Flutopedia - an Encyclopedia for the Native American Flute

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Electronic Tuners and the Native American Flute

Using an electronic tuner with a Native American flute can be a great asset. It can also drive you crazy.

This page talks about the use of electornic tuners for several situations:

  • To help a flute maker tune their flute.
  • To let a player check if a flute is likely to sound consonant with another (typically concert-tuned) instrument.
  • To help a player determine the breath pressure needed across the range of notes of the flute to keep the flute in relative tuning with itself.

Caveats

Before you dive into using an electronic tuner, consider these issues:

  • Your musicality might be better served in the long run by experimenting with the Reference Drones. Rather than chasing a needle on an electronic device, you will be using your ears and breath pressure to match pitch against a set of drone recordings that I've made.
  • The overall tuning of a flute is highly sensitive to the breath pressure that you use.
  • Tuning is also dramatically affected by the temperature of the resonating sound chamber (which is affected by ambient room temperature). Flutes get sharper as the temperature goes up and flatter as the temperature goes down. The general rule is 1.7 cents for each degree Fahrenheit (based on physics formulas published by Owen Cramer ([Cramer 1993])).
  • The position of the block also has a big effect on overall tuning. You may be able to use this to your advantage, intentionally adjusting the tuning of the flute by slightly sliding the block. Typically, moving the block toward the mouth end will make the flute sharper and moving it down toward the foot will make it flatter. See Moving the Block on the Reference Drones page for a discussion of block position.
  • It takes several minutes for a flute to warm up to a steady temperature. (For a graph of temperature rise as you play, visit A Small Experiment on the CrossTune page.)
  • The waveform generated by flutes is very complex, and is constantly changing. Most tuners take an average of the frequency of the sound that they pick up and use that average to drive the display. Any ambient background noise or harmonics from the musical instrument add to the problem, and can cause the needle to give unstable readings.

For a general discussion of the factors that affect flute tuning, see Right in Tune.

Peterson V-SAM strobe tuner

Peterson V-SAM Larger image

Types of Tuners

Tuners fall into several general classes:

  • Mechanical Tuners. I'm not sure how the tuner shown at the right works, but it looks interesting! The scale “F…G…A…B…C…D…E…F” is stamped on the top. This artifact is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 1981.221, purchased by the museum from a gift from Mark R. Murray and funds from various donors, 1981. The provenience is “New Jersey, after 1866”. It is stanped “Standard/Cook & Read's/ Pat. Dec 26 1876” and is 6.4 cm (2.5″) high.
  • Strobe Tuners. These tuners compare the frequency of an external sound with an internal reference frequency, and display the difference as a rotating motion. When the motion stops, the frequency of the sound matches the reference frequency. When the frequencies differ even a small amount in frequency, it is displayed in the motion of the display.
  • Needle tuners. Devices that show frequency using an analog needle, a simulated needle in an LCD, or an array of LEDs. They use a microprocessor to measure the average period of the waveform, then uses this to drive the display.
  • Vibration tuners. Tuners that are clipped to a mounting point (typically the headstock or the sound board of a stringed instrument), and report the frequency of the vibrations at the mounting point. Because of the nature of the way they sense frequency, these tuners are not suitable for flutes.

Strobe Tuners

Felix Rohner tuning a Hang using a Node Model 7050 strobe tuner

Felix Rohner using a strobe tuner Larger image

Strobe tuners are often cited as the most accurate, and many instrument makers seem to prefer them. I've seen Laurence Juber (guitarist for Paul McCartney) use one in a solo live show.

Peterson V-SAM strobe tuner

Peterson V-SAM Larger image

On the left is a picture of Felix Rohner tuning a Hang using a Node Model 7050 strobe tuner (photo by Vera Shanov, from our visit to the HangHaus on July 25, 2007). The strobe tuner is the unit with the twelve green displays behind the Hang. Each of those green displays is a separate strobe tuner for each of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale.

However, despite their accuracy (or because of it), I've found strobe tuners to be a huge hassle when used with the flute. I worked with a Peterson V-SAM strobe tuner (shown on the right) for a year before giving it away. The display is just too sensitive to small pitch changes in the sound of the flute. My feeling is that the natural changes in pitch as we play the flute create an unstable display that is very difficult to interpret.


Needle Tuners

Korg OT-120 tuner

Korg OT-120 Larger image

I've used a number of needle tuners over the years, and I've found that the best for my needs with the Native American flute has been the Korg OT-120 (shown at the right). This tuner has all of the features that you will likely find in this class of tuners, and so is subject to all the pitfalls that these features invite. This diagram of the features points out how many adjustments this tuner has:

Korg OT-120 Reference

Korg OT-120 Reference Larger image

Here are some of the features with respect to the Korg OT-120 and how to use them:

  • Auto-Tuning Mode. The main dial on the OT-120 lets you choose among various tuning options. You'll most likely find the automatic pitch sensing mode the most useful. You can select among how responsive the automatic tuner is — Slow, Medium, and Fast. You should experiment with these, but I tend to use Fast.
  • Calibration. Many tuners let you choose the frequency of your reference pitch, within a given range. This is the number of cycles per second of the note A4. The most common reference pitch used today is many A4=440Hz, but others are in use (most notably A4=432Hz). Before you use the tuner, you must make sure that the calibration is set your intended frequency standard. On the OT-120, press one of the Calib buttons until the upper left of the display reads the intended frequency standard.
  • Key. Make sure the tuner is set to the key of C.
  • Temperament. This is a big topic, dealing with how the notes within an octave are tuned. The most common temperament used today is called “equal temperament”, and you should set your tuner to that temperament.

On the Korg OT-120, the Key and Temperament are combined into a single Trans/Temperament setting, shown the right side of the LCD display. This area will be blank when it is set to equal temperament in the key of C. If it reads some other key or a different temperament, keep hitting the Trans/Temperament key until it reads correctly (i.e. blank).

Once you've got your tuner set up correctly, it's time to play! Your first impulse might be to stare at the tuner display while you're playing. This is likely to get you poor results: you won't play naturally when you're “chasing the wavering needle”.

By far, the best approach is to just play normally, and glance at the tuner display occasionally. You might need to play for 3-4 minutes to get a feel for how the flute is tuned. See how low notes compare to high notes (all the time playing normally and glancing down every 5-10 seconds at various places in the scale). See how changes in breath pressure (and volume) affect the tuning.

One challange is that it may be hard to read the display of a tuner that is sitting on a table or in your lap. Or bending over to read the display changes your normal playing. Here's a setup that John LaRocque uses, clipping a tuner right on to the body of the flute:

Electronic tuner clipped to the body of a flute. Setup of John LaRocque. Electronic tuner clipped to the body of a flute. Setup of John LaRocque.

Electronic tuner clipped to the body of a flute. Setup of John LaRocque. Larger image Larger image

Now you certainly don't want to go around with a tuner clipped to your Native American flute (in my opinion), but this setup can be a useful exercise.

Again, don't stare at the tuner. Glance down occasionally (or play with your eyes close and open your eyes briefly) to get a snapshot of the display as you play normally.

 
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