Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Soundwear Professional Tenor Saxophone Case

Although several online stores carry Soundwear cases, I found the Pro Tenor Sax case only at Dillon Music.  Price was about $150, including shipping.  The case is interesting in design and materials.  From the advertising copy, it sounds like it would be similar to the ProTec case reviewed here.  But the outer "shell" isn't as stiff as the ProTec.  That sounds bad, but ultimately the Soundwear case provides better protection because of the generous amount of padding surrounding the horn.

This is a backpack style of case that actually works as a backpack.  The nicely made and padded backpack straps are included, not an accessory as with some other cases (e.g., Protec).  The straps even have a "sternum" strap that goes between the shoulder straps and prevents a shoulder strap from sliding off the shoulder if you bend over or bump into something.  Very stabile. 

I didn't think I'd use the backpack feature as much as I have.  I don't skateboard to a gig, ride the bus to school, fight my way through the mosh pit, or other standard uses for a backpack case.  But I can get out of the car, put on the case, and have hands free for carrying music, keys, beer, etc.  Nice.  The only way the case can fall is if I fall.  It also has a subway handle on the neck end, so if your riding the subway, you can carry it in an inoffensive manner.

Unlike the ProTec ProPac, this case doesn't have a pocket on the side that interferes with using the case in backpack mode.  The back side of the case even has reflective piping so that you can be seen when wearing this black backpack in the dark.  The main pocket is big enough for a 3-ring binder or fake book (unlike the ProPac).  A second pocket has a ridiculous number of silly little crevices for holding toothbrushes, combs, lip gloss, etc.

What the Soundwear doesn't have is internal slots for the neck and mouthpiece.  An adequately padded neck bag is included for placing the neck in the bell.  I got used to that idea.  A semi-rigid case, kind of like a sunglass case, is provided for the mouthpiece.  But the mouthpiece case has metal zipper pulls.  So you shouldn't put it inside the case with the horn if you like your horn's finish.  It has to go in an outside pocket.  Probably safe, but I already owned a little padded mouthpiece bag and I now carry my mouthpiece in with the horn.

Just like the ProTec, this case has a spit handle with one half on each side of the case.  Once connected together, the case can't accidentally open.  The closing mechanism is two parallel zippers.  The padding is a combination of open and closed cell foams bonded to a semi-rigid outer shell.  The padding is approximately 1.5 inches thick, and that's around the entire horn.  

That's about 5 times the padding thickness of the ProTec ProPac.  There are two additional loose pads inside of the case, but no information on where these pads are intended to be placed.  That's okay, because just like with the ProTec case, I immediately altered the padding and the only use I had for the loose pads was as material for making better pads.

For me, the way this case works kind of reminds me of when I broke my leg.  This was after they stopped using plaster casts and started using rigid foams and Velcro.  You put your horn in the "cast" and zip it shut, encasing the horn in stiff foam that completely immobilizes it.  It also kind of reminds me of putting on the crotch strap on a wet suit.  The horn is securely swaddled in the case.  It takes a little more time to put the horn away than simply dumping the horn in a regular case, but if you are looking for protection and not just a convenient carrying case, the Soundwear is a contender.  

As with the ProTec and most other cases, I don't like the amount of force placed on the lip of the bell by the padding.  Most cases basically hold the bell in place by the bell rim, causing the lacquer to rub off and not really providing enough protection for the bell.  I modify these cases to hold the horn in place (and the bell away from the case sides) with substantial pads at the point on the body tube between the bell key guards and the bell lip.  So I'm going to add some pads in that area.  

For material, I first looked to one of the extra pads that was provided because salvaging that pad provided me with a piece of matching fabric. 
I'm starting my autopsy by making the first incision.

What I found was curious.  The pad consisted of a piece of open cell foam bonded to black velour (the fabric) and a little piece of cardboard.  Open cell foam works if it is thick enough, but this 1/2 inch thick foam wasn't going to do much (and the purpose of the cardboard was apparently to give the appearance that the pad was substantial.)  It did provide me with a piece of matching fabric.

I used the matching fabric to make both of my "bell holding" pads.  I glued the scavenged fabric onto a piece of substantial closed cell foam.

The second included pad was made with thin layers of closed cell foam and the same cardboard.

Closed cell foam provides a more substantial pad than open cell, but I replaced it with blue foam.  The flimsy cardboard got thrown out.

Here you can see both of the newly fabricated contoured side pads below the bell lip (click on the picture).  My newly installed bell pad thickness is such that, when closed, the rim of the bell still has at least an inch of foam between it and the semi-rigid shell and the bell lip is not the pressure point holding the horn in place.  Here you can also see the interesting closing system that has two parallel zippers and a red neoprene zipper guard on each side.  The zippers constrict the case down on to the horn, holding it very securely when "pinched" between my new pads. 
I still had another loose pad left, so I decided to salvage that material and add more padding to the caseI stripped the material off of the mushy open cell foam to convert it to a firm closed cell pad.

Here's the new pad under construction.

I put this pad at the neck end of the case to give me an additional 1/2 inch of closed cell padding on an already well padded case.  I did the same on the bow end of the case.  It could be that that is where the two loose pads were intended, but the improved padding material makes me feel a lot better.  This is now a case that can bounce down a flight of stairs without concern for horn damage.

 Here's how the case works.  You can see my two added pads on both sides of the bell below the lip if you enlarge the picture.  There is also a new "blue foam" pad at the bow end and one at the neck end.  The case gets zippered shut, creating a snug fit and locking the horn in position.  The new pads just center and lock the horn in more securely.  Left hand bell keys, RH keys, split keys, don't effect the fit of the horn because all horns have three or four inches of body tube between the Bb guard and the bell lip.  Below is a 1943 Martin with LH keys.  Above was a Conn 10M. Other horns, even my Dolnet, which has different dimensions, right hand bell keys, and a substantially larger offset bell, fit perfectly.
There is a stiff plastic piece on the exterior of the zippered flap (seen as the darker patch in the picture below) right over the flare of the bell that keeps the case flared out at that point.  Neat idea, but I like the design even better with my new standoff pads added to keep the flare of the bell further from the sides.  You can see the reflective piping on the back because of the flash.  I just leave the backpack straps on all the time, but they can be removed and stored in one of the pockets.  The picture shows the side pockets stuffed full.

I like this case.  It's as light as any and, because the backpack straps are so handy and functional, I don't even think about the weight when it's on my back.  The ProTec ProPac requires spending $15 for the "accessory" backpack straps, making it approximately the same total price.  The Soundwear wins for backpackability.    It also wins for protection.  Which one wins for durability over time will have to wait, but I think I have a hunch the Soundwear will also win that test.

Update:  1 1/2 years of use (it gets out of the house at least once a week), and I have had no problems with the case.  I haven't dropped it or conducted any destructive testing, but I do toss the case in the trunk and then don't worry about whether it flops around while driving.  

Update:  Going on 5 years and it's still working perfectly and shows no wear.  It's the case I use if I'm taking sheet music.  For flights, I looked at $400 cases and then made this one for $10.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

ProTec Contoured Tenor Saxophone Case Review

These are under $150, including shipping.  It's a ProTec ProPac Contoured case (wouldn't that make it a ProTec ProPac ProCon?).  It is a Cordura fabric covered semi-ridged case, definitely not a "flight" case and it should never leave your hands.  Meaning don't drop it.  The horn may survive uninjured if dropped from a knee-high distance, such as would happen when losing grip of the carrying handle.  However, the case has optional backpack style straps.  A drop from above waist high, like when using backpack straps or the included shoulder strap, would likely damage the horn if the case is not altered. 

Not everybody wants to buy a new case and then immediately tear into it and alter it to fit their horn, but that's what I would advise.  For $150, you get the basics for building a custom protective case for your horn.  For $400, this is generally done for you, assuming that you have a modern generic tenor.  My goal is 100% protection from "standard" drop situations, e.g., from the shoulder strap, the back pack straps, the trunk of a car, off of a table, maybe even down a flight of stairs.  For crushing and stacking type of loads, I'm afraid these cases can't readily meet the requirements of a true hard shell case. 

One of the things I like about this type of case is that the carrying handle is split, with half on each side of the case.  They connect with a piece of Velcro such that, even if the closing mechanism fails (a zipper in this situation), the case can't pop open and your horn flop out on the ground.  The case is well made, as it should be for $150, and is probably a better-than-average value among sax cases.  That being said, the rest of the review is mainly the case's shortcomings and how to correct them, if possible. 

The first fitment problem for me was the Eb key, which is odd because a tenor's Eb key guard is in a fairly standard place.  The worst fit was on my Dolnet, mainly because the key guard is more substantial on that horn, but it's also a touch higher up on the body tube.  Moving the original pad up towards the thumb hook would work on every tenor I've ever seen, but for some reason it was too low and had to be moved.  Well, as it turns out, the pad could be crushed to fit.  That's because the "pad" was made from EPS, also known as Styrofoam.  I'm not a fan of Styrofoam because it is a "one-time" pad.  Once crushed, it stays crushed.  That's why motorcycle helmets using Styrofoam are no longer DOT approved once they've been in a wreck. 

The Martin tenor's Eb guard fit just under the pad, but it was too tight on several other horns.  Sorry for the black-on-black fabric that makes it hard to differentiate between the pad and the case.  You can click on the photos to make them larger.

Here's the pad yanked out.  The black velour is glued over Styrofoam and then stuck on the case shell.

Here you can see that the Dolnet guard would interfere with the pad.  I needed to move the pad up the body tube towards the thumb rest.

I cleaned off the gob of Styrofoam.

I cut a piece of closed cell foam for trial fitment.  This type of foam is used for things like backpacking mattresses.  It's squishy, but it doesn't crush.  I cut it with a regular kitchen carving knife.  Below is the installed pad after being covered with black velour (about $1 worth from the fabric store.)  I also added a second pad next to the thumb hook to keep the thumb hook from taking the brunt of any shock. 
You've probably seen a sax with the thumb hook pushed in a little and thought that the sax had been dropped.  Right, but it probably was dropped while being carried in a case which always results in the sax falling right on the thumb hook.  If the case isn't sufficiently protective, like the vintage wooden cases, this is the part of the sax that takes the punch.  I ended up with four pads along the back side of the body tube, as it is the most likely area for impact by dropping the horn while carrying it in a normal manner.
Interior room is very sparse and the mouthpiece area is very short.  It fits the Otto Link shown here, but I'm not so sure it would fit a long piece like some Selmers.  The padding in this area is also Styrofoam and can be "crushed" to fit (more on that later).  The other original pad that's higher up on the body tube (shown just at the right of the photo) is not Styrofoam but the better closed cell foam like the stuff that I was using for making my additional pads.
The padding at the bow is almost non-existent.  Although the case has a firm shell, without padding, the shell's protection is greatly reduced. Fortunately, most horns have a substantial bow guard.  My bigger problem was padding for the bell. 

All sax cases in this price range are going to be generic, and this is no exception.  It is intended for horns with left hand bell keys and guards.  I own one, but it's not my main horn.  This case has thick padding on the right-hand side but very little on the left-hand side, apparently because the key guards are supposed to provide the protection for that side of the horn.  Not a great idea even for RH bell key horns.

As with many cases, there is very little padding side-to-side for the bell.   This is easy to remedy.  What is needed is a padding that secures the bell by holding it from a position between the key guard and the bell rim.  This reduces the need for the key guard to protect the horn and doesn't matter whether the horn has RH or LH keys.  It's kind of a generic spot on saxophones and it keeps the horn from being able to bounce side-to-side in the case and have the bell rim slam into the hard side of the case. 

This picture is a pad being placed for gluing.  I've wrapped a piece of foam (contoured to match the body tube) with velour, hot glued the velour on to the foam, and it's now ready to be hot glued to the side of the case.  Hot glue is applied to the pad and the case is held closed until the glue sets.  This pad has an identical one on the other side that has already been attached.  When the case is closed, these two pads pin the bell of the horn away from the sides of the case. 

Keep in mind that when you are hot gluing foam material the foam acts as an insulator and the glue can take several minutes to cool and set.  You also need to be careful with your glue gun temperature because the glue can come out so hot that it actual melts the foam padding and drops away from the surface to be glued.  I have to unplug my gun once in a while to make sure it doesn't get too hot.  

The ProTec ProPac neck slot is again meant for a snug fit with standard modern horns.  The underslung octave key on my Conn 10M isn't really happy there.  My Martin has the tightening screw on the front of the neck (rather than on the body tube) that doesn't fit in the slot.  Fortunately, this area is Styrofoam and with pressure and heat the slot was modified to fit non-generic necks. 
Here you can see that the neck screw for the Martin makes the neck too long to fit into the slot.  The Styrofoam down inside was crushed so that it would fit.

Even still, I really don't like the fact that the tip of the neck (for any neck placed in the slot) is actually touching the case hard side, but that's a part of the design that keeps the case so small.  Placing the neck in the bell might be better.

So how could the manufacturer improve the case and stay in a competitive price range?  For one, it could eliminate the little plastic feet on the bow end of the case.  These appear to be so that the case can be set upright using the "subway handle" at the other end of the case.  Bad idea to tempt anybody to try balancing the case on these tippy little feet. 
The manufacturer could save a few pennies by eliminating them.  The shoulder strap has a feeble "pad" that slides on the strap, making it easy for the case to quickly shift fore and aft (before dropping off of your shoulder).  While I wouldn't recommend using a shoulder strap with this case (unless you place the strap over your head), the sliding shoulder "pad" is unnecessary and only adds to the likelihood of a dropped case.  Save a few more pennies on the worthless goo gaws and add to the protective padding or functionality of the pockets..

Worthless goo gaws seems to be the standard for cases in this price range.  A common feature lots of little zippered areas and compartments inside the pockets.  Maybe I could find a use for all of them.  10 thumb drives?  A selection of gum?  One odd design concept on the ProPac is that one of the exterior pockets is on the side such that it would rest against your back when using the backpack straps.  Even with that pocket empty (which kind of defeats it's purpose), it wasn't very comfortable as a back pack.  Eliminate the pocket on that side and add two inches to the one on the other side.  Click on the picture above and you can see that a standard folding music stand would fit in the long pocket if it were just a bit longer.  It's hanging out of the pocket in the picture.

This case is way, way better than the hard cases that I was using for my horns (cases from the 1930's-60's).   Half the weight and more protective.  I doubt that this case will last decades like the original old wooden cases that came with my horns, but it is such an improvement that I'd be happy with a few years of daily knock around use.  If you really need a functional backpack case, I'd recommend the Soundwear Pro for about the same money.

Holton Model 666: The Super Collegiate Alto

Holton 666 Super Collegiate Alto

 Here's a close-up of the copper body tube.  I scraped on the inside of the tube to see if it was merely copper plated brass, but it appears to be solid copper.  You can click on any of these pictures a few times to zoom in.
 The horn is a mixture of copper body tube, brass posts, thumb rest, key guards, and nickel or nickel plated neck and bell.  The neck appears to be nickel plated, but the bell is difficult to say.  It's difficult to scratch though nickel plating to see what's underneath.  The inside of the horn had a thick green verdigris common to copper and it extended down onto the nickel bell (which appears nickel inside and out).  I didn't think that nickel could be worked into a bell shape, but the advertisements for the Holton Super Collegiate Trombone (still being made) and the Holton Super Collegiate Trumpet say that they have solid nickel bells.  Difficult to say on this one.
The serial number places it in 1959, about the middle of the 5 or 6 year production run for the 666.

The nickel plating is very nice.  It was actually lacquered (which I removed) as is the copper and brass.  Even the nickel keys were lacquered which is kind of odd.  One of the nice things about nickel keys is that when heating them for floating pads you don't have to worry about burning lacquer.  Not so with these keys.  I should have stripped them as well.  The plating is still perfect, but the lacquer isn't.  Even the rollers were lacquered.




I put in Roo pads with solid copper resonators.  I guess I should have gone with nickel resonators for the bell pads.

So, is it a "pro" horn, a "student" horn, or a "professional student" horn?  The answer is maybe.  I've never played a regular Collegiate.  I own several horns that I purchased from longtime professional players, but these horns, while wonderful, aren't ever on the short list of "professional" horns. I know that my horns made money for their owners in the past.  That makes them "pro" rather than "student" under the NCAA rules (National Collegiate Athletic Association), but the rules for "collegiate" saxophone may be more complex.  

The following advertisement from 1956 shows Holton's Super Collegiate Trombone (the one designed with the help of Maynard Ferguson and still in production) and says at the top of the ad "America's Finest Student-Line Instruments."  So that settles it.

This horn was not set up as a pro horn. The Db/C rollers are cigar shaped (which I really like), but the roller openings cut in to the keys were too tight and I could tell that the rollers had never rolled.  Not that they had become stuck, they simply couldn't roll straight from the factory.  The original pads were junk even compared to other pads of the era.  The felt on the backside was exposed (no cardboard backing) and they were lightly shellacked only around the edges.  I removed most of them by just grabbing the tiny resonator and pulling them out.  That had to contribute to the weak sound on my first play test.

One key cup was so far off center from the tone hole it looked like that pad had never been able to seal correctly.  And it was off in a direction that didn't indicate that it had been bumped.  It looked like it came from the factory out of adjustment.  The side Bb/C/E keys are so close together that any little bump causes them to interfere with each other and open more keys than what you want.  Time will tell whether the key material is stiff enough to stay in adjustment.

So this Super Collegiate had one hand tied behind it's back from the beginning.  A pro would have never put up with that and would have had those problems corrected right away.  Or, a pro would have paid an additional $400 for a "pro" horn of the era (more than the Super Collegiate's original price).  One of Holton's selling points for its Collegiate line of horns was that the horns were priced such that a student (or a student's parents) could afford one.  So, it's greatest advantage was also it's greatest disadvantage (who wants a "student" priced horn?).  It's second selling point is the bling.  Again, some say advantage, others disadvantage.  The looks are eye-catching either way.

Not that it's not all bad.  Far from it.  The nickel plating is luscious.  The pearls are a deep concave, like my Kohlert 57, which I really like.  But then the thumb pearl is a small convex button that I don't like.  The needle springs seem to be longer than most, though thicker, and give a smooth and quick action.  The needle spring attachment posts are large and easy to work with.  It doesn't seem to have any intonation quirks once the key heights are set, in fact some of the time it seems like the note is kind of locked-in.  Push the key and out pops the note just like a piano.  Tone is more centered than my mid-30s Conn and less centered than my Beaugnier Rationale.  

The Holton key rod pivot points are a conical pin rather than a bullit point like on Conns.  If the allignment isn't perfect, either from the original manufacturing or a later bump to a rod or post, you can feel an "out-of-round" friction as the pivot point is screwed in.  You have to make sure that both points are at a place where there is no friction yet both are driven home so that there is no lateral play in the key.  I guess it's a Holton thing.  The octave mechanism is pure simplicity, yet seems to function well, though a little finicky to adjust.

The horn was in really good shape for it's age. I probably added more scratches to the lacquer during the rebuild than were on the horn when I got it. The pads were original except for the Db, which was understandable given that the horn didn't look like it had ever been swabbed out. The horn was actually fuzzy inside, which, combined with the mushy pads, made my first test play a dull and disapointing experience.    I now wish I had paid a little more attention to cleaning out the inside of the body tube when the horn was apart.  The copper verdigris really is quite thick and rough.  Enough so that you can feel some friction when pulling a silk swab through. 

The "new" Db pad had been replaced using a booger-like glue (which is now stuck to my workbench), so I don't think that the horn had ever seen a technician. With new Roo pads and Maestro airtight copper resonators installed, the horn came alive and now has that wonderful buzzy vibration on the fingertips feeling. I haven't tried a lot of mouthpieces on it because it seems happy with an old  Tonolin. You can see on the neck cork (which I haven't replaced yet), that the prior owner had the mp pushed almost all the way to the end of the cork to get it to tune. No wonder the shank on the original mouthpiece was cracked. I lowered the pad heights on the lower stack quite a bit and that brought the upper and lower octave together and allowed a more reasonable position of the mouthpiece.

The neck is either nickel or completely nickel plated, inside and out, including the neck tenon. This has an interesting effect. Even when tightened down, it can still be rotated because the nickel plating is so smooth. The fit is perfect, but the nickel plated tenon in the nickel plated receiver on the horn doesn't have as much "grip" as does brass on brass (especially as brass tends to get a layer of corrosion or "patina" on it). It's not a problem, just something that I noticed.

Once dialed in, it's a nice horn. I have a little more fine tuning to do before I decide if it's a keeper. I'm not sure that my playing will ever live up to the three-tone looks, the prophetic 666 model number, or the Super Collegiate name (or should it be nicknamed Superphone like the trombone is nicknamed Superbone?).

The case appears to be the regular Collegiate case.  Or is it a Super Collegiate case?  As you can see, it's also three-tone, just like the saxophone.