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Buffet Super Dynaction soprano sax reviewBuffet Super Dynaction soprano

Origin: France
Guide price: £1500+?
Weight: 1.32kg
Date of manufacture: Early '70s? (serial range: 19-4xx)
Date reviewed: December 2022

A rare thing

I've always had something of a love/hate relationship with Buffet horns. In general I love the build quality and attention to detail and, to some extent, the often quirky nature of the design - but I've never really been all that enamoured with the way they play. Hate is perhaps the wrong word - it's just that they don't play the way that floats my boat. Sure, plenty of other horns don't do that either (even Selmers) - but Buffets have always seemed to me to be rather too reserved. That doesn't mean they're not good just means they're no good for me. They clearly have their fans, though - who are usually quick to point out that Buffets were supposed to compete with Selmers - and were accordingly priced. However, Buffet never really achieved mass appeal with their saxes - which makes them a reasonably uncommon visitor to the workbench.
And even more so in the case of this particular horn. I really don't believe I've ever seen one before - or at least if I have, I've long since forgotten about it.

I shan't go into the history of the model - I've touched upon in it other reviews and for those who are really into that sort of thing, there's a wealth of info out there already.
However, the soprano is a difficult horn to make...and even harder to make well - and while the necessary compromises a manufacturer might make on an alto or tenor aren't usually disastrous, the soprano can be punishing in the way that it displays them. And this horn was made in the period when manufacturers were just beginning to get to grips with the intricacies of this particular member of the saxophone family.
So when a client brought this horn in I approached it with a mix of anticipation and dread. Yes, I was very keen to poke around in the action and see how the thing was put together - but at the back of my mind was this terrible feeling that when I came to blow the thing it would do the usual Buffet thing and refuse to put out for me. And being a soprano that could potentially mean a very dissatisfying experience.
We'll find out later how it fared - but for now let's get on with the nuts 'n bolts...

Buffet SDA soprano toneholesThe construction is fully ribbed with just a handful of standalone pillars down at the bottom end of the horn. The toneholes are all plain drawn up to the top B, and thereafter are silver-soldered to the body.
This is fairly standard practice on sopranos, even these days, probably because of the technical difficulties of drawing such small holes out of the body. Some manufacturers manage to do it well (and some don't) but there's certainly no shame nor disadvantage to silver-soldering them on (as opposed to soft soldering, which would eventually be a bit of a liability).
And just look at that angled top D tonehole. Isn't that just sweet??
I can't really comment as to the flatness of the toneholes as it was clear that most of them had been worked on over the years - but from that I think it's reasonable to assume that they needed some work.

As per most other sopranos, body features are a bit slim on the ground. You get a static metal thumb hook, a small pearled thumb rest...and a lyre holder. That's your lot. There's no sling ring fitted.
The diameter of the bell caught my eye - it seemed rather small. It measures out at around 80mm in diameter, which is slightly less than standard these days. That said, it somehow seems the fit the look of the horn.
The client did mention that it doesn't fit a standard sopano stand - it gets stuck on it - which means the bore (at the bell at least) is a bit narrower than on more modern sopranos.

The general build quality of the body is quite good - for the most part it's all very neat and tidy, but I did spot a couple of areas where the solderwork was a touch below par.
Here's the side key pillar plate complete with quite a bit of solder overspill. And if you take a peek down at the bottom right you can see another bit of (slightly less) sloppy soldering on the G# lever key plate.

Buffet SDA soprano solderworkIt's no big deal as such, it's just that it's surprising to see it on what's otherwise a nicely crafted horn - and a bit disappointing that someone didn't spend a bit more time cleaning up the solderwork before the lacquer was applied. On the plus side I suppose it means that you can be sure these plates are well and truly soldered to the body...

The horn is finished in a coat of dark gold laquer which seems to have survived the years very well indeed, and there's some rather tasteful engraving to finish it off.

On to the keywork now, and the first point of interest is the layout of the top stack.
It's a split stack - with the Bis Bb and G keys being mounted separately from the rest of the stack. Nothing unusual in that - except for the way in which they're arranged.

Buffet SDA soprano top stackOn most sopranos with a split top stack the Bis Bb is mounted either above the stack or behind it - but on the Buffet it sits in front of it. It doesn't really make any difference where it's mounted, but with the G key sitting over the top and very little room at the rear of the stack I would guess that Buffet felt this was about the only place they could put the Bb without ending up with a rather high G key. Makes sense.

See that curved arm that reaches round under the Bis Bb pearl? Let's talk about that for a moment...

There are no adjusters on this horn - not one - so all the regulation has to be done with buffers, be they cork, felt or whatever. It's a bit of a pain from my perspective - but especially so on a soprano, and particularly when it comes to the top stack. The smaller the horn, the less you can get away with - and on the top stack of a soprano the very slightest amount of misregulation will punish the tone and playability of the horn to a very noticeable degree.
Buffet SDA soprano Aux.B keyTrouble is, there's that fiddly Auxiliary B key to deal with - and the arm that extends off it. It's often rather weedy, and prone to flexing - which makes regulating it a real chore if you haven't got any adjustment screws to play with. But I'm delighted to report that the arm on the Buffet is about as meaty as I've ever seen on a soprano. Just look at it - it's almost the same diameter as the key barrels. That ain't gonna flex in a hurry.
What that means is that you can be reasonably certain that once you've set up the regulation for this key stack, it's going to stay that way (provided you've used the right materials). It's still a bit of a pain to set up though because there's precious little space.

If you look closely you can just see the wear mark where the top B regulates over the arm (about dead centre of it). Once the B key is on there's only just about enough room to slide in a piece of very fine emery paper and set the regulation. But make one mistake and overcut it and you've got to pull the whole stack apart and replace the buffer. It's a bit of a drag, so it really pays to go very carefully indeed.
Incidentally, note the springs. Gold plated steel. That's a nice touch - they look swish and they're less likely to go rusty...though the chances of finding anyone who's got any matching replacements in stock when one breaks are quite slim these days. I have a few in stock, but only for clarinets - but you could always fit a phosphor bronze spring if you wanted to preserve some of the looks of the horn.

Buffet SDA soprano palm keysThere's a slightly unusual layout on the palm keys too, with the D and top F keys being mounted on a single rod screw.
It's not a great arrangement. For a start the extra length of the rod screw means that it can flex. It's probably not going to be all that noticeable when playing the horn, but it's still there - and it takes just a tiny bit of solidity away.
More importantly, though, it means that there's a lot less workable barrel space on the D key due to the angle at which the key arm sits on the barrel. This will have an impact on just how much you can swedge the key barrel when the action wears. And wear it will. The palm keys tend to take a proper pounding down the years and need tightening up far more frequently than any of the other keys. With the way the key is designed you can only get your swedging tooling over the last third or so of the long portion of the barrel - which leaves wear in the remainder...and that means the key will always tend to wobble. The only way to fix this is to ream out the keys and fit an oversized rod screw. Not a problem - just something to take note of.
When it comes to taking up wear on the keys that are mounted on point screws I'm happy to report that there'll be no problems - the Buffet is fitted with proper point screws.
As for that part that's ringed...well...

The octave mech is a bit...strange. In terms of functionality it's just fine - quite good, even - but it just looks a bit over-complicated...and on a small horn like this it seems to me to be a bit bulky, and I don't think I'd be able to describe it as being elegant.
The profiled thumb key is a nice touch (excuse the pun) but the small thumb rest isn't really that comfortable. Remember, this horn doesn't have a sling ring so you'll be relying on your thumbs to carry all the weight. And there's another little problem.
Buffet SDA soprano octave mechThere's a key stop pillar under the touchpiece, as ringed in the above shot. This is a nice detail - it saves having to put a dirty great lump of cork or felt under the touchpiece to regulate the throw (the distance a key moves up and down) of the key. However, the pillar is rather high - and even with minimal buffering you really only have a few millimetres of you can probably see.
Nothing wrong with that, per se - but during the playtesting I found that my thumb kept nudging the touchpiece. It's quite a sensitive mech, so the slightest touch will crack open one or other of the octave key pads...and in the wrong place that will cause your note to fail.

The common solution to that problem is to adjust the angle of the touchpiece so that it dips down towards the thumb rest - it gives the thumb a bit more room but still leaves the key within easy reach. But you can't angle the touchpiece down because there's simply no spare room between the touch and the key stop. You'd either have to file the stop down a bit or file the leading edge of the touchpiece.
For sure, you can get used to the placement of the key - but even after quite a few hours of putting this horn through its paces I still found myself fumbling a note occasionally. If you have smaller thumbs than I do it may well not be an issue.

Most of the keys feature captive spring cradles. What this means is that instead of a key having a small stub on which the tip of the spring locates or a slot cut into a key arm, there's a hole drilled through the key arm. It used to be quite common back in the vintage days but it's not a system that's used much (if at all) these days. I've never really understood why anyone ever thought it was a good idea - but I suppose if there are any advantages to it it'll be down to reduced costs in manufacturing and a way of ensuring that a spring can't slip off its cradle. The former makes sense, the latter's a bit suspect because a properly set spring will never jump off its cradle (though I suppose it could be knocked off during clumsy cleaning).
And there a couple of major drawbacks. The most annoying one, for me at least, is that it's easy to forget that captive springs are in use - and when reassembling a horn you sometime find that you have to dismantle a whole key group because you forgot to fit the keys to their springs before assembling the group. Always a bloody nuisance.

Buffet SDA soprano captive G# springThe other drawback is a lot more pesky - because there's no way to adjust the tension of a spring unless you remove the key. Not such a big deal if you were wanting to tweak a standalone key - but what happens when you want to tweak one of the stack keys?
Take the G# key cup on this soprano. This spring gets tweaked more than any other on a horn. It gets a lot of use, and over time it can lose some of its oomph...and will need re-tensioning It's also the case that when setting up a horn you want to be able to adjust the springs for the very best feel...and that takes a bit of playtesting and trial and error. Easy-peasy on most horns - you just dive in with your springhook, tweak the springs and then playtest the horn. Rinse and repeat, as the saying goes.
On the Buffet you have to do the following for the G#:

Remove the low C# lever. Once this is off you can then remove the G# lever key (the bit you press to open the G#). Now you have to remove the top F key - because the lower stack rod will foul on it when you come to remove it. Finally, you have to remove the lower stack rod - which allows you to take the G# cup key off. It's still a fiddly operation, and you may even have to remove the low B and Bb keys too - because, as you can see, there's not a lot of wiggle room in there.
So now you can adjust the tension of the G# spring. Then you have to reassemble the horn. If you're very lucky the spring tension will now be exactly as you want or need it to be. But if it isn't you'll have to take all those keys off again. At this point it's tempting to just leave the damn thing alone - but if it's not right, it's not right. If this were my horn I'd cut a slot in the key arm (arrowed) that meets the hole so that the spring can be adjusted without having to dismantle half the horn.
My feeling is that the inclusion of captive springs is a bit of a design flaw - a decision made which takes no account of how the action is going to be maintained and tweaked. It that respect it echoes the design of the octave key with its lack of easy adjustability.

Another design flaw that you may have noticed in the header shot is that this horn is equipped with a top F# key. Very nice - but that's not the flaw - rather it's that there's no front top F key. It's not like this key would have been at all unusual at the time this horn was built, and if you're going to go to all the trouble of bunging on a top F# key, why wouldn't you throw in a front top F key? I really can't work it out. There's a handy bit of space between the Aux.B and top E toneholes, so it wouldn't be too difficult to have a simple key made up and fitted.

Buffet SDA soprano bell key tableThe bell key table is simple - no fancy tilting mechanism on the low Bb - but quite nimble. No complaints there.
Something that caught my eye was the fit of the rollers. Absolutely perfect - as was the fit on the low C/Eb touchpieces. It's a small thing, but it points towards some attention to detail...which is always encouraging.
If you're wondering why the G# lever is a different colour it's because the key arm had to be resoldered to the barrel. As it's silver-soldered it meant getting the key up to red heat - which destoys the lacquer. But the job had already been done before - evidently poorly because it had failed again. I only mention it because a similar repair had been done on one of the bell keys. It's really not that common to see key arms breaking away from the barrels - and if you see it at all it's generally just the one key. But two on a horn? That suggests that there might be a problem with the way the keys are assembled. Or it might just be bad luck and a one off.
I'd like to say that I'll keep my eye open for it on other examples - but as SDA sopranos are very few and far between it might be quite some time before I see another one...

The only other points worth mentioning are that the stack keys are fitted with slightly concave proper mother of pearl touches with a round touch on the side/chromatic F# - and that the side Bb and C keys are of the single-piece type, which is standard on a soprano. I should also mention that the keys are quite stiff, which means the horn will stand up well to the rigours of life on the gig circuit.

In the hands the Buffet feels nice and solid - and quite comfortable. The toneholes being in a straight line down the body rather than being offset might catch a few people out, but I didn't mind it at all...and it's probably not such a big deal on something the size of a soprano.
The action is very nice indeed. Buffet have clearly put some thought into the spring geometry, which means this horn can tolerate an impressively light action - and from looking at the diameter of the springs I'd even go so far as to suggest that it came out of the factory with a light action.
I had no problems at whizzing around the keys (the niggle with the thumb key notwithstanding) though having to use the 'old school' fingering for the top F# was a bit of a chore.

Buffet SDA soprano bellBut never mind all that - how does it play?
Oooh, it plays very well indeed. At the top of the review I mentioned how other Buffet horns I've played have always seemed to me to lack a bit of oomph. Indeed, I discussed this with the client who brought this horn in.
I don't generally disclose names of my professional clients but I think it's safe to say that he's very much no slouch - and equally very much a rising star in the jazz world. In short, he knows what he likes and he really knows how to play what he likes.
We exchanged a bit of banter about the horn ("A Buffet? Well I suppose someone has to have one...ho ho ho") and I was genuinely surprised at his description of its presentation. And it wasn't until I got my greasy mitts on the horn that I discovered he had a point. A big point.

Tonewise this horn sits in a category all of its own. It doesn't have the fatness of an old Selmer or the lushness of a Conn or a Martin. Neither does it have the cut of a Yamaha or the authority of a Yanagisawa. What it does have is an extremely beguiling balance of all of those qualities. And that's coming from someone who doesn't even like sopranos!
It's an incredibly engaging horn, and one that feels like it can excel at anything - and yet whether you play it hard or soft really doesn't hangs on to it's balanced tone. And best of all, it doesn't do that Buffet things of giving up the ghost when you really push it. It just stays right with you. It's also remarkably even-toned throughout its range. It's no wonder the client really loves this horn, it really is a fascinating bit of kit.

As to the tuning...
Well, I gave this horn a damn good blow long before I sat down and did a bit of research on it - and I was surprised to see that it has something of a reputation as a bit of a monster in this respect. Well - news to me.
Sure, it's a vintage horn - or at least quite an old one - and older sopranos need a firm hand (or at least a firm embouchure). Yes, you do have to steer it - but I didn't find myself having to twist my chops into contortions to get the notes where I wanted them.
OK, that might just be me - or it might just be my mouthpiece (HR Link 7) - but either way I didn't find any real issues to comment on. I'll happily admit that I was surprised by this - and at the time of writing I still have a few more days to play around with it. If I can find any shockers, I'll let you know...but don't wait up.
I did, however, notice that the key heights were fairly critical - so some time spent playing and adjusting will pay big dividends.

So there you have it - the Buffet Super Dynaction soprano. I really enjoyed the time I spent with this horn and I was honestly sad to see it go out of the workshop.
Bottom line for me? It's well worth a punt can find one.

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