On The Wire: Behind the Scenes with Fan-Chia Tao

Interview by Laurinel Owen

The Strad, February 2003 Vol. 114 No. 1354 page 208>

D’Addario’s Fan-Chia Tao takes strings apart and analyses them in order to solve player’s problems.

I am trained as an electrical engineer and have worked for several hi-tech companies designing hardware products that power the internet. I am also a violinist, violist, and avid chamber music player. In 1999, just by fluke, I opened the New York Times Help Wanted section and saw that J. D’Addario & Co. was looking for an acoustical engineer. After my interview I was offered the job and moved to Long Island. As Director of Research and Development I cover all our products: guitar strings, drum heads and a complete line of musical accessories, but I take the lead in the bowed strings.

Much of what I do is try to develop and design new strings, following in the footsteps of Norman Pickering, who worked here for 20 years. I play our strings and those of our competitors, take them apart, and analyze their vibrations using software I have written. By attaching a string to a fixture mounted on a granite block for stability and bowing it with a mechanical bowing device designed by Norman, (thus taking out the character of the instrument and the influence of the hand on the bow) I can measure the amplitudes of the vibrations at the fundamental and the harmonics (overtones). I am particularly interested in a string’s damping characteristics, which is the rate at which they lose energy. Strings with low damping will sound bright while increasing the damping will make the string sound warmer. Excessive damping results in a dull sound.  I recently developed a new damping technology (a substance we apply to the core before the string is wound) that allows us to control the amount of damping in a string, and thereby achieve better control of sound.

To help me determine the strengths and deficiencies of strings I often consult with violin makers and their clients, who give me invaluable feedback. They come in and we work interactively – they play, I listen and ask questions. What does the player need that we don’t provide? I want to satisfy that need and have to translate this into a technical solution. Recently a member of the New York Philharmonic asked for a viola A string that projects well but still has warmth. I think we have solved that problem by using a slightly different winding material and configuration in conjunction with our new damping technology. Another concern was a need for better sounding and more responsive fractional-sized cello strings - existing strings were too thick and stiff. In fact, most teachers just cut full-sized strings. I feel the fractional-size Helicore cello strings that I designed solve this problem.

The most common complaint is sound. Players always want what they call “complexity”, like the quality that is usually associated with the warmth of gut. (One very prominent maker told me he wants a string that would make any violin sound like a Guarneri ‘del Gesú’!) Because of gut’s instability in changing humidity and temperature conditions we use synthetics or steel core. One material we discovered that provides a sound and response closer to gut and is remarkably stable is an advanced polymer called Zyex, a multi-strand fine plastic thread. Nevertheless, it still doesn’t sound exactly like gut, so we’re still trying to find the perfect gut replacement.

Bow response is as important as sound and the difference between players’ styles is enormous. Aggressive players, who use a lot of bow pressure and play close to the bridge, often prefer steel core strings over synthetic because steel is stronger and stiffer and withstands the tendency of the string to twist. These musicians need to feel resistance and want to work hard. Others play further from the bridge with a faster bow speed and lighter pressure and look for an easy quick response. Obviously with this spectrum there is no single ideal string for all players and all instruments.

In working to solve these problems we use a large variety of materials and different construction techniques for both the core and the windings to provide us with different sounds, tensions and elasticity. We want to understand the effects of these materials and construction options. String design is still very much trial and error, and we would like to change that to achieve more predictable results.

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House of Strings
78 Bellhaven Rd
Bellport, NY 11713 U.S.A.
Phone: 631.286.1592
By appointment only

House of Strings | 78 Bellhaven Rd., Bellport, Long Island, NY 11713 U.S.A. | Phone: +1(631)286-1592
By Appointment Only