Soprano Intonation

Graham Greenbag

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Bill1, that's very good advice. Sorting out and setting up a cheap uke is a hugely useful learning process. Mass produced ukuleles usually have the frets in the right places, relative to each other, as they are produced by an automated process, but is not unknown for the nuts and the bridge/saddle to be incorrectly sited, relative to the fretboard. The 'action' (string height) is often wildly wrong.

I still have a Yellow Mahalo from earlier in this century. After some fettling it turned into a decent little instrument.

Looking at your Avatar I see an old style (fat waisted and with friction tuners) Mahalo U30 and I know that you have very many ‘better’ instruments, but to my mind the yellow painted Mahalo conveys the joy of Ukes rather well. In a strange way those original Mahalos represent, to me at least, a lot of what Sopranos are about: relatively affordable, easy to move about, fine enough for percussive playing and effective music makers despite their imperfections. When I first came to Ukes I was looking for such a ‘folk instrument’ and a Soprano ticked all the boxes - no wonder that they are so popular.

I’m not a flag waver for Mahalos but the old ones that I’ve bought - and Dolphins too - have allowed me to learn much about Uke set-up. Indeed buying any cheap and cheerful Soprano is almost always an exercise in putting things right but you’re rewarded with: a better playing instrument, a sense of achievement and an improved skill set that can be usefully used on better instruments. Education is a wonderful thing and particularly so when applied to one’s interests.
, find and see the part two video too.

It’s perhaps not right to ask for details, but if the OP hasn’t yet got out his ruler and checked the scale over then I suggest that he does so soon. Errors happen to the best of us and Sopranos have to be built to smaller tolerances than bigger instruments. Measure from the nut to the centre of the 12th fret, double that size and that’s the nominal scale length to which compensation should be added. Measure from the nut to the crest (centre) of the saddle and compare the two dimensions.
 
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Timbuck

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As i believe that this Soprano in question is one made by myself i believe i can put in some input.
these sopranos are a close replica as i can produce of a Martin Style 0 that was manufactured in the 1930 -1950 era.
I have four origionals of these, ranging from 1926 to 1960 these are where i get the dimensions from, aided by the excellent plans made by Scott Antes. As the bridges and saddles are the slot type they have a saddle that is only 1/16 of an inch wide, so there is no room to compensate the saddle as it is far too narrow ...other builders fit sadles that are more wide at 1/8"-3/16" and can shape them to achieve better intonation ( as the modern Martins do) I could also do this but then they wouldnt be accurate original copies...as an experiment I took out my favourite Martin soprano from its case, it is the 1926 one fitted with bar frets... I had strung it with fluorcarbon fishing line leaders same as the soprano in question.
The A string is 30LB ..E string 50LB ..C string 80LB and G string 40LB.
I then downloaded the most accurate free electronic tuner i could find on the web and proceeded this test.
First the A string open then at the 12th fret result just over a semitone sharp.
then the E string this was almost spot on maybe a little sharp.
next the C string also a little sharp
Then the G string, this was approx: about a quarter tone sharp.
interesting results.
As the 30Lb A string was the worst I then replaced it with the 40Lb string and tuned it in ..Result it improved it a lot being only a quarter tone out same as the G string.
So there it is ..I never claimed that these instuments i make are special in anyway ... that is down to to players who have given them excellent reviews... if you require a soprano with better/perfect intonation then look for one with a broad compensated saddle not a vintage Martin Style 0.😉
 
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Mfturner

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I hadn’t thought about how string weight would affect intonation (maybe with stretching?). That is interesting and may give me something to play with on my old Harmony, thanks.
 

pondweed

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As the 30Lb A string was the worst I then replaced it with the 40Lb string and tuned it in ..Result it improved it a lot being only a quarter tone out same as the G string.
ok, so a slighter weightier string is improving the intonation. Does that mean if you went up another it might correct it? I realise you might not want to do that on a vintage instrument but have you tried that on a well built new one? Should we be doing it with our sopranos? It would be helpful to know your string dimensions for those Leader Lb. strengths. I'm still amazed that most "marketed" fluorocarbon string sets are essentially camouflaging very basically the same available raw materials.
 

Timbuck

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Cliff Edwards (ukulele Ike) used catgut strings with a low G and a low A ...But I never saw a movie where he went past the 5th fret And just played chords.
But Roy Smeck also used catgut strings and played all sorts of melodies and instrumental music on his Soprano.
And this was before electronic tuners and in the days of the tuning fork, pitch pipes and tuning by ear on the piano.
 

John Colter

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All we are doing is making music. We only have to satisfy the ear - not an electronic tuner. I'd bet Ukulele Ike's ukes wouldn't have passed the scrutiny of a modern electronic device, but he made wonderful music.
 

John Colter

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FWIW, I've just tested (all strings, all frets) my Timms style 0 (Aquila strings) using two different electronic tuners and it is impressively accurate. Nowhere was it out by more than 10cents. Then I tried my 1950-ish Martin style 1 (Worth brown medium) which gave very similar results. Both ukes play well and sound great.

There is such a thing as good enough.
 

anthonyg

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Auto-tune perfection in commercial pop records has/is making us all less tolerant of being out of tune.
Famous singers aren't allowed to release records that aren't pitch correct.
It's got to the farcical point where young singers are mimicking the pitch steps of autotuned songs rather than sliding the pitch up and down.

Now I have to admit that poor intonation bugs me a little too, yet I'm certainly not expecting perfection on a soprano ukulele. Longer scale guitars are just as likely to have poor intonation as well. It's not just a ukulele thing by any stretch.
 

John Colter

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I once asked a superb professional player to try one of my sopranos. I had just tuned the open strings with an electronic tuner. The first thing he did was re-tune the uke by ear, then he made wonderful music with it. After he had handed it back, with some polite words of approval, I checked the tuning and, guess what, the open strings (supposedly gCEA) were all over the place. Make of that what you will.
 

pondweed

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The first thing he did was re-tune the uke by ear
Was that using comparative fretted strings, JC, or just by ear?
Interesting development for this thread. My new bargain basement Tiger black fluorocarbon strings are 'standard gauge' for Sop and Concert. I've just measured the G string as about 28 thou 0.71mm, and it was very sharp on the piccolo scale at 12th. I've just changed it for a piddly Worth Brown Medium (BM) which weighs in at 0.57 or less than 23 thou! Instant perfect tuning to 12th fret. I'm now on to ridding myself of a Low G Worth Brown (c. 0.92mm) on the C string which will go back to 0.74mm - the Worth BM. I had blithely gone along with the thicker strings in search for some better tension for staying at GCEA on the shorter scale, but clearly it completely throws a Sven-setup instrument out. Its balance was wrecked with the heavies. More later...
 

ploverwing

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I practice ear tuning all the time, and use the tuner when I have little time.

Also I have just been studying sympathetic vibration. If you can see it, it is a good tuning tool. First you tune your A string by ear to what you like, you can also use a tuning fork or other audio source, even an electronic tuner, for the A pitch, and then adjust it high or low a tweak to suit your mood. Now when you play the other strings, including the C string, at the fret where the A note is and you have the right pitch, you can compare the sound of your A string, and or you can see if the fretted note causes a sympathetic vibration in the A string, IE the A string starts vibrating by itself. When you have tuned all four strings, you can play a favourite tune and see if you like the sound, if not go back and tweak the A string and try again. If you are in a group or band, everyone has to follow the process for everyone to stay in tune.

Then if you want to build some confidence, check it with a tuner. You can see if all the strings are high or low by the same amount, if you varied the A pitch, or you can start with the A pitch set at 440Hz and see how well you can tune by ear.

Also note that old grumpy men have failing hearing, its natural and is happening to us all.
I'm going to try this! Hopefully I can see, lol. I'll have to do it in good light.

I've been playing a Ranch concert that my Dad bought for me to play while I've been visiting. The intonation is grim. When I just tune everything to the A using my best judgement, comparing C's and G's around the fretboard, it's ok-ish. When I tune the open strings strictly to an electronic tuner, it's not ok at all. But I really needed an instrument to practice on (working on a performance deadline), I didn't want to risk my soprano to cargo (it was a small plane, no overhead bin, and their check-in has full discretion as to what's deemed carry on), and I've been able to practice the whole time that I've been here, so I'm very thankful. It was very generous of him to do this for me, I can tolerate the lack of proper intonation.
 
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TheBathBird
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I practice ear tuning all the time, and use the tuner when I have little time.

Also I have just been studying sympathetic vibration. If you can see it, it is a good tuning tool. First you tune your A string by ear to what you like, you can also use a tuning fork or other audio source, even an electronic tuner, for the A pitch, and then adjust it high or low a tweak to suit your mood. Now when you play the other strings, including the C string, at the fret where the A note is and you have the right pitch, you can compare the sound of your A string, and or you can see if the fretted note causes a sympathetic vibration in the A string, IE the A string starts vibrating by itself. When you have tuned all four strings, you can play a favourite tune and see if you like the sound, if not go back and tweak the A string and try again. If you are in a group or band, everyone has to follow the process for everyone to stay in tune.

Then if you want to build some confidence, check it with a tuner. You can see if all the strings are high or low by the same amount, if you varied the A pitch, or you can start with the A pitch set at 440Hz and see how well you can tune by ear.

Also note that old grumpy men have failing hearing, its natural and is happening to us all.
This is great, really didn’t expect to be able to see anything (my eyesight is dreadful) but I can, and I’m finding it oddly satisfying!
 

ploverwing

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If you are using a tuner that shows audio frequency and don't know how to use it, try these musical adventures into the worlds of woo and Nicola Tesla science.

Look at the number shown for the audio frequency, not the note. Twiddle the A string tuner know until it reads 432Hz. Now tune your uke to the A string, you have now tuned your uke to the mythical 432Hz. Belt out your favourite tune and see if you like the sound. Also note that you will have lowered the tension on the strings slightly and that may affect the sound. If you like this, then do the same for A = 448Hz and compare the sounds. If you do this a few times and get used to the sounds on your uke, you can apply the learning to set the A string pitch to however you feel at the time. Obviously if you are accompanying others, everyone needs to tune to the same pitch of the A note to stay in tune.

Next example C5 = 528Hz or C4 = 264Hz. 528Hz is a woo audio frequency and has been related to some of Tesla's "lost" science. So there are two choices. 1. tune the C5 note (G string fret 5, C string fret 12, E string fret 8, A string fret 3) to a pitch of 528Hz using your tuner that has an audio frequency in the display. 2. Tune the open C string to 264Hz, and then tune the other strings to the C string pitches. For example. E at fret 4, G at fret 7, A at fret 9. Again play you favourite tune and see if you like the sound as played on your own uke. Then set the open C string to 258Hz and see how it sounds. Do it a few times so you can get used to the sounds, then apply the learning to select a C note to tune to when you feel like you want a C day instead of an A day.

If you are playing to an audience often, find some guinea pig audience members to give useful feedback and play them the various tuning choices to see if you can get a better sound for the audience. Or you can adjust the tuning to suit the atmosphere of the room.

These exercises may help you get used to creatively tuning your own ukulele around the Standard A and C pitches, instead of blindly using the Standard every time.

If you test the intonation when you change the reference pitches of A or C, you may also get a useful indicator of the intonation and other aspects of your own ukulele?

A key to consistency in this sort of activity, so you can control it, and repeat the sound most of the time, is to remember or write down the results you are getting when you are doing the experiments and practicing. This may give you the starting point you need when you are under pressure to perform and you need to adjust the sound.
Oooh! Excited to try this! But not tonight... just spent over 12 hours travelling to get home, and I'm done.
 

Timbuck

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Here is an interesting thing ....Did you know pianos are tuned sharp at the treble end and flat at the bass end on purpose. :)
 

anthonyg

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I should clarify something. If a single note is a little flat or sharp up the neck, then no, I can't hear that without a tuner.
What I do hear is chords being out due to intonation errors. Yes you can make some tuning adjustments for certain chords but then other chords will be out, and a chord that is in tune in the first position will be out of tune in the second/third/fourth position.

Lots of electric guitarists don't play in the open position that much due to intonation errors in the open position and instead favour playing up the neck.
Lots of soprano ukulele players only play in the open position. I certainly favoured the open position exclusively for quite a while because higher position chords were out.

I've heard guitarists talking about different keys having different sounds.
My two bobs worth is that it's actually intonation and resonances that make certain instruments have different sounds in different keys/positions rather than its the "key" having a discernible sound.
 

Oldscruggsfan

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I practice ear tuning all the time, and use the tuner when I have little time.

Also I have just been studying sympathetic vibration. If you can see it, it is a good tuning tool. First you tune your A string by ear to what you like, you can also use a tuning fork or other audio source, even an electronic tuner, for the A pitch, and then adjust it high or low a tweak to suit your mood. Now when you play the other strings, including the C string, at the fret where the A note is and you have the right pitch, you can compare the sound of your A string, and or you can see if the fretted note causes a sympathetic vibration in the A string, IE the A string starts vibrating by itself. When you have tuned all four strings, you can play a favourite tune and see if you like the sound, if not go back and tweak the A string and try again. If you are in a group or band, everyone has to follow the process for everyone to stay in tune.

Then if you want to build some confidence, check it with a tuner. You can see if all the strings are high or low by the same amount, if you varied the A pitch, or you can start with the A pitch set at 440Hz and see how well you can tune by ear.

Also note that old grumpy men have failing hearing, its natural and is happening to us all.
Great guidance, @Bill1! I was forced into ear tuning after forgetting to bring my e-tuner to work for a whole week. Apparently, I went at it all wrong by starting with where the C (lowest pitch) string sounded correct, then tuning the E to that one, and so on. Even when using the e-tuner, my bad right ear wants the High G to go a nudge higher. I've always said someone should roll out a set of low-cost hearing aids branded "Swashbucklers" and charge only a buck an ear.