Buffet Crampon 400 Series Alto Sax
Not long ago, I was in a New York City music store, listening to a sales clerk haggle with a confused-looking customer over the purchase of a vintage Selmer Mark VI alto. The clerk reminded me of Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons; the customer was older than Lisa Simpson, but not by a whole lot—certainly too young (in my curmudgeonly opinion) to require such a precious instrument, unless she was the next Charlie Parker and carrying a Blue Note recording contract in her pocket (she wasn’t). Comic Book Guy quoted a price in the neighborhood of $5,000. I had to butt in. “Excuse me,” I said to the kid, “but why don’t you save a couple grand and buy a new horn?” Comic Book Guy—clearly unhappy that I’d jeopardized his commission—blew his top. He expressed his displeasure in colorful and abusive language, whereupon I vowed—in similarly vivid terms—to fulfill my saxophonic needs elsewhere.
My point was this: In general, only an accomplished professional has any business spending that kinda dough on a Mark VI, especially when there are so many good new horns being manufactured today. Buffet Crampon’s 400 Series alto is a case in point—a quality sax in the intermediate “advanced student to professional” category that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, yet delivers excellent performance. The alto lists at $2,750, making it a relatively affordable option for the serious saxophonist on a budget, young or old.
I was impressed with the 400 Series before I even laid eyes on it, thanks to the lightweight, backpack-style case that came with the horn. Covered in blue-black fabric stretched over a hard shell, with a custom-molded inner compartment that holds the horn fast without an ounce of wiggle, the case is a well-built, practically conceived and visually appealing piece of equipment.
The Chinese-manufactured 400 Series comes in alto, tenor or baritone with either brass/matte or lacquer finishes. Buffet sent the matte alto for review, and it’s a handsome piece. The brushed metal gives it a satiny appearance, with dark antiqued touches around the keyholes and other areas where metal meets metal. There’s extensive engraving: inside the bell and on the key cups, bow, body and neck. The engraving isn’t Tiffany’s quality, by any means—look closely and it seems rather rough. Overall, however, the horn has a striking appearance.
It’s a heavy instrument; the metal is thick. The keys, posts and rods are stout. The springs are strong. There are double arms on the low C, B and Bb keys, and reinforced spatula bracing. The horn is immaculately assembled. Everything about it is weighty. This is a solid, well-crafted saxophone. Given Buffet’s reputation for quality, I’d expect nothing less.
I used my New York Meyer 5 mouthpiece with a closed Rovner ligature and an Alexander Superial DC number 2 1/2 reed when testing the horn. The 400 Series blows free and true in all registers. The sound is perhaps a tad dark by contemporary standards, but with a nice bead on the edge of the tone. The tone is not golden, exactly, but it isn’t chocolate, either: It’s a strong, lead-alto-worthy sound, with good projection and a pleasing touch of grit.
Like many horns right out of the box, the 400 Series’ key action was high. I prefer my keys set fairly low, so in the beginning the horn was a bit difficult to evaluate. The wide-open keys contributed to its free-blowing nature, yet made it a bit difficult to play fast. I’m sure my repairman could adjust the key-heights to fit my needs. In any case, after practicing on it for a month, my fingers adapted reasonably well. The mother-of-pearl key buttons are finely contoured, giving the horn a nice feel, although the F# pearl popped out repeatedly—odd, given the generally high level of craftsmanship. The Pisoni pads (with metal resonators) allow for a silken touch and a rich sound. The horn fingers very smoothly, key-height notwithstanding.
Besides the F# pearl and the high action (neither of which are deal-breakers), the only real problem I had with the horn involved the low Bb key. It requires a bit more of a reach with my left pinky than I’d prefer. People with small hands might not find it comfortable.
As the price of top-end horns climbs, it’s important that companies make horns like this—intelligently designed and solidly crafted new instruments that aren’t too expensive. The 400 Series ain’t cheap, by any means, but for less than three Gs, you get a lot of horn—more than enough for even the most precocious student. A pro could do a lot worse, too.