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Conn 6M 'Underslung' alto saxophone (Mk VIII and late)

Conn 6M alto saxophoneOrigin: USA
Guide price: £600 +
Weight: 2.21kg
Date of manufacture: 1944 (1965)
Date reviewed: April 2006 (April 2021)

One of the finest altos ever made in the 'Golden Age' of vintage horns

"Vintage envy" is a funny old thing. In general, the 'average man in the street" is most likely to experience it whilst driving his fairly nondescript 4-door family saloon as he pulls up alongside an old MG Roadster, or an E-Type Jaguar. One can't help but admire the classic styling, the earthy rumble of the engine and the undoubted cred that comes from simply sitting in such a vehicle. And yet having owned a few distinctive vehicles myself I can tell you that it isn't all smiles and smugness. There's the sheer running costs, the lack of any modern conveniences, the difficulty of maintenance and the constant prospect of the whole thing simply breaking down.
Once you learn to live without the admiring glances you actually start to realise just how marvellous it is to run about in a car that's fast, safe, quiet, cheap and comfortable - and very likely to remain where you parked it the night before.
So it can be with vintage horns.
I long ago gave up my vintage horns in favour of nice, shiny modern horns - and I can't say I've ever regretted it. I get the tone I want, I get the unstinting reliability, I get the speed and the efficiency - and sometimes I even still get the odd wink or two.
But if there's one vintage horn I'd be happy to own and play as my main instrument, the Conn 6M alto would be it.

This horn breaks right across the vintage/modern boundary - not so much because of its production run (approx. 1934-69) but because of the combination of its (at the time) revolutionary keywork and the flexibility of its tone. That alone sounds like enough to encourage anyone to go out and buy one - but it's not quite that simple.
Most sax makers followed a progression with regards to models - Model A was replaced by Model B, then C and so on. Conn tended not to have these distinct cut-off points and were constantly tweaking and re-tweaking production models to the extent that two identically named models can sometimes be very different horns indeed.
The 6M was no exception, and there are important differences between those models made at the start of the run and those at the end.

This particular model is the MK.VIII version, one of the last to feature rolled tone holes (produced until 1947). This particular feature is most important as it's reckoned that subsequent plain tone holed models aren't quite as good in terms of tone - and having played both versions side by side I'm inclined to agree.
However, whether that's down to the toneholes themselves or simply slight changes in the way these horns were built is a debatable topic. I do feel that the build quality dropped a little (but only a little) as the years went on - and that later models tended to be slightly brighter in presentation. Whether you feel that's a good or a bad thing depends on your tonal preferences.

The construction is single pillar (post to body). You get few mod cons; the metal thumb hook is static, the thumb rest is a small domed pearl, the sling ring is a sort of large staple, the bell key guards are of the wire type - with no bumper felt adjusters (just crude clamps to hold the felts in place), and the bell section is soldered to the body tube.

As far as build quality goes, these old Conns are nearly always superb examples of the craft of sax building and it's rare to find anything to moan about concerning the construction. My only real concern is the bell to body brace - being a single rod design with a relatively small mounting plate on the body it means that a severe knock to the bell can do a hell of a lot of damage to the that's something to bear in mind when it comes to choosing a case for this sax.
The rolled tone holes complicate matters when it comes to dents in the body.
In general the tone holes are reasonably good in terms of flatness - but it's not uncommon to find the examples that have quite a few toneholes out of true. This far on from the date of manufacture it's often difficult to say whether such faults were built in or whether it's due to damage. But one thing's for sure; levelling rolled tone holes requires a great deal of care and expertise because you can't just take a file to them (you risk cutting through the 'roll'). Regrettably it's not something that seems to be universally understood among those who ought to know better, so you'd be well-advised to take a peek at the toneholes when considering the purchase of such a horn.

A significant feature is the 'reversed' crook socket - or, as it's more commonly known, a double neck/crook socket. On most horns the crook has a tenon that simply fits into a corresponding socket on the body. The 6M's crook fits over a tenon that protrudes from the body. "Double neck socket' is really a misnomer because, in mechanical terms, the joint seal is still provided by one tube fitting inside another - the additional tubing takes no part in that and simply acts as the clamping mechanism. I suppose you could argue that when horns with double socket crook joint were fresh out of the factory it may well have been the case that the outer sleeve was a sufficiently close fit on the tenon to afford an airtight seal - but I have my doubts. In any event, a few years' worth of wear will have put paid to that - and you really wouldn't want to entertain the cost of restoring that supposed seal.
Conn 6Mdouble socket crookIn terms of the actual seal that double socketed crooks provide, it varies depending on the design - or rather the length of the inner sleeve. On this horn the sleeve extends into the tenon to a depth of around 12mm. That doesn't sound like a lot, not does it sound anything like the depth that a standard tenon sleeve will reach (about 21mm), but you have to take into account that a standard joint will have a slot cut into the receiver to allow the joint to be tightened. On a properly-fitted crook the seal would form around that slot - bit on the average horn that's seen a bit of wear I would tend to discount the area above the base of the slot...which leaves us with an effective seal length of about...12mm. About the same, then. Things are rather different on something like a King, where the inner sleeve extends almost the full length of the tenon.

With the Conn, then, there's no real mechanical advantage to the double socket - all it really does it make it that much more difficult to keep it clean and to tighten it up when it wears. And if you ever damage the joint, well, that's a whole heap of pain and expense. The King fares better in mechanical terms, but still suffers from the same real-world problems as the Conn.
From a purely engineering perspective these things are a terrible design - very much a weak point - and when examining such a horn with a view to purchasing it you should take a long, hard look at the joint to make sure it's in good condition. Be very wary of any evidence that the joint on the crook has been resoldered. That doesn't make the horn an automatic no-no - but you should be aware that dismantling and reassembling one of these joints is not for the you'd be wise to enquire as to exactly what work was carried out. And if the soldering looks scruffy, don't even bother asking.

Conn 6M worn tenon sleeveTake a peek, too, at the inside of the tenon sleeve on the body. This joint has been tightened and properly lapped in - and you can see that clear, unbroken band of clean brass against the tarnished brass below it (disregard the shadow on the right of the tenon bore). This is what a well-fitting joint will look like. It might not look as shiny as this, but what you're looking for is an even colour all the way around that contact band. If you can see darker patches, as in this shot of the tenon halfway through the tightening process, it means the inner sleeve isn't making contact with the tenon at those points. In this instance there's a clear air path (AKA a leak) right through the right hand side of the joint.

While we're discussing the crook I might as well touch upon the 6M's nickname - 'Underslung'.
Conn 6M octave key mechanismIt gets this name by virtue of the design of the crook octave key mechanism. The principle behind this mechanism is that a normal crook octave key runs over the top of the crook. This makes it quite vulnerable when it comes to fitting or removing the crook, and it's extremely easy to bend a crook octave key in this fashion. A bent octave key can also stop a horn dead in its tracks (though it's easy enough to fix, if you know what you're doing), and this design attempted to alleviate that problem.
You'll see modern horns advertised as having underslung crooks, but in fact they're simply variations on the ordinary crook key - a true underslung also has the octave key hole on the underside.
It might seem like a particularly bad idea to place the octave key hole on the underside of the crook, given that there'll be a lot of moisture running around at this end of the horn. Conn thought about that and made the tube tapered to prevent any bubbles of water from forming in the tube. Seems to work, I've never encountered any moisture problems when playing these horns.
The underslung mechanism also has a slightly different feel to an ordinary octave key mechanism insomuch as the pin which actuates the crook key does so by forcing the key down (rather than up). It gives the mech a very precise and fast feel.

Conn 6M thumb key adjustment pointsAt least it's supposed to...
Y'see, there's a rather nice feature built in to the mech which few players are aware of - and judging by the number of wobbly 6M octave mech I've seen, it seems that few repairers are aware of it either.
Underneath the bar that the pin key swivels on are two tiny grub screws. These are lock screws, and they secure the two point screws upon which the key rotates. This is both a marvellous feature and a bit of an Achilles heel - because while the point screws allow you to adjust the tightness of the key, they often come loose and allow the mech to become a bit floppy and vague.
It's a pretty simple job to adjust the mechanism; you just back one of the lock screws off, give the point screw (say) a quarter of a turn and tighten up the lock screw. Repeat for the other end - but this time turn the point screw until the pin key just starts to bind...then back the point screw off a tad so that the key moves freely, then tighten up the grub screw.

Easy-peasy, right? Well, sort of - because you can't access the lock screws without taking the mech off (which isn't all that difficult). If you fancy having a go there are two gotchas to watch out for. The first is that there's a little plastic sliding block that fits into the fork. You do not want to drop and lose this block - and the second is that you should avoid removing the lock screws...because you'll either lose them, or you'll swear like a trooper while trying to get them back into their holes.
Conn 6M octave mech slideAnd while you're there it's always worth checking that the little pin that runs through the centre of the plastic slide is nice and tight. It's screwed into the body octave key arm and has a habit of coming loose. It can't actually fall out while the mech is assembled, but if it's wobbly it can certainly make it less responsive.
Top Tech Tip for getting Conn locking screws back into place - pop a tiny bit of warm (and thus sticky) adhesive tack on the tip of your screwdriver, poke the tip into the slot of the screw and give the tack a squeeze. It'll hold the screw just long enough for you to get the thread started in the hole.

You may also have noticed a rather unusual lump of metal on the end of the crook.
This is the famed Conn Microtuner. The idea behind this was to provide a means of tuning the horn without the player having to move the mouthpiece. It sounds like a neat idea, but in practice it can cause all manner of complications and often ends up being regarded as something of an Achilles heel. Prospective buyers should check out my article on servicing the Microtuner, as this may help you to understand why it's important to check the integrity of the unit. I'd also advise you check out Matt Stohrer's video on assembling the Microtuner.

Conn stopped fitting the Microtuner in the mid 1950's, but I've noticed that some earlier 6M's appear to have done away with the unit. Seen here on the right are two crooks superimposed - both from 6M's.
The example beneath (in red) is from a non-rolled tone hole model, the upper (in yellow) from an early 1940's rolled tone hole model - note that the later crook is quite a bit longer.
Note too that on the upper crook, the step appears just after the octave key hole - and if you examine the photo of the whole horn you'll see that the octave key hole actually sits on the base of the Microtuner itself.
Conn 6M later crooksIt would be quite a complicated affair to remove the Microtuner and replace it with a plain tube - and not exactly the sort of job the average repairer would undertake lightly, which leads me to believe that this would have been done at the point of manufacture. I'm sure if anyone knows better they'll soon let me know...

This particular horn had a fixed thumbrest, but you can find examples that are fitted with an adjustable one, albeit a simple swivelling type (similar to that found on the Buffet S1).

The keywork has its pros and cons.
On the plus side it was, in its day, quite advanced in terms of design and ergonomics. Players who own exclusively modern horns will often baulk at the feel of vintage actions, but the 6M feels as slick and comfortable as most modern horns. It might not seem like much of a big deal now, but back in the 1940's it was quite a breakthrough.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature was that the top stack was divided up into three key groups; you got the main stack keys all on the one rod (which also housed the side Bb lever key), but both the Bis Bb and G keys were mounted on point screws. This is the standard today - so Conn's decision to lay out the top stack in this fashion was very forward-thinking back in the day. Similarly, on the lower stack the G# cup key was mounted on its own rod screws rather than being part of the lower stack.

Conn 6M bell key tableYou'll notice that the bell keys are fitted to the rear side of the bell. This wasn't quite so much of a revolution - this setup had been seen on earlier saxes from other makers - but in terms of Conn saxes it continued the departure from having a tone hole on each side of the bell for the low B and Bb, with a corresponding rise in the immediacy and precision of the bell key action.
The placement of these toneholes allowed Conn to come up with arguably one of the most responsive bell key tables ever seen on a horn before Selmer set the new standard.
If it has a weakness it's that it takes some careful aligning and setting up in order to give its best - and its performance degrades quite rapidly if this is not done. This is in contrast to the Selmer-style table that still works reasonably well even when the keys are all over the place.

The G# lever arm key is worthy of mention because it feels superb. It's actually pivoted quite some way to the rear of the table - and you can just see the point at which it connects to the G# cup key at the top left of the shot. What this gives you is an extraordinary amount of leverage whilst still allowing for the spring tension to be set quite light. About the only thing that's likely to be a problem with this design is that even a little bit of wear in the lever arm's key barrel will make the whole thing rather wobbly. It can be improved by swedging the barrel to take up the free play, but for the best response a better repair is to ream the barrel out and fit an oversized rod screw.
I still feel this design to be a winner in terms of feel and response even when compared to more modern mechs.

When it comes to the cons it's rather ironic that the one thing that tends to let the 6M down is one of the features that was supposed to be a plus; the point screws.
These feature the use of tiny grub screws to lock the point screws in place, the theory being that the action would then be constantly adjustable. It is too - but the grub screws often work loose and fall out, or they get chewed up during adjustment. Either way, it's very common to see these horns with the most appalling play in the action due to badly adjusted point screws.
For more information have a peek at my review of the 10M tenor.

You might have spotted an extra key on the right hand key stack, inbetween the F and E keys. This is a G# trill key. It always struck me as a rather curious addition as the 6M's G# mech is superb, and shouldn't present any problems should you wish to trill on this note (though from a purely personal point of view I would encourage you to avoid trilling wherever possible...can't stand it, sets my teeth on edge).
Some versions also featured an Eb trill, as seen in the above mentioned 10M review, and this would indicate an earlier model.

You get no adjusters on the older versions of the 6M, but the later ones were fitted with a single adjuster for the Bis Bb key. I often wonder why they didn't push the boat out and fit another one for the G# - especially as pretty much every other horn had such features by the time the 6M was in its last years of production. And even this concession to modernity is kinda quaint in that rather than being a simple screw, you get a sort of small bolt and another one of those poxy grub screws to lock it in place. Hey ho. It's better than nothing...but only just.

Conn 6M Bis Bb adjusterA quick word about the pads. Conn used a special type of pad called a 'Resopad'. This pad featured a metal ring that sat round the circumference of the pad felt, with a lip that sat over the rim of the cup. A standard pad sits within the cup and so the size is limited by the internal diameter of the cup - the Resopad, with its metal ring was effectively the size of the external diameter of the cup. It only amounted to a few millimetres difference, but given that some of the cups were hardly much bigger than some of the tone holes, those few extra millimetres made a difference when it came to getting a good seal on the rolled tone holes.
The horn can still be repadded with standard pads - it just takes a bit more care - but some people insist on using Resopads, which means either finding a new set or having the old pads rebuilt around the existing rings. I've played examples with both types of pads - makes no difference at all.
One point to note; saxes with rolled tone holes tend to suffer more with sticky pads. This is simply down to the increased contact area on the tone hole - and if this is a problem you can either opt for having the springs set a little harder, or keep the pads as clean as possible.

I said at the start of the review that this was a vintage horn I could be happy to play on a regular basis.
There are two reasons for this, and one caveat (which is that I'd have to secure the action - I wouldn't be at all happy at the prospect of forever having to tinker with those blasted locking screws).
Reason No.1 is the action.

Conn6M E29xxx (1965)It's fast. Not just a bit fast - it's blindingly fast.
There has to be a magic combination of key weight, cup angle, spring length and tension that allows an action to move this fast - and the Conn has it. I'd go so far as to say no other sax comes close.
Sure, the Selmer MK.VI has a great action, so does the Yamaha YAS62 - but the 6M has something extra. It doesn't seem to matter how light you set the springs, the action remains responsive where other actions would start to feel distinctly floppy.
It fits right under the fingers too...none of that tiresome reaching for keys that you get with a lot of other vintage horns (from back in days when everyone, apparently, had deformed fingers). Everything is right where it needs to be - and even the relatively quaint (by modern standards) bell key spatula layout is comfortable and slick.
The 6M often requires a bit of tweaking around the palm keys - they're set quite tight in, and many players need to have them opened out a little. This is simply a matter of (carefully) bending the keys. Don't be tempted to have a go yourself though - there's only so many times you can bend a key before you run the risk of breaking it, and there's no way to tell how many times the keys might have been bent in the past.

The height of the action is variable too. On all horns there's a limit to how far open or closed you can have the keys in relation to the cups, but the 6M seems to be far more generous in its latitude. I've played on some extremely close actions on 6M's, and without any apparent loss of tone or detriment to the tuning.
Set up one of these with a light, close action and you can really shift! That said, you can really shift when the action's set quite high - so don't get too hung up on closing the action down.

Reason No.2 is the tone.
I make no bones about my preference for a bright tone. A full, lush tone is all good and well - and can be very nice - but I like a nice bit of cut to my tone. That's not to say I want a thin tone...I want breadth and depth, but I still want that edge too.
Plenty of modern horns have a sort of 'set menu' tonewise. What you get is pretty much what's built in, which is fine once you've found the horn that gives you the tone you want. The 6M's tonal menu is 'a la carte''ll do anything you want it to, and it'll breeze over that traditional boundary between the warmth of a vintage horn and the clarity of a modern horn.
If you favour a touch more punch and clarity, a later model - such as this example from 1965 - is worth looking at. You still get the archetypal 6M presentation and feel, but there's a bit more cut in the mix. Here's a thought though - it's quite common for players to own a couple of horns that span quite a few decades; perhaps a vintage beauty for a rich and mellow sound and a modern horn for something with a bit more grunt. But you could just about achieve this with two 6Ms; an early one and a late one. Is there any other single model of horn that allows you to do this? I can't think of any offhand - though maybe a King Super 20 might be a contender?

Conn 6M E29xxx bellSo It all appears to be very rosy, but there are one or two thorns.
The tone can vary across the scale. This is the price you pay for such overall variety of tone - the very things that make this such a distinctive horn also make it quite a tricky beast to master if you're not a confident player. Ditto the tuning - the experienced player shouldn't have any problems, but a newcomer might stumble a bit...especially if they've gone for quite an extreme mouthpiece. Once you've got the handle on it though it's an incredibly expressive and soulful horn.
It's worth reiterating that the later models (with plain tone holes) seem to have nowhere near the same amount of flexibility of tone. This isn't anything to do with the rolled holes, it's down to the physical dimensions of the horn. That said, at the right price these models are still worth having if you feel you're getting what you want from them.

I drew an analogy at the top of the review between vintage cars and vintage horns. I suppose we all have this vision of old cars forever needing tweaks to keep them on the road - and this is perhaps borne out on any bank holiday, whereby much fun can be had by driving down the road in your shiny modern car and waving at the classic car enthusiasts who're often to be seen standing in lay-bys beside a gently steaming banger with its bonnet open.
But there's no real mechanical reason why a vintage horn should be any more or less reliable than a decent modern one (quirky design features excepted) provided someone's put the time and effort into bringing it back to spec. Much of the reason that such horns get a bad rep is because they've seen 50+ years of solid use, and perhaps not a little neglect. Horns like the 6M stand as testament to what a vintage beauty in good condition is capable of - easily able to compete on just about any level with a modern horn, and very much a sound choice even today (and yes, that works whichever way you read it).

Finding a decent example is worth the search, but you'll need to do your homework with regard to dates and serial numbers - and I find one of the best resources is the excellent Saxpics page on this model.

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