Review: Turning heads with the Roadie automatic guitar tuner

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Gizmag reviews the Roadie automatic guitar tuner (Photo: Paul Ridden/Gizmag)

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Necessary evils though they are, changing strings and tuning up have got to be two of the most boring and/or tiresome guitar-related tasks around. Band Industries offered a helping hand in November 2013 when a crowdfunding campaign was launched to bring an app-controlled motorized tuner named Roadie to market. The campaign was successful and the handheld robotic tuner recently became available to buy. Gizmag nabbed one of the first commercial units off the production line and has been whizzing and whirring away with gusto ever since.

After first trying out Tronical's Min-ETune system on a Gibson Les Paul a while back, which mechanically brings a guitar's strings to pitch at the push of a button, I've wanted in on this magical robotic tuner action. But I don't really want to swap out the stock heads on my favorite axes and don't see much point in buying into the tech for my cheap thrash-arounds either.

Roadie's promise of taking the tuning pegs in hand and automatically bringing the strings to pitch therefore makes it an attractive option for those, like me, who are not blessed with perfect pitch hearing, for players who regularly use alternate tunings or for gigging musicians who can't afford to pay a guitar tech to fling on a new set of strings before every show.

Getting to know Roadie

The Roadie system is made up of two wirelessly connected parts – a black plastic robotic tuning device with go faster red stripes and an app running on an iOS/Android smart device that's paired with the handheld tuner over Bluetooth.

The controls and status indicators on the Roadie tuner are simple enough. There's a power on/off button on the side opposite the motorized peg connector, which is positioned for easy thumb operation when held in the palm of the hand. An RGB LED light strip at the top gives important clues about how the robot tuner is feeling at any given time. It will blink blue to tell you that it's waiting to pair with a smart device over Bluetooth, hold a solid blue when Bluetooth-connected, glow red with anger for an error, green to show that tuning is in progress and will provide a pulsing multi-colored mini light show while charging.

On one face (again within thumb operation range) is a wind/unwind rocker for app-free restring assistance, there's a micro-USB port to the bottom, and a recessed hard reset button in case of serious freezing issues. And that's about it.

It looks like it's tough enough to survive life on the road and, at 3.4 x 2.8 x 1.3 in (87.3 x 71.2 x 32.4 mm) and 3 oz (85 g), it's a comfortable fit in the hand and lighter than all but one of my pocket chromatic tuners.

The Roadie is reported compatible with any stringed instrument equipped with the kind of roughly rectangular machine head/tuning pegs found on many guitars, banjos ukuleles and mandolins. It's not meant to be used with bass guitars or instruments with wooden friction (non-geared) pegs.

The device's 70 RPM electric motor is powered by a 1,000 mAh Li-Pol battery that's recharged via the included USB-to-micro-USB cable. On expected battery life, the company's CTO and co-founder Bassam Jalgha told us that "if a user tunes a 6 string guitar once every day, Roadie should last him about 3 weeks on a full charge." I've been tuning much more than than once per day over the last two weeks and have yet to recharge the battery.

Calibration, tuning and string health monitoring

Blame it on age-related failing eyesight if you want, but instead of using a smartphone I decided to take advantage of a nice big screen with lots of room to move around and installed the free Roadie app on my Galaxy Note 8.0 Android tablet. To the left of the app's home screen is a + icon, which is used to add an instrument. This allows players to set up and calibrate different guitars for tuning using Roadie, extra important as the device can keep track of your aging strings and make restring recommendations.

Users are presented with a number of options when setting up a new instrument, including an electric guitar (with 6, 7 or 12 strings by default and a custom setting for going wild with a multi-string monster), a mandolin, a banjo and a custom creation for everything inbetween.

After naming the six-string electric Washburn XM-STD I bought to review Fishman's TriplePlay system, I connected the guitar to the audio port of my tablet via the supplied adapter (which has a 3.5 mm jack at one end and a 6.4 mm instrument input at the other). It was then time to calibrate each string.

This is done by selecting an appropriate onscreen icon, placing the Roadie tuner on the appropriate peg and repeatedly plucking the matching string on the guitar. Calibration sees the motor drive the peg connector clockwise and anti-clockwise until the app is happy that everything's in order and starts to bring the string to tune. The process is repeated until all strings are calibrated and in tune.

The next time a tune-up is needed, the app skips the calibration process and goes straight into the tuning screen. Users only need to calibrate the strings the first time Roadie is used on a guitar and then on subsequent restrings thereafter. The app can be set to auto detect a plucked string by frequency or the "Tune" icon can be manually selected for each string.

Users need to ensure that Roadie's peg connector has a good grip on the tuning peg. The instructions also advise the player to hold the device still at all times while attached to the instrument's tuning peg, as Roadie essentially uses the hand gripping it to counter the action of the motorized peg connector. I found it was a good idea to anchor a free finger or two against the headstock so that Roadie didn't move too much while the pegs were being turned.

Though perhaps I've made that all look a bit long-winded, the video below demonstrates just how quickly a guitar can be calibrated and brought into tune using Roadie.

The sensitivity of the system can be user-tweaked by selecting what looks like an EQ icon to the top left of the screen, allowing for slower but more accurate tuning or fast but perhaps only "close enough for jazz" tuning, or somewhere in the middle. The app also applies noise filtering to the sounds coming through the smart device's microphone.

"Roadie's algorithm cancels recognizable noise patterns such as speech and a clap and focuses on detecting string instrument sounds in particular," Jalgha explained. "The algorithm is the work of Hassane Slaibi who has been doing audio research for a while before we started developing Roadie. Of course as with any signal processing algorithm it is not foolproof, and in noisy environments such as a live setting, band noise can still be detected, this is why it is preferable to have the mic sensitivity option so the user would move the slider according to the noise level. This slider simply chooses the appropriate threshold of what passes through and what doesn't in terms of signal power amplitude.

"Also it is important to note that it is much harder to develop audio algorithms for Android phones rather than it is for Apple phones. The reason is that there are so many diverse Android phone manufacturers/models and each is using its own audio hardware. So the audio filtering and amplification varies tremendously between different phone manufacturers, hence the need for the slider so the user would adapt the app according to need."

The app also includes a manual chromatic tuner, so you can still tune up if you misplace your Roadie tuner, and wind/unwind icons for restringing assistance using the smart device's touchscreen instead of the manual rocker buttons on Roadie itself. And then there's something called the Instrument Doctor, which can help determine when an instrument needs a restring.

As a regular alternate tuner, I was pleased to find a number of non-standard tunings already programmed in. If a favorite isn't already listed, users have the option to create custom tunings and add them to the list. I found this feature to be very useful indeed. Switching between standard and Open E took less than a minute, then to Open G and back to standard, all with relative ease.

It wasn't all plain sailing though. I discovered that jumping between tunings could be a bit problematic when the low string was tuned to something like low C, finding that I had to give Roadie some help to get within its ideal tuning range before it was able to take control and finish the job.

"Generally it is recommended that the string frequency should be in the range of desired frequency /2 to desired frequency *2 for Roadie to be able to tune well," Jalgha told me. "The reason is that if the string is too loose there is high risk that audio will not be heard, or the harmonic frequencies might be dominant which will confuse Roadie and causes an error message to pop up. This is why it is recommended to have the string tight enough so Roadie can tune it."

The bottom line

Tuning accuracy is reported as ± 1 cents over a range of 55 - 2,200 Hz. I compared Roadie's performance after each tune up with the array of chromatic tuners and stomps that have served me well over the years and found it to be pretty much spot on. I say pretty much because, as mentioned earlier, there were a very few occasions where Roadie seemed to lose its way mid-tune or throw up an error message if I moved the robotic tuner too much while its rather noisy motor was running.

Roadie really comes into its own when restringing a guitar, a task that I used to keep putting off and putting off. With the Band Industries system it's quick and easy, though it's not quite a one step process.

"If a user is restringing, he can use the wind button to tighten up the string and then press on 'Tune' to tune it directly," explained the CTO. "This is in case no calibration is needed for the string. If Roadie had difficulties tuning the new string then a calibration is needed. Generally a calibration is preferred if the string gauge is changed."

During my time with Roadie, my handheld and pedal tuners haven't seen the light of day (other than to check the accuracy of Roadie's tuning prowess) and the manual peg turner has lost its place in my gig bag permanently. Were I to hit the road though, my stomp tuner would still retain its place on my pedalboard, for peace of mind and convenience. But Roadie would also be coming along for the ride.

As useful as this tuning aid already is, Band Industries is promising that it will get even better over time. "Roadie is a work in progress and we are making sure to release almost weekly app updates to resolve any bugs that appear, to improve the accuracy and make the entire process easier on the user," Jalgha revealed.

Well worth the US$99 asking price I'd say.

Product page: Roadie

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