In the past month I have had the luxury of visits to my studio by two excellent horn makers (Atkinson and Patterson) and a lengthy E-mail conversation with yet another (Medlin). Those experiences have pointed out to me even more the black art of making Geyer (and Knopf) style horns.
Black art? It really seems like some kind of magic to experience how apparently small differences of design will make huge differences in how you perceive the playing quality and sound of an instrument. The high Bb is well known as a note to test on Geyer style horns (more here), but there are a lot of other differences obvious ranging from subtle things like perception of “clicks” (more here) to much more audible differences.
For example, production horns don’t tend to have long soldered connections between tubes of the length seen in this photo. Note there is no brace between the tube next to the bell and the bell, with a long soldered connection barely visible (and much easier to see in reality than in a photo). All the custom makers I have had contact with recently make use of this type of connection to varying degrees, which makes for a more connected, solid instrument, but requires more skillful construction and potentially more involved cleanup in soldering. Production horns for those reasons tend to have most or even all connections done with braces.
Speaking of braces, that is another variable and it is hugely eye opening to compare the bracing on several otherwise similar horns. Brace placement is done very intentionally in the hands of a fine maker and certainly impacts how a horn plays. There are choices to be made that are based on often years of slight variations and experimentation. From the perspective of the horn buyer you will see that some makers leave out braces that other horns have, others use styles of brace that are different than others in the same general locations, etc. It is not haphazardly done in any way, it is actually another very critical element of how a horn plays.
Some other major differences between horns I was able to briefly try included visible things such as reduction of the number of joints (especially by Atkinson with their new valve section, but also through the use of long pieces of tubing as well) on down to less visible things such as hollow valves (Atkinson again, which made a rather substantial difference) and of course subtle differences of the taper of the conical sections of the horn. As another example, I believe that you can perceive differences in sound and playing qualities between horns that, while otherwise identical, have brass or have nickel silver slide tubes.
The most eye opening differences I experienced when trying these horns recently related to a pair of otherwise identical Patterson horns, their Geyer and Knopf pattern horns. Most would consider them to be very similar designs, which they are (more here). The horns he had were made with exactly the same tapers and materials, and it was extremely interesting how different they felt and sounded. The only physical differences were the slightly different wrap and brace placements, yet those differences were easily felt and heard. It was not like one was actually better either, but clearly they were different horns — even though from the shop of the same maker and made with the same materials and tapers. But with that being said, I want to emphasize again that both instruments were fine instruments; the differences will mainly make them “speak” to different buyers who are coming at their testing of the instruments from different perspectives.
There are many fine horn makers out there, try all the horns you can and take a look at the small differences you can observe between different horns of outwardly the same model. It is an interesting study and part of what makes a great horn stand out to you from one that is not set up as ideally for your way of playing the horn.
And to close, thank you again to Atkinson and Patterson for stopping by with your horns, and I hope to develop the conversation with Medlin into an interview article in the near future.