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Cardinali tenor saxophone (early)

Cardinali tenor sax reviewOrigin: Taiwan, most likely.
Guide price: Don't pay much
Weight: 3.35kg
Date of manufacture: 2006 (estimated) (Serial range:919xx)
Date reviewed: July 2021

Looks familiar...

Here's something you don't see every day - it's a Cardinali tenor sax. Before we get started there's something I ought to make clear, otherwise things are going to get rather confusing. The person responsible for this horn is Luca Cardinali - and he's the chap who produced the Lupifaro saxophone in collaboration with a Swiss company. That association seems to have come to an end and now Cardinali is back trading under his own name.
So, this is a Cardinali - but it's an old one. Hopefully that clarifies things in case you're looking to buy one of the newer models and are hoping this review bears some relevance (it probably doesn't).

You'll notice that I've been a bit sketchy about the origin of this horn. In all honesty I have no idea where it comes from, but given what was revealed to me about the Lupifaro tenor I reviewed back in 2019 I think it quite likely that this is a 'boutique' horn - one that's bought in from elsewhere and rebadged. I have a few thoughts about that, which I'll reveal a little later on...

So without further prevarication, let's pop this thing up on the workbench and poke it with a screwdriver...
The construction is ribbed - at least for the main stacks, with smaller plates for most of the ancillary keys. What individual pillars there are are fitted with substantial bases, as are the guard feet - bar the low Eb upper guard stay, which although it has a small base it's silver-soldered to the bottom bow clamp (so it's not coming off in a hurry).
The tonehole are plain drawn and were all rather nicely finished. In fact I was rather impressed with how level they were. Sure, they still needed a little bit of dressing to bring them to dead flat, but they were quite some way better than most of the stuff on the market these days. Happy to dish out a whole handful of points for that particular feature.
The body comes with all the usual mod cons; you get a full set of adjustable bumper felts on the bell key guards, a sturdy metal thumb hook and a large, slightly domed metal thumb rest. The sling ring is nicely proportioned at 17/10.5mm and there's a detachable bell along with a triple-point bell brace.

Cardinali bell braceBut wait a minute...what going on with that bell brace?
Clearly someone wanted to make a 'design statement' here, but was too cheap to come up with a unique design and then pay to have it built. So they opted for taking a standard Selmer style triple point bell brace...and hacked half of the ring away. I mean, it doesn't look doesn't even look unusual. It looks exactly like what it is, a butchered off-the-shelf bell brace. And now it's not as stiff as it once was.
And what's even more curious is that the top of the brace doesn't fit the's too thin. You can't see it in this shot but there's a thick brass washer to take up the gap.
I want you to remember this last point, and also to remember the shape of the mounting plate on the body - because it has a bearing on the origins of this horn.

The finish appears to be a bare brass one. I say 'appears' to be because there some evidence of lacquer here and there. There's certainly some still visible on the crook, and when the horn was stripped down I found some on the inside of one or two toneholes. Most curiously of all there appears to be some on the springs (blued steel, incidentally). At first glance I thought they might just be badly corroded, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a layer of lumpy lacquer. I don't think I've ever seen such a thing before, and it kinda got me wondering whether someone went over this horn with a spray can of clear lacquer - most of which, unsurprisingly, has long since fallen off. Or maybe someone just lacquered the springs? Very strange.
Up close the body of the horn reveals quite a lot of light scratch marks, which makes me wonder whether someone's gone over the horn with a wadge of wire wool. Was this a factory finish, or was it done by the reseller...or by the player? We may never know.

I mentioned the substantial guard feet earlier - and here they are.
I'm always pleased to see guard feet like this. The guards take a fair bit of punishment down the years, so it's good practice from an engineering standpoint to be able to spread the load of those knocks and bashes and dissipate it into the body without causing any damage. It also means that the feet are a lot less likely to be knocked off...which is quite a common problem.
Cardinali tenor low C guardNo complaints here at all - but here's another thing to remember. Look at the shape and size of those guard feet...

Anyway, all things considered I was quite impressed with the bodywork. It's sturdily and neatly built, with nothing much to moan about.
But now we have to look at the keywork, and I regret to say that here's where it all goes terribly wrong...
When I reviewed the Lupifaro I found myself appalled at the state of the action. Rod screws were way undersized, pillars were overdrilled - and there was so much play in the action that trying to regulate it was a complete and utter waste of time.
And so it was on this horn.

Now then, the difference is that this horn is 15 years old and the Lupifaro was practically brand new. However, I know what 15 years' worth of wear looks like - and even if the owner had played this horn day in, day out for all those years (and he hasn't), it still wouldn't account for the wear. Perhaps the biggest clue comes from the fact that while all the keys were able to wobble about on their pivots, there was very little evidence of axial (end-to-end) wear. You don't get one kind of wear without the other - they go hand-in-hand; so when you only have the one kind of wear it always points to a manufacturing defect.
Let's start off with some figures. The fitted rod screw diameter on the main stacks and larger keys was 3.16mm. A 3.23mm rod was a sliding fit in most of the keys - but some of the pillars had been drilled out to 3.42mm. Here's what that looks like:

Cardinali tenor top stack wearYou can seen that there's a very considerable amount of movement in the entire top stack, and it's very easy to see the head of the rod screw moving back and forth in the pillar. You could spend all the time in the world getting the pads to seat correctly, but with this amount of play in the stack you'd never be able to dial in the regulation between the keys so that the auxiliary B (the key I'm holding) closed at the same time as the B or A keys. No matter what you did, you'd always have a leak somewhere on the stack. And because it'd be up at the top end of the horn it would have an effect all the way down the instrument.
By the time you've added in a similar amount of free play on the bottom stack plus some other play (which we'll come to shortly), you're really going to struggle to hit the low notes cleanly or with any real clarity.

Clearly this needed to be sorted out, but I ran into a bit of a problem. Y'see, stock rod screw blanks come in standard sizes - and the largest that was available was 3.23mm. This was fine for the keywork, requiring only a few keys to be reamed and a couple to be swedged - but it was nowhere near large enough for the holes in some of the pillars. I could have perhaps sourced a larger stock rod - but at the diameter required it would have thinned out the barrels a little too much for my tastes. I could also have resorted to peening the pillars (essentially squeezing them to close up the hole) - but this isn't a very lasting fix, it disfigures the pillar...and it isn't really effective when dealing with such a large discrepancy. So the only other option was to fit bushes to the pillars.

Cardinali bushed pillarThis involves reaming out the pillars to a larger size (say 5mm) and then making a brass tube that fits precisely into the hole, then soft soldering it place. The tube is then reamed out to the required size (taking care to align the hole with the rest of the pillars) and the bush is trimmed to restore the profile of the pillar.
Here's the bushed pillar, all finished up and reamed out to take the new size of rod screw. It's quite a lot of work - and while it's a reasonably common job on horns that have seen 50+ years of hard use and little maintenance, it's not something you'd ever expect to have to do to a 15 year old horn of any reasonable quality.

The other play I alluded to came from the point screw mounted keys.
The point screws are of the pseudo type, and these can only work well if the holes in the barrels are drilled so that the largest diameter of the screw's point is a snug fit...or the holes are shallow enough that the point of the screw can engage on the bottom of the hole. Unfortunately the barrel holes on the Cardinali were oversized in every respect - and in order to make the action appear to be a bit less worse than it actually was, someone's stuffed each hole with a wadge of cork. That's Kwality - with a capital K.

Cardinali tenor point screwsPutting this kind of free play right is a lot of work, and usually involves either swapping out all the point screws for oversized ones (assuming you can find or, more likely, make them), or swedging the ends of the key barrels...which seldom works terribly well and looks untidy.
Or you can bush the barrels and ream them out to the correct size...assuming the client's budget will run to that much work.
I used a different method, which I'm keeping under my hat...

As for the smaller rod screws for the ancillary keys (side keys, palm keys etc.), these had play in them too - and rather than muck about with pillar peening and key swedging I simply reamed the barrels and fitted oversized the rods to them.

Build quality aside, the rest of the action is just what you'd expect to find on a modern horn.
I was particularly pleased to see a full set of regulation adjusters on both stacks, plus the usual trio of adjusters for the G#, Bis Bb and the low C#. There's a decent swivelling octave mech fitted which, once tightened up, was as smooth and slick in operation as you'd ever need it to be. You can't quite see all of the large metal thumb rest, but it's a solid lump of metal that tapers down towards the body. That's another feature to remember for later. Similarly, take note of the length of the crook receiver. It's a good 5mm longer than most - as is the tenon sleeve on the crook.
Cardinali tenor octave mechThe cork and felt work was impressive - and neat and tidy too, with much use made of composite cork in those places where compression and/or friction might be an issue. Might not sound like a very big deal, but it's nice to see someone paying attention to the little details that make a horn more reliable over time.

Likewise it's nice to see simple fork and pin connectors used for the side Bb and C key. No fuss, no nonsense - just a solid, reliable and slick mechanism.
Speaking of solid, the keywork was reasonably stiff and took a fair bit of effort to bend it - which again bodes well for long-term reliability. And just for good measure there's a double arm on the low C cup, which helps prevent twisting of the cup.
There's the usual tilting bell key table - which is fine, though I felt the G# touchpiece was just a tad undersized for my tastes - and if you've taken a good look at the opening shot you'll have seen that there's no top F# key on this horn. Not that you can't get a top F# - the usual front top F+A+side Bb does the job nicely, and if you feel it's a bit flat you can substitute the Bis Bb for the A.

Cardinali tenor padA quick word about the pads; they're Pisoni Pro pads - so they're top quality. Better still they've been properly fitted and set, with plenty of glue in the key cups. Not entirely sure what sort of glue it is, but I'm hedging a bet on some kind of synthetic shellac. Either way it's nice to see they haven't skimped on it.
Wrapping up the keywork you get a full set of slightly concave proper mother-of-pearl touches with a slightly domed touch for the Bis Bb and flat ovals for the G# and side F#.

So all in all it's been a bit of a mixed bag for the Cardinali - but how did it perform in the playtest?
Under the fingers the horn feels quite good - or at least it does now that the action's been tightened up. When it came in it was as loose and rattley as bag of spanners, and almost as unwieldy - but with everything all nice and snug there really wasn't anything to moan about. Except perhaps the slightly small G# touchpiece. That's it. That's your lot.
It's just your typical modern action - probably a mash-up of various designs. A Yamaselmagisawa, if you will. Unless you have exceptionally large or small hands you'll find that everything's where it ought to be. And it's a nice action too - the long springs give it a nice reactive feel.

Tonewise I'd say it's a text book 'straight-ahead' tenor. Y'know, not too bloaty in the midrange, not too shrill at the top end. It's even-toned across the range and responds really well to changes in your embouchure, such that you can shift it slightly brighter or darker as you wish. And as you might imagine that also means it's quite a responsive horn - which shows its credentials in a nice bit of percussiveness when you push it a bit. I liked that very much, it's the sort of liveliness that appeals to me in a tenor.
As far as tonal quality goes I'd say it's up there with the likes of Yamaha et al - it's definitely a big step up from a typical intermediate horn and easily capable of showing some of the pricier Mauriats a hard time. An interesting horn, in other words.

Cardinali tenor bellWhich brings me back to the question of its origins.
Now, remember all those features I pointed out? I've seen them before, and the place I've seen them before is on the Bauhaus M2 series of horns. If you look for the mentioned features in the reviews of the M2 Pro and the M2 Earth Series you'll find matches for each and every one of them. The longer crook receiver and tenon sleeve, the crook clamp with the extended lyre holder, the hefty tapered thumb rest, the rectangular bell brace body mount and the large guard feet. As for the bell brace and that brass washer...note that the Bauhaus has a secondary arm that extends from the bell brace across the body. The washer on the Cardinali is filling the gap where that arm would have sat.

So it's a Bauhaus M2 under a different name, right? Pretty much. I mean, when I compared the playtest notes I see that I picked up the Cardinali's ability to shift its tonal approach when you changed the embouchure - and I noted exactly the same thing on the Earth Series horn. It's possible that it might be a slightly different body by the same manufacturer - hence the similar features - but my gut feeling is that it's the Earth rebadged.

But what about the appalling keywork? There was none of that on the Bauhaus - you got a well-built action that matched the price ticket. I can't in all honesty say what's gone on. Could the body and keys have been bought in from different manufacturers? Seems unlikely...why go to all that trouble? Why did the action exhibit exactly the same faults I found on the Lupifaro? Was someone (and I use the term extremely loosely) 'tweaking' the action? This horn predates the Bauhaus Pro by just a few years so I guess it's possible that the manufacturers upped their game in the interim period, but I'm struggling to believe that they would go to all the trouble of building quite a nice body and then slapping a load of dodgy keywork on it. There's just something about it that doesn't add up.

So what's the final verdict?
It's that the Cardinali is a very competent horn, that it's probably as Italian as a pizza from Dominos...and that it's not worth buying unless you can pick one up dead cheap - because you're in for £300-£500's worth of remedial work to set the action right. You also have to consider that this horn is 15 years old and may have been worked on in the past. I very much doubt that anyone who worked on it would have loosened the action - but they certainly might have levelled the toneholes. The pads look right for the age of the horn (only a couple had been swapped out), so I'm pretty sure it's in mostly original condition.
But if my description of the horn floats your boat, just look out for a secondhand Bauhaus Earth Series. You won't be able to tell the difference, I'm sure.

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