Review: Planet Waves Instruments Tuners
When it comes to tuners, one size doesnt always fit all
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By Craig Anderton
A tuner is a tunerright? Well, not really. One of the main tuner manufacturers is Planet Waves, and when I asked to review their tuners for Harmony Central, they sent six count em, six different tuners. But is that kind of variety really necessary, and are they really that different? Lets find out. Well proceed from the least expensive to the most expensive (all prices shown are list prices).
S.O.S. GUITAR TUNER
This was reviewed in Harmony Central Confidential newsletter #18, so Ill paraphrase what I wrote then my opinion of this cool little product hasnt changed (except that the concerns I expressed about any possible flimsiness were unfounded; its been working like a champ for eight months now).
Basically, its hard not to like something thats this inexpensive, tiny, accurate, and useful. Although only about as large as an oversized pick, S.O.S. is a functional, useable guitar/bass tuner that weighs next to nothing and fits in your axes case.
S. O. S. (strobe on string) gets its name because its a strobe-based tuner with two red LEDs. A thumbwheel on the top selects among off and which of the six strings you want to tune. You choose the string, then pick it with the S. O. S. pick so that its two LEDs shine on the string. Unless your string is totally in tune, the reflection on your string from the two LEDs will pulsate in other words, first you see the reflection from one LED, and then the other. This is because the LED frequencies are basically beating with the string.
As you tune the string, the LED reflections come closer to appearing to shine in unison. When theyre 100% stabilized and dont appear to be moving at all, that means your string is in tune. You then tune successive strings until your entire guitar is in tune.
Its a little hard to see the reflections on the top E string because the string itself is thin, but its still not hard to tune. One surprising aspect of the tuner is that tuning is very easy, as theres not the jitter you sometimes associate with tuners. Tuning in broad daylight is a little tough you may need to shade the string in direct sunlight but conversely, you can tune in a darkened room, and do so in total silence.
The S. O. S. tuner uses a single CR1620 battery (included); theres an auto-shutoff circuit so that if you forget to turn it off, it turns off anyway in about a minute. As to accuracy, Planet waves quotes 0.4 cents and while I have no way of measuring that, suffice it to say that your guitar will sound in tune after youre done.
UNIVERSAL CHROMATIC TUNER
The next step up on the tuner food chain costs $29.95 and lets you tune via a 1/4" input jack or condenser mic, and does chromatic tuning so you can tune a variety of acoustic and electric instruments. But the special sauce here is a bracket that slides out, and lets the tuner hang in the sound hole of an acoustic guitar. The part that contacts the guitar is slightly rubberized, so you dont have to worry about scratching the finish if youre careful with placement. The tuner runs off a standard 9V battery (not included) and, like all the tuners in the line, includes an auto-shutoff function.
Another nice touch is that there are two metering methods, LED (sharp, in tune, or flat) and LCD. This accommodates not only the users preference for a particular tuning indicator, but also, allows tuning under various ambient light conditions (the LCD is not backlit, so if its dark, youll want to use the LEDs).
Theres a calibration button, which allows choosing any reference from 435 to 445Hz, one Hz at a time. After setting the calibration, you have a choice of Auto tuning (where the tuner recognizes the incoming note), or manual, where you can specify a particular note. Setting the note requires pushing a button to increment the note, but this is a recessed button and if you have really big fingers, you might find it a tad inconvenient as youll have to push the button deep enough to register. As a result, I found that using the Auto mode was simpler, faster, and more convenient. However, note that the recessed buttons are a big advantage when it comes to the Calibration and Power functions they wont change accidentally if you brush your fingers across the front panel.
Oriented solely to fretted instrument players with a $49.99 list, this tuner has some major out-of-the-box thinking as it incorporates multiple functions: Bridge pin puller, string winder, string stretcher, string trimmer, and tuner (chromatic strobe or sweep mode). Actually, it has a sort of Why didnt anyone think of this before? vibe because when youre changing strings, it certainly does help to know if theyre in tune or not.
Using the Pro-Winder Tuner starts with an intelligence test: How do you put in the included CR2032 battery, as the instructions dont give a clue? As it turns out, theres a friction-fit cap on the back and you can just lift it off. From that point on, you can probably figure out that the battery goes in with the + side facing up.
The string winder, string stretcher, and string cutter functions are obvious; the string cutter blade is relatively dull (it cuts by pinching, not slicing) and is placed in such a way that it would be very hard to cut anything accidentally. Besides, theres a little (removable) rubber cap that covers the business end of the cutter (the way I found out its removable is because if you open the string cutter up all the way, the cap will fly off no big deal, though, you can always put it back on again). You can also just leave the cap off, as shown in the illustration.
Like the Universal Chromatic Tuner, theres a button that lets you step through frequencies in 1Hz increments, from 435 to 445Hz. The unit defaults to 440Hz on power-up, so if you need to change the reference frequency, you need to do so every time you use the unit; furthermore, unlike the UCT, theres no indicator for pitch you have to count the times you press the button, although theres a chart on the back that indicates the frequency range and makes calibration a bit easier.
As to the tuning part (you knew wed get to that eventually, right?), there are two different modes, accessed via a pushbutton in the middle of the circular display. Note the small note indicators toward the middle of the unit; in Strobe mode, the note of the scale being tuned lights up in green, while red LEDs chase around the outside to indicate tuning (counter-clockwise for flat, clockwise for sharp). In Sweep mode, again the note being played lights in green, but this time the red LEDs sweep left or right to indicate whether the instrument is flat or sharp. In practice, I found Strobe mode easier to use for adjustments, but your mileage may vary.
Note that the only signal input option is a built-in condenser mic, so this makes the Pro-Winder tuner less convenient for electric guitars than for acoustic guitars, mandolins, banjos, etc.
At $65.99, the Multi-Function Tuner doesnt have the extra string-massaging accessories of the Pro-Winder Tuner, but addresses its limitations: Theres a 1/4" input jack but even more cleverly, theres a bracket with a built-in piezo-electric transducer that plugs into the same jack (however, theres no condenser mic, so this is pretty much for stringed instruments only). This bracket can hang on an acoustic guitar soundhole, or clamp to a guitars headstock, bridge, or even amp handle. (The clamp has a fairly strong spring, but the contact surfaces have a softer, rubbery layer to prevent scratching.) Furthermore, theres an output jack so tuner can insert in-line with the patch cord going to your amp, PA system, etc.
One interesting, and not obvious feature (hey, its always a good idea to read the instructions!) is that if you plug the cradle into the tuners output jack, then the mic remains active great if youre hanging the tuner from an acoustic guitars sound hole. Also, the clamp is ideal for clamping on to the bridge of a double bass, violin, cello, or similar instrument. Oh yes, and the battery insertion intelligence test is no longer with us: Theres a little piece of paper that indicates where the (included) battery is, and instead of the friction-fit cap, theres a little latch and hinge that makes it easy to remove the battery compartment cap.
The tuning indicator is the same as the Pro-Winder, offering Strobe or Sweep displays, and features the same multi-function button to choose between the two modes (or power off). It also shares the inconvenient method of changing reference frequencies, but given that 440Hz is the default and the most common tuning standard by far for most readers of this newsletter, thats likely not a problem.
FULL-FUNCTION TUNER AND METRONOME
With this, the price now jumps from two significant digits to three: $119.99. So, what makes this special?
First of all, it has an impressive display, is somewhat larger than the others (but still fits in a guitar case), and looks cool. Like the previous two models we described it has Strobe and Sweep tuning, but the display is much bigger and more readable.
In terms of I/O, it has input and output 1/4" jacks, as well as a built-in condenser mic. It also has a headphone out jack, and a jack for a 6V AC adapter (not included). Theres also a little tilt-back leg for when you want it to stand up.
The FFTM incorporates three tuning functions not seen in the previous models: Pitch Pipe, which emits a tone (theres an adjustable volume control and speaker mute button; this sucker can produce a decent volume level), Frequency Adjust (like the calibration option in other tuners, but this one goes from 415 to 466Hz), and my favorite, Copy Pitch. This is great when youre playing along with an instrument, like piano or harpsichord, which may be out of tune and would be a pain to retune. You simply play a note on the instrument, and you can recalibrate the tuner to that pitch. As the Brits would saybrilliant! There are so many times I could have used this in the past, I wish this had been invented earlier.
As to the metronome, its an overachiever. Sure, you can set the tempo, from 20 to 250 BPM, with an accented downbeat. But you also have 22 beats-per-measure options, from the usual 1-9, to combination patterns (e.g., you can break 7/4 down into 1-2-3-1-2-3-4 or 1-2-3-4-1-2-3, with the accent on the 1 in each case). You can also set Subdivisions per Beat if you want offbeats. For example, setting 2 inserts a differently-pitched tick between notes; if youre in 4/4, this is equivalent to indicating eighth notes. Or, set it to 3 if you want triplets. You can have up to 20 off-beats within beats.
And theres a tap tempo option. You can scroll over to this while the metronome is playing and have it adopt the new value, or set it while the metronome is off and when you go to tempo mode, the metronome will run at the tempo youve set. Among other uses, this is convenient when youre listening to a song, want to do a cover version, and need to know the original tempo. Really, the only possible metronome limitation I can think of is that it doesnt do fractional BPMs.
Were not done yet, as there are two timer functions: One is a 99-minute countdown timer which upon timing out, flashes the display and causes the tuner to beep. This can happen in the background while using the metronome, so if you have to remind yourself of something you need to do in a set period of time, or just want to time your practice sessions if youre a teacher, this is very handy. The remaining timing feature is a minutes/seconds stopwatch (up to 99 minutes), which I use a lot to get timings on songs.
The unit runs off two 1.5V batteries (included), but I can see this as something youd leave powered-up pretty much all the time its a great way to time how long things take in the studio, for example, and the countdown timer has helped make sure I didnt forget to make an important call. Guess Ill hook up an AC adapter to it. As a practicing tool/tuner, the FFTM is a novel, creative, and highly functional accessory.
The Chromatic Pedal Tuner, our final foray into tuner-land, weighs in at $129.95 (and I do mean weighs in; this thing is heavy) and is optimized for on-stage use. Unlike all the other tuners, it has a shiny metal instead of plastic case. Its shaped like a standard effects pedal, and this thing is designed not to move around on stage. Its powered by a 9V battery, and like most effects pedals, turns on when you plug into the input; however, it also has 9V in and out connectors if you want to make this part of a pedalboard. In addition to the 1/4" input, there are two 1/4" outputs. One mutes the output while youre tuning, while the other carries the output at all times, even when tuning.
Controls are minimal: A mode button chooses between strobe, sweep, and calibration modes, where A can be set from 435 to 445Hz. Once youve selected the desired mode, pressing on the footswitch activates the tuning function, and pressing again deactivates it. Simple. The tuner is meant to be inline at all times, and the bypass is a true bypass.
The S.O.S. is a cool entry-level tuner that definitely delivers value for money. Its never far from my guitar, and as a result, my guitar is never far from a tuning touchup. For only $10 more, though, the Universal Chromatic Tuner gives you chromatic operation, an instrument input, and a mic so you can tune just about anything. Its larger, but should still fit in the average guitar case; and for acoustic guitarists, the fold-out bracket is helpful. I would consider the UCT the best buy in the Planet Waves line (although it is bulkier than the very cute S.O.S.), and is an ideal choice for students.
Moving on up, the Pro-Winder Tuner definitely delivers on the promise of reducing guitar case clutter, but the lack of a 1/4" input makes it harder to use with electric guitars and its display is not quite as easy to read as the UCT. However, I should add that while it seems the display would wash out under bright lights, I actually found it easy to read except under direct sunlight.
Given the lower cost of the Universal Chromatic Tuner, Id say its a better value than the Pro-Winder Tuner unless you factor in the cost of adding a pin puller, string winder, and string cutter. On the other hand, Im a big fan of strobe tuning, which the Pro-Winder has but the Universal Chromatic Tuner doesnt. Both have condenser mic inputs so you can tune wind instruments and the like. My take is that if you play mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitar, and similar instruments, the Pro-Winder Tuner is extremely handy due to its 5-in-1 functionality. For other applications, the UCT will probably do what you need, and save you a few bucks.
If you dont need the string massaging functions, the condenser mic, and dont often use a reference other than 440Hz (using a different reference adds the inconvenience of having to calibrate it on each power-up), the Multi-Function Tuner is an excellent choice. Its compact, offers strobe/sweep tuning and chromatic operation, has input/output jacks so you can leave it connected in-line, and works with just about any kind of instrument electric or acoustic. Notwithstanding the S.O.S tuner, which lives in its own specialized category, I consider the Multi-Function Tuner the best general-purpose choice of the four budget Planet Wave tuners for stringed-instrument players (the UTC would get my vote for students on a budget, particularly because of the condenser mic that allows tuning woodwinds and such).
Once you break the $100 barrier, things get more interesting. If you have the need for a metronome/tuner/timer, then the Full-Function Tuner & Metronome is totally cool but consider getting the AC adapter, because I predict if you have one, youll find yourself using it a lot. The timers in particular, while not strictly musical, help me budget and manage time in the studio. This is an extremely cool and useful product whose value is greater than it might seem at first.
Finally, for on-stage use, although the other tuners are useable, for an always-available tuning device optimized for electric guitar that truly meets rock and roll specs, the Foot Pedal Tuner is hands-down the tuner of choice. Granted, a lot of your bucks are going into the take this, Godzilla!-style case, but then again, you wont have to worry about it getting destroyed during everyday use.
From what I understand, Planet Waves has been in the tuner biz for only the past couple years. But like their other products, they bring a fresh, innovative outlook to what they do. Sure, there are a ton of tuners out there but this family brings a unique set of functions to the party, and Im glad I had the opportunity to check out all six of them.
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