Tuning- is it really possible?
The simple answer is No, the more complicated answer is Yes.
Tuning a didgeridoo is relitave to several different factors that affect the pitch after it is completed. These include environmental temperature, individual player, technique and sometimes speed. In the search to create my ideal didgeridoo for playing with western music, I have at time been driven insane by this question. If a Didgeridoo is made in hot weather and tuned in that weather, the pitch will be correct for hot weather. If the same instrument is played in a cold environment the drone will suddenly sound flat. This can be as much of a difference as 40 cents flat of the initially tuned drone. Further, if played for a long time in that cold environment your breathe will begin to warm the instrument walls and raise the pitch as you play. The next factor is the individual. Beginners with less power and softer sound may play an instrument flat in comparison to an experienced player with a clean or “tight” drone. This difference can be exaggerated with bigger mouthpieces that allow for more control. The possibility of more control in large mouth piece didgeridoos calls for more control form the player. I encourage people seeking more lip control to shift to the front of the mouth if playing on the side and this may produce a flat drone until the player regains their drone clarity. The drone clarity out of the front is improved by tightening the cheeks to get the high harmonics to sound more prominent and this is the factor of technique. A player with strong cheeks and a tight sound will play a higher pitch than a player with a soft sound. The last factor is speed. Speed for an experienced tight cheek player may not affect the pitch very much because the lips are already steady and controlled. For a player with a softer drone, the difference may be greater as they play faster rhythms because the air speed has a greater effect on their lips. One last factor is the room and the proximity and angle of the end of the didgeridoo to walls or the floor. If a player is standing up with the didgeridoo pointing mostly towards the ground it may produce a lower drone than if that player sat down and pointed it strait ahead. I you were to play a didgeridoo against a wall it may have the same effect. Different rooms resonate at different frequencies, this is why mastering studios are ofter tuned to a specific key. The rooms tuning may have a small affect but is the least of concern compared to the other factors listed above.
So how do I determine the tuning of WET didgeridoos?
When checking the tune of a didgeridoo I keep it at a comfortable room temperature to start with. I set up a microphone plugged into a mixer and connect a tuner to the mixer. I then place the the end of the instrument on a Y shaped crutch to hold the bell off the ground and clear for and external factors that may obstruct the sound. Once it is set up I play the instrument anywhere from 15-30 minutes to warm it up, checking the tuning before during and after this process. I then make adjustments to the bell and neck of the instruments depending on the average pitch that i achieve. When i feel i have reached the “perfect” or ideal tuning that i will conduct this test again as well as playing it in different environments to see how much and where the fluctuation of pitch goes. An ideal pitch will be slightly sharp on fast bounce rhythems and in tune or very slightly flat when holding a clear drone. Doing this produces the least problems in hot or cold weather as a balanced has been achieved between the two. If I want to get crazy with recording a song and want a perfect pitch I ( or you) could repeat the procedure but this has never been necessary. I play mostly with western instruments these days (Mandolin, Bass,Guitar, Piano) and i rarely (if ever) have a problem with tuning. Because of the nature of the drone’s “funkyness” it can fluctuate slightly in pitch without any negative effects on the music. Further, because it’s possible to consciously bend the pitch one way or another, I find that while playing a song in a certain key i will subconsciously play or even bend the key into perfect tuning. This happens naturally without effort so long as you can hear yourself in the jam. The last thing to consider is that these instruments are tuned to my(William Thoren’s) playing style and technique. The video lessons on this website provide the foundation for playing this technique the way that these instruments are designed to receive it. I am confident that if one plays with controlled power from the front of the mouth that the tuning will be accurate.
For more on the subject of tuning check out these links
Duende Didgeridoo – Tuning – this is Dubravko Lapaines analysis