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Bass Recorder Comparison -- Yamaha Maple YRB-61M versus Zenon Cherrywood 5500B,Dan Chernikoff, 2001-11-01 
I recently ordered two new F-Bass recorders from Courtly Music, on approval. I thought I'd post a description of the instruments and my own personal opinions on them. Note that this is just my personal evaluation of two specific instruments and based on my own playing habits, hand size, arm length, etc. Your mileage will vary! Plus keep in mind I'm an amateur recorder player (off and on for last 20 years), somewhere in the intermediate to upper-intermediate level, and have only been playing bass for about a year.

  1. Instrument Case

  2. Instrument Appearance

  3. Key Mechanism for F/F#

  4. Playing

  5. Sound

  6. Response

  7. Intonation

  8. Conclusions

Instrument Case

Both cases are nice looking; the Yamaha's comes with a key lock. Looking inside, the Yamaha case is form-fitted to the instrument's body. In fact it fits very tightly inside, and requires a small amount of force to remove each section. Very secure and protected. The Zenon case is comprised of separate compartments to hold each piece of the instrument. They are over-large in width, and the instrument rattles around inside quite a bit. In fact when it arrived the F/F# key levers were bent slightly (I assume during shipping) and interferred with each other, but easy to (carefully) bend back into proper position. Yamaha case has black velour inside, Zenon has a thinner, yellow-colored velour. Both come with a very long metal cleaning rod attached inside the case, a generous tub of cork grease, and fingering chart/instruction sheet written in Japanese.

Instrument Appearance

The Yamaha is a very impressive looking instrument. Outwardly looks just like pictures I've seen of the original bass made by Denner. Dark wood stain, nice complex baroque turning. The windway ramp is a much lighter color (unstained natural wood color, I assume). Shiny brass-colored keys with smooth, curvy shapes. The top surface of the head joint is polished. The shiney brass bocal has cork on each end, and has a complex S-shape. There is an elegant wooden mouthpiece that you insert onto one end of the bocal, and the other end goes into the top center of the headjoint cap. The bocal is curved so that it comes out to the back and to the side of the instrument. There is a notch in the larger turning on the foot piece, in which they inserted the screw to hold the pivot point for the F/F# key levers. Fit and finish on the instrument is excellent. Curved windway. Undercutting of the tone holes is apparent.

The Zenon is a lighter color -- almost yellow but still attractive looking. (I've seen other Zenons that were much darker in color). Distinct grain lines. Oiled but not stained. The turnings are a bit simpler but still have a Baroque look. The keys are less graceful; they are flat and have cutouts where the fingers press. The F/F# key has a long pair of flat levers. This is a direct-blow instrument, with a slight dishing-out around the "beak" on the head cap to accommodate player's lips. Fit and finish is not as good -- the cutout for the ramp is a bit lopsided, and the filing on the G/G# double hold is ragged. Straight windway, tone holes are not undercut. There is a cedar insert cut into the block for the windway. Bore seems smoother/shinier inside than the Yamaha.

Key Mechanism for F/F#

All the keys on both instruments have leather pads, and deep cut-outs around the toneholes so there is an edge that presses against the leather and seals well. The Yamaha has two keys arranged in-line. At rest they are both open. There are two straight levers. To play F, you press the inner-most lever, which engages the other lever and causes both keys to close. For F#, you press the outer lever and it closes only one key. The Zenon has the opposite layout -- the F# key is closed at rest. To play F you press the outer lever and it closes the one key. To play F# you press the inner lever, and it opens the F# key and engages the lever to close the F key. The Yamaha mechanism requires more force (strength in your pinkie finger) to play F than the Zenon and is nosier. However, both mechanisms work -- the pads don't leak. Also, the Yamaha key levers run straight up the bore, while the Zenon ones curve out to the side.


The Zenon seems a bit lighter in weight than the Yamaha. Thumbrest, keys and toneholes are in the right place (for my large hands) and work well. Not a problem reaching all the keys/toneholes even though it's a direct-blow instrument. The strange holes in the key levers actually help you position your fingers in the same place every time and are a nice idea (although they look funky). The Zenon speaks VERY well on the low notes. They are strong and sure, even F and F#, and very reliable even on intervals. The high notes are a bit more difficult, and it's hard to play them without increasing air speed and volume. High F is possible, but not easy, and won't play at all until the instrument warms up.

It took me a few days to figure out how to hold the Yamaha. The trick is to rotate the foot joint so the key levers are way out to the side -- much like I need to do with the plastic Yamaha tenor. The thumb rest is placed about a 1/2 inch too high for me and that makes it a bit tricky to get the best hand placement, as well. Playing it without the bocal (i.e., removing the cap, reversing the head, and blowing directly into the windway) is doable, but makes the reach a bit long and I find I start leaking the lower holes more on fast passages. The right-hand toneholes are very large, and you need to be precise in your hand position and finger placement or you leak and the low F won't sound. Playing with the bocal is definatly a good idea, the reach and finger placement becomes much more natural and easy. However, the bocal, because of it's S-shaped curve, really fills up with spit fast (but note that I tend to salivate alot when playing). When I blew the bocal out after 10-minutes of playing I was amazed how much moisture came out (made me feel like a french horn player!). The low notes will sound reliably if you get your hand position perfect and don't leak holes. The upper register is very responsive and can be played without any problems, at a nice even air pressure/volume. High F is touchy, but easier than on the Zenon (and you need to use a very tiny thumb opening).


Richie at Courtly Music described the Yamaha as a "Baroque" sound and the Zenon as a "Renaissance" sound. Now I see what he means. The Zenon is strong on the bass notes, and has a full mellow sound. The Yamaha has a more refined, intense, maybe "reedier" sound. The lower notes aren't as strong, and the high notes are fuller and more sure than the Zenon. Going back and forth between the two, the Zenon sounds "dull" and "stuffy" in comparison. However, playing the Zenon with a bit more air pressure rounds out the tone quite a bit at the expense of higher volume (i.e., might sound too loud in a small consort).


Both instruments have remarkable response! I can double and triple tongue, do intervals, etc., extremely fast and it doesn't miss a lick. Hard attacks produce a nice chiffy sound on both instruments, but slightly more pronounced on the Zenon. And using the bocal on the Yamaha doesn't seem to adversely impact the speaking time, suprisingly enough. The Yamaha seems more flexible in regards to variations in dynamics -- you have (for a recorder) a good amount of dynamic range before the pitch bending gets too noticible, more so than on the Zenon.


Both instruments play pretty close in tune, according to my tuning meter set at A=440. On both the low F is flat but can be blown up to pitch without effecting the tone, and some notes in the middle are sharper or flatter and need to be favored. Highest notes are a bit sharp -- couldn't bring the highest e and f down to concert pitch on the Zenon without pulling out the head and loosing the tuning of the rest of the instrument. Yamaha fared better on the high notes, but still a bit sharp. But the more I play them, the better the tuning gets throughout the range, so I suspect it's more a "learning curve" on my part than the instrument being out of tune (except maybe for the highest notes).


They are both wonderful instruments and I would favorably recommend either (or both, if you're rich!) Based on appearance and "fit and finish" (i.e., workmanship), the Yamaha wins hands down. For sound, it really depends on what you want. The Zenon is strong on the lower register weaker on the top, and the Yamaha the opposite. The Yamaha has a more reedy, complex, intense tone. The Zenon is a bit mellower and simpler/duller sounding, but definatly stronger in the lower and middle range. However, for playability I felt the Zenon was miles ahead, at least for my short 10-day trial. I suspect that after a few months of getting used to the Yamaha it would play as easily, but using the bocal is a must IMHO. A floor peg would probably also help alleviate the Yamaha thumb-rest-positioning problem, although that's a hand-size issue.

Deciding on "the best instrument" is a very personal thing, and you really have to try several yourself in order to know which is best for you. I ended up choosing to keep the Zenon, mostly because of its remarkable ease at playing the low notes, because the keywork is placed better (for my hand-size) and operates quieter, and because it is direct blow (I feel that gives me more control, and I was worried about mosture problems in the bocal since I play so "wetly"). The fact that it cost 20% less than the Yamaha was a nice bonus, but not really a deciding factor.

[I hope this long diatribe was useful and of interest. Apologizes for the