Hands-On Review:Dean Markley Alchemy Acoustic Guitar Strings
Dean Markley Alchemy Acoustic Guitar Strings
Outstanding acoustic tone that lasts
By Greg Alden
There is no element of the guitar as essential to great tone as its strings, especially on the acoustic. It's just as likely that they are probably the most consistently underrated part of the guitar as well. It's the only part of your acoustic you directly interact with when you're playing, so the strings are really where your sound begins. And it's the vibration of the strings that transfers that sound into the body of your guitar, carrying the tone of your initial attack and getting the soundboard on your acoustic moving up and down. Different strings can vary tonally from dark to bright and offer tactile feel from smooth to coarse, and therefore offer different levels of playability for different players and guitars.
The fresh new thing
It's pretty much a universal that new strings sound and play best. There are those rare birds who prefer their strings to have a played-to-death sound, but the clean, direct, wide response of fresh strings gives you more expressive capabilities and can bring out the individual character of your guitar with more accuracy. Unfortunately, that fresh sound often doesn't last very long. If you play regularly your strings go dead fast and so does that wonderful tone you love. And that's what most guitarists want to do: play, not change strings.
That's where Dean Markley's latest acoustic string effort began. With its Alchemy acoustic strings, Dean Markley has entered the world of treated acoustic strings by offering everything players want: clean sound, outstanding tone, smooth response, and, of course, extremely long life. You'll play more, with a lot more brilliance and harmonics, and change strings less with Alchemy strings. They were developed with scientific expertise and engineering precision that incorporate technology from far, far outside the world of string manufacture. After all, Dean Markley is the same company that figured out how to molecularly rearrange the stainless wrap on their steel strings for longer life, more mass, and a more desirable, even response by giving them a bath in liquid nitrogen. Designed to preserve the sound of fresh strings and keep you from having to change strings more often than you change socks, Alchemy strings are advanced beyond anything currently on the market.
A gold mine of tone
Available in GoldBronze and GoldPhos flavors along with three great gauges, the secret of Alchemy strings' long life lies in the elements used for their construction. Rather than relying on existing materials to treat their strings, the folks at Dean Markley looked far and wide for a new substance with the right tonal response and sensitivity in addition to durability. They eventually selected a highly advanced compound used in the aerospace/satellite industry for the supersensitive instruments space equipment needs for pinpoint accurate maneuvers and data transmission. The compound's sensitivity, tonal transparency, and resistance to breakdown made it perfect for use with Alchemy strings. With it, Dean Markley developed the exclusive MC394K Bright-Coat compound, which has the ability to protect the string while enhancing, not dampening, the tone of the string.
Unlike coated strings, which are dunked in protective materials after winding, Alchemy's manufacturing process ensures that nothing interrupts the pure, clean tone of the strings. That's one of the best aspects of the Bright-Coat compound. It has all the right tone characteristics and fits perfectly into the Alchemy manufacturing process. Winding begins by tuning the core wire of the string to pitch before it is put on the string machine for winding. This ensures that when the string's outer wrap is wound around its core it is tighter and will be more stable; stretching less and staying in tune longer. Before the wrap wire goes around the core, though, the MC394K compound is applied. The result is that Alchemys are not just another long-lasting string, but a string with a lasting, superior tone and response over a longer life.
It also helps that Dean Markley starts with the purest, cleanest alloy possible when making the wire for the Alchemy strings. The wire that makes up the outer wrap is drawn to exacting parameters, using new diamond dies that are more precise than the standard die, for a wire that has a consistent diameter its entire length. Such precision produces a wire that holds its diameter more accurately and, ultimately, a string that vibrates longer and truer. As a result, Alchemy strings have loads of sustain and chords ring vibrantly with more harmonics and note articulation.
The tonal package
From the moment I slipped my first Alchemy strings from their pouch I was impressed with them. They looked and felt better than any strings I'd handled before, with a golden, warm sheen and a smooth surface that didn't feel tacky or plasticky. I strung up a set of the custom light (CL) GoldBronze on my favorite dreadnought to see what they could bring out of it. Flatpicking, strumming, and finger plucking my way through a few songs quickly made me a believer in the Alchemy sound. The GoldBronze strings produced a crisp sound with lots of clarity and quick, even response that was much brighter, more balanced, and clearer than any coated strings I'd used. And not only was the tone incredible, the volume and projection had increased significantly, revealing overtones and sounds I'd never heard before.
I decided to string my grand concert with the GoldPhos to see if they were as stunning as the GoldBronze, but it was only a formality — I was sure they were great strings as well. I was glad I tried them, though, because while they had most of the characteristics of the GoldBronze, they were slightly warmer and darker sounding with a punchy response that rocked. They gave the grand concert a powerful, big sound, but what amazed me was that no matter how big the sound got, it never lost any of the balance, warm overtones, or crystal-clear response that made the GoldPhos sound so good to begin with. The bass was big and clear without being boomy, the mids were punchy and rich, and the highs never lost their clarity and expressiveness. Each note of the chord rang out true and proud.
The next month was very revealing. I played every day and waited for the Alchemys to finally bottom out. It was an exercise in futility: they never gave up. The GoldBronze kept delivering the same clear, bright, smooth sound that I loved. The GoldPhos kept knocking me out with their ability to serve up rich, full bass and balanced punch that smoked any other phosphor bronze string I'd tried. Not only did they not give up, they seemed to settle in and actually sweeten a bit. When I talked to Dean Markley, I found that it's not an illusion, but a real physical occurrence that takes place. According to a metallurgist the company consulted, the special GoldPhos used for the Alchemy strings becomes work hardened as you play the strings. As the metal vibrates and moves it eventually reaches its peak in terms of perfect hardness for a guitar string. And thankfully the strings stay there for a quite a while, the golden tone effect extended by the Alchemy process. There's no doubt Alchemy strings deliver all the sounds great strings should, and they last longer, too. Now you can just play and leave the string changing for someone else.
GoldBronze - 85% copper, 15% zinc
GoldPhos - 92% copper, 8% zinc
Diamond Drawn outer wraps
Pre-tuned core wire
Electroplated tinned mandolin wire core
MC394K Bright-Coat electroplated wrap
Light (LT), Custom Light (CL), and Medium (MED) gauges