We engineers spend a lot of time researching microphones, trying to put them in the perfect spot, and setting up the perfect signal chain.
So much so that we often overlook the little things that can make a way bigger difference in whether our recordings sound professional or not.
One of these things, often a tell-tale sign of an amateur production, is bad tuning.
It’s also one of the most difficult parts of recording great guitar tracks, because no matter what we do, an infinite number of variables make it impossible to be perfectly in tune.
But we can get close! Good tuning is essential in achieving a professional & competitive recording. Remember, even the sweetest tone sounds like garbage if your tuning is bad.
Why won’t it stay in tune?
Let’s identify what’s causing the problems in the first place. The most common issues are:
- Bad Tuner – Throw out the TU-2 and other cheap pedal tuners. You have to be a couple cents flat or sharp for the the light to change, so getting it in the green doesn’t actually mean it’s in tune. Recommended: Peterson StroboSoft plug-in or pedal models, Korg DTR rack tuners. Tune before EVERY TAKE… that’s not an exaggeration!
- Bad Tuner (human) – Slow down! Take your time and make sure it’s on. Pick the string the same way you’re going to play. If you tune with little feather strokes, it’s all going to be sharp when you dig in for the take. **Tune to the pick attack, not the sustained note. This is huge and especially important in low tunings.**
- Intonation – You can master these first two, but your guitar could still be out of tune all over the fret board. You’ll never get it perfect, but checking & fixing your intonation regularly can help a lot. You can learn how to do it yourself using Google. Make sure you’re intonating with a quality tuner, as mentioned above.
- Wrong Strings / Old Strings – Choose the string gauge to fit your tuning and playing style. If you’re in standard tuning and play gracefully, you can get away with some lighter strings. If you’re in drop C and your pick hits like a hammer, you need really heavy strings. Many players are choosing strings that are much too light.
Old strings can also affect your tuning. As they stretch out, notes begin to sustain less and drop in pitch quickly after picking. I typically change strings after each full day of guitar tracking.
- Technique – If you’re not the one playing, you don’t have much control here, but you can watch the guitar players and offer polite, helpful tips on their playing. For example, some chords may be out of tune because the player is bending strings at certain areas of the guitar. Or they may be strumming too close to the neck, which means more string movement and variation between the initial pick and the sustain. Remind players to strum further back, closer to the bridge, and you’ll notice an instant improvement in tuning.
C’est La Vie
Even with the guidelines above, there will still be times when the part just simply won’t sound in tune. This is where you need to get creative.
It’s common in modern production to tune the guitar to specific frets & chords and punch in those parts separately (i.e., player holds the chord and you tune each note in the chord).
Avoid post-processing like Melodyne and Autotune and get it right at the source. Trust your ears in the end, and don’t accept anything that you think could be tuned better.
Your ear for tuning will develop over time, as will your solutions for recording difficult parts or difficult players, but placing a new emphasis on tuning and following the tips here should bring an instant improvement to your tracks.