Frankfurt Musik Messe show report -2008
Another year, another trade show.
Trade shows are strange things - a bit like childbirth (I'd imagine)...something
happens after the event that makes you forget just how uncomfortable and
painful an experience it can be.
The Frankfurt Music Messe is the centrepiece of Europe's assorted music
fairs, which makes it THE place to be if you're a buyer or a seller. It's
a positively huge affair, so there's substantial amount of foot-slogging
to be done if you want to see everything.
Attendance appeared to be down a little on last year, both in terms of
visitors and exhibitors - perhaps because last year's show was very well-attended
and most buyers managed to sort out deals that were good for at least
a couple of years.
My aim this year was to see whether the Chinese had made any progress
with regard to consistency, and to check out the new range of 'super saxes'
out of Taiwan...as well as products from the smaller manufacturers.
was particularly keen to check out the range of Mauriat saxes. I get a
lot of emails asking me about these, but don't get many in for repair
- probably because they're still quite new and not yet in need of servicing...or
perhaps because they're shaping up to be quite reliable horns - so I thought
I'd refresh the promising opinion I formed of them at last year's show.
Like most manufacturers, Mauriat supply horns on three basic levels...entry,
intermediate and professional. I'd hesitate to call the entry level horns
beginners horns, they're a bit too good and too expensive.
Esoteric finishes abound in the Mauriat range - not all of which work
(for me), but if you're after something that looks distinctive then you're
going to be spoilt for choice.
Build quality appears to be good across the range.
I especially liked the Custom Vintage tenor. This model comes with proper
rolled toneholes which, in spite of the increased technical difficulties
associated with the manufacture of this feature, were all level - which
is quite something when you consider the problems found on some of Keilwerth's
SX90R horns, with their soldered-on tone hole rings.
Of course, if you label a horn 'Vintage' then you might as well make it
look the part, and Mauriat have treated the body to 'age' the brass and
left it unlacquered.
It's a nice blow - combining a modern action with contemporary tuning
and a well-balanced tone. I suspect this might be one of this year's most
Cannonball had an impressive stand again this year, but it takes more
than a bit of glitz to impress me.
It also doesn't help if there's a faint whiff of 'bull' in the air.
Now, I can understand the various manufacturers wanting to make their
products distinctive - but I draw the line at mumbo-jumbo being passed
off as solid acoustic science...specifically the addition of a gemstone,
fitted to the crook of each sax.
Pete Thomas asked the sales rep point blank if the stone made any difference
to the tone, the reply was an emphatic 'yes'.
If that was the case then Mr.Thomas Esq. promptly ruined one of their
baritones when he accidentally knocked its gemstone out. I think we missed
a chance there - it would have been worth comparing the difference in
No harm done though, I checked back later and noted that the stone had
been refitted...and I can only assume that they use some kind of highly
developed acoustic glue...
It's a shame, I feel, because the Cannonball range is an otherwise decent
product which is good enough to stand on its own merits.
for a bit of the sublime then, with Benedikt
Eppelsheim and his range of bass horns, specifically the Tubax.
This was easily one of the busiest stands at the show - every time I strolled
by there was a small crowd of punters queuing up to try the horns out,
waving a selection of mobile phones and cameras while they waited. If
there was an award for the most photographed horns at the show, these
babies would win it hands down.
These instruments are a modern marvel, a real throwback to the glorious
insanity and craftsmanship of the Victorian instrument makers. Insanity?
Perhaps not the term that springs to mind when you meet Benedikt himself...but
you only have to look at his instruments to know that this is man who
has sailed close to the edge.
They are, quite simply, mind-boggling.
Never mind the fact that they're extraordinarily complex, or that they're
positively huge - the real stunner is that they have an amazingly tight
and swift action...and an incredibly precise tonal response.
Benedikt's use of small brass tubes as keywork interconnects is inspired,
as is the use of flexible shafts (a bit like bicycle brake cables).
These, coupled with the rubber-sealed flanges at the body joints, seem
to me to make these instruments very slightly reminiscent of a submarine
(so perhaps I'm the one that's insane).
Pete Thomas, seen here playing the Eb contrabass Tubax, asked Benedikt
if it was possible to have customisations done to these horns...and when
informed it was he promptly asked for a low A...and a stone on the crook.
Don't be fooled by the fact that these are extreme bass instruments...they
have incredible grace and poise - and I think Adolphe Sax himself
would have been both amazed and delighted to see how Benedikt's
skill and passion have come together to create what surely must
be a set of 21st century masterpieces.
Mind you, he has something of a competitor in this Brazilian contrabass
- the J’Elle Stainer Compact Contrabass Saxophone.
Whereas Benedikt has resolved to go up, this maker has chosen to go out.
It's clear that a sub-bass horn is going to have a lot of tubing, and
it certainly has to go somewhere - and this horn is unusual in that it's
squat and wide. Very squat, and very wide.
It's an imposing bit of kit - and the fact that it extends so far from
your body makes it somewhat impossible to heft on a strap (though if you
chose to do so there are some very substantial sling rings from which
to dangle your, undoubtedly, substantial sling).
and I had to wait some considerable time to get our hands on this horn
- it was 'occupied' by a gent who was spending a considerable amount of
time playing a sort of Klezmer-style repertoire on it. It was only after
he'd gone, and we got our hands on it, that we realised quite how magnificent
a player he'd been...it was an extremely difficult instrument to play.
I certainly won't dismiss it as rubbish - that would be disrespectful
to the indisputable talents of the craftsman - but I feel it's fair to
say that the horn needs some development.
The action is nowhere near as sophisticated as on the Tubax, and it really
needs to be for an instrument where the key cups are so far away from
the touchpieces - and bear in mind that some of the key cups are around
5 inches in diameter!
Many of the keys had an incredible amount of travel - you couldn't as
much roll your finger between the low B and Bb touchpieces as get half
your hand in the gap.
It also didn't have anywhere near the definition and clarity of the Tubax
horns - fast passages tended to merge into a single note of indeterminate
melody, and whilst it's fair to say that this horn is a completely different
design and is therefore bound to sound quite different it's also fair
to say that it could benefit substantially from being a little less different.
I noted that one of the pillars had fallen off the side Bb cup key, and
someone had effected a temporary repair with an elastic band. These things
happen...but if they had visited the classical strings hall they'd have
found a German chap selling a range of advanced cyanoacrylates (that's
posh superglue to you and me), any one of which would have ensured that
pillar sat in place for the rest of the show...and beyond. (See? You gotta
look beyond the obvious for the tools and gadgets!).
I hope the builder continues to develop this horn - it looks fabulous
and I very much feel that it has great potential.
something smaller now, much smaller.
Jupiter were exhibiting a new student instrument - the Saxonett (shown
on left side of photo). This is essentially a Chalameau. It's an entry-level
instrument that's small enough to be played by a very young child and
both cheap and sturdy enough to make it a worthwhile proposition. The
Saxonett, in spite of its name, is actually closer to a clarinet - it
has a parallel bore, it's played with a standard clarinet mouthpiece and
uses a standard clarinet reed. It's OK, but not terribly exciting - and
it's an idea that has been going for some time in the shape of the Xaphoon
(shown on the right of the photo), which is a far more interesting and
The Xaphoon has an integral mouthpiece and uses a tenor sax reed - it's
an easier blow than the Saxonett, it's more versatile, has a greater note
range and comes in a wide variety of styles and finishes. It's about the
same price too - so it wins hands-down on all fronts.
I suspect that not many woodwind players got to see these interesting
instruments as they were tucked away in the sheet music hall - and the
only reason I visited the hall was to check out a couple of publishers.
I was keen to see what the Chinese had been up to in the last year, but
it seems 'not a lot' is about the best that I can come up with. Last year's
quality has been maintained, but little improved upon in most areas. From
what I hear 'in the trade' the improvements have been more about consistency
rather than development, which is no bad thing. I still managed to spot
a few duffers, which means that someone must be buying them. Heaven only
knows why - it's entirely possible to hop from one stand to another and
find better instruments at pretty much the same prices as the iffy ones.
I did manage to find an agreeable bass flute - but I found it required
a bit of practice to get to grips with the embouchure. I might be getting
my hands on an example for extended testing shortly...at which point I'll
see what it can do.
The alto flute is a far more accessible instrument, and I noted several
very good examples from the Chinese at excellent prices.
Chinese horn that caught my eye was this alto with synthetic pads. This
was from the same company that exhibited a sax with cork joint on the
tenon last year. That wasn't such a great idea - and I half expected this
alto to be somewhat dismal, but I was quite wrong.
It was actually quite a decent blow.
The key cups have been reduced in size to a mere 'holding cup' and the
pads sit on some sort of unspecified swivel mounting. This allows the
pad to move quite freely - in effect a self-levelling (and thus self-seating)
design. The pad itself appears to be composed of a thin metal disc that's
about 5mm smaller in diameter than the sandwich of 'foam rubber' stuff
that encloses it.
I had no problem getting a low Bb out of this alto, though it did require
a little extra finger pressure.
I suspect that with a decent set up this horn's performance could be improved
significantly - though it remains to be seen how durable the pads are.
I noted a few had been picked at, probably by nosey repairers wondering
what the pads were made of...but you could expect the same treatment to
be dished out by schoolkids.
I'm thinking that perhaps some sort of protective lining might be in order...?
The idea certainly works - the manufacturers say the pads have a year's
guarantee - and if it proves to be reliable it could make significant
inroads into schools and the like. It would also be very easy to replace
Mind you, it's not like the Chinese don't have any competition.
The Taiwanese have been very active in the field of instrument manufacture
for many years now, and most of their products are widely acknowledged
to be 'of a standard'. In the last few years they've moved more upmarket
- perhaps because they could, but also because the Chinese were destroying
their lower-end customer base.
But it seems like they're rallying, and I noted a number of instruments
of significant quality at really quite low prices.
Not as low as the standard Chinese fare, to be sure, but low enough to
occupy the £400-£600 mark with ease - and give quite a lot
of value for money.
There are few, if any, build quality issues; response and feel is better;
finishes are smarter and there are some interesting small design features
- including black 'roo skin' pads.
I doubt this will stop the Chinese in their tracks, but it does even the
market up a little at least for a while - although it pretty much finishes
off the major-name branded entry-level Taiwanese horns.
That said, the Taiwanese have competition from the Vietnamese manufacturers
- who appear to be just as capable of turning out a decent horn for around
the £450 mark.
with the Chinese for a moment, I managed to get a decent look at their
bass sax this year.
Lots of people have asked me if these are any good, considering the affordable
price they sell for, so I was very keen to give this horn a blow. Unfortunately
it didn't work that well - the setup wasn't very good and it would have
needed about an hour's worth of bench time to sort out properly. However,
for the few notes it managed to produce it did quite well. As it wouldn't
blow the full range I wasn't able to check if it was in tune, but it did
OK between low and upper G...so it sounds promising.
Build quality wasn't too bad, though the design of the horn is rather
dated (most likely copied from an old Conn).
I think it's fair to say that if you bought one of these you could expect
to have to spend a few quid having it properly tweaked and set up.
Moving considerably up the scale I checked out the Inderbinen
horns. Yamaha fans have a head start with these saxes as they use Yamaha's
62 series keywork - so a decent action is a certainty.
These horns are incredibly expensive, but they both feel and play like
they're worth every penny.
I don't imagine that players who prefer a more rounded or vintage tone
would be all that impressed by them - but for those players who like a
crisp, free-blowing contemporary horn, these saxes are a knockout.
Naturally, like any self-respecting sax player I tried to blag a freebie...but
looking at the seriously impressive list of endorsees I could see that
I was just about entitled to a brochure.
I was particularly impressed with the finish. It is, in fact, no finish
at all. The dark coloration comes from the heating (annealing) process
used during manufacture to soften the brass to make it workable. I liked
it, and because the process oxidises the surface of the brass it should
be a very durable finish.
a question though - how important do you feel the accuracy of a horn's
bore is? I only ask because if you run a finger around the body of these
horns you can feel ripples and flats in the brass from the hand-working
manufacture. Would these horns play better with a more consistent bore...or
is it because of these imperfections that they play so well??
Another company in the 'independent' sector that had some impressive
horns was Rampone
These horns are Italian, and very typically so - which means that the
finish is slightly iffy in places, but the performance is unquestionable.
In some ways I found them a little reminiscent of Buffet horns in blowing
terms - I wouldn't say they were all that gutsy, but they have great appeal
for mainstream jazzers. Pete Thomas gave the baritone a good blow and
felt it to be almost classical in its response. Similarly he found the
alto to be a superb be-bop horn, and quite hard to put down - so much
so that he almost missed his flight back!
I'd say that these were very individual horns - and they attracted a great
deal of attention throughout the show...which perhaps points up the fact
that lots of horn players are looking for something just a bit different
Of course, it helps when you have enthusiastic staff on your stand to
engage with the customers and chat with them - something that Borgani
could have done with.
I found their stand quite by chance, rather unusually tucked away in the
sheet music hall - along with the banjos, accordions and other assorted
paraphernalia. I'd imagine that they weren't all that busy through the
show, so you'd think that they'd positively pounce on someone wearing
a sax sling and a trade pass who appeared to be taking an inordinate interest
in their horns.
Not a chance - and after five minutes of intent key-wiggling and studious
stubble-scratching I wandered off to laugh at a fat man playing a banjo.
I checked in at Antigua's stand to see how their quality control is shaping
up. It's looking good, I'm pleased to say. The keywork issues I raised
in my review of their soprano have been sorted and these horns will square
up well to the competition (of which there's likely to be a lot quite
soon, I suspect).
As for the majors, well, my focus this year wasn't on them so much -
but I did note that Yamaha have a new Custom soprano out with a top G.
I didn't blow it, but it felt good - and being a Yamaha it's unlikely
that it'll be anything less than great (if you like Yamahas, of course).
And finally we come to Keilwerth.
Readers of this site will know all too well of my history with this brand
- and my disappointment with their quality control...so it might surprise
you to know that if I had to award a 'best in show' medal it would go
to the Keilwerth 20th Anniversary Shadow tenor.
Yep, it's a beauty. It's perhaps not my choice of horn when it comes to
the action or the tone, but I know a good horn when I get my hands on
one. Free-blowing, responsive, rich, precise - definitely the best SX90R
I've played...and I've played a few!
Naturally, I had a damn good peek at the toneholes - which appeared to
be level enough to pass a visual examination. I seriously hope that Keilwerth
make every effort to ensure all the Anniversary series horns (at least)
are up to scratch...but on past performance I wouldn't put any of my own
money on it.
Definitely worth a try...but make sure you thoroughly check those toneholes.