Curt Altarac, a fellow saxophone repair specialist here in North Carolina put together a great article at MusicMedic.com based on the experience of one of his apprentices fitting the keys (aka rebuilding the mechanics) of a cheap East Asian import sax.
Any of you who are repairmen reading this are immediately getting clammy, and perhaps getting cramps in your hands just thinking about it. And if a former apprentice of mine is reading this– see? I’m not cruel and unusual. Just cruel.
Somehow this article slipped under my radar, but for those of you who are mechanically minded it is a great answer to “what is the difference between a $400 saxophone and a $4000 saxophone?”.
In a word, craftsmanship.
One of the things you’ll notice reading Curt’s article is that its really a lot of little things adding up to make the job of perfecting the keywork much more intensive and time consuming than it normally would be.
Its getting things right that takes time, and therefore money. Getting things to 80 or 90 percent right can be done in less than 80 or 90 percent of the time it takes to get things 100 percent right. Just like when you practice a piece of music, its the last few percent on the way to perfection that take up most of your time. Like a logarithmic curve approaching the Y-axis or a massed particle approaching lightspeed, you can approach perfection– but never meet it. The closer you get to perfection the more energy it takes.
I do believe that the cheap imported saxophones play a very valuable role– the role of being a 3–4 year horn that gets you started on the cheap. One that if you treat it right will last you just about until you start to notice its shortcomings.
Perhaps my experience visiting a factory in Vietnam plays a part in this, but I also believe that these instruments play an important part in bringing up standards of living in the locales where they are manufactured. What is apparently unprofitable and unwanted work here in the US is considered moderately skilled labor elsewhere, allowing folks to earn a decent living and adding choice to their lives.