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Frankfurt Musik Messe show report -2010

Another year, and another Frankfurt MusikMesse!
In keeping with the current economic climate the show was a little smaller this year, with some previous exhibitors absent and slightly smaller stands on show from some of the regulars. Some exhibitors I spoke to were considering showing only every two years, which shows just how hard the economy is biting.

It might sound quite depressing on the face of it, but I was heartily cheered to see that the organisers had set a noise limit of 70dB - and had stuck signs up in various places to remind us all to keep the noise level down. Even more bizarrely, a sign at the entrance to the show told attendees that they would not be allowed to take drumsticks in with them. I'm guessing this is because of the preponderance of percussionists to wander around hitting things. No doubt the percussion exhibitors had plenty of sticks to lend visitors to their stands...
I fell foul of a noise inspector (or, as they came to be dubbed 'NoiseMeisters') on the first morning of the show. I was trying out a tenor using my Vandoren piece and a relatively soft reed. I was blowing at what I'd call practice volume - so not that loud - but the inspector informed me I was hitting 85dB (80dB is about as loud as the average alarm clock, which is twice as loud as a vacuum cleaner at 70dB).
It didn't take long before the woodwind hall was filled with punters, all intent on making as much noise as possible, and I spent a number of tea breaks watching the NoiseMeisters dashing to and fro. I noticed that they didn't pay much attention to the German military brass ensemble that gave impromptu concerts from a stand opposite the coffee bar...
It became apparent the idea was doomed when I eavesdropped on a conversation between a NoiseMeister and an exhibitor who was being given a roasting over a punter who'd been trying out a trombone with a great deal of enthusiasm. "You are making too much noise!" shouted the NoiseMeister, "Speak up mate, I can't hear a bloody thing!" shouted the exhibitor as a trumpeter a couple of stands down let fly with a collection of top end notes.

Aquliasax C melodyIn terms of new products there wasn't a great deal on show. I wasn't really expecting to see much innovation this year - cash is tight, and many companies will have thought themselves lucky just to stay afloat and wouldn't have had much spare change to put into new product development.
I did notice though that general build quality is up, particularly from the Chinese sector.
Of interest in this area was the Chinese C Melody, as sold by Aquilasax. It's based on a vintage design (possibly a Buescher?) but with a few tweaks here and there. I had a chat with the manufacturer regarding the key design in some areas, they seemed very willing to listen to comments. I blew the horn and was quite impressed. I tried it with both an alto and a tenor piece and preferred the response I got from the latter. I'd say it leant more towards a contemporary tone rather than that of a vintage C Melody, and as such I found it more appealing to my own tastes. I still think it suffers from the 'top end of a tenor, low end of an alto' syndrome, and as such it wouldn't be of much use to me - but C Melody fans will find it very interesting indeed.

One Chinese horn that really caught my eye, and ear, was a copy of a Yamaha tenor. The chap said it was a 62 copy, but I had my doubts and placed it nearer to a 275. As a long-time Yamaha player I was surprised at how very close it was in terms of tone and response to my dear old YTS23, and at a fraction of the price.
I've always said the 23 is a lot of horn for the money, and this Chinese copy was even more so.

I also noticed that a number of Chinese manufacturers now have their own brand name. In previous years they've either had the names of retailers on their horns or a basic 'factory stamp'. This time there was much more of a sense of "This is our brand name". I knew it would come, and it has. Whether this will change the way Chinese instruments are sold depends on the pricing structure - if factory branded instruments cost less at trade than self-branded examples, many smaller retailers might be inclined to make the switch.
This will certainly makes things a lot easier when it comes to reviewing and recommending brands, and it makes such brands more accountable.

Chinese straight altoAnother interesting Chinese horn was a straight alto, as seen on the Jinbao stand. I won't say that it was an inspiring blow for me, but it worked very well and appeared to be quite well put together - and even featured a detachable bell section. Working from the trade price it should retail at around the £400 mark - very cheap, if you're after something a little different.
Of much more interest on the same stand was a Selmer style bass saxophone that seemed to be very nicely made. I meant to go back and give it a blow, but ran out of time unfortunately.

I checked out a number of Chinese flutes, and came across a stand where the flutes had all been mixed up. There was no easy way to tell which model was which in terms of quality - so I blew them all and rearranged them on the display stand in order of preference. I then called over a very helpful assistant to check the prices. Much to my surprise the flute I'd placed in fourth position from the top turned out to be their cheapest at $99 trade.

Staying with flutes for a while, I found a Taiwanese company selling an entirely plastic flute - keys and all. The idea certainly has potential (it's had some degree of success in terms of the old Lyons clarinet) but the flute was an unremarkable blow, and from what I could gather over the language barrier it seemed to be incredibly expensive ($1,500??). I'd be surprised to see this idea take off in its current form, but you never know.
I also found an Austrian company who were showing a simplified flute in Eb for kids. It lacks trill keys and only goes down to Eb, but it comes with a choice of a metal or a composite (that's plastic to you and me) head. I felt this to be a more practical idea than the all-plastic flute, and I can certainly see the advantages of having a smaller, lighter flute for children. It was slightly pricey though, and that might well be the limiting factor.

As with previous years there were saxes a-plenty on show, and one of my first stops was the Mauriat stand to check out the new 86UL model.
Time for a bit of a rant here.
I've said before that manufacturers aren't doing themselves any favours by displaying instruments that aren't in tip-top working condition - and this is even more the case when it's a top-end product. I picked up the new 86UL barely an hour after the doors had opened on the first day of the show, and it wasn't working. It struggled at around low E, and a quick peek down the bell showed that neither of the bell key pads were closing properly.
Now, I know of a few companies at the show who had techs look over their show instruments beforehand - as well as some who had techs on hand to keep things running smoothly, so there's absolutely no excuse for this poor showing. I couldn't really play the horn to the best of its abilities, and so I can't really tell you whether the horn made the grade or not. I'd like to think it would, but I won't guess at it.
I heard the horn had been tweaked by Friday afternoon, by which time most of the trade would have been making their way back home.
The alto fared better, thankfully, and I felt it to be a bit warmer than the 66R, with more presence and depth - though I'm not personally convinced that Mauriat have cracked the alto market quite as well as they have with their tenors.

Dave Leibman sopranoOn to the Keilwerth stand, and in spite of there being some talk about their current financial position they had two new horns to show - the SX90 Toneking and the Dave Leibman soprano. I had a good look (naturally) at the SX90R horns and found them to be of good build quality - and then gave the Toneking a blow. To all intents and purposes it seems to be an SX90R without the soldered-on tone hole, an SX90 then. As such that makes it a great horn - and without any of the potential problems that I've seen on a number of SX90R saxes. It's about time, I just hope it's not too late.
Likewise, the Liebman soprano was a star. I loved the design of the keywork, it makes the horn look very distinctive - and it plays beautifully. If you're after a top-end soprano and you don't try one of these, you'll never know what you're missing. That said, I spoke to another tech a little later who said that he'd noticed a few rough edges to the tone holes, but I didn't get a chance to go back and check them out.
It would be shame to see the company go, in spite of my misgivings over build quality in the past I do recognise that Keilwerth are one of the most innovative manufacturers out there - and perhaps one of the bravest. These two new horns show that they still have what it takes, and I hope that someone with a plan will see that.

I made a special effort to stop by the Trevor James stand this year. I'd had a lot of emails asking for my opinion of the Signature Custom horns, and my previous experience of them left me feeling that they were OK but nothing really spectacular - so I wanted to see if anything had changed. Well, either it has - or I have...because I very much liked them this time around. Well built, well set up and with an excellent response - neither too warm nor too bright. Just right, in fact.
I had a chat with their tech, David Farley, and found a man who has obvious passion for his craft. Much was said about the need to set up new horns, and how much they could be improved by careful tweaking by an expert. It's this level of service that gives companies like Trevor James an edge, and another reason why I'll be recommending people give their horns a try in future.

I paid my annual visit to Curt of MusicMedic, always a real pleasure to see him and have a natter. Curt strikes me as one of nature's true optimists, and each year he regales me with his plans and products for the future. They're always amazing, and he always comes up with the goods - and that's why you have to walk past his stand a number of times while you wait for the few moments when he's not already in conversation with half a dozen people.
I also wanted to hand over a copy of the Haynes Saxophone Manual. Curt's input and support was invaluable, and although I could have sent the manual by post months ago I wanted to present it in person.
I marvelled at his latest project, a huge warehouse style operation in which horns can be rebuilt by skilled craftsmen and women who specialise in particular areas. It's a fantastic idea - but I told Curt it would never work in would take about three months for his team to get through just about every horn in the country and then there'd be sod all else left to do!
We spent a while discussing his new hot air gun - a replacement for the traditional Bunsen burner as used to set pads. I'm not averse to new ideas but I have to admit I was a bit sceptical - but then again I've been using a Bunsen for over thirty years and I guess you work with what you're used to. I can see it would have advantages in some cases and I would have liked to have tried it out but there wasn't any mains power on the stand.

Speaking of sax manuals, I dropped by the Inderbinen stand for my annual dose of "Oooh, I want one of these" and was pleasantly surprised when Thomas Inderbinen expressed an interest in my manual. Quick as a flash I offered to swap him a signed copy for one of his tenors, but for some reason or other he didn't seem all that keen. He bought a copy though, which I'm quite proud of. I've been tempted to make the Inderbinen the 'horn of the show' in previous years but in some ways I get the feeling that's it's somehow a little above 'that sort of thing'.

During a brief tea break I chanced upon Peter Ponzol, and we got to chatting about his latest venture. He's been working with Antigua to produce a new range of top end horns which will be built in their Taiwanese factory. Peter has a reputation for coming up with some fantastic ideas, and while he was keen to tell me that these new horns would feature some revolutionary ideas, he kept the details close to his chest! We already know that Antigua can knock out a decent horn, but with Peter on board there could be something very exciting in the pipeline. I'm told there should be some news in time for next year's show.

I said at the start of this report that things were quieter all round and that there wasn't much new stuff around, but I did notice an increase in the amount of b*llsh*t being thrown around. There were plenty of references to French and Japanese brass, as well as French and German springs. French and German springs?? What, I wonder, is the difference, and why does someone think that French springs are the bees knees while someone else thinks that German ones cut the mustard?
I'm tempted to wander around next year's show asking all the makers if they're using Swiss point screws.
Many of the various catalogues I picked up at the show make reference to materials giving a certain response and suchlike, and yet when you read them all in turn they make quite different claims for the same materials.
I was tempted to make a nuisance of myself by asking exactly how such-and-such a material or part made a difference tonally, but there's only so much snake oil I can take in any one day.

On now to the most unusual product on show in the woodwind hall - a tuning device called the Variosax. This device is fitted to the crook in place of the mouthpiece cork and incorporates a sliding barrel. The idea is that you fit the mouthpiece into the barrel and thereafter use the built-in adjuster to tune the horn. But, they also claim that the device enables you to lower the tuning by a semitone.
Now, I was so amazed by this product that I neglected to take a photo of it or try it - but every horn player knows that although you can pull off the mouthpiece to make a note a semitone flat, it throws out the internal tuning of the horn (otherwise none of us would bother to learn how to play in keys like G#, C# and F#...we'd just pull the mouthpiece back). Pete Thomas tried it out and said it worked about as well as you'd expect.
If they're exhibiting next year I'll take a closer look, but I have my doubts that they'll still be around...

SaxframeOn a more positive note I checked out the Saxframe. This neat device is an alternative to saxophone harnesses, which tend to constrict the chest. It features two lightweight aluminium poles that distribute the horn's weight over the player's back thus leaving the ribcage completely unobstructed. It also means that there's no weight at all on the neck. I had a good look at the design and was pretty impressed, though I felt that the sling that's attached to the frame could have been a bit beefier. I showed them my BG strap, and pointed out how it was a little wider, thicker and softer than the straps they were using. I think it's a great product that could prove to be a boon for players who suffer from back or neck problems, but it's not cheap and I think the price warrants a slightly better strap material.

I saw that Uebel were showing a new range of clarinets this year. Uebel have been around for what seems like forever, and they have a reputation for coming up with some fairly off-the-wall designs (such as the aluminium bodied flute, one of which I have). Of interest to me was their new Boehm system clarinet, Model 888, in Grenadilla. It's built in China, but the factory is owned and run by Uebel and the wood is sourced via Europe. This is a smart move as there has been some concern about the quality of wood used for Chinese clarinets etc. in recent years.
I was very impressed with the build quality, and the clarinet itself was a nice blow. Aimed at the mid-range student I think it'll prove to be a nice bit of competition for the likes of Buffet and Yamaha.

I spent a lot of time checking out clarinets this year, and I have to say that I'm amazed at the wide variety of choice on offer - not just in the genre as a whole, but even from single manufacturers. It used to be that if you wanted a top-end clarinet you had a choice between whatever pro model Buffet and Selmer had to offer at the time, and, later on, Yamaha. It's all very different now, and each manufacturer offers three or four top-end instruments - each with a very different character.
In some ways it makes choosing a clarinet a bit harder - whereas before you might have settled for an 'all rounder', these days it's possible to find a single manufacturer who makes a one clarinet for symphony work, one for chamber work and yet another for jazz. That's not to say you can't play jazz on a chamber clarinet, but when you try the two side by side it quickly becomes quite clear that one has the edge over the other in certain circumstances.
This, of course, holds true for other instruments - but the clarinet seems to mark the boundaries more clearly. There's only one solution - buy more than one clarinet. Sorted.

Freewing hand restsStill on the subject of clarinets I found a Finnish company called Freewing promoting an interesting hand rest for clarinets and oboes. The idea behind the rest is that it takes the weight off the thumb and places it between the thumb and forefinger. When set up properly it allows the player to balance the instrument in the right hand quite comfortably and promotes correct hand and finger positioning. It's fully adjustable, so can be moved around to suit the individual player's needs. I tried it out - and while I felt it did the job I also felt that having the rest between my thumb and forefinger was a little distracting. Apparently it takes a few weeks to get used to it.
I liked the idea, and the product, but it's quite pricey and I feel that because its appeal isn't instant it might be quite hard to sell. Perhaps it's one of those gadgets that needs to be sold on a "Try it for two weeks and return it if you don't like it" basis. I would think though that for players who have problems with supporting a clarinet/oboe it will prove to be very useful indeed.

I passed by the Hodge Swab stand and stopped for a chat, which gave me the chance to show them I'd featured the baritone swab in the Haynes Saxophone manual.
One new product that caught my eye was a silk sax pull-through designed to go right through the entire instrument with the neck still fitted. As with most bore cleaning products there are probably pros and cons associated with it, but for lazy horn players (like me) who don't like to faff around after a gig, it sounds ideal.

Waati Orpheus chairsI often find that taking a walk around the other halls sometimes yields results, and in the strings hall I came across these phenomenal chairs by Waati Orpheus. As you might imagine they're designed with string players in mind, but good posture is good posture and there's no reason why other instrumentalists can't take advantage of it too - in fact there's every reason to recommend wind players have a look at products like these.
I'll admit that my initial reason for having a sit on one of these chairs was that my feet were killing me and it seemed like a good place to sit while I was waiting to see someone. I soon realised that the design of the chairs puts you straight into an ideal playing position. Nicely relaxed, but with an upright posture - and fully supported.
They're not cheap, these things - about a grand a piece give or take a few bob and I probably couldn't justify buying one given the amount of practice I do (i.e. not much), but for the professional player or teacher it could make a big difference.
Of course, looks aren't everything and I'm happy to say that the build quality is as good as their looks - and they're fully adjustable too, as you'd expect.

Before I finish my this year's show report I'd like to direct a few comments at 'demonstrators'.
These are professional players, usually endorsers (or is it endorsees? Answers on a postcard), brought in by the manufacturer to demonstrate and promote their products. It's a good way of presenting the products and it gives punters the chance to hear what the products are capable of in the right hands. It also gives a sense of security in the sense of "If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me".
I've done a bit of demonstrating in my time and I feel the role has two objectives; if there's no-one on the stand, an impromptu 'display' will draw the punters in - and if the punters are in, the demonstrator can help to show prospective buyers what the difference is between the various products.
Where it all falls down is when the stand is busy with punters trying various instruments out and the demonstrator decides it's time they did a spot of practice.
There were a number of occasions where I was trying to check out a horn's response when playing softly, only to be completely scuppered by a demonstrator who'd chosen that moment to have a bit of a noodle...very loudly, at no-one in particular.
OK, so many stands have soundproof booths - but they're often in use, so you have no choice but to play on the stand.
To be fair I suppose I should aim my remarks at other punters too - there were plenty of times when I was interrupted by a punter who walked onto a stand, picked up the nearest horn and stood right beside me while they gave it their best shot. I may be alone in this, but if I see someone blowing a horn I at least try to move as far away from them as possible, or wait until they take a break before making my own kind of noise.
It's maybe a small thing, but on the stands where the demonstrators had a good understanding of their role I found it made a big difference in terms of how many prospective buyers stuck around to try products out.

Rampone & Cazzani AG925 tenorAnd so to my 'horn of the show'.
In 2008 the Keilwerth 20th Anniversary won it, last year the Borgani Vintage 2009 took the award (I never did get around to posting my show report, sorry!) and this year we have a new winner.
Each year I'm on the lookout for something 'fresh'. Traipsing round the dealers for three days, blowing each and every horn, leaves the old palate a little jaded - so the 'horn of the show' has to be something pretty spectacular. The horn I chose amazed me from the first note I blew. It seemed to disappear in my hands.
Normally I'd blow a horn and listen to the tone, feel how the notes formed, check the evenness of tone and tuning. Not this time - I just wanted to play tunes on it.
It's the Rampone & Cazzani AG925 tenor.
It's 7,000 Euros and it's built in solid silver - but as Leslie Nielsen might say "That's not important right now". What is important is that R&C have built on their recent successes and have continued to develop horns that are both unique and special, and as the AG925 sets the new benchmark.
If that's not praise enough then it might be worth bearing in mind that Pete Thomas and I agreed with each other, and that doesn't happen very often (in fact this might be the very first time).
It being my birthday on that day I was also treated to a rendition of 'Happy Birthday To You' from Pete on the silver tenor...and on a Mauriat...and on a Bauhaus...

I spent some time chatting to Claudio, I've always admired his obvious passion for his instruments and he spoke about plans to maybe bring a bass sax to the show next year. That would be something I'd very much like to see, as I suspect would a great many other sax players.
I'm very pleased to say he bought a sax manual too!

So that wraps it up for another year. In all I had a very productive time in spite of the smaller turnout, and I was extremely pleased at the interest shown in the sax manual. I met some old friends, made some new ones and picked up a few hints and tips too, which may mean that next year I might consider going along as an exhibitor.
Should be fun!

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015