Most musical instruments need to be tuned, but the guitar–particularly the electric guitar–requires tuning surprisingly frequently. While many guitarists don’t mind tuning the guitar once and then not worrying about it for casual playing around the house, virtually all tune their instruments before playing to an audience, or especially, before recording.
Until the late 1960s, that meant using either an A440 tuning fork, or a set of metal “pitch pipes” to tune from. But eventually, the Peterson company, who got their start after WWII building portable keyboards, helped to pioneer the concept of the “strobe” tuner in the late 1960s. Initially, this was a bulky, expensive product, so eventually, Peterson created a portable “virtual” strobe tuner whose current versions retail for around $200. In their review of their immediate predecessor, Peterson’s now classic VS-1 tuner, England’s Sound On Sound magazine explains the difference between real and “virtual” strobe tuners:
Real strobe tuners use optical techniques with rotating discs to generate their unique pattern of moving bars, which approach and then achieve stillness when tuning is achieved. The downside is that, being high-precision electromechanical devices, true strobes, such as the renowned Peterson and Conn models of the ’70s and beyond, are bulkier and far more expensive than the typical electronic tuner used by almost every guitar player today. The reason that serious users maintain that nothing else will do, however, is that strobe tuners are more accurate. Significantly more accurate in fact; a typical pedal-type or hand-held guitar tuner will achieve something around a ±2 cents (hundredths of a semitone) accuracy, whereas a strobe (even a ‘virtual strobe’) will achieve a tenth of a cent, equivalent to one thousandth of a semitone.
Does anybody need to be that in-tune? Well it certainly helps, especially when you consider that all guitars are inherently slightly out of tune by a few cents on some chords at some positions. If the error in your tuner happens to coincide with the guitar’s own deviation on any one note, you are certainly going to hear it. And if you do your own guitar setups, plus or minus even a couple of cents is really pushing your luck for bridge saddle positioning. The other thing about strobes is that they track movements in pitch effectively in real-time, so fine-tuning becomes a lot easier, as you can just ease up to a note, watching the read-out slow to a standstill. Overall, tuning is certainly faster and less frustrating.
Once strobe tuners became popular with touring guitarists and their roadies in the 1970s, numerous other firms began selling small, easily affordable electronic tuners, but they lacked the accuracy of their strobing big brothers. A strobe tuner (including virtual strobes) can be used to intonate a guitar, a procedure than helps insure that each string is as close as possible to being in tune at all points on the neck, not just in its first position. But most cheaper tuners aren’t accurate enough for this procedure.
Enter The StroboSoft Tuner
But tuners, strobe or otherwise, can add additional noise when plugged in between a guitar and amp. And for PC-based home recordists, they also increase the amount of clutter in the studio–or especially the den, as more and more recording is a home-based, tabletop proposition. Which is why Peter has created a PC-version of its strobe tuners, which they call the StroboSoft Tuner. It’s a downloadable computer program that is compatible with most home audio soundcards, as well as Line6′s popular GuitarPort USB interface.
Peterson claims that the StroboSoft is accurate to within 0.001 of a semitone, and based on my experience with the VS-1, and experimenting for a week or so with this software equivalent, I tend to believe them. The unit is compatible with both Windows-based PCs and Macs, check this page on the Strobosoft’s Website for specific requirements.
Sweetened Tunings And Modified Nuts
The StroboSoft’s graphical interface is very reminiscent of their popular VS-1 hardware model, but with an additional cents meter to see how close each string is to being in tune. And like their more recent hardware-based successors to the VS-1, it also adds options for both their proprietary “sweetened tunings” and the Buzz Feiten tuning system.
Both of these systems perform minute compensations in the guitar’s tuning to attempt to offset the instrument’s irregularities. The basic six string and fretted neck design of the guitar dates back hundreds of years. But the electric guitar places particular demands on its technology, with its thin strings and the idiosyncratic playing techniques that have developed since the days of Charlie Christian. The Buzz Feiten system, whose namesake inventor is a veteran session musician, requires both a modified nut be installed on the guitar and the guitar’s tuning be compensated microscopically. Not every guitarist can hear the difference when using the Buzz Feiten system, but those who do say that it results in chords playing noticeably more in tune at the first few frets in front of the nut. (Incidentally, if you’ve made it this far into this post and you’re not a guitarist, the nut is the small white bar that separates the tuning peg of the guitar from the fretboard. It was originally made of ivory; these days, it’s typically made of bone or a synthetic material.)
In contrast, the sweetened tunings that Peterson created are also based on minutely altering the tuning of individual strings on the guitar, but require no permanent modifications to the underlying instrument. Each system has its proponents, but there are also many, many people who are quite happy tuning the guitars the way that God, Segovia and Orville Gibson intended them to be tuned.
Fortunately, the Peterson StroboSoft supports all three methods–and then some. It also has built-in tunings for a variety of popular “open tunings”, which tune the guitar to a chord. Open-G is a particular favorite of Keith Richards, as it tunes the first position of the guitar to a G-major chord, and many, many Rolling Stones songs written since the late 1960s use this tuning. DADGAD (pronounced “dad gad”) is a folk-oriented tuning that Jimmy Page used from time to time in Led Zeppelin. “White Summer”, “Black Mountain Side” and “Kashmir” are all performed by Page in this vaguely Indian-sounding tuning.
Keep Your Hardware Tuner For Live Gigs
There are a couple of possible downsides to the StroboSoft. In its current form, I noticed that when I tried to record GuitarPort, my recording program required me to shut the tuner off, as a result of some sort of conflict. (There’s a little simulated power button on the tuner’s GUI. Pressing it via the computer’s mouse disables the StroboSoft’s audio input, but doesn’t close the window).
The other is the simple fact that StroboTuner is a software plug-in. Unless you’re a guitarist on the bleeding edge of technology who takes his laptop or desktop PC to gigs, you’ll still need a hardware-based tuner. Of course, a cheap but less accurate pocket tuner can certainly suffice while playing live, leaving the StroboSoft for the more demanding job of tuning before recording, or setting intonation.
For the right person–a computer savvy guitarist, especially one who records via the computer–this could be a great product. Turn on (the computer), plug in, and tune up.