For the last 25 years I’ve played exclusively on a Besson 982 EEb Sovereign in silver plate made in 1992 (middle of the picture). It has served me well! It’s always been a bit flat in the top register (which I can work round things with alternate fingerings) but apart from that it does what I need it to do.
However, more recently I’ve been looking to find the mythical ‘perfect tuba’. I have a sound in my head and I want to find something that makes that sound. I think the best way to describe what I’m looking for is something that makes a noise like a funky version of a Merlin engine that powers a Spitfire. Something with grunt, bite and character.
In my quest I have tried all sorts:
- Yamaha Maestro and Neo – a bit too consistent and characterless for my taste.
- Wessex – not bad but not very exciting, low end not very open on the one I tried.
- Miraphone Norwegian Star – nice, distinctive Miraphone sound but what on earth do I do with my little finger and thumb?!?!?
- Meinl Weston 2040 – nice big sound but same issue with my fingers and thumb as the Norwegian Star.
- B&S 3181 – nice grunty sound but terrible intonation in the high register on the one I tried
- York – Quite similar to my 982, but I already have a 982 so moved on
- Miraphone M7000 Ambassador – Big and heavy, I quite liked it but the low end wasn’t quite open enough.
- Mr Tuba – Fruity sound, good intonation, ergonomics not great for me as I needed to support too much of the weight of the instrument with my right arm.
- Catelinet (same as Geneva Symphony) – I quite liked it but it was a bit too orchestral sounding for me, rich sound and good intonation.
- Old Besson 981 – wooly and unfocused in my opinion (why do people play these!!)
- New Besson 984 – quirky sound, more double bass rather than electric bass sounding, didn’t quite have the grunt or clarity I was looking for.
- New Besson 983 – ok, but again my little finger isn’t programmed to play tuba.
- New Besson 982 and 981 – consistent but a bit boring, a bit like a reliable family car but I’m looking for rally car.
- Willson 3400TA – really sweet and unique sound in mid and high register, stuffy low end and v expensive!!
- Imperial 19″ bell – very similar to my 982 and maybe even better (did I really say that) but the one I tried wasn’t for sale!
(Is anyone still reading this?!?!?)
I started to come to the conclusion that the tuba I had was probably my ideal tuba as I couldn’t find anything that played any better!
At the same time I have been thinking about getting a 4th valve conversion and changing it to a rotary valve. My old teacher Oren Marshall had had this done on a Sovereign and he said that it really opened up the low register, which is something that appeals to me as I spend a lot of time playing low bass lines. Having realised that I already own a great tuba I was reluctant to contemplate chopping it up, just in case things didn’t go to plan so I started looking for a 982 Sovereign that was a similar age to mine so I could do the 4th valve conversion on that. After a bit of a search online I found a 982 for sale which just happened to be in the possession of a certain Mike Johnson (he’s the guy who does the 4th valve conversions), small world! I went to give it a blow and really liked it so bought it (it’s the one pictured on the left of the picture). It has a bit more core to it’s sound and plays better in tune in the high register compared to my original 982, although it isn’t quite as open in the low register. However, just as I’m all set to book this instrument to have a new 4th valve Mike asks if I’ve every played a 15″ bell Imperial, he reckoned it’d be just up my street.
Hmm, what to do!?! I’ve just found a great tuba and the man who’s sold it to me and seems to know more about tuba design than Steve Jobs knew about tech design has just told me to try something else. He wasn’t the first person to suggest an Imperial but I’d almost dismissed them as that’s what I played as a kid until I graduated onto a Sovereign! Anyway, I contacted a few local brass bands to see if anyone had one lying unused in a cupboard and sure enough Farnham Brass Band did and they actually were looking to sell it. I go and try it out and instantly fall in love with it (it’s the one on the right of the picture). What a noise! I think I have finally found the musical Spitfire that I’ve been looking for for the last 6 years, and it’s over 40 years old, and cost me less than quarter of the price of any new instrument that I’ve looked at. The only problem is it’s a ‘low pitch’ instrument i.e. plays flat and has a small mouthpiece receiver so it needs a bit of tinkering with so that I can play it in anger. No problem says Mike! I’m now just waiting for a slot in his workshop schedule.
To be continued……..