Author: Williams, Dave

Tuned to A=438 Hz in a A=440 Hz world

Is it just me or does this happen to everyone? A jam is just starting and someone calls a song and a key. There is a kick and the music starts to flow but right away something is off. I start checking my left hand position, putting my ear next to the strings, looking around, I see guitar players checking capos and lifting their ax to their ear trying to hear the tuning. Something is amiss. All is not right with the universe. Mercifully, the tune ends or in some extreme cases, the train wrecks. Everyone heard it and now the investigation begins. Who's out of tune? Most likely the banjo player is out of tune but that is usually not the culprit in this situation as they are always out of tune, so we are all used to it and it's not their fault anyway they can't help it. No it is someone else. Everyone pulls out their tuners and begins plucking and eyeballing the displays on these electronic cheaters. Sure enough one of them lets out an expletive that can't be used here and continues with some unholy remarks about a certain function that is included on most tuners. You know the function I'm talking about, the buttons that change the tuner setting up or down from A=440 Hz.

When this happens it is the musical equivalent of pocket dialing and when it occurs it is as easily equally embarrassing as the conversation that your pocket dialed wife, boss, friend or parole officer overhears when you do it and it can get you into serious trouble in the jam you're in. (I almost went for getting into a jam in your jam but I spared you on that one.) This tuner malfunction (actually pocket dialing too) seems to happen to me a little too often for my peace of mind but unless other players in the jam are very seasoned, most don't know it is the bass that is out of tune. They think it is themselves or just the banjo player again.

We could get into a discussion here on how electronic tuners are the scourge of an intelligent society and the bane of fine musicians everywhere but I think I'll forgo that one and stick to getting into my major peeve with these darned devices. After all, how can you trust middle aged to late middle aged pickers, to tune by ear at 2:00 AM, after indulging in a few rounds of beer, bourbon, booze or, god forbid, tequila. You can't! I'll make the case that tuners are absolutely necessary in the circumstances I just described but I will also argue that in these circumstances one of your very close jamming partners has already pushed the dang function button by mistake and is in perfect tune to A=443, probably a mandolin player.

This brings me to my point. What the heck is the reason that tuner makers include that function on them? Who uses it and for what?

I can speculate (because I don't really know) that some professional musicians or professional sound engineers may want to tune a little flat or sharp for some super secret special recording trick or for a unique tone in a piece of music but, most assuredly, professionals would have more sophisticated tools than a $25 clip on tuner to get that done and here is another particularly pertinent point in this discussion, they are professionals and one would think the have good enough ears to tune however they need once a reference is established.

So my question again why do clip on tuners and other standard digital tuners owned, marketed and used by multitudes of amateur musicians have this function. You know the classical musicians don't use them. They'd get run out of the orchestra. I donít think they can get into the room without a tuning fork in their case. Marching bands and brass players have pianos and pitch pipes. Woodwinds have oboes. I donít know what oboes use but I am pretty sure it isnít a clip on tuner.

As I said, we're the target market. Heck Iíve heard that even some old time musicians use tuners. Why would we ever need to tune differently. Have any of you been in a jam and it gets around to someone who calls a tune but also requests that everyone retune to A= 438 because they like the sound. I think not.

These buttons are nothing but trouble waiting to happen. I could see if this function had multiple uses. For instance, say that if you are going to drive late at night after a jam like the one in described above and your car doesnít start if your tuner is set at 436. A safety feature like that might make the all the trouble with those evil buttons worthwhile.

Maybe someone out there has the answer as to why tuners are like this. I certainly donít. Iím waiting for the marketing folks from Snark, Korg, Intellitouch or any of them to call me so I can straighten them out. Until then, Iím going take extra care on making sure Iím at 440. Gotta go, I just pocket dialed the CHP.

Posted:  10/3/2013

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