Monday, November 7, 2011

D'Addario Today: The Story

By Jim D'Addario

In the very early years of this iteration of our company – 1973 -1981, we bought machinery from two companies that made machines for the string industry. We purchased about 12 winding machines. Being mechanically inclined, I assumed the responsibility of keeping these machines running. By spending 80% of my time on the factory floor, I quickly learned how inadequately designed and manufactured these machines were. I also quickly learned that there are key variables in the manufacture of music strings that need to be controlled to maintain product quality and consistency; I was also concerned about the safety of our employees as these machines did not have features that would stop a machine quickly if a string had broken during winding.

One variable, for instance, is the tension that is applied to the wrap wire during winding; this is crucial to the tone and life of a string. The methods for applying tension were primitive and varied greatly as a spool of wire ran and slowly emptied itself. Maintaining the perfect wire feed angle pitch in relationship to the core was also impossible on the machines we purchased.

At the time, my mother, Mary D’Addario, was running the Packaging Department and one of her employees, saw that I was always trying to improve the machines. She told me that her son-in-law, Gino, had a machine shop right in our backyard; it was literally behind our factory’s parking lot. It was a small shop and he and his partner Luigi were old world craftsmen from Northern Italy. I had no engineering skills or education, but I had ideas on how I could improve things like the control of tension on the wrap wire on our machines. I would sketch things out and take them to Gino’s shop and he would make parts for me. Quickly, I began to improve and modify the machines, so much so that I would not let the makers of the machines in our shop from that point on. I did not want them seeing the competitive advantages we were developing; this way, they could not incorporate them into machines they might make for our competitors.

Around that time, my father-in-law, Robert Carbone, was out of work and he had some background in engineering and drafting. I hired him to draft my ideas for various machine improvements. I would sketch, he would detail, then Gino’s shop would make the parts. I would then assemble the parts and test them on the machines. Slowly, our knowledge and skill level increased and increased, and our machines became more and more reliable and more sophisticated than our competitors. Most of all, our strings became more consistent than any of our competitors. To this day, when we survey the consumer base for our guitar strings, the one adjective that is used most often to describe our strings over and over again is consistency!

As we needed more machines, I would order them from one of the suppliers; and then when they came in, I would rip sections apart and modify them with our trade secrets. We purchased about 8 more machines before this vendor realized we were growing fast and began to jack up the prices to ridiculous levels. The revelation came that we simply needed to design our own machines. We used ideas from both vendors, the new ideas I was developing and many other new innovations to design our own winding machine in 1976. This was a major breakthrough for us. We were paying as much as $18,000 for a winding machine back then, and I was able to build a better machine for under $4,000. Gino’s shop made all of the parts and I assembled them, wired the control panels, debugged and installed the machines. Gino is now retired and we have an extensive machine building shop of our own with over 15 full-time employees building and rebuilding production equipment. Gino’s successors still make parts for us as we do not have the capacity to build all of them in house. Gino’s mother-in-law has since passed away as has my mother, but his daughter Nadia works as an executive assistant in our office.

By 1980, my father-in-law had left our employ and I had acquired enough drafting skill to design the parts and assemblies for the machines I was building. Doing this along with marketing and other business management activities was a bit of a challenge, so I decided to hire engineering help. Jim Rickard, who was the original engineer under Charlie Kaman at Ovation, joined our company for about 10 years. Jimmy is credited with bringing the Ovation guitar into production and for developing the first commercially-successful piezo electric pick up system to the acoustic guitar. His achievements were countless at Ovation. Amplifying the Ovation acoustic made it the choice of Glen Campbell, Cat Stevens and many others over the years.

Jim worked directly under me and helped design and build equipment. We now had two engineering people and we significantly expanded our expertise. There wasn’t a subject that Ricky (as he was nicknamed in the industry) didn’t have in-depth knowledge about. He drew everything with paper and pencil as did I. My geometry and math skills were limited, so he was a big help, as was the Mechanical Engineers Handbook and a small trigonometry pamphlet I still have in my desk today.

Then the personal computer arrived. In December 1982, I saw a demonstration of AutoCAD on an IBM personal computer and I knew instantly that this was a tool that would change my work life. I was one of the first 100 in the world to buy a copy of this program and an IBM XT computer, with a 10 meg hard drive (imagine all that storage), a 360K floppy for backing up (wow!) and a green monochrome screen that required a Hercules graphics card adaptor to double the screen resolution so you could draw.

It was slow, limited, but accurate! I could draw what I wanted to scale and it would calculate the dimensions for me. All the time wasted with the trigonometry manual was history. Suddenly, I could design things I never dreamed of. Also, if I needed to move something or make major changes, it was no different than editing a word processing document.

In 1981, we acquired Kaplan Music Strings. Otto Kaplan and his father Ladislav were machine designing geniuses. In fact, I have some Ladislav’s colored pen and ink machine assembly drawings framed in my office. Their business was tiny and in the back of their Norwalk, Connecticut home, just like my granddad’s was. In 1949, the year I was born, Otto designed a machine he called the Kaplamatic. He only built one of these machines in his life. It was an elaborate machine, for the time. It was designed to make violin and viola strings with one layer of winding and then polish that string with three different polishing mediums, all without taking the string off the machine.

This machine was the mainstay of the company we purchased. Otto had passed away, and the machine was worn out and not really running reliably anymore. With the mechanics, we tried to keep the machine running for about a year or so, then I realized that I needed to bite the bullet, rip this thing apart, redesign it and make the Kaplamatic II. This coincided perfectly with my purchase of ACAD in 1982. I bought a second PC, with only two floppy drives because I couldn’t afford $5,400 for another XT with a hard drive. I had the PC on a table behind the couch in our TV room; and as the family watched TV each night, I sat there learning ACAD and designed KII. The program was on five floppy disks and since there was no hard disk, if I called for a command that was on a different disk, it would prompt me to insert Disk 2 or 3 or whatever. But to me, compared to a pencil, and vellum, and erasers, and math errors, it was a marvel of modern technology.

As I completed sections of this machine, I detailed the parts drawings, printed them on an HP laser printer that cost about $4,000 at the time, and Ed Vincent, our only machinist back then, made the parts. From start to finish, we designed and built the KII in only three months!

It’s now 2011 and Matt, one of our engineers, is nearly finished with the Kaplamatic VII. We have one of the KVIIs in the shop nearing completion; and after it is tested, 5 more will be built to respond to the increased demand for our bowed strings. More significantly, this new KVII is full of the most modern technology ever built into a string machine and will allow us to make more complicated string designs with less labor and higher quality.

In 1983, I realized that ACAD was the way to go, but it took me over a year to get Ricky to use it. He just wouldn’t put his pencil down. Finally, after using it for several years, he actually left the company and returned to Connecticut to became and AutoCAD dealer and trainer (imagine!). He unfortunately passed away prematurely at the age of 54.

Over the years, as our company grew and we added products, brands and capacity, our need for engineering and machine building continued to increase each year. I began hiring engineers. At this point, our Engineering Department in New York is run by Steve Murray (who was hired, I believe, 25 years ago). Steve supervises 6 other engineers and the entire machine building staff. We also have one full-time product designing engineer, Bob Miller, who started as a machinist with us, learned ACAD, ProE and MasterCam and is now a senior design engineer.

At Rico in Sun Valley, California, we have a team of 5 engineers who design and build reed making machinery. Since the 2004 acquisition of Rico, we have essentially duplicated the innovation and engineering model we created at D’Addario, but in a very, very short time (7 years). Our work is not finished, but the science of growing and harvesting cane, cutting poles, sorting tubes, splitting, blanking and machining reeds has seen more innovation in 7 years than in the last 100 at Rico and all of our competitors combined. By 2014, we will have reinvented every aspect of reed making and we will then cycle back through each process with continuous improvement in mind.

After the AutoCAD awakening in 1982, I was still actively designing and assembling machinery. Slowly, as we grew and my staff grew along with me, I did not have the time to be as hands on; I have now evolved into creating the vision for the projects with our engineering teams and then helping them realize that vision. Many times, it will start with me sketching ideas in ACAD and kindling the idea with our team. On other occasions, our engineers will conceive and complete the entire project on their own. It is a far cry from the days when I would be assembling machines all day, in between taking calls, designing marketing campaigns and doing artist relations work. In those days, I had a shop in my basement where I wired all the control panels after dinner at night. I would take all of the components home and assemble and wire them so I could do the work without interruption.

There were times when we assembled 20 winding machines at one time. We usually built Kaplamatics in lots of 4 or 6. The last lot of Kaplamatics was built in 1995 to 1997 when we moved into our present headquarters. Guitar winding machines have had many, many more iterations, so many that I have lost count. Our team also does elaborate rebuilds of existing machinery. We just finished a huge rebuild of guitar winding machines that I assembled 30 years ago. After rebuilding, they are essentially as good as a machine we would design today.

The budgets for 2011 and 2012 have the largest capital expenditure budgets in our history. In New York, we are building 13 double winders, 6 Kaplamatic VIIs, many molds for Evans, 4 ball coiling machines, to mention just a couple of the main projects. Rico is designing a completely digital reed vamp cutting technology that will replace the original Rico vamping machinery and the French/Franke type machinery that is used at Rico and Vandoren today. We will essentially be able to digitally change the model and cut of a reed on the fly. The quality, precision and consistency of this new technology will be unparalleled. The first prototype is being assembled right now.

Rico is also in the process of fully automating the cane pole processing from field to finished product. We have already installed 4 automatic pole cutting machines at our French plantation location, Hyeres, and now automated splitting sawing and sorting machinery is being developed.

At Pro-Mark, in just 9 months, we have installed 6 new centerless grinding machines and water filtration equipment. This was over a $1 million investment in Pro-Mark's infrastructure. The first, new 5A PM sticks off this process are already in production. The improvement in quality from this move will be ground breaking for Pro-Mark.

While it is essential to design 90+%of our machinery in-house because of its specialized nature, we do integrate stock, available machinery where possible. A perfect example is the new Planet Waves – American Stage cable line we are ramping up in production right now. A combination of stock wire feeding, stripping and coiling machinery, along with custom designed robotic soldering equipment, have created a production work cell that will enable us to market an American-made cable competitively against imported products.

Our philosophy of continuously investing in our companies will never change. It is a formula that has been our success and we will continue to nurture the culture of innovation and continuous improvement in all our factories.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Support Your Local Violin Shop!

I was at The Long Island Violin Shop, my local shop, to attend one of their many informative seminars and noticed that the violins played by the children during the seminar sounded very good. This was no accident. The shop owner is violin maker Charles Rufino, who learned his trade at several great violin shops.

Most people find the lowest price and buy things over the internet. This may be fine for things like electronic gadgets or certain violin accessories. But it is definitely NOT recommended for violins. There are huge variations in the quality of violins. Even the same model violin from the same source can be different because every piece of wood is different. That is why your local violin shop is so important. A good shop will select the best instruments for the money, and most importantly, they will set them up so they sound their best and are easy to play.

The importance of setup cannot be overemphasized. Poor setup can turn any violin into a bad violin. Small, children’s violins are actually more difficult to set up (due to their small size) than adult, full-sized violins. Inexpensive violins are also more difficult to set up. Good setup requires the skills of a well trained violin maker.

Some of the more obvious examples of poor setup are:

  • Tuning pegs that will not stay in tune
  • Bridge and soundpost not adjusted properly. Since the string vibrations travel through the bridge to the violin body, the bridge can make a big difference in sound. It takes a lot of skill and time to cut a good bridge
  • The fingerboard and neck is not shaped properly, making it difficult to play
  • Cheap strings that sound terrible and are hard to play

When you buy or rent a violin over the internet from an unknown supplier, you don’t know what you’re getting. Even if you do business with a reputable shop over the internet, the violin can easily be knocked out of adjustment during shipping, requiring a re-adjustment.

Finally, it does not make sense to buy children’s instruments. For the same price, you can rent a much higher quality instrument from your local shop and they are responsible for the proper setup. If you can buy an instrument cheaper than you can rent it, it will undoubtedly be what is politely called a “violin shaped object.” Your child will soon outgrow their instrument anyway, or worse, quit because they are so frustrated by a bad instrument.

So please, please support your local violin shop. And use D’Addario strings (we make fractional sized versions of our most popular strings such as Prelude, Pro-Arte, Helicore and Zyex) for the best sound and easiest response!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Happy Birthday Norman Pickering!

My mentor Norman Pickering turned 95 last month! To do his life justice would require several long books but here are some highlights. An early hand injury playing baseball ended his aspirations as a professional violinist, and he switched to the French Horn. After receiving his engineering degree, he graduated from Juilliard (he was a classmate of the late cellist Bernard Greenhouse), then played horn in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in the late 1930s before joining the E.G. Conn company in 1940. There he did research into musical instruments and helped design many instruments, including a role in the design of the famous Conn 8D French Horn, used by most of the major United States Orchestras. He also taught at the famous Interlochen music camp. With the start of World War II, the E.G Conn factory was converted to making precision gyroscopes used in airplane navigation, sparking his interest in flying and aviation. He returned to the New York City area and was a regular substitute during the 1940s in the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and other orchestras. His dissatisfaction with the quality of audio reproduction led him to design the first lightweight, high fidelity phonograph pickup cartridge. Versions of the Pickering cartridge are still sold today. He was one of the founders of the Audio Engineering Society in 1948. He was conductor George Szell’s personal recording consultant for several years. He did research into violin acoustics and somehow found the time to make over 50 violins and violas. He was active in the Violin Society of America since its early days and served as President. One of his significant accomplishments was to popularize violin acoustics to violin makers. He also was a pioneer in using ultrasound to image the human eye.

D’Addario entered the violin string business with the purchase of the Kaplan String Company in 1981. They became aware of Norman’s research into strings and hired him in 1983. He designed all of D’Addario’s bowed strings until I started at D’Addario in 1999. The Helicore string line is one of his most well known accomplishments in string design. I owe my success at D’Addario and the violin acoustics world to Norman.

Although his arthritis limits his physical activities, Norman is still mentally as sharp as ever! Happy Birthday!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Violin Open E String Whistling Problem (Part 3)

Let us explore some common beliefs about whistling E-strings.

"The open E whistles easier if you play a D natural right before it." False. The D natural has no effect on the whistling; it just happens to be the most common note played before the open E.

"The open E whistles easier on a down bow." False. The E will whistle on an up bow just as well. It has so happens that crossing from the D to E string is most commonly done on a down bow.

"The bow hair needs more rosin, or needs to be rehaired." There is some truth to this. If the bow hair is in poor condition or lacks rosin, this will make it harder to start a normal note and make it easier to whistle. However, if your bow hair has enough rosin, adding more will not prevent whistling.

"Gold plated E strings are easier to whistle." There is some anectodal evidence to support this, but no proof. If true, it might be due to the smoothness of the gold plating, which reduces torsional damping due to the string rubbing against the bridge string notch and nut.

Certain types of plastic sleeves or string notch covering may make whistling easier. I recently encountered violins with bad whistling problems that had a very smooth and shiny bridge string notch covering material instead of the traditional parchment.

Any adjustments to violin setup that changes the response of the E-string can affect whistling. However, there is no single violin adjustment that will prevent whistling in all cases. Therefore, luthiers might go through a lengthy list of adjustments, including soundpost, bridge setup, changing the shape of string notches, the tailpiece assembly, etc. in hopes of finding a cure. The only remedy that will work all the time is to use a string like our Kaplan Solutions non-whistling E (KS311W 4/4M).

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Violin Open E String Whistling Problem (Part 2)

When I designed the Kaplan Solutions non-whistling E-string (KS311W 4/4M), I spent hours trying to make an E string whistle so I could take some measurements. This after years of trying to achieve just the opposite!

Last summer at the VSA-Oberlin Acoustics Workshop, Aaron Boyd, concertmaster of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, taught me a very reliable way to whistle an open E. Start the bow moving above the string first, then contact the E string. This works equally well down or up bow! I then remembered a talk by acoustics researcher Knut Guettler where he showed that quick and clean starts of (normal) bowed notes required just the right amount of bow acceleration. I finally realized why preventing an E string from whistling is so difficult.

The normal bowed string vibrates in a transverse (side-to-side) motion, producing a saw-tooth shaped waveform. This motion is called the Helmholtz motion after the great 18th century German physicist Hermann Helmholtz who discovered it. Only certain combinations of bow speed, acceleration and pressure produces a stable Helmholtz motion.

When the bow contacts the string while it is already moving (such as crossing to the open E string from the A string), conditions are favorable for the start of torsional vibrations, and unfavorable for the start of normal transverse vibrations. One rarely whistles an open E-string when starting a note with the bow already on the string, or after changing bow directions, or when playing repeated notes because in these situations the bow starts each note with zero velocity, which favors the start of normal transverse vibrations over the torsional.

Therefore, the way to prevent the whistling E using bowing technique is to stop or slow the bow before it contacts the E-string. In addition, an increase in bow pressure on the E will favor the transverse motion over the torsional, and that is typically what players try to do. However, this usually fails because the increase bow pressure is often accompanied by an increase in bow speed, which is the exact opposite of what is needed! Unfortunately, the bowing conditions required to prevent the whistling may be undesirable musically.

In part 1, I discussed how wound E-strings can solve the whistling problem. In the next part, I will explore some common beliefs about whistling E-strings, and what might be done to minimize the problem through instrument setup.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Violin Open E String Whistling Problem (Part 1)

One of the most frustrating problems for violinists is the whistling E string. You play on the D string and when you cross over to the open E, it whistles with an annoying high frequency squeal. Or you play a chord in Bach and the open E string whistles.

This whistling is not due to poor bowing technique: I have heard the best violinists in the world whistle their open E-strings.

The whistling open E string is caused by the string vibrating in a torsional (twisting) motion rather than the normal Helmholtz (transverse or sideways) motion. The torsional vibration frequency for an unwound plain steel E-string is approximately 4,800 Hz (an open E is 660 Hz), and independent of the diameter of the string or the tuning. The torsional damping (damping is how quickly the vibrations die away) is extremely low, so once the string starts to vibrate torsionally, it does not want to stop very quickly. Your finger tip provides very high damping, and that is why the whistling does not occur with stopped notes. (Stopped notes can still squeak due to low string damping and poor bow technique, but that phenomena is generally not due to torsional behavior.)

The lower strings don’t have whistling problems because the windings provide extremely high torsional damping. That is why a wound E-string (for example our Helicore H311W) is more whistle resistant than plain E-strings. We also add a damping compound to our wound E-strings which increases torsional damping. For the ultimate whistle-proof E-string, try our Kaplan Solutions Non-Whistling E string (KS311W 4/4M). In addition to the winding and added damping compound, it uses a stranded steel core, which lowers the torsional frequency and further increases torsional damping.

The Kaplan Solutions Non-whistling E-string is also very sweet sounding compared to solid steel E-strings, yet has plenty of power due to its high playing tension, comparable to heavy tension solid steel E-strings. The string has a solid ball-end, which cannot be removed, so we include an adapter which allows it to be used with common hook type fine tuners.

In part 2, I will discuss why it is so difficult to prevent an E string from whistling.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Playing Harmonics

One of the most overlooked aspects of playing harmonics on bowed string instruments is the bowing point. A common cause of harmonics not sounding is that the bowing point is too far away from the bridge.

When playing higher notes, the bowing point usually has to move closer to the bridge, since the vibrating string length is shorter. (The same proportional bowing point to the bridge is closer to the bridge in absolute distance for a shorter vibrating string length.) We usually make this bowing adjustment automatically as our left hand moves up the fingerboard when playing really high notes.

When bowing harmonics, one must remember the bowing point needs to be based on the effective vibrating length of the harmonic and the actual sounded pitch, and not where the left hand actually stops the note. For example, the typical artificial harmonic is played in the low positions, but actually sounds two octaves higher, so it must be bowed as if you were playing the normally stopped note two octaves higher. (In this particular case, the string is actually vibrating in four short segments, like four links in a sausage.) This means the bowing point must be closer to the bridge.

Addendum: I should add that the bowing speed and force (pressure) should also be based on the effective vibrating length of the harmonic and the actual sounded pitch, and not where the left hand actually stops the note.