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Martin Committee III (& Magna) alto saxophone

Martin Committee III alto sax reviewOrigin: USA
Guide price: £600 upwards
Weight: 2.38kg
Date of manufacture: 1957 (serial range: 202xxx)
Date reviewed: June 2017

As good as it looks

Just take a moment to look at this horn.
Isn't it beautiful?
Oh, there are other great-looking horns out there - but they often only look good because someone's gone to a great deal of effort to bling 'em up. Whack some fancy pearls on and a bucket of gold plate, and practically anything will look good - but this horn looks great even when it's just got out of bed, nursing a hangover of biblical proportions.
It has what I call a natural beauty - it doesn't need to shine, it doesn't need to glint or gleam, it simply oozes grace, style and élan from every pore. You may disagree - and normally I'd say that's fine, each to their own and all that kind of thing - but this time you'd be wrong.

While I'll brook no arguments about the horn's looks, its name presents more of a challenge. Officially it's a 'The Martin' alto. However, the 'The Martin' name appeared on various earlier models - some of which were also marked 'Committee'...and some of which that were Committees that weren't marked as such. With me so far? And then some of them had a little shield (RMC) and some didn't...and some were just stamped 'Martin'...and some...oh well, you get the idea.
Early versions of this model were marked 'Committee', and as it was the third model to feature the name it became colloquially known as The Martin Committee III - at which point everyone breathed a sigh of relief. It also had quite a long build run - from 1945 to the early 1970s. Throughout this period the company went through a number of structural changes, but it seems the design of the horn remained the same. Not that this stops the speculation that models from certain years are better than others.

I think it's fair to say that of the 'big four' of vintage US horn makers, Martin tends to tag along behind Conn, Buescher and King. Fans of these three marques will probably say "Quite rightly too!", but I get the impression that Martin owners aren't really that bothered. In some ways they are to saxes what Jaguar are (or at least were) to cars - because no matter how much other drivers wax lyrical about their cars, you can always trump them by saying "I've got a Jaaaaaaag"...and it really doesn't matter much which model it is.
And so it is with Martins. There's that sense that you've tried the rest and found them somehow lacking in charm and charisma, that your choice is slightly left-field, that it's considered and introspective. When a Conn, King or Buescher owner discovers that a famous jazzer plays one, they're quick to shout "Hey look! So-and-so plays a Conn/King/Buescher!" - but when it happens to a Martin owner they're more inclined to just say "That's nice".
Obviously they're not all like that, but it's at least a standard to which all Martin owners should aspire. The wearing of a blazer and cravat is, for now, optional.

It's this laid-back approach which perhaps led to these things being practically give-away horns back in the '80s (at least in the UK). Hardly anyone seemed to have heard of them, few people seemed to want to buy them...and forty or so years later I'm seriously regretting that I only ever bought the one (a Handcraft baritone) when the prices were right. Times have changed, though, and Martin's star has been in the ascendant for some time now - a prospect which will cause every owner to say "That's nice".

But enough of this blather. There are whole sites devoted to the ins and outs of Martin horns - and if you're interested in all that sort of thing I think you'll find plenty to read. Here at SHWoodwind, however, we're more interested in the 'meat and potatoes' - and as beauty is often only skin deep, it's time to pop this horn on the bench and see just how deep it runs.

The construction is single pillar - and the bases vary from being adequately-sized to a bit on the small side. They're also a little thin which makes them a bit, shall we say, mobile. You're unlikely to notice this as a player, but a repairer carrying out work on the body will have to take care not to knock the pillars out of line. It may also be the reason that these horns have something of a reputation for pillars dropping off. This was always assumed to be down to the quality of the solder, but it could just be that the pillars are able to flex very slightly during playing and are simply working themselves loose.
There are a few plates too (multiple pillars on a single base) - for the palm keys, the G# lever, the side keys and the top F link.
The toneholes are perhaps the most noteworthy feature of the body - they're thick and chunky and they're soft-soldered on, as opposed to the more common method of drawing them out of the body tube.
There are pros and cons (of course). On the plus side it can be argued that soldering the tonehole on doesn't distort the bore in the way that drawn toneholes do - and that this has an effect on the tone. This is true - but how much of an effect and whether it's demonstrably better than the effect that drawn toneholes have is a source of much and constant debate.
Another plus is that in the event of a severe bash, the toneholes can be removed while the body is put to rights and then refitted afterwards. This maintains the integrity of the toneholes - and in the event that one gets completely mangled, it can simply be replaced.
Martin Committee III alto  bell key guardOn the minus side, though, there's the ever-present spectre of selective galvanic corrosion. Simply put, the solder gets eaten away down the years by an electrochemical action which causes leaks to appear in the joints. Diagnosis is often tricky, and to properly repair the joints the affected toneholes must be completely removed, cleaned and refitted. It ain't cheap. This particular horn did quite well - I found only one tonehole with a failed joint, and I'm inclined to think it was as a result of a sharp knock rather than corrosion (there was some slight distortion in the body beneath the tonehole).
I can understand if this potential problem puts some people off buying a Martin, but provided you ensure the toneholes have been checked or you make allowances in your budget it really shouldn't be that big of a deal.
You can still pick these horns up quite cheaply, but bear in mind that at the lower end of the price spectrum you may well have to fork out for repairs - which could easily double the price.

It should also be noted that the toneholes are 'inline' - which is to say that they run in a straight line down the main body tube. Modern horns tend to have 'offset' toneholes, where the lower stack is shifted slightly round to the right - which presents a more natural playing position. It's not something that particularly bothers me, but some players may find that an inline setup makes their hands ache after a while.
It's odd to see this arrangement on a horn built later than the early '60s, but then that's perhaps the drawback of maintaining a single design over such a long period. Contrast this with Selmer, who went through three designs over the same period (BA, SBA, MKVI).

As with many horns from this era, the bell key toneholes are on the left hand side of the bell.
From an acoustical perspective this makes no difference but it does mean that there's more 'gubbins' against your hip/leg if you prefer to play with the horn slung to your right. If you're a 'straight out front' player it won't really affect you at all.
The bell key guard is a tour-de-force in wirework, and adds to the vaguely art deco look of the horn - and to be brutally honest that's about as far it goes in terms of the advantages of this design.
On the drawback side the guard stays are woefully small, the provision for mounting buffer felts is rather mean (and, of course, there's no adjustability), the non-removeable low C/Eb guards are a right pain when you're setting the pads...and as good as these guards look when they're all neat and tidy, they tend to look rather shabby once they've been knocked about a bit (rather like the single-piece guard on Yamaha's 61/62 series horns).

Martin Committee III alto crookThe bell brace - like the bell key guards - looks wonderful, but it still just mounts on the body via a single foot placed between the G# and Auxiliary F toneholes (see below). Drop the horn on its bell and this foot will be pushed straight into the body, which'll take out those two toneholes...and leave a bend in the body tube for good measure.
It'll cost a fair few pennies to put it right, and it won't be helped by the fact that the bottom bow joint is soldered on.
There's not a lot you can do about this, other than to bear this vulnerability in mind and avoid dropping the horn. You know it makes sense.

The crook has a couple of interesting features, the most obvious of which is that teardrop plate with a dirty great screw through it.
This is the crook lock - and it really is a lock rather than a clamp, because this is a non-clamping crook socket.
In engineering terms there's nothing wrong with this arrangement. The ideal for a crook joint is that it should be a sliding fit, and that the operation of the clamp is merely to lock the crook into its playing position. The joint seal should come solely from the fit of the crook tenon sleeve into the socket (or receiver). However, in the real world it's more often the case that the joint relies on some additional closing force via the clamp screw.
There's no such option on the Martin, because the lock screw is simply that - a lock screw. It has no clamping capability. In fact it can make things worse, as tightening it up will pull on one side of the joint; if there's a small amount of play that's evenly distributed around the joint, tightening the screw will throw it all to the opposite side...which means you might end up with a bigger leak than had you not tightened the screw up.

The answer is to ensure that the joint is a nice sliding fit - but the design and placement of the locking screw doesn't make it at all easy for the repairer to do the job. It's not so bad if you're able to expand the tenon sleeve and get it right first time, but if you go oversize and need to compress the sleeve you're a bit stuffed as you won't be able to get any tooling around the exterior unless you're prepared to dismantle the lock screw feature (which is silver-soldered in place). And you're rather limited as to what tools you can use, because an expanding mandrel will likely struggle to shift the diameter of the relatively thick-walled tenon sleeve on the Martin. This is an important consideration for buyers. Doing the job properly takes a lot of time and is thus quite expensive - and your second question after "Have you properly checked the toneholes for leaks?" should be "Is the crook a good, snug fit?". There's a link at the end of the review which goes to the Benchlife Blog article where I undertake and explain this job in more detail.
And as for that curious bar running along the centre of the crook key, we'll discuss that shortly - but in the meantime it's yet another example of the way in which functional parts have been made to look attractive on this horn.

Martin Committee III alto thumb hookI think that pretty much covers all the body features save for what are arguably the two standout features of this horn. The first is the adjustable thumb hook.
I'm in no doubt that this is a 'Marmite' feature in that you either love it or you hate it...and there's no inbetween.
Me, I love it - it's so utterly simple. To adjust it you simply undo that screw on the clamp plate. No screwdrivers needed - just give it a turn with your fingers. Once it's loose the hook can be moved up and down at will, and there's also a degree of side-to-side movement too. I find the best way to set it up is to loosen the screw, place your hands in the playing position, give 'em a bit of a wiggle and then take your left hand off the horn and tighten up the thumb hook lock screw. This'll put the hook in more or less the optimum position, and thereafter you can tweak it to your heart's content.
But the killer feature is that it's so quick and easy to adjust. If you have it set for playing while standing and find that you've been booked for a sit-down gig, it takes less time to adjust the hook for a more suitable position than it does to read this sentence.

Martin Committee III alto octave key mechThe second standout feature is the octave key thumb rest.
It's been designed in conjunction with the octave key touchpiece so that the two form an almost seamless blend into one another.
Now, you could say that this is technically true of most modern octave mechs in that they have a shaped touchpiece that typically curves around a circular thumb rest. And you'd be right - but you'd also be wrong. They've simply gone for the cheapest and most practical design for the thumb rest and spent all the money on the touchpiece - but on the Martin they blew big bucks on both parts. And it shows.
It just looks so elegant.
They could easily have made the thumb rest round and hacked a bit off the bottom of the touchpiece - but no, someone sat down and decided to sketch out a design that made much more of a statement. I like that - and what I like even more is that it works. And it works really well.

And as we're staring at a dirty great photo of the octave key mech, I guess now's a good time to discuss the action in detail - and what better place to start than with the mech itself.
There are three things you need to know about it: It's simple, it's slick...and it's built like the proverbial brick sh*thouse. It also has fewer moving parts than a typical modern swivel mech, and its design makes it far more tolerant of wear as well as being easier to bring back up to spec as and when the need arises.
From a mechanical perspective, having only one captive end on the pin or lifter arm (the bar with the red felt on the end) means there are fewer areas for free play to accumulate within the mech. A modern swivel bar is captive at both ends, and as wear builds here (as well as in the central swivel) you end up with progressively more free play at the touchpiece. In simple terms, you have to press the octave key down further and further before anything actually happens.

While we're poking about around the top end of the horn, let's go back to that bar running up the middle of the crook octave key. It's actually the spring cradle. On a normal crook the spring would be mounted to the key just forwards of the pivot and its tip would rest in a cradle fitted to the crook tube just to the rear of the pivot.
Martin Committee III crook key springHere's how it looks on the Martin. The spring is mounted upside-down to the key just behind the octave key pad, and the tip rests on that central bar - so rather than push the key cup down, this design pulls it down. It works just fine, but there's a bit of a problem. There's nothing to stop the key from being lifted past the point where the spring would deform (some modern soprano crooks are susceptible to this problem) and the key would be left flapping about in the breeze.
And that's where that extra piece along the bottom of the spring comes in. This is just a piece of a very thick flat spring that's been cut short, and its function is to support the thinner spring if the key rises too far (typically as a result of clumsy crook handling).
There are two ways this buffer spring is fitted. In some cases it's fitted above the spring, and is extended so that its tip will contact the bar when the key is raised too high. This is more often seen on the tenors. On the alto there's rather less room, and you might find that such a buffer spring prevents the key cup from opening far enough in normal use. It looks like the spring will bend at that gap between the buffer and the bar...and it will, but you'd have to give the key one hell of a tug (yeah, I tried).

And that bar also has another function. A very common problem is that of octave keys being crushed by careless handling of the crook. It's easy to do, especially when fitting or removing the crook. You'd have to go some to bend this octave key - it's possibly the sturdiest you'll ever see - but the addition of the central bar makes it all but impossible to crush the key with a bare hand. I'd be surprised if this was a designed-in feature, but it's certainly a welcome side-benefit.

Martin Committee III alto G# mechThe G# key features a long lever key - like the one found on the Conn 6M/10M, among others. I've always liked how this kind of mech feels in action, and the fact that it's far less picky when it comes to balancing the spring tension between the touchpiece lever and the cup key. Granted, it doesn't look quite so elegant as a modern mech - but this one sports a feature that's bang up to date; an anti-stick mechanism.

You've got your spring for opening the G# cup key and you've got your spring for lifting the touchpiece lever. Normally this would be a flat spring fitted beneath the arm, but in this instance it's a long needle spring that's biased upwards (you can just see it resting beneath the arms that bridge the gap between the cup key and the lever). And then you've got that additional flat spring on the top of the touchpiece lever. Its tip sits over the cup key foot and in normal use it does nothing at all - but should the G# pad stick down when the G# is pressed, the touchpiece lever would drop away and leave the tip of the flat spring resting on the cup key's foot. It won't like that, and will immediately exert a downward force...and hey presto! - the G# cup opens. It's as simple as it gets, and it works a treat. It does have a drawback though, which is that it also comes into play when you're using the articulation feature via the bell keys. This will not only add weight to the bell keys but will also increase the upward force acting on the G# key cup, which the arm from the Auxiliary F is supposed to keep in check. Given that it struggles to do this at the best of times, it's pretty much what you'd call 'asking for trouble'. Pros and cons, as usual - but if the feature gives you any gyp it's a simple matter to disable it. You can either remove the flat spring or unhook it from the G# cup foot and swing it to one side...or you can just bend it upwards.
However, note the 'shelf' at the base of the G# touchpiece, and that it only extends halfway along the length. This would normally connect the touchpiece to the other keys in the bell table - but in this instance only the low C# is linked to the G#. This means there's no G# articulation on the low B and Bb, which means the G# anti-stick mechanism won't affect them.

Note too the base of the aforementioned bell key stay, positioned just beneath the G# key cup barrel - and the sling ring, which is just a tad larger at 15.2/8.5mm than the standard 15/8 which seems to be norm these days (and which I feel is a bit too small).

G# lever typesIncidentally, and strictly for the geeks, this type of G# mech is a 'class 2 lever' - as opposed to the class 1 type that's fitted to modern horns. Lever classes are based on the positions of the fulcrum or pivot, the load (the thing you want to shift) and the effort (the bit you lift and/or press). An everyday example of a class 1 lever would be a pair of pliers - and a wheelbarrow would be a class 2.
It's admittedly a fairly useless bit of trivia - but that's the beauty of these reviews; you get to look at some pretty pictures, you learn a few things and we all have a bit of a laugh. What's not to like?

Here's the bell key table assembled. It looks rather quaint when compared to a modern all-singin'-and-dancin' tilting table, but it's surprisingly nimble in use (perhaps less so on a tenor, due to the low C# being a single-piece key). It's generally quite a reliable setup, but it does have a couple of weaknesses. The first is that if there's any wear in the G# touchpiece lever pivot, the business end of the key will wobble from side to side. It'll then knock against the key guide. The fix is to tighten the pivot (swedge the key barrel). Or you could just stick a thin buffer down the side of the guide. This won't stop the key from wobbling, but it'll at least stop it from clanking.

Martin Committee III alto bell key tableThe other weakness is that there's very little clearance where the low C# touchpiece arm goes over the G# lever - just past the head of the flat spring's retaining screw. By the time the horn's had a few knocks and/or things have shifted around a little down the years, you might find this clearance has disappeared, which results in the two key arms colliding. This'll give you a distinct metallic 'clink' every time the G# rises after being pressed down, and as the C# is pressed.
The proper fix for this is to realign the pillars - but, frankly, it's a lot less hassle (and expense) to simply file a bit off the G# lever. You won't need much, maybe half a millimetre tops.

The low B/Bb pivots are a bit of a puzzle. The Bb key barrel sits over the B - but while the B key is mounted on a pair of point screws, the Bb is mounted on a long rod. I can't quite see why they've done this. It can't be down to some mysterious formula that determines at what length a key barrel switches from a rod to a point pivot, because the Bis Bb is shorter...and that's mounted on points. It also can't be down to limited access; although the lower Bb pillar is obstructed by the low B cup arm, you could still remove the Bb key by undoing the upper pillar screw. And if push came to shove and you really needed access to the lower pillar screw, you could just remove the B key first.
At a guess I'd say that they felt the Bb barrel was rather exposed and that a rod screw running through it would give it a bit of extra stiffness. That may well be true, but it's a lot easier to deal with a bent solid barrel than one with a rod screw running through it. There's bound to be a reason for it as there clearly doesn't seem to be much else on the horn that hasn't been thought about.

Martin Committee III alto low CAnother geek point can be found on the low C key.
The red section is the barrel of the low C key. On most horns this is all you get; a touchpiece at one end of the key, a key cup at the other and a hollow tube that connects them both together. This key always been prone to a spot of flexing, which is why many modern horns make use of double key cup arms in order to add a bit more stiffness.
Martin were way ahead of the game, and have incorporated a support bar (in green) that runs parallel to the key barrel. I doubt it's as effective as a double key cup arm, which does a better job of preventing the cup from twisting, but it's certainly a step up from a standard key.

However, there's a bit of a nasty gotcha built in to this design.
When a rod screw mounted key wears the standard repair technique is to compress the key barrel (known as swedging) around the rod screw. This reduces the internal diameter of the barrel and takes up all the free play. It also stretches the barrel lengthways, which takes up any end-to-end play...and leaves the action as good as new.
But here's the problem. If you swedge the key barrel it'll get longer...but the (green) support bar won't. Something will have to give, and as the barrel is less stiff it'll take on a gentle curve. In short you'll end up with a slightly bent key barrel. The way to avoid this embarrassing state of affairs is not to swedge the portion of the barrel directly opposite the support bar - but that only leaves the very ends of the barrel on which to work.
I see a lot of this on horns that come into the workshop, and I call it 'pinching the play'. When a key barrel wears, it wears along its entire length - and in order to bring the key back to spec you have to address the wear along the entire length of the key. You can, however, simply address the wear only at the ends of the barrel. This will take up the internal wobble of the rod screw and will lengthen the key enough (hopefully) to deal with the end-to-end play. But you now have a key with a massively reduced bearing area, which means that any subsequent wear will be entirely focussed on the relatively small area that's been treated. And how long d'you think that will last? Not long.
There's a way around this pesky problem - but hey, a guy's gotta have some secrets...

Martin Committee III alto side keysThe side keys feature a variation on the modern fork and pin connectors in that they've reversed (the pin is on the lever arm) and there's a hole in place of the fork. It's not a bad design, but it needs some very careful setting up because there's quite a lot of friction built in to the mechanism.
When you press the key down, the lever arm with the pin on it drops down...and in so doing it pulls the end of the cup key down, which opens the pad.
But because the lever arm is moving through an arc, it also moves forward in relation to the cup key - which causes it to rub in the hole. This throws up a few necessary compromises. You could make the pin a snug fit in the hole, which would ensure the action felt tight and immediate - but it would tend to bind at either and of the key's stroke. This would mean the cup key would fail to close properly or stick fully open. Not good.
So you make the pin more of a loose fit - and this would ensure the cup key was able to move freely...but the action at the touchpiece end would feel knocky and imprecise. It'd also likely be quite noisy. One thing's for sure - it takes some careful fiddling about with materials and sizes to get the best out of this mech, and even then it's not the best I've come across.
Incidentally, if you remove the Bb cup key and take a peek underneath the key arm you may well find a serial number stamped on it. Hopefully it'll match the one stamped below the thumb hook.

And that just about wraps it up for the action, save for mentioning that the point screws are proper points (as you'd expect), there's a full set of proper mother-of-pearl key touches - and unless the horn's been meddled with, the springs will be blued steel. And there are no adjusters on the horn - not a single one - so any regulation will have to be done the old-fashioned way.
The original case is likely to be a bog-standard vintage box job and you'd be well-advised to replace it as soon as possible. However, the placement of the bell keys means your choices will be limited.
This horn turned up in a Hiscox case, which seemed to fit very well - and as it's a good case I suspect it's likely to be your best bet.

Under the fingers the action feels...well, I guess the most accurate description would be 'Steampunk'. It's patently a vintage mechanism, what with the inline toneholes, the non-tilting bell keys etc. - but at the same time it has a surprisingly modern feel. It kinda catches you by surprise. You pick the horn up, knowing it's a vintage model, and it's almost as if your fingers think "Ey up lads, 'ere we go - get ready for a reet good stretching"...and then there's a realisation that while it's different from a modern action, it isn't that different. At least not in any significant way.
For sure, it's an alto - so ergonomics aren't such an issue as they'd be on a larger horn.
There's a nice balance to the action; the combination of the weight of the keys, the length of the springs and the width of the tonehole rims all adds up to make it a curiously comfortable which I mean that if you just sit there and run your fingers up and down the action, it gets kind of addictive. Or maybe it's just me.

I particularly liked the low B/Bb action, mostly because the keys aren't connected to the G# (as they are on just about every other horn). They're supremely light and responsive - but on the flipside the low C# can get very heavy very quickly if you're not very careful when balancing the G# mech. Again, this is less of a problem on the alto than it'd be on the tenor.
And I just loved the octave key mech. It's a simple design which does the job a treat, and the combination thumbrest/touchpiece must surely rank as one of the best designs out there.
Likewise, the simple adjustable thumb hook is both brilliantly comfortable and blindingly easy to adjust on the fly.

About the only grumble I could come up with (and I'm digging deep here) is that the side key action is a tad less slick than a modern fork and pin design - and this is both down to the pin being on the lever arm (rather than the cup key) and the geometry of the mechanism. It's not much though, but it's still there. I suspect, too, that some players will trip up over the palm key layout - but hey, that's true of just about any horn. Doesn't matter where you put these keys, there'll always be someone out there who can't get on with them. If that's you then I can do no better than refer you to my article on making custom key risers.
The action is very tolerant of a range of spring tensions. Granted, you need to be careful when setting up the bell keys and the side Bb/C, but everything else will work just fine when set from very light to very heavy. Some horns get a bit 'flappy' when the action's set too light, but this didn't seem to trouble the Martin.

It's surprisingly light around your neck. Horn players often equate weight to quality, and vintage horns in particular are reckoned to be 'built with more metal' than modern horns - but the Martin tips the scales at just 2.38kg. I'll admit it surprised me too - I had to weigh it three times just to be sure. It looks like a heavy horn - it ought to be a heavy horn with those hulking great toneholes - and yet it's just 80 grammes (about 3 ounces) heavier than the Selmer MkVI and noticeably lighter than many modern altos.
So the next time you see some gobshite mouthing off on a forum about how vintage horns "had more metal than the modern rubbish", you can quite legitimately call them a moron. If, however, you own a Martin I think a "That's nice" will do nicely. Fans of Brendan O'Carroll will appreciate that sentiment, even if no-one else will... does it play?
It plays lovely.
I got caught out initially by the distance of the octave key pip from the tip of the crook. It's considerably further back than it is on a modern alto, and I suppose I've got into the habit of my mouthpiece being set at a certain distance from the pip. This made the horn play almost a semitone sharp, which wasn't a good start. However, once I'd got past that 'Well, duh!' moment, the Martin settled into its stride. And oh man, what a stride.
Martin Committee III alto bellFirst things first - it's a very stable horn. Not that vintage horns are known for their instability - quite the reverse - but there's the stability that comes from just not being very exciting, and the stability that comes from being well-designed. The Martin has the latter.
It really is a 'both feet on the floor' kinda horn.
Tonewise it has plenty of warmth and richness but it's not automatically dialled in - which is to say you can take it or leave it. If you lay back, the horn lays back with you - but if you push it, it pushes right back atcha. It'll make you work for it, though, as it has a bit of resistance...but that's not a bad thing, it just gives you something to chew on. There's a sense of 'bigness' to it - it doesn't seem to matter how hard or soft you blow it, it's always fat 'n juicy - as well as being remarkably even-toned throughout the range.
As for the tuning? No problems at all. In fact really rather good. Better, in fact, than I normally am. Bang on, from top to bottom. Yeah, I raised an eyebrow too.

When I last blew this Martin it was as part of a 5-way play-off in the Yanagisawa A-WO33 review, and I'm rather afraid it didn't do very well at all.
I noted at the time that the Martin was in a desperate state, and it was only there to provide a little perspective among a heap of testosterone-fueled modern altos. And I promised to give it a fair crack of the whip once I'd sorted it out.
I think I can safely say it's been well and truly sorted out, so I pitched it up against the TJ RAW XS to see how it would fare.
Two things became immediately apparent; it was no longer the runt of the pack - and in a 5-way rematch I don't think the Martin would be at the bottom of the list.
With its leaks all sealed and the action in fine fettle, the Martin put in a solid performance. I've taken flak in the past for saying that a Martin (tenor) sounded like my old Yamaha YTS23...and I'm gonna draw yet more flak by saying this Martin's very much like the RAW. Both horns have considerable presence, but the way in which they deliver it is slightly different. Let's say the tone was the same (OK, humour me for a mo). The RAW feels very wide - the sound it puts out seems to spread out in all directions. The Martin, on the other hand, delivers the sound in more confined beam. It's like it's more concentrated.
And yes, it is different...but it's not as different as you might think (or hope). This is why I've always liked Martins - they take the richness and warmth of the vintage approach and give it a bit of a kick up the arse, which means they're as equally at home in a modern context as they are playing crooners from the 1930s.
The RAW is undoubtedly louder and more powerful for less effort, but the Martin has a noticeably sweeter top end. You get a more strident delivery from the RAW's low end at full volume, but a richer one from the Martin. However, if you break into subtone the two horns get scarily close. Really close.
I think what really struck me about this horn is that it bridges the divide between the vintage and the contemporary. Not just tonally but physically too. That's no mean feat, and even if it's not quite your cup of tea it at least deserves a large helping of respect for that alone.

Your mileage, as the modern saying goes, may vary - and you should always take my playtest comments with a healthy pinch of salt. But I'll say this much - if I had to characterise these two horns (in my own, inimitable, way) I'd say that you could pick up the RAW and play it while you're wearing any old pair of jeans and a T-shirt. But the'd want to go put on your Sunday best for.
If you get that, you get Martins. And I have to say, I'd still have the RAW...not because the Martin is worse, but because they're not so very different after all.

If you're interested in more details about the repairs carried out to this horn, check out the two articles on the Benchlife Blog (crook fitting and toneholes) - and for another technical perspective (though of the tenor) I thoroughly recommend the excellent Matt Stohrer's overview.


Martin Magna alto saxophone

Martin Magna alto sax reviewOrigin: USA
Guide price: £800 upwards
Weight: 2.38kg
Date of manufacture: Late 1960s (serial range: 300xxx)
Date reviewed: April 2020

I'm adding this brief review of the Martin Magna to the Committee III review because, to all intents and purposes, it's the same horn. At least as far as anyone's been able to tell to date. It was Martin's last shot at a top pro model before the brand got sold and ended up as a stencil name (such as the Martin 800...which was built by Yanagisawa) - and instead of coming to market with a brand new horn, they simply jazzed the Comm.III up.
Without knowing for sure what was going on behind closed doors at the time, the idea makes commercial sense. The Comm.III was/is an excellent horn, why not get more mileage out of it with a facelift? Car manufacturers do it all the time.

This example is a late model - and as Martin were one of those companies that integrated rolling tweaks into their horns throughout the production run, you may well find earlier models have subtle differences. If you have an early example and can 'spot the differences', feel free to let me know.
The Magna came in at least three finishes; lacquered brass with some nickel silver keys (as per this example); silver plated with a gold washed bell interior - and a fully gold plated and burnished model. This last model is very rare indeed - but so too are models with the optional solid silver crook. It's this feature in particular that set the Magna apart from the Comm.III - as well as the baritone version having a low A.
The tenor version is identical to its Comm.III counterpart - but it's said that the crook is slightly longer on the Magna, which points to Martin doing a spot of tweaking with the tuning.

So just what are the differences?
For the most part they're entirely cosmetic, but the most immediate difference must surely be the addition of a cross on the bell (there's another on the crook).
A slightly closer look reveals that the bell key guards now feature adjusters for the bumper felts. At least on the low C, B and Bb - the Eb remains buffered by a stop beneath the touchpiece.
Look even closer and you might notice that some of the keys feature nickel silver parts. In fact there's quite a lot of it spread around the horn, and it's not cheap stuff.
It's mainly confined to the barrels of those keys that are mounted on point screws as well as the touchpieces. The touchpiece are, well, a nice touch (yeah, I know) - but using nickel silver for long key barrels makes a lot of sense because it's that little bit stiffer than brass, and thus less inclined to flex. No complaints there.

Martin Magna alto bell key tableBut it's in the details that the most significant changes can be found - one of which can be seen on the bell key table. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that it's a little bit larger - and the most obvious differences are that the low C# roller is now just a single, long roller and that there's an extension off the Bb touchpiece that sits above the B...complete with a roller.
It looks like it might be handy, and I suppose it would be if this was the only horn you'd ever played - but with most players coming to horns like this from other marques, the notion of pushing your finger toward the body tube to hit a low Bb is perhaps an alien one.
So it's a feature that only makes sense if you get used to it or your last horn had it - and I'm just not sure it's worth the effort. Feel free to correct me on that point if you wish.
With that said, I think the G# touchpiece is a little larger - and I'm all for that.

Another reasonably worthwhile addition is the little grub screw on the crook.
I've seen people describe this as an adjuster for the octave key, but all it's capable of doing is limiting the opening height of the crook key - and there's not a lot of point in that given that when the mech is properly set up the key will only rise a few millimetres (and I really can't see why you'd want it to open any less than that). I suppose you could also say it's an anti-bounce mechanism, but the unique way in which the spring drives the key pretty much covers this.
Martin Magna alto crookWhat makes far more sense is something I alluded to in the review of the Committee; if you're not careful it's possible to raise the crook key beyond the elastic limit of the spring and ruin it. This little screw prevents that from happening - though to be honest I really don't know why it required a screw. Just a plain block of brass would have done.
I mucked about with altering the opening height of the crook key but found it made no difference at all to the tone or the tuning once it was raised beyond its normal operating height.
If anyone can come up with a better explanation as to its purpose, I'd be happy to hear it.

Martin Magna alto side BbFrom here on in the changes become rather more debatable as to their worth.
For example, here's the side Bb key.
It still features a (captive) fork and pin link, but the original round pin has been replace by a rectangular section - and the 'fork' is now a slot rather than a round hole.
I'm not sure why they went to all the trouble to change this. Maybe it was cheaper to make the pin rectangular - but whatever savings you'd have made would have been lost by now having to cut a slot in the cup key rather than simply drilling a hole. I guess if you want to get really technical you could debate the difference in friction between a round pin and a rectangular one, and the rates of wear on the buffer corks - and how that relates to the feel of the action - but I fear you'd be dabbling in minutiae.

A particular disappointment for me was the change in the octave key touchpiece and the thumb rest.
The Comm.III had a superb setup - with its sculpted thumb rest that integrated with the design of the thumb key. OK, so this design works just fine. Maybe the thumb rest is a little on the small side, and the key is just a little further away from it than I like to see - but it's passable, and in playing it certainly feels slick enough. I guess that's all that really matters at the end of the day - but the older mech was just divine and it looked dead cool too.

Martin Magna alto octave keyBut what really made my heart sink was the point screws.
The Comm.III featured my favourite - proper tapered point screws. These hold the keys snugly in place and can be adjusted to take up any wear and tear down the years. Even when the horn's taken a bit of a knock and the pillars are a little out of whack - proper point screws can take up the free play and easily accommodate a little misalignment. They're the gold standard, and just what you should expect to find on a pro-spec horn.
So why on earth did they choose to kit the Magna out with crappy parallel points?

Martin Magna alto point screwsI really don't get this. It can't be a cost-saving measure, not with all the unnecessary bling that's been fitted to this horn - and there's absolutely no mechanical reason why this type of screw makes any sense at all. OK, maybe it saves a few quid when it comes to setting up the horn in the factory - but it really detracts from the integrity of the action.
Yes, sure, you can correct for free play in the keys mounted on this type of screw - but it won't be cheap. Swedging point screw barrels is no fun at the best of times, and it's even harder work if the barrels are made from nickel silver. And there'll always be places where you simply can't swedge the ends of the key - so you have to fit bushes to the barrel...and that gets even more expensive.
With a proper point screw you just ream a little out of the pillar and drive the screw further in. The job's a good 'un, and you'll still have change left over for a pint and a fish supper. I'm aware that this is a late example - so perhaps the earlier models had proper point screws? If so, those models would definitely be the ones to go for.

And I think that pretty much covers all the differences. I daresay there may well be a few other minor ones, but as I don't have a Comm.III to compare directly to the Magna I'll have to leave it at that. However in terms of how the action feels under the finger there's no huge difference - it's still a good action. OK, no, you don't get the train-like feeling of slick solidity that the proper point screws lend the Comm.III's action (at least when it's set up properly) - but the main stacks feel the same, and the redesigned bell key table isn't so very different. And as mentioned earlier the octave mech presents no challenges to speak of.
As a standalone example you probably wouldn't notice anything untoward, but if you had the opportunity to compare it alongside a good Comm.III I think you'd be surprised at the difference.

Martin Magna alto bellI guess the BIG question is "Does it sound any different to the Committee III??" - and the answer to that is "No, not really".
Sure, it's a bit different - at least as far as I can remember (and I'm usually pretty good at remembering what horns play and sound like), but I'd put the difference at no more or less than that between any two apparently identical horns.
Yes, there may be just a touch more stability from this horn, and that might be down to the tweaks made by the manufacturer over the years - but it's by no means chalk and cheese...and it's definitely not a dealbreaker.
You get the same versatile vintage/contemporary blend, you get the richness that Martins are justifiably famous for - and you get the presence you'd expect from a horn that has both feet in the vintage camp.
What you don't get is a sense that this horn is all that different from the Comm.III - and in that respect you might be inclined to write it off as a failure.

I think that would be a mistake, though.
I'm inclined to look at this horn as being the GLS version of a car. You know the score - you get the basic model, the sporty model, the 'posh rep' model...and then you get the bells and whistles model. They all drive the same, they all feel the same - but the GLS model allows you to do so with the added 'benefit' of leather seats and a sunroof.
That's the Magna.

However, there's a sting in the tail - because the move from proper point to parallel points is a big step backwards as far feel and reliability is concerned, and I much preferred the feel (and the looks) of the Comm.III thumb rest and octave key.
OK, yes, you get more rollers on the bell keys...but meh. And you get that grub screw on the crook (hey ho)...and you get some extra bling (hmmm). But it all pales beside the issue of moving from proper points to parallel ones - at least it does if you're the one forking out to have the action tightened. And you will be.
I have to say - and I realise it may well be an unpopular opinion (see if I care) - that there's a fair bit about this horn that smacks of giving with one hand and taking with the other. Granted, it looks very, very nice - and the added bling really does make the horn look very tempting indeed - but somehow it rings a bit hollow when you look at what features have been lost in order to pay for it.

Bottom line, then. In spite of the quibbles it's still a fantastic horn - every bit as dynamic and lush as the Comm.III - and I can wholeheartedly recommend it. But if I were you I'd go for the Comm.III because it's likely to be more widely available and cheaper. But if you've already got a Magna, stick with it. You won't be sorry. And if you really must buy a Magna I reckon it would be worth holding out for one with a silver crook. Won't make it sound any different, but at least you'll be getting something extra for your money.


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