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Tuning Ad Infinitum



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by Hendrik Broekman

Hendrik BroekmanIt seems to us here at the shop that the uninitiated reader might be tempted to draw the conclusion that tuning is more trouble than it's worth. Or, that the path to the one true way of tuning the harpsichord is confused and muddled. The first conclusion would be false and the second might be true IF there were one true way. Happily, as the discussion proves, there are several ways which work for some people, on some instruments, in some climates, under certain circumstances, etc....

However, as in most human endeavors which lend themselves to controversy and (talmudic) debate, there are certain premises which can be discerned as wholesome and gather about them a consensus. Please excuse the following attempt at summing up those premises into a few rules of thumb.

Rule: More than a countable number of beats away from reference pitch - two passes, one rough, one fine. Comment: You can try to overshoot a slight bit on the rough pass, wait a bit and do a careful tuning at final pitch unless the amount you are trying to correct is too great. Two things. First, I would take a coffee break between tunings. Second, if the instrument is flat, I would worry about overstressing individual strings in the high b(r)ass and high treble (you know the string was overstressed when it breaks).

Rule: Take a consistent approach (either all from above or all from below). Comment: I make it a practice to leave no string untuned lest those lurking, slow-acting accommodations of the case structure to changed stress patterns throw the uneven approach into sharp relief - that would leave me flat ;-). For what it's worth, I tune from below. I persist in the belief that a string is best tuned by the wrestpin to which it is attached. Consequently, if I am on the correct pin, I will hear the evidence and if I am not, I haven't risked breaking the string which is attached to the tuning pin I AM on (it is very easy to zone out while tuning). Once the string has been brought in tune, brass and tinned steel usually can be left just so. Iron seems to exhibit far more drag past the bridge and nut and can continue to tune itself in the same direction as your last motion after you have achieved just the right pitch. A little nudge the other way seems to help set matters right.

Rule: Move the pin as little as possible. Comment: Apropos the observation about string breakage at the wrestpin, an anecdote from the bad old days. Before I had a transposing instrument (mid-'70s), I had occasion to play at both 415 and 440. I discovered that the instrument needed 36 hours to come to equilibrium. I also discovered an unexpected problem with string breakage, to wit: the wire was far more likely to break when being let down than while being pulled up! I am convinced that the continued bending and straightening of the wire was the culprit (these were old-style narrow wrestpins) and that the effect had to do with the removal of the marginal support provided to the wire by the friction attendant to being wrapped around the pin at the same instant as the wire was once again straightened. Please remember, these were wholesale retunings of a semitone, not something anyone is likely to experience today. This should not be taken as an argument against a consistent approach to tuning by pulling up a small amount and letting down. There are better arguments against that practice.

Rule: Twist the pin around its long axis, don't bend it. Comment: Tuning pins are round for a reason.

Rule: Temper the octave c-c' - it is certainly the easiest octave in which to hear and judge beat rates. Also, the strings react more slowly to motions of the tuning hammer. Comment: I tune the octave c'-c'' at the same time. This tunes the great middle of the instrument. The faster beat rates in the upper octave while not especially easy to tune are ideal for checking for wonky intervals that might later be ascribed to some immediate de-tuning effect.

Rule: Temper the front 8'. Comment: As a novice tuner thirty years ago, I discovered that the front 8' was the easiest on which to set the temperament for two reasons. First, the partials are more evident and, second, the other two strings per key remain damped (assuming of course that you are tuning a 'normal' double). My practice hasn't changed over the years, so I suppose I can be accused of being a stick-in-the-mud old fogy, but I suspect that the effect hasn't changed either. So I always recommend that beginners start with the front 8'. On a single, if possible, set the buff stop on and tune the other 8' if the interference from other jacks rising is too great.

Rule: Fill in the rest of the notes in a generalized bass-to-treble sort of way. Comment: Like Ko-ko, the gory details I would "rather leave to you, for it really doesn't matter..." --in most cases. It's easier to hear and tune in the bass so you are able to work up to the more demanding task of tuning high pitches. .

Rule: Go back and check. Comment: Despite your best endeavors, something is likely to have gone wrong. It happens to the best of us.

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