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Frankfurt Musik Messe show report -2011

It's that time of year again, when I dig out my stash of loose Euros, give my mouthpieces their annual clean and practice saying "I don't speak German" in German. Yes, it's the Frankfurt MusikMesse - Europe's largest music trade fair.

Given the current economic climate I expected it to be a smaller show than in previous years, though I didn't expect it to be quite as small as it turned out to be.
I was quite looking forward to seeing what was new on the Chinese front, but hardly any of the manufacturers were present - and their usual 'quarter' in hall 3 was substantially underpopulated. Whereas it used to take almost an entire day to get around all the Chinese stands, this year it barely took an hour. I tend to find that the Chinese stallholders are usually quite outgoing and cheerful - but this year even they looked a bit crestfallen, which perhaps shows how bad things are all round. Still, it wasn't as bad as the strings hall - in which they'd pulled off a reverse Tardis effect by pushing the hall's false walls so far in that the difference in size between the exterior and the interior was quite striking. Even then there was plenty of space, and quite a few gaps.

I was pleased to see that the organisers had given up on the ridiculous 'decibel-police' they had last year. In an attempt (a very vain one) to keep noise levels down they'd employed staff to walk around and point decibel meters at various punters, asking them to play more quietly if the noise exceeded a certain level. OK, health and safety at work and all that, but if we wanted a quiet life we'd never have become musicians.

Things weren't quite so bad in the woodwind hall - and a strings colleague commented that there must be rather more money in brass and woodwind given the relative turnout.
Even so, there was still some evidence of cost-cutting. Selmer's stand could only be described as poky. I've seen high street newspaper stands with larger premises - so either Selmer is doing so well that they don't need to bother or they're doing so badly that they couldn't run to the cost of stand that befits the status of one of the world's leading woodwind manufacturers. Having run my hands over the horns on display and noting that they were very poorly set up I inclined to think that they just couldn't be bothered.

Keilwerth solderingAnother notable downsize - or really an absence - was the Keilwerth stand. With Buffet's recent take-over they now appeared on the Buffet stand, but only just - with a rather small collection of horns. I had my usual look at them - the tone holes appeared to be level, but I wasn't at all impressed with the finish on a couple of them. They've gone for the 'well worn' look, but like a guy who tried to make a fashion statement by wearing flares and a chunky-knit tank-top, they haven't quite grasped the concept.
I mean, just look at it!
What's that all about?? I've seen this 'finish' before and made the point that if you took your horn to a tech for some soldering work and it was given back to you with this kind of mess left on it, you'd probably fetch the tech a swift uppercut and stick his gas gun "where the sun don't shine".
It's not cool, it's not funny, it's just a bloody mess.

On the plus side I was quite taken with the impressive Prestige basset clarinet in A, which features an extended range down to low C. I'm told it was designed to perform the Mozart clarinet concerto in its original form - but I'd have it just for the sheer hell of having a few extra notes to play with and the rich timbre that exudes from the instrument.

Josef clarinetStaying with clarinets, I was very impressed with the offerings on the Josef stand.
Built in Japan, these clarinets aren't that well known and yet they really ought to be. The design and build quality is superb and they look simply gorgeous - particularly the model finished in white gold. Better still, they play beautifully too.
It could be that they want to keep things relatively small and low-key (in which case they're doing it very well) or they just might need a bit of help in bringing their instruments to the attention of the general public.

I wanted to compare these clarinets to Leblanc's premier range, but could I find any? I could not.
Conn-Selmer, who handle Leblanc, had a large stand in hall 3 - but a woefully small number of Leblanc clarinets. As far as I could tell it was just the Bliss range - no pro models and not a sniff of a bass or harmony clarinet.
This was a shame, as their pro clarinets are quite remarkable....although that may be about to change, as I hear that they have ended the contract with Morry Backun - the well-known clarinet designer. This was perhaps why he was exhibiting under his own name in hall 1 - showing a clarinet that was pretty much as 'state-of-the-art' as it gets.
I didn't have much time to spare when I dropped by the stand the first time round - just enough for a quick chat and an all-too-brief look over and play of the clarinet.
Each time I tried to go back for a more detailed chat, Morry was busy with clients. I'm not surprised, the innovation on his clarinet is outstanding (as is the price - around seven grand a pop) - with a list of features that would take at least half a page to discuss properly.
Strangely enough the clarinet isn't as immediately appealing as I thought it was going to be. This is by no means a criticism - quite the reverse, in fact. There are lots of clarinets out there that have that immediate appeal, and while they also have enough depth to maintain that appeal over the years, they don't quite give that sense of standing on the edge of a chasm that the Backun gives.
I was a bit puzzled by it at first, and noodled around aimlessly trying to find the core tone...and then I found something that gave me that feeling you get when you go over the hill on a roller-coaster. I stopped playing at that point (mostly because I don't have 7 grand to spend on a clarinet), but Morry's colleague picked up the clarinet and rattled off a medley of tunes in various styles. Very nice, but I'd more than got the point already.

I was very pleased to see Patricola exhibiting - their clarinets are a particular favourite of mine, very exciting to play and full of Italian gusto.
Opposite them were another Italian company who were exhibiting an extraordinarily beautiful contrabass clarinet in palisander. I didn't get to blow it, but I had a jolly good close-up look. If it plays only a fraction as good as it look it'll still be amazing.

A Chinese plastic-bodied contrabass clarinet was about the only thing of interest in hall 3 - lurking on a Spanish stand. Quite a lot of people probably walked right by it, it wasn't exactly well-displayed. The build quality was decent enough - a bit iffy in places, but then I doubt the horn would be very expensive. I spoke to a couple of people who'd tried it and the consensus seemed to be that it wasn't too bad - and is probably a good candidate for extensive tweakery.

Antigua Pro OneI spent a lot of time checking out Antigua's new Pro One horns, designed by Peter Ponzol.
Peter has a hand in designing horns for many major manufacturers, but Antigua are the first to have given him carte blanche to build a horn from the ground up.
To be honest, this horn had a lot to live up to - the pre-release blurb didn't impress me that much, with references to a 'vintage alloy' and all that kind of malarkey. Fortunately it turned out that the horns came up to scratch - and while I wouldn't say that they're the be-all-and-end-all of horns, they nonetheless sit very competitively in the marketplace.
Of particular note are the Trident key arms on the bell keys and the low C. At first sight it look like these were designed to tweak the seat of the pads, with adjusting screws each side of the central key cup arm - but Peter told me that they're really there to help dampen the vibrations when the bell key notes are played.
To set them up the screws are backed off and the pad is set in the normal way, and then the screws are brought down until they just touch the key cup. The idea is that it gives the low notes more focus, and I have to say that I was rather impressed with the response from them. I'll have to reserve judgement though until one comes into the workshop and I can do some tests.
Also of note is the use of tone hole rings - but only on the low notes, from Eb down. These rings were used on the Keilwerths, with variable results. I discussed the problem with Peter, who told me that the Pro One's rings were fitted in a different way - and that the problem of warped tone holes wasn't going to be an issue.
Rather more interestingly was his comment that they had built a version of the horn completely fitted out with these tone hole rings and another without - and by a process of trial and error had found that having the rings on only the last few tone holes made an audible difference. Naturally I can't confirm that - but it's at least refreshing to find that someone admits that trial and error played a part in the design, and to be frank I'm rather more inclined to believe the results than had I been presented with some pseudo-acoustic mumbo-jumbo.
I wasn't so impressed by the non-stick G# mech, similar to that seen on the Keilwerths. I've never been that keen on it, and always felt it to be a little inelegant.
Topping off the horns, quite literally, is a Ponzol crook - which has long been established as a credible bit of kit.

I liked the tone and response of the horns, they played with a nice sense of focus and a good balance between a contemporary bright sound and the more traditional warmth. I particularly liked the way the lower notes blended in nicely as I went down the scale - I half expected to find a significant difference in the tone once I hit low C.
I also liked the sense of control I got from them. I suspect this is largely due to the crook, but I found it very easy to push the tone this way and that on demand. That's quite a feature - you don't get that feeling of being locked in to a certain tone. I suppose the drawback to that could be that the player is required to 'steer' the tone somewhat, but that's perhaps the difference between a cheap car used as a run-around and a highly-tuned supercar...and which would you prefer...?

A couple of gripes - there are no adjusters on the key stacks. I find it odd that so much effort has been put into fitting adjusters to the lower key cups and yet none are fitted to the stack keys...where they really do come in useful. I also noted that the key pearls felt a bit sharp under the fingers. I'm used to saying that horns are a bit too edgy, but it's the first time I've had to say that about key pearls.

All in all I think Antigua have come up trumps with this one. Early buyers will receive a horn that's stamped with a 'limited edition' number and a certificate signed by Peter Ponzol. Later horns will be exactly the same, but I think it's a nice touch.
What I'd really like to see now is Ponzol working on a top-level horn. Good though the Pro One is, I still think he has a few more tricks up his sleeve. I asked him about future developments and he said he was working on a baritone for the Pro One range, and was looking to build a soprano that harked back to the vintage response...and not just a modern horn with a coat of chemical patina. Should be very interesting indeed.

As an aside, while I was waiting to get hold of the Pro One I tried out Antigua's standard horns - and I have to say that I was just as impressed. They've come on a lot since the early days, and are a credible choice for players on a bit of a budget.

VibratosaxFrom the sublime to the, some might say, ridiculous, and the already notorious Vibratosax.
Let me say from the off that I'm all for innovation and modern materials etc, but at the same time there's still a need to get things right.
The launch earlier this year of the Vibratosax - the world's first all-plastic sax - wasn't a spectacular success. I think it's fair to say that it wasn't quite ready to go prime-time, so I was keen to see one in the flesh. As it happens they had three on display, all slightly different models.
If I put my tech hat on I can rattle off a whole bunch of reasons why this horn isn't a good idea - and if I put my player's hat on I can think of another bunch of reasons why it's not a good idea - but with my what-the-hell hat on I have to say that I was quite surprised. It's a lot of fun.

Sure, the keys feel all squishy and 'orrible, you have to grip 'em hard to get the flexible pads to seat and the chances of trying to achieve anything approaching a set up are next to zero - but they do blow, and they don't sound half bad.
I started off with the intention of blowing careful scales and stuff, but within a few seconds of blowing I was thinking "Oooh, I could play this on a gig, y'know...I could, I could".
I wouldn't say the tone was subtle, but then nor is it raucous. Put it this way, if I did a recording of it you wouldn't be able to pick it out from a bunch of brass horns provided I didn't play too quietly and introspectively.

The thing is, the idea is sound enough - the Grafton alto is proof of that - and the concept is an interesting one, but I still feel there's a long way to go.
I know there's a lot that can be done with modern plastics, but it's a bit more involved than simply duplicating a standard metal action. I'm aware that a number of very knowledgeable people have passed on some advice regarding the construction of the horn to the maker, and I hope he has the sense to take such comments on board - because I think he'll need too.
There's a major problem with the pricing. I spoke to them about the market position, and they seem to think that it's an ideal horn for a beginner who doesn't want to splash out on a brass horn. Trouble is, you can pick up a decent brass horn for under £200 - and that's a lot cheaper than the Vibratosax.
It does have a very significant weight advantage, but then it comes at the price of robustness at the moment.
Finally, I'm not convinced that they've got the bore design right.
I eventually stopped mucking about and played a few scales, and that's when I noticed a tuning problem. Tested against a tuning fork I found I had to pull my mouthpiece right off, almost to the end of the crook, in order to get the horn in pitch. I never have to do that - it always goes on three quarters of the way.
I found the horn blew rather flat at the top, much more than could be lipped up. I was standing beside Silvin Jancic (he of the sax silencer and saxholder - no mean player himself) and we both grimaced at the top notes - a problem he'd found also.

The stand generated a huge amount of interest, so I hope Vibratosax go back home with lots of ideas and the intention to follow up some of the advice they've been offered. If they do, they'll probably sell truckloads of their unique horns.

Bauhaus-Walstien standThere are always a few big names at the MusikMesse - either wandering around or acting as 'celebrity' endorsers for the bigger brands - and few come bigger in my books than Bobby Wellins.
You might have expected to see him on the Selmer stand (unlikely this time, they would barely have had the room on their tiny stand) or one of the other leading manufacturers, but he was comfortably seated on the Bauhaus Walstein stand. As far as coups go this is a pretty big one in my books.

Bauhaus themselves had a decent range of horns on show including the new M2 silver-gold variants, available in deep gold lacquer and pre-aged unlacquered. These seemed to be highly popular - and from my casual questioning on other stands it appears that the darker finishes are indeed more popular at the moment...which is probably to do with the spurious idea that such finishes lend the horns a darker tone.
I like the big-bell M2s, but I like the standard bell model even more - for me it just has that bit more focus and edge.
I was also quite keen to have a look at a special-edition Chinese-built alto, finished in gold plate, which was being brought in by the manufacturer on the first day of the show. I wasn't disappointed - it looked stunning. Better still, it was built to a higher standard than anything I've seen before out of China. This is quite a step forward - the build quality of Chinese horns has been getting better year-on-year in general, but this also moves it into another league. If this kind of attention to detail filters down across the range then it might mean that the Chinese have done in four or five years what it took the Taiwanese over a decade to do - and better still, the horn blew great.

Jody Espina and Bobby WellinsI spent a bit of time wandering around with the aforementioned Bobby Wellins - and one of the highlights was listening to him and Jody Espina of Jody Jazz Mouthpieces blowing over a chorus of All The Things You Are.
Bobby's no spring chicken, so rather than blow hell-for-leather he tends to be rather more choosy about which notes he plays. In many ways this seems to me to make for a more concentrated style of playing - as though all the superfluous notes have been removed and you're left with only the ones that really count.
We took time out for a cuppa and I availed myself of the opportunity to ask him what he thought about the show - about the products on offer and the people milling about the stands. He'd noted that although there were many fine players at the show, there was very little melody playing going on. People were picking up horns and firing off licks left right and centre, but he wasn't hearing very many people playing tunes. In fact, on the way to the coffee-bar he stopped me beside a guy who was blowing a short sequence of notes over rising intervals...quietly and precisely. "Now that guy knows what he's doing, there so much more to tuning than flat at the bottom or sharp at the top".
He seemed somewhat surprised too at how quick some of the exhibitors were to dismiss his setup in favour of their products - having played the same horn for most of his life it didn't seem all that likely to him that he would jump ship on the basis of playing something else for five minutes in a noisy room, and he got the feeling that a lot of people were looking for some sort of 'Nirvana' that could be bought for hard cash rather than good old-fashioned practice.

Over to the Yamaha hall next, and despite the budget-cutting that was evident elsewhere, Yamaha had pushed the usual boat out. Hardly surprising really, they had a good few new items to show - including their new 82Z soprano saxophone. The Z series has done pretty well on the whole, the alto and tenor have proved to be rightly popular and the soprano is everything you'd expect it to be. Like the alto and tenor, it has that same feeling of being a horn that has a lot of potential - something you have to work with rather than it being presented on a plate. It's a nice approach, and I felt it a more interesting horn than EX models...but then again I preferred the 475 to the EX, so there's no accounting for taste.
I checked out the new YCL-CSGlll clarinet - and found it to be quite a joy. I suppose its main 'feature' is the right hand thumb key that corrects the low E and F tuning, but I found it a bit cumbersome in use - I would imagine it's something that takes time to incorporate into your technique. Of more immediate effect was the raised C/G tone hole, which really beefed up the sense of security when playing this note. It's a fabulously responsive instrument too, and I think it raises Yamaha's stake in the clarinet game - putting them on a par with manufacturers who have historically turned out 'heavy hitters'.
I wanted to take a photo, but a burly rep wagged his finger at me. "I can't afford one,so I thought I'd make do with a photo" I said. He held his hand up - and for a moment I thought he was going to get all 'Terminator' on me and say "Tork to de haaaaand", but he just smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

My wielding a camera got me into a spot of bother a little later at another booth, a stand selling instrument cleaning products. They had a clarinet bore oiler on show - simply a stick with a felt cylinder attached to the end. Nice idea, I thought, so I tried to take a photo of it. I was stopped by the stallholder who held his hand up in front of the lens.
Not a problem - how about a catalogue then? "No catalogue for you!" he boomed, with a vaguely Slavic accent.
I figured things had got off to a bad start, so I tried to engage him in a little banter about some of his products - but he'd clearly marked me down as a spy (perhaps for a decadent western imperialist instrument accessory company) and wasn't having any of it.
I mentioned I was working on a book and that some of his products could well get a mention, but even this didn't seem to warm his heart - at which point he asked me to show him what products I'd recommend in the Haynes Saxophone Manual for cleaning the bore. So I showed him the photo of various pull-throughs and shove-its. "All rubbish!" he exclaimed, and pointed to his own selection of cotton cloths.
Trying to steer the conversation back to the oiler, I asked about his bore oil - what was special about it, what could he tell me about it that might persuade me to buy it?
Nothing, apparently. Was there a secret ingredient? Who knows??
I might still feature the bore oil in the manual - I'll be recommending that players only use a product where they're sure of the ingredients, and I need an example of what not to buy.

JoykeyI spotted this curious gadget on the Joykey stand, who were exhibiting a product intended for brass instruments - a self-draining water key. In contrast to the last stand I visited, Joykey were very keen to talk about and demonstrate their product - I was even treated to a solo on a French horn that had been completely kitted out with their devices.
This looked interesting from the point of view of baritones saxes, which have a water key fitted to the bottom bow. Although the build-up of water is rather more critical on brasswinds (leading to gurgling) there's still a case to be made for the impact of water gathering in the upper bow on a baritone sax, where it effectively changes the volume of the bore.
The Joykey is fitted in place of the water key drain, and because it's self draining no water key is required. It works by means of a dense but porous bronze filter that allows water to pass through it and drain away. I've seen something similar on bearings and oilburner nozzles - they call it sintered bronze.
Thing is though, it will also let air pass through it. The question is, is enough air able to pass through it so that it constitutes a leak? Well, you would think that brass players were as picky about leaks as woodwind players, and yet some fairly big names have had these things fitted to their horns. It's been particularly popular with French horn players, who've previously had to remove water by pulling out the tuning slides and shaking it out. When the stallholder played his French horn with at least four or five of these things fitted, it appeared to make no difference at all to the response - and every now and then I could see a drop of water being expelled from the devices.
It sounds like a good idea on paper, but I'd like to see how it worked in practice on a baritone sax - it wouldn't be too difficult to temporarily fit the filter to the existing water key drain with a spot of blu-tack and see if it had an impact on the response of the horn.
Cost of the Joykey is around the £35 mark, excluding fitting - which I reckon would cost around another £30.

I had a good look around for any innovation from the Chinese - they usually come up with something or other. It might not be anything particularly special, but it's a least nice to see someone having a go.
Unfortunately there wasn't much to see - but I did spot this curious sax. It's an alto, but with a tenor-style crook.
I'm not sure I haven't seen this idea before, though I might be thinking of C Melodies, which often came with either an alto or a tenor crook.
In any event, the idea is that it makes the alto a little more accessible for children. I tried it - and while it might not seem that the crook being this shape would make much of a difference, it actually does. OK, it's not a big difference, but it might mean that some kids could handle an alto a year or two earlier than they otherwise would.

Pico Eb clarinetOne company that specialises in children's instruments is Pico - a Swiss company. They were exhibiting, among other things, a range of woodwinds specifically tailored to students with small hands.
As you might imagine, this consisted mostly of 'soprano' instruments - but some effort had been put into simplifying the keywork and, where appropriate, making modifications.
For example, the Eb clarinet seen here is missing a few trill keys - but included a plateau key on the low G/D ring. This is a handy addition, as this note often gives students some problems when it comes to covering the tone hole.
Cut-down instruments aren't an especially new idea, but it's nice to see that a little more thought has gone into this one.

Trouble is, learning to play on soprano instruments is often tricky - I know many otherwise accomplished musicians who struggle to make piccolos, soprano saxes and Eb clarinets play well and in tune - and specialist instruments like this tend to be rather expensive.

I made the comment in last year's show report that the whole point of the show was so that people could try the various products out. In our case that means playing instruments and listening to how they perform. In order to demonstrate a product's capabilities, some exhibitors employed endorsers to blow their horns. This isn't a problem, and it gives the punters the chance to listen to a pro playing and to have a chat - sometimes with quite a major name player. However, some of them do seem to forget quite why they're there.
A prime example of this could be seen on the Aizen stand. They seemed very proud of their products, to the extent that every time I passed by the stand there was a chap blowing seven kinds of hell out of one of their horns - and on occasion they had two or more players.
What made this such a curious spectacle is that behind them the stand was teeming with punters trying out the horns - none of whom could hear a damn thing they were doing because of the demos going on.
I wanted to try the horns, but every time I went to the stand their endorser was merrily blowing away, complete with a backing track on a portable PA.

I had much the same experience on the Mauriat stand.
In their case I tend to think it was a deliberate ploy. My experience of blowing Mauriats in the workshop has been that they're quite 'in yer face' horns. They blow really well when you push them, but if you back right off they tend to sulk a bit (for me, at least). With this in mind I went onto the stand to try out the whole range...quietly.
Not much chance of that - they had four endorsers on the stand, and they were all having a go.
I suppose I could have looked around for a practice booth, but it's a bit impractical to lug the whole range into one, and when you're comparing horns you really want to be able to pick one up, put it down and pick up the next one immediately while you still have the sound in your head.
Still, I was at least able to give the keywork a wiggle. This is something I've found to be a bit of failing on Mauriats - the build quality of the action. I was quite pleased therefore to note that things seemed to have got rather better, particularly on the recently reviewed System 76 alto. As usual I shall reserve judgement until I've seen a few recent models on the workbench.

SaxholderI found a couple of stands showing sax harnesses. These have become quite popular in recent years and a boon for players who suffer from back and neck problems. The drawback with such straps is they can be fiddly to put on and adjust.

The Saxholder comes at the problem from a very different angle and uses a pair of flexible arms that fit over and hang from the shoulders, coupled with a lower rest that sits on the stomach. It's a unique approach, and it takes a little getting used to, but it certainly takes the stress off the neck.
The Saxholder is built from advanced materials, such as Kevlar and aircraft aluminium; it's easily adjustable and folds up quickly into quite a small size.
If there are any drawbacks they might be the price (around £80) and the support pad that rests on the stomach - which some players might find distracting initially.
It's also quite a visible harness - it's not going to be easy to hide it under a jacket, for example.
I have a client who bought one, he's a professional player and he tells me he's delighted with it - says it makes such a difference.

The RedStrap looks, at first sight, to be 'just another harness' but its design places the load towards the end of the shoulderblades rather than nearer the neck. It differs slightly in design from other harnesses I've seen and tried, and seems simpler and more elegant in use (as elegant as such devices can be). Pricewise it's a bit dearer than, say, the BG sax harness, but at around £36 it's not overly expensive and could suit some players better than the current offerings from other manufacturers.

BodystandSax players aren't the only ones who can benefit from such gadgets, the Magilanck Body Stand caters for clarinets and oboes. Like the Saxholder, it uses the player's abdomen to take some of the weight - though the playing position is rather more fixed.
You could be forgiven for wondering who on earth might need such a device, given the relatively light weight of clarinets and oboes, but the Bodystand could prove to be a boon to youngsters and those who suffer from hand problems.
As I stood at the stand examining the product, it occurred to me that it wouldn't take much to fit a bar to the lower section of the brace to which you could attach a number of instruments. With a quick shove to the left or the right you could move your clarinet out of the way and line up a sax. All that would be needed to complete the deal would be a typewriter bell that dinged each time you shifted a new instrument into line.
If you think that's a crazy idea then it perhaps gives you some idea what four days of schlepping around a trade show does to your mind...

Freewing hand restOn a less wild and slightly more practical note, the Freewing hand rest was proving popular with clarinettists and oboists alike.
Devices like this can really help those players who suffer from hand fatigue, without the need for complicated slings that put me (at least) in mind of a truss. I really like the Freewing - even if you don't suffer from fatigue it's a product that affords you a more relaxed hand position, which in turn increases the accuracy of your finger-placement and helps to speed up your technique.
It's a simple design, and quite elegant too.
It takes a while to get used to it - so most players won't get that 'Oooh' effect from it straightaway, but I began to notice a difference after a mere few minutes of using it.

I dropped in to see the Cannonball folks.
I haven't really checked them out before - but this year they took something of a pro-active stance and sent me an email prior to the show to invite me to come and try their horns. You might think that's nothing remarkable, but given some of my reviews of horns it takes a gutsy manufacturer to ask me to 'scrute their wares'.
And I have to say that I was rather surprised. They seem very passionate about their instruments - and that's a quality that's worth a lot these days.
I started off with one of their lower-end horns (manufacturers always want you to start with the best...but I reckon the cheaper horns show you better where they're coming from) and I was mightily impressed. What I had in my hands was a well-built, well set up horn that blew very freely and had a very nicely balanced tone to it - but with an underlying sense of eagerness. I very much liked that.

I then moved on to the more expensive horns, and was even more impressed. That eagerness I found in the cheaper horn was evident in the dearer models (Y'see? That's why I like to start with the cheaper horns) coupled with a deeper sense of focus and a faster response.
I topped it off with an AVR alto that was simply gorgeous. This horn was so lively it practically jumped off its stand and bit me. The set up was pretty good too, which shows someone had taken some time to get things 'just so'.
The thing is, they mentioned this horn right at the was built for a very well-known player...("Hey, you MUST play the so-and-so horn...") and they mentioned it again when they handed it to me ("The so-and-so horn...") and I even looked at the name engraved on it and said "Oh, the so-and-so horn...I'm looking forward to trying the so-and-so horn!") - and when I'd finished playing it they said "Well? Whaddya think of the so-and-so horn?"...and I think it was about at that time that I completely forgot who the hell 'so-and-so' was. In fact I know what I was thinking, I was thinking "Woah! Nice alto!"
So it was smiles all round and hearty handshakes - and they even gave me a stick of Utah chocolate and a very nice Cannonball pen...but to be honest all I was thinking was "Woah! Nice alto!". Says it all, I s'pose.

It's the first time I've played a number of Cannonballs side-by-side, and I think I now 'get' the Cannonball sound - and it's a good one. Just as well, as I have a few of them in for review...

Orpheus chairAs is my custom at the show I like to schlepp round the other halls looking for off-the-wall products that might come in handy.
I dropped by the Orpheus stand again to check out their incredible chairs (featured in last year's show report). They've been busy, and have a set of improved designs. The slight squeaks when you move are gone, thanks to some well-placed rubber bushes, and the chairs now feature squabs, which make them even more comfortable.
They ain't cheap, at around two grand a pop - but if you sit on one of these babies you really won't want to get up again. If you bought one of these you'd probably want to turn sitting down into a hobby.
I had a very interesting chat with the designer about marketing. Sales have been OK, but could be better - and I suggested that his chairs would make a hell of a statement in the corporate environment and that there are probably quite a few swank offices where these chairs would fit right in to the decor.

ChairSticking with chairs, I chanced across Bison, a Swedish company that makes orchestral chairs and staging. Of interest to me was a conductor's chair.
We techs tend to work at benches, and need a stool of the right height. Trouble is, very few of them are really built for prolonged use and don't often offer any concessions to the need to sit up straight while you work. This can lead to back strain - but the Boss chair has this covered, being fully adjustable in almost every way imaginable.
I got some strange looks as I sat on it and 'air-repaired' a sax or two, but once I explained what I was up to they were keen to tell me about all its features.
The standard chair comes with a cloth-covered squab, but they can do leather if required.
I couldn't find a price - or at least if I did I can't remember what it is - but it's suitably expensive, as you might imagine...

There seemed to be more repair-related stuff on show this year, both in terms of tools and gadgets as well as personnel. Windcraft were there and I stopped by to check out their range of branded horns (very nice) and to have a chat with Jason, one of their techs. He's looking to develop a range of quality repair tools at prices that won't make techs cringe - and is open to any suggestions that other techs might have. He also spoke about an abrasive foam that sounds ideal for getting into tight nooks and crannies - he calls it 'Miracle Foam'. I got hold a sample following the show, and I'm really impressed with the stuff. It's ideal for smoothing off sax tone holes after levelling, and makes short work of cleaning solder from around pillars after refitting.

I met up with the ever-dapper Curt at the MusicMedic stand - it's always a treat to chew the fat with him, and to poke him in the ribs about setting up a UK distributor for his roo pads. Nice too to see him with a larger stand - though I heard later that he'd had a few items pinched (he wasn't the only one, unfortunately). It's a real shame, and a bloody nuisance - it's nice to be able to wander around a large stand and have a good shufty, but I can completely understand why exhibitors sometimes feel it's necessary to keep things a little out of arms reach.
I was keen to find out how his 'boutique' repair system was going - Curt offers top-of-the-range overhaul services and breaks down each component of the job by assigning them to individuals who specialise in that particular skill. So, instead of one tech doing all the dentwork, key swedging and padding, it's done by separate techs. It's an interesting approach, and one that seems to be proving popular with players who want a no-compromise service.
We had a bit of a natter about standards - I'd noticed a few horns at the show that were supposed to have been overhauled, and was rather dismayed to find visible leaks on them. I mentioned too that I'd had quite a few horns in lately that had been overhauled elsewhere, but needed quite a bit of work to bring them up to scratch. Curt didn't seem at all surprised.

Just across the way were a couple of other techs - on the Beaumont Woodwind stand. They were exhibiting a range of Chinese flutes and clarinets - all moderately priced, but sold 'set up'. I have to say I was very impressed with the set-up of their instruments. I enquired a bit further, and it seems they're quite new to the repair business. I know repairing horns isn't exactly rocket science, but it takes experience and a certain touch to get a set-up just right - and they'd got it right. It means their instruments aren't perhaps the cheapest available, but then there's a whole world of difference between a Chinese horn that straight out of the box and one that's been properly tweaked. It's a good business model - the same one that Bauhaus uses - and I suspect they'll do quite well out of it. I was fortunate enough to cadge one of their flutes for review - and very nice it is too!

Alastair HansonIt's curious how easy it is to miss stands. I must have walked past Benedikt Eppelsheim's stand at least a dozen times during my three days at the show (and noted that Benedikt often had the that look on his face of someone who made products that everyone wanted to try, and own, but few could afford them or find much practical use for them) and completely failed to spot the Soundandfair stand opposite.
I'm glad I found it eventually - it's a company dedicated to promoting a 'Fair Trade' approach to sourcing the tropical hardwoods used for instrument manufacture.
With the advent of mass-production of wooden instruments in China, the question of where the wood comes from has become an important one, both in terms of the environment and from an ethical well as in terms of quality control.

As it happens, I chanced upon Alastair Hanson at the stand - currently the only manufacturer of clarinets who has FSC approval. What this means, essentially, is that the people who grow and manage the wood used for his clarinets get a fair price for the raw materials and the way in which it is grown and harvested is ecologically sustainable.
This puts him at the forefront of ethical production in this area, and I suspect he's the first of many - as it's high time that clarinet buyers began to ask "Where does the wood come from?".

One very interesting product on show from a tech was the extensively modified vintage Martin on the Meinsax stand.
In simple terms they take a vintage horn and modify both the body and the keywork to make it more ergonomic, without losing the essential core tone of the original instrument.
Unfortunately they didn't want anyone to take photographs (it seems they relented later) and there was something of a language-barrier, so it was rather hard to really get a proper in-depth look at what was going on. I think it has to be said - trade fairs are all about getting product out into public view. If you haven't got your patents tied up or you have something to hide, then don't put the stuff on display. If you do put it on display, then let us poke, prod, photograph and play the damn things!
A lot of interest focussed on the unique key cup modification which mounts each key cup on a central stub - the theory being that any downward force applied to the key when pressed down will be perfectly centred. However, the key cups could also be released from the key arm so that they floated. In effect then, a self-levelling key cup.
The workmanship was outstanding - no doubt about that at all - but I had that niggling "Why?' in the back of my mind. I wasn't convinced about the self-levelling idea - I just can't see the makes things complicated and there's always going to be a certain amount of time before the pad sorts its orientation out when you press the key down. It might not be much, but most repairers do their best to remove absolutely any delay at all in a pad seating when a key is pressed. Besides, I gave one of the bell keys a quick test with a cigarette paper and found it to be leaking - so the whole idea fell over as far as I was concerned.
When you lock the cups off though, they act like normal keys.
There was also a modification made to certain pivots using a system called Minibal. This system has been around for a little while now but doesn't seem to have caught on in a big way. It's the first time I've seen it used, and wanted to get a few more details about it...but came up against that language barrier thing again.
I noted that they'd fitted the Martin with a detachable bell - and a silver bottom bow clamp. That's an interesting move, given that there seems to be a ready market in soldering up detachable bell joints.

It's an interesting service, to be sure, and the craftsmanship is exemplary - so it could be just the thing for you if you want the vintage sound without the vintage layout.

RamponeBut then what's the point, when you have companies like Rampone & Cazzani?
I love the atmosphere on their stand, it's so laid-back and friendly. It always seems to be a focal point for players too, which just goes to show how well thought of their horns are.
I arrived at the stand just in time to take up my position as formal 'horn taster' for Pete Thomas. He'd spotted an attractive silver/bronze tenor and had been sufficiently impressed with it to consider buying it. However, it needed the Steve Howard seal of disapproval.
Pete and I tend to look for very different things from our horns, so he works on the theory that if I don't like it - he will.
He was out of luck this time - I liked it! I knew what he was looking for - a Tolkienesque 'one horn to bind them all', a horn that would cover the ground between his much-loved Conn 10M and his Martin Handcraft (plus a few others).
It wasn't my kind of horn, but a quick blow revealed that it came up to the mark with a wonderfully rich tone that oozed depth and character.
The setup left a little bit to be desired (I've since tweaked it, and will hopefully be reviewing it at some point), and the build quality is typically Italian - but such things are entirely forgivable on a horn that blows this good.

And so we come to my 'Horn of the Show'.
This isn't necessarily the most expensive horn, or the most esoteric - it really more about which horn 'excited my palate'.
When you've been tromping around the exhibition for three days, playing horns almost non-stop to the accompaniment of thousands of others players doing exactly the same thing, you get a bit jaded by it when you play something that makes you go 'Oh!', it comes as a welcome breath of fresh air.

The horn that did it for me this year was the new Signature Custom, by Trevor James.
I spoke at some length to the man behind the project, Dave Farley, and was very impressed by the care and attention to detail that he's put into this project.
I'm often asked what can be done to make a better horn, and my reply is nearly always "Just build it better". No company makes a horn than everyone likes - no matter how expensive it is - we all have our preferences, but you can't argue with build quality. The Signature Custom starts off by being a good horn, and is then made better by being, well, made better.
They've done this by asking players and techs for feedback. This isn't an uncommon approach, but a lot of companies tend to stick to one or two guys - so they end up with a horn that suits those one or two guys and perhaps not very many others. TJ have broadened their scope somewhat, and have cast the net wider - and I think this shows in the product. I can see and feel its appeal rather than that of 'boutique' horns designed for individual players.

I felt this horn really captured my imagination, it had that sense of moreishness that made me not want to put it down. There's a kind of darkness about it that invites you in and then beguiles you, and a sense of leading you on while not getting in the way.
I didn't have to play it for very long - it took barely a few licks before I knew I'd found the horn of the show...after that it was just down to enjoying myself.
I've played some very nice horns in the past, but few if any have made me seriously consider giving up my trusty old Yamaha 23. It might only be a humble horn, but that's never bothered me - each time I play it I'm reminded of how fresh and responsive a horn it is. That's a very, very hard act to beat. It's seen off a lot of tough competition down the years, but I think it's met its match.

I don't have a photo of the horn as yet - the model I tried was fresh from the factory, and some considerable effort had been made to get it to the show on time, so what you'd see now would be slightly different from the final product.
I can tell you that it's still in development - the core tone and response has been finalised, and now it's a matter of fine tuning the features.
Pricewise it's not too expensive - somewhere around the sub three grand mark, give or take a few hundred. It's a good price, considering it's a horn that bridges the gap between a mass-produced horn and a hand-built one.
(UPDATE: I've just reviewed the latest model - see here!)

I have to admit that I've overlooked Trevor James in the past, perhaps for far too long. They've long had a reputation for turning out decent quality student horns, but in recent years they've brought out the Alphasax (I have one in for review) - a reduced-keywork alto for young beginners and a new range of intermediate horns under the SR badge (which, incidentally, are really rather nice). It just goes to show that if you take your eye off the ball, someone will score a goal while you're not looking.

I'm also going to give an honourable mention to the Cannonball AVR alto (the so-and-so horn), which came within a gnat's whisker of taking the award. A very close-run thing.

And so I packed my bags and headed off back to the airport.
Not an entirely disappointing show despite the low turnout from manufacturers. The weather was good, the decibel-police weren't there and I came away with a sense that although times are hard, there's been an upward shift in build quality. Can't be bad...though I'm not so sure that the lack of decibel-police was such a good idea, I think my ears might have taken a the plane landed I swear I heard the flight attendant say "...and don't forget to take your poison insects with you when you leave"...

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015