Have you ever attended a guitar
seminar and need to tune up or change tunings at the same time all the other
20 guitarists in the room are doing the same thing? Or have you been
on stage with a mic'd acoustic and struggled to quickly
change tunings between songs? These age-old problems are common not
just to acoustic guitar players, but for any player of an acoustic
instrument. Today, creative new technology exists to finally provide a
solution to these problems.
When I started playing guitar 30 years ago, one of the first accessories I went searching for was something to help me get my guitar in tune. As my skills and ear developed, I eventually found I didn't need the tuner to the tune the guitar, but even today these are still invaluable in making sure the guitar is at the correct initial pitch. Back then my choices were the age- old pitch pipe and tuning fork. But times sure have changed. The first improvement in tuning technology came with the low cost electronic tuners that contained microphones and/or electronic inputs that sense the signal of on-board pickups. These workhorses still have a place in the tuner food-chain today, but are of little use if you're an acoustic instrument player that isn't plugged in, or are in a situation where there is a lot of ambient noise being picked up by the microphone.
New technology and some creative engineering has given us new tuners that redefine the state of the art and solve many of the problems unique to acoustic instrument players. This new technology is called "contact tuners". These are tuners that attach directly to your guitar and can sense the vibration of the instrument body to measure the frequency of the notes; something that would have been considered science fiction 30 years ago.
This review will talk about the two tuners on the market of this type: OnBoard Research's Intellitouch PT1 & PT2 Tuners and the Sabine AX-3000 Tuner.
The most versatile type of tuner are known as chromatic tuners. Both of the tuners in this review are of this type. A chromatic tuner is one that senses frequencies in half steps over its frequency range. In other words they can tune to any possible note in their range. Chromatic tuners are far more practical in general, but of particular importance to guitarists who use a variety of tunings or acoustic instruments with a different number of strings (i.e. like 7-strings or mandolins). For example, the Intellitouch PT1 & PT2 tuners specify a 7 octave frequency range (Sabine doesn't specify a range).
In general though, even though the Intellitouch PT1 & PT2 tuners can sense "frequencies" over a very wide range, I do notice that they seem to have more difficulty "locking in" on the lower frequency vibrations. My guess is that the super low bass notes create more harmonic vibrations that tend to confuse the tuner. Plus the rate of vibration is so low that it takes quite a while for the algorithms to sample enough of the signal to make a decision. I often find myself just tuning the bass strings by ear rather than wait for the tuner to finalize a reading. How well these tuners do on bass notes depends a lot on the vibration characteristics of the instrument and the placement of the tuner. I notice for example that the Sabine tuner mounted to the top can capture the bass notes faster and more effectively than the Intellitouch mounted to the headstock.
the heck is A440?
Both tuners come set to the most common setting; tuning to A440. A440 is what is defined as standard pitch. Somebody somewhere decided that "standard pitch" would be defined as the A note in the third octave being set to 440 Hz. What it means to a guitarist is that the 12th fret tone of the 5th string A note is 440 HZ. All other notes are tuned with respect to that pitch in what is known as the "Even Tempered Scale" (something you can delve into if yourself if you're so inclined). This standard is what allows you to tune your guitar and be instantly in-tune with other instruments; as long as they are tuning to the same standard starting point.
But what happens if you want to tune to an "out-of-tune" piano? Both the Sabine AX and the Intellitouch PT1 tuners support a learn mode that can change this reference frequency. The cost optimized PT2 supports a set of common preset references you can choose from.
Aside from the fact that these are all chromatic tuners, all support A440 and some alternatives, and all sense body vibrations to tune, they differ quite a bit from there. They have different mounting mechanisms, control buttons, and different display technologies. Which is right for you depends mostly on what you prefer.
The Intellitouch tuner is a folding, clip-on style tuner that is designed to clip onto the instrument (most likely the headstock of an acoustic guitar), and can be folded back behind the headstock when not needed. The vibration sensors are in the rubber pads of the clip. The Intellitouch PT1 features a backlit LCD display with large, high contrast characters that are extremely easy to read in both bright light and total darkness. The lower-priced PT2 uses the same LCD display, but lacks the backlighting. If you expect to find yourself tuning in low-light situations, the Intellitouch PT1 is the best choice.
The method by which the Intellitouch tuner shows you how sharp of flat you are from the desired note is by using offset arrows to the right and left of the target note. When first striking a string, the display shows neither a note or an arrow. Once it senses a note within range of the string, it will display its best guess and show you arrows on either side to tell you if you are sharp or flat. As you move closer to the target note, the arrows clearly indicate your progress. When a string is exactly on pitch, the display shows 3 arrows to the left and 3 arrows to the right. This scheme is both easy to read and highly intuitive. Even I figured it out within minutes of clipping it on. There are 3 buttons on the Intellitouch but the "power on" button is only one you'll generally ever use. The others are there only if you want to change the base reference from A440.
The thing that I love about these tuners is that they are very easy to read, highly accurate, can be tucked out of the way behind the headstock when not needed, and is completely impervious to any ambient noise. The Intellitouch PT1 comes with a nice leatherette case with a hard lining to protect it from damage.
In general, I had found this tuner to be very accurate and tends to require very little tweaking after use. The one negative I've found is the long time it takes for the tuner to capture and display the lower frequency notes.
The Sabine AX is a very low profile tuner that has rubber sensors on the bottom which use friction force to hold it to the instrument. You might expect that this would be insufficient, but it works surprisingly well. Because it attaches to the top, you have a great deal of flexibility on where to place it. I often place it on the sides, along side the neck. The wood- grain colored model blends in very nicely with a rosewood body such that you can hardly tell it even there.
The Sabine AX uses multi-colored LEDs to display the notes and there is a LED position for all 12 notes. Green indicates "in-tune", yellow indicates "flat" and red indicates "sharp". Plus they use differing flash rates to indicate that you are getting closer to a target note. This approach is very intuitive. The Sabine AX has two low profile buttons; one for power and one to change modes. To conserve power, the unit will automatically turn itself off after a few seconds. I often find this annoying though since it never seems long enough to complete a tuning. It would nice to be able to turn this feature off.
The Sabine AX also includes a hard shell plastic case to protect it when not being used.
In general, I have found that this tuner is a tad less accurate than the Intellitouch . I sometimes find I still need to tweak the strings a bit after it says its in tune. I think the reason is that the tuner indicates "in-tune" over a bit wider range than the Intellitouch. But this tuner does a much better job of capturing the low frequency notes. I'm guessing that sensing body vibrations instead of neck vibrations is the primary reason.
The thing that I love about these tuners is that they are both very easy to read, accurate, are very practical for use during live performances, and are completely impervious to ambient noise or other instruments. In my opinion, for an acoustic guitar player, there is no better choice. If you are in the market for a tuner, you owe it to yourself to consider either the Intellitouch PT1, PT2 Tuners or the Sabine AX.
*items in bold are primary differences between the PT1 & PT2