Electronic Tuning Devices: Do we really need them and why?
Why do so many tuners today use electronic devices? Years ago no one needed those things. How necessary is that and is my tuning being compromised in any way? These are good questions and hopefully this brief article can clear up some confusion. Unfortunately, there usually isn’t time available for a long explanation while working on a piano in someone’s home so hopefully this brief article will help answer questions. We all know technology has filtered into almost every occupation today, and gradually we are becoming more comfortable with that. One thing however has not changed. ETD’s are no substitute for experienced aural skills. Let’s make that clear right off.
Most experienced tuners today learned their trade long before these devices became available, yet we still find them useful. There are several reasons for that. One of the most basic advantages of using an electronic device is that computers listen in a very different way then our ears do. This can be a disadvantage for tuners without good aural skills, but when properly edited another interesting perception of harmonics is revealed. This is easily proved with a small group of tuners working on the same piano as while doing a Master Tuning for the PTG exam. Especially while working in the extreme ranges we may all agree that one pitch sounds just right and everyone agrees, then we may find our software suggests the pitch ought to be moved up or down by a slight amount. We do that, and everyone agrees it sounds better. Fine, no big deal, but the opposite happens just as often. The program may suggest something is perfect, but it is not, and after that adjustment the computer reading didn’t change- or maybe it will. The software is only a template, a tool, that helps us get things close quickly. I’ve often made a comparison to computers and writing skills. Computers will not make someone a better writer, but it can make life easier for people who do a lot of writing. The same is true with ETD’s and tuning pianos.
Another great feature of ETD’s is the pitch raising function. When a piano is extremely flat or sharp it’s actually better for the instrument if pitch is roughly pulled back first starting from note #1 at the bottom of the piano. If only tuning aurally in the old fashioned way, this method is impossible. The software has become rather complicated and is able to calculate an exact over pull amount based on readings of the current pitch. This is a great time saving feature that enhances stability without compromise of any kind. I was trained to tune unisons going up the treble starting with the left string, then tune center and right as unisons, and move on. The problem with that method is that as we change pitch going up the scale the bridge also moves. That first left string has frequently moved by the time we finish tuning the second unison, so time is wasted tuning the right string solid to the others if it must be redone later. If the mistake is small it might not even be caught. With my ETD I have a record what has already been aurally decided for a particular piano so can tell immediately if a pitch changes while tuning these unisons up the scale. In this way tuning becomes more accurate, faster.
Probably my favorite feature of the Reyburn CyberTuner is that I can customize user temperaments and create accurate digital records of my own best aural work for any particular piano that I frequently tune. This is an amazing feature that requires sophisticated software and allows for more consistent, excellent results with no compromise in quality. I have hundreds of such tuning files recorded for the important pianos that I frequently see. These digital records and user custom user temperaments also allow professional technicians to share exactly what they are doing with other interested technicians or musicians. This process is referred to in my adjacent article on Victorian Temperament, where I provide user temperament offset numbers.
In summary, ETD’s and computers in general are here to stay and have many advantages to offer, but ultimately they are no more than a tool. Like any tool, some skill and mastery of the method is necessary for optimal results. One of the first things every beginning tuner learns is that deciding the exact “in tune” place for a particular pitch, flat or sharp to within tenths of a cent, is not the most difficult part of tuning a piano. By far, the most difficult skill required to solidly and accurately tune pianos is the hammer technique necessary to manipulate the tuning pin and wire. This skill takes years of practice and hundreds of pianos to master.
ETD’s can be a useful tool for beginners to demonstrate instable techniques, but unfortunately they too often become a crutch, which impedes the development of aural skills. That is another subject, but ultimately one of the reasons experienced tuners like ETD’s so much is because it allows us to conserve some of our brain energy for the most difficult aspects of tuning. This leads to less stress and fatigue overall at the end of the day. That’s really all we look for in a great tool.
Dennis Johnson, R.P.T. 2018