Tap Tuning – Frequently Asked Questions

1: What’s a compressor and what does it do?

A: A “compressor” is actually a misleading name for what the device does. Basically, a compressor locks onto a note and sustains it for a period of time. “Expander” or “sustainer” would probably be a better name. Because the tap has such a quick peak and quick decay (basically, a “pop”), there’s not sufficient time for most tuning devices to lock onto the note and display it on the screen. The compressor sustains the note electronically and provides about one-and-a-half seconds of time for the tuner to read and display the note – and that’s plenty of time for you to see and learn what the tapped note is.

2: Do I have to do tap tuning when building one of your kits?

A: No. You can build a really good sounding mandolin from one of our kits without tap tuning. Tap tuning is a method of adjusting the parts of the instrument to specific notes to give you a great sounding instrument. And if you plan to build several instruments, tap tuning will lead you to consistency from instrument to instrument. It’s not something you have to do – it’s the next level of building perfection into your instruments.

3: What does tap tuning do for me?

A: Tap tuning is a method of adjusting the parts of the instrument to specific notes to give you both a great sounding instrument, as well as consistency of tone from instrument to instrument (if you plan on building several).

4: Is tap tuning a new technology?

A: No. Tap tuning is an age-old art dating back to the late-1500’s. The technique was developed by early violin builders and later refined by Stradivarius. Then, it was followed by various other makers – mostly violin luthiers – until the early 1900s. when Lloyd Loar’s interest in violin tuning led him to try it in other string instruments. Aside from being an accomplished violinist, Loar was very interested in violin construction and tried to employ tap tuning in the construction process of Gibson’s Master Model instruments in the 1920s.

5: Can your soundboards and backboards be tap tuned?

A: Yes, they can. Tap tuning is an adjustment to the thickness of the soundboards, backboards, and tone bars, as well as a final adjustment to the size of the apertures (round and oval soundholes, f-holes) once the instrument’s body is closed.

6: Do your soundboards and backboards need to be tap tuned?

A: No. You can build a very good sounding instrument from our soundboards and backboards without tap tuning. But, tap tuning will give you consistency and help you do better than just “very good.”

7: Is tap tuning a necessity?

A: Tap tuning is not a “necessity.” You can build an instrument that sounds fine without tap tuning. But tap tuning does help you build instruments that sound great. So, it’s all about getting that last little bit out of the parts we provide.

8: Did you invent tap tuning?

A: I’d love to take credit for it, but I can’t. I’m really not sure exactly who invented tap tuning at the outset, but we do know that its use dates back to the period of Nicholas Amati (1596-1684) with major refinements by one of Amati’s apprentices; Antonio Stradivarius (1644-1737).

9: Is tap tuning what some makers do when they pick up a board and tap on it to hear how it sounds?

A: Actually, what they are doing is listening to the “tapped tone” of the wood. They tap on the wood to hear how well it sustains, how bright and clear the tone is, and most importantly, tapping will reveal if the wood is solid and free from any checks or cracks (a board with a check or crack in it will have a very crinkly, muffled sound). But the two processes are very different. Listening to the tapped tone of an unbraced piece of wood is very different from tap tuning an almost-finished part.

10: What does tap tuning do?

A: Every piece of wood is different. Even two pieces of wood taken from the same board – sized and shaped the same – will be different. Tap tuning is a way of making them the same. Tap tuning lets you know the specifics of the parts of the instrument’s body. The stiffer a tone bar or brace is, the higher its note will be. The more limber the bar is, the lower its note will be. The larger a soundhole is the higher the resonant frequency of the air chamber. The smaller a soundhole is, the lower the resonant frequency of the air chamber. By determining the notes the tone bars or braces make when they are tapped, you can adjust them (by shaving off wood) until they get to a specific note – which, in essence, adjusts its stiffness. It’s like making xylophone bars; you remove wood until you get to the right note.

11: Is tap tuning hard to do?

A: Tap tuning is as hard or as difficult as anything else you have learned to do. Once you know how to identify the tapped note, tap tuning is a snap. Once you see the DVD that comes with The Art of Tap Tuning, the process will be very clear to you.

12: What’s the most difficult part of tap tuning?

A: The most difficult part of learning how to do tap tuning is to be able to identify the tapped note. The DVD that comes with the Art of Tap Tuning demonstrates how to tap, where to tap, and what to listen for. If you study it carefully, it should be very clear what to listen for.

13: Can I use a digital guitar tuner for tap tuning?

A: Digital tuners are designed to listen for the sustain of a musical string, average out what it hears over a few samples, and then report it back to the display. Tapped tones peak very fast and have no sustain (we say they have a fast peak and decay), so the sound is there and gone before a digital guitar tuner can display it. We’ve tried some digital tuners with one of our CS100 compressors with moderate success, but we’re afraid to recommend it as an optimum solution.

14: Can I use your Peterson StroboSoft for tap tuning?

A: Peterson’s StroboSoft is an excellent tool for tap tuning. Compared to other digital systems, StroboSoft has an uncanny ability to instantly recognize the tapped sound and immediately report it to its display. The latest version, StroboSoft V2, features a unique Tap Tuning Function that will lock onto the tapped note, report it to the display, and not change the information on the display until it hears a subsequent tapped note. This gives you plenty of time to learn the tapped note and write it down before the screen changes. The ideal set of tools is a mechanical (spinning wheel) strobetuner and StroboSoft, using StroboSoft to instantly find the note, and the mechanical tuner to display the sharp/flat qualities.

15: Should I use a clip-on microphone for tap tuning?

A: It is best to use an acoustic mike that is not attached to the soundboard or backboard when you are tap tuning. The signature (sound) of the “tap” contains a great deal of noise – both mechanical and electronic – that is enhanced by a contact microphone. And, noise is something you don’t want to have when doing tap tuning. Use an acoustic mike and keep it about 18″ to 24″ from the tapped object.

16: Was Lloyd Loar the luthier who invented tap tuning?

A: Well, there are two parts to the answer. 1) Lloyd Loar wasn’t a luthier – that is, he didn’t build instruments. Loar was a musician first and foremost, and an acoustical engineer second. He knew what he liked and he knew what to ask for. 2) Lloyd Loar didn’t invent tap tuning. As an accomplished violinist and acoustical engineer, he learned the value of tuned instruments that the great masters employed in building instruments in the 1500s and he strived to include that art in the work he did at Gibson in the 1920s with the F5 mandolin, H5 mandola, and L5 guitar.

17: If I tap tune one of your mandolin kits, will it sound like a real Gibson Loar-signed F5?

A: We’d like to think so. But one thing you can’t impart to new instruments is “age.” It will take time for both the wood and the finish to age and, over time, if your instrument is built properly, you should be able to achieve a similar good sound and it will get better with time and playing. If you employ the practice of de-damping, you will accelerate the process a great deal and get you much closer to the optimum sound sooner.

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