Learn How to Read a Metal Detector

by Michael Bernzweig

In search of a new hobby, you may want to consider metal detecting. Treasure hunting can be a fun and rewarding hobby, but it is important to know how to read a metal detector properly to maximize your chances of finding treasure. In the beginning, learning to interpret all of the unique sounds and subtleties that you will be experiencing as you begin to metal detect can be a difficult task. The process is similar to learning a new language if you think about it that way. The more you become proficient in the language of metal detecting, the more likely it is that you will begin to see the results in the field as you begin to uncover more treasures. 

There are four main readings to know on a metal detector: the tone, the VDI, target ID, and the depth. These readings will help you to determine what kind of metallic object is buried beneath the surface.

Reading a metal detector correctly can be the difference between finding a valuable object and coming up empty-handed. To make the process of reading metal detectors even simpler, here is a quick guide. Joining a metal detecting club is another great way to compare your skills with others. By sharing tips, you will quickly learn how to read a metal detector and possibly even make some new friends along the way!

How To Read Your Metal Detector

Reading your metal detector can initially seem intimidating, but following a few simple tips and tricks can make all the difference. Let's look at how to read your detector from the beginning.

  1. Turn it on: Simple enough.
  2. Select the settings: Read the manual of your specific metal detector to figure out what setting options are available. The all-metal option is usually an excellent place to start.
  3. Search with your detector: This is sometimes the most challenging stage, so be patient. For those who are familiar with this pastime, the popular adage is "low and slow." Keep your coil as low to the ground as possible. Sweep your coil slowly and listen for the subtle sounds as you move your coil back and forth over the ground.

When you find a gold or metal object, depending on the type of detecting, you'll need to read your metal detector. Here are the readings you'll need to pay attention to.

PI detectors or Pulse induction metal detectors are often used in areas with a lot of iron in the ground. These detectors emit short pulses of electricity that pass through the ground and are reflected back to the receiver. It is determined by the time it takes for the pulse to be reflected back and what type of metal is present.

VLF metal detectors or very low-frequency detectors are the most common type of metal detector. A VLF detector works by creating an electromagnetic field that extends from the coil in the detector to the ground. When metal is present, it disrupts this field and creates a signal that is sent to the receiver. The detector sends out a low-frequency signal that is then returned to the receiver. Depending on how long it takes for the signal to be returned, one can determine what type of metal is present.

A successful recovery depends on understanding and interpreting the subtle differences in sounds, chirps, and pops that come from your headphones as you begin metal detecting. Taking the time to learn your equipment, the detection modes, and the individual areas below will help you to get the most out of your time in the field. To learn how to read your metal detector, we recommend that you explore our metal detecting tips in this article.

Metal Detector Tone

A metal detector will make a sound as soon as the magnetic field of the coil covers a conductive target. Its tone will differ depending on the manufacturer and the model of the detector. You should not be stressed about that since you will naturally get used to the different tones!

A good approach to begin is testing different metal objects before going into the field. Coins make a sturdy and distinct sound that is difficult to overlook. It will start up and shut down suddenly, then speedily go from silent to full volume, and then back to silent as you move away from that location. This should occur each time you sweep the search coils.

When the coil moves away, the sound response gets quieter. Some models also change the pitch of the tone in response to the target, so as you get closer to or farther from the target, volume and pitch both increase.

If you are paying attention to the sound and its corresponding location, you can use this to your advantage. If you hear a high-pitched tone, it likely means that the target is close to the surface. A lower-pitch tone means that it is buried deeper in the ground.

Some models also come with an automatic ground balance function. This is where the machine will automatically adjust to the ground conditions.

This is beneficial because it provides more stability and eliminates false signals that are common in areas with high ground mineralization. When metal detecting in these areas, you might hear a lot of chatter or noises coming from your metal detector.


Another method to quickly identify your target is through the VDI (Visual Display Indicator) scale! The VDI scale varies by manufacturer and model. It is generally a range of numbers that goes from 0-99 or 00-99.

The VDI scale is important because it gives you an idea of what kind of target you have found before you begin digging. Each number on the VDI scale corresponds to a certain type of metal. As the number increases, the more conductive the metal will be.

For example, a VDI of 40-45 generally means you've found an aluminum can. A VDI of 60-70 is a pull tab from a soda can. 80-85 is usually a nail, and 95+ is usually a coin.

The VDI will also help you determine the depth of your target. The general rule is that if the VDI number is high, the target is deep. If the VDI number is low, the target is shallow.

Depth Detection

The detection depth is only an estimate, although it is still beneficial to inform you how deep you will dig so that you don't dig too much! The sensitivity settings have an impact as well. Even smaller objects can be discovered far away if the sensitivity is correctly set.

Settings on your metal detector include:

  • Discrimination: This setting will help you filter out certain types of metals. For example, if you only look for coins, you can set the discrimination to filter out everything else.
  • Ground balance: The ground balancing setting helps to cancel out false signals that are common in mineralized soils.
  • Sensitivity: The sensitivity setting will determine how deep your metal detector can detect deep targets. The higher the setting, the deeper it can go.

You should experiment with these settings and features to find the best metal detector for you and the area you are detecting in. Once you have started detecting with the right metal detector, and learn to understand what it is telling you, things will start to fall into place, and your finds will increase.

Some metal detector models go above and beyond regarding settings and their capabilities. For example, Garret Ace Metal Detectors are a popular brand of metal detectors. Several models are available, each with its own features. Charles Garrett, the founder of Garrett Ace Metal Detectors, was a well-known figure in the metal detecting community.

The Garrett Pro-Pointer is a metal detector manufactured by Garrett that can detect objects underwater up to a depth of twenty feet. I've never gone deeper than four feet while using it underwater. When looking for your find in wet sand and mud plugs, it's a great time saver.

Target ID

You will likely see numbers and or bars lighting up on the LCD display on the detector when you look at it. The Target Identification indicator is what tells you which sort of metal is being detected. The target Identification usually has an iron section, a gold range, and a silver range.

The target ID is important because it can help you determine whether or not what you're about to dig up is worth the effort. If you're only gold prospecting, then you can ignore anything that doesn't register in the gold range.

Metal detectors are frequently used by coin collectors, who practice a form of activity known as "coin shooting." When searching for buried treasure like coins, it is helpful to understand the different types of metals that will set off your detector. In general, there are two main categories:

  • Ferrous metals contain iron and will register on the iron range of the target ID. This includes aluminum foil, most keys, and pull tabs from soda cans.
  • Metals that are non-ferrous are not attracted to magnets and will register on the gold or silver range of the target ID as well. This includes most buried metals like coins, some jewelry, and some relics.

Some metals aren't as easily detected by metal detectors, like stainless steel and aluminum foil. This is because the magnetic properties of stainless steel can make it difficult for detectors to pick up on.

Good Target Sounds as Compared to Junk Target Sounds

It is very important to learn the sound a good target makes as soon as possible. Coins, for example, can usually be identified by the solid, distinctive sound they produce. There will be a distinct audio starting point and ending point for these good targets. As you approach the end of the target signal, the audio goes from silent to full audio, then stops. If you repeat your scan and check your signal from multiple angles, the indications on your meter will provide nearly identical readings. Learning about the sounds your metal detector makes is part of learning how it works.

It is common for junk targets, such as foil and screw caps, to produce a scratchy and irregular sound. As a result of their lower conductivity and irregular nature, foil and other junk have a lower conductivity. When you scan the signal in one direction, you may see a solid signal. The sound becomes choppy when you approach the signal from another direction. By learning this rhythm, you gain a deeper understanding of both the art and science of metal detection. It indicates that the item is unevenly shaped. If you scan the item again from a different direction, you might notice the target identification numbers have changed. An effective target signal has repeatable sounds from all directions and stable target identification numbers. You will become more proficient at the hobby as you gain more experience with different signals.

How to Pinpoint a Target

Metal detecting requires a bit more art than digging a giant hole. Before you start digging, you need to narrow down the area where your signal is located.

The pinpointing process involves precisely locating your target in the smallest possible area by using a handheld pinpointer or the built-in pinpoint mode on your metal detector.

You can learn the exact location of potential finds by listening to the precise audio sound of your target. As your coil gets closer to the target, the audio tone will become louder. The audio response will be quieter as your coil moves away from the metal. PInpointing is important for locating coins and other items like property markers and more.

You can use these methods to zero in on your target before digging if you're pinpointing with your detector's pinpoint mode. Some models like the Nokta Makro Legend and the Garrett Ace 400 include a built-in pinpoint mode. Other models like the older Bounty Hunter Tracker Iv do not. To find the target quickly, move your search coil in the shape of a + sign. To get the strongest audio signal, move your search head horizontally from side to side. In the next step, you should change directions and move your coil perpendicularly. If the sound gets stronger, you are moving closer to the target; if it gets weaker, you are moving further away. The X marks the spot method is another method that can be used. In the beginning, when you find your target signal, you should begin pinpointing the target in an X pattern until you hear the strongest signal. If you mark this spot in your mind, then move your coil in a full 90 degrees and start sweeping your coil again once you have moved your coil a full 90 degrees. In this X-shaped pattern, your target will be in the center.

Tips for Reading Your Metal Detector

Metal Detecting Tip for Reading Gold

Listen for solid repeatable signals. Get the best digging tools to help you find gold. To remove gold from the earth, you'll need a gold pick and plastic scoop. Use your detector's search coil to identify the gold. A concentric coil is the best for pinpointing. To separate the gold from the dirt, use a magnetized pan. Gold can also be collected using a magnetized bucket. Once you've located the gold, you can dig it out with a shovel. For smoothing out the ground after digging, use a small hand trowel. Once you sweep your detector over the recovered gold, you will hear that solid repeatable signal.

Metal Detecting Tip for Reading Silver

Listen for the sound and target id of silver. Typically silver will be in a lower conductivity range. A large shade tree often has a spill of silver coins or a small purse of coins. Start your search near the largest shade tree in parks and other grassy areas. The old trees have been a favorite picnic spot for many picnickers over the years. It is also common for people to bury their valuables under them as well. A metal detector can locate the location of these silver treasures.

Metal Detecting Tip for Coin Reading Shooting

The process of finding coins requires research. Learning to read the sounds of coins on your metal detector is a worthwhile endeavor. Visit your local library or town hall. An extensive collection of historical maps, guides, and directories can be found in this collection. There are many historical sites that no longer attract visitors or are no longer accessible to the general public. Away from the normal routes that people take, you'll often find the most productive sites. You will know you have learned the sound of coins when you hear solid repeatable sounds on your metal detector.

Metal Detecting Tips for Reading Jewelry

Listen for high conductivity signals that you will clearly see on your detector's meter. One of the best and most under-hunted sites to find exceptional finds in public pools. You should look for old pools that are surrounded by grass. The grassy areas surrounding these pools make it easy to find jewelry. It can be quite rewarding to find one of these pools that is no longer in use. Use old newspaper stories and maps to aid your search. As opposed to the broken and scratchy signals of junk and trash that are easily heard, gold's repeatable sound is one you can easily hear. 

Metal Detecting Tips for Reading Relics

When it comes to metal detectors, relics are tricky to find. Lower conductivity metals can often be mistaken for trash because of their low conductivity. You can find them by listening for broader signals, such as bullets, buckles, or buttons. Search for early settlements to find relics. Old stone walls or foundations may be visible in the woods. Relics can be found here. Depressions in the ground, springs, old wells, and trash pits may contain ancient aquifers. Low-lying roads and trails, stone walls, and rivers are also great hunting spots. Once you have located a few relics in the area, it is easy to look for the same patterns as you are learning to read your metal detector.

Frequently Asked Questions

These are some frequently asked questions about readings and settings on different types of metal detectors.

How Do I Read a Metal Detector Disc Tone?

It is the disc tone on a metal detector that is used to identify the type of metal that has been detected by the detector. The sound or tone that is produced by each metal when it is detected will be different from that of another metal. Moreover, you can verify the information you are receiving by checking the visual display on the detector at the same time that you can hear the audio tones. 

Disc tones are the sounds that your metal detector makes when it comes in contact with different types of metal. There are different tones for different metals. For example, coins will produce a high-pitched tone, while nails will produce a low-pitched tone.

You can determine what kind of target you have found based on the tone it produces by using the VDI scale. A full range of audio and video identifications correspond with the specific conductivity of the metal you are searching for. Conductivity varies from metal to metal on the periodic table. Despite their close proximity or overlap, such as nickel and gold, each has its own unique characteristics.

How Do I Read Gold on a Gold Metal Detector?

Gold nuggets produce a different tone than other metals so that they can be easily identified on a high-frequency gold detector. The VDI scale can also help you determine if the metal you have found is gold. Gold is a very conductive precious metal, so it usually produces a high VDI number on the scale. If you are metal detecting hidden treasure with a high frequency model, you will have the best chance of locating gold. Keep in mind that some metals like nickel and foil can overlap with gold, so when in doubt, dig it up. To find all of the gold, you might need to dig a bit more junk, but you will be rewarded for your efforts.

Metal detectorists can read gold on a gold metal detector because gold produces a higher-pitched tone than other metals, making it easy to identify. Gold is a very conductive metal, so it usually produces a high VDI number on the scale.

How to Read a Metal Detector to Know How Deep It Is

The depth of your target will depend on the depth indication on your detector's display. The audio intensity of the target also plays a role. Deeper targets have a weaker audio response. Targets closer to the surface have a louder audio response.  It is important to remember that the main factors of metal detecting that affect a metal detector's detection depth are the target, its coil size, its settings, the frequency, and the ground conditions on which it is being used. There is no doubt that the size of the coil is one of the most critical factors, with larger coils providing a greater depth overall. You can also use the sensitivity settings on your metal detector to enhance how deep it can detect targets on your next treasure hunt. The higher the setting, the deeper it can go.

Your metal detector's settings and readings can tell you a lot about the target you have found. The depth, type of metal, and conductivity can all be determined by these two things. You will need to experiment with the settings to find out what works best for you and the area you are detecting. As a treasure hunter, you will become adept with the hobby once you learn how to read a metal detector.

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