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Borgani 'OBA' alto saxophone

Borgani OBA alto reviewOrigin: Italy
Guide price: £2000(ish)
Weight: 2.46kg
Date of manufacture: 2015(?)
Date reviewed: April 2022


It's always a point of interest for me whenever someone brings in a Borgani for repair. It's not so much that I don't see that many of them and more that I'm always keen to see whether one of them might 'break the mould' that such horns are often very distinctive in the way that they play and feel, but that they're often plagued with build quality issues.
What's not such a point of interest for me is nailing down which particular model happens to be on the bench. I like my horns to be nicely labelled; a nice corporate logo on the bell and a bit of engraving or a stamp that proudly proclaims the model name or number. Some manufacturers are very good at this, others rather less so - which means I then have to go trawling the web for hints.
This is an incredibly frustrating pastime given that for every article or forum post that states "It's this model" there's nearly always another that contradicts it. Gets right on my wick, I can tell you.

Borgani OBA alto pillarsWhat is known about this horn is that it was bought new in or around 2015 - and from what I can gather from the web, the OBx series made its debut around 2011. Given this piece of information, and the OBA prefix on the serial number, I'm going to chuck my hat in the ring and declare this horn to be an OBA model. If you know otherwise, let me know.

The construction is single pillar (post to body), and it's worth pausing here to take a close look at the pillars...or at least the pillar bases, because they're a bit of a mixture.
In this shot you can see the standard type of pillar base - which is just a disc of flat brass that's brazed on to the bottom of the pillar, like the pillar on the left. But look at the base on the pillar in the centre of the shot.
It's very much thicker and has been cut or cast (not bent or formed) to fit the body tube. Isn't that lovely? Granted, it makes sod-all difference to how the pillars work - it just looks nice, though I couldn't begin to tell you why only some of the pillars are made this way as it seems almost like a random choice. I originally thought it might have something to do with the height of the pillars - with the taller ones having a more substantial base - but the shot above shows that's clearly not the case.

There's a triple-point bell brace (with a reassuringly substantial mount plate on the body) along with a detachable bell, an adjustable metal thumb hook, a flat plastic thumb rest, a decently-proportioned 15/9 sling ring and a fixed semicircular compound bell key pillar. You also get a full set of adjustable bumper felts on the bell key guards.
Borgani OBA alto bell braceThe G# lever key's lower pillar is what I call an 'outboard' pillar - which is to say that it's slung across the body at an angle (you can see its base just to the right of the bell brace). It's a reasonably common layout, typically used when space is a bit tight between the Auxiliary F and G# toneholes.

The tone holes are of the plain drawn type. Because this horn's been round the block a few times it's perhaps unfair to pass judgement on the flatness of the toneholes - but I find that that the low F, E and D holes are a pretty good guide to how things were when the horn was new by dint of them being reasonably well-protected from knocks. Likewise the palm key toneholes are a good indicator of production standards. They weren't very level at all.

The finish (or what's left of it) bears closer examination.
The body appears to be made of nickel silver (which is nice). The main body tube is finished in nickel silver plate and the rest of the horn in gold plate (including the keys and fittings).
Borgani OBA alto lacquerThat all sounds rather splendid - and it would be had it not all been doused in a coat of gold lacquer. I really can't think why they bothered to do this - the horn didn't need it and putting lacquer over plating is always tricky because it tends to fall off after a while. As it's done here.
Honestly, it looks bloody awful. Sure, it's a 20 year old horn, but it shouldn't look this bad after such a relatively short space of time. I don't know how well or otherwise this horn was looked after, so I can't really say whether it's common to any other examples...but I really wouldn't be at all surprised if it was.

Borgani OBA alto platingHere's a nice shot of the layers of plating showing through the wear on the octave thumb key. You can see the base metal of the key (brass) followed by a coat of copper, then nickel and finally gold.
You can think of the copper and nickel as being akin to a coat of primer and undercoat...with the gold being the gloss paint finish.
All things considered I was reasonably impressed with the build quality of the body; the solderwork was all as neat and tidy as you could hope for.

On to the action now - and I think I'm gonna kick off with the plus points and deal with the...issues...a little later...
I think the first thing I want to mention is how tough the keywork is. It really is very tough indeed - or at least the main stack keys are. It's very common to have to bend a key slightly during the course of a service, and this is usually done to correct a key cup angle. I know some people insist that no-one should purposely bend keys on their horns, but that's simply because they're bloody idiots. If they really wanted to ensure that their repairer wasn't going to bend any keys, they should rush out and buy one of these horns. Key stiffness is a useful feature (for the most part, at least) and bodes well for long-term reliability in the face of heavy-handedness or the rigours of touring.

Borgani OBA alto side BbVery pleased, too, to see plain and simple fork and pin connectors on the side Bb and C. It's a tried and a tested mechanism that's simple and efficient - and generally quiet in use provided the action is kept tight and well-lubricated, and the buffers are in good order.

I also liked the rather domed key cups. They don't need to be like this, and it really serves no practical function - but it looks nice. However, having rather domed key cups affects the way in which the pads have to be installed because it means there'll be more of a gap between the centre of the pad base and the top of a key cup. What you'll need here is shellac - and plenty of it.
Borgani OBA alto padWhich is why I was delighted to see that Borgani have spared no expense in this area. Take a look at this pad I hioked out. Have you ever seen this much shellac on a pad before?
What a joy. Maybe this explains why so many other manufacturers skimp on the stuff....because Borgani have bought it all. Top marks there, and then some.
Pad are of good quality too - Premium Deluxe, no less.
On a much geekier note, if you ever intend to reset one of these pads you really do have to remember that they're 'floated' on the shellac. There are a few ways of fitting and setting pads. My preference is to fit the pad so that its base (or at least the rim of it) is in near contact with the pad cup - but many repairers prefer to use a great deal more shellac (or hot melt glue) so that the pad quite literally floats on it (hence the term). There are pros and cons with both methods (as usual) - but one of the biggest cons with floated pads is that if you attempt to reset one without being aware of the seating method used, you could end up with loads of shellac oozing out of the key cup. And then you're in a spot of bother. If a pad's been floated on hot melt glue it can all turn into a nightmare quite rapidly. So go carefully.

Borgani OBA alto octave mechanismThere's a bog-standard swivelling octave key mech fitted, and I was pleased to note than even after a few decades of use it was still in pretty good order with very little play on the swivel bar and tips. This mech gets a hell of a lot of use, and to find one in such good nick after all this time points to it having been very well made in the first place.
With that said I was a little disappointed to see a plain flat bit of plastic used for the thumb rest - I really do think this horn deserved something a little better and more in keeping with the looks. It's comfortable enough, however.

Also disappointed to see that there are no adjusters on the main stacks. I'm non-too-fussed about key height adjusters but regulation adjuster are, in my book, an essential feature. It makes my life a lot easier, it makes your repair bills smaller - and for those players who're handy with a screwdriver it makes it entirely possible to dial in incremental adjustments as and when a pad shrinks a bit or a piece of cork/felt compresses. They're a bit like electric windows on a car, or air-conditioning - why would you choose not to have them?
You do, however, get the usual trio of adjusters on the Bis Bb, the G# and low B to C# key cup - and as an added bonus they've also included and F# helper arm.
These things are, I feel, of limited use because they often have too much flex in them to make them a worthwhile addition - but the Borgani scores a few more points by virtue of the adjuster arm being soldered to the top of the F key cup. You can see it quite clearly in the beauty shot at the end of the review.

Right then, on to the ranty bits...

The Borgani features sprung inserts for the point screws. You'll see this system on a some of Selmer's horns, and I've commented about it before. I've never been convinced as to the efficacy of it - even less so after recently having to ream out a key barrel and make a new insert (due to it being worn)...which then had to be lapped to fit the key barrel . I always said the inserts would eventually wear and create a headache for both the player and the repairer. If you're unfamiliar with these inserts check out my article on point screws - or the Selmer Ref.54 tenor review.
Borgani OBA alto sprung barrel insertBut at least Selmer had the decency to ensure that the inserts were correctly fitted in the first place. Not so on the Borgani.
Upon dismantling the horn I found that almost all of the inserts were jammed in the key barrel. Some of them freed up after a great deal of poking and fiddling - many of them did not. The whole point of this system is to take up wear in the keywork as and when it occurs. That it does so with mediocre results is neither here nor there - because if the insert won't move it leaves you facing the same problems as on any other horn with standard key barrels...and then some.

Borgani OBA alto It's easy to see why the inserts were jamming - just look down the bore of the barrel. See those screwthread-like marks? Those are from the drilling operation. How on earth you can expect an insert to be a smooth sliding fit against burrs like that is quite beyond me. It's pretty clear to see that the inserts have been fitted to the barrel and then the key fitted to the horn. Once the point screws have been tightened up they've pushed the inserts in with considerable force - whereupon they've jammed solid, never to move again. While we're here, note that the barrel has been drilled off-centre. If you wanted to ream the insert hole out and fit an oversized (and correctly-fitting) insert, you won't have a great deal of room for manoeuvre.
If you have one of these horns and fancy doing a strip down maintenance service, my strong advice is that on no account should you mess with the inserts. If, in an attempt to get one out you end up pushing it further into the barrel it's going to completely ruin your day.
The whole sprung insert idea is a complete pile of poo, and when implemented as badly as we see here it's...well, an even larger pile of poo. It completely defeats the object of the damned things in the first place (to provide a self-adjusting action). Which never works that well anyway.

And while I'm on a roll I might as well comment about the key fit. Not impressed.
I had to make new rod screws for all three palm key and the side Bb/C cup keys. It wasn't because they were worn excessively, it was simply because they were way too short.
Borgani OBA alto palm key rodsYes, you could argue that it really doesn't matter that much - but I would say that it's not the sort of thing you should have to accept on what's essentially a high-end horn. In any case the pillar for the top F had been overdrilled, which allowed the rod screw to move about..and thus the F key - so it seemed like a sensible bet to just upgrade the whole lot in one go.

I also didn't care for the way in which the key barrel ends had been finished. Or rather unfinished.
I like to see nice, crisp, straight edges so that when a pillar butts up against a pillar or another key there's barely more than a thin line that marks out the boundary. Not only does this look neat it also provides a larger surface area, which increases the time before friction (and thus wear) takes its inevitable toll.

Borgani OBA alto rounded barrel endOK, it's perhaps not quite so important on point screw barrels - particularly on a horn that features sprung inserts (or at least sprung inserts that actually work) - but it's still the mark of a manufacturer who cares enough to spend some time getting things all neat and tidy.
I guess some would argue that this merely shows the horn's handmade credentials - but that's a complete load of old hogwash because every decent repairer has a set of hand tools whose function is to square off uneven barrel ends. In other words, you don't need a machine to be able to do the job.
Speaking of which, pretty much every key is stamped with the serial number - which tends to indicate that the keys are hand-fitted to each horn.

Under the fingers the action feels as good as you'd expect. It's a standard layout and an alto, so there won't be too many people who will struggle to reach the keys.
The two standout features are the Bis Bb and front top F touchpieces. OK, I can understand (just about) that some players may have a preference for a slightly different design of the front top F touchpiece but the Bis Bb touchpiece ought to be fitted to every law. It's a simple, effective design - and I really can't imagine anyone complaining about it.
Borgani OBA alto Bis BbThe keywork is quite hefty, but this is balanced by a set of blued steel spring that have a good length to them - and in the hands of a repairer who really understands how to balance a set of springs, the action is capable of being swift and responsive. Nothing to complain about there at all.
The key pearls (real mother of pearl, incidentally) are worth a quick mention. They're flat in profile - which, I feel, always gives the action a nice feel - and the pearl holders have a rather wide, rounded rim. It all adds up to a very smooth and comfortable experience. I really enjoyed whizzing about over the keys.

Tonewise the Borgani wastes no time in showing off its vintage leanings.
It's a full, rich sound to be sure, but it's perhaps a little bit 'unseasoned' at the edges - which is to say that it seems to lack a bit of sparkle. In this respect I feel it places it very much in the camp of altos that have a very tenor-like quality, such as the Holton 666. That's no bad thing if that's your bag, and the Borgani does it very well indeed. It's gentle, laid back, a bit reserved.
I always say that when I'm playtesting a horn, the horn dictates which tunes I tend to play - and so it was that I found myself veering more towards classic tenor ballads ('Like Someone In Love', 'The Night We Called It A Day' etc.) rather than the more energetic tunes that seem to better suit the alto.
Borgani OBA alto bellYes, you can push it some - but it's quite a resistant blow, and if you're looking for a tone that has more cut and thrust you're either going to have to work harder for it or opt for a baffled mouthpiece to help you out a little.
I s'pose I'd say that there's vintage...and there's very vintage - and I feel the Borgani tends slightly towards the latter. Not that it's unpleasant, oh no - on its own it's really very playable, if perhaps a little 'introspective'. It's when you compare it to the competition that you start to notice some of the tonal compromises - and it just so happened I had a rather nice late '60s Selmer MkVI to hand. Seemed like a fair match to me; they're both expensive horns with vintage credentials.

I described the Borgani as having a gentle approach, but the Selmer threw a bit more perspective on that description - and perhaps the best way I can describe it is that the Borgani's 'gentle' is akin to an elderly couple waltzing together at a tea dance. The Selmer is like a ballerina...with a Katana slung across her back. It has a much more open and immediate presence, it's more lithe, it's more alert. It's more dangerous...and thus a lot more fun.
"Aha!" you might say "It's a Borgani, not a Selmer! That's the whole point!" - and you'd be right. It's a different horn for players who want a different soundscape. Nothing wrong with that at all. But then I've played quite a few Borganis - and while they have indeed been different from the norm, they've not been that far outside of it. In point of fact, when I was looking for a new tenor the Borgani Vintage 09 made my shortlist of three horns. I can't in all honesty say that this alto would have made the cut in a similar shoot-out.

When all is said and done I'm not really sure how to sum up this horn. I realise that if I don't say that it's utterly wonderful I'm likely to hear no end of wailing from Borgani fans - but then it is what it is. My personal observations probably don't matter that much - but 'the bench don't lie', and at the sort of price-point this horn originally sold for it's only fair that it gets judged accordingly.
The crappy sprung inserts are a complete disaster, the keywork isn't very neat and tidy in places - and the finish has aged awfully. I'd expect better, and from that perspective alone I'd advise caution...or at the very least paying an appropriate price.

And did it break the mould?
No, sadly not...


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