That is an interesting and at the same time fascinating question. And the answer is somewhat comprehensive:
A number of influences work on older instruments that we believe sometimes have more of an effect on the sound than the design itself. The finish is one of these factors. Lacquer on the brass results in – depending on the type and thickness of the lacquer – unique surface tensions. This holds likewise – although to another extent – for a layer applied by electroplating (e.g. nickel, silver or gold) which, unlike lacquer, undergoes chemical bonding with the brass, and for this reason is also more durable.
Let’s first take a look at the lacquered instruments – with SELMER, the lacquer is frequently absent, partially and even sometimes completely. This has to do with the type of lacquer that was used. The composition of the lacquer that was sprayed-on affects the resonance behavior and the sound of the instruments. SELMER decided (then and still now) for a lacquer with a limited service life. It is to be expected for new instruments as well that the lacquer will partially start to chip in a few years. Nonetheless, the manufacturer is of the opinion (encouraged by thumbs up or thumbs down in countless tests with the advisory staff – comprised from time immemorial of professional musicians) that sound must stand at the forefront, with cosmetic aspects playing a lesser role.
At any rate, the less lacquer there is, the louder is the horn – and the easier it responds – because in this case the “damper” is missing. The absence of lacquer is an advantage for some players (especially if they want to play loud or would rather play defensively, i.e., if they welcome support from the equipment itself). Others tend to “holler” on such horns; it’s completely different from player to player.
It is hopefully clear by now that differences in sound associated with the lacquer are very much dependent on the individual history of the instrument. Was it groomed, if so, with which products? Was it perhaps cleaned too thoroughly at one time (maybe held on the polishing wheel in the course of a major overhaul, whereby material was abraded), in what kind of surroundings was it played or stored, what kind of climate was it exposed to, etc. In the end, all of this effects the vibration behavior of the instrument.
Now let’s take a look at silver (generally in very good shape, because, as a rule, SELMER applied a thick layer, and silver is much more robust than lacquer). In our experience, silver-plated SELMER Saxophones sound somewhat softer, yet at the same time “more brilliant.” Silver is applied by electroplating. Depending on how long the body remains in the bath during electroplating, the resultant thickness will more or less vary accordingly. We assume that in those days the stopwatch was not eyed very meticulously (the price of silver was not so high then and consequently was not a significant factor). The sound-relevant results are inevitably different.
For a time, it was customary to lacquer Saxophones anew when their appearance was no longer perfect. Lacquering in itself is not so much the problem, rather, the pretreatment by means of (excessive) polishing (= material degradation). On the one hand, we’ve seen old SELMER Saxophones that were relacquered at the French SELMER factory (including pretreatment) that were so accurately polished and lacquered as to be hardly noticeable. Some of these Saxophones were so exceptionally good as regards their playing features that the statement of principle, “a relacquered Saxophone is bad or no longer of much value,” would get no approval from us!
On the other hand, however, there are also relacquered Saxophones that have ended up really “spoiled.” The bodies of these horns were “polished” so far down as to remove even the most minute scratch; tone-hole chimneys were polished so thin that the edges became sharp and cut into the pads. After that, a really thick layer of lacquer was applied because the whole idea was to make the Saxophone look really beautiful again. The new coating was then really intact, but at the same time it held the material structure together which rendered the vibrational properties so dysfunctional that response and tone development could only be described as “miserable”!
Another aspect: The climate in which the instrument was played, the degree of humidity and salinity to which it was exposed. Some years back, we sold a museum-ripe Mark VI Tenor Saxophone with original dark lacquer to one of our professional customers. He returned with it only 3 months later from a tour in Saudi Arabia, and we could hardly believe our eyes: The previously impeccable looking Saxophone was totally devoid of lacquer! Pure brass: it looked like it had been sand-blasted. As it turned out, wind, desert sand and salty air had worn the lacquer completely away. The Saxophone’s sound had changed, but neither for the better nor for the worse – it was just different.
We are familiar as well with the story of the dance musician’s horn that was played for many years directly at the ocean. And that’s where it stood all evening long. It was ritzerot and really rough, inside and out – and that’s how it sounded too.
In a nutshell: The life history of a Saxophone has an essential influence not only on its appearance, but on its sound and response behavior as well. Accordingly, each of these old instruments sounds different. The differences are sometimes slight, but sometimes also colossal.
And there is yet another aspect to take into consideration, namely, the player and his or her affinity to visual appearances. It shouldn’t be underestimated that when a really used looking instrument evokes a feeling of “disgust” in the player, it is not likely to sound good. On the other hand, if he or she is confronted with a Vintage Finish and approaches the horn with an equally positive attitude, then there’s nothing standing in the way of authentic expression. This holds as well for Saxophones that even after sixty years still look spic and span (we have something like this in stock too). We sometimes have musicians who a priori reject “mint condition” and look for an old instrument that preferably does not look new – and the opposite holds true as well. Psychology is a factor that is often underestimated. The more comfortable the player feels with the whole package (of which visual appearance is a part), the more he or she will want to play the instrument and the better will the Saxophone-player-companionship sound with the jointly produced sonorities.