On the surface, many aspects of my job seem to be structural or mechanical, which they are, but the solutions are always to improve the musical aspect of the instrument. Aside from increasing its lifespan, which is almost a byproduct, the main aim is to improve playability, projection, tonality, etc. Right at the very heart of this is the tuning. I have been working on and off on a series of articles to explain the various aspects of temprements and tunings, and they will eventually be completed, but what I realised was that I very rarely write blog posts about this aspect of what I do.
Sometimes my self protectionism manifests itself inadvertantly with a reluctance or resistance to publicise what I am doing and how I go about jobs. This is irrational, because the reality is that even if I were to tell someone exactly how to do something, they can’t necessarily do it. I have experienced this many times when I am on the phone to a customer talking them through a job, or even face to face teaching my past assistants – there is an empirical feel that simply cannot be taught it has to be learned through experience. Tuning is the same, in that there is an empirical understanding of what to do. There are plenty of misleading internet guides on how to make your own marimba or xylophone, and if you have the time, energy and don’t mind making something shit, then they are great. However to expect an app on a mobile phone to be capable of tuning percussion instruments accurately would be naive.
So anyway, all the notes are unstrung and arranged chromatically. I have a bench that houses trays which contain a complete instruments note bars which can be slid out to be worked on, or be put away until the following day. It keeps everything together so that I don’t mix up the instruments. The work bench has a top and two shelves so that when I work on a set of notes the octaves can be separated vertically up the bench. This means that I can tune any of the octaves chromatically, or do all the Cs, all the Ds, etc in a compact space, because I do jump around selecting various notes to do side by side comparisons.
When I start tuning a set of notes I am listening to the notes with my ears as well using electronic tuners. The tuners enable me to tune the bar to exactly the pitch I want. Qualifying what I mean by exact, the tuners I use are accurate to 10th of a cent, and a cent is a 100th of a semitone, so in other words ridiculously accurate. In practice, for wooden note bars, the tuning tolerance can be greater, so I tune to within a cent of the pitch I want.
On the first day I am listening with my ears more in order to identify any issues and inconsistencies. Sometimes there is a suppressed feel to the way an individual bar sounds, and often there are slightly discordant harmonics. Additionally xylophones in particular are prone to edge damage, so all of these factors help determine how I go about removing material from the bar. Since removing material is the only way I have of manipulating the tuning, this first day takes the longest because if I get it wrong, I can’t put the material back onto the bar.
Over the following week I return to the notes each day, making smaller and smaller adjustments until they have stabilised, at which point I seal the underside of the notes with lacquer, restring them and return them to the instrument frame or the customer.