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.

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