Guitar intonation: how to keep your guitar in tune | Disc Makers

Many factors can cause your stringed instrument to have intonation problems, including old strings and fluctuations in weather and humidity. Maintain and protect your instrument to keep your guitar in tune.

I was chatting with a teaching colleague about a class recording project that his students were wrapping up, and he mentioned that a rock band had come into our campus studio for a weekend recording session and couldn’t manage to get their electric guitars to stay in tune. They had to live with the recordings of poorly intonated instruments, and we used it as a lesson to our own sound recording students to meet with the band well before the session day and emphasize the importance of getting their instruments into studio shape for every recording project.

While the next band to come in had better luck with tuning, a few of the following ones didn’t, which prompted us to add a well-intonated Taylor electric guitar to the recording studio’s gear kit. Now, when a band shows up with guitars that are not set up properly, the students can suggest trying the Taylor, which we know has rock solid intonation. Most guitarists are happy to do so and are pleased with how “in tune” the results are.

But what causes a guitar to have intonation problems? And what can you do about it if your instrument is causing you to be frustrated? How can you keep your guitar in tune?

Symptoms of intonation problems

Guitars use what is known as an equally tempered scale, as do pianos and most western musical instruments. Without going into the science, the guitar’s tempered scale is a compromise and doesn’t result in 100% precise tuning or intervals between notes. Since guitars have this inherent weakness when it comes to being in tune, it’s important to develop a basic understanding of guitar intonation and adjustments to get the best performance out of your instrument.

Most guitar players have a tuner of some sort, whether it’s a stomp box on the floor, an expensive rack mounted LED cascade, or a simple portable LED-model – all of which can speed up tuning and accuracy. Tuners can be helpful in diagnosing and making basic intonation adjustments yourself, which we’ll discuss. One of the most obvious signs that your instrument has intonation issues is if each string played open is in tune, but when you play a bar chord anywhere up the neck, it sounds out of tune. Shaun Conrad, an experienced luthier, lists some of the potential causes for guitar intonation issues on his informative website,

      Guitar intonation issues can be a result of:


  • Faulty or worn out strings
  • High action/Extreme relief (truss rod adjustment needed)
  • Bridge/saddle pieces need adjustment
  • Nut or frets need adjustment/repair
  • Changing string gauge or tunings

The first thing on this list may be the most overlooked. If you can’t remember when you last changed the strings on your guitar or bass and are having trouble with intonation, stop now, get a new set and put them on before proceeding any further! According to Conrad, “Replacing your strings could solve your intonation problems. Also, it is impossible to properly set your intonation with worn strings.”

Advice to keep your guitar in tune
While we can’t address the full range of possible problems and solutions that spring from Shaun’s list, one of the most basic adjustments can be done by any electric guitarist with a tuner: fine tuning your saddle pieces. I spoke with Bill Stevens, a guitar repair expert who manages The Music Box retail music store in Stockton, CA and who has been adjusting and repairing guitars for more than three decades.

keep your guitar in tune
“For a quick check to see how much intonation adjustment is needed,” says Stevens, “I like to use one of the guitar tuners that has a needle to register intonation and an LED that goes to green when the string is in tune. First, tune an open string so it’s in tune using the tuner, then go on up to the 12th fret and press down and play the octave of the open string. If it’s a bit flat, you can shorten the string length by moving the saddle toward the fretboard using the adjustment screw [on an electric guitar]. If the octave registers as sharp, then you’ll lengthen the string by using the adjusting screw to move the saddle in the opposite direction, away from the fretboard.

adjusting guitar intonation
“Use the tuner to get the octave in tune with the open string. Carefully adjusting the saddle pieces in this way can help clear up some of the most typical intonation problems on your electric guitar. If you have an acoustic guitar, you won’t have individual saddle adjustments, however most manufacturers are shipping new acoustics with compensating saddles which help improve intonation.

“Weather can have a lot to do with how your guitar plays,” Stevens continues. “Try to avoid extreme temperatures when your guitar is in its case. Particularly leaving your guitar in a car in summer, as it can get incredibly hot. In winter, don’t leave your guitar out in the garage or anywhere there will be extreme temperature or humidity swings. Although it sounds pretty basic, get a decent case to protect your instrument, too. Nearly every guitar sold used to come with a case of some sort, but today, many guitars don’t include a case to protect your investment. So I encourage everyone getting a guitar to at least get a soft bag. Also, don’t lay down your guitar when storing it, it’s better to keep it upright in the case, like you would store a vinyl record album.

“Mandolins and ukuleles are less likely to have intonation problems due to their smaller scale. Bass guitars, however, may need regular attention since the amount of tension on the neck is way more than a typical electric guitar.”

Truss rod adjustments

Most modern guitars include a metal rod that helps stabilize the neck and reduce or eliminate neck bowing that plagued older guitars without truss rods. According to Stevens, “Summer is a time when you may typically need a truss rod adjustment due to the heat causing a bit of neck bowing. It’s mostly the case with newer guitars where the wood is not quite cured. Then in winter, the neck may bow a bit in the other direction and you may need a little relief, moving the truss rod in the opposite direction than you did in the summer. Many older guitars won’t require regular truss rod adjustments so long as they don’t experience any extreme conditions, since the wood is settled.”

Your instrument may also require a truss rod adjustment if change to a different gauge of string and end up with action that is too high to play comfortably. Or if you want to use a lowered tuning which results in annoying fret buzz.

“Most new guitars need a truss rod adjustment once you start playing them,” Stevens adds. “Although the guitar was probably set up to play properly at the factory, it’s usually been in storage for a few months time, so it will need a tweak. We offer a free set up and adjustment on every guitar we sell here. I suggest the customer take the guitar home and play it for a week or so, then come back in and tell me how they want it set up. No matter where you are buying a guitar, you should ask that the store go over the intonation and set up for you, ideally at purchase or within the first week after.”

Check your neck’s relief

Unlike adjusting the saddle pieces on your electric guitar, which can only affect string length, truss rod adjustment can have a major impact on your guitar’s playability. I always have an experienced guitar tech make any truss rod adjustments on my guitars. But I can check to see if I need an adjustment using two simple aids, a capo and a thickness or “feeler” gauge to measure the amount of neck relief.

checking guitar intonation
Start by placing a capo at the first fret on your guitar neck. Then with your feeler gauge within reach, hold down the string where the neck joins the body. Insert the feeler gauge between the string and the fret at the eighth fret. On a typical electric guitar, there should be between .3 mm and .5 mm clearance. This clearance is referred to as “neck relief.” Too much neck relief can cause the neck to have higher action in the middle of the neck resulting in poor intonation (fretted notes will be sharp) and just being hard to play. Not enough neck relief can cause fret buzzing.

Conrad also states there is no one measurement for how much relief should be used. “Just like anything else in adjusting guitars, neck relief is a player’s preference. It depends on the style of the instrument and the player.” Should you want to go ahead and dive into making your own truss rod adjustments, Shaun shares detailed instructions on electric guitar truss rod adjustments.

Closing thoughts

As a guitarist myself, I’ve played and owned many guitars over the years and I’m happy to say the guitars we have at home now all have very good intonation and are quite stable. Others that I’ve owned over the years were more temperamental, or fluctuated greatly with changes in weather, requiring seasonal adjustments. And while I’m comfortable checking my neck’s relief or adjusting intonation via the saddle pieces, I get a pro to do my truss rod tweaks, when needed. Hopefully, this article has helped you learn a little more about guitar tuning and intonation and you’ll have a better idea of what it takes to make your guitar more playable and in tune, especially if you’ll be using it for recording.

Story Links

Equal temperament (Wikipedia)
Explains the equal temperament system of tuning in a musical instrument.

Guitar Tuning Nightmares Explained (Jack Endino)
A fascinating three-part article on the realities of working to get guitars in tune in the recording studio by Seattle-based engineer/producer Jack Endino.

Tuning the Guitar (Paul Guy)
Delve deeper into the science of how the tempered scale evolved in a fascinating article by Swedish guitar guru Paul Guy.

Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to Disc Makers Echoes blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He’s also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.

Read more: Guitar intonation: how to keep your guitar in tune – Disc Makers

Make your shows shine with these simple EQ tricks | DiskMakers

shutterstock 170956478 Make your shows shine with these simple EQ tricks

[This article was written by Alex Andrews of Ten Kettles Development.]

The equalizer (EQ) is a very powerful tool that is EVERYWHERE. Seriously. Open up iTunes and click on the “Window” menu. There it is. As a musician, you’re going to see some form of EQ on virtually every soundboard and amp you play through. This is fantastic, because if you spend a bit of time developing your EQ skills, you’ll suddenly be able to bring a lot more control to your sound—no matter what venue you’re playing in. This article is for new bands looking to take control of their sound and bring it to the next level. Looking to get your head around the basics? You’ve come to the right place. Welcome.

Primer: what’s an EQ anyway?

There are many different types of EQs—graphic, parametric, semi-parametric, and so on—and though they’re each used a little differently, they all do a very similar thing: an EQ makes a group of frequencies louder or quieter. For example, think of the “Bass” knob on a stereo: it’s just a simple EQ that controls the low frequencies. Getting comfortable with the idea of frequencies is a great first step in gaining control of your live sound. 

iTunesEqualizer 1 Make your shows shine with these simple EQ tricks
The graphic EQ in iTunes controls 10 frequency bands

Let’s take a look at the iTunes equalizer (if you have iTunes, just click “Window” and then “Equalizer”). You’ll see a 10-band EQ like the one on the right. Those numbers at the bottom of each slider are the frequencies—e.g., the slider labelled “32″ controls the very low sound around 32 Hz. Our ears generally hear between around 20 Hz and 20 000 Hz (that’s 20 kHz), so this EQ has us covered!

Different frequency ranges have different qualities, different characters, different feels—and knowing this stuff is the foundation of your future EQ mastery! For example, too much volume around 1 kHz is going to sound nasal; too little 8 kHz will sound dull. Knowing this, we can just turn up or down the right sliders to fix the problem. We’ll hear some examples of this once we get to the video!

EQing the band: it’s a team sport!

Before we get into some specifics, there are two HUGE points often overlooked by beginners, and I can’t emphasize them enough:

1. Even if all instruments sound great on their own, they may not sound good together. EQing a group of musicians is about making sure they sound excellent as a unit. If you take a great sounding band and have one member play on her own, don’t be surprised if it doesn’t sound great: a bass may sound dull, a guitar or vocal may sound thin. That’s OK! All these instruments leave a bit of space in their sound so they can jigsaw together into one impressive band sound. At a show, you play together—so that’s how you should EQ too. EQing is a team sport.

2. To make one instrument sound its best, consider everyone’s settings. For example, if the bass guitar has its highs turned up loud, the guitar may not pop through. Just turning that guitar up—instead of tweaking the bass’s settings—could cause more problems.

So what do you do? A rule-of-thumb for beginning EQers is to let each instrument own a zone. In a classic four-piece (guitar, bass, vocals, drums), give the bass the lows below ~200 Hz (turn these down on the guitar and vocals), give the guitar the mids (up to roughly 1 Hz), and let the vocals pop by owning the high-mids (around 4 kHz). A simple way to cut high-mids on an electric guitar or bass is with the tone knob usually found on many electric instruments. And this can be quite a small change too — even just a 1/8 turn can do wonders.

The vocals: making them pop

To get a good vocal sound out of a basic soundboard, you can do a few simple things. (We focus on vocals here, but many of these tips will apply to all instruments.)

Turn down the lows. Women generally don’t sing much below 200 Hz; for men it’s 100 Hz. So, any sound below those frequencies that makes it into the microphone is probably not what we want. Maybe it’s the rumble of nearby traffic, or some low-frequency electrical hum. Let’s get rid of it!

The next step depends on your equipment. You’ll likely have at least one semi-parametric EQ for the vocal track mids. (Wait, what’s a semi-parametric EQ? It’s just two knobs: one for the frequency, and one for the level.) Now listen to the vocals (with the whole band playing), and pick the problem that’s most obvious: muddiness, a nasal sound, lack of warmth, or lack of presence. Picked one? Then follow the instruction below that fits. If you have four of these semi-parametric EQs, then you can move onto the other three instructions when you’re done. If not, you’ll need to choose carefully!

SemiParametricEQ Make your shows shine with these simple EQ tricks
A semi-parametric EQ controls the volume of sound at a specific frequency.

Turn up the presence range. Sometimes you put on a record or go to a show, and you can clearly hear everything: lead vocals, harmonies, guitar, bass, drums—it all sounds terrific. And yet, you find one particular instrument is highlighted—usually the lead vocals. While you hear everything, you find yourself listening to that one instrument above the rest. You can place an instrument at the forefront, just like this, using the presence range (around 4 kHz). For example, if you want the vocals to really pop through, turn up this range on the vocals and turn down this range on everything else. Changes of even 3 dB (that’s small) can do a great deal.

Cut the mud or increase the warmth. The muddiness/warmth region is around 250 Hz. If your vocals are muddy and the words just aren’t making it through, you may want to cut this region. On the other hand, if the vocals sound weak and need some warmth, you’ll want to raise it.

Reduce the nasal sound. The nasal region is around 1 kHz. If you find the vocals are getting too nasal, cutting this range a little can make a noticeable improvement.

Finding the frequency. Now that you know which frequency range to adjust, let’s improve that vocal sound! We’re going to assume you have a semi-parametric EQ control for mids (explained above). To start, crank the level knob most of the way high or low, depending on if you’re cutting (e.g., to reduce mud) or boosting (e.g., to increase presence). Then have the singer sing normally (not just say “Check.. 1… 2…”!), with or without the band, as you slowly turn the frequency knob around the frequency range you want to change. For example, scan from 2 kHz to 8 kHz for presence. Somewhere in that range the effect will really stand out—that’s the magic frequency, and it’s a little different for everyone. Bring the level back to something a bit more subtle, and you’re good.

Remember: when you’re EQing the vocal, your goal is to make it sound good with the band, not just on its own. Make sure you always do some EQing with everyone playing!

The caveats: EQing is great if

Building your EQ skills can lead to a giant improvement in how your songs sound to the audience. But, just like any effect, they aren’t a fix-all: songs still need to be awesome, and the performance should still be both engaging and tight. Music comes from the heart, makes its way through your instrument and sound equipment, and connects to your audience. Knowing your effects, like EQ, makes sure it gets there in one piece! And for you vocalists, know your distance to the mic! If in doubt and you’re using the usual SM58-style microphone that you’ll find in most clubs—stay very close!

Train those ears: enter hearEQ!

Developing good EQ skills involves building both knowledge and experience—and that practical experience can be tough to get at first. That’s where hearEQ comes in. If you’re an iPhone or iPad user, you can check out the hearEQapp—a 99¢ app that teaches you about different frequency bands, and then helps you practice EQing using custom exercises—all on your very own tracks. Understanding how the different frequency ranges sound—so you can say “hey, sounds like the bass could cut the highs a little” or “vocals could be warmer, let’s boost around 300 Hz”—is a powerful skill and hearEQ helps you get there. We are super proud of this app, and we hope you find it as useful as we have. Check out our video below to learn more—it’s also got some cool EQing examples!

hearEQ: Ear training for musicians, engineers, and audio lovers from Ten Kettles on Vimeo.

Bio: Alex Andrews is an engineer (B.Sc. Engineering Physics, M.Sc. Electrical Engineering), active musician, and Founder and CEO of an app development company called Ten Kettles. After ten years working with some terrific research labs—from physics to music psychology to cochlear implants—founder Alex began Ten Kettles as a creative, productive, and thoughtful company. He is passionate about creating software and mobile applications that have a positive, meaningful impact. Based in Toronto, Canada, Ten Kettles focuses on apps for music and

Pre-production tips for recording drums | DiscMakers


Every studio recording should begin with pre-production – here are tips to help you prepare for a drum recording session

pre-production and recording drumsThis post on pre-production tips for drummers originally appeared on Cakewalk’s blog. These tips apply to drummers, producers, and engineers preparing for a session recording drums. Reprinted with permission.

1. Practice to a click track
If the drummer in a session isn’t rehearsed, you will either spend a lot of time in the studio or a lot of time editing drums. Spending time in the rehearsal room practicing to a click track is much easier than spending hours and hours behind an editor. Sit in on rehearsals and even record them to get an understanding of timing and how proficient the drummer is. Here are some solutions for drummers who have a hard time playing to just a click:

• Have someone else in the group play along with the drummer
• Use song demos as guide tracks
• Record in shorter sections, instead of longer sections
• Try different percussion as click tones (e.g. cowbell, woodblock)

2. Demo songs before you record them
Prepping for a studio recording is the only way to successfully take advantage of the time you have and cut the best performances of your songs. Practice recording yourself playing your band’s songs to understand how your tracks will come together in the recording studio. Review your recordings and focus on the group and your parts to understand where improvements need to be made to lock down the tracks. Take the time to finalize specific drum fills, hits, and patterns.

Techniques vary from drummer to drummer: some play behind the beat and others will play ahead of the beat. Sometimes drummers do not realize how hard they need to be hitting the drums to get a proper sound for recording. As an engineer or producer, you want to eliminate all the possible surprises before entering the studio.

3. Find the right type of drum head for the music you are recording
Different jobs call for different tools, and pairing the right drum head with a music genre is an important factor in the final sound of any record.

Single ply. These are some of the most common drum heads. Their sensitivity is perfect for light hitters. Single ply heads produce high-end frequencies when hit, and their pronounced tone and sound can be useful in arena rock shows as well as quiet jazz ballads. Single ply heads are typically made from one layer of 7 mil Mylar and are considered the thinnest of all types of drum heads. Unfortunately this means their durability can be sacrificed if they are hit too hard.

Double ply. Double ply heads have two layers of Mylar and can vary in thicknesses, the most common being two 7 mil layers. Double Ply heads do not produce as many overtones and frequencies as single ply heads, and the two layers of Mylar provide more attack and better control of the sound. Double ply heads are typically easier to record in studio applications.

Coated. “Coating” a drum head means that some degree of dampening has been applied. There are many variations of this, but the goal is to soften up the sound of the head so that it produces a warmer sound. Drum heads that are coated are sprayed, covered with Mylar film, or have some sort of other substance applied to make the drum sound warmer and less like abrasive.

Pre-muffled. Eliminating overtones and resonant frequencies from a kick drum is common practice for many styles of music. Rock, metal, pop, and country typically keep the tone of the kick drum from ringing in order to achieve a blend of the “thud” of the drum and “thwack” of the beater against the batter head. Pre-muffled heads come pre packaged with foam or other damping features to suppress unwanted frequencies, which can be important in a recording studio setting.

Once you’ve found the head you want to use, start the session with new and seated (broken in) heads. Make sure to have spares on hand.

4. Tune your drum heads, and continue to tune them as you record
Drum heads always need a good tuning before any recording. They start to change in tone as they are played or left idle and should constantly be re-tuned as you record for long periods of time. Drum tuning does not necessarily mean the drums are tuned to a set of pitches. They are usually tuned so to sound compatible when played in succession. Each size drum head has an optimal range for its tone, and tuning your drums outside of this range can result in strange aliasing or cause other drums to be pushed out of their own optimal tuning range.

5. Prepare in advance for tempo and time signature changes
Tracking a session that has multiple tempo and time signature changes can get complicated if your metronome track is not set up in a way that makes sense to the drummer. Once you get your hands on some demos of the group, tempo map the songs so you can give the drummer a decent click track to practice to before entering the studio. Getting used to multiple tempo changes and time signature changes can be a tricky task, and you do not want to break the drummer’s spirits by surprising him or her with a confusing or inefficient click track while they are trying to record. Prepare a track before you enter the studio with cues and count-ins.

6. Consider using triggers
A trigger is a transducer that is placed on the head of a drum. Once the drum is hit, a signal is sent to a sound generator which sends the programmed sound of a drum or MIDI information. A drum trigger can come in handy regardless of what style of music you are recording. You can record the MIDI information of the drum for easier time adjustment, to enhance the acoustic sound of your drums by blending the two, or to use the information to better understand where the attacks of each transient are. In music styles that are kick-drum centric, a common practice is to use a trigger to level out the differing hits in order to achieve an almost inhuman sound. As an engineer, the use of triggers has not handicapped my session flow or drum editing at all. In fact, it has made certain situations a bit easier.

7. Be prepared
Here are a few items that you as an engineer or producer should always have on hand with you when tracking drums.

• Moving blankets. Use these to isolate kick drums, cover hard/reflective surfaces, and change the acoustics within a room.

• Spring camps. Helpful for holding loose cables and moving blankets.

• Bungee cords. For tying up blankets, loose cables, etc.

• Counterweights. Counterweights are useful when working with inexpensive microphone stands that can fall and lose their placement.

• Extra tuning keys. Tuning keys always get lost. Purchase a few of these to keep on your keychain.

• MoonGel. This is a blue dampening pad that you can buy to place on drum heads during recording. It reduces the ringing and decay of a drum.

• Measuring tape. When setting up overhead microphones, you need to make sure the distance from the snare to both overhead microphones are the same distance.

• Gaffers tape. This tape is great for the studio because it is strong and does not leave a residue when removed.

• Acoustic foam. It is always good to have extra foam on hand if you need to muffled drums.

• Pillows. Removing the front head of a kick drum and stuffing it with pillows can reduce resonance and bring out more attack from the drum.

• Cinder blocks. Placing one of these in front of the kick drum can keep the whole set from moving forward in a room with a slippery floor.

• Camera. Take pictures of the mic placements to save for the future in case you need to re-track.

• DI box (triggers). Most trigger outputs are quarter-inch jacks, you will need this patch into a tie line box that only has XLR inputs.

• Spare snare head. 14” coated snare head. A broken snare head can bring a session to a sudden halt.

Read more: Pre-production tips for recording drums – Disc Makers