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 (!).
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.
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.
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?
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, but as far as I know, there is no UK sax quartet/section that uses Keilwerth exclusively (please correct me if I’m wrong). I would hazard a guess that omission is due primarily their lack of adoption in the classical saxophone world. I don’t necessarily think this soprano will change that, but I do think it’s an improved instrument.
I have some addenda to my initial review of the Keilwerth SX90DL soprano. I was a little unhappy that I hadn’t spent more than 20 minutes or so with the SX90DL at Sax.co.uk before posting my initial thoughts, hence my hedging around certain aspects. However Sax.co.uk do not allow gear to be taken out on approval, so I asked my friends at Howarth’s if they could get one in for me to try at length. That wasn’t a problem, so I’ve had one here at home for the last two weeks to get a really clear impression of the instrument. Thanks to Stuart & Thom for organizing it!
I’m sorry to say, however, that my secondary impressions are not positive and that I actually found this particular horn’s intonation appalling. I’ll go into detail about that in a moment, but first I’d like to correct a statement I made earlier about the keywork.
I stated that “when taking the top F# that way [with a flat finger position], I hit the side Bb too”.
My memory had played a trick on me and actually, it’s the other way around. When I play side Bb, I hit the enlarged touch-piece for the top F#. In order to avoid this, I have to crank my wrist around into an un-ergonomic position which is bad news. I have very long fingers, so I thought it was possible that it just didn’t suit me, but other players have mentioned this problem too. I would probably get used to it, but RSI and Focal Dystonia are a very real hazard to saxophone players, so I find this unacceptable. Obviously this suits David Liebman, and it is ‘his’ soprano after all, but if I were going to take this horn on, I would have to ask Keilwerth, or a tech, to adjust this for me for sure.
Otherwise, I really liked the keywork and my first impressions of the tone and ergonomics remain the same. The intonation however turned out to be problematic.
I stated before that I had previously had problems with the intonation of Keilwerth sopranos; and I suppose you can’t get much further apart in vision between two modern pro sopranos than between Selmer Series 3 and a Keilwerth SX90.
IMO Selmers are designed to be played with a firm, consistent embouchure top to bottom with no real lip movement necessary; for me, all the work is done in the vocal tract apart from the occasional judicious use of the bottom B key to flatten middle D and omission of the top D key when playing top E quietly. It’s designed to work well with small bore pieces like the Selmer range of S80, S90, Super Session etc. and I admit that I have had some problems with larger bore pieces like the Theo Wanne Gaia (lovely on tenor, not for me on soprano; however, having said that, I played a Pillinger NY 8* piece belonging to Aldevis and it was totally excellent - I digress).
Conversely, I have always presumed that the Keilwerth is designed to be more user-friendly to people who play very open-embouchure’d. Watching David Liebman play, he seems to use a large-bored mouthpiece like the Drake and takes a prodigious amount of mouthpiece in to his mouth. (Speaking of that didn’t he have a Drake ‘Liebman’ piece? It seems to have disappeared from the Drake site.)
Anyway, what I’m saying is that I was prepared for the Keilwerth to be different to my normal experience, but really, not as different as it turned out to be.
I started by testing three of my go-to mouthpieces: a tweaked S80 C*, a Vandoren Optimum refaced to a ‘D’ and a SopranoPlanet Missing Link, also a ‘D’ facing. The S80 didn’t feel at all right and neither did the Optimum, but the Missing Link felt OK and made a good sound. Onwards.
I test a soprano sax for intonation by tuning the middle B, being careful not to be over-tight or over-relaxed, but using a stable embouchure I look for good tone quality. When the mouthpiece is in approximately the right place for the B, I start to test intervals, not using sub-tone. First the lower E; if that’s a good interval I usually have the instrument basically sorted. I’ll then check the first few overtones off the low B etc etc and so on; if the 2nd and 3rd harmonics off the low B are close enough in tune with the low B itself I’m ready to play. I got happy-ish with all that and then tried some lower register stuff. Not bad at first. The ‘bell’ keys were sharp for me, which can be an issue on all saxes, however if the low D is in tune with the low E, which it was, then I proceed and deal with the bell notes later ‘as a separate issue’.
Here started the problems. On the particular instrument I was given, the middle C was horrendously, intractably flat. It was very odd. Middle C# was good; very good in fact and an excellent match to the middle D. But that C was terrible.
OK, try pushing the mouthpiece in a bit; get the C up to pitch. How’s the B? Sharp as hell, and so was the rest of the lower register. Hmmm….
OK, spilt the difference in tuning between the middle C and B, relax and open up the embouchure a bit, blow ‘down’ into the mouthpiece, think tenor. No improvement.
Despite the problems, I carried on. Usually, if I can get the lower register to fall into place, I then start to play octaves; again, no sub-toning. Generally speaking, the octaves were sounding good until I got to that middle C again. Playing the octave between middle and top C was a surreal experience, particularly since I could play the (mid to top) octave Bs with no problem. The top C was even flatter; even if I bit the middle C in to tune (horror!) the top C was still 20 to 25 cents flat. Top C# was similarly flat in comparison to middle C#.
The palm keys (top D to F#) on the Keilwerth SX90DL are pretty good however; they have good tone and do not need too much humouring to play in tune. But it was becoming difficult to tell what was good and what wasn’t due to the Cs.
OK, solution, play in D major. Nice, pretty good in comparison to C major. I even got the stock mouthpiece out thinking that it might be better. To my surprise, it was small-bored, but I had exactly the same problems. I really was mystified and felt completely at sea. Thankfully I did not have to play this instrument out of the house.
[At this point it’s good to consider why this is happening technically and what measures manufacturers take to control the pitch of the upper reaches of the soprano. Basically, as I understand it, in order to allow for the notes below the break to be reasonably in tune AND free blowing, the bore of the instrument must be a trade-off that allows the palm keys to be quite sharp; add to this the pragmatic issues of tonehole placement in relation to each other and posts and pillars etc. and you have one almighty compromise. This is why modern sopranos have compensating mechanisms, to bring the upper notes down in pitch whilst allowing the throat notes to play as well as possible. There are two different approaches that I have seen, the Selmer/Rampone/Yamaha EX one-key-on-top-of-another, and the Yamaha Z/Keilwerth double-in-line-keys approach. The trick to getting this to work well is to get it so that the split mechanism ameliorates the top notes without creating problems for the lower ones too much. Inevitably the octave C# will be a bit narrow, and there are good arguments tone-wise for the double-in-line-keys approach being more successful in that it helps to avoid the nasal middle C#. So, if we have a slightly flat top C#, it makes sense for a manufacturer to deliberately lower the pitch of the C below it so that the C# doesn’t stand out as markedly flatter than its neighbours. Good in theory, but in practice this has to be subtlety done.] Onwards.
I could go on, but at this point I had to admit something was horribly wrong with the instrument, or was I so ‘Selmered’ that I was doing it all wrong. 44 years of playing the saxophone and this!!!
So I called my friend Aldevis who blows in an entirely different fashion to me and who uses a large-bore mouthpiece. We had a good afternoon messing with stuff, eating lunch, recording our sopranos, discussing approaches and possibilities of pushing the mouthpiece this way and that. In fact we thought we had it nailed, but then checked our overall intonation – ha! A quarter-tone sharp all round (mainly). Aldevis and I have different ways of doing things for sure, but something we were in absolute agreement about was that this particular Keilwerth SX90DL is not right.
One positive point though, I still did like the basic tone of the instrument. I remember one particular ‘name’ pro player saying to me that he loved the sound of the SX90 soprano - but only when he was playing on his own, because as soon as he had to play with other instruments it became a problem! I now see his point.
So I took it back into Howarth’s with the bad news. They had another one in stock! Hey, brilliant, perhaps this other one will be better. No, ‘fraid not.
So, I’m sorry folks, after being initially positive about the Keilwerth SX90DL, at the moment, in its present state, I cannot really recommend it. £4200.00 with questionable intonation? Nein Danke.
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