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Tuners and Tuning Musical Instruments

For intonation work, or even for determining the need for intonation work, it is important to be able to measure the cents-off when comparing any two notes.  An electronic tuner will only give you a rough measurement of cents-off , but if you are careful and patient, you can get a good idea of your intonation problems, and make good adjustments.  A virtual strobe tuner can provide a much better measurement,  not quite as good as a real strobe.  (A real strobe tuner has actual moving parts, whereas a virtual strobe tuner uses electronics and/or software to display a strobe pattern from an audio input.)

Although strobe and virtual strobe tuners will measure to 1/10 cent accuracy, a note from your guitar will not hold that steady.  A reading to within 1/2 cent accuracy is very good.  Intonation work to 2 cents accuracy is good, but strive for within 1 cent.  Tune to within 1 cent or within 1/2 cent.

Be also aware that, when plucked, the pitch will momentarily go high (attack) and then die down lower (decay).  Normally, it's best to read the tuner after the attack has died down, but not too long into decay.  Someone who normally plays very fast may want to tune to the attack.  I find it best to pick the string near the 12th fret, at regular intervals of a little faster than one per second.  Depending on the tuner, you can often get faster, clearer readings by changing from chromatic mode to an instrument mode or to a particular note. 

Virtual Strobe Tuners

               

There are some new options for strobe tuning that are less expensive than were previously available, yet they pack a big array of features.  Players and hobbyists should also take a look!   They are inexpensive compared to what you may have paid for your guitar.  If you are thinking of doing some serious intonation work, you will also want to make the most of that by being able to tune quickly and accurately on an ongoing basis.

There are a few electronic tuners that have a strobe type of display capability, but are not strobe tuners - so don't be fooled.

Electronic Tuners

In the past, I have produced excellent results using chromatic electronic tuners for intonation work, but it takes a lot of patience and re-testing.  Software strobe tuners are much more accurate.  While electronic tuners are fine for tuning, if you don't have a strobe tuner with either cents-off display or cents adjustment, use a software strobe tuner for intonation work (see below).  

Beware: Tuner manufacturers claim very good "internal" or "detection" accuracy, but that means very little.  The important feature would be "display" accuracy, but nobody ever specifies that!  For older popular types, If you turn on the tuner and carefully hold it sideways to the light, you can see that the LCD tracks for displaying the readings are only at every 2 or 2 1/ 2 cents apart.  This can still work well, though, because the reading actually wavers over a range of about 2 cents.  If you can keep it on the mark for a few seconds, the reading will be pretty accurate for tuning.

Most clip-on tuners have 2 1/2 cents between the indicators.  I haven't tried many, but I know that the Snark Tuners and the Sabine clip-on tuners are 2 1/2 cents, except for the "Super Tight" (see below).

Beware the accuracy of clip-on tuners, especially. Online reviews are mostly based on ease and speed of use, rather than actual accuracy.  Ironically, the least accurate ones are sometimes easiest to use!  Check to make sure that the difference between the LCD tracks is not more than 2 1/2 cents.

Though I could tune pretty accurately to a note, I found the electronic tuners to be quite inconsistent with each other on cents-off readings.  So, you can only get a rough idea of how far off your intonation is from one note to another.

For inexpensive bench tuning, find a larger one with 2 cents between the marks, such as the Boss TU-80 or another in the Boss TU Series.  There should also be several similar in the Korg lineup.

Another type of electronic tuners has LCD indicators typically 10 cents apart.  They are able to give more precise readings, by simultaneously illuminating adjacent LCD's when the pitch is off.  The pitch is correct only when the green LED is the only one on.

I found the Snark Super Tight Tuner to be the best clip-on that I had ever owned!  It uses LED's that are 10 cents apart, but along with the steady green lite, the adjacent LED's don't go out until you're dead on.  And, it costs so little!   The Snark is the only one of this type that I have tried, but, judging from illustrations, there are various others tuners that use this type of principle, including stomp tuners.

I just recently got a Korg Sledgehammer Chromatic, and I couldn't be more pleased! Though it is technically not a strobe tuner, it has a strobe display option which I always use.  It really helps to see the lines moving to the right or left until you're smack in tune - and it's very tight! Using this gives me a real good appreciation of the value of the strobe display option available for a long time on the Korg Pitchblack tuners (which I have never used).  

This is an example of a very poor tuner: I bought a Gogo clip-on tuner online, and found that the LED tracks were 5 cents apart, rather than 2 1/2!  Not only that, I checked it with a software strobe, and found that the mid-point of "in-tune" readings varied by more than 2 cents from string to string. That allowed tuning errors of more than 5 cents! In my opinion this tuner is worthless, even though it is a pretty orange color, and it has some nice functional features!  (Please let me know if you find any others like this.)  

 

Software Tuners

It is important to note that the accuracy of any software tuner pitch is dependent upon the reference frequency of your sound card.  Notebook sound cards are especially prone to be a bit off pitch, so check the pitch of the tuner with a tuning fork or your best tuner, and adjust accordingly.   My desktop computer is just .02 cents off, but my notebook is 11 cents sharp.   Adjust the cents as needed.

Peterson offers Strobosoft, a software tuner in standard and deluxe versions.  Lots of features for sweetened tunings, temperaments, intonation mode, spectrum analysis, etc.  Also, there is a mobile Ap from Peterson priced at under $10.  (I haven't tried it yet.)

 
The TB Strobe Tuner software features a circular strobe display, and is very accurate.  It enables tuning calibration adjustments in cents, so you can accurately measure the difference between two notes (see below).  In addition to equal temperament, it  provides a list of scale selections for a variety of instruments, DADGAD, Drop D, etc (but does not provide for temperaments nor tuning offsets).  You can set a specific note to test, or use the automatic chromatic mode, or others.  It works best in an instrument mode, or by selecting particular notes (with a little practice, this goes quickly). This program is great, very accurate and very inexpensive at $4.90!  This is my choice for both convenience and accuracy!

The Seventh String Tuner by Seventh String Limited, which can produce strobe-like accuracy. It's free to use.

You can run it on the internet or download it to your computer.  It is very sensitive, and features automatic cancellation of background noise.  The tuning indicator will drive you crazy, because it is not damped and it jumps around a lot, especially with acoustic guitars.  But, it also has horizontally moving bars that are damped.  You can get an accurate reading by tuning until the bars don’t drift much left or right.

It is important to note that the accuracy of the Seventh String tuner pitch (any software tuner) is dependent upon the reference frequency of your sound card.  Notebook sound cards are especially prone to vary, so check the pitch of the tuner with a tuning fork or your best tuner, and adjust accordingly.   My desktop computer is right on, but my notebook is 11 cents sharp.   Adjust the cents as needed.

The AP Tuner, by Joseph Broms, provides a high degree of accuracy.  It displays the note and cents-off, making it really easy to determine the intonation difference of two notes.  It also has nice extra features, including tuning offsets and tone graphing.  AP Tuner is shareware, $35, but you can evaluate it as long as you want.

The tuner registers cents-off in real time, but freezes when the note amplitude drops below the sensing threshold, so adjust the slider at the left at a little below your normal note volume, so it stops recording before too much decay.  This results in a fairly consistent measurement.

Measuring the Intonation Difference Between Two Notes 

With the AP Tuner software, The cents-off is displayed, so after tuning the first note, you can directly read the cents off of the second note.  (Or you can subtract the cents-off of the first note from that of the second note.)

With the Peterson Stroboflip, StroboPlus, Strobosoft, the TB Strobe Tuner, or the Seventh String Tuner, to compare two notes for intonation, tune the first note, and then play the second note.  Adjust the calibration cents on the tuner until the display stabilizes (in tune).  The difference between the two notes is equal to the cents that you have just adjusted by.

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