Last week we looked at getting set up on the ukulele. This week we’ll look at tuners. If there is one piece of equipment that every musician should have it is a tuner.
Why should you tune your instrument?
Ok, so you might think this is a silly question to be asked but it’s really important that you know why you tune up before playing. Firstly, much like practicing with a metronome makes it easier to play with other musicians, so too does keeping your instrument “in tune”. If it’s not in tune, even an untrained ear will know that something is amiss. If the overall sound is higher then you refer to the notes as being sharp and likewise if they are lower you would say they are flat. If the notes all match up we say that they are “in tune”.
Why do instruments go out of tune?
Almost anything can have an effect on the tuning of your instrument. Environmental factors such as the ambient temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure etc. etc. can have a significant effect on tuning. Likewise general use of the instrument will require you to re-tune after a while.
How do I tune?
On stringed instruments there are pegs on the head-stock of the instrument that will raise or lower the pitch of each string. On violins and similar instruments there are additional screws on the bridge side of the instrument to “fine tune” each string.
Wind instruments require you to lengthen or shorten the instrument to tune up. By lengthening the instrument it will lower the overall pitch of the instrument, likewise shortening the instrument will raise it.
What should I use?
There are a number of options available for musicians. Today we’ll be going through the main types of tuning each of which comes with their own advantages and disadvantages:
- Relative pitch tuning
This is where you get one of the instruments in your group to provide a reference note. This note is usually provided by an instrument that can’t easily retune e.g. a piano, accordion etc. String players playing by themselves can use the thickest string as their reference note and tune the remaining strings. This will be covered in another post at a later date.
A group of musicians can be quickly set up using this method. However each would need to be experienced at tuning their instruments.
- Tuning Fork
By far one of the most ancient means of tuning. A tuning fork resonates at a particular when stuck. This provides your reference tone and allows a solo instrumentalist to tune up. Again the same methods of relative pitch tuning are used when using a tuning fork. So this is definitely one for the more experienced musicians.
- Pitch Pipes
By blowing into a pitch pipe it provides a reference note for you. The most common ones made have notes which correspond to the 6 strings of a guitar but can also be found in chromatic form. While they don’t require as much skill to use as a tuning fork they do take some getting used to.
- Smartphone Apps
There are a lot of apps available for free to help musicians practice their craft. By searching the name of your instrument and the word “Tuner” (e.g. “Guitar Tuner”) you will be provided with a selection of apps to try out. If you like you can also look up “Chromatic Tuner” in the Play Store or App Store. Here’s how it works:
Activate the tuner and play a note into it. It will then display the note it detects and how close you are to being “In tune”. If the dial veers to the left it means the note is “flat” and you need to raise the pitch of the instrument (i.e. tighten the string on your guitar/violin etc. or shorten the length of the wind instrument). Likewise the dial will veer to the right if the note is too “sharp” and therefore needs to be lowered (i.e. loosen the string etc. etc.)
The advantage of this one is the cost and convenience. However the microphone on your phone picks up EVERYTHING. So if there’s a lot of noise you’ll find it difficult to get in tune.
- Electronic Tuner
An electronic tuner (like the Korg CA-1) operates under the same principles are the app. An in-built microphone detects the note being played and reports on whether or not it is in tune and if it’s out of tune, what adjustments need to be made.
These are by far superior to a smartphone app but still encounter the same obstacles. To overcome this, a lot of electronic tuners will also have the ability for you to “plug in” your instrument for a more direct result. This however can only be done if your instrument has a pickup installed within it.
- Clip-on tuner
These tuners are designed more for guitars and similar instruments (i.e. instruments with a head-stock e.g. banjo, ukulele, mandolin etc.) Rather than rely on a microphone they detect vibrations within the instrument itself. As such, they are quite handy to use when in a somewhat noisy environment.
- Pedal Tuner
Pedal tuners (like the Boss TU-3) are useful only to those whose instruments can “plug in” i.e. have a pickup installed. When activated (by pressing it with your foot) it does not feed any sound into the PA system while you are tuning up. It’s key advantage is that while your tuning your audience won’t be subjected to a near-constant “twang” as you get the guitar/ukulele/banjo etc. in tune. A quick tap with your foot brings your guitar back into action and you’re ready to go again.
What is the best tuner to use?
It all depends on the context. A smartphone app is great when you’re in a quiet environment e.g. practicing at home but electronic tuners would be better again. For ease of access and more noisy environments a clip-on tuner would be better than an app or an electronic tuner. When doing a gig the best by far is a pedal tuner, but a clip-on tuner would be just as functional.