Tin Whistle Retuning




I've recently taken up playing the whistle again after playing mostly flute for the last 40 years.  No problem with supply - plenty of whistles in the cupboard stretching back to the early 1970's!  Surely they won't have "gone off"?  No visible sign of a use-by date....

Having interrogated the contents of the cupboard, I settled on one of these as having the tone I prefer.  Having a relatively large bore (13.6mm) gives a nice amount of body in the low octave, but without making the second octave too harsh.

The instrument has long since lost its label, but I feel it was probably a Soodlums, or a Waltons, which were perhaps the same thing anyway.  Puzzled by the two black buttons attached to the body?  See: Tin Whistle Buttons

But as I settled in to playing, I felt all was not right.  The D scale sounded strangely compressed, and then there was a large jump from C# to the next D.  Tunes that ran down to the low D at the end were particularly unsatisfying, as the low D wasn't as low as I'd have liked.

Now, you have to remember I'm a flute maker/researcher, so I have come across a few weird scales before.  And this is a cheap commercial instrument, rather old, and plainly cylindrical.  Maybe this is as good as it gets?  Or maybe I should just lash out and by a new whistle for the new millenium?  Still, let's have a quick look at it....

I fired up Flutini, the second of my RTTA systems, and it answered the call.  The navy blue trace shows what we were up against.  Woah!

Indeed the upper notes of each octave were so flat they registered not as themselves, but as a somewhat sharp version of the semitone below!  You can see that they fell below -50 cents, top B limping in at about -76 cents - three quarters of the way to Bb!

Just Intonation?

About now you might be reaching for the phone to yell "Just Intonation" at me in person.  Is it possible that the old whistle is tuned for Just Intonation, rather than the almost universally accepted Equal Temperament?  I say "almost universally accepted" as pipers stick with Just Intonation because they have a drone they must harmonise with, where the rest of us are probably more likely trying to blend in with other Equally Tempered instruments.

So let's investigate.  The thin brown line on our graph shows how many cents deviation Just Intonation in the key of D would require.  Forget that for an explanation - it would be harder to play my poor whistle in Just Intonation than it would be in Equal Temperament!  We have to face facts - this is just a bad-tempered whistle.

The Fife Stages of Grief

My emotions quickly traversed what we refer to technically as the fife stages of grief:

  • Denial.  Surely this can't be happening?  This is a popular, commercially-available mass-produced item.  Surely they got it right before making millions of them?  But my other tuners, hardware and software, confirmed what Flutini had found. What the tuner was telling me was exactly what I had heard.  And a second example of the whistle exhibited exactly the same results.  Time to move on from denial.

  • Anger.  Why on earth did they leave it like that?  And who can I poke with the sharp end of a whistle?

  • Bargaining.  Hmmm, not much scope for taking it back to the shop.  The shop is in Ireland, I'm in Australia, and it was probably forty years ago.

  • Depression.  I really liked the tone of that whistle.  And now it's gone from me.  Sob!

  • Acceptance.  Stop whinging.  You've got a drill haven't you?

Always look on the bright side of life....

The good thing about this situation is that:

  1. there isn't a lot at stake - a 40-year-old tin whistle doesn't owe me very much.

  2. You can hardly make it worse.

Looking at the instrument, it's certainly clear that the holes are pretty small, especially given its relatively large bore.  So, I kicked off assuming that the bottom D was to be my reference, and I'd try to bring all the other notes up to that pitch, or at least closer to that pitch.

I encountered no problems actually enlarging the holes, but then again, I have a mill with a three jaw chuck to hold the work.  Doing the same on the kitchen table with a battery-operated hand-drill might have its moments.  If you do this at home, have someone standing by to catch the fingers.

I increased the size of the holes in 0.5mm increments, withdrawing the instrument from time to time for testing against my bench tuner.  When I thought I was getting somewhere, I ran it on Flutini again, to take advantage of all the benefits RTTA brings.  The red trace showed great improvement, but also that there were still improvements to make.  A few more enlargements lead to the mustard-coloured trace.  As usual the Law-of-Diminishing-Returns was kicking in.  A 0.5mm increase in a 5mm hole produces a much bigger change than in a 7mm hole. 

I still felt that the low D in particular was too sharp, so at that stage I abandoned the notion of just trying to bring the other notes up to it.  I was very conscious of a limitation in increasing the size of hole R2.  I could imagine a situation where the hole would extend too far around each side of the tube, not letting me cover it reliably.  So far no problem, but if I went too far there, it would be hard to recover from.  And by now this was no cheap outdated commercial whistle, this was a much-loved custom-modified flageolet!

So, I decided to flatten the Low D a bit, which I did at first with a small blob of poster putty, replacing that with a blob of soft solder once the principle had been proven.  Having done that, a few last enlargements led us to the Green trace.  I've copied the graph down for your convenience....


Essentially, we've pulled the Low D into the middle of the range, and closer to its neighbours, and sharpened low B a little to pull high B up.

What does it all mean?

Let's analyse the improvements at the various stages:
Deviations ref. Low D Original Red Mustard Green
Sharpest deviation -4 3 5 13
Flattest deviation -76 -27 -18 -14
Range of deviations -72 -30 -23 -27
Median deviation -34 -13 -10 -4
Average deviation -36.3 -12.5 -7.5 -3.2

As you can see from the table above, the Green trace actually has a wider gap between the sharpest and flattest notes than the Mustard trace, but they are better balanced around our reference.  So the Median or Average deviations are much smaller, and that's probably what counts in general, providing there are no stand-out really-bad notes.  Given that our worst notes are now better than the best notes on the original were, I think we can relax.

Changes so far

Here's a summary of the physical changes:

Hole Originally Green trace Increase in area
L1 5.47 6.5 40%
L2 6.14 8 70%
L3 5.91 7.5 62%
R1 6.15 6.15 0%
R2 7 9.5 84%
R3 7 8 30%
End Fully open Solder blob inside end -15%?

Wow, hole area increases of up to 84%.  They didn't get that anywhere near right!


We've made some very worthwhile improvements!  A tip-to-toe deviation of 72 cents has been reduced to around 27 cents (2.7 times better), but perhaps more importantly, the average deviation is now 3.2 cents rather than 36.3 cents, 11 times better!  That's gotta help!

Subjectively, the whistle is now much nicer to play (it's handy to have her sister instrument available to compare it to).  Gone is the sense of scale compression - the second octave soars rather than limps.  And a run down to low D doesn't leave you treading water.

One danger of increasing L1 this much is that the oxx ooo C natural gets too sharp.  You can improve this by playing long C natural notes as oxx xox.  While this fingering might look complex, it's actually only one finger off middle D.

I don't rule out tweaking it some more, although we're starting to see the limitation that is innate to cylindrical instruments - the second octave always tends a bit flat, particularly at the top of the tube.  Any further tweaking would probably need to address that question, and we'd be getting into the Grandfather's Axe paradox - three new handles and two new heads, so is it still Grandfather's axe?

So, I think that's probably it for now.  And maybe I should still go out and buy a really nice whistle?  Or even make one?

Try this at home?

And although I warned you about trying this at home, there's no reason you shouldn't, providing you take sensible care.  Make sure to secure your whistle while drilling, and remember your drill will try to screw itself into the hole rather than drill out the hole.  Hands make very poor vices, so use a vice or some other hands-free way to hold the whistle in place.  Rather than drilling out the holes, you might prefer to file them larger, or use a Dremel type tool to enlarge them.  Whatever you do, proceed with caution - you need all your fingers to play!

And of course, don't assume your whistle needs retuning.  It is quite likely that Soodlums revisited their tuning more than once, so yours might be quite different to mine.  Download Flutini (totally free!) and use it to check whether your instrument needs any work first.  And if it does, some of the above will probably guide you.

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Created 21 January 2015, revised 28 July 2015