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Electronic tuning meters

Posted by erstokke on Sunday, August 26, 2007

Since I bought my first Korg tuning meter around 1980 I have never looked back. Electronic tuners is the only way to go. You may argue that it is better to learn to tune by ear. It is not. Really. The reason for this, is that all modern instruments are well tempered. That means that the instruments are not 100% in tune at any key, but close enough for every key. When you tune by ear, you will usually tune your instrument to a perfect G-chord, but the C and D chords sound out of tune. Look up Well temperament in Wikipedia if you want to learn more about this.

Clip-on tuner
You need a small tuner to have in your instrument case to bring along all the time. Clip-on tuners has a piezo sensor in the clip which makes it useful in noisy environments (eg. when everyone else is tuning at the same time).

I have tried a lot of them. They all have a backlit display. They are all inexpensive. Some of them has a built in microphone as well as the clip. I always use the clip. Here is my verdict:

Update #1: The new king of clip on tuners is the Peterson Stroboclip. Extremely precise. My banjo suddenly sounds even better. The strobo-display takes some time getting used to.

Update: Bad news: The rotating piece of the clip broke. This seems to have been a common problem on the first batch. Good news: Peterson customer service is great, they sent me a new tuner.

1st place and gold medal (update: 2nd place) is the Korg AW-2G. It is small, precise and quick. The clip itself is very versatile because it has two ball-end joints. The downside is that there are many buttons on the back, and the on/off-button is no different that all the others. But you will quickly learn which button to press. It can be mounted on the flange of a resonator banjo. If you like to clip it on to the back side of the peghead, the Korg’s scale can be reversed, so you still have flat to the left and sharp to the right. The readout is very quick, and if the tone swings, the needle will swing as well. 

Update: A drawback on the Korg is that the clip does not grip firmly.

2nd place (update 3rd place): Sabine Zoid z-1000. Very close to the Korg. It is large - maybe a bit larger than the good old Intelli - and the clip itself is not as flexible as the Korg. The Zoid computes out small variations in tone, making the readout very steady. Which you may like or dislike. My guitar playing friends seem to like the stable readout. The display changes from amber to green when you are in pitch - a nice feature. The change from amber to green is very precise, so if it is green, it is really in tune. The on/off button is unfortunately also the switch between the clip and the mic - which makes it easy to change unintentionally. One special feature is the flat button - which I see no reason to use - ever. I could mount the clip in the flange, but there was no readout. It has to be clipped on the peghead.

3rd place - bronze medal (update 4th place)is the good old Intelli 500. It works OK. It has two drawbacks. One is that the buttons rattle. The other is that it is quite slow compared to the newer ones. One great thing about this one, is that you can place it the banjo head and readout the head tuning.

Jumbo place goes to Planet Waves headstock tuner. The design itself is very nice and small. The clip is on the tuner itself, making it very low profile on the headstock. The upper side of the headstock is the only place you can put it. Operation is simple with one large on/off button. The display turns green when in tune. Or at least it should. Because here is the MAJOR drawback: It is not in tune even when it turns green! I suspect the + - area for the green light to be too broad.

Update on the Planet Waves: The clip broke, leaving the tuner completely useless. D’Addario says they had a problem with the first batch, so newer ones may be better. They said they would send me a replacement - it never did arrive. Now I have converted it to an onboard tuner.

Update: New kid on the block: Snark. I have the red Snark and it is very good - and inexpensive. They even have a budget model in black with less buttons - which is a good thing because you do not want to accidentally put the tuner into anything else than A440Hz.

Advanced tuners
There are more advanced and expensive tuners, like the high end Korg and strobotuners. These make it easy to fine-tune your instrument, and also check intonation (bridge placement) etc. While the Intelli shows 5 cents increments, the advanced tuners show down to 1 cent.

Computer tuners
There are a few online tuners. They usually dont give any response to your tuning, they just give a audible note. As useful as an old pitch pipe or tuning fork. But there are downloadable tuners that work fine. Some of them are shareware, where you are expected to pay a small fee. If you dont pay, you will get a nag screen or the tuner stops working at regular intervals.
If you (like myself) are on a Macintosh computer, you may download the excellent "Tuna Pitch" widget. You can find it here:

The best tuner I have found is part of Logic or Logic Express software for Mac. It is so fast that it shows all the notes in a banjo roll (but you wont be able to read that fast). And it is precise down to 1 cent (one hundred of a half note).

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