Using electronic tuners for woodwinds

Using electronic tuners for woodwinds
Westerly Band - Thu Mar 25, 2010 @ 05:03AM
Comments: 5

Electronic tuners are a great tool. Once bulky and hard-to-use, they are now small and full of useful features. This guide will give ideas of ways to use a tuner and what to look for when you buy. It is written by the author of “Advanced Intonation Technique for Clarinets“, a complete CD and exercise book for tuning improvement on clarinet.

What kind of tuner should I buy?

For one thing, buy a chromatic tuner, not a guitar tuner. Guitar tuners typically tune only the guitar strings and not the full chromatic range of a wind instrument.  A tuner with a gauge style display is easiest to read in detail.  Just having lights as a display is OK, but it is not as detailed as needed to accomplish the tips given here.  Many tuners also will play at different tuning standards like A442. For reasons I will explain later, it is good to have a plug-in for an outside sound source.

Tuning the tuning note…

To begin on a wind instrument, warm up by playing for 10 minutes.  It does little good to work on tuning with a cold instrument.  Make the appropriate adjustments to your instrument to get your regular tuning note to match the tuner while playing about mf. But don’t stop there—tune various areas in your medium range. For the basics, you are sharp if the indicator is to the right of zero and flat if it is to the left of zero.  Tuners are calibrated in cents, or 100th of a semitone.  Most people can hear if a note is out of tune 4 or 5 cents or more, but you want your tuning note right on.

Note flexibility…

You should be able to play as many notes as you can by as much as 20 cents higher and 20 cents lower.  Find a flexible note that you can move up and down easily and watch the tuner.  This flexibility becomes necessary at times when playing with others, or with a group that gradually plays at a higher pitch.  As you will see later, there are also times when a note must be played higher or lower than the indicated pitch on the tuner when you want to play pure-sounding intervals.

Loud and soft…

Different instruments respond differently when played loud or soft.  For example, clarinets play flatter as they get louder and sharper as they get softer….but flutes do just the opposite.  Play a long note beginning very softly and getting gradually louder up to ff and back while keeping the pitch level.

Full range…

Play the complete range of your instrument and watch where your notes are going sharp or flat.  Make a chart of the pitch tendencies to refer to from time to time.  I keep one in my case.

Use the sound mode of the tuner…

Using the tuner display to check notes is great, but training your ear to hear good intonation is more important.  By playing along with the pitches sounded on the tuner, you can hear the effects of playing a note higher or lower by listening for beats.  These are pulses in the sound you hear when two notes are out of tune with each other. The slower the beats, the better in tune you are. The faster the beats, the less in tune you are. When there are no beats, you are exactly in tune.  Hint: the human ear hears flatness better than sharpness, so start the note low and bring the pitch up to meet the tuner’s note.  You can also play intervals and scales against the tuner’s note.

Spot checking notes while playing…

Have the tuner on while playing a piece or exercise and stop and hold a note randomly from time to time to take a look at the tuner to see where your intonation is.

Just Intonation…

There are two systems on which we will work: Equal Temperament and Just Intonation.

  • Equal Temperament – When composers began to write music in more keys long ago, they ran into trouble because the further they went from the basic keys, the more out of tune the music got.  The solution for keyboard instruments was to divide the octave into twelve equally spaced intervals….this is called Equal Temperament. By doing this, all keys could be played in, although they were all equally slightly out of tune with the natural scales our ears settle upon.  Electronic tuners are set to Equal Temperament.  Wind instruments are made to approximate Equal Temperament, and it is the only reasonable standard for melodic playing. But it is not enough, the ear being the final authority. We need……
  • Just Intonation – This is what our ears hear to be correct beatless intervals when playing together with other players.  Beats are the pulsations we hear when two notes are out of tune.  To keep it simple, let’s look at only two intervals: a major third (C and E) and a minor third (C and Eb).  To be pure, the top note of a major third needs to be 14 cents LOWER than what the tuner registers as the correct pitch.  And, the top note of a minor third needs to be 16 cents HIGHER than the tuner’s correct pitch.
    • Do you see why it is good to be able to play notes with flexibility?
    • Some tuners even have markings on the face where these higher or lower notes should be.
    • Here is where another device comes in – the tuner pick-up.  I have had good luck with the Arion AR-80. It plugs into the input plug in the tuner.  It has a device that clips gently to your instrument and picks up only the sound it is making without interference from outside sounds.  This means you can listen to a sound like a keyboard, fellow player, or tuning CD while watching the tuner record your actual pitch. This allows you to tune the intervals to Just Intonation and see the effects of changing your pitch. Try it. Play an E against an outside C pitch and adjust your pitch until it is about 14 cents lower. Can you hear the pureness of it?

It is always better to train your ears to hear and not rely completely on an electronic tuner, but this visual reference to intonation is a great aid.

John Gibson, JB Linear Music

Tags: Tuner, Intonation
Comments: 5

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