View Full Version : Nitty-gritty of tuning gears
several times i've heard people complain about how difficult it is to keep a mandolin in tune; about the quality of their tuners and how they were opting for an expensive upgrade. i don't ever remember anyone explaining why.
could someone please cite the differences between factory issue tuning gears and the more expensive models. are there tuning systems - design and layout of gears - superior in function to others?
or is it simply that metal strings under tension at the mandolin's relatively short vibrating length are always going to be difficult to keep in tune - no matter how many teeth the gears may have or the quality of the metal used, etc., etc..
thanks - bill
There is a series of tighter tolerances in the 4-500 dollar US made Waverlys
than the price point conscious machines that come on whole instruments that cost that.
But there is a set design that is traditional, and variations on that are subtile, rather than large.
For instance , if the round gear were a lot larger it could be a lower ratio, but hard to sell because it looks different.
I'm certainly no expert on the subject, but from my own observations the more expensive gears (Waverlys) are noticeably smoother, and I expect it comes largely from greater precision and consistency in machining. Waverlys also have a backlash adjustment that takes the play out of the gears so that when you turn a tuning shaft first in one direction and then the other, the post responds to that change in direction more immediately. Some of the other brands have nylon washers that take up some play and help compensate for some imprecision (is that a word?). As you suggested, mandolin tuners are just a difficult beast, but I think it's largely because you have four on a single plate. As a result, everything (including the holes in the headstock) has to be aligned very well, and the tuners have to be installed well, for them to function well.
You're also paying for improved aesthetics with more expensive brands. It's up to the player to decide what portion of the greater price is for better functionality and what portion is for aesthetics, and whether each is worth it.
Short of the tuners being mechanically defective, which is actually quite rare, the tuning problems of most mandolins can usually be traced to other causes. Though I wouldn't turn down a set of Waverlys if they were offered to me, a set of $50.00 Grover Deluxe tuners will keep your mandolin in perfect tune and actually are the only tuners with an 18:1 gear#ratio, including Waverlys.
There are lots of reasons to want the expensive stuff, as the others have said, but I've wondered why there isn't a good fine-tuning system for mandolins like there is for violins. I for one would like to be able to make very tiny adjustments easily. Even 18:1 Grovers can be a little coarse when you're trying to perfectly tune a pair of strings and are dealing in just a few cents of pitch. For me, you can never have too much control.
There was a 24:1 tuner a while back, 50's, but the gear wheel was not enlarged so the teeth were instead thinned out to a fine, but un durable frequency.
those came to mind , as I thought about increasing the diameter of the gear wheels , in order to achieve a low ratio, but have the teeth be durable , and long lasting .
My experience is really smooth action on the tuners makes it easier to get a string right in tune. #This depends on good tuners, good installation, and very smooth slots at nut and bridge. #But I think almost any tuners will hold the string once it's tuned. #Tim, I can't see why the fine-tuning screws violinists attach to the string between bridge and tailpiece wouldn't work on mandolin. #Has anyone tried them? #Then again, violinists don't have machine heads but pegs (1:1 ratio), so fine tuning takes on greater importance for them.
Bill's second alternative seems convincing: #tuning instability is in the nature of the beast itself, especially the lighter-built, shorter-scale bowlback and flatback instruments.
Andrew: #I find it interesting (but not surprising) that imprecision is an unfamiliar word to you. #Most of us are well acquainted with that concept.
Tim, I can't see why the fine-tuning screws violinists attach to the string between bridge and tailpiece wouldn't work on mandolin. #Has anyone tried them? #Then again, violinists don't have machine heads but pegs (1:1 ratio), so fine tuning takes on greater importance for them.
Fine-tuners at the bridge might adversely affect tone. Violinists can get away with it because they're constantly "driving" the instrument with the bow, but a mandolin has a very brief note decay, so sustain at the bridge is important. And violinists don't exactly love those fine tuners either... at least the ones I've talked to. Many try to use a fine-tuner only on the E string.
And there's some new technology there too. My S.O. just installed "Perfection Pegs" on her fiddle, which have hidden 4:1 planetary gears inside what looks like a normal peg tuner. She was able to ditch all her fine-tuners at the bridge. Tone improves, and the instrument is lighter and more responsive at the bridge/tailpiece interface with the strings.
If we ever see similar improvements for mandolin, I think it's going to have to be some "hidden" design like this, that increases functionality but doesn't upset the purists who want a mandolin to look a certain way. I have no idea how that would work, since the convention is exposed gearing... but maybe someone will think of something.
If you have decent tuners, lube when necessary (with something safe like dry graphite powder), and always tune UP to pitch, then tuning shouldn't be too much of a hassle.
Most quality builders in the UK use mini individual enclosed tuners on their A models, Gotoh on my Paul Shippey, Fylde use mini individual Scallers, these generaly work much better than standard strip tuners and are of course much more expensive, they are self lubricating and maintainance free, obviously they are not practical on F models.
Someone needs to design and manufacture a set of high quality F-5 tuners that look the same from the front and replace the open gears on the back with sealed units like the Schaller twelve-string minis. This would remove the backlash issues and allow you to tune a little flat if required. They would quickly become the modern standard.
in checking strip, "A" model tuners available on the stew/mac site, i see there are three manufacturers listed (four if you include their no-name, "economy" model):
elite - 16:1 ratio
schaller - 16:1 ratio
grover - 18:1 ratio
for "F" model mandolins there's a beautiful set of tuners from waverly for the low-low, incredibly low price of $500.00. (i often wonder if those entrenched in the "reassuringly expensive" school of consumerism ever get the feeling they're being "had.")
tuners on my mid-missouri have a 14:1 ratio. i bought a M-0 from mike just recently with a set of "better tuners" (his words) but it's sight-unseen and waiting for me in the states.
... "all i want for x-mas is two more teeth."
Using Schaller mini's on an a-style as opposed to the normal Schaller 4 on a plate mandolin tuners only adds about $35.00 (17.60 GBP) to the cost of the instrument. I don't think cost is the reason it is not done. I think it is expectation.
My experience is that the least expensive tuners sold by Saga or StewMac are entirely adequate to keep a mandolin in tune. But if we look at your mandolin, we will know at once what they cost and that you scrimped on tuners (I have to see them on an expensive mandolin, but I have from time to time--but they work just fine). For more money, ideally what you get is a feeling of solid smoothness as you turn the knobs, relative ease of turning as the tension increases, and, as mentioned before, more accuracy when going back and forth. But I don't think they prevent "string slipping" any better. There's a pleasure to be had in using good tuners, much as the pleasure in many other high-end things, such as a well-designed can-opener. You just have to figure out how much it is worth to you.
As for old tuners, even when they work perfectly when there are no strings attached, it's common for one of them to be harder to turn when the strings get tighter. For my money, I'd MUCH rather deal with that than replace the strings.
As for strings "slipping," that should NEVER happen AT ALL if you know how to string a mandolin correctly. So long as the string under tension crosses the loose end at a right angle, it simply can't slip when it's tuned up, and even if there is only half a turn of string on the post, it won't slip. If you wonder why, lay a mandolin string on a piece of metal, press on it with a screwdriver with thirty or forty pounds of pressure, and try to pull it out. You'll probably break the string first, as thirty pounds of pressure pressed against a string over a 1 mm. area is pretty tight.
My own theory is that mandolins go out of tune because they are quite sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature--they sort of expand and contract very slightly. A mandolin top doesn't need to expand or contract very much before a string is a few cents sharp or flat.
However, this doesn't explain necessarily why ONE string may be flat. This may be related to the idea mentioned above of lowering the pitch, then tuning UP to the correct pitch so the slack in the tuners is taken up.
But I could be all wrong.
As a point of reference: my inexpensive Mexican-made tricordia has six-on-a-plate tuners on a slotted peghead, and goes out of tune at the rate of a few cents a week. Any mechanical issues about the design of the instrument are going to be aggravated by having 12 strings instead of 8. Near constant humidity (80-90%) and temperature (28-34C) probably has more to do with keeping it in tune that anything mechanical about the tuner or instrument.
I'm currently bulding a two-point mando with Gotoh mini 510 individual tuners for a customer in the UK who likes his Fylde with the same tuners. They work beautifully, but I think the main reason most people don't use them is the added weight. I don't think I'd use them on my own mando for that reason.
I do not know if string slippage is a problem but I do believe that string binding can be a problem. #That is why I "lubricate (with graphite)" the slots on the nut and bridge with a #2 pencil, every time I change strings.
Everyone likes to blame tuners but 95% of the time it's the nut slots. Dental floss works well to clean and polish them. I use graphite in the slots as well - a 6B artists pencil.