Thursday, June 7, 2018

Review: TM Custom Tenor (Tenor Madness)

I've played on Selmer horns for some 16 years. I've owned five Mark VIs and one Super Balanced Action (SBA). Each of them were unique and fun to play, but last year I decided my sound concept had changed enough to warrant moving on from the early Mark VI I was playing. I was looking for an SBA, but I was open to other possibilities. I subsequently played a bunch of horns, including:
  • several Mark VI, including an early VI in better lacquer condition than my previous horn 
  • several SBAs a few relacquered and one original in fantastic condition
  • Selmer Reference 54 and 36
  • Selmer Series III
  • Conn 10M
  • Bundy Special (a stencil early Keilwerth)
  • Tenor Madness Custom
The Mark VIs all had a certain tone color I was looking to get away from. The SBAs came close to what I wanted, but I couldn't push the SBAs as hard as I'd like to. The Conn 10M was too spread sounding for me as was the Bundy Special. While I was at the Tenor Madness shop in Iowa, I tried their TM Custom. They had a bunch of vintage horns, and I played the majority of them, but in the end I kept going back and forth between an SBA and their TM Custom.

Voicing the Horn
An important part of trying the TM Custom is a process their shop calls "voicing the horn." This is the process of customizing the horn to the player in terms of sound and resistance. First and foremost, there are several necks to choose from, including large, medium, and small bore necks, immediately presenting a number of possibilities. You can really dial in your resistance and sound, ranging from something like a large bore Keilwerth to something with a lot more focus like a Mark VI. You have a choice between rolled or straight tone holes, with the rolled tone holes getting a more spread sound and the straight tone holes getting you more core. You can choose a horn with or without high F#, which I found affects the resistance of the horn. There are also several finishes.. From there, there are more customizations that can happen, including neck screws, thumb hooks, etc.

First Impression
After settling on the options I liked best, which were the medium bore neck, straight tone holes, high F#, and a traditional lacquer finish, I quickly realized this was a fantastic horn. In terms of resistance and flexibility, it played just as comfortably as any vintage Selmer I could remember playing, Mark VI, SBA, or BA. The sound was beautiful, resonant, and flexible. Importantly, I could really push the horn without the sound thinning out or getting uncomfortable. 

Another important test came when I played for the first time at a gig. I find a lot of times that horns that feel OK or even great in the practice room don't feel great in higher volume situations, like even just playing acoustic jazz in a medium-large space. However, the Custom played great at the gig too, and it has continues to play great in each performance situation I take it to. In full disclosure, this is now my main tenor.

Resistance, Flexibility, and Sound
For me the two most important aspects of a horn are its resistance and its sound. When I use the word resistance, I mean the resistance a horn gives you when you blow through it. Typically, a player is at their best with a balanced resistance, not too much or too little, and this can be different for different players. I personally find that I like a lower resistance, something like an SBA. As I already mentioned above, you can choose between different necks which vastly change the resistance level. The medium bore neck is a very good fit for me. It has a light resistance, which offers a lot of flexibility in terms of sound and is still feels comfortable while pushing the horn in loud performances. The resistance on the medium bore neck is also a good fit for my altissimo and overtone technique. There is enough resistance to lock into the altissimo note or overtone with some color and edge while also being light enough to play easily and feel easy and natural in terms of breath.

The sound I get with my current setup on the TM has warmth, fatness, plenty of core, and a nice brilliance. It has enough punch so that I can hear the core of my sound from behind the horn, helping me feel like I can play whatever technically challenging idea I have and helping me hear my intonation clearly. This last bit is something I find very important in a horn. Also, because of the lower resistance of the neck I'm playing on, I get a lot of flexibility in my tone, meaning I can inflect my timbre and pitch easily. The horn's overall tone is warm but vibrant (think SBA-type sound), but I can push it towards the brighter end if I like.

Ergonomics (physical comfort)
The ergonomics of the horn feel great. The key work feels similar to modern Mark VI-inspired key work. It's comfortable and gets the job done nicely. Importantly for my own taste, the palm keys, spatula keys, and side keys don't feel too big under my hands, which I've observed on some modern saxes.

I've been playing the horn for several months now, and I haven't had any problems physically. The neck angle, which feels typical, and the hand position are both good in terms of long-term comfort. The weight of the horn also feels comfortable and typical as well.  Essentially, the horn is in good shape ergonomically.

I know this is secondary to how the instrument plays, but the horn is beautiful. The engraving is ornate, clear and takes its cues from vintage instruments. Nothing is overstated in appearance. I have the cognac lacquer version of the Custom, which looks like a vintage horn in mint condition.

Neck Comparison
Besides the medium bore neck, I’ve also borrowed a GT neck, which is a new development from the TM shop. It’s has a bit more resistance than the medium bore neck but still has a malleable sound, something like an early Mark VI. I made this comparison video so you could get an idea of the difference between the two:

The TM Custom has so much going for it. With my setup, it's an SBA-like modern horn, and it does that job superbly well. This is subjective of course, but I like it better than the SBAs I've played. For someone else with a different neck it could be a Mark VI-like horn, and to another player with the rolled tone holes it could be a Conn 10M-like horn. For what I'm going for the horn is a perfect fit.


  1. Excellent post. We had a similar experience at the TM shop. I have received some push back from some of my fellow Selmer-phile friends who refuse to consider anything modern being in the same league as our beloved VIs and SBAs (I've been guilty of that in the past as well, so I use the term Selmer-philes lovingly and with respect to Selmer-philes everywhere). And it was hard for me initially to dare say that I enjoy playing our TM horn better than any other horn I've played. Funny, though, some of my Selmer-phile friends have reluctantly said "your horn sounds amazing." It was worth the trek to Waterloo to try a bunch of setups and variations on the TM platform.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Joe. Apparently, the shop is coming out with a new Selmer-inspired TM horn, so it will be interesting to hear the difference.

  2. I like that couch in your studio. Can you customize it as well? ;) seriously, it sounds like a great horn!

    1. Shauli! I was lucky to get that cruddy couch!

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. I bought an unlacquered TM Custom a little more than a year ago to replace the 1937 Martin my dad played in the 30's and '40's. Although, I'm still a novice, I love my TM horn. I've been to their shop a few times and am always treated very well. And their techs are the best.

    1. I tried the unlacquered horn, and I really loved it.

  4. What kind of mouthpieces have you tried on the horn? Is it picky?

    1. I've played a number of different mouthpieces on the honr, but mostly medium baffle jazz pieces, hard rubber and metal. To me, the horn isn't picky at all.