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Conn 16E Mellophonium
Conn's promotional materials from 1959 described the Conn 16E as follows:
New "voice" designed to meet the trend in stage and and concert bands and orchestras. Easy to play in the colorful range but with the sound projected by this "solo" bell straight model. New effects and balance are made possible and any brass player can play this new horn. Features include: Crysteel valves, balanced for easy holding, even scale, full voice in alto range, Lustre-Conn finish. Bell size 11 1/8". Also available: Satin silver plated with polished silver inside bell, Satin silver plated with polished gold bell.
The Conn 16E features a large .500" bore and was equipped with a "Conn 1" mellophone mouthpiece.
A "new" Conn 16E was acquired for this review. The instrument was constructed in 1969, but has been warehoused "unissued" until 2004. The instrument is in mint condition and included all the original paperwork (see registration card below).
The Conn 16E was available for purchase in the spring of 1957 and was manufactured as late as 1979. They gained favor in marching bands as a horn substitute until supplanted by designs released by F.E. Olds and Selmer Bach in the 1970s.
Conn utilized artists such as Don Elliott to promote this instrument to the general public.
Don performed with the horn as a "Conn Artist" on numerous albums and even a television appearance on The Steve Allen Show, the forerunner of NBC's "The Tonight Show." The Conn Mellophonium was also featured on the Captain Kangaroo Show and could be seen on late 1950's episodes of the Lawrence Welk show.
The most famous use of this instrument occurred with the Stan Kenton Orchestra. From 1960 through December 1963 a section of these instruments were utilized in a section. The "Mellophonium" band that made up Kenton's New Era of Modern Music recorded numerous award-winning albums and garnered favor with fans across the world.
A longstanding myth surrounding the Conn 16E pertains to Stan Kenton and possibly composer Johnny Richard's involvement in the design of the instrument. One anecdote even described an alcohol-infused hacksaw party involving Stan and Johnny in the Indiana University band room that led to the creation of a bell-front prototype utilized by Conn to create the 16E. The author made great attempts to confirm Kenton's involvement with the creation of this instrument, but all evidence appears to indicate Kenton adopted the existing 16E into his organization and had little involvement in the horn's design.
Additionally, explanation of a lack of Kenton involvement in the design of the Conn 16E is supported by documented evidence that includes the announcement of the instrument in an Annual Report published by Conn dated April 30, 1957. This particular document features a photograph of the Austin Peay State Marching Band utilizing the new Conn 16E. No reference was made referencing the Stan Kenton Orchestra in the report, an oversight that would likely not have been made by the savvy marketing minds at Conn. Kenton wouldn't utilize the Conn 16E in a recording session until October 1959, over two years later.
Originally, Conn 16Es were shipped with a true mellophone mouthpiece. Labeled "Conn 1," these mouthpieces utilized a cornet-sized backbore with a cup size smaller than the traditional alto mouthpiece. They are appropriate for this instrument and were utilized successfully by artist such as Don Elliott and student musicians across the world. However, cornet mouthpieces and custom mouthpieces were also commonly utilized with this instrument. Some players in the Kenton Orchestra utilized the stock Conn 1 mouthpieces, but other players utlized alternative mouthpieces. Tony Scodwell had custom trumpet-sized mouthpieces created for the mellophonium by trumpet maker Renold Schilke. The Schilke design incorporated a trumpet rim, French horn cup, and a flugelhorn backbore. At the time it was a revolutionary approach that was eventually mimicked by nearly every manufacturer of bell-front mellophones.
This review was performed utilizing a Monette cornet mouthpiece with a Flumpet cup. Understanding this instrument was not designed for such a small mouthpiece, all attempts will be made to objectively adjudicate this instrument.
A play test was performed with the Conn 16E utilizing a Monette cornet mouthpiece (size 2) with a deep v-shaped Flumpet cup as well as the original Conn 1 mouthpiece. A Peterson Virtual Strobe tuner was also utilized.
The sound quality of the instrument is very reminiscent of the numerous recordings the reviewer has heard of the Stan Kenton Mellophonium Band. Playing the instrument also helps to answer some of the questions generated by listening to the albums. For example, the troublesome "chipping" heard in the upper register in recordings is very easily understood once the horn is played. he upper register is quite "mushy" with very little definition existing between the slots. I am sure this symptom is only amplified by the use of a non-standard mouthpiece.
The middle range is relatively open. Characteristic of all mellophones, the lower range (below the first line E) is considerably flat. This phenomenon is less profound when utilizing the Conn 1 mouthpiece.
Attempts were made to balance the main tuning slide with adjustments to the three slides associated with each of the pistons. The challenge for the player incorporating this technique would be to choose their "poison." Is it better to have nearly every note on the horn out of tune, but close enough to adjust, or to have some pitches locked in and some pitches way off? This helps to answer a longstanding interest the reviewer has had with a published photograph from the Kenton Mellophonium Band period (see below). Why was the main tuning slide extended so far?
The Kenton Mellophonium players originated from different playing backgrounds. For example, Gene Roland was a former member of the Kenton trumpet section and trombone section. Dwight Carver and David Horton were horn players. The remainder of the players had trumpet backgrounds.
I played tested the Conn 16E with the main tuning slide in different positions. The open tone series appeared to be at most in tune with the main slide extended approximately one inch when using the flumpet mouthpiece. First valve combinations, however, resulted in pitches extremely under pitch. When the flumpet mouthpiece was replaced with the original Conn 1, the open tone series was very flat.
It's important to note that these horns were shipped with a tuning crook that would change the key of the horn from F to E-flat. While this crook wasn't utilized for this play test, it is very likely the intonation of the horn would have been improved, especially considering how under pitched the first valve combinations were without the crook.
Obviously, the amount of respect this reviewer had for the Kenton Mellophonium players increased exponentially every minute the Conn 16E was play tested. These gentlemen were given the task of making world class music with tragically flawed horns. They had to rely on their sense of pitch to make these horns work.
The upper register is only slightly more constrained than the Conn 16E's modern mellophone counterparts. The slots get mushy at the high b-flat and definition erodes dramatically at the high C level. This results in that characteristic "whine" that is so profoundly featured on the Kenton recordings.
The "trick" with this instrument is playing notes through the scale in tune. The amount of pitch variance between valve combinations is incredible. Players who spent a great deal of time on this instrument would no doubt adjust to its flaws, but it's unclear how long of a period this transformation would take.
The bottom sprung valves featured on this instrument are a bit sluggish and could potentially have a negative impact on performance.
The fit in finish of the instrument is very good. This instrument was constructed with a high level of skill one would come to expect from the craftsmen from the Elkhart facility in the 1960s.
The physical balance is good for this instrument, clearly aided by the presence of the Conn counterweight.
Marching with this horn in a band setting would be a challenge. The proximity of the bell from the player (approximately two feet from the end of the mouthpiece to the end of the flare, compared to 18" on the Yamaha YMP-203) would make it difficult for young players to hear themselves well.
While the historical significance of the Conn 16E cannot be overstated, the instrument itself is flawed. his noble beast was the first widely used commercially manufactured bell-front mellophone. While it blazed a trail in the world of marching bands and created its unique niche in history with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, this horn is not a good instrument and pales in comparison to the instruments available today.
Regardless, I love this instrument no less now than before the play test.
Where to Buy
The Conn 16E has been out of production since 1979. However, great specimens of this instrument can be routinely encountered on eBay.com by performing searches on keywords including: mellophonium, marching mellophone, marching French horn, mellohpone, etc.
Instruments incorporating the design of the Conn 16E are still being produced by firms such as the Czechoslovakian firm Amati, although the quality level of these instruments has not been confirmed.
-Scooter Pirtle (email)