It's a Small Bore After All

It's a Small Bore After All

The Conn “Small Bore” Alto Saxophone

The National Saxophone Museum, in conjunction with Saxquest, is pleased to present to the public the Conn “Small Bore” Alto Saxophone! Saxquest acquired this instrument, along with the recently restored Loomis 10M and other fascinating instruments to come, from the collection of Ronald Semak. The provenance originates from the C.G. Conn Experimental Laboratory of the late 1920's and then journeyed to the collection of John Faulk before passing into the hands of Semak. The instrument is currently on loan to NSM from Saxquest. While the Loomis 10M and most of the others are variations or iterations on Conn’s production model saxes or prototypes for then future production models, this “Small Bore” horn may be one of a kind.

The National Saxophone Museum, in conjunction with Saxquest, is pleased to present to the public the Conn “Small Bore” Alto Saxophone! We acquired this instrument, along with the recently restored Loomis 10M and other fascinating instruments to come, from the collection of Ronald Semak. While the Loomis 10M and most of the others are variations or iterations on Conn’s production model saxes or prototypes for then future production models, this “Small Bore” horn may be one of a kind.

The tube of every saxophone is comprised of what are known as truncated cones. That means cones that have the point cut off at the top. The concert pitch of the instrument is determined by the volume of these cones. The taper, the rate at which the ends of the cones go from a smaller diameter to a larger diameter, varies from maker to maker, model to model. Variations can be made at the rate of taper in the neck, the body, the bow, and the bell. These variations, alongside several other factors, are part of what determine the sound and pitch of a saxophone. Conn’s New Wonder alto saxes were rather large bore instruments. That is to say that the taper of the cones that make up the saxophone were wide and led to a somewhat squat-looking appearance. This “Small Bore” saxophone has a slightly longer, more narrow taper and it sounds unlike any other Conn alto saxophone. This saxophone's timbre has a hollow sweetness to it that most resembles the mid-range of the F-mezzo. However, it easily takes all the air the player can put into it while possessing a wonderfully unique, lyrical quality that projects far beyond the bell. Intonation is incredibly accurate, much more so than on its larger bore NWII 6M counterpart.

This saxophone bears no maker’s mark, no engraving on the bell, no patent stamps, and no serial number. It is devoid of any way to identify date of production aside from its mechanical resemblance to Conn's late 1920 saxophones. This lack of information is why I’m not referring to it by a model number. At the NSM, we are tentatively calling it a “Small Bore” Alto because that is what the sticker, hand-written by the previous owner, on its case says. This saxophone was acquired from the collection of the late Ronal Semak of Detroit, Michigan. Mr. Semak bought the instrument in 1976 from the late John Faulk of who, in turn, had acquired it, along with the Loomis 10M and others, from Conn at some point. Research about Mr. Faulk and his acquisition of the instruments is ongoing. In Mr. Semak’s logbook, he lists the instrument as being produced in 1928 and notes that it is a “mate to the Bb sop that look/play like ‘A’,” which is a reference to the 18M “Stretch” soprano in Bb. We are searching through patents to try to find out what we can and will update this article when or if any more reliable information comes to light. What I can say about this saxophone is what I have observed from handling it, restoring it, and comparing it to Conn’s production model New Wonder saxophones.

 

Albrecht Neck Socket for Small Bore Alto Sax
Albrecht Neck Socket for Small Bore Alto Sax
Albrecht Neck Socket for Small Bore Alto Sax, Slightly Pulled Out
Albrecht Neck Socket for Small Bore Alto Sax, Slightly Pulled Out

At first glance, one will notice that this “Small Bore” has an odd neck receiver. On most saxophones, and all other Conn single-socket designs, the neck is attached to the body by placing a thin-walled brass cylinder (the tenon) at the end of the neck pipe concentrically into a thick-walled, slotted cylinder (the receiver) at the top of the body tube. The receiver typically has a slot sawed into it and a means by which a screw is affixed. The screw, when tightened, applies concentric tension around the tenon and holds the neck in place. The “Small Bore” eschews this design for something rather unique to saxophones, and certainly unique for Conn. This saxophone’s method for attaching the neck is to employ a threaded ring affixed to the body’s receiver to screw on to a section of threads at the top of the tenon on the neck. This neck receiver was patented by John Albrecht in 1936 and can be found online in the US Patent Office's archives as the US2061928A Joint for Wind Musical Instruments.

New Wonder 2 Neck Size Comparison Photo
Left to right: 22M F-Mezzo Soprano Neck, "Small Bore" Alto Neck, 6M Eb Alto Neck

The second thing one may notice is the elevated neck angle and long, thin-looking taper. When this horn came into the shop, we didn’t know what to expect with regards to pitch. While it seemed unlikely that Conn would have been developing a new model High Pitch instrument at the point in time that this was made (the late 1920s, most likely), it looks just enough like their F-Mezzo soprano to put its concert pitch into doubt. Was it in the key of F? Maybe even the key of E (one half step above a “normal” alto in Eb)? We can soundly say that the instrument is a Low Pitch, Eb alto saxophone with surprisingly accurate intonation. 

Past these first impressions, though, the instrument appears much like other NWII instruments.  The design of the mechanism is mostly the same as the production model alto. Where it varies is in the bespoke octave transfer key and the Bis Bb key touch. The octave transfer key on the standard alto is a straight piece of brass that rests against the neck receiver until activated. While functionally identical, the “Small Bore’s” transfer key is longer and has a recess in the backside to allow clearance of the receiver’s locking ring. The standard production alto has a round, mother-of-pearl key touch mounted in a brass holder affixed to the Bis Bb key. The “Small Bore” does not. Instead, it borrows an idea from Conn’s 22M F-Mezzo Soprano, 24M Conn-O-Sax, and 18M “Stretch” soprano. Because of the tighter spacing of the mechanism on these instruments, they omit the round MOP touch in favor of a curvy, contoured bit of brass. Also, like the 22M and 24M, the “Small Bore” omits the Micro-Tuner found on the standard NWII 6M Alto. The rest of the mechanism seems like modified and amalgamated Alto, C-Melody, and F-Mezzo parts. Functionally, everything is identical to the other NWII horns and it feels similar under the fingers. 

 

Small Bore Alto Sax Upper Stack Keys
Upper Stack Keys with Brass Bis Bb Key Touch
Small Bore Alto Tonehole Inserts
Toneholes with Concentric Inserts

In addition to being a different taper than the production model alto, the horn has very differently sized toneholes to accommodate this change in taper. Being that this is a prototype instrument from Conn’s laboratory, it has some tonehole quirks that we’ve seen on other prototypes. This “Small Bore” alto has none of Conn’s standard rolled toneholes. Not a single one. Every tonehole on the instrument is soldered onto the body tube where holes have been cut. Many of these soldered toneholes have brass shims soldered concentrically inside of them to reduce the effective tonehole diameter and change the effective position on the body tube. Therefore, while the outer diameter of a tonehole may be sized one way and have a key cup to accommodate that, the inner diameter, which is what determines the pitch that sounds from that hole, may be drastically smaller. We’ve seen this before to varying degrees on the 247k 10M prototype in the collection, but not on this scale.

 

The last oddity about the build of the “Small Bore” is that, like the Loomis 10M, it lacks a bottom bow cap. While the Loomis 10M has the appearance of a work-in-progress, with lots of rough edges, sloppy soldering, slapdash modifications and noticeable signs of tinkering, this “Small Bore” is considerably more refined. With a few exceptions, the rest of the instrument resembles a production-ready design. Of note are the soldered and modified toneholes, a small, well-hidden extension brazed onto the neck, a very clean extension added to the chromatic F# key touch, and a clean patch job to the bell and Low B tonehole where it appears to have been relocated. All of the above are done very cleanly and look quite intentional, almost unnoticeable if one didn’t have the horn disassembled and it wasn’t being scrutinized to find such oddities. The keys all look intentionally manufactured, the soldering, even in the toneholes, is clean throughout, and the placement of everything about the mechanism appears well-done, well thought out, and refined.

 

Bottom Bow
No Bow Cap
Relocated Low B Tonehole Exterior
Relocated Low B Tonehole Exterior
Relocated Low B Tonehole Interior
Relocated Low B Tonehole Interior

Unlike the Loomis 10M and many of the other Conn prototypes in the queue for restoration, the “Small Bore” has survived the near-century since its construction quite nicely preserved. Though I can never know for sure, I think that the instrument (or at least parts thereof) may have been lacquered at some point and later had the lacquer removed. The saxophone is currently bare brass, but there are, in a few places, what appears to be the flaky remains of a chemically stripped coat of lacquer. I do not believe that the rollers are original from the 1920s. While they are a pearlescent celluloid or “pearloid,” their coloration and texture don’t match the other, excellently preserved saxes that I’ve seen from the era. The rollers more closely resemble the modern replica rollers that I made for the Loomis 10M. There was minimal oxidization of the brass, the blued steel springs were all intact and still springy, and none of the screws or rods were rusted into immobility. There is a nice patina and the instrument has been repadded at least once, likely in the early 1980s most recently. It had treated, tan leather pads with plastic domed resonators. It was, as mentioned earlier, unplayable when it arrived but not due to trauma, just the natural decay of 30-40 year old pads.

 

Small Bore Alto Padset and Neck
Neck and Pad Set

Restoring this instrument was, in comparison to the Loomis 10M, a cakewalk. There were only a few minor dings to the body. The key fit was fairly tight and required only light swedging. The soldered toneholes were already quite level and only needed a light resurfacing to clean up some file marks and slight pitting. The existing springs were able to be reused. Untreated leather pads and flat, riveted resonators were installed. Instead of polishing away the patina, Renaissance Wax was applied to preserve it.

In fact, there were only two notable challenges to this restoration. The first was fitting the neck. While the rest of the mechanism seemed lightly used and wasn’t hard to get back into a tight fit, the neck tenon’s fit inside of the receiver was quite loose. Loose enough to leak air. To refit a neck tenon such that it forms an airtight fit within the receiver, it must be expanded. If a neck tenon is over-expanded or too large to fit into the receiver, it must be swedged down (compressed) by a squeezing a collet of harder metal around it. While fitting the neck, I ever-so-slightly over-expanded it. While it still fit into the receiver, the fit was so snug as to be worrisome. The neck lacks reinforcing bracing of any sort and given that it is likely the only one in existence, being overly snug in the receiver is asking for the neck to be crumpled. The problem was that since this is such a unique piece, we did not have an appropriately sized swedging collet to fit the tenon. So I made one! The collet was made of aluminum and turned down on the lathe so that the inner diameter of the collet was slightly larger than the inner diameter of the receiver. A slot was then cut into the collet so that it could be compressed inside of a steel jig mounted in a vice. After swedging, careful lapping and polishing, the neck now has an airtight, but not overly snug fit. 
 
The second challenge was in the “setup” of the keys. While “setting up” a horn, the technician must determine the heights of the keys when they open. This is called venting. Venting is a tricky balancing act between a variety of factors including, but not exhaustively: opening high enough such that every note speaks clearly, not opening so high that intonation is affected, opening to a height that is comfortable under the fingers and facilitates agility while playing, and opening neither too high nor too low such that mechanical interference with other keys and parts of the mechanism is created. While I am accustomed to how to set up the production model NWII Bb and Eb instruments (even then, variation is sometimes required based on a variety of factors) this narrow bore was something altogether new to me. What I wound up with are key heights that are slightly higher than what I would normally set on a NWII 6M. The action is still light and fluid under the fingers and every note speaks nicely with surprisingly even intonation across the scale. The only drawback to this higher action is that the right hand middle finger is very close to the lower post for the bell Bb key. I like to hope that if Conn had made this into a production instrument, they would have addressed that by shortening the Bb hinge tube and moving that post. 

 

Conn New Wonder 2 Alto Comparison

Left to Right: 22M F-Mezzo Soprano, "Small Bore" Alto, 6M Eb Alto

So what is this instrument? Or better yet, WHY is this instrument? At the time of publication, we have uncovered no documents pertaining to, no mentions of, and no patents for this instrument aside from the neck receiver patent. Its lack of patent stamps or even a serial number confound any attempt to precisely date it. For now, all we have is speculation. We speculate, based on the design of the mechanism, that it was constructed between 1925-1929. We speculate that based on the change in taper and the design of the Bis Bb key touch that it may have been in development concurrently with the 22M, 24M, and “Stretch” design of the 18M, all of which hit the market in the late 1920s. Why didn’t this become the new standard design for Conn’s Eb alto? Was this an in-house proof-of-concept builti during the development of the F-Mezzo Soprano, or did that design come first? Given that the neck reciver patent wasn't filed until 1934 and wasn't granted until 1936, is it possible that this instrument post-dates the 22M, 24M and 18M stretch? Did its development coincide with the development of the Artist Series "Naked Lady" 6M? Were there ever any other “Small Bore” altos built by Conn? Why was Conn tinkering with a “Small Bore” in the first place? At present, we don’t have answers to these questions. What we do have, though, are another unique piece of kit from the Conn experimental laboratory and a desire to search for answers to these questions and others. Perhaps, in time, we will be able to unearth these answers. 

 

If you’d like to read more about the aforementioned Loomis 10M, view the 247k 10M prototype, or learn about the 22M F-Mezzo Soprano and 24M Conn-O-Sax, please check out the following links.  

 

Loomis 10M

Conn 10M Prototype 

Sax Pics Conn F-Mezzo and Conn-O-Sax Article

Mark Overton's Conn F-Mezzo Article