How to tune for your tune!

I don't want anyone to feel like I'm talking down to them.  But at the same time, this blog was started to help people who were just getting into recording.  So some posts are going to seem incredibly simple and obvious to some.  If that's the case here, just keep in mind that not everyone is on the same page; and that's why we're going to cover a lot of different topics.

Today's topic is tuning instruments for your song / recording. Or...

How to tune for your tune!

Yes, tuning your instrument is an immensely important part of recording.  And sadly, it's a very overlooked part by many in the home recording and indie scene.  How can that be you ask?  Easy, home studio's and indie groups are often doing things on a budget and tend to cut corners.  But please, don't save your time by not tuning properly.

Did you know that there are different ways you can tune your instrument?  Yep, doesn't even matter what kind of instrument it is.  You can tune by ear, tune to yourself, tune by tuner (which can have different results tuner to tuner), and even tune to other instruments.  So how do you know which way to tune?

Most western pieces of music (and not western as in country music, but meaning "of western influence" - basically anything on most radio stations in America) are done in tune to A440, and most tuners are set to this.  Their accuracy (the tuners) in reaching that may differ, but they're set to it.  So A440 is a good start.  Here are a few things to consider when deciding how to tune before you record.
  • How many instruments are going to be recorded?
  • Are all the instruments acoustic, or are some digital?
  • Does a certain instrument sound best and give the best results for the song if tuned a certain way?
In most studios that have pianos, they have their pianos tuned regularly so they stay in tune.

If you are using a piano, tune to it.

It doesn't matter if the piano is acoustic, digital, a keyboard, or a midi plugin on the computer - tune to the piano.  Why?  Simple, it takes a lot longer to tune a piano than a guitar or other stringed instruments.  Plus, it takes longer for them to lose their tuning (if that's even possible - keyboards and MIDI for example).  Also, piano's are typically tuned to precise tuning forks, which tend to be more accurate than digital tuners.

Also, if you're using any kind of MIDI for a note based instrument, tune your instruments to the tuning of the main MIDI panel in your DAW.  Simply pick a MIDI synth (or what your wanting) and play an A, or E, and tune.  Get the vibrations to go away in your tuning.  Close doesn't cut it here, this isn't horseshoes nor is that thing a hand grenade.

If your not using any MIDI nor a piano.

With this you have a couple different options.

1) Either have everybody tune using the same tuner.
- or -
2) Tune the pickiest (or hardest to tune) instrument, then tune everything else to that.

Doing either of these will help to ensure that everything is in tune with each other.  Using different tuners, like while at a normal practice, allows for variations in tuning that might not seem bad in a practice or a performance; but they may just ruin a recording.  You want everything to be as perfect as possible when recording.  Don't expect to make a bad recording sound great in the mixing phase.

When should you check your tuning?

All the time.  It might seem tedious, but I think you'd rather have a great recording than rush things and have a bad recording.  Seriously, check your tuning between every take.  Especially if your punching in.  Really, especially, if your punching in and you haven't in a couple takes.

Also, if at all possible, if you start recording an instrument for a song - finish that instrument for that song that day.  Try not to "come back to it tomorrow" if you can help it.  It's much easier to keep an instrument in tune for a few hours of playing, than it is to match a tuning later on with the same instrument.

While this might seem a bit over the top; trust me, it'll make mixing easier and will help you enjoy the finished product more.  It's just something to get in the habit of doing.

Now, go tune your gut harp and make something you love!