was a flawed horn, and throughout its production life it was tweaked and fiddled with. So it made sense to draw a line under it and bring out a new horn, utilising all the experience and long-term testing that went into the previous model. Had that been all they'd done they might have got away with it...but the successor to the VI (the MKVII) never achieved the status of its predecessor...in spite of sales apparently being quite good in it's relatively short run (just six years).
It wasn't until the arrival of the SA80 series in 1980 that things began to look up (at least in terms of popular appeal), and with the advent of the series II (mostly cosmetic tweaks) in 1985 it looked like Selmer might have finally shaken off the ghost of the MKVI and brought a worthy replacement to the market. The longevity of the production run certainly seems to confirm this, and the series is still in current production in the guise of the Jubilee Series (more cosmetic tweaks). It also served, along with later models such as the Series III and the Reference horns, to cement Selmer's position in the marketplace as the producer of what many regard as the world's finest saxophones.

So let's pop one on the bench and see if it lives up to expectations...

The construction is the usual fare for a modern horn - you get a detachable bell, a triple-point bell brace, adjustable metal thumb hook and adjustable bumper felts on the bell key guards.
The octave key thumb rest is a slight letdown in that it's a flat plastic affair...though it's nice and large. Unlike the sling ring...which is a touch on the mean side, being both small in diameter and lacking in thickness.

The horn has a semi ribbed construction - sometimes described as 'mini rib' construction. Rather than having the pillars mounted on two long ribs running down the body, one for each of the stacks, they're broken up into several smaller plates with individual pillars dotted about here and there. I guess this gives some of the advantages of fully-ribbed construction (cheaper to manufacture and fit, adds stiffness to the body tube) and some of single pillar construction (lighter weight, easier to remove pillars in the event of severe impact damage). Personally I've no real preference either way - but any reference to 'improved tonal response' will, of course, be pure bunkum.
Nicely-sized bases on the single pillars, though, which bodes well for reliability. They're nicely soldered too - all neat and tidy (unlike some of the recent Yamahas I've seen).

Selmer SA80II tenor bottom bow clampIn contrast to the mean and fiddly sling ring, the bottom bow clamp is just pure beef.
I really like the design. It's a two-piece affair rather than just a single split ring, which makes it easier to remove cleanly. Single split ring clamps are quite tricky to remove and refit, and great care has to be taken to avoid scratching the finish on the body when doing so. The two-piece clamp is far more efficient - and it's quite a hefty bit of metal too, which means it's rather less likely to get knocked out of shape if the horn takes a tumble.

As with most horns these days, the toneholes are drawn. All nice and level, but rather rough on the rims. Not exactly burred, but still quite sharp - if you drag a fingernail over the rim it'll shave the nail with ease. Sharp or rough tonehole rims can lead to sticking pads, and over time they can accelerate pad wear - so it's worth having them looked at when you have the horn serviced. If your horn suffers from sticking pads, and the lighter fluid trick doesn't seem to cure it, it'd be worth dragging some fine grade carborundum (minimum 800 grade) paper over the tonehole rims. Simply cut a suitably sized strip from the sheet, slide it grit side down between the tonehole and the pad, bring the pad down lightly and withdraw the paper. Repeat a few times then clean the tonehole rim and pad with lighter fluid.

There's a nice design touch on the aforementioned bell brace, which has offset feet on the body mountings.
There's a sound mechanical principle behind this feature which should be apparent to anyone who's ever tried to bang a bent nail into a piece of wood. Simply put - any force applied to the bell (from a knock or a drop) will pass down the bell brace and into the body.
Selmer SA80II tenor bell braceOlder horns often had just a plain rod of brass to serve as a bell brace, which mean that any impact to the bell was shunted straight into the body...usually around the G# tone hole.
Over the years bell braces got larger, and were moved more to the side of the horn. This position, coupled with larger mounts on the body, served to distribute any impact force and thus prevent (or at least lessen) major body damage. The offset feet on the SA80's brace add another level of impact protection insomuch as the brace itself is more likely to act like a bent nail and deform rather than shunt an impact through to the body. In theory, anyway. It's an imperfect science with many variables, but it's at least nice to see someone making an effort.

The lacquered finish is good. There are one or two blemishes here and there, but on a horn of this age that's pretty much par for the course these days. I'm guessing it's a gold lacquer finish, though if it is it's quite a light shade of gold - in a certain light it almost looks like clear lacquer. It's what I'd call 'subtle gold', which is no bad thing.

On to the keywork now, and like the body it's neatly put together and finished.
I was especially pleased to see a teardrop-shaped touchpiece for the front top F key as well as proper mother-of-pearl touches on the main stack keys - as well as the side F# and G#. The stack key pearls are concave, but the Bis Bb pearl is domed - which makes for a smoother roll on and off the key. There's an anti-whip/protector fitted over the side top E/F# key barrels, which is a very useful feature on these long and exposed keys.
Selmer SA80II tenor bell key spatulasYou also get a tilting bell key table mounted on a substantial semicircular compound pillar. It's a reasonably beefy looking affair, and it's detachable - which makes things a little easier should the horn ever need any repairs to the body tube in this area (it's a common place for creases to form after a heavy fall).
The design of the bell key spatulas is worthy of mention - the tilting link on the C# spatula is very neat and slick in action, and rather than being a piece of box-section brass, it's more or less solid save for the small hole that sits over the pin that comes of the C# key. This is a particularly vulnerable key, so anything that strengthens it against the inevitable knocks and dings is a good thing.
Another nice feature is that the Bb touchpiece swivels in two planes. On most horns the swivel merely works in the horizontal plane (the key tilts backwards and forwards), but this one also tilts in the vertical plane (outwards and inwards). You'll be hard put to see it in action, but it's why they've been able to do away with the standard box section connection to the C# key...instead of the back and forth motion taking place in the connection, it's all handled by the extra swivel on the low Bb key. Very nice indeed.

Selmer SA80 II tenor Bb adjusterI'm rather less keen on the adjuster beneath the low Bb touchpiece that regulates the balance between the low B and Bb keys.
I get the idea - the relationship between these two keys often needs tweaking - and when it does it's usually something you have to have three or four goes at (or more) before you get it just right. On most horns it's a simple plate or tab - and you adjust it with a very careful tweak with a pair of smooth-jawed pliers. Easy-peasy.
On this arrangement you're supposed to slacken off the locking screw, adjust the height of the plate and retighten the screw. It's then that you check the regulation of the bell keys and see that there's a tiny chink of light coming from one of the pads...so you'll have to make another adjustment. Undo the screw, make the tiny adjustment (yeah, right) then retighten the screw...hoping that the mere action of tightening the screw up won't put the regulation out by a fraction...which it will.
It's an arse of a design, and I bet that more than a few repairers have simply resorted to bending the bar on which the adjuster screw sits.
And for geeks - if you look just to the rear of the tip of the adjuster tab (with the green felt on it), you can see the secondary swivel point for the Bb touchpiece.

On a similar theme there are simple fork and pin connectors for the side Bb/C keys, and while this a huge improvement over the ball and socketed joints that appeared on older Selmers, they've chosen to bugger it up by the addition of a very curious 'adjustment' feature for the two key cups.
There are many things wrong with this feature, the biggest of which is that it's really not necessary. How many of you have ever felt the need to adjust the opening heights of your side keys? And of those few who have, how many times have you had to adjust the keys? Once? Twice?
Selmer SA80 II tenor side keyFor the vast majority of players, setting the opening heights of the keys is a one-time operation (usually done by your local, trusty repairer...assuming you don't much like the factory setup). I suppose a minority of players are going to be of a standard that means they can detect whether a key height needs tweaking to advantage - but there really isn't much you can't do with the aid of a bit of sandpaper (or, if it goes wrong, a piece of cork and some glue). That's assuming they have the mechanical nous...it certainly doesn't follow that a great player knows how to tweak a horn...or should even be allowed to handle a screwdriver unsupervised.
Really, it's just easier to take your horn to repairer and have them tweak the action - and then the job's done.

And then there's the design of the feature. All they've done is to saw a slot in the foot of the keys. To open out the slot (and so decrease the opening height of the keys) you poke a screwdriver into the slot and give it a bit of a twist. To close the slot (and thus increase the opening height) you'll have to get a pair of pliers over the key. Either way it doesn't sound very good - which is why, presumably, later models were fitted with a proper adjustment screw.
It's still just as pointless a feature, but at least there's less chance of a player mauling their expensive horn.

Having gone to all the trouble of putting this daft feature on the horn, Selmer completely neglected to put any adjusters on the main stacks...where they'd actually be very useful. Go figure.

I could be wrong but the body octave key pip appears to be permanently fixed to the pillar plate that sits over the hole (as opposed to being fixed directly to the body). It should still be possible to remove the pip, but you'd have to remove the entire plate with it. If that's the case it's a bit of a nuisance as there are certain jobs, such as repairs to dents/bends around the top stack, where access is only possible after removal of the pip. Having the pip as part of the pillar plate turns it into a much more involved and potentially messy job. On the plus side it's unlikely that the pip will ever come loose, as they sometimes do...but as a fix for an occasional problem it seems a bit overkill. I've not yet had to remove a body pip on one of these horns, so I may yet turn out to be mistaken. No doubt someone will write in and let me know either way...

The point screws are of the bullet-headed type (which is good), but sprung inserts or bushings are fitted in to the ends of the key barrels (which isn't). I'm really not a fan of this idea (for reasons described in the article on point screws) - it's overly-complicated, fussy, imprecise and just another thing that's likely to go wrong down the years.
But there were far more important things to worry about...

Selmer SA80 II tenor point screwI wasn't at all happy about the angle of a couple of the point screws. The one shown here is the top E key upper pillar (just below the body octave key cup). You can see from the lines I've drawn in just how far off centre the point screw is. The face of the pillar, where it butts up against the key barrel, is fine (as denoted by the faint red line) - so it's not the case that the pillar's been drilled correctly and then fitted askew, rather the pillar is fine but the hole for the screw has been drilled through at an angle. As a result, the point screw sits at an angle.

This was one of two such pillars I spotted (the top F# upper pillar was also offline). How many more might be like this? I don't know, I only dismantled the upper stack on this job - but there shouldn't have been any.
Sure, in the great scheme of things this anomaly isn't going to make much of a difference. Both of the affected keys are normally sprung closed, and have small pads fitted to them - so it's unlikely that an off-centre point screw will lead to a leak. But it'll certainly mean there's more stress on the end of the key barrel, and over the years this will lead to a greater amount of wear than on the other keys.
Take a look at how the E key fits against the pillar. You can see that the end of the key barrel is more or less flush with the face of the pillar - as it should be - which means that discrepancy in the point screw's angle is being taken up by the screw socket in the end of the barrel. Don't forget that this Selmer uses sprung inserts, so not only is the bore of the insert being worn, but so too is the bore of the barrel in which the insert sits. That's a double-whammy...twice the wear, twice the effort to fix.

Selmer SA80II tenor top E keyIt's not ideal, on any sax at any price - but this is a four grand plus Selmer. It's also not like it's an invisible fault. OK, it's reasonably hard to see what's going on when the key's mounted between the pillars, but I don't think it's unreasonable to expect Selmer's quality control personnel to have caught this one. It's certainly not possible for an assembler to miss it...when you're fitting the key there's a very obvious 'What the f***!?' moment as you wind the screw in.
Someone, at some point, decided this was OK - and the most polite thing I can say about it is that it's not good enough.

One other curious feature is that the top stack uses a pointed rod screw. Most horns use a rod that runs right through the top stack keys (with the Bis Bb and G keys mounted on point screws). The Selmer terminates the rod with a point just before it enters the A key barrel - and with a corresponding point screw at the other end of the A key it means this key is effectively mounted on point screws. It's no big deal - it's just easier to adjust for wear on point screw mounted keys than those on rods, so it's more of a feature for the repairer than the player.

Aside from the issue with the wonky point, and the sprung point screw barrels, the rest of the action was a tight as a drum. Not bad going considering the age of the horn - and even the octave key mech (standard Selmer swivel design, naturally) showed little or no signs of wear. Granted, this horn hasn't seen a great deal of professional use, but it's still impressive.

There's a decent set of pads fitted, but they're fitted with nickel plated steel reflectors - and many had spots of rust on them. To use steel for reflectors - which are exposed to a regular cycle of wetting and drying - is a completely bonkers idea. OK, so they're plated - but anyone who's ever owned a car with chromed steel trim or who has an old tin of paint in the shed knows that, sooner or later, the rust creeps through the paint/plating. You could argue that by the time rust seriously attacks the reflectors, the pads will be well past their best - but on this horn the pads themselves are doing very well...it's just the reflectors that are looking a bit shabby.
I think the pertinent question here is 'Why?' Why use plated steel when just about everyone else uses nickel or brass reflectors? These won't rust. I'm still pulling Gordon Beeson pads out of saxes that were repadded 50 years ago - the pads are usually shot to pieces, but the plain nickel reflectors are still absolutely fine. I guess it's down to cost, it's bound to be a bit cheaper to use nickel-plated steel than plain nickel or brass - and if the horn only cost a few hundred quid I could see the sense in the economy. But it doesn't, it costs the best part of four grand...which makes it a bloody stupid idea.

Selmer SA80 II tenor springsWrapping up the action is a set of blued steel springs. It's inevitable that comparisons are going to be drawn against this horn and the MKVI, and part of what made the MKVI such a renowned horn was its action. It really was rather good - and when you've made something that good it makes sense to keep on making it. Now it's one thing to change the tone of a horn, and there are reasons why this happened - and it's never a bad thing to refresh the ergonomics here and there...but they should never have changed the spring geometry (they made many of the springs shorter). It's what gave those old horns such a lively, light, precise feel.

In use the action feels fine. It doesn't quite have the zip and snap that some other horns have, and that the MKVI had - but with some careful tweaking it can be made to feel pretty good. Not brilliant...but pretty good.
The sprung barrels don't help much - but let's have a bit of perspective here. If you've ever handled a properly set up MKVI, or a Yamaha or just about any other decent horn, you may have noticed how 'immediate' the action feels. The moment you press a key, it moves - with a smooth, clean feel - and when the pad hits home, the key stops dead. It's a small thing, but for someone who spends all day, every day tweaking actions to get the best out of them, it matters.
But here's the thing - such an action can only last so long before wear knocks the edge off that feel. Sure, you can keep the horn regularly maintained, and this will ensure the action remains nice and tight...but how many of you do that? The sprung barrels in the Selmer will never allow the action to be set up that tightly, but by the same token nor will they allow it to become that worn...at least until the cylinders inside the barrel wear (and then all bets are off).
So, if we say that a well set-up MKVI has an action that's 100%, we can say that the SA80's action, at best, is 90%. Once the MKVI's action starts to wear it progressively drops percentage points, and you can probably say that it hangs around 85% before any further wear starts to cause significant problems. This is where the SA80's action wins out - it's still at 90%...and it's likely to stay at that level for a considerable period of time, even without maintenance.
That's the choice; go for a horn that can have a superb action, but can only maintain it if you keep up the servicing - or go for one that has a reasonable action, but will maintain it even if you don't keep up the servicing. It's a tricky one, I'll admit.

The ergonomics are good though, and I doubt many players will complain about the layout. I certainly didn't have any problems - though you may have noticed from the opening shot that the owner of this horn has a full set of key risers on the palm keys. This isn't uncommon - you simply can't make an action that will suit everyone, and there'll always be players (of any horn) for whom the side keys seem to be a little on the low or high side. No problems with the bell keys, and in particular the action of the tilting table was noteworthy. Very slick. Even though my own preference is for a non-tilting table, I really liked the feel of this one. Likewise, the domed Bis Bb pearl really helped, as did the teardrop touchpiece on the front top F key. It took decades for Selmer to drop the kludgy old rounded pearl design on this key...and all I can say is it's about time too.

Tonewise the Series III is surprisingly bright. That's not bright, per se, rather it's bright in comparison to the Series II.
I've heard it said that the Series II is more 'laid back', and I'd be inclined to agree - though I'd perhaps say that it makes more of an effort to capture the tonal glory of the old MKVI.
In fact, I've always felt the SA80 II series comes the closest to 'the Selmer sound' since the demise of the fabled MKVI, at least where Selmer tenors are concerned. It's got that classic mid-range bloom coupled with a nice dollop of low-end oomph...although I feel the bell notes don't quite have as much 'glitter' as I'd like. Oh, it's there - that slight fizziness around the notes - but it's not as pronounced as you'd find on a good MKVI. And that's perhaps why, tonally, I've always considered this horn to be a fair replacement for those players who either can't find a decent MKVI or who want that Selmer sound without quite so much of the baggage. In other words it's not a perfect horn. Whether that's by accident or design (hopefully the latter) makes no odds, what's important is that the horn captures the essence of the Selmer sound and delivers it without quite so many of the foibles of its legendary predecessor. It's not a bad compromise at all, and credit where its due - Selmer have done a pretty good job in retaining the typical in-house sound while balancing it with a need for more evenness throughout the range and more precise tuning. It's no mean feat.

However, the Series III takes things a tad further - and not necessarily in the right direction.
For example, the 'focus' is interesting. I define this as the spread of sound (not tone) that you hear/feel when blowing. Some horns feel like they fill a room with a single note, others feel like they project to very specific areas of that room...and still others feel like they wrap the sound around the horn itself. The Selmer seems to me to have quite a broad spread. It's not the widest focus I've heard, but it's definitely not an introspective horn. However, while the sound has this nice spread, the tone is rather more focussed...so I got the sense that although the horn was pushing out a roomful of sound, the sound itself seemed a bit pinched.
Up against my TJ RAW the Selmer seems more brash - but here's the interesting thing...the RAW's sound is more directional, more focussed - but the tone is more complex. It's also a bit darker, and a bit smoother. I suspect the comparison would be closer with a Series II.

Up the top end it's a bit tamer (or perhaps calmer) than the VI, but in return there's a nice sweetness to the tone. Not a bad exchange.
I noticed some unevenness in the tone over the range, especially around the mid D to G area, with just a hint of a growl around the G# - though nothing a spot of long note practice wouldn't sort. It faded once I'd been playing the horn for an hour or two, and on picking it up the next day it had completely gone. It's all in the chops.
I think it's safe to say that it's more even than the Series II, and yeah, I'd say that the stock tuning has been dialled in with a bit more solidity - which probably accounts for the extra brightness.

It's often touted that the SA80 II series is more suited to classical playing - and, frankly, that's complete rubbish. To be fair, I can see where the notion comes from because the Selmer is quite a 'middle-of-the-road' horn tonally. That's no bad thing, it makes it a very versatile horn, and such horns tend to respond very well to mouthpiece/reed/crook tweaks. In other words, if you like the tone out of the box, you're sorted - if you almost like it, there's plenty of room to tweak it to your preference.
I'd say the same is true of the Series III, though the starting point is going to be on the slightly brighter side - and I guess you could see that as a drawback or an advantage depending on your own tonal philosophy. Personally I've always found it easier to tame a bright horn than to brighten up a dull one.

Not that any of these impressions really matter - because at this level all that matters is what you feel you get out of the horn, and if you have to rely on someone else's impressions, you're probably not ready for such a horn. Harsh, I know, but fair.

Would I have one though? Well no - mostly because I look for something else in a horn...but if I wanted that 'Selmer thang' I'd look to an early MKVI or, more likely, an SBA - even though it would mean putting in some work to overcome the wildness. But that's really the point, it's the 'problems' inherent in the earlier models that make them what they are...and if you design them out you end up with something that isn't quite the same. Better, worse or just different? That's the question...
Something else to consider is that none of the other manufacturers have been sitting on their hands since the demise of the MKVI. Indeed, there are many more makers now, and they've all been working hard to build horns that have a good balance between tonal complexity and accuracy of tuning. In other words, there's a hell of a lot more choice out there.

And then there's the build quality. I really don't like the sprung inserts in the key barrels, I feel it's a gimmick that will come back to bite your arse in later years - and it effectively limits how slick the action can be made. Then there's the springing...the older Selmers all had superb actions, there was no reason the change it. And finally there's those bodged pillars with wonky point screws. A careful inspection when buying will go some way to avoiding any similar examples (make sure all the key barrels line up squarely against the pillars). All things considered, I think I'd like a bit more for the asking price.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015