New Toy – 1919 Conn Victor 80A

February 5, 2015

I’ve been raving about the characteristics of the early-20th century Conn cornets ever since I got my 1917 New Wonder ‘Vocal’, and I’ve especially been impressed by the big-bore 80A Victors since I purchased my 1926 a few months ago. However, my 1926 did not have the accessories that originally came with these instruments – specifically it is missing the extra tuning slides that change the horn from the modern frequency of A=440 to the older ‘high-pitch’ frequency of A=452. If you are interested in learning more about ‘high-pitch’ versus ‘low-pitch’, you can see the relevant Wikipedia article on concert pitch or consult a reference such as the authoritative New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

I have been looking for a horn that does have all the original accessories and I recently ran across a near-pristine 1919 example in the very rare burnished gold plate finish with everything – the extra high-pitch tuning slides, the quick-change Bb-A mechanism, the original mute and the original Conn mouthpiece. The horn was being sold on Ebay by Wichita Band Instruments and while it was not cheap, I jumped at the chance to get one of these wonderful horns in such excellent condition (and with all the original accessories as well!) and the horn is now on the way. When I receive it, I will post a full review, but I’m really looking forward to playing this new horn. The 80As are wonderful instruments, but mine does have some wear on the first valve – it is making a clicking sound, which is somewhat worrying, though so far it does not affect the playability of the horn at all. Regardless, I am very pleased to have an opportunity to get one of these horns that is in near-mint condition. If this horn plays up to my expectations, I intend that it will quickly supplant the 1926 as my main instrument for those occasions when I play cornet.

Below are two pictures of the new horn in its case – note the elaborate engraving on the bell.
1919 Conn 80A Victor cornet in burnished gold plate
1919 Conn 80A Victor cornet in burnished gold plate


Wessex Tubas BBb Contrabass Trombone

December 20, 2014

Many low-brass musicians have a tendency to be collectors, and I am not an exception. Through the years, I’ve gathered quite a collection of instruments, and I now possess every model of trombone from soprano to bass. But I did not have a contrabass, so I set about looking for one. I’ve played both the Kanstul F and the Miraphone CC, but after my struggles with the Eb alto trombone, I preferred to stay with the BBb version, despite the many horror stories I had heard.

I spent some time looking around, and finally settled on a Chinese-built copy of the Miraphone BBb contrabone, manufactured by Jinbao for a company called Wessex Tubas. The price was reasonable and I finally broke down and ordered one in silver plate. It arrived a few months back and I have played it quite extensively. Here is my feedback.

Pros:

  • Sound: The horn has a very good sound, though it is neither quite trombone-like nor tuba-like. However, by varying the mouthpiece, it can produce a satisfactory trombone bark or a more mellow ‘tuba’ sound and it blends well with other low brass. So far, I’ve got about a two and a half octave range on the horn, which is better than I expected. A good professional would probably get more, but the working range of the horn is about three octaves, or so it seems. So I’m not too far off.
  • Quality: The build is very good – Chinese instruments have vastly improved in quality and although they are not equivalent to a professional US or European (or Japanese) instrument, they are infinitely better than what they are only a few years ago. This particular instrument is well-made and the silver plate looks to be thick and even. We’ll see how it ages, but the initial impression is good.
  • Price: Nothing else out there is anywhere near this price. These horns are going for around US $2500.00, and an instrument from Kanstul, Thein, or Miraphone is going to run you at least US $7500.00.
  • Versatility: This horn can take either a tuba or a bass trombone mouthpiece, by using an adapter that Wessex sells. My horn did not come with the adapter, but Wessex has promised to get me one. Once it arrives, I’ll try a few of my bass trombone mouthpieces and update this post. The main point of interest is how each mouthpiece affects the sound of the horn. It is very mouthpiece-dependent. Kind of like my Conn Victor 80A in that respect.

Cons:

  • Weight. This horn is very heavy and carrying it for a long period is very wearing on the arm and the hand. The balance is good, but the weight is something to take into account. If weight is a problem, then get the Kanstul F contra – it is noticeably lighter.
  • Tone: As previously noted, this horn is very mouthpiece-dependent for its sound. I have tried several different tuba mouthpieces, and the difference in sound is fascinating. I mainly use the one that came with it – a copy of the Miraphone contrabass mouthpiece. It gets a more trombone-like sound. When I want a more tuba-like sound, I put in the big Helleberg. But whichever mouthpiece you use, the horn does have a tendency to be somewhat foggy – you will need to work to produce a clear sound.
  • Slide action: This horn, like the Miraphone on which it is based, has a double slide. This means the action is Not Good. Period. Experience and practice will improve your results, but the slide is sluggish. Be prepared to anticipate and play on the leading edge of the note, so that you won’t drag.
  • Case: The horn comes with a hard case, which also is a copy of the Miraphone. While the case is acceptable, I recommend IMMEDIATELY getting a good leather gig bag – preferably the Glenn Cronkhite BBC. The hard case allows the horn to move around and mine already has two small dents – one of which was incurred in shipping. Miraphone cases have a reputation for allowing damage, and the Chinese copy is at least as prone to this as the original.

Overall Verdict:
I like this horn. Yes, it has its idiosyncrasies and yes, it is a demanding instrument – it is not an easy horn to play and you should not expect to pick it up and promptly start blowing Dorsey’s ‘Trombonology’! Contrabass trombones – especially the double-slide varieties – are somewhat unique instruments and they require a great deal of practice in order to master them.

Having said that, I’m glad I got it, and I’m enjoying getting acquainted with the instrument. And of course, my trombone collection is now essentially complete! To close, if you’re a trombonist looking to get into playing the contrabass, this is a very good place to start. The price is unbeatable and the quality is definitely good enough for a casual contrabass player. I know a few pros who play this instrument as well and who like it.

As a final note, Wessex also sells a slightly more expensive F contrabass, which is copied from the Thein ‘van Dijk’ model.


Tools of the Trade

August 1, 2008

Tools of the Trade
I currently use the following tools in my recording efforts:

  • 2008 15.4″ Apple MacBook Pro, with 4GB of memory and a 2.5 GHz  Core 2 Duo Intel chip.
  • iLife 09 GarageBand. I have considered upgrading to Logic Studio, but have not yet made the jump. I expect to do that shortly and will report here on any issues I encounter.
  • Logic Studio 9.2 I upgrade to Logic Studio a year or two back. So far I have been very pleased, although the learning curve is steep. The mixer in particular has completely replaced the Firewire mixer as the software mixer dow a better job of levels than does the hardware. However, I am still learning the nuances of the tool – there is a lot I have to learn!
  • Alesis MultiMix 8 Firewire. I recently purchased this little mixer in order to better record both my over-dubbed productions and to record my band when necessary. I like what I have seen so far- especially vis-a-vis the pre-amps. I will be reporting on this device as I use it more.
  • m-Audio Ozone MIDI controller. I observe from m-Audio’s web site that they appear to have discontinued this piece of equipment, which I consider to be a shame. While the Ozone does have some drawbacks, which I shall cover in a future post, i have found it to be a solid machine that does most of what i need from it.
  • Audio-Technica ATM 350. This is a top of the line professional performance microphone and it has proven to be an excellent addition to my toolchest. Much of the recording done thus far was recorded with this little clip-on, and I can say that I have been very happy with the results.
  • Shure SM-57: I purchased this microphone in order to better record both my vocals and my instruments, without the necessity of changing my clip-on mic from one instrument to another. I have been very pleased with this microphone. The Shure SM-57s have a well-deserved reputation for quality and I have not been disappointed. I shall be adding a SM-58 to the collection shortly for better vocal recording quality.
  • Unknown Chinese-made recording microphone. This has the name ‘GA’ on it, and otherwise I know nothing about it. It is a recording microphone that I use in conjunction with my microphone stand when I require a standing microphone (for when I am using my tuba or need to do a quick-change between instruments). It has also been a fair vocal microphones, though not up to the standard of the classic Shures or even the Audio-Technica.
  • Alesis SR-16 drum machine. I have found that the tempos in the Alesis and the tempos set by Garageband do not appear to match precisely, though this may be due to the difficulty of starting them precisely at the same moment. The SR-16 has a good trad jazz beat, but so far I have not had time to explore its ability to create custom tracks. I hope to do that soon, so as to add a variety of jazz tracks to my repertoire.

Instrumentation

  • 1993 Bach Stradivarius 180-43G Trumpet: This seems to be a fairly rare make here in the United States. I purchased it in Japan in 1993, and have so far not encountered anyone who has the same horn over here. Please feel free to correct me if I am in error.
  • 1909 Conn EEb Helicon: I know very little about the history of this instrument. It was a gift from the wonderful Dick Akright, who owns Best Music Repair and A & G Music in Oakland, California. The horn, like many instruments of the era, is silver-plated, with exquisite engraving on the bell. The original bits have long since disappeared, but a pair of modern sousaphone bits seem to work quite well. The horn has a very nice tone, though I have not quite mastered the EEb fingerings. Yet.
  • 1917 Conn Wonder Cornet: This is a classic early-20th Century cornet. i obtained it from my good friend and colleague Maxwell Spikes, with whom I play in the East Bay Stompers. It has a silver exterior with a gold brass interior. the bell is highly engraved, as was customary for instruments of that era. The horn is interesting in that it has a rotary valve which can be used in conjunction with the extra set of tuning slides to change the horn form a Bb cornet to a C cornet. the horn came with both the original 1917 Conn Wonder mouthpiece and a more modern, trumpet-style mouthpiece that changes the traditional mellow, sweet voice of the horn to something more brassy.
  • 1912 Holton Special Tenor Trombone: This is a handmade Frank Holton horn from the year 1912. It is a silver exterior with a gold brass interior, and lacks a screw joint to connect the bell to the slide. It is also lacking a slide lock, so one is required to keep hold of the slide at all times, as the alternative can be disastrous. I had the slide rebuilt when I first obtained this horn and it serves as my trad jazz horn, as it has an excellent tone for that type of music.
  • 2002 Jupiter Soprano Trombone/Slide Trumpet: This was an Ebay purchase a couple of years ago and I have really enjoyed playing with the horn. like so many slide trumpets, the instrument has some intonation and tuning issues, although it is far superior to the Jupiter I played in Japan back in 1992. This horn is primarily a novelty instrument as the short slide makes it very difficult to get correct notes. However, I enjoy it and every once in a while I pull it out for a gig here and there.
  • 1980 Mirafone 186 BB-flat five-valve Tuba: This horn looks like a CC tuba- most folks who see it think it IS a CC, but it plays in BB-flat. It has five valves and Miraphone confirmed that it is an early-1980s five-valve 186 model. This is a very rich-sounding instrument and whe used with my Clements Eb/F mouthpiece, is able to perform well in all registers. It does especially well in the mid and low range. This is my regular instrument for playing bass lines- I no longer use the MIDI keyboard.
  • 1953 Reynolds Contempora 49622 Baritone Horn: This horn belonged to a friend’s father. When his father passed away, my friend was kind enough to give it to me. Since my friend also passed away soon thereafter, this horn has a high degree of sentimental value. The serial number could match a 1939 model, but based on the available information, we think this is a 1953 instrument. I use this horn primarily for practice and for trad jazz gigs when I want a slightly mellower sound that the trombone produces, although it has a very nice tone with a bit of bite. I also find it very useful for playing bass trumpet parts and Latin music.
  • 1979 Yamaha YEP 321S Euphonium: This instrument dates all the way back to 1979, and is the first ‘good’ horn I ever owned. I have played this in every conceivable type of music, from concert band to Dixieland bands (in place of tuba) and it is still in excellent condition. I rarely play it these days, as I do most of my playing on trombone, but it still has a special place in my collection.
  • 1984 Yamaha YSL 646 B-flat/F Tenor Trombone: I may be misremembering the model number on this horn, but it is either a 646 or a 647. I purchased this instrument in 1984, and have played it ever since. Although it is not my first choice in jazz bands, it is a superior horn and produces an excellent symphony sound. A drunk fell on this instrument in 2002 or 2003, and it was subsequently rebuilt, thus it is in virtually new condition at present.
  • 1991 Yamaha YBL 613G Bass Trombone: I purchased this instrument in 1991, and it is the instrument I normally use when playing in big bands, as I normally play bass trombone in such groups. It has the reddish-gold brass bell that Yamaha produced for a short period in the late 1980s and early 1990s and has a superb sound. In fact, one of the bandleaders I have played with likes it so much he prefers this horn to my Holton as a jazz horn.

The above instruments are those that I use on a regular basis. I have played all of them publicly and at least semi-professionally at one time or another. I also have a variety of non-standard horns, including a 1995 German-made B&S post horn and a 2002 Jupiter soprano trombone for which I also cannot recall the model number. I’ll add these horns to the list once I get back to my studio and have them in front of me. Finally, I possess my mother’s Steinway model ‘S’ grand piano and a Gibson Epiphone bass guitar, which at this stage are little more than props as I have yet to master the least aspects of these instruments.