The brains behind FlexSteels talk about the genesis of a string that’s been winning more converts than a summer tent revival
By Marty Paule
The HUB recently spoke to the two Brians who constitute two of the brains behind D’Addario’s FlexSteels: Director of Product Development Brian Vance and Senior Product Specialist Brian Johnson.
The HUB: With so many types of bass strings out there already, what was the need you perceived that led to coming up with FlexSteels?
Brian Vance: We generally cover the gamut of player needs out there, however over the years, in speaking to artists who prefer other brands, I’d ask, ‘Why do use this string?’ and they would give me some pretty focused and articulate answers. So we’d send them some of our strings to try to get feedback. We have a lot of variety—we make everything from flat wounds, half wounds, and hybrids, to real aggressive hard-rock strings as well as the standard XL nickel wound—the universal standard for all kinds of playing styles.
Yet there was still something very specific missing from the line that I think some of competitors were doing a better job of addressing. And that was the players who really have a sensitivity to the way the string responds to their fingers. Whether they were picking the string with their finger or slapping it with their thumb, some of our strings might have felt a little stiff or maybe not quite as responsive as they’d like. It was a tonal thing as well. If you took each string and did a sonic spectrum analysis, you’d see things going on in an XL string that are very different from this FlexSteel string.
When you ask bass players about their ideal tone, they describe it as a throaty, growly kind of sound that has a very focused low end that stands out. You don’t know necessarily what to call it—everybody describes it a little differently, but when they hear it, they know it. On the other end, they’re looking for a bright snappiness that projects and has a quick response. So it’s those extremes of the sonic spectrum: the throaty low end and the musically pleasing and rich snap on the high end. You couple that with the feel and the response of the string where it has more flexibility and when you hit it, it bounces back very quickly. It’s soft and supple, but it’s got a nice kick to it.
So there’s the physical and sonic nature of the product to consider. The magic formula to achieving the best of both was something that was elusive for us. It took us about a year and half to two years to do some really deep-dive hardcore engineering to figure out how to accomplish that. It’s a subtle thing. The FlexSteel is a boutique-y string in some ways, but every type of bass player will get something out of it.
The HUB: You said you were trying to strike a point where you get both the throaty, growly sound as well as a brighter upper range snappiness. Are there compromises involved in doing that?
BV: I wouldn’t say they’re compromises, they’re just more choices. You have to stick your flag in the ground and say, you know what, our XL is a fantastic string, but how can we improve on that? We have some of the greatest artists in the world from John Patitucci to Victor Wooten to hard rock guys who use the XL bass string. It’s a wonderful workhorse kind of string for them. But that’s not what these other players we talked to are looking for. We just had to wipe the slate clean in coming up with FlexSteel. When the players we designed it for play it, they feel it—they go, ‘Yep, that’s feel I’m looking for; yep, that’s the tone I’m looking for.’
To them there’s really no compromise or sacrifice.—it’s all delivered in one string. To us, it was just well-defined choices about what the target was.
Watch a video about the FlexSteel genesis and the reactions of renowned bassists to this new string.
The HUB: I understand that in developing FlexSteels you produced more than a hundred prototypes, and I wondered how you keep track of all the subjective reactions among the bass players who tried them out.
Brian Johnson: I get involved a lot more process-wise in how we keep things flowing through product development. As Brian alluded to, we started with a blank slate. We’ve got a very good engineering team and we knew what we wanted to achieve, but were clear that we didn’t necessarily want to approach this doing things we’ve done in the past. We know what voice we’re looking for when we create the XL Nickel Wound, it’s just for this type of player, we wanted to take a completely different approach.
When we started to build out how we were going to do the FlexSteel prototyping process, we started to build things into our system that would help us keep track of each build and how we did it. Each version might have up to three different wraps, so there are four or five specs to keep track of. When you multiply that out hundreds of times with each string per set, you’re looking at a daunting task. So we have in-house systems to keep track of the manufacturing aspects.
Then, when you talk about the subjective response—the things the players tell us, part of my role is to translate the players’ feedback about feel and sound into a form that the engineers can digest. We do that in multiple ways. It can either be conversational, in surveys, an emailed response, as well as feedback from in-house bass players. We had multiple teams providing input and multiple systems for keeping track of it all.
We have it dialed down so we can access all that information. We also do recordings in house and testbeds out on the floor.
BV: We’re also not too proud to admit that we’ll look at our competitors and what they do well. There are a lot of great products out there and we can’t ignore that stuff. We can A/B our prototypes against competitors to see where we are. We may be in the ballpark of what they’re doing, but we want to do it better. One of the major advantages we bring to the table with this string versus our competitors is the consistency of intonation. Our machines are digitally controlled to be very precise and consistent.
The other thing is string life. The FlexSteel is a little tricky to make; we have to vary the tensions and sometimes the diameter ratios between the wraps and the cores. Sometimes you’re right on that borderline of having a string which is not very durable from a breakage point of view and/or from the standpoint of the string holding its tone for a long period of time. So, those are our top three criteria for the string other than the feel and the tone. If someone’s going to go out and spend $30 on a set, they expect it to hold its tone and to be consistent so that no matter where they buy it or which batch they buy, it’s going to be the same string every time. That’s a guarantee we give to our customers, but on this string there were definitely some challenges to fulfilling that promise.
On the qualitative side, we had a couple of players who’ll remain anonymous who were very particular. I knew if I sent them this string and they were happy, that we had a winner. It wasn’t like we needed to go out and get 200 players; there are just certain players whose ears and fingers I trust. If we could please them, the toughest people, then that was the litmus test—that string was ready to go to market.
The HUB: I’m fascinated that you need to take a lot of language—different adjectives used by various players—and somehow codify that for your engineering team.
BV: Yeah, that’s a difficult bridge to cross. The engineers are kind of black and white, and neither Brian Johnson or I would really qualify ourselves as bass players. But we can translate what players tell us about what the want in the sound and feel-wise. But to take terms such as “throaty” or “chesty” or “punchy” ” or “growly,” and try to explain that to an engineer who doesn’t play bass…
That’s why we sometimes have to put the strings on a testbed and look at them on a sound spectrum. What frequencies does that descriptor translate to ? What are the frequencies and at what level do they project that sound?
The HUB: So you convert those adjectives into quantified numbers?
BJ: As best we can. Though Brian Vance and I aren’t the best bass players in the world, we do know enough to be able to translate and impart some of that knowledge. Over time you learn from the scientific and the mathematical part, when somebody says “throaty,” how we can actually achieve that sound given the way our machines are set up and the how core-to-wrap ratios work. So we can help the engineers to move towards the kind of things we want the strings to do.
BV: Once we validate the product on the alpha side to confirm it meets all our criteria, then we start involving outside players. We had a hand-picked group of players—probably 12 to 15—whose ears we and our artist relations guys trusted. There are a lot of great players on that list: everybody from Victor Wooten and Bryan Beller and Adam Nitti who’s a fantastic clinician and educator, to Alphonso Johnson, as well as Damian Erskine, Josh Lozada, and Rhonda Smith who we used in our video.
There were others too, but the point is, we trust their ears and they are capable of being objective about the string. The best compliment artists can ever give us is when in their feedback their words match those we use to describe that sound. From there, the marketing just falls in place. Words like “punchy,” “powerful,” and “snappy.” All these words that we’re trying to define quantitatively, they come back to us on the back end. Then the marketing just kind of writes itself.
The HUB: That’s pretty sweet—you not only get validation of your design and manufacturing process—you even get the copy for your marketing!
BV: If everything’s working the way it should and the soup tastes good, it’s pretty clear. Of course, not every artist is going to like this string. It’s a steel string and some players prefer nickel. But there’s some nickel-wound players like Michael Rhodes, who immediately adopted it. A lot of people are turned off by the tension and grittiness of stainless, but this string feels so soft and moves so well under the fingers that a lot of nickel players have switched to it. A guy like Michael Rhodes, he’s one of the busiest bass players in the world, he came to us and said, “What have you guys done here? I’m completely converted over to this string.’ And he wasn’t even somebody who was on our radar who was converted to FlexSteels.
The HUB: What about the old-school blues or soul bassist who’s looking for that James Jamerson kind of sound without a whole lot of resonance. Do you think there’s a place for the FlexSteel on that kind of axe?
BV: I think there is. It’s not designed to do that, but the nature of the string is that it has so much, pardon the term, flexibility to it tonally, it could work. We have flatwound strings, XL Chromes that a lot of those players gravitate towards. We also make a Nylon Tapewound string which really gives you that Paul McCartney Abbey Road thumpy sound.
But the FlexSteel has a lot diversity. You slap and it punches back. It’s as diverse as whatever you put into it. If you play it a little softer it’ll back off and sit in the mix and have that nice round bottom end that’s not too overpowering. But if you want to push it into overdrive, and you hit it hard, it’ll hit you right back! I think that’s the beauty of the string—all that flexibility.
BJ: One of the comments we saw a lot was how controllable the dynamics are. You don’t have to dig hard to get it to do what you want. The more you give it, the more it gives back. As Brian was saying, the players were able open it up or close it as much as they wanted.
Josh Lozada who’s one of the guys we use in our campaign, he plays a lot of R&B and Christian rock kinds of things—it’s not an aggressive, hard sound—and it works great for him too.
The HUB: Are there any other aspects of the Flex Steels we haven’t touched on that you want to talk about?
BV: People need to keep in mind it’s a premium string—it’s a little more expensive than your standard nickelwound. It’s a more complicated and less efficient string to make than some of our other strings. But the string life itself is exceptional. Michael Rhodes said something I can’t quote verbatim since he uses some expletives, but he said, ‘I can’t kill this blank-ing string! What did you guys do?’
Bottom line, it’s a corrosion resistive string—it doesn’t matter what you do in the elements—you can play outdoor gigs and it’s not going to go dead on you. It’ll hold its intonation and tone for a long period of time. There’s a lot of value built into the price.
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