Melodica Tuning and Detuning and Being Out of Tune
August 30, 2014 at 3:25 pm #3040
Hello Melodion, Melodica, Pianica, and Keyboard Harmonica players, and Players of Other Such Instruments:
With all the talk about tuning, I thought I would provide a counterpoint for consideration and discussion. I think having a finely tuned melodica is essential for some types of music. It can also contribute to player satisfaction if you really like a well-tuned melodica, particularly if you tuned it yourself. I wish I had at least one or two melodicas that were in perfect tune at 440, but I have not found the time nor inclination to dig into tuning yet (except to detune a few by damaging reeds by blowing too hard). 🙂
It is interesting to know, however, that electronic keyboard players, particularly analog synth players (and record producers), often tune electronic keyboards slightly sharp or flat by a few cents to thicken up the soundscape of an arrangement. This is common practice and can be done with the press of a couple buttons on a modern synth. Most analog synths, like my Moog Voyager, enable tuning with the twist of a knob during performance. This is really fun and provides interesting results.
In my genre, the blues, perfect tuning of every instrument, along with accurate playing, no sliding, no bending, and no warmth/distortion would make for a pretty un-blues-like soundscape. When I play Hammond organ, for example, I purposely play with some slop on some songs to get all kinds of grunts, grunginess, double-hits, dissonance, and other such things into the music.
And so it is when I play my keyboard harmonicas in blues music. I don’t worry much about slight tuning imperfections. In fact I welcome them. They sound great. Even if the whole melodica seems slightly out of tune with the rest of the players, it usually contributes to the soundscape, at least with the songs and soundscape I have been playing in.
The other day, for example, I was playing with an acoustic bass player and an acoustic guitarist. We are developing a repertoire consisting of the classic blues standards. We are playing songs by Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, James Cotton, John Lee Hooker and some of the other great bluesmen. After playing for a while with my fairly pristine and new Yamaha and Suzuki melodicas, I took out one of my beaters; an out-of-tune Hohner Piano 27, that bends notes in the lower register almost at will. There is hardly an interval anywhere on the keyboard that sounds right. Note-to-note consistency in timbre, volume, and response is poor. Yet, when I started to play it in a blues song, my goodness, if fit like a well-worn pair of slippers. It fit the genre, and it fit what blues people expect to hear. Honestly, it might have been a bit over the top, but it proved the concept.
So I guess my point is, think about the music you want to play and the way you want your melodica to sound. It may be that perfect tuning is not necessarily the best thing for a given song, or styles such as country, Americana, blues, bluegrass, or roots. Some tuning imperfections can be quaint. You may also want to keep some of the tricks of electronic keyboardists up your sleeve and tune a spare melodica up or down 4, 5, 6, or more cents to give it a unique sound when played with other instruments.
So the above are just some thoughts I throw out for consideration as I sit here in my melodica world.
LowboyAugust 31, 2014 at 7:39 am #3041
amen to that!September 1, 2014 at 2:23 pm #3057
For corrupting the young, you will be made to drink the hemlock, Professor Lowboy.September 1, 2014 at 6:49 pm #3058
🙂 🙂 🙂September 1, 2014 at 7:54 pm #3059
I agree with everything you said, actually. But for me it’s best to try to be in tune, except for consciously bending to get a bluesy sound.September 3, 2014 at 2:53 pm #3062
I love this topic!! I’m a huge fan of tuning (including detuning) and I appreciate everything you’re saying. I’m a huge synth fan :D.
One thing though- regarding synthesizer detuning, most of the time there are multiple oscillators going at once. The Voyager that you mentioned, as I’m sure you’re aware, has three oscillators. Detuning one or more of the oscillators in relation to the remaining one(s) will create various effects depending on the degree they’re detuned (especially if LFOs are involved).
With that on the table, when you say players & producers sometimes tune a keyboard sharp (or flat) do you mean the WHOLE keyboard in relation to the rest of the instruments in the arrangement or do you mean an oscillator or two (as in the example above). If the former… even if it’s a polyphonic synth? I’m very curious about this!
Another thing about the instrument is that if you play harder it goes flat and if you play softer it goes sharp. Do you have any techniques to compensate for this Lowboy? For example, as you crescendo a note it would go flat because of too much airflow to the reed (or it would sound like a downward bend)- perhaps slightly pressing a nearby key could correct the pitch while adding slight harmonic dissonance. That could possibly add a kind of distorted sound. I haven’t experimented much with this so I’d love to hear about some of your ideas and experience.
Here’s an interesting idea: What if instead of a single reed per key, there were multiple reeds per key. In that case, it would be possible to create a much thicker sound by detuning your ‘oscillators’. I can also imagine octaves, to get a mandolin/12-string guitar style sound. I’m sure there would need to be some major compensation as multiple reeds would probably require more breath though.
Regarding your music- please post some YouTube videos if you can. I can’t be the only one who’s interested in seeing some of your performances :).September 4, 2014 at 11:11 pm #3071
Steven – my Vibrandoneon has 2 reeds per note. I have it set up as octaves – it gives a lovely sound, but does require double the air. Vibrandoneons require quite a bit of breath already, with their big air chambers and chunky reeds. I’d love to play a Yamaha with double reedsSeptember 4, 2014 at 11:26 pm #3073
You are right. The Voyager has three voices or oscillators. The second and third oscillator are tunable in relationship to the first oscillator and each other. In addition, the Voyager has a fine tune knob that can tune the whole keyboard up and down by maybe half a tone or so. In synth and techno and other related genres, players use all of this capability to really create some interesting sounds. In pop and rock and other related genres, I think digital keyboards as a whole are tuned up or down to thicken the sound or add a tonality that you can’t put your finger on, but in which you know something different is going on.
I was just playing with the fine tuning on my Hammond XK-3c. I can tune the whole organ from 430 to 450. As I play music and tune up, I hear something going on and some dissonance. But within 2 seconds, the raised tuning (even at 450) blends right in with the music but offers something different.
It sounds really weird to be playing at 430 with all sounding well (because your ear has accepted or adjusted to the tuning), and then while playing to music, raising the tuning up to 450. While you are raising the tuning, you can clearly hear strangeness. But again, within 2 seconds after reaching 450, all seems well. Yet the sound could be considered thicker or “whatever.” It is different, but not unpleasant at all.
I will address your other questions in a minute.
LowboySeptember 4, 2014 at 11:34 pm #3074
To answer your question: “Another thing about the instrument is that if you play harder it goes flat and if you play softer it goes sharp. Do you have any techniques to compensate for this Lowboy? For example, as you crescendo a note it would go flat because of too much airflow to the reed (or it would sound like a downward bend)- perhaps slightly pressing a nearby key could correct the pitch while adding slight harmonic dissonance. That could possibly add a kind of distorted sound. I haven’t experimented much with this so I’d love to hear about some of your ideas and experience.”
For the blues, which is all I am really playing on the keyboard harmonica, I kike it when the notes go flat as I blow hard. I like the waver in pitch, and I wave my instruments around in the air and across the microphone to accentuate pitch wavering. So I have not really tried to counteract it.
LowboySeptember 5, 2014 at 12:47 am #3076
I am not sure we are ready for video yet. But I am planning on posting some additional recordings in the next few weeks showing some of the techniques I use for the blues.
Thanks for your interest.
LowboySeptember 12, 2014 at 5:48 pm #3101
Thank you for all of the thoughtful replies.
I don’t have a band to play with, but I’d love to try tuning a whole keyboard sharp to 450 just to be there to feel the effect. TBH this is the first I’ve heard about it. Thanks for letting me know.
I believe I got ahold of you on SoundCloud :). If you ever plan to or end up posting videos on YouTube please let me know- I’d love to see you play your keyboard harmonica in a live setting.
The Vibrandoneon looks like an amazing instrument. Unfortunately it exceeds the amount that most people are willing to pay. I totally agree that Yamaha should take a stab at it- I’m sure they could easily make a more affordable model.
You said that you have your reeds tuned in octaves- is it possible to tune them in unison +/- a few cents for a thicker sound?September 12, 2014 at 5:51 pm #3102
Maybe I can do a quick recording using my Hammond organ to show the effect it has on a song.
LowboySeptember 14, 2014 at 2:13 pm #3106
Hi Steve and All,
Below is a link to a quick recording I made using my Hammond organ (XK-3c) and adjusting the tuning between 440, 430, and 450. The organ is played to the same backing track as my last melodica comparison.
Verse 1 = 440
Verse 2 = 450
Verse 3 = 430
Verse 4 = 450
Verse 5 = 440
You can hear me slide the tuning up and down on a couple of the verses. On some verses there is no playing as i adjust the tuning.
You can see that your hearing adjusts pretty quick to the new tuning. Going from 450 to 430 and playing down low gave the most weirdness until I started playing the upper register.
I was playing lead mostly, but the difference can be more dramatic when comping with chords. Through experimentation, you can get some interesting effects. Keyboardist and producers use this technique to bring something different to the table.
If only melodicas came with a quick tuning knob!
LowboySeptember 16, 2014 at 8:37 am #3114
You really brought it!! I loved it :).
To be honest, I didn’t even catch the jump from 440-450 on my first listen. But my ear never got used to 430 for more than a note or two. The jump to 450 from 430 was crazy sounding, but my ear adjusted almost immediately!
I’d LOVE this kind of feature on a melodica.
In fact, I’ve designed a melodica Eurorack synth controller that I hope to some day build. One feature that I wanted was three analog push-buttons (like a trumpet) on the top. The outside buttons would work as pitch bend controllers, one being the inverted CV of the other (for pitch-up and pitch-down). The middle would be a modulation amount controller or something like that. Of course this would have no actual sound coming out of it…
HOWEVER, I wonder if it’s not possible to create a mechanical obstruction within the air chamber that could be added/removed via a couple of buttons in conjunction with a release button (i.e. if button A is depressed then the airflow would be limited to a smaller space thus raising the air pressure and lowering the pitch and if button B is depressed then an extra chamber is opened up increasing the airflow and lowering the air pressure thus raising the pitch). If the release button is pressed while button A or B is depressed then the previously depressed button will be released thus returning the melodica to its standard tuning.
The thing is, though, the second you open up a melodica you realize how little space there is to tinker with!
I’d love to see someone build a solution for this :).September 19, 2014 at 4:21 pm #3131
Good ideas. Melodica makers, are you listening? We need to bend notes easily. We need modulation.
For a long time I have been thinking of some sort of fan device (a light, wide, blade of material about the size of the keyboard) that I could hold in the fingers of my left hand and which I could wave over the keyboard to get wah or tremolo effect. Have not tried it yet.
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