Tuning Articles

Piano -The Autostrobe 490ST stretches value too!

... by Bill Prindle
© Reprinted with permission from the Piano Technician Journal

I would like to introduce you to my new "buddy", the Peterson AutoStrobe™ 490-ST Tuner! You could say that it is a great tuner for the money, but that would not be an accurate statement.

Peterson Strobe Tuners - Hi Res image
It does not need to apologize to anyone. I started tuning 35 years ago and have always used a Visual Tuning Aid. Like many of us, I started with the old Conn strobe. I use a VTA to help me set the temperament and speed up the tuning process. I have been shopping for the past few years for a tuner that fits my needs. I made my decision to buy the Peterson after weighing out several factors such as price, user friendliness, reliability, and accuracy. I wanted an instrument that I could control that would help me with the decisions that I make when tuning each piano. I looked at and tried the SAT II, SAT III, and the Reyburn CyberTuner as well as the Yamaha tuner. I personally did not care for the blinking lights on the SAT and did not feel good about the price. I found the CyberTuner concept to be intriguing but had concerns about the reliability of computers and, once again, about the investment involved. My friends that have these units love them and seem sold on using them.

Peterson Electro-Musical Products, Inc. celebrated its 50th anniversary last year (1998). Richard Peterson originally founded the company with the goal of producing an electronic organ that would authentically produce the sounds of a pipe organ that he loved so dearly. He became a partner in the Haygren Organ Company, which manufactured about 50 early electronic church organs. These instruments drew attention for the innovative methods used to produce their high-quality sound. For example, the invention of the isomonic method-strategically separating the notes of each rank into several channels-minimized the unpleasant sounds of "beating" common in electronic organs. This unnatural sound results whenever the slightly out-of-tune "coincident partials" of notes are combined electrically instead of acoustically. Richard Peterson then made a licensing agreement with the Gulbransen Piano Company, which went on to produce the world's first transistorized organ in 1957.

Many Peterson innovations were incorporated into Gulbranson organs over the next 20 years. The Peterson company has gone on to redirect their efforts to improve the performance of authentic pipe organs. They have an impressive list of accomplishments in this field and have moved the pipe organ into the computer age. Peterson originally built a tuner for his own use in tuning pipe organs. The tuner line expanded significantly in the late 1960s. Today tens of thousands of Peterson tuners are used by organ and piano tuners, school music departments, and performing artists. The recent line of AutoStrobe tuners has been out for almost three years and has been an overwhelming success!

Use of this tuner is very simple. It can easily be set up for a stretch tuning in less than a minute. The handle is adjustable to aid in the viewing angle. The unit will power-up in the automatic note-reading mode. You can sample any notes you wish to check to see if the piano is up to pitch. To set the tuner to a stretch mode, press 1 (setup), 2 (file), 2 (stretch), 1 (edit). Next is a display of 8 preset stretches that are programmed in the unit. The stretches are labeled (abbreviated) Concert Grand, Studio Grand, Average, Small Grand, Upright, Vertical, Console, and Spinet. (It is important to note that the labels do not indicate that these stretches are to be automatically used for these types of pianos. They basically indicate the amount of stretch that you may wish to apply in the given situation. I have found that I prefer the Small Grand setting for most tunings I do.) The Stretch Tables can be found on their web site. Press the down arrow 3 times to move the selector under the labels to choose the Small Grand setting. Then press 4 (start). The stretch is now active and the tuner is set for the 4th octave. The octave selection needs to be set to the proper octave whether in the Automatic or Manual Note mode. Simply count the Cs on the keyboard. Stretch tunings can also be custom made. The preset stretches can be copied and modified, including a name for each. The tuner can store up to 31 custom stretches, which can be modified without limit.

If you are new to reading a strobe pattern, I suggest the following method to get used to the display. Set up the tuner as described above, then start tuning at middle C. The tuner is in the 4th octave and the display is easy to read for anyone. The bands of the display pretty much match the octave you are tuning. On a decent quality piano, there will be 2-3 of the bands that appear to stop when the note is in tune. On a lower quality piano, the inharmonicity will be evident on the display. You can actually see the partials in conflict. This also gives you valuable information as you are tuning. Concentrate on the 4th band and work your way up the piano. Adjust to the 5th octave when you get to C-5, etc. After finishing the upper octaves, go back to where you started and work your way down. As you get into the bass section, the automatic reading will have some trouble. The solution is to either switch to manual or play a note an octave or two above the note you are tuning to set the tuner to that note. You will be able to really see visually what is happening with each note as you learn to read the pattern. It only takes a couple of tunings to be comfortable with the display. If you are familiar with a strobe, it will take about 20 minutes. One of the neat features of the tuner is the +2/-1 button. With VTAs, the extreme bass and treble are hard to read. By the press of a button the bass reading is brought up two bands to the middle and the treble is lowered one band toward the middle, making the reading even easier. After getting familiar with the unit, the button is helpful but not necessary. It is also an aid in tuning those spinets that are hard to read. With the image shifted, the display clarifies at the tenor break.

The way I use my tuner now is to evaluate the piano and decide on the stretch that I want to use. I set up the tuner and set it to Manual. I start at A-0 and work my way up. I use the single footswitch and tune straight up the piano. When I get past the break, I switch to Automatic Note selection. This changes the footswitch control to adjust the octaves up to the proper setting. My tunings are a breeze and very stable. There is also a double footswitch available that, if used along with the single switch, gives me the ability to change the note and change the octaves up or down with my foot--keeping my hands on the tuning, speeding up the process.


· Note Selection Automatic or Manual (Can tune any note, not just a step up or down).
· Readable Partials
· 11 Octave Visual Range (8 simultaneously)
· +2/-1 Display
· Automatic Image Clarifier
· Automatic Contrast Control
· Accuracy: All Scales and Temperaments Within 1/10 of a Cent
· Calibration: Automatic A=440 or Selectable from A=350 to A=550
· Temperaments: Preset and Programmable ( 8 preset Temperaments)
· Stretch Tuning: 8 Preset Tables, 31 Programmable with Name Feature
· Temperaments and Stretches can be modified without limit
· Microphone: Built In, or with Optional External Microphone
· Pitch Offset: Adjustable in 1-, 0.5-, or 0.1-cent Increments
· Adjustable Viewing Angle
· One-Year Guarantee on Parts and Labor
· Quartz-Stable Tuning Reference
· Currently Available with No Back Order Problems

- Carrying Case - External Microphone - Note Footswitch - Octave Footswitch

The philosophy of the Peterson company is a little different from the other tuner manufacturers. The company believes that the control of the stretch and the decisions about how to tune should be left with the individual user. The job of the VTA is to provide information. Since it is easily adjustable while the tuning is in progress, the user can use the instrument as a resource and tune the piano as desired. Stretch numbers and readings do not enter into the picture. I have shown the Peterson AutoStrobe to many other tuners. Generally, remarks have been that, "it does everything my tuner does and for much less". I have also measured several pianos that have been tuned with other tuners and found that they simply fall into the Small Grand stretch table on the Peterson . The strobe display is a more accurate way of getting a picture of the note. The company has an article about this that you can read on-line entitled "Why Use A 'Real' Strobe Tuner?". The content of the article explains why the strobe image is more accurate than LED displays. I have personally found the strobe to provide much more information than LED displays.
I asked two friends of mine to get together with me to compare the SAT III, the Reyburn CyberTuner, and the Peterson AutoStrobe side by side. We had dinner together and talked about the features of the instruments. We decided how to fairly compare the three. We chose a Yamaha C-2 grand for the test. The owner of the Accu-Tuner III took the stretch number readings and tuned several notes in each octave. The owner of the CyberTuner then took his readings to set up his instrument and we compared the stretch with the two. They were the same. I then set up the Peterson to the Small Grand stretch and we agreed that the three were essentially the same. A similar test was done on a spinet piano with less time spent on the process. The bottom line is that we all agreed that all 3 tuners work very well. We liked the visual display of the Peterson as being easy to read. We liked the auto-note switching and ease of adjusting the pitch. These attributes translate to quicker tuning and a more enjoyable experience. Still, the owner of the Accu-Tuner III likes a couple of features on his instrument better. The owner of the Cyber-Tuner likes the pitch-raise feature on his tuner.

As far as using the Peterson to tune in a noisy environment, I work two days a week in a very large piano store and regularly have to tune with others tuning in the same room. I have been very happy with the ability of the tuner to not be influenced by the other sounds. I used mine to tune a new Boston piano daily in the exhibit hall during the convention in Kansas City. I had the competition of a couple of other technicians tuning, pianos being played and, in addition, a couple of hundred people in the hall talking. A friend of mine stopped and asked, "Can you see okay? I know you can't hear!" Actually the tuner did a fine job. I was very impressed. The built-in microphone worked very well. The interference really did not affect the tuner much at all. I had many people stop to look at the tuner. I was impressed by how many people are still using the old models and plan to buy the new one. Several commented on the reliability of the product. With nearly three years in the marketplace, less than 2% of all the AutoStrobe tuners have been returned for service. It takes the company usually one to two days to get a unit repaired and back out the door.

So folks, it appears that we have a new player on the field. I predict that this tuner is going to be very popular as the word spreads that our old friend Peterson is offering these new tuners. We will have those dedicated to their own brand as it should be, but I find it nice to have options. So you can see why-after saving around $1000 compared to other tuners while enjoying unsurpassed speed, accuracy, ease of use, and reliability-I call the Peterson AutoStrobe 490-ST Tuner "my buddy".

Bill Prindle is a member of the Kansas City, MO Chapter of Piano Technicians.


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