Regular price95,000.00 ฿
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Buffet Crampon S1 and Prestige alto saxophones
Buffet's first version of their premier S range of pro horns
I've remarked in other reviews of Buffet horns that the company has had relatively little success with their range of saxophones - as compared to other manufacturers of similar 'clout', and indeed to their own highly-regarded range of clarinets - and yet it hasn't prevented them from being innovative. Or brave, even. To go to all the trouble and expense of designing and producing a premier range of horns when previous models haven't exactly wowed the market is quite a risky proposition - and so whatever the outcome of this review, credit has to be given for such a bold move.
I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone by reviewing the basic S1 and the Prestige horns side by side.
They're essentially the same horns in terms of build and design, with a few notable differences - and much of what was written about theS1 tenorapplies to both these horns.
Well, there's certainly no disguising the main feature of the Prestige (right) - just look at the colour of that body compared to the standard S1 (below left).
OK, so these days using anything but brass for sax body can hardly be described as esoteric - but when the Prestige first hit the shops it was a genuine talking-point. And rightly so - the last time anyone strayed from the straight and narrow path that is the traditional brass body was around the mid 1950's, when theGraftonplastic alto made its debut. It was a brave move by a company who hadn't exactly made significant inroads into the world of professional level saxes, despite its considerable reputation for its range of clarinets, especially when you consider what they were up against in terms of competition from the now well established marques of Yamaha and Yanagisawa.
The reason for the use of copper was supposedly to give a different tone than might be had on a brass sax. Indeed, it was even suggested that the because copper warms up more evenly than brass it will sound better - and it will continue to improve as the instrument gets warmer. So copper is a good conductor of heat. It's also pretty good at releasing it too...and if you suppose that the tonal theory is true then you also have to accept that the horn will cool down quicker than a brass one, and that means you'd be forever blowing air into the horn just to keep the temperature up during a (typically lengthy) drum solo. Fortunately it's just marketing spiel (AKA bollocks).
What's a fact is that copper is softer than brass. Much softer.
This means it's rather easy to put a dent in the body. Oh well, at least it looks nice eh?
The Prestige came in because of transit damage. A cheap case and a careless shipper resulted in the horn taking a whack whilst in the case. The most common transit damage is that of the outer bell rim taking a bash transmitted through the case, and this is exactly what had happened to this horn.
It's a particularly sturdy horn that would show no damage from such a knock, but with a well-designed bell brace and strong brass with a bit of spring in it you might get away with just a bit of a bent bell rim. Unfortunately these horns have a dreadful bell brace (apparently it's supposed to improve the resonance...or something like that. Yup.) and the Prestige's copper body has all the stopping power of a paper hat - and the end result was a dirty great dent in the body under the now deformed bell brace.
On the plus side...because the copper is soft the dent hadn't bent the body or taken out the adjacent tone holes. On the minus side again, what might have been a £20 "straighten out a bell rim" job is likely to turn into a "Blimey guv, that'll cost three figures easy!" job. There's no removable bell on these horns either...
The bodywork on the S1 is identical, save for a few differences in some of the fittings. Most notable is the thumb hook, a bulky swivelling design that really isn't all thatcomfortable or consistent. I'm guessing the idea here is that no matter what angle your thumb's at, the hook moves to accommodate it. This would be fine if were at all comfortable - but it isn't, and all that happens is your thumb remains consistently uncomfortable no matter what angle it's at. The Prestige has a standard swivelling plastic thumb hook, though I'm led to believe that this only appeared on later models.
Another difference is the crook socket - the Prestige is slightly more robust but incorporates the top F# tone hole. The crook has a slightly larger cutaway on its tenon sleeve in a corresponding position to take into account the various angles that players might want to set the crook at. All in all the S1 is well put together, with generous bases to the pillars and neat solderwork - just what you'd expect from a premium horn.
The keywork follows the same pattern and is well made, and really quite sturdy. Both horns feature some unusual design features, with the S1 sporting the almost legendary adjustable spatulas on the low C/Eb. OK, perhaps legendary isn't quite the right word...notorious perhaps? It seems to me to be design for design's sake, and achieves nothing that can't be done on an ordinary setup with spot of careful bending (and it's not like you need to adjust these things more than once or twice in a horn's lifetime). It isn't that they don't work, it more that they make the low C and Eb keys feel a little detached and unresponsive. It's a regular chore to keep the adjustable mechanism spot on, and the whole caboodle is a sure-fire recipe for key noise. That said, the dished rollerless spatulas make for a swift change between the C and the Eb...so it's not all bad news.
Thankfully someone saw sense when it came to the Prestige, which features good old-fashioned plain keys with rollers.
In a similar vein, the bell key cluster is also quite unique. In this instance though the mechanism actually works rather well - though I should point out that the same arrangement on the S1 tenor wasn't nearly as slick in operation. This is probably down to the extra weight of the tenor keys...a few extra grammes seems to make all the difference. Quirky it most definitely is - and I can see that not everyone will take to it immediately, but it you give it a chance and spend some time getting used to the unusual feel you'll find that it's quite a slick mechanism. My reservation though is that the bells keys sit on a single pillar, which is likely to move in the event of even a moderate knock. The Prestige features a top F# key, and both horns use a curious double arm arrangement for the middle F# and top F# touchpieces. Thetenor reviewgoes into detail about this mechanism, so I won't repeat it here other than to say "Why?".
Other features include a pin and barrel mechanism for the side Bb and C keys - along with the usual problem of wear and noise this mechanism brings, despite the barrels being made of plastic. There's also a rather curious octave key mechanism that appears to be something of a throwback to earlier days - and like the bell key cluster it seems to work rather better on the alto than it does on the tenor.
In terms of maintenance there are no adjusters on the main stacks. Not a huge problem if you never do any home tweaking, but a bit of nuisance if you do - and a complete pain for repairers.
In overall feel the action is quite nippy. This is a distinct contrast to the tenor, which felt very dead and lumpy. The altos have an almost 'switchlike' feel to the keys. I wouldn't go so far as to say the action had the same sort of kick and response as you'd find on a Selmer or a Yamaha etc., but I think you'd only notice the difference if you were used to playing these other horns. Even when lightened the action retained the switch feel, and I can see that kind of precision appealing to quite a few players. One final comment regarding the action is how noisy it can be. The stack key feet are quite large in terms of surface area, and the cork buffers seem to punctuate the action with a bit of a slap. This is easily resolved by removing the cork and fitting the key feet out with felt. It's a worthwhile modification, particularly for the S1 which already suffers from that noisy low C arrangement.
There has been some debate surrounding the tuning of the Buffet Prestige horns. What it boils down to is that Buffet apparently made two types of Prestige, one pitched at A=440Hz for the US market and one pitched slightly higher at A=442Hz for the European market. With such a small difference in pitch you'd think it would be hard to tell, what with the average player being quite capable of adjusting the embouchure to correct the natural compromises present in any saxophone - but actually the difference is quite tangible. I tuned the Prestige to A=440Hz, using my testbench Rousseau 3R mouthpiece. This piece is a superb all-rounder, able to accommodate a huge range of horns from various periods, so when it shows up a problem it's a very good bet that there really is one. With the tuning set at A=440Hz I noticed quite a lot of drifting in the upper register. Top G in particular seemed rather wild, and the tuning meter's needle swung back and forth as I ran up and down the scale. When I dropped to the lower octave the pitch flattened quite significantly - so much so that I had to work my embouchure quite hard to bring the tuning into line.
I then pushed the mouthpiece on a tad to raise the overall pitch. The change was quite dramatic. Although I was now reading very slightly sharp on my concert A, the tuning meter was much more stable across the scale - and even the upper G seemed to have calmed down. I still noticed the dropoff on the bell notes, but not to the same extent as before, and by nothing that couldn't easily be handled by simply getting the embouchure used to the horn. Not only was the tuning much better, the tone improved too - it was much more stable, much more even and centred. It's worth mentioning that although the European tenor is also tuned to 442Hz, it doesn't appear to be quite so intolerant of mouthpiece position. You might be concerned that this renders the horn useless for ensemble playing, but the few percent difference isn't going to cause any real problems, and being ever so slightly sharp has never been a bad thing for a horn section.
Tonewise I was quite surprised by the Prestige. All the Buffets I've played before have all been very 'withdrawn' in terms of tone. To a certain degree I feel this is true of the Prestige, but in comparison with the other models it's significantly livelier. This would appear to be at odds with the marketing spiel of the day, which claimed that the copper body would give a darker tone overall. Quite the reverse, I'd say - the Prestige is by far and away the brightest of the Buffets I've played. Having said that, there's still that sense of the horn holding back - if you really push the tone you can actually feel the resistance. It's quite a strange combination - that bright, full tone coupled with a sort of limiting resistance. Perhaps the best description I can come up with is that the Prestige has a 'tonal microclimate'. As long as you stay within the bounds of what it can handle it'll give you a beautifully precise tone...but push it too hard and it really lets you know it's not happy. But here's the strangest thing...if you blow right through that resistance, and I meanreallyblow, the thing starts to growl a la Tom Scott. Oh yeah...it gets dirty...but boy do you have to give it your all to get it. It does have darkness too...and when I say darkness I don't just mean the lower harmonics are to the fore, I mean it's really quite a sinister tone. If you play, say, a nice fat major scale, the horn seems to punt it out without any real conviction - but switch to a minor scale and suddenly it's all flashing eyes and cloak and dagger. Very gothic. You can still play upbeat stuff on it, but I found that I needed to back off the power considerably to get a sense of lightness to the tone...and there was always the feeling that there was a moustachioed villain standing behind me, whispering "Go on...flatten that third...you know you want to".
In contrast, the plain S1 is much more like the other Buffets I've played. The tone is decent enough, pleasant even, but there's that nagging sense of restraint. Interestingly enough the two horns sound almost identical in the lower register, with the Prestige being ever so slightly broader in tone. It's when you move into the upper octave that you really notice how pinched the S1 sounds in comparison. By way of an experiment I swapped the crooks around. The Prestige crook didn't quite fit the S1 (being rather tight halfway on) but even here you could tell that the upper register had much more guts. As expected, the S1 crook reined in the top notes on the Prestige, but not by as much as on the S1 - which suggests that it's not all in the crook. To be brutally frank, the S1 sounds like an 'also ran' beside the Prestige - but taken on its own it's a capable enough horn provided you're aware of its limitations. It would sit very well in a quartet, either classical or lounge jazz, but you'd find yourself working unnecessarily hard using it in a more demanding environment perhaps.
The Prestige is the best of the Buffet range I've played so far, but like all Buffets it's by no means a 'jobbing horn'. It's distinctive, it's quirky, it's obstinate, it's passionate - and if the Selmer MKVI is the granddad of horns, then the Buffet Prestige is the moody teenager. Love it or loathe it, just don't buy one on a whim and expect it to play by your rules.