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Selmer MkVI sopranino

Origin: FranceSelmer MkVI sopranino saxophone
Guide price: £3000+
Weight: 0.77kg
Date of manufacture: 1954 - 1985 (example reviewed -1973; serial range: 214xxx)
Date reviewed: July 2015

The smallest sax from the biggest name

They say that good things come in small packages, and if you like your notes on the high side the sopranino sax is just about as small as it gets.
But they also say that the sopranino is 'The forgotten saxophone', and there's probably a very good reason why this is so...and it's this: what d'you do with the thing?
Let's face it, the soprano has a hard enough time competing on a tonal level with the alto and tenor - and the sopranino, being that much higher, has an even tougher job of it. So it's strictly what you'd call a 'niche instrument'. The repertoire is limited, but even in a general context it's quite hard to place the 'nino in a set without drawing a few strange looks...and even one or two laughs. I mean, when was the last time you bought an album called "Romantic sopranino" or West Coast 'nino" - and when sax players the world over gather together to talk in hushed tones of the great legends of jazz, how many of them would have gleaned their formidable reputation by playing on a 'nino. Not that many.
But if playing such a thing is your forte (or even your desire) then it pays to get the best that you can afford - because while you can get away with a cheap old bass or a shonky baritone, a cheap sopranino is a rather different kettle of fish.

Fortunately you're not exactly spoilt for choice - so you won't have to deal with quite as much angst and soul-searching as someone looking to buy a decent alto. With barely half a dozen contenders in the ring it really isn't going to take you very long to whittle the choices down - and chances are you'll end up with this one at the top of your list.
It's a Selmer MKVI - and for very many years this was about all the choice there was, unless you went for an earlier Selmer or a vintage American marque. For a saxophone manufacturer that's not a bad place to be in - number one in a field of one - but with the arrival of the first Yanagisawa 'nino in 1972, all that changed...

For altos and tenors the MkVI run ended in 1974, but MKVI basses, baritones, sopranos and sopraninos continued to be produced for just over another decade, with the sopranino being the last model to be made. I doubt that Selmer weren't able to make newer models, rather it was a simple matter of economics - there's wasn't anything really wrong with the saxes, they just didn't sell enough of them to make it worth their while to design a new range for these esoteric instruments. But time and competition caught up with them, and by 1985 all their horns were being made under the SA80 series banner.

One thing's for sure, though, ounce for ounce the sopranino is one of the most expensive horns you can buy, and when you're forking out that much cash for a horn that's probably not going to see a huge amount of use, it's as well to know exactly what you're getting for your hard-earned dosh. So let's take it apart...

The body is of ribbed construction, at least for the main stacks. The remaining pillars are either fitted in pairs or triplets to mini ribs, and there are just two standalone pillars - all neatly soldered to the body. The toneholes are drawn, save for the Auxiliary B, top D and top E, which are silver-soldered. This is a common practice for such small toneholes, probably because it's rather difficult to draw them accurately, or because the drawing process creates a proportionally large curve in the bore at the base of the holes.
Whatever the reason it's nothing to be concerned about, and because the toneholes are silver-soldered they won't suffer from the potential problem of selective galvanic corrosion.
As for other body features you get a non-adjustable brass thumb hook and a lyre holder. And that's your lot - there simply isn't room for much else - but what there is is well made and well fitted, and nicely finished too.

Selmer MkVI sopranino palm keysThe keywork is equally as spartan, as demonstrated by this gotcha that might catch the unwary out - this horn only goes up to top Eb.
This wasn't uncommon on horns (of all sizes) built in the early years of the 20th century, but while the larger ones soon gain a top F, and later a top F#, it took a little longer for the sopranino to catch up. It's highly likely that the reason for this was the difficulty in adding that extra note - not so much from keywork side of things but more from the perspective of tuning. A slight mistake with tonehole sizing and positioning further down the horn might not make that much of a difference - but at the top end of a 'nino every fraction of an inch counts. Selmer eventually got their act together, and later models went all the way up to top F# - though for many players (and listeners), top Eb is plenty high enough.

Note that the key cups on the palms keys aren't completely round. There's so little space between the tone holes that there simply isn't room for the key cups.
There are a few ways around this; you can offset the toneholes (as seen on larger horns), you can make the key cups smaller or you can slice a bit off the side of the cups.
Offsetting the holes is the preferred option, though sometimes it's just not practical - and making the key cups smaller means having to fit a smaller pad...and that can lead to an unreliable seal. So the flat-sided key cup wins.
If the cups have been made properly, the cup itself will still be round - and all that's lost is a little metal off the sidewall. No big deal for a cup this size. If corners have been cut, the key cups may have been pressed...which distorts the cup, and thus the pad. Again, not such a big deal provided due care is taken when selecting and fitting a pad.
You might also note that the Aux.B key cup is also flattened.

Selmer MkVI sopranino octave mechThe octave key mech is built around the ubiquitous Selmer swivel or see-saw bar. It's a nice enough design and generally works very well. However, it's a little prone to wear in the swivel - both at the ends and in the central pivot. It's not such a big deal on larger horns - it just makes the mech a little imprecise in feel - but on a small horn with very little key travel, a spot of wear can make a big difference. It's not a huge problem as it's relatively easy to service and restore the mech, but it's as well to be aware of the potential problem.

The touchpiece is wonderful example of blending art with engineering; not only is it elegant and tactile, it's also highly functional. But it needs to be, because the thumb rest is rather small and mean. Sure, it comes with a domed mother-of-pearl touch, and you could argue that the lightness of the horn doesn't demand anything beefier, but I found it rather uncomfortable after a while. I have big thumbs though, which probably doesn't help matters.

An additional feature is the link from the touchpiece to the Auxiliary B key on the top stack. When the octave key is pressed, the link closes the Aux.B key cup.
The only note this affects is the top C#, and it helps to rein in the tendency of this note to play a little sharp.

Selmer MkVI sopranino spatula keysThe bell key layout is pretty simple, and very much a throwback to the kind of bell key tables found on older horns.
If this was an alto or a tenor I'd probably have a good whinge about it, but on a horn this small it actually works quite well. The keys are light, and it's not like you have to stretch your fingers to reach them. The G# touchpiece is a decent size too.
Note the lack of adjusters on the G#/Bis Bb bar that extends off the Aux. F key cup.

And speaking of which, another old-fashioned feature is the design of the Aux.F key itself. This key has two barrels - inbetween which sit the F and E keys. Wear in the action eventually leads to play between the rod screw and the barrels, and this is usually remedied by a process called swedging...whereby the key barrels are carefully compressed. It's a technique that works very well, provided you can get a swedging tool onto the barrel (it's sometimes the case that key arms attached to the barrel make it impossible to do so) - and provided there's actually any barrel at all.
Selmer MkVI sopranino Aux.F keyAs you can see here, the lower or secondary barrel has no 'meat' on it at all, being little more than a hole drilled through the key arm. This isn't ideal as it makes it harder to take up any wear in the key because there's nothing to swedge, and you either have to resort to 'bodge' techniques like deforming the hole - or opt for more intensive surgery by either filleting the hole and reaming a new one, or fitting an oversized rod screw. I tend to prefer the latter method, because by the time that secondary barrel is worn, so will be the rest of the action...and a new rod will sort it all out in one go.
Either way, wear in the action on a horn this small will need sorting sooner rather than later, because the smaller the instrument, the less tolerant it is of leaks...and a worn action is always a leaky one.
To be fair, such design compromises are inevitable on a 'nino simply because there's so little room to cram all the keywork into.

There are no adjusters on the action, save for a moveable stub on the Aux.B to octave mech link.
I'm a big fan of adjusters - the more the merrier - and the smaller the instrument, the more useful they become. A very slight leak due to misregulation on a larger horn will knock a few percent off a horn's tone and playability, but it's unlikely to be much worse than that. The same sized leak on a smaller horn will have a much more dramatic effect, so it certainly pays to keep them in good balance. This is where adjusters are a boon - very slight tweaks can be made on the fly and it's easy (for a repairer, at least) to dial in compensation when pads settle or the action wears a bit. You could, of course, change the pads and tighten the action - but out in the real world most musicians are working on a pretty tight budget.
Selmer MkVI sopranino top stackSo without any provision for such adjustments it's all down to fiddling about with tiny bits of cork and felt...which, frankly, is a pain in the arse. And it's not as if I can claim that the size of the keywork precludes such luxuries, as they're entirely common on many smaller instruments (flutes, pics, oboes etc.).

Other than that you get a set of proper mother-of-pearl touches (no dome on the Bis Bb, though on a horn this small it's not such an issue), proper point screws and an action powered by good quality blued steel springs. The original case isn't much to write home about, and the best that can be said for it is that it's a box to keep the horn in.

In the hands the horns feels (obviously) light. And so too does the action - as well it ought to be. I often find that repairers can be rather optimistic when it comes to setting the spring strength on such small horns, and there's a tendency to go too light. While this works on, say, a clarinet or a flute, it doesn't work quite so well on a small saxophone simply because the pads are more likely to stick and the keys are rather heavier than the length of the horn would suggest. So I like to set the action proportionally harder, which gives it a nice responsive feel and a good turn of speed.
In terms of finger position I doubt anyone will have any issues, bar the placement of the palm keys. Not that they're in the wrong place - they're absolutely fine, but there'll always be someone for whom these keys feel awkward.

Selmer MkVI sopranino - nakedThe playtest proved to be...entertaining.
The hardest part was getting the thing in tune. On, say, an alto, you know that you can bend a note relatively easily. More often than not this is done for effect (glissandos, sliding up to and dropping off from notes) - but beginners will often struggle to maintain pitch in their early days as their embouchure forms. It's a universal constant that the smaller the sax, the more effort it takes to 'nail' the pitch for each and every note.
So by the time you get to the soprano you really have to have your chops sorted. The 'nino, however, is a whole new can of worms...with a double helping of worms and an extra large can.
On most horns you can easily bend a note a semitone either way - no problem - but on the 'nino it's a tone. A whole tone...and you don't even have to think about it - and if you're not thinking about it, the tuning will get bored with the lack of attention and wander off to do its own thing. It's not too bad from middle G downwards, but once you go up from there you really have to work to find the centre of each note.
That said, I can't say I noticed any particularly iffy notes.

Having got my chops in, I set to exploring the tonal qualities of the horn - but straightaway noticed an annoying buzz around the top B/C. A leak, maybe? An acoustic anomaly? How about that old gotcha - a loose ligature screw? Nope, none of those. It turned out to be a loose lyre screw, which was a bit of a surprise given that it's way down by the low C key.
Tonewise the Selmer does a good job of taming the inevitable shrillness of such a high-pitched instrument, and even manages to retain a bit of warmth down the lower end. In fact it put me in mind of, of all things, the difference between a vintage bass and a modern one. Vintage basses have a rich, deep basso - modern basses are more like 'uber-baritones'...they certainly hit the low notes, but the breadth of tone is reduced. Similarly, modern 'ninos seem to focus on precision of tuning and purity of tone rather than the breadth of it - but the MKVI bridges that gap between the vintage and modern approach.
At least in the low to mid range, because by the time you get to top G the going gets a bit trickier and all bets are off, but rather than descend into piercing brittleness, the Selmer manages to keep things nice and clean. Perhaps its best feature is that it manages to resist sounding like a squashed duck...which is often the fate of many a lesser 'nino.

And that's about as credible, realistically, as a tonal critique of a 'nino can be - simply because at this end of the pitch scale it really comes down to the choice of mouthpiece and the skill of the player. Get it right and you'll get a good tone - but get it wrong and another duck dies...

As far as sopraninos go (and they don't go very far), the Selmer is right up there with the rest of the good ones...though it has to be said that you count them all on the fingers of one hand.
The most obvious competitor is the Yanagisawa, but Rampone make a number of 'ninos and even Mauriat have had a crack - and, of course, there's the current Selmer SA80 model. The big decision is whether you hang around for a Selmer MkVI to come up for sale, or just go buy a new horn off the shelf.
There's a lot to be said for the modern option; horns of this size are fiendishly difficult to make with precision, and manufacturing technology has come quite a way since the early 1970s. Availability is another concern...there just aren't that many vintage Selmer 'ninos around.
There's also the option of going even more vintage (Conn, Buescher etc.) if you're feeling brave enough - and if you're feeling especially courageous there's always the option of a curved sopranino...
Just remember the duck...OK?

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