Tuning Using Your Ears
(and your tuner.)

I’m currently in the middle of editing, tuning,  and mixing some a capella vocal parts for some demo recordings of a trio that I sing in. One of these tasks is to make sure all of the notes are in tune with each other.

I’m fairly new to editing and mixing in general, but particularly with vocals. A capella vocals are even harder for me because since there are no instruments involved, there’s not a predefined tonal center or starting pitch to work toward. While working on this (and learning every step of the way,) this made me think of something I say a lot: 

Tune with your ears, not with your eyes. 

I tell students this all the time. Don’t always rely on what the tuner says, rely on whether it sounds good or not.

Don’t look at your fingers to see correct intonation, use your ears!

Similarly, when I’m tuning these vocals, I don’t shoot for what the software says is correct, I shoot for what sounds correct.

I spent two years in design school, and one of the biggest lessons I learned is:

It doesn’t matter if it’s “technically” correct, if it looks wrong, it is wrong.

It doesn’t matter if all of the letters in a word are “technically” spaced equally apart, if it doesn’t look even, it’s wrong.

Similarly, if it looks good, it’s good. No one is measuring your designs with a ruler. Designs are made for your eyes, not for micrometers and rulers. If it looks good to the eyes, it is good.

Music is made for humans with ears, not robots with tuners. 

Tuning is relative. As long as the music is in tune together, it doesn’t have to match a perfect reference pitch. People aren’t going through your music with a tuner, judging you everytime it doesn’t line up.

But what about people with "perfect pitch"?

I know people with perfect pitch. They don’t complain about things being out of “correct” tuning. It doesn’t “bother them” any more than you or I are bothered by a light that’s a little more blue or a little more orange. It doesn’t look “bad,” just different. (If they say it bothers them, they’re just trying to show off, and I for one am unimpressed.)

This doesn’t mean we can be sloppy.

Just like we don’t want half-hearted or “close enough” visual designs, we don’t want half-hearted tuning and intonation either. Not “technically perfect” doesn’t mean not good. In fact it’s often the opposite. Sometimes it’s easier to say “Well the tuner says it’s right, so it must be fine,” than it is to do the work of listening to the notes and getting them to actually sound correct together.

Don’t throw away your tuner.

Pitch is something you develop a sense for. It’s not something you can learn overnight, and it’s not something you can “decide” to do better. It’s a skill that must be practiced. The main takeaway here is not to say trust your ears instead of your tuner, but to start to be more aware of the way your ears hear pitch and to start to improve your sensitivity to it.

In design school, I sometimes wouldn’t even realize my spacing was off until my teachers pointed it out. They had a more developed sense for visual space than I did. But over time I got better and I now have more awareness for how things are spaced.

A tuner will get you really really close, and it will actually sound perfect a LOT of the time. But you should still learn to use your ears to compare these notes, and make sure that they sound perfect together. 

Hope this helps! Practice hard and let me know if you have any questions!

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