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Thread: Trouble hearing "in tune" unison strings

  1. #1

    Default Trouble hearing "in tune" unison strings

    I seem to have an acceptable ear for music and have no problem tuning a guitar or a banjo. For some reason instrument with unison strings like a mandolin gives me. challenge because they never sound in tune to me. Typical An example would be the A string. Even if the best electronic tuner or strobe says the two a strings are in perfect pitch , it rarely sounds correct to me. Just a little off. And if I get them into tuning it only lasts for a moment before I detect a slight imbalance. I really don't think it's the instrument it's a high-quality mandolin. If it's the tuners which are Grover oh, it would only attribute a slight amount a variance. I really think the problem is me but I have no idea how to fix it.

  2. #2

    Default Re: Trouble hearing "in tune" unison strings

    A few things occur to me in reading your post.

    First off, is each string in tune all the way up the fretboard?

    Is there an unnoticed resonance or harmonic sounding which is slightly off pitch?

    If either of these are true, then fix them.

    Afterwards, if you tune the two strings of a course perfectly on a strobe tuner, and upon you thinking they are again out of tune, what does the tuner say about the pitches of each string?

  3. #3
    Registered User Erin M's Avatar
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    May 2020
    The Beautiful Pacific Northwest

    Default Re: Trouble hearing "in tune" unison strings

    Tuners aren't necessarily as sensitive as the human ear; I use a Peterson strobe tuner, but it can sometimes be a pain to get it to register fast enough to get a good reading. So, I usually need to "tweak" a little tiny bit by ear.

    Also, does your instrument use a harmonic suppressor of some sort between the tailpiece and bridge? Or maybe between nut and tuners?
    "Same old moon, same old sun, same old race that we've always run." - Jeff Black

  4. #4
    Registered User
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    Jun 2005
    High Peak - UK

    Default Re: Trouble hearing "in tune" unison strings

    Personally, I never tune both strings of a course with a tuner. I tune one with the tuner and then tune the other to that.

    I come from the far off days before tuners were invented and A strings were causing problems even then! In my mind, tuners arenít perfect and a slight change in tension on one string can put another out. Add to this slight inaccuracies in intonation and string wear, tuning is inevitably a compromise.

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  6. #5
    Registered User Tom Wright's Avatar
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    Jun 2010
    Rockville, MD
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    Default Re: Trouble hearing "in tune" unison strings

    My Peterson Strobe phone app is every bit as good as my hearing, but the problem here is something I struggle with, finding the best way of getting to in-tune without unrelieved tension beyond the nut. I make sure the nut slots don't bind, and also apply lube of one sort or another.

    The important test is to get a pair in decent tune, then squeeze the strings in front of the pegs, behind the nut to deflect then and drive the pitch sharp. Does it relax back into decent tune?

    I often found that the moment I had achieved a really good unison, it drifted apart. More work on the nut, like beveling down on the back side to reduce the contact area, and lubricating the strings. For me, it happens most on the A pair. And btw, I tune pairs by ear.
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  7. #6

    Default Re: Trouble hearing "in tune" unison strings

    Tuning is never perfect. Even if your strings are brand new with no imperfections how hard you hit the string with the pick will change the frequency of the string. You can even see that with a tuner. How hard you press as you fret the strings makes a slight difference. If you torque the instrument at all as you hold it then it will pull slightly our of tune. These are all only a few cents difference in tuning but can be heard if you listen critically and demonstrated with a tuner.

  8. #7

    Default Re: Trouble hearing "in tune" unison strings

    Try fretting the 3rd and 5th frets while tuning the A string and tweak from there. I always get better results doing that.

  9. #8
    Registered User
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    Dec 2012
    Albany NY

    Default Re: Trouble hearing "in tune" unison strings

    I have the same issue, and if the strings tune open but not fretted, then something is up with the bridge placement.

    The 7th fret harmonic of the A is the same as the 12th of the E,
    the 7th fret harmonic of the D is the same as the 12th of the A,
    the 7th fret harmonic of the G is the same as the 12th of the D

    if these do not match "open" then something is wrong with the bridge placement most likely, could also be out of place frets or a warped neck, new strings sometimes can help, shimming the nut on one side may also be a solution.

    a tuning fork on the bridge is a much better method, but no where s convenient as an electronic device.

    I do find when I just can't get a box in tune , I don't enjoy playing it and wind up not wanting to play it. That being said I don't mind a mandolin being "slightly" out of tune but there is a fine line for all players there.
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  10. #9
    Registered User John Soper's Avatar
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    Mar 2004
    Durham, NC

    Default Re: Trouble hearing "in tune" unison strings

    But if you're a bit out of tune, it sounds like there are more of you playing!

    I usually tune one of the pairs with the tuner, then tune the other string to unison (no beats). Tune UP, not down. I'll tweak the strings above the nut & below the bridge, and bend the string to stretch it a couple of times if I'm way out or putting on new strings. Once I've gotten each pair "in tune", I do a brief re-check, because invariably there a corrections that need to be made.

  11. #10
    The Amateur Mandolinist Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Apr 2014
    Palmer, Texas

    Default Re: Trouble hearing "in tune" unison strings

    1. Spend half your time tuning the mandolin.
    2. Spend the other half playing it. (Out of tune)
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  12. #11
    Registered User John Flynn's Avatar
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    Oct 2002
    Richmond, VA

    Default Re: Trouble hearing "in tune" unison strings

    There is a trick that helped me with this. It may not be that clever, but it works for me. Instead of looking for pairs being "in tune," I now think about them being "not out of tune." Let me explain. If a pair is off, I can hear some sonic "tension" between the strings. I may not be able to distinguish sharp or flat. It may not sound bad. It may sound OK, even "almost in tune," or "close enough," but there is just something there. So I tune one string slightly flat and come back up slowly until there is this kind of sonic "void." I don't hear any tension. It is like I'm playing the same string twice.

    Sorry if that is illogical or confusing, but it's a mental shift that helped me.

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