There are a number of things which people call tuners:
  • The musical kind:

    Well, actually, there are two musical kinds. Most non-string players think of a tuner as a device which, by design, produces a given pitch (or set of pitches) regardless of maintenance, environmental factors, or adjustment. These are the tuning forks, pitch pipes, and small electronic beepers you may have seen (heard) used by your local piano maintenance person or a cappella group.

    To string players, a tuner is a synonym for tuning peg -- the device they rotate to adjust the length (and thus, the tension) of the strings on their violin, guitar, mandolin, cello, bass (either kind) or banjo.

    In addition, a tuner could just be the guy who uses any of the above tools so you don't have to.

  • The electronics kind:

    A tuner is a function which operates generally in the frequency domain (as opposed to the time domain, even though both are related by a simple transformation). It applies a filter (for FM (aka frequency modulated) signals, we use a comb filter in the time domain which is the same thing as a band pass in the frequency domain -- don't worry, it makes sense after a few years of differential equations and signal theory) to an incoming modulated signal. Miraculously, a data signal which was modulated originally with a frequency identical to the one you are "tuned" to spurts out. This signal can then be used to, for example, power an audio amplifying circuit or itself modulate the intensity of an electron beam being flung between harmonically-related vertical and horizontal electromagnetic field generators.

    To the layperson (e.g. you), the tuner is either the worn-down knob on the front of your car radio or the device you push buttons on while aiming at your television set. In actuality, this is just a method of indicating some modicum of interest to the actual tuner, which lies hidden inside your consumer product. To the slightly-less-layed person who is a conneseiur of fancy electronic devices like big-screen TVs, a tuner is something you brag about your TV set having two of so your picture-in-picture feature can display two separate programs -- or your satellite-connected TiVo can record two simultaneous movies.

And now, a story:

Dave was living in a nice apartment in New York City. He had little appreciation for music, but his dad loved the piano. When Dave was little, his father made him take piano lessons and stuff, but Dave never really enjoyed it. He preferred playing baseball and riding bikes. Three weeks before Dave's thirty-second birthday, his dad died suddenly of a stroke. Dave was sad, but he and his father hadn't been in the best of contact for the previous decade.

About two weeks after the funeral, Dave got a phone call from his father's lawyer. It turned out that Dave's dad had left most of his estate to Dave's siblings, and the only thing Dave received was his father's most prized piano. Dave felt obligated to keep it, so he asked the lawyer to arrange for delivery.

A few days later, some piano movers showed up and assembled the piano in Dave's living room. As they left, Dave sat down at the piano and started poking keys. Even with his untrained ear, he knew the piano was horribly out of tune. He checked the phone book for piano tuners and started down the list, alphabetically, calling them.

"Hi, I have a piano I'd like tuned..." He'd say.

"What brand is it? Baldwin, Steinway, something else?" They would ask.

"Well, it says 'Oppernauckity' on the front..."

"Sorry, we can't help you." (CLICK)

After six or seven conversations like this, Dave began to think something was awry. He continued calling the tuners until one finally said:

"Listen, man, I can't help you. But I have this friend who does these things on the side. Give me your address and I'll send him over. Whatever you do, don't ask him any questions and do whatever he tells you to do."

Dave, skeptical at this point, agreed. Two hours later, an old man was knocking on Dave's door. He let the man in.

"Where's the piano?" The man asked.

"Over here in my living room." Dave replied. The man took off for the living room and began tapping the piano on various surfaces and looking underneath it.


The man wiped off a brass plate with his fingers. He put on a pair of wire glasses and read something off it.

"This is the serial number," he said as he wrote the number down on a scrap of paper from his pocket. "I'll be back tomorrow."

And with that, the man left.

Dave was baffled at this point. He had a piano he had never heard of, and no one would help him tune it. When he went to bed that night, he tossed and turned for hours worrying about this bequeathment from his father.

The next day at 9:00 AM, the old man returned. He greeted Dave and said, "I have good news and bad news. I will be able to tune your piano. In fact, I may be one of only three people in the world who can tune it. However, it will cost you one hundred thousand dollars. Non-negotiable, up front. Before you refuse, let me tell you that it will be worth every penny."

Dave stood there, shocked. On one hand, he knew he couldn't afford that much money -- he'd have to cash out his IRA and sell the Internet stock he'd he'd been holding on to -- but on the other hand, he knew this piano meant a lot to his father. The only way he would be able to achieve closure would be to have this piano in working condition.

"Do it," Dave said. "I'll get you a check tomorrow."

"Very well then," the old man said. "I'll be back."

That afternoon, Dave called his accountant and arranged for the money to be moved around. He also took his car to a dealer and traded it in for less than he expected. In the end, he managed to barely get the $100,000 into his checking account.

When the old man returned the next morning, he was carrying a heavy-looking leather briefcase. Dave gave him a check, and the man set to work. He left explicit instructions: he was not to be disturbed, Dave was not to ask any questions, and the room must be completely sealed until he was finished. The old man hung a plastic drop cloth in front of each of the entrances to the living room and Dave sat in the kitchen wondering what was going on.

For the next fifteen hours, he heard disturbing shrieks, scraping of metal on metal and a variety of grinding noises. At several points, he was sure he smelled things burning. There was even a moment when a bright green flash spilled out of the living room. Dave was in a near-panic when the old man finally emerged.

"It's done. I'll clean up and get out of here," the man said. And he did.

Dave continued to sit in the kitchen after the man left and wondered what had happened. He tried to rationalize the money he had just spent, and couldn't quite imagine how it could be worth it.

So Dave went into the living room and sat down at the piano. It looked pristine -- the old man had even cleaned it before leaving. Dave couldn't remember ever seeing this piano in his father's collection, but it had an air of magnificence now that it was in prime condition. He flipped up the cover from the keys and placed his hands on them. The only song he knew was "Claire de Lune" and some song about a hen. He tried to remember how the notes started, and pressed a couple keys.

Suddenly, his hands took off on their own. He was playing a sonata by Schubert that he had never even heard. Dave leaned into the keys and felt the music move through him. He played for three hours before taking his hands away and realizing there was something magical about this piano.

He went to bed that night and slept soundly for the first time since his father's death. Dave was elated that his father had left him such a wonderful creation and he knew this would help him remember his dad forever.

A few days later, Dave invited a friend over to hear him play. Dave's friend was impressed. More than being impressed, he was intrigued at the marketing opportunities for such an arrangement. This friend happened to be an entrepreneur and knew the two of them could make a buck or two off this gimmick.

Dave's friend arranged for fancy-schmancy art gallery premiere after-parties to be held at Dave's apartment. The friend would host while Dave played concertos. They charged out the wazoo and New York's cultural elite poured money into their venture for months. Roughly half a million dollars of profit in less than a year, they knew they were on to something.

Dave suggested they move their enterprise to a more accessible location, so they could host more people and make more money. Dave's friend agreed and purchased a small unprofitable club a few blocks away. Together they designed the new layout and had the piano moved.

A few days before opening night, Dave sat at the piano and started to play. Not only had his talents disappeared, but the piano sounded horrible. He was in a panic, because he had never explained his secret to his friend. They had invested a lot of their (and other peoples') money into this venture, and he knew if he couldn't play the piano they would be in serious trouble.

Dave ransacked his apartment trying to find the business card from the old man. He finally found it and explained the emergency. He begged the man to come look at the piano.

The next morning, the man showed up at the club. Dave had already made arrangements for another hundred thousand dollars and was ready to give the old man another check.

The man looked at the piano, found the serial number plate and compared it to a small notebook he carried in his leather bag.

He looked back at Dave and said, "I'm sorry, sir, I can't help you."

"What?! You fixed it before, why can't you do anything now?" Dave blubbered.

The old man shook his head and said, "I'm sorry, but an Oppernauckity only tunes once."