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Buffet S1 baritone saxophone

Buffet S1 baritoneOrigin: France (
Guide price: £1100 +
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: 1973-88
Date reviewed: March 2006

A top-end baritone sax from the 'other' French manufacturer

There can't be many people that are too familiar with this particular make of baritone sax. Buffet saxes have always occupied something of a niche in the marketplace, baritone saxes even more so - so the combination of the two makes for a relatively rare beast.
There are perhaps other reasons for this comparative rarity, as we'll see a little later on.

From a construction point of view the Buffet is quite a complicated bit of kit, and whilst I wouldn't say that it's a project that has yielded a classic horn I can't deny that the manufacturers looked to have had every intention of making such a creature.
There's no doubting the quality of build - up close everything looks 'just so', and there's a sense of attention to detail. On the face of it, it looks like quite a rugged horn - but there are little giveaways that point to a more delicate approach to construction.

Take the bell brace for example. Ludicrously thin for a modern horn - a throwback to the vintage baris of yesteryear. This brace is claimed to increase resonance (or something like that), but considering the fact that baris are big and tend to get knocked about rather a lot I think I'd be happier with a little less resonance and a beefier bell stay which would at least guarantee that there was anything left to resonate after a good few years on the road.
The skimpy theme is carried on up at the top bow, where a very basic stay supports the bow. This area in particular suffers a lot of stress - and most modern horns have very substantial bracing here...and for very good reasons.

There are few concessions to convenience too (for the repairer, at least), there's no detachable bell or top bow, so any significant body work would required de-soldering of at least one joint - which would pretty much do for the finish in that area. That would be a shame too, because the finish is very good. This horn is at least 30 years old and there's barely a mark on the lacquer, even though a few small dents and nicks indicate a healthy amount of use.

The large protrusion sticking out of the bottom bow is an unusual feature - but quite a sensible one perhaps. It's a threaded tube, and it's designed to take a spike that acts as a rest. It's of limited use to the standing player, but could be quite handy for the seated player, allowing almost all of the not inconsiderable weight of this horn to rest on the spike. The only drawback is that having a spike fitted to the bottom of a large and heavy instrument often compounds the difficulty in hefting the thing about - but at least it give you something to 'accidentally' drop onto the trombonist's toes!

I noted a ring fitted to the inside of the top B tone hole. The fitment of rings is done to correct tuning anomalies. In this case the ring ran round the entire tone hole, which would suggest that the C and C# were too sharp. It looked like a very neat job, so it's either the work of a decent repairer, or it's a factory fitment. Seems to work, as I noted no significant problem with the tuning.
All in all though I was quite pleased with the quality of the bodywork (if less so some aspects of the design), it seems to bridge the gap between vintage and modern design quite nicely.

It's in the action where things start to go very badly wrong for the Buffet S1 baritone.
From a very simplified perspective a good horn is a partnership between a good body and well designed action. The Buffet easily clears the finish line with its body, but falls ignobly at the first fence when it comes to the keywork.

It's generally accepted that Buffet keywork is quirky - I've commented in other Buffet sax reviews on their preoccupation with over-engineering what ought to be a very simple concept, and the S1 bari is no exception.
I want to say here and now that the action is a right pig to remove and reassemble. Naturally this won't be of much concern to you, the player, but I just wanted you to know how much of a hassle it is to do even the simplest job on the action. If there are any repairers reading - bump up your repair quote by the price of a decent'll need something to cheer you up after you've gone a few rounds with this horn.

Buffet S1 low C spatsWhat has to be borne in mind is that bari sax keys are large - and large means heavy. From an engineering perspective the word 'heavy' leads an efficient mind to start thinking of levers and suchlike, but the payoff for using levers is a loss of speed and feel. There's also a need to be scrupulously careful when it comes to mechanisms that involve the use of more than one lever, and it's here where the S1 falls down on its collective backside.
The low C/Eb mechanism doesn't fare too badly, the simple double lever mechanism feels perhaps a little strange to someone accustomed to a single key affair, but it seems to work quite well - though the low C has a little less snap than usual.
The touchpiece arms feature an adjustable pin that allows you to vary the height of the touchpieces. It's quite a good idea, but it's very hard to set the low Eb touchpiece up so that there's no play between the pin and the Eb key. It's a small issue, but a little knock every time you go for a low Eb will soon get on your nerves.

Buffet S1 low A mechOnce you hit the bell keys though the struggle for an efficient action becomes not so much a minor skirmish but a fully fledged battle.
To be fair, the low B and Bb don't do so badly. The complicated tilting spatulas (also known as the 'pinky keys') take some of the snap out of the action here, and there's a sense that things aren't quite as precise as they could be - but when the low A key comes into play it's as though the dogs of war have been let loose, and no-one's fed them for at least a week.
Modern baris rely on an admittedly ungainly arrangement of long arms that touch down upon other long, ungainly arms - but this simplicity gives the player a lot of leverage to work with, and it provides a direct link to the action. The Buffet does away with this and instead uses a single, small key to transfer power between the low A and the B/Bb keys (shown above right). This is coupled to an equally small operating lever. What this adds up to is a low A mech that requires a thumb with the sort of clout you might expect from the Incredible Hulk (and after you've pressed the low A thumb key a couple of time you might find yourself going slightly green anyway).

It's just possible to make the action work, and you have two choices. You can set the springing very light, but this means that the keys aren't able to hold themselves up against their own weight, so you have to lean one way to get a low B or Bb, and lean the other way to get a low A - or you can set the springs harder and live with having a left hand thumb that may soon resemble Popeye's arm.
Things aren't so bad if you're not so demanding as to need a low A straight off the thumb key - by pressing the low Bb spatula down as well as the low A thumb key you can make the action feel quite usable...but whether you have the luxury of doing so depends on the passage of music you're trying to play.
I don't even want to tell you what happens when you have to jump from low C# to low A...I'm still too fragile to talk about it.
For those of you who own these baris, check those pins on the bell key mechanism (they look like rollers but they don't in fact roll) - they're inclined to work loose after a while, and although its unlikely that they'll fall off you might find that the action suffers even more if they're able to wobble about.

Having torn the bell key action off a strip I suppose I might as well add that the main stack keys seem rather soft. I noted that the top B touchpiece was rather low - so low in fact that there was no way of reaching the Bis Bb touchpiece. Naturally, I adjusted this, but I found over the course of playing that the B touchpiece dropped slightly. This isn't good, and having a similar softness to the rest of the stack keys means that keeping the action accurately regulated might be something of an issue. It's a bari though, and you can get away with a bit of vagueness to some degree.

Buffet S1 top bowOne interesting feature is a double body octave key vent. Double vents are seen on some modern baris, and the intention is to clean up the change between the notes on the body vents and those on the crook vent. It seems to work - I was impressed with the smoothness and evenness of tone over the break in the upper octave. Note the lack of bracing on the top bow section, as mentioned earlier.

When it comes to hefting the horn the first thing that strikes you is the rather odd position the bari hangs at. The crook angle is quite high, which means the bari swings quite low. I suppose it's handy for being able to peer over the top bow to see your music, but it takes some getting used to. When the horn came in for a service , the crook was bent down - and apparently it had always been that way, so perhaps a previous owner also found the bari hung a little too low and decided to 'adjust' it by bending the crook down? After playing it for an hour or so I could quite understand why such a drastic modification might have been made.

Buffet S1 thumb restAnother feature that sticks out is the swivelling thumb rest. I've seen this on Buffet altos and tenors, and it hasn't caused me much reason to comment on it - but on the bari I'm not so sure that it works all that well. There's a lot of metal to be supported, and what with the extra grunt you need for handling the tortuous low A mechanism, the last thing you need is your thumb sliding about all over the place. It won't lock either, so no matter how hard you do up the pivot screw, the rest will still swivel.

I can't in all honestly describe the action as swift. It's adequate, playable - but the soft key arms seem quite spongy, and some of the less intrusive keywork gimmicks (the side F# key, for example) take the edge off that sought-after snappiness.
One or two things work, and work well - the side Bb/C mechs, the octave key mech - but even these can't redress the balance.

And so to the blowing.
I tried to think of a suitable, pertinent description for how this horn plays, and the best I could come up with was that it's a 'Disney' horn. You all know the score...ugly duckling makes good, little boy with a club foot and a squint wins the 400 metres sprint, sour old drunkard turns out to be an angel in disguise etc. etc. - and so it is with this bari.
In spite of the iffy action, in spite of the cumbersome playing position, it blows beautifully.
It has bags of attack and precision to the notes, and yet it's not brash or harsh. It's also very flexible - it'll coast along very nicely with a medium/warm mouthpiece, with plenty of depth tinged with just the right amount of sparkle, and yet it'll kick off with a more raucous mouthpiece and still retain a sense of accuracy.
As mentioned earlier, the lower part of the upper register seems very clear - very likely due to the double octave key vents, and this clarity continues right the way up to the top. It goes down too...all the way to the bottom - and the low A (when you can get it!) pumps out a real treat. With a medium bright piece on it, the low A really 'slaps' out - and with a more reserved mouthpiece it simply slides out nice and easy.
Tonewise it's a horn that can cross all'll lay back for classical pieces, it'll sing for the jazzer, and it'll bang heads together for the R'nBer.
High praise indeed - but the truly awful bell key mech badly lets it down. I haven't played one without the B tone hole modification, so it might be worth checking the tuning very carefully around this area should you ever find yourself tempted by one of these horns.
If you could buy one at the right price, and were prepared to spend good money having the action modified (and it wouldn't be cheap), you'd end up with a very nice, very flexible baritone - but the total cost would put you right into the same league as some equally competent modern baris...and that's some very tough competition.

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