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PolyTune – A Practical Review

TC Electronic’s “PolyTune” first hit the stores back in 2010 and caused quite a stir. Its ability to ‘tune’ all guitar six strings at once is indeed a neat trick. While there were many magazine and web reviews, most just copied-and-pasted the same marketing blurb and didn’t tell us how well the PolyTune really performs in every day use. I’ve been using one for 18 months, for stage, studio, and tech work. Oddly enough, I think PolyTune’s best feature is the one most people don’t use…

Polyphonic tuning mode, showing the low-E string flat (left) and the high-E string sharp (right). (Click for bigger image)
Polyphonic tuning mode, showing the low-E string flat (left) and the high-E string sharp (right). (Click for bigger image)

First, the let’s deal with the famous “polyphonic” tuning mode. Just how useful is it?

The ability to decouple all the frequencies generated by six strings is quite an achievement. It’s also a very cool thing to see in action. Just don’t expect it to match single-note tuning for accuracy. While PolyTune can be accurate to 0.5 cent (which I’ll talk about below), polyphonic mode is nowhere near that precise, in part due to the limited (vertical) screen resolution available in this mode. In my testing, a string needs to be off by at least 3 cents before polyphonic mode will display it as out of tune.

Now, to put that in context, 3 cents accuracy would put PolyTune’s polyphonic mode about level with the old Boss TU-2 (which was regarded as the industry standard pedal tuner after its release in 1998). Non-musicians won’t be able to distinguish two notes that differ by less than 3 cents. However, many musicians have finer ears than that. I’ll hear a tuning problem long before polyphonic mode can tell me about it. Reluctantly, I’ve gotta say that cool as it is, I don’t find polyphonic mode to be very useful. It’s fine as quick check on stage for something horribly out.

Needle (standard) tuning mode
Needle (standard) tuning mode

But don’t give up yet! We still have two chromatic tuning modes, the first of which (and the default mode) is the classic “needle” mode – the vertical line that sweeps left or right across the display, similar to a needle on an old analogue display.

PolyTune’s needle mode is very useful,  and more than adequate for the needs of most musicians. I find needle mode has an accuracy of about 2 cents, which is about what many musicians can just about distinguish. In side-by-side testing, it is far more accurate than the Boss TU-2, marginally better than the Boss TU-3, but not quite as good as the Korg Pitchblack. It’s very good but not a prize-winner.

Streaming Mode
Streaming Mode

But now we come to the real joy of the PolyTune for me, which is “streaming” tuning mode. Streaming mode is the horizontal lines that move across the display when we’re out of tune and come to a stop when we’re in tune. Why most people don’t like streaming mode, I just can’t figure out because streaming mode is where the full accuracy of the PolyTune is really used. In my testing, it is one half-cent (0.5 cent) accurate, which makes PolyTune the most accurate non-strobe tuner on the market. Even the best professional musicians will have difficulty hearing something half a cent out but your ears will still appreciate the difference – your guitar will be better, and more consistently, in tune.

Personally, I LOVE streaming mode and I use it all the time. It’s what makes PolyTune the winner in its price range for me. In fact, the truth is that tuners this accurate will show you just how fiddly some guitars can be to get in tune and just how much effect fingering and playing position (standing or sitting) will alter tuning. It’s accurate enough for setting intonation, and a godsend in the recording studio.

Aside from electric guitars and basses (which after all, the PolyTune is designed for) I have also used the Polytune for acoustic instruments. Honestly, it doesn’t always fare too well here but good technique makes all the difference. Rather than tuning the open strings, acoustic players will have much more success with the 12th fret harmonics, strumming or picking over end of the fingerboard. It even manages to accurately tune my mandolin.

While recording album tracks recently for my buddy Martyn Mulhere, we had an old Guild acoustic without a pickup. I used a trick I learned from jack Endino’s article, Tuning Nightmares, of ‘wearing’ studio headphones on the guitar body and plugging the headphones into the tuner. I used PolyTune in streaming mode throughout, and we got the best tuned acoustic guitar tracks I’ve ever heard. It saved us a fortune in studio time – not one track was re-done because the guitar tuning was out.

The only drawback I found of the PolyTune is the screen. Yes, it is big enough, and bright enough, but it is prone to scratches. If you mount yours on a pedal board it’s not a problem but my one is constantly in and out of cases and gig bags. Fortunately my new mobile phone presented a cheap and durable solution – screen protectors. I use these ones and they are cheap as chips! They may not be the perfect size but they are close enough and easy to trim to length. Not only do they protect the screen from further damage, they actually do a pretty good job of hiding the existing scratches too.

I love my PolyTune (can you guess?) but it’s great to see that Hardwire, and Korg have also caught up with polyphonic tuning, even if it’s not an enormously useful trick. Competition is a good thing when it pushes innovation and better features. I used my TU-2 very happily for ten years. I wonder what will take the place of my PolyTune, and when?

Update (13th August 2013) – TC Electronic have just announced the PolyTune 2. There are two notable differences from the original version – a brighter and more responsive display; and a true strobe tuning capability, accurate to 0.1 cents.