I have seen electronic tuners used painstakingly to set bands’ drones accurately OUT OF TUNE.  So, are electronic tuners of any use?

Let’s start with a clear answer: an electronic tuning device is a high value tool when setting up a pipe corps.  BUT, you need to use it intelligently to achieve the result, a simple truth for all tools.  So, where could they be misused, producing poor results?

Here is a tuning process I have seen used.

  • The master instrument is tested for a good chanter scale sound
  • The tuning device is calibrated to the chanter’s Low A
  • The master instrument’s drones are then tuned with the tuner
  • The pipe corps’ drones are tuned using that setting on the tuner

So, where could this fall down?  The tuner is calibrated to an A on the chanter and then the A of the drones is tuned to that setting on the tuner.  It shouldn’t fall down – but it does.

I have now watched a number of bands do this, ending up with drones all nicely together, but not in tune with A on the chanter.  In one case, I got a chance to adjust the master instrument’s drones correctly by ear and measure the pitch.  The pitch when correctly tuned differed by a number of Hertz from the pitch measured from Low A on the chanter.

Why is this the case?  I’m sure audio specialists and various engineers could provide answers, but if really matters little.  What matters is that this process is unlikely to produce a reliably good result.

A better process is to set up the master instrument, INCLUDING TUNING DRONES BY EAR, then calibrate the tuning device to one of the drones and set all other drones to that.  I have seen this process work well.

So, we need to use the tools whilst applying personal skill and judgment.

Another case in point occurred a few years ago when I was asked to tune drones for a Grade 1 band about to compete in Sydney.  After I had been around to set all the drones with a tuning device, my ear detected a drone not in tune, near where I was standing.  So, I found which one it was and set it by ear.  Great – drones sounding good.  But one senior piper stopped and admonished me for not going 100% by the tuner.  But here’s the thing – judges do not tell if drones are in tune or not by using a measuring device – THEY use their ears.

There are two key takeaways from this discussion:

  • Don’t use the process which I have seen to be unreliable
  • Use the tuning device as a tool, rather than blindly accept it as an absolute authority

Happy tuning!

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