The Vintage Conn 8D


Last week an article was featured on, “Conn-Selmer Inc. turns out classic horns for world’s best musicians.” Also last week I got back to exploring my roots in the Conn 8D school of horn playing so it is a good time to review what a “vintage” 8D is.

The first obvious thing to note is that the Conn 8D is a classic instrument beloved by many players. But, as I noted last week, it is a distinctive design and “some hornists … hate 8Ds almost as much as some hate the mellophone.”

The model was first produced in 1937; this advertising image from 1956 is linked from the Conn Loyalist website. The Conn 8D was basically an improved upon version of a nickel silver Horner model Kruspe and for many years was one of the best professional level horns you could purchase. There is a brief history of the early production of the Conn 8D by Kendall Betts over in The Conn 8D website, where he notes that the first instruments have serial numbers in the 320,000 series. Betts relates that

Jim Klapp, sales manager at Conn in the ’60s, told me on a visit to the Elkhart plant in ’69 that the 8D was based on Arthur Berv’s Kruspe with certain modifications, mainly the taper of a Schmidt leadpipe. That might explain why the Conn had slightly better intonation than the Kruspe, and was not prone to “wolfs.” He also said that the bell taper was changed slightly in the early ’60s due to new mandriles and a new bell spinner on the job. They went to a thinner bell as well, then. Big mistake IMO. My old ones have a larger (in the tail, ala Kruspe) heavier bell, and sound better.

This gets at also that there have been a number of changes over the years to this classic horn. The Conn 8D has been produced in three different plants, in order:

  • Elkhart IN (1937-1969)
  • Abilene TX (1969-86)
  • Eastlake OH (1986-present)

[see A Brief History of the Conn Company (1874-present) for much more detail on plants, ownership changes, etc.]

The general viewpoint out there on the three production runs is that the Elkhart instruments are the classic, “vintage” 8D and most professionals using this type of horn are playing horns of this vintage to this day. They have serial numbers that run from “pre-letter” numbers into serial numbers preceded by a single letter (E, L, etc.). The key spotting feature is the engraving on the bell which will read “C. G. Conn LTD, Elkhart, IND, USA.” Earlier instruments of this vintage will have a mechanical thumb valve (very early with slide tubes made with ends that are soldered on) and later instruments of this vintage have a string action thumb valve with slide tube ends that are rolled.

However, be careful! Conn made a couple unfortunate decisions and not only moved production of the instruments to Abilene, TX to lower costs but also changed key elements of the design and recycled serial numbers. In the same Conn 8D website we learn from Randy Harrison that

A Conn 8D with a six digit serial number and no letter prefix is not necessarily an Elkhart 8D. When Conn moved to Abilene, Texas they did make horns with six digit serial numbers that drastically overlap the Elkhart numbers….The Abilene horns have 2nd valve pull rings that are as thick as the ones on the new Cleveland [Eastlake] horns. Elkhart horns, with the exception of the “N” series have rather thin pull rings. The most positive way to tell an Abilene 8D from an Elkhart 8D is to remove a rotary valve and measure the rotor with either a micrometer or a set of dial calipers. The rotor of an Elkhart 8D is tapered. An Abilene 8D has cylindrical rotors. The cylindrical rotors were one of the biggest design flaws in the Abilene horns.

The Abilene horns are in general horns to avoid. They can be OK but the valves are problematic in particular. I once had a student that was very proud of her 300,000 series 8D and it was not something I enjoyed having to tell her that it was in fact an Abilene 8D with a recycled serial number. I pulled a valve out and the cylindrical valves confirmed it for her. Elkhart horns are clearly marked Elkhart; later production instruments are marked “C. G. Conn LTD, USA.”

One obvious feature that was different between the two plants was the bells were made thicker. This was a change driven by the school market, and most horns geared in this direction today are made with somewhat heavier, thicker bells to avoid denting but with a resulting different feel and sound than the classic Elkhart 8D.

Current production Conn 8Ds are produced in their Eastlake factory. The bells are still heavier than those seen on vintage Elkhart 8Ds but the valves are again tapered and quality control is good. I have worked with many students with recent production Conn 8Ds.

In the article though (if you have read this far be sure to check their article) the story was about the new Vintage 8D and their use by members of the Cleveland Orchestra. The Vintage 8D is a current Conn product, produced since 2008, which Conn describes in their website as follows:

From the Pro Shop in Eastlake, Ohio, the new Vintage 8D introduces a new age of custom horns to C.G. Conn. The Vintage series provides new options of clarity, flexibility, sound and performance for professionals who demand the very best from their instruments.

Along with an extreme high level of craftmenship, Vintage horns include these features:

Lightweight, annealed bell, annealed lead pipe, stress free bracing and assembly, extra long pull on 2nd Bb slide, traditional string linkage on all rotors, hand lapped slides and rotors (tapered), sized solder joints, brass bead rings, hand flipper (optional), screw bell (optional)

You can glean several things from the description there but the main thing is they are trying to imitate a later production Elkhart 8D with a thinner bell material and better workmanship than seen on more recent production instruments. There are a few obvious changes on the new instruments such as the rounded first valve B-flat horn tuning slide (photo here), and the instrument overall is aimed at the professional rather than a school market. There is certainly a niche market for this model as there are only so many low mileage Elkhart 8Ds left out there to rebuild.

The thinner (“lightweight”) bell in nickel silver is certainly in some players minds a key element for this type of horn. This is certainly a part of why the Abilene horns in particular gained such a poor reputation, as they felt like “tanks” to buyers familiar with the Elkhart horns and the quality control was not as good.

It would be easy to go on and on, but one pair of questions I know comes up often and should be addressed before we close this overview of the Conn 8D:

  • Why nickel silver? If all other variables are the same a nickel silver horn will have the brightest sound. The 8D has a large throated bell which produces a darker sound, so if made of brass they can potentially sound dull. This effect will vary from player to player and also is impacted quite a bit by other factors such as the hardness of the bell. Back in the Elkhart era Conn made a brass version of the 8D that was marketed as the 28D which had a smaller throated bell [UPDATE: See the first comment for more]. Today the approximate equivalent of that horn in their line is the 9DY.
  • Why are there so few custom horns made in nickel silver? Small custom makers of new horns tend to almost exclusively work with brass horns. The short version is nickel silver is more difficult to obtain in small quantities and to work with in general. Overall it is more suited to a large production, factory environment if the goal is to construct an entire horn from nickel silver.

I have tried the new Vintage 8D a couple times at workshops. It is an option I would be interested to give an extended test drive at some point and for sure is an instrument to consider among your options if you have an affinity for the feel and sound of a classic Elkhart Conn 8D.

UPDATE: I should have also linked this site for more information,

University of Horn Matters