Wednesday, February 29, 2012

You Can Tune A Piano But You Can't Tune A ...

After writing a response to a session mate (is a singer/guitar player who is taking up the whistle) who asked what I use to tune my whistle I decided it would be good to share what I wrote with my customers and customers-to-be. So, here's more than you ever wanted to know about tuning your whistle(s):

Melissa, a chara,

The best tuner is your ears! This is because how you blow the whistle will change it's pitch. Softer = lower, harder = higher. Thus it is possible to blow any particular note into or out of tune, within limits. Those limits are maybe plus/minus ten cents or so. So a whistle player is constantly tuning, just like a singer or fiddle player. 

But it's good to have the whistle adjusted so it's wanting to play in tune to start with, so at sessions I use an acoustic tuner like this one I bought at Guitar Center. I actually have recently been using a tuner app in my Android phone, which I think works much better, but it should! The phone is a lot more sophisticated. 

I tune the low A to Ian's fiddle because he can't tweak the tuning on an open string, and it makes him nuts if we're out of  tune with each other. Most other notes he can slip his finger around to match whatever I'm blowing. 

But don't expect a whistle to be in tune all across it's range. It's not how a whistle works, and that's part of the character of a whistle.

As for tuning the whistles when I make them, there is a lot that goes into it. Since I can put each hole wherever I want I have to decide what conditions I am tuning the whistle for. What I mean by that is since the speed of sound changes with temperature, and to a lesser extent with humidity, a player will adjust the length of the whistle so it plays in tune under the conditions that exist when they are playing. I have decided that 78 degrees is a good mid-point to aim for. 

Then, when I'm setting the hole locations in the shop, I have to look at the temperature there, sometimes in the 90's sometimes in the 60's and tune the whistle so it plays 15 or 20 cents sharp or flat across the board at the amount of extension I want the player to use at 78. Then I know it will play best at 78 degrees, and higher and lower temps can be accommodated to some extent. 

The complication is that the holes would have to move proportionally as the temperature changes. But once the holes are drilled, they move in unison. So when you sharpen the whistle by say 2mm, the high notes move 2mm and so so the low ones. In a perfect world the high note hole would move less than 1mm while the bottom hole moved 2mm. 

Another "problem" is the straight bore of the typical whistle. This causes the notes of the second octave to tend flatter than the low octave. The solution as a player is to blow the second octave harder. You are already blowing harder to get the second octave to sound, so you have to blow harder-harder to get the high A and B in tune. But go right ahead, that's what a whistle sounds like. 

On top of that, if you change the size of the sound producing window, like of you were to close off the "Parks Tone Ring" a little bit to soften the sound, the whistle will play flatter. It is the same thing as making the holes at the other end of the whistle smaller. 

I'm telling you all this because by definition the whistle will be in and out of tune depending on what notes you are playing and the dynamics involved. That's part of the character of the whistle, and what makes a whistle sound different than a recorder for example.

Ha, I'm sure that's way more than you wanted to know. But hopefully you have some idea what the whistle will be doing and what you can do about it. 

Tóg go bog é,


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