In Search of the Missing Fundamental: by Richard K. Jones
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Electronic Tuners

Tempering Heads with Electronic Pitch Measuring Devices

Under the proper conditions, electronic tuners can prove to be an invaluable tool to assist in the tempering or clearing of timpani heads. Electronic tuners are able to register very low frequencies which are difficult for the human ear to hear or to even discern as having a pitch. Electronic tuners work best to measure timpani pitch once the heads have been balanced either by hand or with a device such as the TAP™ Head Gauge (see Chapter 5, Step 4) or a head tension device such as a DrumDial™ (see Chapter 5, Step 5). For more information on how an electronic tuner can assist in the tempering of timpani heads, read Chapter 5, Step 6.

Benchmarking Timpani Tuning Gauges

For benchmarking timpani tuning gauges or to measure the orchestra’s ‘A,’ the author recommends the app Cleartune for iPhone or Android. It is inexpensive and it registers timpani pitch relatively well once the heads have been tempered. It has a function called needle damping (set it to II) and in a quiet room and with the proper mallet, you can quickly benchmark your gauges as well as do spot checks of the pitch at each tension lug. When measuring timpani pitch, this application works best when no other instruments are playing.

Cleartune – Chromatic Tuner for iPhone & Android
Cleartune is a chromatic instrument tuner and pitch pipe that allows you to quickly and accurately tune up using the built-in mic in your iPhone, iPod Touch or Android device.

Other iOS and Android device tuners, which are reported to work well with timpani include iStroboSoft products from Peterson, insTuner,  Pitchlab, Pano Tuner, and Tonal Energy.

Can electronic tuners be used to tune timpani while performing?

Electronic tuners are generally found to be ineffective for measuring timpani pitch in a live or ensemble situation for the following reasons:

1) The sound radiation pattern of timpani is not direct, your tuner is more likely to pick up the spectral information from your nearby colleagues than your own when the surrounding dynamic is anything above about 30dB.

2) Electronic tuners are designed to best measure pitch that is based on a spectrum with a harmonic series, not an overtone series with a few near harmonic partials. A pitch on a timpano with a weak spectrum will not register consistently on electronic devices.

3) Above about 60 dB, the principal tone of a timpano generally decays much faster leaving the second preferred partial the fifth to dominate the spectrum; this can easily confuse electronic tuners.

4) Different mallet choices produce different masking effects on the spectrum often placing more emphasis on partials other than that of the principal tone, which can easily confuse electronic tuners.

Electronic tuners are extremely valuable when isolating the principal tone at each lug point during the initial mounting and tempering process as described in Chapter 5. They help reduce ear fatigue and are able to discern pitch better at very low frequencies much better than the human ear.

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