By Cristina Schreil
Navigating through foggy safety goggles, I follow a mariachi band onto a Long Island factory floor. I confront a cacophony: countless machines all whir and click at once. As if conjured, an electric-bass string winds into shape within a long, horizontal device before us, like something out of The Fifth Element.
This is not a dream: I’m with Flor de Toloache, New York City’s first all-female mariachi band, at the D’Addario factory in Farmingdale, New York. The company, with roots in Italy stretching back three centuries, is one of the largest string manufacturers in the world. They make 700,000 strings a day for orchestral and fretted instruments. Being at the heart of it all feels like venturing into a beehive. Within different zones, some for winding string cores, violin-string threading, or packaging, workers’ fingers fly. Mechanics buzz about. The band members, dressed in black ensembles adorned with traditional botonadura buttons, seem just as intrigued as I; we ogle at hardened nylon resembling a nest of cooked spaghetti, and touch forest-green ball ends that are still warm. As the four women of Flor de Toloache—violinist Mireya Ramos, vihuela player Shae Fiol, guitarrón player Eunice Aparicio, and trumpeter Julie Acosta—roam about, curious workers glance up. Minutes later, the group surprises them by bursting through elevator doors mid-song. The floor erupts with cheers and claps. Their performance delivers an electric jolt of energy, but as Ramos unfurls an exuberant solo, her vibrant yet unamplified sound dissolves slightly against the cavernous space.
Aside from providing lunchtime entertainment, the band journeyed east on this dreary spring Monday to offer feedback. They’re consulting with D’Addario’s product-development team, who are creating strings especially for vihuela and guitarrón. As Aparicio and Fiol test strings, I shadow Ramos on another mission: finding the right violin strings. Despite the violin being a core melodic voice in mariachi music, there are no violin strings manufactured and marketed specifically for the genre—in the United States, at least. Ramos tells me that mariachi violinists usually opt for the same strings bluegrass fiddlers would use, such as those with solid-steel or stranded-steel cores.
She founded Flor de Toloache nine years ago and exemplifies how the art form is passed down through generations; her father was a mariachi singer in her native Puerto Rico, filling her childhood with the music. “Within the genre you play all kinds of music from all over Mexico. It’s not just one style,” Ramos says, adding her favorite is from the gulf-bordering Huasteca region. “It’s kind of like Irish music. Fast bowing, a lot of notes.”
As a mariachi violinist, Ramos typically competes with her bandmates to be heard, and the style involves expressive whole-bow strokes. “You have to project over the trumpet and the loud percussive string instruments,” she explains, referring to the vihuela and guitarrón. “The ideal would be to have an amazing bow and a really bright-sounding string that’s really responsive to the bow.” She added that a lighter-tension string makes it easier to play mariachi’s fast-paced melodies and project a clear yet romantic sound. She recently acquired a David Gage five-stringed amplified-acoustic violin from his Realist line, which she says is on the darker side tonally, needing a little extra help with projection.
Transforming a conference room into a kind of diagnostician’s clinic, D’Addario’s Orchestral Strings Product Manager Lyris Hung and Research and Development Director Fan-Chia Tao—both violinists themselves—assess Ramos’ needs. Hung examines her instrument, while asking what she likes and dislikes about her existing setup of synthetic-core strings. “Without doing that you’re sort of grasping at straws,” Hung later explains. Hung and Tao also find that as the band tours more regularly, Ramos always plays amplified. Later, Hung emphasizes that finding the right strings is more about considering the application than the style. For example, if a violinist always performs outside with an amp, his or her priorities should be on string resilience.
Choosing the best strings for Ramos involves understanding what lies at the core. There are three main families of non-gut strings that D’Addario makes: solid-steel cores, used for strings in their student-targeted Prelude line; stranded-steel cores, as in most D’Addario Helicores and some from their Kaplan line; and synthetic cores, used in Pro-Arte, Zyex, and some Kaplan strings, which lend more complexity to the sound. Solid-steel- and stranded-steel-core strings tend to produce more focused, brighter tones. Bluegrass fiddlers and mariachi violinists who seek a focused tone with a very quick bow response might first consider Helicore strings, with their multi-stranded steel core and smaller diameter. “Players of any genre who need to play over a band or other bright instruments often choose brighter, louder strings because of that need. However, that type of string sacrifices warmth and richness,” Hung says. D’Addario’s Helicores are on the warmer side due to a dampening agent, a kind of gel material applied between the core and windings to render the string “more bowable.”
Yet, Ramos was an exception. When she tried Helicore strings, she was hoping for a radiant tone—something she relies on to deliver mariachi’s expressive melodies. But on her darker violin, they were too mellow. Going in the other direction—finding strings with a traditional steel core—also wouldn’t work. These strings tend to be more powerful and stable in pitch, providing bluegrass players a brilliant, focused sound, but could be brittle sounding and easily squeak. Ramos needed more color. Hung notes it’s all about striking a balance. “A single string cannot be both the brightest and the darkest string,” she says.
“Players of any genre who need to play over a band or other bright instruments often choose brighter, louder strings because of that need. However, that type of string sacrifices warmth and richness.”
Hung opted for medium-tension strings from D’Addario’s Kaplan line: Vivo violin strings and a C string from the Forza viola set. “The Kaplan Vivos are the brighter of the two sets,” Hung says. She adds the Vivos are also firmer under the bow. If Ramos wanted to go even brighter and easier, she could grab light-tension versions of those strings. The first experiment seems promising. Drawing her bow across the new strings, Ramos seems pleased. “So much brighter,” she remarks.
To get a deeper sense of string construction, we venture back to the orchestral side of the factory floor. Where guitar strings mere steps away could form in seemingly no time at all, these strings take longer. Flat wire, which is used for orchestral strings, is wound more slowly than the round wire in most guitar strings. They also require silking. “Orchestral strings typically take much longer to wind as there are more windings. And the material is more expensive,” says Tao. “That’s why you can buy a set of guitar strings and that might not even be enough to buy one high-end violin string.” In a moment, I see what he means. We approach a large machine that entwines multiple strands of solid steel into a single cable. It’s the beginnings of a double-bass string. Hung leads us to a feathery bundle of the Zyex synthetic-core material for the very strings Ramos just tested. They look and feel like pale-white doll’s hair. It makes sense that synthetic-core strings will stretch over time. We then examine a sheaf of steel cores, which are as stiff as you’d expect. They’re also more resistant to humidity and even corrosive sweat. “It’s super resilient. It will last through a bomb,” Hung says.
A couple of weeks after her visit, Ramos wrote she was happy with her new strings. She used them for live performances, and found the projection they help her achieve is exactly what she needed. “Absolutely love them!” she says. “The tone is cleaner, brighter, and nice! The sound carries through.”