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Reed Tuning

It is felt worthwhile to repeat here a caution given at a previous page ‘Reed Health’. Reed adjustments made by filing or scraping are liable to be in vain if some basic maintenance and checks are not carried out. ie. the reed set (tip height), shape, alignment, security, cleanliness, valve condition and register slides should all be in order.

Tuning, I feel, falls into two categories:

  1. Putting right a single note which has become defective
  2. Making a complete change (or restoring) a whole instrument.

The first is probably within the scope of a careful amateur while the second is a job only for a very experienced person.

Basic Pitch

Accordion basic pitches are tuned using the ETS (equal temperament scale) with note A (A17) set at 440Hz.
(It is noted here that it seems common to tune the basic pitches a few cents high; perhaps this is seen as giving the accordion an edge over other instruments. In any event the basic tune should be close to that of the bass end).
In the ETS scale the 12 semitones of the octave increase in the ratio 1 : 12th root of 2 or 1 : 1.05946
Eg.
If C = 1
C# = 1 x 1.05946 = 1.05946
D= 1.05946 x 1.05946 = 1.1225
D# = 1.1225 x 1.05946 = 1.1892
etc.
to the next C = 2 ie. the frequency doubles every octave.

Eg. If C = 261Hz C# = 261 x 1.05946 = 276.5Hz

The ETS scale gives an exactly equal division for every semitone, all of which are slightly imperfectly tuned in all keys. The ETS is a compromise allowing playing in 12 different keys, all slightly imperfect but equal. The very small disparity is not in any way discordant and the ear is now trained to accept it.

Stretch

I understand some accordion tuners take ‘stretch’ into account in their initial setting. This is the effect applied to the basic tuning where low notes are lowered below the straight tuned position and higher notes are raised above it to take account of ‘imperfections’ in the human ear which, apparently, interprets as false, straight tuned notes nearer the ends of the human audio range.
The effect is probably of more significance to piano tuners where the audio range dealt with is much larger (< 7.1/4 octaves) while a standard 41 keyed piano accordion is only about 3.1/4 octaves. One Steinway piano tuner is noted to favour lowering the lowest note by 18 cents and raising the highest by 27 cents.
On the above mentioned accordion this (according to the piano tuner) relates to the lowest F note being lowered by 0.5 cents and the highest A note raised by 9.5 cents.
The stretch effect (or lack of it) can be heard by listening to some older electronic pianos where all notes are ‘straight’ tuned and derived from a single set of 12 frequencies.

As with most matters on tuning what sounds good to one person does not to another so that the decision to apply ’stretch’ or raise the basic pitch above the standard A440 is entirely personal.

Straight Tuned Reeds

After tuning the 8’ basic pitched reeds it is recommended other ’straight’ tuned reeds (if fitted) are tuned. ie. the 16’ or 4’ reeds are set to the same pitch (+/- 1 octave) as the 8’ reed.
When two reeds are being tuned to the same pitch it is sometimes difficult to hear if the reed being tuned is above or below the pitch of the target reed especially when they are close. When the reeds are played together and are out of tune a beat (or vibrato) will be heard. This beat needs to be eliminated. While blowing both reeds try covering the reed being tuned by cupping the hand over it (or otherwise restrict the flow of air to/from it). Its pitch will fall. If the beat/vibrato rate falls it means the reed needs to be lowered in pitch and if the rate rises the reed needs to be raised in pitch.

Tuning Styles and Beats

No two instruments have exactly the same tuning though it may be true that tunings fall into styles such as Tex-Mex, Irish, East-European/Russian, Italian, French musette and Scottish musette for example. Within these styles there are variations of reed configuration and width (‘wet’ or ‘dry’).

A lot of tunings are derived from creating ‘beats’ which is the vibrato effect obtained when two reeds are played against each other at slightly different frequencies.

For instance at Note A17 (approx 440Hz) if one reed is set at 440Hz(0 cents) and the other at 445Hz (approx 20 cents) then the rate of beats (beats/second) will be 5 (445 – 440 = 5)

Tuning Example 1

Accordions normally have up to five reeds per note and this complicates the tuning process. I understand one of the most common reed configurations is one with two sets of 8’ reeds and one set of 16’ reeds. This allows a useful mixture of ‘straight’ sounds and simple vibrato/musette . On the instruments master coupler this reed arrangement might be shown as follows:

CouplerTuning1

The two reeds on the central vertical line are ‘straight’ tuned.

This set-up normally allows 5 different tones:

  1. Single straight 8’ reed. (Sometimes called ‘clarinet or flute’)
  2. Single 16’ reed. (Sometimes called ‘bassoon’)
  3. Straight 8’ and 16’ reeds (Sometimes called ‘bandoneon’)
  4. The two 8’central reeds (Sometimes called ‘musette’ )
  5. All reeds. (Sometimes called ‘master’)

An approach to tuning the two ‘straight’ tuned reeds has already been given.

The right hand central 8’ reed is commonly set slightly higher so that a beat/vibrato is formed between it and the other two reeds.

It is suggested that the central A, note 17, 440Hz is taken as a starting and reference point in deciding the rate of beat or wetness.

The beats of the notes above and below the reference A 440 are decreased towards the low end and made increasingly fast towards the high end. An even, gradual change of beats is desirable. Also a faster beat gives a louder sound so that quieter, smaller reeds towards the top end of the instrument can be better balanced in volume to the louder, lower reeds.

So that a gradual, smooth, change of beats across the keyboard is achieved it is recommended a tuning chart is drawn on a piece of graph paper:-

TuningChart3

Since the width or wetness and rate of change across the keyboard is endlessly variable it is open to the tuner to interpret what, to him/her, is an attractive sound.

(Monsieur.T.Benetoux of Paris offers some tuning styles in his book ‘The ins and outs of the accordion’. Click here to see more of him…).

Having chosen a setting for the third, fast reed in the above 3 note example instrument then the reeds are tuned.

Tuning Example 2

The above example is of a 2 note musette. Richer, more complicated sounds are achieved with 3 note musette instruments:-

3vMusetteCoupler

After having an instrument serviced by an expert tuner a few years ago a tuning graph was plotted. Each individual reed frequency (all 328 of them) was measured and plotted on graph paper. The instrument was a 4 voice, 41 keyed piano type with 3 reeds in the middle and a bassoon reed. The following chart is an approximation of what was found:-

TuningChart1

The chart is an approximate average of all the centre reeds. (The bassoon reed is not shown). The red line I refer to as ‘resonance’ as it is intended to be exactly as far below the centre line as the sharp tuned reed (blue) is above the line. The green line (flat tuned reed) was on average a few cents sharper than the resonance line though some readings did fall below it. The chart is also ‘corrected’ so that the centre reed falls on the 0 cents line when in fact the average was + 7 cents.
It is noted here that since the progression of the musical scale frequencies is not linear but doubles with each octave that this also applies to ‘cents’. This means that, say, + 20 cents in terms of ‘beats’ is not exactly the same as -20 cents.

Advice to me some time ago was that a pleasant sound could be found with the flat reed about 2 cents above the ‘resonance’ level while other ‘advice’ suggested that a satisfactory sound could be found with it about 2 cents below resonance. Both settings are pleasant though it is noted that in order to have a consistency of sound quality the settings of adjacent notes should have near similar settings.

Further ‘advice’ said that having the sharp and flat reeds placed exactly equal from the centre (in ‘beats’) would result in an unpleasant sound. This is found to be so as the sound is very ‘throbby/warbling’ without depth or quality and this may be because harmonic elements are cancelling each other out and the fundamental frequency beats are dominant. However, as in many things, what pleases one person may not please another.

Some experimenting was done with a frequency/signal generator which was used to create the ‘third’ note in a 3-note musette situation. The changes in the underlying beats were clearly heard as the signal was swept up and down and provided a useful exercise for the ear. However the limitations of the generator were noted in that its ‘note’ was derived from a heavily filtered square wave and as such only contained very small, mainly ‘odd’ harmonics.

Tuning Style List

In order to attempt to catagorise tuning styles we may use the letter L (low) to indicate the 16′ bassoon reed, M (middle) the 8′ reed and H (high)for the presence of a 4′ piccolo reed. eg. a LMMH set-up would indicate a bassoon reed, two reeds in the middle and a piccolo reed. Using the note A (A17 at approximately 440Hz) as a reference point the example of tuning described above could be summarised as:-

LMMM 434.5 (about -22 cents) 440 (0 cents) 446 (about  +24 cents)

Mario Bruneau, a noted French Canadian accordionist, gives the following tuning styles:

French Modern Musette LMMH 440 (0 cents) 442 (+8cents)
Italian Old Musette LMMH 440 (0 cents) 446 (+24cents)
Rich Full Musette(1) LMMM 434 (-24cents) 440 (0 cents) 442 (+8 cents)
Rich Full Musette (2) LMMM 440 (0 cents) 442 (+8 cents) 448 (+32 cents)
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23 Comments

  1. len roth
    Posted February 9, 2010 at 2:30 am | Permalink

    What would cause the same reed or reeds both on push and pull to kind of ” undulate” lazily instead of vibrating properly? Thanks

  2. admin
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Hello Len,
    I’m not perfectly clear from your description what the problem is. There’s a lot of reasons which can cause a reed to behave badly. If the accordion is old (40 + years) it might be that the wax has hardened and no longer holds the reed firmly or it might be reed valves which are worn out and do not seat properly. If the accordion is newer then it might simply be dirt or debris on the reed.
    If you want to let me know the make and approx. age of the accordion and whether it is just one or two reeds behaving badly or if it is a whole lot of them I may be able to help further.
    Robert.

  3. florian senteur
    Posted February 28, 2010 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Good evening,
    I do possess a Menghini & Figli piano accordion.
    It does work to full satisfaction,but,..there’s one note(e 2nd marked) that gives its
    full vibrato(tremolo,musette) only in one of the 2 bellows actions.(push,pull)
    During one of the 2 bellows actions,the vibrato is totally gone,so that one of the 2
    reeds must be completely mute.(it sounds like the “straight stop”)
    I am a piano technician myself,but that’s the reason for knowing to keep clear of the works of an accordion(and harmonium).It’s all different,due to the used tools,I am
    aware of that.
    But you could give me the causes,cleaning a reed should not be a big problem,to do it myself.
    Once I had a Borsini,and it had a much faster tremolo than the accordion described above.(also 3 voiced).My question here,is this only due to the tuning of the 2 reeds?
    The most interesting accordion sound is for me the “Shand Morino”,yes,I use my
    accordions for Scottish.But,unfortunately,I can’t play a single note on it,cos…it is a button box.
    Hope to hear st. from you.
    Sincerely,
    Florian Senteur Leeuwarden/Holland.

  4. admin
    Posted March 3, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Hello Florian,
    As you are a piano technician I’m sure this will be a help to repairing your accordion.
    The first thing is to identify the reed(s) which are the problem.
    1) Remove the grille from the front of the accordion and note the position of the defective note (the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th etc. note from the top or bottom).
    2) Remove the steel or brass pins holding the treble end/right hand keyboard to the bellows. (If the pins are of different sizes keep a note of where they should be returned).
    Lay the treble end upside down so that you can see the set of reeds containing the defective reed.

    (If the vibrato/tremolo is not sounding when you press/blow the bellows then it will be a reed on the outside of the reed block which is defective.
    If the vibrato/tremelo is not sounding when you pull/suck the bellows then it will be a reed on the inside of the reed block which is defective.)

    It might be some dirt under the reed. Try ‘pinging’ the reeds using a knife blade to lift them.
    If it is the inside reed which is faulty you may need to remove the reed block to be able to reach the reed. You could reach through the air hole under the reed with a piece of wire to lift and ‘ping’ the reed.

    Check the condition of the reed valves. These are the leather or plastic flaps covering the reed holes. If they are in good condition they lie flat and close to the reed and are not curled up.
    Robert.

  5. Michael
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    Hi My name is Michael i have a panther accordion which i know is made by Hohner i wanted to ask what do you recommend so i can dry tune my accordion because there charging me over 200 dollars to dry tune it but i dont know if it would be a good idea if i did it myself???? thanks

  6. admin
    Posted March 6, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Comment:

    Hello Michael.
    If you haven’t done any tuning then I think you would find it quite difficult.
    To learn tuning I recommend you start with an old instrument.
    I think you would probably reduce the value of the Panther if you had it converted to ‘straight’ tuning.
    I recommend you look around for a similar type of accordion which is already ‘straight’ tuned. Many players think the the older ‘Corona’ accordion by Hohner is a higher quality instrument but I don’t know if they were produced with ‘straight’ tuning.
    Robert

  7. henrique
    Posted March 29, 2010 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Brazil
    * I am about to tune my 120 bass accordion Frontalini, any doubts you can always ask? I need tips to build a table / bellows to blow the reeds … Thank you! (google translator *)

  8. Brian
    Posted March 29, 2010 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    I have tuned reeds by removing them from the reed blocks, then cleaning them first
    prior to tuning them to the chosen frequency using a digital meter and by use of a
    apparatus made from accordion bellows to produce the air flow suck and blow action, the only problem that i seem to find is that the reed can differ in frequency
    when the leather or plastic filament ventille are fitted after tuning the reed.
    Should the ventille be fitted to the reed prior to the tuning .

    Ilook forward to your comments

  9. admin
    Posted April 5, 2010 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Hello Brian,
    1) Always tune the reed with the ventilles/valves fitted.
    2) The tuning will change when the reed has been waxed to the reed block.
    3)The tuning will change again when the reedblock is fitted in the accordion.

  10. David Beschizza
    Posted July 10, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Hi,
    Very interesting page. I wonder if you can help me though. I have a small, foot operated pump organ which isn’t valuable but has a lovely tone. It is, however, out of tune. It seems to be in tune with itself but, as I believe it was made before standardization, it seems to be a semitone flat of 440HZ. What can I do? Would it be a huge task to try to bring it up? I think there may only be 1 reed per note. Otherwise, is there anyone in the UK who could do this for me? I have tried a couple of accordion shops but they seem reluctant to touch it.
    Any help would be great. I may even consider sending the keyboard section (reeds) to europe if there was someone who can help.
    Thanks
    David B

  11. admin
    Posted August 9, 2010 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Have you a question or comment?

  12. admin
    Posted September 23, 2010 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    I wish and hope………..

  13. admin
    Posted September 23, 2010 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Hello Sirdon,
    The +26/-24c (approximately) is the tuning I’m most familiar with. I have not worked with the ‘Rich Full Musette’ tuning.
    For either style the reeds must be in top playing condition. I recommend that, unless you are experienced, you practice on an older instrument.

  14. admin
    Posted September 23, 2010 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Thanks. Updating is badly needed.

  15. admin
    Posted September 23, 2010 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    It’s your choice Pete. Dry or wet, straight or tremelo. Both are very pleasant and depends a bit on what style music you are playing.

  16. admin
    Posted November 4, 2010 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Hi Brian,
    Please see comment on mis-aligned reeds in the website chapter ‘Reed Health’.
    Robert

  17. admin
    Posted December 15, 2010 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    It seems you have already found the problem. Centre the reed using a thin blade down the side. Is the reed secured/held with a screw or a rivet. Either way they could be secured/tightened up a bit and you may need to remove the reed block if it is riveted so that you can give a few light hammer blows.

  18. admin
    Posted December 15, 2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Hi Don,
    Your question is too big to answer easily- even if I could! The musette tuning I am most familiar with is where the middle A (440) is ABOUT +24 and -22 cents and lower notes are wider while higher ones are closer. I haven’t tried the “Rich Full Musette’ but see no reason why it wouldn’t work. (Is there a significance in that the 24 and the 32 are multiples of 8?) The main thing is to get the reeds all singing loud and clear, properly shaped, tip height set and valves in good order.

  19. admin
    Posted December 15, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Hi Pete. The choice is yours! Whether you want a straight tuned sound or a tremelo one.

  20. sam
    Posted January 1, 2011 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    is a tex mex tuning or (stock tuning of a gabbanelli) would be at A440 and A444? I notice that the vibrations increase in the higher notes.the vibrations do not match….is there a common degree to lower the Hz to even out the vibrations throught the accordion

  21. Duncan MacKechnie
    Posted January 7, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    A bit of a long shot , but, can anyone detect the pitches of the 3 reeds from the Hohner Verdi on you page http://talkingreeds.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/VirginiaHP4clip.mp3

    I was hoping to get my accordion tuned to this – if I knew the settings ??

    Cheers

    Duncan

  22. admin
    Posted January 13, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Hi Duncan,
    That’s a Hohner Atlantic on the Virginia HP clip and the middle A (440Hz) reeds are tuned about -22, 0 and +24 cents.
    Robert

  23. admin
    Posted January 13, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Hello Sam,
    I am not familiar with Tex-Mex tuning. It sounds like its not too wide a tremelo/musette sound so your figures of 444 and 440 could be correct. The vibrations will increase in the higher notes. The ‘common degree’ you refer to is up to the tuner how wide and wet it is. But in all cases the changes in vibrations across the keyboard should be gradual and smooth.
    Good Luck,
    Robert