Tuning Fork or Electronic Tuning Device (ETD): Why do people often not trust “machine” tuners?

Tuning Fork or Electronic Tuning Device (ETD)?

The age old question and debate… which is better? A piano tuner who uses only the “good-old-fashioned” tuning fork? Or, a piano tuner who uses an electronic tuning device (machine)?

The simple answer…neither! Or maybe…both! The fact is, that it totally depends on the tuner and their training, their ear, lever technique in setting the tuning pin, and such…not just the device they use as a reference. Ultimately, it is the tuner’s job to tune the piano!

Let me interject a disclaimer here. I began my tuning career 20+ yrs. ago as an “machine only” tuner, and I admit that I relied way too much on the machine before learning the proper checks and tests to produce a more excellent tuning. I always used chords and some very basic checks to “check” my work…as far as I knew to do, so my tunings were more than acceptable for my small circle of clients, but not anywhere as good as they could have been. One thing I never did, however, was to totally rely on my machine for tuning every string on the piano. That, to me, has always been totally unacceptable and produces very poor results. Suffice it to say, I still had much room for improvement and continue to this day to hone my aural tuning skills.

So, my point in this article certainly is not to bash tuners who are just starting out, I’ve certainly been there, and done that, but my intention rather is to 1) attempt to explain why “machine only” tuners typically get a bad rap, 2) encourage beginning tuners, or those who rely on their machines too much, to consider learning as soon as possible to incorporate aural tuning checks into their ETD work rather than relying totally on the machine, and most importantly, 3) to help the general public to understand that they don’t have to be afraid of using a tuner that uses a “machine”. The truth is that an ETD that is set up and used properly, in conjunction with standard aural tuning, can produce 1st class results…and in my opinion can equal, or be potentially better in many cases than a tuning done by ear and tuning fork alone. Rather than assume that a tuner will produce poor results based on the method they choose to use, it would be much better to research the tuner and check their references before hiring them, assuming the best in them until you are given reason to believe otherwise.

Electronic Tuning Devices can help produce superior results when used properly!

There have been double blind tests performed in our tuning circles to see if professional “fork only” tuners could determine whether a piano had been professionally tuned “fork only” or “machine only”, and the results clearly showed that they could not tell the difference. Reason….the machine tuner was also using the exact same aural skills to check their work as did the one who tuned just by ear.

I currently use an Accutuner III to primarily tune the temperament and one string of each note up and down the scale (all the while using standard tuning checks and tests to be sure the spacing between each note is correct). I then turn the machine off and tune the rest of the piano, pulling in the unisons completely by ear.

All Electronic Tuning Devices, though, are Not the Same!

A word or two about ETDs. All are not created equal. For instance, a simple guitar tuner, while it may tune all 12 notes of the scale, will produce VERY poor piano tunings…especially if used for more than just the temperament octave in the center of the piano. The reason….a difficult concept in a nutshell…inharmonicity of the piano strings will force the bass to have to be tuned a bit flatter, and the treble will have to be tuned a bit sharper in pianos…and in varying degrees for different sized and scaled pianos. A guitar tuner does not account for this stretch.

Good ETDs are designed just for tuning pianos, but must also be used correctly. For instance, most will have either presets for common pianos, where someone has already measured the inharmonicity of a particular brand/model piano scale, OR the machine will allow the tuner to take their own readings before the tuning in order to measure the pianos inharmonicity before they begin tuning. This is very important in order to match the machine to what the ear hears aurally. Once this scale is set, the tuner may proceed, usually tuning the piano aurally, just like someone using a tuning fork, but using the display to help get real close, real fast. Good ETD tuners will then make the same aural checks that a “fork only” tuner would make before proceeding to the next note.

Car Mechanic Analogy!

Electronic Tuning Devices in the hands of a skilled tuner can produce exceptional results. They are kind of like high quality diagnostic tools used by today’s mechanics. I, personally, would be a little leery of leaving my vehicle in the hands of a mechanic who only used tools available at the time cars were invented…or using just a stethoscope to diagnose my engine troubles. I want my mechanic to have all the latest tools at his disposal. I also would want him to know how to properly use them, but he’d also better know more than just the basics of car repair, too…not just how to read what a machine tells him. Machines, when programmed properly and set up correctly for the task at hand, will usually give proper results. However, machines can sometimes be wrong…and the person interpreting the machine MUST know the difference.

So…a good ETD tuner should know how to set the machine up for the particular piano being tuned, make all necessary checks while tuning, and rely on aural results, using the display only as a guide to get close. In addition, I believe that all unisons should be tuned by ear. Meaning…tune only one string of a particular note to the reference, and then tune the other strings, cleanly, to the first totally by ear.

OK, so for those who still believe that ETD’s have no place in tuning pianos, and that any tuner worth their salt should be using a tuning fork, let me ask you this?

Are there excellent “fork only” tuners? Of course!

Are there poor “fork only” tuners? Naturally, I would imagine there are, yes! (I’ve known some!)

Are there excellent “machine only” tuners? You bet!

Are there poor “machine only” tuners? Absolutely!

So, the answer is “yes” to all of the above questions. There are both  excellent and poor piano tuners, despite their method.

Why then do people tend to not trust “machine” tuners?

So, if there are both excellent and poor piano tuners using both tuning methods, then why do so many people insist on, and pride themselves on hiring, a “fork only” tuner while giving disapproving looks at another tuner when they pull out an electronic tuning device?

I think the answer is 3 fold:

1) I think we like to romanticize the “good old days”. We tend to believe that if was good enough back then, it should be good enough now.  Some believe that if Grandma’s tuner used a tuning fork, that must be the right way, so their tuner must also. Or, we’ve heard all our lives that “fork only” tuners are simply the best, we don’t know exactly why, but we believe it.

Now, consider for a moment, the potential weakness of that argument. A piano tuner who uses only a tuning fork, but doesn’t really know how to tune aurally very well (and there are those) may impress his/her customers that they “tune the old fashioned way”, but in reality they will produce a less than pleasing tuning.  Likewise, a tuner that uses a machine only (which often uses a visual display to stop a moving display of some sort when the note is “in tune”) but hasn’t refined their aural tuning skills may also produce the same less than pleasing tuning (unfortunately, in my earlier years I fell into this category).

So then, of the two examples above (“fork” only tuner who has poor aural skills, or “machine” only tuner, also with poor aural skills) which is better? Well, no matter what your stereotyped or romanticized image of the better tuner was before, the answer is really…neither. Both failed to tune the piano properly, not because of the device they used as their reference, but because they lacked the skill to use their device properly in combination with the necessary aural checks to ensure their tuning was in fact the best that it could be.

However, both types of tuners, “fork only” or “machine only”, IF they know how to use aural checks to check their work as they go, have the potential to produce very excellent tunings. In fact, near identical tunings in most cases.

2) I think there is some truth to the ETD stereotype. While there is no way to estimate if there are more good/bad “fork only” VS “machine only” tuners in the world, I would guess (as much as I hate to admit it) that there are likely more poor ETD tuners out there than poor “fork only” tuners.  I base my opinion on the fact that it’s easier. Virtually anyone can grab and ETD, get a tuning lever, some mutes, print some business cards and claim to be a tuner without really learning how to tune properly. In fact, many start tuning for themselves, then for a friend, or even as a part-time business for some quick side job income, but never intend to better their tuning skills. They have their tuning lever and machine, and they’re “good-to-go”. While this may be fine for friends and family, its not fine for more discerning customers, not to mention all the repairs and adjustments that they may not be prepared to tackle. Therefore, an ETD in the hands of an inexperienced tuner will produce very amateur results even though it gives the average customer the impression of their piano being “in tune”.  The piano may be left sounding better than it was, especially if it was terribly out of tune to begin with, but it will still be quite unacceptable by most tuning standards.

Also…even if the tuner is more skilled in aural tuning, there is still a “tendancy” for some ETD tuners to get lazy and rely too much on their machine and to skip the necessary aural checks. If a tuner is just “stopping the lights” on their machine, for instance, and is not playing 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, octaves, etc. and their tests as they go (to prove that the notes are in the correct place), then they will most certainly get a mediocre tuning at best.

Conversely, and in theory, a “fork only” tuner “should” be relying on those checks all the time since they have no other reference such as a machine to fall back on. Again, anyone can pull out a tuning fork and “give-it-a-go” and come up quite short of a good tuning, but typically the idea is that if you learn first to tune a good temperament aurally from just a fork, there’s a good chance you will be able to produce acceptable tunings.

So then, what’s the real issue?

The problem, then, is not that all ETD tuners are bad. The problem is that there are just enough poor ETD tuners out there, many of which are “tinkering” with the idea of tuning, which only winds up  perpetuating the stereotype.  True, finding a good tuner (either “fork only” or “machine only”) is often difficult…and it may be slightly more difficult finding good ETD tuners, due to factors described earlier, but rest assured they are out there…and worth every penny to hire! Don’t be afraid of the tuner who uses a machine….but do your homework, ask questions of your tuner, watch and listen as they tune, get recommendations from other clients if you need, but bottom line, give ETD tuners a fair shake rather than writing them off as being unqualified to do the job. 

In the customers defense, many customers DO know an excellent tuning from a poor one and don’t want to be charged for a professional tuning when they are getting anything but.  So, it stands to reason that they would take their chances with a “fork only” tuner rather than risk hiring someone who just tunes every string on the piano by stopping the lights. That type of tuning gives those who have studied, practiced, and tuned thousands of pianos in our careers a bad name,  and it further perpetuates the distrust of ETD users.

3) Our past experiences with tuners. It’s pretty obvious that if you have had a good or bad experience with a tuner in the past, it will greatly affect your opinions and decisions about who to hire in the future. If you had a “fork only” tuner tune your family piano all your life, and had good memories of them, then you will be more apt to desire to duplicate that experience. Similarly, if you you had a poor experience with an EDT tuner in the past, or heard of someone who had, you will be apt to steer clear of anyone toting one of these devices, no matter if they really know how to use it or not. The following is one such experience.

A Bad Experience with a Poor ETD Tuner. On one occasion, I found myself sitting in an orchestra, just behind an ETD piano tuner that was tuning our stage grand piano for our week long family camp. (he was accidentally double booked for our rehearsal time, so we were a captive audience waiting for him to complete his job). He, of course, was unaware of who I was, or that I also tuned pianos professionally. Since I also use an ETD (Accutuner III), I was curious to watch his method of tuning using his ETD, hoping to maybe learn something new.  I always enjoy learning new things that might make my work better and easier…besides, I’m a strong believer that we never stop learning. Well, I learned something alright! I learned why some people have a distinct distrust for tuners who use machines. What I saw him do really shocked and frustrated me, to say the least. In the 40 min. that it took him to tune the piano, he did not play one single chord, he did not make one check of his 4ths, 5ths, octaves, etc, and he tuned every string in the piano (at least one string per note) to the machine to stop the lights. No setting of the temperament. No checking intervals. Nothing. He “might” have tuned the unisons by ear as he went along, but it wouldn’t have mattered since the rest of the intervals were so off. Needless to say, it was a very poor tuning, he got paid, and we had to live with it. I had left my tools at home, 3 hr. away, or I would have probably re-tuned it properly during some down time…just because! The sad thing is that there are many of those kind of tuners out there making money at it every day, frustrating their customers, and giving ETD tuners a bad name.

The bottom line: good tuning depends on good aural skills, and the ability to maneuver the tuning lever and set the tuning pin properly…regardless of whether a tuning fork or ETD is used.

Just remember, don’t pre-judge your tuner based on their method alone. If they produce a great tuning, that is the only thing that really matters.

Until next time, make a joyful noise!

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