There's been a lot of hype about "robot" tuning systems, but do they really deliver—and are they really worth the bucks?
By Phil O'Keefe
Like many people, my first thought when I heard about "robotic tuners" was that they probably weren't for me. After all, I already know how to tune the guitar, and I own several electronic tuners - why would I need a robotic system to do it for me? Well, let me tell you, those thoughts have changed considerably after I've had a chance to use the TronicalTune / Min-ETune system for a while.
What You Need To Know
- Developed by Tronical GmbH in Hamburg Germany and also offered by Gibson as an option on various electric and acoustic guitar models, the TronicalTune / Gibson Min-ETune system isn't an electronic system that compensates for out of tune strings or electronically retunes things after the fact; instead, it uses six motorized "roboheads" to physically re-tune the strings.
- Several different configurations are available (currently 16) that are designed to fit the pre-existing hole spacing on the headstocks of various different guitars, including "3 on a side" and "six inline" tuner configurations. Most major guitar brands are supported, including models from Gibson, Fender, Taylor, Cort, Charvel, Yamaha, Guild, Epiphone, and others. There's an extensive compatibility list and detailed templates on Tronical's website.
- As long as there's a model that is designed to fit your guitar, no modifications are required. The system is held in place by the six washers on the front face of the peghead, making it suitable for use even with vintage guitars that you don't want to irreversibly modify.
- The user interface is simple, but effective and easy to use. A five-in-one Tune Controller button is shaped like something on your typical video game controller, and handles cursor up-down and left-right functions. It also has an enter button in the center. A second button serves as the on / off button and as a "back" button.
- The rest of the user interface is all LED based. There are six multicolored letters ( E A D G B and e), and MENU and BAT indicators. BAT turns yellow when the juice is running low and flashes red when the battery is depleted. The various "letter" LED indicators change color to indicate various things too, such as when a string is in (green) or out of tune (red), when the robohead is in motion (blue) and when the frequency measurement of the string is in progress (yellow).
- Speaking of the battery, the system uses a removable 3.7V 340mAh 1258mWh Li-Po (lithium polymer) battery. Battery life is actually quite good. I have had the battery provide up to a couple hundred tunings on a single charge, but it really depends on how hard you're working the system. If you're just doing minor touch-ups, you can expect it to provide more tunings before needing to be recharged than if you're doing something that requires more effort from the battery and robohead servo motors, such as lots of switches between drastically different tunings.
- Additional batteries (and other replacement parts) can be purchased as spares ($34.00 "street" for a spare battery) if you're really concerned, but most people will be able to get by just fine with just the single included battery as long as they remember to recharge it once in a while. Even if the battery dies completely in mid-show, you can still tune manually. Swapping batteries requires no tools, and can be done in a few seconds.
- A red / green dual color LED on the included battery charger indicates when the battery is charging as well as when it's finished and fully charged.
- When you turn the system on, it defaults to the last completed tuning. Assuming that's the tuning you want to use, all you have to do after turning it on is strum all six strings, and the system quickly analyzes their tuning, and where needed, adjusts the robotic tuners until the strings are in tune. Yes, it really is just that easy! Any strings that are not tuned after the first strum will be indicated with red letter LED indicators - just strum again (or pluck those individual strings) and the system will complete the tuning process. When it does, all six LED indicators will turn green, flash to indicate tuning is complete, and then the system automatically shuts itself off.
- There are three banks of presets - red, green and blue. Each bank holds six tuning presets. The red and green banks are loaded with various tunings from the factory, while the blue bank is for saving user defined tunings.
- Switching between banks is easy - just press the "on" button twice, then use the up / down Tune Controller buttons to select the bank you want, and then the left / right Tune Controller buttons to select the preset, then press enter to call it up. Pressing enter once selects Multi-String Mode, where you can tune all six strings just by strumming the guitar. There's also Single String Mode, which is selected by holding the enter button for a moment instead of pressing and releasing.
- The twelve factory tuning presets consist of many popular tunings, as well as a few less common ones - the list includes standard tuning, as well as DADGAD, Drop D, Eb (half step down), Open E, A, D and G tunings, All 4ths, Double Drop D, Whole step, and Dobro tunings.
- Tuning speed increases as the system's "intelligent learning algorithm" learns the characteristics of your individual guitar, but after it's dialed in, it generally tunes up much faster than even the most experienced players can tune with non-robotic tuners. Typically, it only takes a few seconds (often less than five to ten) to tune all six strings. Ideally you'll want to turn the volume control down or hit a master bypass footswitch before tuning up onstage so your audience won't hear you, but it tunes just fine with your volume up full - or even with it off completely since it's measuring vibrations from the strings at the headstock instead of the electrical signal from the pickups.
- Weight of the entire system ranges from about 244 grams to about 287 grams, depending on which specific configuration you need to get; with the inline tuners being slightly heavier than the 3 on a side versions. Still, the weight is surprisingly low - its really no different than some non-robotic name-brand premium tuning machines in overall weight, and I noticed no additional or unusual weight on the Gibson SG's headstock.
- The Min-ETune system is available as an extra-cost option on a variety of Gibson models, including the 2013 Gibson SG Standard that I mentioned earlier. The Min-ETune system adds about $200 to the "street" price vs same guitar equipped with standard tuning machines. That's actually a good deal - it's a hundred dollars less than what the otherwise identical aftermarket / retrofit TronicalTune system costs.
- Standard tuning accuracy is +/- 2.5 cents, and can be user-adjusted anywhere from +/- 1 cent to +/- 3.5 cents, with more accurate settings taking a bit more time to complete tuning. Several other system configuration settings can also be adjusted to dial in the best system performance for your tastes and individual guitar.
- Maximum recommended string gauges are .013-.56; heavier strings than that can cause damage to the system's motors. Auto String-up Mode and the design of the tuners makes string changes super fast and easy.
- The Min-ETune system takes a bit of time before it is completely dialed in. I found that the earliest tuning attempts took longer and required more strums and extra string plucks. In time, the speed increased and the need for extra input from me in the form of extra strums decreased. If you're working with a new system, give it a good 25-50 tunings before you pass judgment - it gets significantly better with repeated use as it "learns" the particulars of your individual instrument.
- The housings for the robotic tuners "stick out" a bit further from the back of the headstock than most standard, non-robotic tuners do. This is entirely invisible from the front of the guitar, and really only a minor cosmetic quibble.
- When manually tuning strings, the "feel" of the tuners is a bit different than with standard tuners. It works fine, but it's not quite as smooth feeling as premium traditional tuners. Additionally, because of the way the servo motors work, the function of the bass-side (E A and D) tuners is "reversed" - you need to turn them in the opposite direction than what you're used to when manually tuning.
- There currently isn't a version available for 12 string guitars or bass, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they'll consider making them eventually.
When I first heard about "robotic tuning", I was a bit skeptical. I figured I probably wasn't the target market for this sort of thing - after all, I already know how to manually tune a guitar… but the more I used it, the more I became enamored with it, and grew to appreciate its benefits.
Speed, accuracy and convenience are big advantages of this system. Not only is it faster than manual retuning, but it's actually faster (and less hassle) to switch from standard tuning to an open tuning with TronicalTune / Min-ETune than it would be to mute the guitar, take it off and set it down, swap cables to a different guitar that is pre-set to an open tuning, put that guitar on, and then unmute it. Sure, you'll still want to mute (or just turn down your volume knobs) when you tune, but not having to physically swap instruments can save you significant time - especially if you use a few different tunings in the course of a performance. You can also do it without having to turn your back on the audience and while chatting with them on-mic. And instead of having to take several guitars to cover multiple tunings live (and backups for each in case you break a string), you can do it all with one guitar and a backup (since strings can still break), meaning you can travel lighter and still do everything you want from a tuning standpoint.
Plus, there's a real "cool factor" involved. It kind of reminds me of automated faders on mixing consoles. Yes, I know how to manually move a fader too, but being able to have the system do it for me has its advantages (such as freeing me up to do other things) and I get the same kind of reactions from people when I show them the Min-ETune system in action that I did back when I was showing off moving fader automation on mixing consoles when it first started showing up in studios. People are impressed with how cool it is - and so am I.
In fact, I am really impressed with the Min-ETune system. This is the future of guitar tuners. I'm probably not going to run out an install it on every guitar I own, but I can see myself adding it to two or three guitars that I use a lot. It allows you to tune from wherever you're at (no more running back to your pedalboard to tune), and it does it fast and effectively, and if you want, silently. While the TronicalTune / Min-ETune system is physically slightly larger than standard tuners, it doesn't weigh any more than they do. Battery life is incredibly good, and the system just gets better the more you use it. You may not think you want it or need it now, but trust me - if you try it, you're very likely going to change your mind. I certainly did!
Musician's Friend online catalog page listing Gibson models that come with Min-ETune systems
Tronical's TronicalTune web page
Gibson Guitars Min-ETune web page
TronicalTune Installation Tutorial video
TronicalTune Multi-String Tutorial video
TronicalTune Tuning Selection Tutorial video
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.