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
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
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
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.
with clarinets, I was very impressed with the offerings on the Josef
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
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
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.
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.
the sublime to the, some might say, ridiculous, and the already notorious
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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...
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
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
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
The thing is, they mentioned this horn right at the start...it 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
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,
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...
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.
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
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
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
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!
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
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
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 perspective...as 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
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 point...it 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.
then what's the point, when you have companies like Rampone
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 all...so 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
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
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,
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
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
(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 hit...as 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"...