by Craig Anderton
Two experiences changed my views of tuning guitar (and bass) forever.
The first was doing sound/loop libraries of electric guitar samples. I did the Technoid Guitars double-CD for Steinberg/Wizoo, AdrenaLinn Guitars (distributed by M-Audio), and the Electronic Guitars Rapture expansion pack distributed by Cakewalk. In each case, I spent much more time tuning than playing. Sample libraries have to be perfect pitch-wise, or they're not of much use when you play the loops against a keyboard with crystal-controlled pitch - do a few recordings with extreme whammy bar fun times, and your tuning's toast. Sure, I had a tuner, but going through the six-string shuffle after every take was a hassle and a half.
The second experience was checking out Gibson's Robot Guitar, with the Tronical automatic tuning technology. When it first came out, there were lots of negative comments on the web, which boiled down to "Dude, I know how to tune a guitar." Yes, but the ability to tune multiple strings at the same time (and do close-to-instant alternate tunings) put this into the "pays for itself" category pretty fast. I had the good fortune to end up with Gibson's Dark Fire and Dusk Tiger guitars, both with the Robot tuning feature, and all I can say is there's nothing quite like pulling up on a knob, doing a strum, and bingo - everything's in tune.
Ah, but there's more to life than high-tech self-tuning guitars, like my beloved PRS Signature Series model, 1966 paisley Fender Telecaster, Rickenbacker 12-string, BecVar bass, Line 6 Variax, and Dan Armstrong guitar that Dan Armstrong himself tweaked. And yes, they all need tuning. But fortunately, the tuning process just got a whole lot easier - here's why.
PolyTune is a tuning footpedal about the size of a typical MXR-type stomp box, and it's built like a tank. You could probably cause severe bodily harm by holding it in your hand like a set of brass knuckles, and bringing it down on the head of a particularly dangerous audience member...but I digress.
PolyTune's main claim to fame is that it displays the tuning for all six strings as once with a three-light display - sharp, flat, or in tune (Fig. 1). I tested it with the Dusk Tiger, and yes, after it had tuned itself, all the strings were shown as being perfectly in tune.
Fig. 1: The sixth and third strings are being shown as flat, while the second string is sharp.
What's more, if you pluck just one string, PolyTune becomes a standard chromatic tuner with an extremely readable display (not that the poly display isn't readable, it's just more crowded to see all six strings at once compared to one string). The display can show a virtual needle (Fig. 2), or a strobe-style moving "stream" of lights.
Fig. 2: PolyTune's Chromatic display mode, with the meter "needle" indicator.
The tuner is battery-powered with a 9V battery, adjusts to ambient light, and has true bypass so if you're not tuning you're not a victim of tone suck. Enabling the tuner mutes the output, so you can tune onstage without shame. It also runs off a 9V DC, negative tip AC adapter if you want to "go green" and forego the battery, but there's also an output power jack if you're into daisy-chaining more gear that needs an adapter Fig. 3).
Fig. 3: PolyTune's rear panel. Note the dual power jacks, and intriguingly, a USB port.
What's more, you're not locked in to A=440; if you're accompanying your favorite ancient instruments baroque ensemble by playing a Strat through a stack of Marshalls, you can change the reference pitch from 435Hz to 445Hz (in one Hz increments).
I'd seen a couple comments on the interwebz about PolyTune being problematic because you'd get different tuning indications on a string in poly mode than when checking out the tuning in single-string mode. To me, that would be a deal-breaker, because I'd never know which indicator was the accurate one. Testing time...
I set up the Dusk Tiger in a guitar stand so that I wasn't actually holding it, and strummed all six strings. Everything was shown as being perfectly in tune. Next I plucked individual strings - again, everything was perfectly in tune. I then purposely detuned one of Dusk Tiger's strings, and in poly mode, it was indeed shown as being out of tune - but it was also shown as out of tune in single string mode; again, the two options agreed with each other. So was I crazy, or were those other people experiencing some sort of pilot error?
Well, a little Googling took me to the reviews on the Musician's Friend web site, where someone who had noticed this problem reported it to TC's tech support squad. Turns out I wasn't crazy: TC noted that when people tuned polyphonically, they just strum all six strings but when they tune a single string, in many cases their hand is already on the neck or the tuning peg in order to tune the string, and the difference in neck tension can throw the tuning off by several cents. Mystery solved, although it was discouraging to have my suspicions confirmed that guitars are incredibly finicky little creatures when it comes to tuning.
Okay, this isn't a part of the review, but I always read the instructions of products I review, and I noticed the usual "Important Safety Instructions" section. But which government agency makes companies print this stuff? Really, no one needs to tell me "Do not expose this equipment to dripping or splashing and ensure that no objects filled with liquids, such as vases, are placed on the equipment." Seriously. Can you imagine some guitar player reading these instructions and going "Oh wow, I never knew this! I must stop placing vases on top of my guitar tuners immediately!" This is almost as bad as the towel dispensers that use a continuous roll of cloth toweling, and include a warning on the side not to hang yourself accidentally. (I'm not making that one up, either.)
/Rant. I'll get back to tuning now.
PolyTune is a game-changing piece of gear. There's the price: Under $100 street puts it in the range of other rugged tuners that do a lot less, but when you fold in features like changing brightness as dictated by ambient light conditions and the instant switchover from polyphonic to monophonic mode as soon as you pluck a string, PolyTune starts to border on the magical. I definitely give this a major thumbs up, not just because it's so clever, but also because it's highly useful and makes the tuning process far less of a hassle.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.