by Jon Chappell
I use a lot of clip-on tuners because a large percentage of my music activities involve acoustic instruments: guitar, mandolin, and banjo mostly, but ukulele (more and more) and Dobro. Clip-ons are ideally suited for acoustic instruments (and the musicians who play them), and are much easier to transfer among instruments than the type of tuner that sits inline with your signal chain, in and amongst your other effects pedals. Even if you plug your acoustic in, you might want to consider a clip-on tuner, which gets its acoustic information from the vibrations of your headstock.
The word “snark” is normally thought of in the context of “snarky,” used to mean “catty” or “maliciously gossipy” (think David Spade dishing on Hollywood celebrities). But here it’s used to describe the combined qualities of two more sleeker creatures, the snake and the shark. The devices’ undulating curves are ichthyic, with the tuners’ business end resembling a snake’s head perched on a curved neck.
They’re very attractive, and their anodized brushed surfaces make them even more high-tech looking. Two different Snark Tuners are available, their function differentiated by color (see Fig. 1). The blue Snark (SN-1, $29) is for guitars and basses, and detects the six open strings of the guitar or the four or five open strings of the bass. The red Snark (SN-2, $39) has an extended frequency range and a mic/vibration switch, and is for all instruments (otherwise known as a chromatic tuner). In every physical respect, save the aforementioned color scheme and a mic/vibration switch on the SN-2, the tuners are identical. This makes it easy to jump between the two when you have both types.
Fig. 1. The red Snark (SN-2) is a chromatic tuner (with extended frequency range and a mic/vib switch; the blue Snark (SN-1) is for guitar and bass.
As to function, the Snarks can be adjusted in two places, with full range of motion, not including the placement of the spring-loaded clip on your headstock (its usual location, though it can be affixed to a bridge, in the case of bowed string instruments). As expected, you can calibrate the Snarks (415-466 Hz), but you can also transpose them up to four half steps flat or sharp using the pushbuttons on the tuner head’s edge. There’s a built-in metronome with a tap feature, and power-save and self-test modes. They run on a standard CR2032 3V lithium “button” battery, available at any drug store.
The Snark SN-1 and SN-2 each consists of three parts: a round disk where all the tuner circuitry resides (including the display), a curved arm with ball joints on each end, and a rubber-coated spring-loaded clip with a hinged pad that accommodates any surface shape. Having the intermediary arm to connect the disk to the clamp is inspired, as it allows for unlimited positioning of the tuner’s face in all directions (see Fig. 2). It also serves as an extension to get the tuner part away from the clamp itself, closer to your eye or other advantageous viewing position.
Fig. 2. Looking down on the Snark from above, you see the arm that connects the tuner portion to the clip.
I used both tuners for several weeks on a variety of instruments. They’re not the smallest or lightest tuners I’ve owned, but they are the most readable, owing to the bright “billboard display” (large dots) of the pitch name and the surrounding arc that acts as a flat/sharp meter (± 50 cents). The tuning meter and pitch display are made up of bright LEDs, which are much easier to see on a dark stage than an LCD (a common display technology for many tuners). In fact, when I was within a half step of my desired pitch, I found I didn’t even have to look directly at the tuner. Because the Snark’s meter devotes an entire semicircle—a full 180 degrees—to displaying intonation, and because the colors change (from red to green to yellow) as the intonation goes from flat to sharp, it’s very easy to see your tuning status using just your peripheral vision. This means you don’t have to break eye contact with the audience to tune. Very important for singer/songwriters trying to establish a rapport!
The meters “hold” feature—where it freezes momentarily when it detects a steady pitch—is timed just right, and I never had trouble locking in the center frequency of a string, even in the sometimes troublesome bass range. The display is far and away my favorite feature of the Snark SN-1 and SN-2.
Following close behind the light show in terms of list of faves is the button operation. The On/Off switch is large and easily jabbable with a finger, and it’s the only button on the front of the tuner. The next most important button, the Metronome, is on the edge of the circle, and the lesser-accessed increment/decrement and calibration buttons are on the back (see Fig. 3). It’s just good design to arrange the buttons this way, and you certainly appreciate their layout when you’re working with these tuners on the job and need to make quick, intuitive moves.
Fig. 3. The Snark has buttons on the front, side, and back, well-assigned, according to function.
All tuners can be calibrated, but having a transpose feature on a tuner that costs less than 30 and 40 bucks, respectively, is pretty cool. Guitarists would use a transposing tuner in a couple of ways, but the most obvious one is when you’re playing with a capo. If you’re capoed on the third fret, the actual sounding pitches of your open strings are (low to high) G, C, F, Bb, D, G. But no one thinks like that when they’re playing cowboy chords with a capo. So if you use the transpose key and flatten the pitches three half steps (three taps of the “b” key), your tuner reads E, A, D, G, B, and E even though your strings are sounding a minor third higher.
The Snark’s metronome is a visual-only one, because it doesn’t produce an audible click. When you tap the Metronome switch on the side a heart-shaped icon starts flashing (a “beating heart”—get it?) at the default tempo of 100 bpm. You use the up/down arrows to change the tempo in 1 bpm increments. Or you can press the Metronome switch again, and you engage tap tempo mode, which averages your last two taps. With a target tempo of 120 bpm, I found I could get there in about three or four taps. Not bad.
Similar to the evolution of digital wristwatches, where accuracy is pretty much a given, many electronic tuners can give you precise tuning at a very low cost. What matters beyond that is the design, ergonomics, and feature set. On all three fronts the Snarks score highest marks. Aesthetically, when they’re just sitting there not doing anything, they look very smart, and even David Spade could find nothing snarky to say about the Snark SN-1 and SN-2 tuners. But it’s their versatile positioning capabilities, transposing, calibration, and metronomic functions, plus the brilliant and visually superior display, that make the Snarks my go-to clip-on tuners for all my acoustic instrument needs.
Snark SN-1/SN-2 Features:
Jon Chappell is a guitarist and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).