Can A Synth Go Out Of Tune?

One day I noticed one of my synths was slightly out of tune. I was very confused…..can synths go out of tune? surely not? I assumed that because they were electronic instruments that they couldn’t, but I was wrong!

Analog synths can go out of tune. However digital synths, virtual analogs and wavetable synths etc do not go out of tune. But how does an analog synth go out of tune and when it does, how do you re-tune it? And is there anything we can do to prevent them going out of tune?

How does a synth go out of tune?

The slight “drift” in tuning that occurs in analog synths is what gives them the character that people just can’t seem to emulate in software synths. And it is why so many people still shell out big bucks for the vintage sound of a dusty old synthesizer.

The “drift” occurs due to a range of factors within the circuitry of the synthesizer. This may include:

  • tuning drifts as analog circuits get warmer/colder
  • tuning drifts as electromagnetic interference fluctuates
  • tuning drifts as circuit elements age

So basically the temperature, electrical interferences within the circuitry or if the synth is just getting a bit old.

A synth may also sound out of tune at a high or low octave when it sounds in tune in the middle octave of the range. This is due to something known as ‘limited calibrated range’

What is meant by Limited Calibrated Range?

Most oscillators on analog synthesizers will have calibrated range. In basic terms, this means that the further you go either up or down octaves from the notes that you tune. The more out of tune the synth will become. This can struggle over as little as 3 octaves in some cases.

Do all synths go out of tune?

Synths are grouped into two broad groups regarding tuning. The first group being synthesizers with NO pitch knobs. With this group, you don’t generally need to worry about tuning. Think digital or software synths. These are pretty much always going to stay in tune. If your synth is digital or on a computer then you can probably relax.

A slight caveat to the above, is if you have got your hands on a virtual software synthesizer that aims to accurately mimic a vintage analog synth. Some of the creators of such synths (in their quest to recreate the originals as closely as possible) have actually gone to the trouble of recreating the slight analog ‘drift’ (i.e slight detuning). So if your software synth is going out of tune this may be why. You are probably not going mad!

Synths which DO need tuning are most analog synthesizers or module synthesizers. If you are still unsure if this applies to you; if the synthesizer you are looking at has any ‘pitch’ based nobs which will most likely be titled ‘fine’ or ‘coarse’, then it is likely your synth CAN go out of tune. The amount a synth goes out of tune and the speed at which it does varies from one synth to another. I have some more modern analogs that barely ever need tuning and some that can go out of tune in as little as 20 minutes.

How do I know if my synth is out of tune?

You can find out if your synth is in or out of tune by using a variety of methods. As you would with any other instrument.

You can tune to a reliable instrument such as a digital synth or keyboard, which is unlikely to go out of tune. You can even use a traditional tuning fork if you are feeling really retro and want to get an insight into the struggles of the old days.

Image: Flickr (eurok) CC2.0

I would personally recommend two methods depending on whether you are in the studio or if you are playing live. These are:

In the studio

In the studio, I would recommend using a software tuner to get your synth tuning as accurate as possible. There are some good software tuners built into most DAWs such as Ableton and Logic.

The below example is a quick screenshot of me tuning my synth using the tuner built into Ableton Live. You can see the reference in the bottom right-hand corner is 440Hz which is what we want. Currently, this C note is out by +2.0ct or +2.0 cents. Cents are a unit of measurement used to describe very small musical intervals. There are 100 cents in a semitone and 12 semitones in an octave (if you were wondering….. you probably weren’t).

Screenshot from Ableton Live

In a live setup

If you happen to have a laptop in your live setup then great. You may be able to use that. However, if you are using your synth on its own in a live band context, then you have to look at other tuning options.

Using a chromatic guitar tuner pedal in this situation should be fine. I have always used my Boss Tu-3 Chromatic Tuner Pedal and I find it works every time.

But what if it is out of tune? How do you tune it?

How do I tune a synth?

Some synthesizers are lucky enough to be fitted with a ‘tune’ button. However, if you are not treated to this luxury then here is a basic guide to get you back in tune:

All synthesizers should be tuned to ‘A440’ in order to be in tune with other instruments (providing they are also in tune). A440 means that the A note above middle C should be tuned to 440 Hertz. There are other pitches that some people like to tune to (A431 etc.). But the majority of the time A440 is what you want.

You want to have your oscillator set so all the pitch knobs are set somewhere close to the middle of their range. This is important with regards to what we mentioned earlier about analog synths having a limited calibrated range. If you were to tune the very lowest octave on your synthesizer, then the highest octave will be way more out of tune than if you tune the middle octave. So make sure you tune the middle range octave in order to reduce this.

Once you have the oscillator pitch knobs set to the middle of the range. You will need to find something to tune with. As mentioned in the above section, this could be anything from a synth that is already in tune, to a guitar tuner or even a software tuner, whichever is easiest and most comfortable for you. I recommend using a software synth such as the one built into Ableton live as it seems to be the most accurate. Tuning by ear can be subjective and there is much more margin for error.

Play the middle C and then adjust the fine or coarse tune knobs until the C is in tune.

See the below video if you are still unclear.

How to prevent your synth going out of tune

There isn’t that much you can do to stop your synth going out of tune. The key with any vintage analog synth is to give it a good amount of time to warm up once you turn it on, before you start playing. This can take a while for some synths (as much as 30 minutes) for it to settle down and be more or less in tune.  ‘Generally’ speaking the older the synth the longer it will take to warm up.

For speed, avoid storing the synthesizer in a cold room. And if you have no choice, then allow it to come back up to room temperature before even turning it on.

But aside from this there really isn’t that much you can do to prevent it. It’s just one of those things. And as I said earlier, it is one of the factors that gives many synths their original character that people love.

If you play any other instruments such as a guitar then the frequency you have to tune will not bother you in the slightest!

Rob Wreglesworth

Rob has come to terms with the fact he will probably never be a famous rock star....but that hasn't stopped him from writing and recording music in his home studio. Rob has over 15 years experience of recording music at home.

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