Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Viking M60 "Valkyrie" Alto Saxophone Review

Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Review Cover


Today, I'll be reviewing the Viking M60 Valkyrie alto saxophone, by Rich Maraday.


INTRODUCTION

10 years ago, if you had a tight budget for your saxophone purchase, you had a choice between cheap saxophones made with cheap materials, or gambling on a used student saxophone from one of the "Big Four" (Keilwerth, Selmer, Yamaha and Yanagisawa), which is still a viable option today. In the past few years though, the woodwind landscape has changed dramatically with a flooding of the market by saxophones sourced in Taiwan, and mainland China. The distinction between the two places is important, as quality remains poor from the latter, quantity being the focus of their production, while the former now has a 60-year-old tradition of woodwind manufacturing, and a very strong appreciation of the saxophone ingrained in their culture. The competition between Taiwanese manufacturers has also lifted the whole local industry for the better, one company trying to outdo the other in terms of quality and creativity.

The Viking Instruments company was founded in early 2011 by Rich Maraday, with the goal of providing professional quality instruments at reasonable prices. As instruments coming from Taiwan were getting better, rivaling products from the "Big Four"  both in terms of quality of construction, and tone & response, Rich saw an opportunity to bring something that did not exist prior to the introduction of the Viking line of saxophones, thanks to his experience as manager of USA Horn.

The 7 years he spent there, trying and personally owning hundreds of vintage horns, from all eras, being constantly surrounded by the most sought-after models, and trying every new thing coming out, put him in the unique position to gain a thorough understanding of how saxophones should and could sound like and play. He's also a musician who has been playing professionally for more almost 40 years.

After many back and forth with the factory he's working with, and significant investment in customizing these instruments to his demands, Rich Maraday believes the saxophones he offers are a very serious alternative to the less sensibly priced instruments from the "Big Four".

Edit - a quick clarification from Rich:

You can never forget who helped you along the way. Terje Odden founded Viking instruments in 2000 and Imported TK Melody saxophones. I then acquired the company from him and then developed the Viking brand. Mr. Odden is a incredible person and without his help this could never have been a reality. I'm eternally thankful to him for his trust and generosity!!! Truly a phenomenal human being! I thought I should say this again as I am thankful for my situation today.

Let's put one of this Viking saxophones, the M60 Valkyrie alto, to the test!


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WHERE I'M COMING FROM

First, to put this review into perspective, let me share the experience I had comparing my current horn, a '76 Selmer Mark VII alto, to a late Selmer SBA and early Selmer Mark VI (this is a slightly modified version of something I originally posted on reddit.com).

If you'd rather go straight to the Viking M60 Valkyrie review, click here


My main alto is a 250,XXX Mark VII, with an aftermarket neck. The horn was heavily modified by the previous owner (lacquer stripped, keys removed, tone holes plugged), and a few months after purchase I realized the neck was shorter than it should be. The simple explanation for this is that the neck had been sawed off. I suppose the idea was to remove the ferrule (the "ring" at the end of the neck on the mouthpiece side), but unfortunately, this was really a hack job, figuratively, and literally. I then started to look for an aftermarket Mark VII neck in pristine condition, or at least never damaged or altered. When I finally found one, intonation, tone and response, were all so much better I felt this was how my VII was originally supposed to sound, and feel like.


Selmer Paris Mark VII Alto Saxophone
My trusty Mark VII Alto


The reason I'm explaining all of this is because that makes this horn far from a pristine condition, original lacquer, museum piece. It's an ugly "Franken-horn" that I got for quite cheap. When I put on the new neck, I had the feeling this horn was a beast as it responded amazingly in all registers, vibrating like crazy when pushed, and was very responsive to mouthpiece and reed choice.

When one of my friend suggested I should come check his early VI and late silver plated SBA altos, I. of course, jumped at the opportunity. The VI could have used a few new pads and neck cork but the SBA was in great shape. I have to say, this VII of mine really fared well against these two horns.

The response and tuning of my VII was definitely the best of the three (partly, probably because I'm used to playing it) but I'm sure the VI would have felt better with the needed repairs. The SBA had a slightly more idiosyncratic scale than the other two. Sound wise, my VII and SBA were very close. They also responded to air in an almost identical manner. This was surprising as the SBA is a much older horn than the VII. The main difference between the two horns was how light the instrument itself, and the action, were on the Super. I've heard and read many times how these older Selmers can be setup with much lighter action, but this was a significant contrast. It felt like I could relax my hands much more and be more efficient (hence faster) on the Super. This was really a joy to play. Also, the key layout was much more ergonomic on the SBA (and to some extent the VI). It truly felt like it was custom made for my hands. This was most obvious to me on the low Eb and C, which are further down and spread out on my horn, but every key touch fell right under my fingers on the SBA. I have reasonably sized hands so I don't mind the bigger left hand pinky cluster on my horn, but again, it is bigger and wider on the VII.

Now the VI - although some notes felt and sounded a little weird (probably because of leaks), and I had to push my mouthpiece way further on the neck - definitely had the best tone of all three. This was not a night and day difference, but the VI just had more "weight" and "presence", just more "acoustical pressure" at all volumes. Hopefully that makes sense. Switching back and forth between the two horns did not made me regret owning my VII (it is an experience I've lived through in the past with other horns I used to own), as the subtle presence boost of the VI really was the only main difference other than the keyboard layout which was a little more ergonomic, although not as good as on the SBA. The VII, VI and SBA all had a similar "Selmer core tone" - this resonance in the mid frequencies - and surprisingly also emphasized more or less the same frequencies. What I mean by that, is one wasn't darker, brighter, more or less buzzy than the other. Again, the additional depth coming from the VI was subtle.

So there you have it. It probably doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things, as I've only compared one example of each model, but this experience has re-affirmed my convictions that you can buy a great horn for little money. I already knew this was the case with mouthpieces. and I'll probably upgrade from my VII eventually, but I'm in no hurry, especially considering how much more expensive these older horns are. When or if I do, my dream horn would be a SBA that sounds more like my friend's VI. I would get the best of what I preferred on these horns: the light weight, light feel and organic ergonomics of the SBA, and the presence of the VI. Are these attributes worth $2/3,000 more than what I paid for my current saxophone? I think so. I could definitely be happy with the VII for a long time, but I know there's a better instrument out there waiting for me (and my wallet). I won't be actively looking for it though. If I ever stumble upon this next horn, so be it, but in the meantime I'll be putting as many miles as possible on this VII of mine.


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VISUALS

The Viking M60 Valkyrie alto is a gorgeous instrument. Rich sent me a model with the Cognac lacquer, and the deep, dark color plays spectacularly with light. I especially like the fact that, although different enough from the traditional lacquer style to set it apart from other companies, Rich did not use one of many variations of the "faux vintage" finish for his horns, which, to be honest, I find quite tacky.


Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Review Front


Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Review Back


Upon closer inspection, it seems the lacquer isn't completely even. The vast majority of the surface of the M60 is flawless, but there are slight darker, or lighter hues around the edge of some key cups, or on top of them, where the arms are attached, as well as around stamps (the front emblem on the neck for example). I'm not sure whether it is intentional or not, but I feel this detail actually contributes to the visual depth coming from this alto. This is something you can clearly see in many of the photos I shot.


Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Review Bottom Bow


The Valkyrie features a beautifully design floral engraving on the bell and bow, as well as a scene representing a lake, which is reminiscent of the Selmer SBA style (the current engraving does not feature the lake anymore, just a more neutral floral pattern). The engraving is cut through the lacquer; what this means is that instead of being cut before lacquer is applied, and covered with or filled by it, this method results instead in more contrast, sharpness and an engraving that jumps at you.


Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Review Bell Engraving


The M60 features real mother of pearl key touches that are slightly concave, and felt great under the fingers. Both thumb rests, as well as the neck tenon screws are silver plated, which is a nice touch.


Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Review Right Hand Stack


Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Review Right Thumbrest


The neck uses a wire-style octave mechanism, like older horns, for example the vintage Selmer Super and Balanced Action, and also some custom necks from manufacturers, like Gloger. I personally like the minimal appearance of this style, and any weight taken off the horn is welcomed.


Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Review Neck Side


Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Review Neck Front


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ACCESSORIES

The Viking M60 Valkyrie alto comes with a "trekking" style case, covered in the typical abrasion resistant nylon. It features a big zippered front pocket on the outside, stitched with the Viking crest and logo. This front pocket would be big enough for sheet music, or books. Inside of it is another, smaller pocket, also with a zipper and a few slots for storing pens. The adjustable shoulder strap, which attaches onto two metal hooks on the top side of the case was stored inside this smaller pocket for shipping.

There is a Velcro strap that goes over the double pull zippered closure of the case for additional security. The two handles located on the side and top of the case are comfortable and seems robust, and the usual rubber feet can be found on the bottom and side of the case, which means they allow laying the case on its side or standing it upright.

Inside, the soft black velour lining covers a contoured hard shell core, with a large compartment for accessories, and slots for mouthpiece, neck and the saxophone itself.

Overall, this is a great quality case, that is very functional and light weight. That would make the perfect case for someone in high school, college, or anyone else to carry around town. You may want to upgrade if you're traveling a lot, in situations where your case can be tossed in the back of a truck with other, more heavy equipment.


Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Review Case Closed


Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Review Case open


The Viking M60 alto comes with a mouthpiece, cap and ligature. It is a square chamber, straight sidewalls mouthpiece, with a touch of rollover and straight floor. It would make a good beginner mouthpiece. It played well but was rather resistant and dark. It may be adequate to learn on for a while, especially since the smaller tip opening and resistance makes it easy to play. Even then, I would probably recommend a beginner to upgrade as soon as the basics of tone producing, and knowledge of fingering are mastered.

The horn shipped in its case, wrapped in a plastic bag, with cork and foam strategically placed to hold some of the keys shut, the case itself secured with packing material in a heavy cardboard box.



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SETUP

I used my leak light to check for leaks. Side note: I purchased this leak light on eBay and would recommend it to anyone who's on a budget, but would like to upgrade from the yellow and dim rope lights you can find in hardware stores. It is very well made and incredibly bright, although it can get hot.

All Viking saxophones use Pisoni Pro pads, with domed metal resonators and are installed using shellac, not glue, which is just an awful material to work with and remove. Using shellac also provides much more control when installing pads.


Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Review Case Pads


The M60 was very well set up, with only a visible leak on low B (this may have happened during shipping). However, even when there was no visible light with all keys closed, most of the pads did not meet with the tone holes evenly all around at the same exact moment, some sides of the pads touching the tone holes before others. Although many woodwind technicians don't consider these leaks, when one side of a pad touches a tone hole first, it creates an uneven impression that, instead of conforming to the owner's playing evenly, will get worse as time goes by. Simply said, and even though the horn sealed very well overall, a setup of this quality does not guarantee you will get the longest lifespan possible from these pads.

Timing (when pushing one key closes another at the same time) was also rather crudely setup, and could have been more precise, although it worked well enough that it did not distract or impact performance. The neck tenon fit, something that is often overlooked, was also quite good, but I think it could have been slightly tighter (my VII alto is).

With this said, this is a far superior setup than most companies provide out of the box, including some of the major players in the field. I haven't had the opportunity to test a substantial enough number of horns straight from the factory to deliver an objective judgment on this; what I can tell you, however, is that in my limited experience it simply is the best setup I've seen on a saxophone, straight out of the box, and with the leak on the low B taken care of, I would have been more than happy to simply play this saxophone and forget about the rest.

Depending on your needs, and budget, Rich offers a great deal on an additional setup, in partnership with saxophone technician Ken Beason. For $350 + shipping, Rich will send the horn you purchase directly to Ken who will turn this good setup into a great one, as well as customize the horn extensively to cater to your needs. I was baffled by just how much Ken will do for such a low price. We're talking about completely disassembling the horn, making sure everything is straight, reseating the pads, centering key cups and leveling tone holes if needed, getting rid of any binding, soldering the body tube, adjusting spring tension so that is even and customized to your preference, as well as non-destructive neck adjustments, to dial in tone and resistance. On top of this, Ken will ship back the horn to you with a set of key clamps (a $40+ value). Simply said, Ken Beason will make sure you receive your saxophone with the best possible setup, and one that will last for years with minimal maintenance.

Worth mentioning is that the 3-day trial period Rich offers on all Viking saxophones - which starts from the time you accept delivery of the package - extends to the setup. So if you chose to get the additional setup, and it turns out you are absolutely not satisfied with the horn, and send it back before the end of the trial period, Rich will offer a full refund minus a 4% restocking fee on the total.


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ERGONOMICS

My Selmer Mark VII is setup with rather soft spring tension, and the Valkyrie felt very similar. It was not floppy, just precise but easy to play. The setup on my personal horn clearly shows its age, and the M60 felt more even from one note to the other in this regard.

The VII weighs 5.31 lbs. (2.36 kg) while the M60 is slightly heavier at 5.44 lbs. (2.46 kg). Not much of a difference. As noted in the first section of the review, a vintage Selmer SBA alto is lighter than both of these, and I personally feel weight does make a difference. It becomes obvious after a long gig, or after spending the day practicing. I'm also a small guy, which probably makes it more relevant to me. The difference between the Mark VII and Viking M60 is so small that they felt virtually identical though.

The key placement on the Valkyrie alto is typical, inspired by the Mark VI design. I could switch back and forth between the VII and M60 without any problem, except for the octave key mechanism that I felt I had to reach for on the M60. It's not badly design by any stretch of the imagination, just different. Again, I find the SBA design vastly superior to both my VII and the M60. I wish modern horns took their inspiration from that design more than the Mark VI's. Nonetheless, the Viking M60 Valkyrie alto was incredibly easy to play. No fingering felt awkward, including playing the low end of the horn chromatically, palm keys, or even reaching the front F key or altissimo notes.


Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Review Left Hand


Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Review palm Keys


Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Review roller


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TONE / RESPONSE / INTONATION

So, how does this alto play? After all, this is what counts. A quick note: some of the attributes I'll be covering in this section can be somewhat subjective, however I've tried my best to keep an open mind.

Overall, the Viking M60 is a killing instrument, on par with any professional level alto in the market today. Not only does this saxophone feature a build quality beyond reproach, but the response, intonation and tone match its mechanical and aesthetic attributes. One could be fooled by how affordable Viking saxophones are, but they have nothing in common with student saxophones. It simply buried the Vito student alto I use as a backup, in all aspects: build quality, appearance, tone, response and intonation.

Compared to my Selmer Mark VII, the Viking M60 alto was not as focused, and did not emphasize the mid frequencies as much. Instead, it had a slightly brighter and zippier top end, and a bigger, more spread low end. This more spread quality to the tone, combined with the incredible resonance this instrument has, makes for a big and bold alto. That's not to say it's not capable of being a subtle and lyrical instrument, but I found it naturally encouraged me to play a bit more aggressively than my VII.


Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Serial Stamp


The tone of the M60 was clear and precise, making fast runs sound very articulate (even without tonguing), which is an attribute that was reinforced by the positive action. Some saxophones have such a dark, spread and fuzzy tone that whatever you do, they lack precision.  This was something typical of many early saxophones coming from Taiwan, and I was glad to hear this wasn't the case at all here.

I found the M60 had just a hint more resistance than my VII, which is something that may be welcomed depending on your personal preferences, playing style, and mouthpiece / reed setup. However the Viking felt very consistent and even in its response, and tonally, over the whole range of the horn. That was a major change from my Selmer, which has a tendency to change tonal quality as you navigate through the different registers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as I feel it creates more tonal depth and can encourage exploring a wider tonal palette. In this regard, the Selmer was naturally more expressive than the Viking and its more locked-in color. However, tonal consistency isn't necessarily an undesirable trait either; it all depends again on your preference, playing style and gear.

Altissimo and low notes were also a lot easier to play on the Viking M60. This is partly due to the less than optimal setup of my Selmer I'm sure, but I believe the M60 would provide some serious competition regardless.

Overtones were so ridiculously easier to play on this horn that I may reconsider practicing more advanced overtone exercises until I can find someone competent enough to work on my Mark VII.


Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Bell Stamp


The M60 was slightly trickier to modulate, or play nuances on. It might just be that I'm so used to the VII that the different response threw me off; after spending a few days with the Viking M60, it definitely got easier. Still, it seemed to me that this alto quickly wants to roar, whereas mine has a more gradual curve, and needs more push to really bark. That's not to say the M60 is hard to play soft, or from soft to loud, but there's less margin to play within, at a medium volume. So if you're going for a softer sound, with more of a sub-tone quality all over the range, that still projects, it may be something slightly harder to achieve on the M60. In this respect, the VII projected more at low and medium dynamics. On the other hand, if your playing style is more inspired by what is commonly referred to as the "lead sound", the Viking M60 would be the perfect instrument.

Consequently, and although I'm not a fan of playing this way, I could get absurdly loud on the M60, even on my rather modest setup: a James Bunte Model 42 in a .074 tip opening (so between a modern Meyer 5 and 6), with #2.5 D'Addario Reserve reeds (although the video was recorded with a #2.5 Henri Selmer reeds - review coming soon!). The Model 42 is a medium large chamber, low baffle piece and definitely not what you would typically call a screamer.

Intonation was much better on the Viking than on my Selmer, especially in the palm keys where the VII is quite sharp. The Viking M60 was also more consistent. I did not have to adjust as much for intonation when playing big interval jumps, or simply going up and down the horn, through the registers. Nevertheless, bringing down the pitch of the palm keys on the VII yields a certain kind of sound that I've come to love, and I missed the ability to play with this attribute on the M60. Again, one isn't better than the other - it would be more than reasonable to consider a more in tune instrument is technically the better one.

Watch the video below for a quick demonstration of the Viking M60 Valkyrie alto. As noted above, I'm using a James Bunte Model 42 in a .074 tip opening, a Henri Selmer #2.5 in this video and BG Super Revelation. Opening in YouTube and watching at the highest quality will give you the best sound.





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CONCLUSION

Without a shadow of a doubt, I can say that Rich Maraday is offering a killer horn with the Viking M60 Valkyrie alto. For half the price, or less, of a professional series saxophone from one of the "Big Four", you can get a similar build quality and attention to details, in a horn that sounds, plays and looks beautiful.

The complete package the M60 comes with makes it an incredible value for students who need a step up from student, or school-owned instruments. The quality of this alto will allow them to grow with it through high school, college and into their professional career if they're so inclined. Instead of purchasing a student or intermediate instrument which may need upgrading a few years along the line, or gambling on a used professional saxophone, it just makes more sense to get one of these wonderful instruments.

I would not hesitate to recommend the Viking line of instruments to advanced musicians and pros alike either. Even as an unapologetic Selmer aficionado, I can't overlook just how impressive the Viking M60 is. I'm not ready to jump ship, as my Selmer Mark VII fits my tonal preference better (in this regard the Viking M58S, and its more focused core, may have been more to my taste), but I would still be completely confident bringing the Valkyrie on any gig. I simply can't think of any horn in this price range that offers so much; at least that I've tried. This is the real thing.

Last but not least, Rich Maraday's vision for his company is uniquely centered around his customers. He'll personally spend time on the phone or through email, making sure you get the best saxophone for your money, your playing style and experience. The few conversations I had with Rich convinced me that he isn't just a salesman trying to make a quick buck. He is in it for the long run, and strives for 100% satisfaction.


Viking Valkyrie Alto Saxophone Cover 02


The Viking M60 Valkyrie alto saxophone is available directly through the Viking website for $2350 (currently on sale for $2150). Check out http://www.viking-instrument.net/ for an overview of his other models and sizes (the Viking line covers soprano to baritone), and stay tuned for new models coming out in the future.







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