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Saxophones Keilwerth SX90DL soprano review

Experience
10 + years
Playing level
Advanced
Technical Knowledge
n/a
Market Knowledge
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The new Keilwerth soprano in Sax.co.uk is actually the Liebman model the SX90DL - not the Liebman Signature SX90DLS - but to all intents and purposes according to Sal Maniscalco these two models are very similar from the playing pov.



I'm a Selmer player and have been for most of my career. I had a short stint with a Couf tenor in the 1970s and a couple of years with an SX90R tenor in the 1990s. Both were terrific instruments, but I really always felt that the Keilwerth tenors were the best of their range; I could have played their altos with a bit of adjustment, but...I was never really happy on their sopranos.



My problems with Keilwerth sopranos have been two-fold. Firstly the keywork has always seemed rather industrial, much less smooth and refined than a Selmer and placed in somewhat different positions ergonomically. Now, this aspect is just a matter of familiarity and I don't think it would take me long to adjust. But secondly and far more importantly I've always had an issue with the intonation on Keilwerth sopranos: this can take much longer to adjust to. I spend huge amounts of my playing life in the top octave+ of the soprano sax and intonation and focus are just critical for me. So, to cut to the point, I'm very, very picky and critical of soprano saxes. Alsod I think that things that bother me may not be an issue for you. For instance, when I recently had to buy a new Selmer soprano (having written off my previous one) I went through 12 instruments before finding one I thought I could live with (!).

Appearance:

The new SX90DL is good looking. It has a rather attractive earthy brown body that is actually 'vintage raw brass with clear lacquer finish', and 'brushed nickel silver' keywork ( http://www.julius-keilwerth.com/en/content/sx90?l=10,11,12 ). It has classy engraving. It's a one-piece instrument with a straight neck and underslung octave mechanism. Sal told us that there will not be a dual neck version. (BTW, what is ‘vintage brass’? I think they mean the look of it, not that it’s old brass they’ve dug up from war-time shell casings, so let’s put that down to PR hype and move on eh?)


This soprano was in good playing condition, not perfect, but certainly good enough to play properly. The springing was pretty even but half an hour's fettling with a good technician such as Mark Bishop would have been worthwhile.

Keywork:

The first thing I noticed about the keywork was the unusual design of the RH side keys (Bb, C, top E, trill F#, top F#). They are more shaped and tactile than on most saxes and the F# trill and top F# keys are large vaguely oval plates which are positioned to allow the player to take top F# with a flat RH ring finger instead of the tip of that finger. I've often thought that the positioning of the top F# & G is very cramped on Selmer sopranos, built for tiny hands not 6'5" blokes like me, and so this immediately seemed like an excellent idea. However, in reality I found that when taking the top F# that way, I hit the side Bb too. Obviously getting this positioning perfect for everyone is impossible and no doubt I would get it sorted in time.

The main stack keywork is very comfortable and I do like the big feel of the Keilwerth touch-pieces, but getting that aspect of a saxophone right is pretty much a given. It is how the side keys relate to one's basic hand position that really matters.

Side key positioning is important for me as I have long hands and fingers. I did most of my spade-work on a Mk6 sop which has the RH side keys quite high up on the body: this arrangement suits me well (and if I remember correctly the Japanese sopranos are made that way too). The Series 3 has them insanely lower which can cause problems for people with large hands. On the new Keilwerth I felt that they were well positioned somewhere in between these two extremes which makes sense, but I just kept hitting the side Bb when going for the top F#. Hmmm...YMMV.



As is normal for Keilwerth saxes at this level, the LH top keys are adjustable. I remember spending quite a bit of time fiddling with them on my SX90R tenor and eventually got them so that they felt optimum. I'm sure the same comfort is attainable on this soprano but I didn't have the time to start adjusting the keys in this instance.



'Bell' keywork is good and slick. I found moving about on the low C#, B, Bb stack very comfortable.

Resistance:


Keilwerths are always going to feel freer to blow than Selmers, so I will admit that I felt a little at sea with the focus of the sound on this sax. I play a tweaked C* S80 with Vandoren V12 3s & 3.5s for most of what I do because I value stamina and intonation more highly than other factors. I felt straight away that I should have brought a more open piece for this sax, but as Joe Giardullo of SopranoPlanet says, it's not really about the tip opening, it's about the facing - and the way a particular sax translates the air column. The Keilwerth seems to resonate lower in the instrument and want lots of air as opposed to, say, a Yamaha Z which feels like a bit of a pea-shooter (technical term there). Of course this is a fairly subjective thing to say, because after a few weeks of playing any instrument, you just adjust to this sort of difference and your pov changes.



What I really started to like was the evenness of this instrument. Top to bottom it feels very solid to blow and I felt able to take the whole range of the instrument with little adjustment. To prove this to myself I played the overtones off low Bb up to Ab 3 which all came surprisingly easily, but, were they in tune? And how did the overtones match up with the fundamental?

Intonation:

Feel is as much to do with intonation and timbre as it is with inherent resistance, especially in the palm keys, and it was here that I felt Keilwerth had really excelled. A lot of modern sopranos have a tendency to be a bit sharp at the top. In some cases (Yamahas, Yanagisawas) this is not a problem because the bore can take the opening of the throat without introducing an undertone or cracking down the octave. This is not necessarily the case with Selmers which can be maddeningly fussy in the palm keys. (BTW, the only other sopranos I have played recently which have very true palm key intonation are the Sequoias).

Modern saxes are for the most part designed to be played with a fairly static embouchure (it's the only way to get a truly even sound). Deviations in intonation are controlled by the larynx and throat muscles. This starts to get tricky when you get a note that is either wildly out of tune with, or has a substantially different timbre from, it's neighbours; a sudden change in throat position becomes necessary (i.e. middle C# to D). I found the Keilwerth to be one of the best I've played from this point of view. The movement from middle D to C# required very little humouring in the throat. This is not surprising; looking at the keywork Keilwerth have gone for a double-in-line compensating mechanism for the open C# similar to the Yamaha (sorry, best I can do, look at the pictures!) rather than the one key on top of another system of Selmers and Rampones. I think this is excellent and whereas the mid C# seems a bit reluctant on the Yamahas, it's a good note on the Keilwerth. Yea!



My main issue with the intonation is something other people will probably like. I'm used to a slightly flat middle C & C# and middle F and F# on my Selmer. The Keilwerth is a mirror image of the Selmer in this respect, having a more in-tune middle C & C# and to me, a rather sharper middle F & F#. I know it's purely a habit thing, but I would have to do some serious woodshedding to adjust to the Keilwerth's intonation curve. I found the Yamahas similar and to be honest it's probably a better system. I'm sure quite a few players will read this and feel that the Yamaha intonation is brilliant, in which case you will feel right at home on the Keilwerth. For me though, I felt a bit at sea.


Have I omitted any aspect? Looks, keywork, resistance, intonation. Ah yes, the sound.

I find it difficult to judge my own sound. It’s so tied to feeling comfortable with reed strength, embouchure etc etc. I would need to have recorded the instrument in a familiar acoustic to give you a true impression, but I will say that I am not sure that it is at its best as a classical instrument (whatever that means) because it wants to roar as much as it can whisper and has a directness and size of tone that could be a hindrance when matching to orchestral instruments. So I’m best telling you what I heard in another player, Krzysztof Urbanski who just won the Buffet ‘Sax-Idol’ competition and who played at Tuesday’s performance with Kirk Whallum and Sal Maniscalco. Krzysztof is an extremely accomplished player and played the Keilwerth with a Super-Session J mouthpiece in one of the testing rooms at Sax.co.uk when Aldevis & I were there. He had absolutely no problem with the instrument at all top to bottom and what really impressed me straight away was the evenness of the instrument and the big generous sound. OK, a fine player will make any instrument sound good, but you can’t hide the accurate pipey-ness of a Yamaha or the sinuous authority of a Selmer. The Keilwerth seems to me to have a very honest and open tone and solidity of sound and intonation. Some players will always prefer a Selmer and some a Yamaha or a Yanagisawa, but besides those icons if you are looking for a new soprano, don’t necessarily want to play classical music and are willing to put some work in adjusting to the bore and keywork, the Keilwerth is a very good choice indeed and indicative of a company that really cares about their products.

Keilwerths have always been slightly on the outside in the UK; certainly they have their advocates, a presence in shops and some excellent players who use them...
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David Roach
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Thanks for the review
Very interesting - lots of ways of assessing oneself and a sax for a beginner. Thanks.
Very comprehensive. Thank you
David Roach
David Roach
Thanks Jeanette. Although I don't like to post negatively on the 'net, I don't see the point in whitewash reviews; I see so many of them and they are really not helpful!
Comprehensive including comparative examples
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