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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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Are “free” pianos really free, and are they OK to learn on?

Are those “free” pianos that are offered to you really free, and are they usually OK instruments to learn on?  That’s the questions I’d like to address in this segment.

 

The answer to both is typically “no”, however, there are always exceptions.  First let’s look at why those seemingly good bargains, those too good to pass up offers are sometimes just not worth it.

 

Free pianos are not always free!

 

So, you’re considering getting that free piano to fix up…or maybe you just got that free piano anyway and want to fix it up because you know that your child needs a good piano to practice on.  Well, in short, unless you really get lucky and receive a piano that is not terribly old and is still in good shape, that “free” piano might likely wind up costing quite a bit of money by the time all is said and done.  I’d recommend instead, save up the money that you would be using towards pitch-raises, repairs, rebuilding, regulation work, and put it toward a piano that does not needs as much of that at this stage of it’s life.  Yes, all pianos need those things from time to time, but older pianos usually need much more work done on them than younger pianos usually do.

 

Think you’re getting a great deal?  You might be….great deals are out there, I’ve seen them.  On rare occasions I’ve found myself commenting to a client on the good shape their piano is in, only to hear from them, with a great big smile on their face, that they got the piano for free.  Really?  It does happen, however, that is usually the exception…not the rule.

Many times I’ve had to tell a customer (after they’ve spent hundreds of dollars to move an old upright piano to their home, up a flight of stairs, down a hallway, around the corner…well you get the picture…) that this old piano that had been graciously given to them for free was virtually beyond repair, (at least as was practical or feasible for them).  I always feel terrible for them since I know that not only were their hopes of getting a great deal dashed, but so was any thought they may have entertained of saving money!

My goal here is not to knock free pianos or make anyone feel bad for having taken one home, but my goal is really to try and prevent someone from going through the frustration and letdown of going through all the work and effort of moving a piano only to be told it has no real value left in it. 

To be quite honest, I’m a bit baffled, but also kind of chuckle at the thought of just how many free pianos get passed around, like the unwanted Christmas fruitcake!  It’s interesting to me how someone who would never consider accepting a free car that was on its last leg would say “yes” to a free piano with the same type issues.  Why, I’m not really sure, although I have some ideas about it.

I don’t have any numbers to back this up, so this is just my speculation, but something I find interesting is that millions of cars have been produced worldwide, and millions of pianos have been produced world wide, we see junkyards for cars all over the place, but I’ve never seen a piano junkyard.  Per million produced, in comparison, I would bet that a much higher percentage of cars get ditched after they wear out than pianos.  There are lots of reasons for this, and that could spark a whole other discussion, but I think the point here is that people, for whatever reason, just hold on to pianos as long as humanly possible.

I’m sure much of it is because people seem to bond with their pianos like it’s another member of the family.  This makes sense if you stop to think about how the music that comes from a piano moves our spirit, unlike ordinary furniture in the room.  It seems to sing to us, speak to us, it stirs us emotionally….so we become emotionally attached…therefore, we cannot bear to see it go to the landfill, even when we know that it’s at the end of it’s life and that”s exactly where it needs to go.

With that said, that brings up another issue, where to take it…how to get rid of it when it does die?  So…rather than facing the music (no pun intended), we send the old piano down the road for someone else to babysit for a few years.

Let’s go back to the free car analogy for a moment. We all know that there are a lot of free, or cheap, cars floating around out there that you, or I, wouldn’t dare take ownership of, for any reason…even as a gift….because we know that if it’s free…it probably has some issues that are gonna cost….big time!  It may need new brakes, a new motor, it may have leaking oil issues, it may have a rusted out frame, it likely needs new tires, the radio may not work, etc, etc, etc…..you know the ones.  You may have one of them.  I guess there’s nothing wrong with an older car if it gets you from one place to another without breaking down or costing too much money, but by the same token, I’d never purchase an old Ford Model T to commute down the highway to work. Forget for a moment it’s historical value and just consider it’s function.  It may get me from place to place, it may have been cheap to purchase from a junk yard, it probably will take some money to get it at least running, but it will never perform like the rest of the cars on the highway.  It was great for it’s day, but it’s day is gone.  Similarly, an older piano that can’t be sold, but is usually given away may need similar things done to it. It could have a bad pin block (loose tuning pins), a cracked bridge, loose glue joints, broken and misaligned parts, mice chewed and/or stained wood, felt, and rusty strings.  A piano with one of these issues may indeed be a candidate for fixing up, but often times an older piano may have all these problems and is just too costly to repair.  In addition, an old piano, like the Model T, even fixed up sometimes has a difficult time comparing to a modern piano in sound, tone, and function.

My point is, most times that things are given away for free, there is a good reason….it’s too costly to own, impractical, low quality, or whatever…or they’d keep it themselves.

I’m not saying that all free pianos are bad news.  Not at all.  If you wanted to give me a free Steinway B in perfect shape, very well…I accept!  Probably not going to happen, though! Why, because it still has a lot of value, both musically and monetarily.  Most free pianos have very little value left of their own without putting something in to them to bring back some of their value.  Most pianos, can be reconditioned or rebuilt, for the right price, but just like a “totaled” car…even though it might be brought back to working order in the hands of an expert rebuilder…new doors, new motor, new frame, new tires, new this, new that….the next thing you know you have spent near what a good used or new car costs…but you still have an old car with new parts.  Pianos work a lot the same way.  Once they’re “totaled” you can put money into them, at your own risk…many pianos have been saved from “the heap” that way, and many pianos have gone on to lead useful lives for many more years.  My hats off to the many piano rebuilders who do just that every day of their lives.  We owe a lot to them.

Again, I am NOT saying that old pianos should not ever be rebuilt, not one bit.  I am NOT saying that you are not wise by putting money into an old piano.  You have every right to do what you would like.  The CAUTION is to consider these things before accepting that “free” piano, and then being disappointed when you realize what you’ve inherited, and that once you fix it up, you quite possibly won’t get that price back out of it if you decide to sell it.

 

What I AM saying, is that basically, you’re not going to get something for nothing.  Don’t expect to take on a free piano and “only have it tuned”.  It’s probably not going to happen.  If you are going to accept that free piano, it would be a good idea to know what you’re getting into so that you don’t have that shocked look on your face when I have to give you the bad news!   Accepting that free piano sounds so tempting, but take some simple advice and do your homework before you do.

 

Free pianos are not always the best to learn on!
I am often surprised when I hear a parent reason that they “are getting a piano for free, even though it’s in pretty rough shape, to see if my child will like it and stick with it before investing any money into a better piano.  After all, they aren’t practicing to play at Carnegie Hall, or anything like that, so it really doesn’t matter.”  I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this. Really though, what kind of reasoning is that?  I understand not wanting to spend money on something the child may give up in a year or two, but the way I see it, you are setting him up to fail.
Certainly, if your first experience with an instrument is a run-down, shoddy instrument that barely plays, the chances of you falling in love with the music it produces (or doesn’t) is slim to none!  While it is a risk you take to get a decent piano and keep it maintained, that investment will likely pay off in the long run…and if it doesn’t, you still have a nice piano that has value that can be sold if you need to.
This goes for adults too.  Anyone learning to play the piano needs a good, decent, well tuned and regulated piano from which to learn on.  “Why.” you ask? Because your ear is being trained to hear differences in sounds and pitch, as well as the differences in expressions.  If the piano is not tuned and voiced well, you will begin to recognize pitches incorrectly, the piano may not respond to your loud or soft playing correctly, and you could learn improper finger techniques as you attempt to compensate for poor, uneven touch, loose and wobbling keys, and such. We seem to think that younger students won’t notice, or that they at least won’t mind, but the fact is that they do notice.  Every time they go to their piano lesson play on their teacher’s well maintained piano (we hope), they are reminded when they get home that their piano for some reason doesn’t sound or feel like their teacher’s piano.  It is for this reason, many times whether the student knows exactly why or not, that many potentially great pianists have given up at a young age.
What makes things worse, I feel, is when the parents are not musically inclined (not THAT they are not musical, but because they are not musical).  When the parents don’t have an ear for music, or are not pianists themselves, it makes it much easier for them to justify starting out with a less than stellar instrument, because they honestly don’t know the difference.  So reasoning with them about how really important it is for the student can sometimes be more difficult.

Here’s how I see trying to get little Johnny or Suzie to learn to play on an old clunker.  Think about this…would you WANT to learn to play golf, and would you learn to play WELL, on a set of hand-me-down clubs that had all the club faces all nicked up, where the wood clubs were dried and split, where the handle grip tape was all gummy and falling off, some of the clubs had bent shanks, and all your golf balls had deep cuts in them from years of use.  Absolutely not.  Granted, we usually cannot afford the best set money can buy, just like everybody can’t go out and get a Steinway & Sons grand piano to learn on, but at the same time, I would never try to learn golf on a set of clubs that I’ve described, nor would I try to learn or practice piano on a very poor piano.  It may have been good in its time, but time and wear have rendered them near useless.

 

Today’s post was not about bashing old pianos given for free.  As I said before, there are many of them out there still making plenty of great music.  My hope is that armed with this knowledge, you will be prepared to either say “no” to that offer and make plans to search out a decent piano to learn on, or that if you say “yes” to that free offer, that you will be either prepared to spend some money fixing it up properly, or you will be prepared for take your technician’s recommendations, whatever that may be.

 

Until next time…..make a joyful noise!

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Welcome to the Blog of Richard’s Piano Service

Thank you for visiting the Blog of Richard’s Piano Service.

I am Richard W. Bushey – Piano Technician, Waynesville, Mo.

This is my very first Blog post, and it’s something very new to me, but I feel that it can be very beneficial for us both.

As with any profession, there has been much study, practice, testing, and practical on-the-job experience that has gotten me where I am today.  I am a better piano technician than I was a year ago, 5 years ago, and for sure 18 years ago when I first picked up a tuning lever for the first time.  However, even after 18 years in the business, there is much I have to learn, so in an effort to continue to improve and offer the best service possible, it is necessary for me to keep learning and stretching myself to do better, daily.

You may be a piano owner (or would like to be) and you may have many questions about your piano.  Pianos are quite fascinating instruments, and very unique too.  I am always surprised at how little piano owners really know about their instrument.  Like a car, they know that when they put the key in and turn it, it goes VROOM!  When it stops going VROOM (hopefully before…) they know to fill it with gas.  That’s all some car owners know about their cars.  Similarly, piano owners purchase their pianos, bring them home, and all they really know about their piano is that when they open the lid and press the keys, music comes out.  When the music seems less than musical, they get it tuned, but that’s about it.

So this is why I feel this Blog can be useful to both of us, you the reader, as well as me the technician.  Piano owners can really benefit by understanding a little more about their beloved instruments, and when the Technician says it needs an “oil change” (or a regulation, some adjustments or repairs), there won’t be so many “deer-in-the-headlight” looks and awkward pauses!

As a Piano Technician, it is my goal to continue learning so I can better know how to assist my clients.  One way I do that is by attending monthly Piano Technician’s Guild Chapter meetings where fellow technicians from around the area meet and share ideas, methods, and in general encourage one another.  I also subscribe to the Piano Technician’s Journal, a monthly technical magazine for piano technician’s which brings a wealth of knowledge to my mailbox each month.  I also shop with various piano supply companies, browse their websites, read their technical articles and such.  I also enjoy visiting fellow technician’s websites to see what they’re offering and things they are sharing.

So, this is a place where I can share some of what I learn, and as I pass it along, I hope it will enrich your piano owning experience.

Thanks again for stopping in, and until next time…make a joyful noise!

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