Some of the best and most accurate tuners are the rack-mounted units from Korg and Peterson, though they tend to cost a bit more. These days, many DAW programs, effects units, and even the control panels of some audio interfaces offer electronic tuner settings which can be quite accurate.
Often a tuner can give a false or shaky reading, particularly those lower-priced LED units. To alleviate that problem, start by switching off all effects: reverb, EQ, etc.
Select your guitar’s rhythm (neck) pickup, rather than the lead (bridge) pickup. Roll the guitar’s tone controls all the way down to eliminate the high notes. Finally, pluck the string gently right over the twelfth fret, instead of over the pickup.
This technique works because you’re eliminating most of the higher harmonics and generating the most pure, fundamental-rich tone. It’s also why playing closer to the bridge generates a more trebley, twangy tone than playing near the sound hole or pickups.
In doing this, it’s very important to pluck the string very gently. Plucking a string hard will generate an attack that is sharper than the note itself.
Of course, there are myriad other variables to consider when dealing with stringed instruments, including intonation. Try this experiment: play a 12th fret harmonic and compare its pitch with a fretted 12th fret note on the same string. Chances are good that the two pitches will be slightly off. A chord played on an instrument with poor intonation will sound right in one position, but the same chord further up the neck will be out of tune. A professional setup on the guitar’s bridge can help alleviate this, but again, it’s pretty much impossible to achieve perfection.
Other issues to consider include temperature, humidity, and air pressure, all of which can affect an instrument’s tuning. Then there’s the fact that every instrument is unique – the type of wood used, particularly on the neck, can make a difference, as can the type and gauge of strings, the height of the frets, how the neck is attached, and of course, how a player’s style affects an instrument’s tuning.
Close Enough for Rock and Roll…?
As you can imagine, there’s a good chance that no matter how diligent you try to be, you may still run into some situations where tunings don’t quite mesh. These days, there are plenty of ways to address the issue with technology.
Pretty much every DAW (and most tape machines, if you still go that route) can alter a pitch or a track by microtonal increments, allowing you to tweak the tuning of a given track. And of course, there are several variations on auto-tune plug-ins as well.
Software options like Antares Auto-Tune can help you make final tuning tweaks in your DAW.
Any of these tools will enable you to fix tuning issues in the mix, and if you’re so inclined you can get pretty surgical in your approach. But to what end? Just like quantizing rhythm tracks to soul-less perfection, tweaking every microscopic note of every part is the audio equivalent of chasing your tail until you lose sight of everything you ever loved about music.
In short, there is no tuning perfection. And at the end of the day, that’s not really the point. What’s important is not whether every note and each harmonic are perfectly in tune, as much as how things blend together.
As I say in pretty much every one of my columns, your ears are your most important tool. A great song is a great song, and imperfection is often an important part of what makes it so. Do get your instruments in tune, but don’t make yourself crazy. Strive not for perfection, but for what sounds good.
Daniel Keller is a musician, engineer and producer. Since 2002 he has been president and CEO of Get It In Writing, a public relations and marketing firm focused on audio and multimedia professionals and their toys. Despite being immersed in professional audio his entire adult life, he still refuses to grow up. This article is courtesy of Universal Audio.