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Kohler Empor baritone saxophone

Kohler  Empor baritone sax reviewOrigin: East Germany
Guide price: £500+
Weight: 5.08kg
Date of manufacture: 1954-62 (serial range: 30**)
Date reviewed: November 2022

Well hello...

I've probably mentioned it before, but every so often I get an instrument in for a repair quote and the figures don't add up in economic terms. In most cases it's a straightforward decision - the horn simply isn't worth fixing, either due to its lack of quality or the surplus of secondhand examples at relatively cheap prices. The boundaries get a bit blurred when you factor in an emotional attachment, such as a horn that belonged to a relative - which tends to trump most other considerations. But it all gets a bit tricky when I encounter a horn that I (and sometimes the client) feel like it has playability potential in spite of the poor economic forecast. When this happens it usually falls to me to make the decision on behalf of the client - and that's quite a hefty responsibility. I'm obviously going to profit from the job, but I have a duty of care to provide the best advice that I can based on whatever information and experience I may have gleaned down the years. And sometimes it all comes down to blowing the horn and looking to see if it has that certain something that sets it apart from any other junky old horn.

Thus it was that this baritone turned up in the workshop. It was in a dreadful state. Years of neglect had taken their toll, as had a fair bit of structural damage - and the situation wasn't helped by the horn having been entrusted to the hands of a bodger at some point in its life. It was very clearly going to need a very great deal of money spent on it, and it didn't look like it was going to be worth the cost.
The client expressed an attachment to the horn, so I set about doing a few emergency tweaks in an effort to get the thing vaguely blowing. And I'm glad I did, because it became immediately clear that this horn had that certain something. It was also helped by the fact that underneath all the grime, damage and botched repairs the build quality was really very good indeed.
It was still going to be a very expensive repair, and at the full price it very definitely wouldn't have been worth the effort. But I'm a bit of a sucker for a lost cause, so I took the job on as a 'sleeper'.
What this means is that there's no set schedule for the repairs - I just fit them in as and when I have the time, and the client gets the horn back when...well, when they get it back. That's the client's side of the bargain; my side of it is that it can sometimes cut the price of the work in half.

Now, I should add that I don't take on many sleeper jobs - and that they have to fulfil a very specific set of there's no point throwing an old Martin tenor at me and hoping for a half price job because the first criterion it has to fulfil is that I'm actually interested in the horn and the work involved. In this instance I was very interested indeed, and my initial playtest led me to believe that the restored horn would easily outplay its market value - so without further ado let's have a look at what turned up on the bench.

This is a Kohler Empor baritone. Note - not Kohlert.
At first glance I reckoned the horn dated from around the early 1930s. The design of the keywork was simplistic in places and overly complex in others. And yet this is quite a modern horn. Although it's not possible to pin a precise date of manufacture on it, it's known that these horns were produced from about 1950 to at least the mid '60s - but the addition of the word MIGMA on the bell very firmly dates its production to some point between 1954 and 1962. Close enough for jazz.
There's a little bit more history to this brand, and if you're more interested in that sort of thing than I am I thoroughly recommend you take a peek at the very excellent article on the equally excellent Bassic Sax site.

Kohler Empor baritone toneholesThe construction is single pillar (post to body), with diamond-shaped pillar bases. The bell is soldered in place and therefore not (easily) detachable - likewise the top bow is fixed. You get a non-adjustable thumb hook and a rather small thumb rest, fitted with a proper mother of pearl touchpiece (as indeed are all the stack keys). The bell key guards are of the wire type, so there's no provision for easy bumper felt adjustment. And that's it in terms of the features.

The toneholes are of the drawn and rolled variety - bar the top E and F which sit on the top bow and are plain holes that have been silver-soldered on.
Given the extensive damage this horn had sustained I fully expected them to be all over the shop in terms of flatness - but no, they were remarkably flat. The bell holes were typically among the worst, but that's generally par for the course - but many of the main stack holes barely needed any work at all. And nor was there any sign that they're been levelled previously.
That wins the manufacturer top marks; it's uncommon enough to see a modern plain drawn tonehole that's level from the factory let alone a drawn and rolled one from back in the '50s.

Kohler Empor baritone bell braceThe prize, however, for the wonkiest toneholes went to the G and G# - because, like so many vintage horns, this baritone is fitted with a 'piledriver' bell brace. It's just a single bar that's fixed to the bell at one end and mounted to (almost) the middle of the body tube...with the G tonehole right above it and the G# a little lower down.
One good whack to the bell or a drop and the impact will drive this brace right into the body tube - resulting in a bent body and taking out the flatness of the adjacent toneholes. As you can see from the relatively scruffy condition of the mount area, it's very clear that this brace has seen quite a lot of work down the years (and most of it rather sloppy).
It's very much the Achilles heel of such vintage horns - and on a baritone it usually means having to open your wallet wide and asking your repairer to help themselves should you be unlucky enough to drop the horn.

There's a similar brace up on the top bow (pigtail) of the horn that connects the bow to the main body. Again, if the horn cops a whack here it'll drive that brace into both body tubes. In fact this horn had suffered so severe a knock that the impact snapped this brace off one of its mounts. Very nasty.

Kohler Empor baritone top bow braceHere's the brace after I'd worked my 'magic' on it. I had to straighten out the body tube beneath lower stay plate and make a new plate. I'm rather pleased with the way it turned out.

The crook is worth a mention if only because of the apparent disparity between the diameter of its tube and that of the bow tube.
It's considerably narrower, such that there's quite a step up in size between the two parts. This difference means that the crook sports quite a meaty crook tenon sleeve - which sort of gives it the appearance of part of the crook having somehow shrunk in the wash...or like a very large man wearing a very small hat.
Kohler Empor baritone crookIf I hadn't known any better I'd have said that the crook was off a completely different instrument. It's really that striking. Note the position of the pin key (or lifter key) in relation to the crook octave key. We'll come back to that shortly.

A quick mention about the wire-type bell key guards.
Most of them are mounted in the tradition fashion - which is to say that the guard feet span the the tonehole. However, the low C tonehole has two of its guard feet attached to the side wall of the tonehole itself. It's not a very common arrangement but it sometimes pops up on vintage horns - and it's about the worst place you can put the feet.
When an ordinary wire brace takes a big knock it'll drive dents into the body tube adjacent to the tonehole. This'll result in a warped tonehole and you'll have to remove those dents before you can bring it back to level. It's a fiddly but not especially tricky job. But where the guard is attached to the tonehole itself, a similarly hefty knock will drive the wall of the tonehole down into the body - so now you not only have a tonehole that's out of level, you also have a distorted hole to deal with.
Kohler Empor baritone low C guardAnd on rolled toneholes you may well find that the rim has cracked.
It's a really daft place to mount a guard - but they probably did it this way because placing the guard in this position would necessitate a rather ugly-looking guard if you mounted it in the normal fashion. With that said you have to wonder why they didn't just rotate the position of the guard 90 degrees clockwise and fit a standard one.

In terms of build quality the Kohler is very well put-together. In those places where a bodger hadn't made a right old mess with a soldering gun, the solderwork was very neat. You can see the same tidy approach on the keywork too - and the engraving on the bell is suitably impressive. It all adds up to a rather elegant-looking horn, which is no mean feat for a baritone.

On to the action now, and let's kick off with that curious octave key.
The mechanism is very much in the vintage mould, with various flying levers here and there - although there is a sort of rudimentary swivel joint between the arms for the body and crook keys. And it had to be said, it's perhaps the pickiest mech I've ever come across. I would imagine that when it was designed it was done so with little or no wiggle room. If the pillars weren't just so and the relationship between the pin key (which lifts the crook key) and the body octave pad was even just a gnat's whisker off - the mech would grind to a halt.
Given that baritones tend to lead a rather robust life it's something of a liability - and if you ever have to rebuild the mech and resolder the pillars you're probably going to have to take a file to the keywork to restore some necessary clearance.

But that's not the most pickiest aspect - oh no; it's the position of the pin key itself.
Kohler Empor baritone octave mechSee the red arrow in this shot? That marks the dead centre of the crook, and on pretty much any other horn that's where the pin key usually sits...or thereabouts, at any rate. But see how far over to the left it is?
When the octave key is pressed and the crook key comes into play, the pin key doesn't so much push the crook key ring up as sort of slide along it and hope for the best. It's very strange - and because there's a great deal less leverage that would normally be available, you're very much limited in terms of where you position the crook. So, for example, if you prefer to have it slung over slightly to the side (say, when sitting down to play), you're going to be rather out of luck.
It's really not a very good design at all, and it almost seems as though the manufacturers got so far with it and then decided they were bored with the whole thing and left it where it stood. And it's probably needless to say that it's not a terribly responsive mechanism.
But it does work, after a fashion.

I said at the top of this review that at first glance the Kohler seemed a great deal more vintage than it was - and perhaps the most 'dated' feature on the horn is the addition of an Eb trill. I'm not sure when the last horn that sported one of these keys was made but I'm willing to bet this bari is very much in the running. I don't mind admitting I've never been a fan of these mechs.

Kohler Empor bari Eb trill keyFor one, I don't much care for trilling (sets my teeth on edge) and I've yet to come across an Eb trill mech that had any sort of long-term reliability built in. The slightest bit of wear or flex in the keywork and all your notes below D are wholly reliant on this little pad seating absolutely perfectly. And it seldom does, at least not for very long.
So as a matter of course I always re-engineer the spring on the cup key to hold it in the closed position - and adjust the lever mechanism to prevent the cup key from 'holding off' the D key. Unless, that is, the customer is adamant that they want this functionality. And some do - which is fair enough - but I always point out the pitfalls.

Kohler Empor baritone side keysFortunately the side keys are a bit more up to date, featuring good old no-nonsense fork and pin connectors. Absolutely nothing wrong with these at all. But look beyond the side key to the rear of the top stack and you'll see that there are no adjusters on the stack bar. In fact there are no adjusters on this horn at all. Not one - all the regulation has to be done with buffers. Fair enough, having no adjusters on the main stacks is something that can be seen on many modern horns - but by the 1950s it was reasonably common to at least see some means of adjusting the regulation over the G# and Bis Bb keys.
Incidentally, the top stack keys are all mounted on a single rod screw. A very, very long rod screw. Quite possibly the longest I've ever encountered on a baritone.

The bell keys are another old-timey throwback with a pair of arms that stretch across the back of the horn and connect to the separate key cups by way of a sliding link. It's a very inefficient setup - and by the time this horn was made most manufacturers had settled on making the low Bb/B keys as single pieces.
Kohler Empor baritone bell key linkagesIt's certainly possible to tweak these keys to get a bit more slickness out of them (such as in the careful selection of buffering materials) but ultimately they're always going to feel slightly clumsy when compared with their modern counterparts.

Up at the other end of the bell keys we find a reasonably workable table.
The G# touchpiece is very generously proportioned - and the wraparound Bb touch gives you the option of either pushing forward off the B for the Bb or sliding down. And there's even a roller between the low Bb and C# in case you want to get a bit busy down at the bottom end.
Kohler Empor baritone bell key tableUnfortunately it's a little bit hampered by virtue of the low C# being a single-piece key - and being such a large and long one it has to be quite strongly sprung compared to the rest of the bell keys. You do, however, get a fair bit of leverage from the long touchpiece. If you were coming from a modern bari to this one you'd probably find yourself tripping up a bit over the table's layout and resistance - but once you've become accustomed to it, it's not so bad.

The point screws are of the parallel type.
I'm not a fan of this type of point/pivot screw simply because there's no built-in scope for adjustment as and when the action wears - and when that happens it tends to be an expensive proposition if you want to restore some degree of accuracy to the action. With that said, baritones - especially vintage ones - tend to be rather approximate in nature when it comes to the action, and yet somehow they still manage to keep on going (albeit rather noisily).
Kohler Empor baritone point screwsWhat's rather more interesting is that the rod (hinge) screws are made from nickel silver as opposed to the usual steel. It's not a feature that tends to crop up that often, and on the whole you're more likely to find it on East German built horns than any others.

I'm not really sure why anyone thought that using nickel silver for the rods was a good idea. Yes, there's certainly no chance of the screw rusting in the key barrels - but non-ferrous metals are still subject to other forms of corrosion and as a bearing material it doesn't hold up as well as steel. It also doesn't take a lot of punishment, so if you do encounter a corroded rod you'll only get so many chances at turning the screw before the head splays and splits.
All the major rod screws (stack keys etc.) on this horn were badly worn and had to be replaced - likewise most of the minor screws (side keys etc.).

A quick note about the pads. They're incredibly thick. In some places they were required to be almost 6mm thick - which is pretty heavy going for a pad.
I did wonder whether the key geometry had been mucked about with in the past but couldn't really see any evidence of it. If you're going to attempt to repad on of these horn you're almost certainly going to have to shim the pads to bring them up to the required thickness.

And I think that pretty much wraps up the technical overview other than to say that underneath all the damage and tarnish, it's a very well-built horn. If you take the weight of a Conn 12m as a 'vintage standard', the Kohler tips the scales at just over a kilo heavier. That's an awful lot of brass.

Under the fingers the action feels quite good. Well, quite good for a vintage baritone. Its a bit of a mixed bag though, due to some of the quirky throwbacks - but there's nothing really offensive about it.
The octave mech is perhaps the worst feature, which is rather frustrating given that the rest of the action is more than passable. Even the slightly clumsy bell keys aren't so bad once you get the hang of them.
There's also quite a 'big' feel to the action, and this is due to the thickness of the pads and the corresponding key geometry. In order to get sufficient clearance over the toneholes you have to raise the height of the action somewhat. Again, it doesn't take long to get used to it - though not having a front top F key is a bit of a disappointment. Plenty of room to fit one though, if you're so inclined.

As I said at the top of the review, I took this horn on because even though it was in a terrible state when it came in, it nonetheless had a certain something tucked away under all the clanks and wheezes. It's sometimes the case that this is all you have to go on when determining whether an economically borderline horn is going to be worth the expense of repairing - so it was with not a little trepidation that I approached the playtest after the horn made it off the bench.
I needn't have worried.
Kohler Empor baritone bellIt put me very much in mind of the time I replaced my woofly old Buescher bari with an old but serviceable Martin Handcraft. The difference in tone and projection was night and day. The Kohler has this projection too. It's not a shrinking violet.

Tonewise it's everything you'd expect from a vintage baritone; there's a richness to the tone, a fullness, along with a very melodic presentation. But there's also some gorgeous brightness too. Nothing too harsh or scratchy, mind you - just enough to put a bit of a glimmer on each note and to bring a bit of cut and punch to the warmth. It's also enough to kick the horn into a lovely growl when you push it hard (R 'n B mode) - and yet that's not its best trick. If you back right off into the subtone, that glimmer remains and gives the horn a very slightly percussiveness to what's typical quite a soft soundscape.
That's quite a contemporary approach, and one that pleased me greatly.
Any negatives? Sure - the mid/low D is slightly more shaded...but that's easy enough to even up once your embouchure has found the core of the note. And that's really about it. The tuning's pretty good too, certainly nothing untoward for a horn of this age, and plenty of flexibility in the way it plays to allow you to nail all the notes.

When all is said and done I was very impressed with this lovely old bari. The build quality, the feel, the response, the sheer playability - it all adds up to being a very credible vintage horn. And just like any vintage horn it has its quirks, but they're not insurmountable...and what the horn delivers makes it worth the effort.
It's not a very common horn, so examples are likely to be few and far between - and the cost of restoring one could easily take you into four figures (depending on the quality of work, of course) it might be worth looking out for one before this review gets around - and the asking price goes up.
If you can find one that's in decent condition I'd say it represents an interesting alternative to the rather more common vintage American marques. It's got a bit more clarity and perhaps a little more versatility - and nothing beats the "What the hell is that??" factor.

Given that this horn was in a truly dreadful state when it came in, I thought you might enjoy seeing some of the work involved in bringing it back to life. If so, check out the Kohler Empor rebuild article.


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