(An objective guide to helping you find the horn of your dreams).
by Ken Pope
Anyone who has attended a regional horn workshop or one of the annual International Horn Symposiums knows that the moment you walk into the ‘BIG’ (aka - LOUD!) room you’ll be overwhelmed by the choices presented to you. You’re looking to buy a horn, perhaps your first double, or stepping up to a professional line instrument and you’re not quite certain how to go about it. Not only that, but if you talk to fellow players or look online you’ll get loads of advice - much of it conflicting. Add this together with the fact that anyone can hang a sign on their house and proclaim themselves a ‘horn maker’ and you realize that you should be as cautious and educated on the process as possible.
I’m here to help you sift through all of that. I’m not going to tell you which wrap is better (8D vs Geyer) or what alloy it should be made of (nickel vs brass/red brass) or which make is the best.. There are objective ways to judge the quality of a horn - how well it was put together. A horn that is poorly manufactured will eventually lose value quickly and will deteriorate equally as fast.
First we need to agree on some basics of what constitutes quality manufacturing and the following is a list that I think most makers would agree upon.
They should have good compression, work smoothly and ergonomically fit your hand.
The tubing should remain round throughout all bends, and without ridges
All joints and braces should be fully soldered and thoroughly cleaned.
There should be a constant flow of the lines of a horn. When a ferrule is encountered does the tube which comes out the other end follow that same path or is it suddenly different?
There are many more parameters which I could add here - but these 4 are vital (and easily remembered). So, let’s break these down and I’ll offer a field guide as how to test these on the spot.
You walk into a showroom or symposium and this is how you should proceed:
- Ignore the salesperson (or at least tell him you’re just ‘looking’ and will ask for help when needed.) As my daughter says, “I don’t want to be ‘worm tongued’ by someone with an agenda.” (That’s a Lord of the Rings reference for those who don’t know).
- Spend some time looking at the horn before you even play it. Look for any of the visual basic flaws mentioned above
- Have some idea of what you’re looking for. Know what your price range is. Do you want (sound better on) a large bore or medium bore horn?
So, you’ve ushered the salesperson away, you’ve got the horn in your hand and you want to know how to ‘see’ the horn. You want to know how to look for any possible flaws and here is how you do it.
In a perfect world you would have a handy-dandy valve compression testing machine with you but that’s not going to happen. There are some basic ways one can test how tight the valves on a horn are.
- Pull a few of the valve slides out an inch or two and wait a couple seconds before you press the lever. There should be an audible ‘POP’ sound. If there isn’t - pull the slide out completely, plug the tube and blow. If you can push significant air through the horn while plugging the tube that indicates that the horn is leaking due to either bad soldering, a hole, or poorly manufactured/maintained valves.
- If it is a used horn unscrew the valve cap and look at the top of the rotor. If it is ‘silver’ in color that typically means the valves have been rebuilt. This can be a good thing if done correctly, but if there is low compression and the valves haven’t been rebuilt you’ve found the culprit.
There are many methods for bending tubing but basically the tube is softened (annealed), filled with a variety of materials, bent, and then ‘rounded out’ as necessary. The act of bending the tubes distorts them. That final step of ‘rounding out’ takes a LOT of time and effort, and is often rushed over. Without the aid of a set of calipers to help determine how round the tubing is one can usually ‘feel’ this by taking your index finger and your thumb, lightly grasping the tubing at one of the sharper bends in the horn and rotating your hand back and forth around the tube. In the 2 short videos notice how one of the dial on the caliper moves a LOT as it reads the differing outside dimensions, while the dial needle stays motionless on the 2nd horn.(See the video with the calipers). Use your fingers like the calipers. If a tube is seriously out of round it will be visible to the eye and easy to feel on your fingers.
The ‘lines’ of a horn:
When all the tubes have been correctly bent and cut to length they are fit together. A ferrule (the band of larger tubing at the juncture of 2 pipes) is soldered and ideally the ‘flow’ is smooth. The curve going into the ferrule is the same as the curve going out. If a tube has been improperly bent you’ll notice that things look awry. Another place to look is to sight across the F valve tubes. They should be nice and flat. Lay a pencil across them and see if there is any gap, or if one tube is on a different plane. If these aren’t in alignment you can be certain that valve problems will be forthcoming due to the stresses those tubes will put on the valve casing. Notice the gap above the 2nd slide tubes in the picture! Also - notice how ‘clean’ the joints are. Are there big globs of solder left? Messy work like that is usually indicative of a lower quality instrument.
These are just a few ways one can objectively assess a horn, but they are some of the most important! Now go PLAY that horn!