Review: Diving deep with the Roadie Bass robot tuner
Last year, Band Industries launched a Kickstarter for an upgraded version of its Roadie robotic tuner, with a bass guitar flavor also promised. The campaign went on to become the most successful music accessory project on any crowdfunding platform, raising in excess of US$500,000. The Roadie 2 has been available since the close of 2017, and has now been joined by the Roadie Bass. We've spent the last couple of weeks in the company of bass players to get a feel for how it performs.
"We made the Roadie Bass to be the strongest, sturdiest and most capable tuner a musician could possibly need," said the firm's co-founder Hassane Slaibi. "If an instrument has a machine head, Roadie Bass can tune it at a professional level. This is something we always dreamed of and seeing Roadie Bass in the hands of thousands of musicians around the globe will be infinitely rewarding."
Like the Roadie 2, the Roadie Bass makes use of vibration sensing technology rather than the microphone of a Bluetooth-connected, app-running smartphone or tablet. This means that, unlike the first version of the robot tuner, it can tune up an instrument independent of the companion app and will function in a noisy rehearsal room, on stage or at a party.
In addition to automatically bringing bass strings to pitch, the Roadie Bass can tune any stringed instrument with guitar-like tuning pegs – such as electric/acoustic guitars, ukuleles, mandolin, banjo and more.
Band Industries has included a number of pre-loaded bass guitar options in the Roadie Bass memory. Players can choose from four, five and six stringed instruments, each having Standard, Drop D, Tuning in fifths, and Half step down as available tunings out of the box. Anything more adventurous will need to be manually set up using the device itself or through the companion iOS/Android app. Standard and alternative tunings for a host of stringed instruments have been included, in addition to bass.
The Roadie Bass is noticeably chunkier than the Roadie 2, at 4.1 x 3.75 x 1 inches (104 x 95 x 25 mm), and where the Roadie 2 has an OLED screen to the top of the grip barrel, the display has been moved to one side, reportedly to make it easier to see when tuning longer-necked instruments. The click wheel and multifunction on/off button have moved from the end of the barrel down to the main body.
Inside the bigger grip body is the same 500 mAh Li-ion battery as before, which is reported good for around 150 string tune-ups before needing a recharge via USB-C (though we're about 2 weeks and more than 30 instruments in and are still to recharge our review unit). Bringing an instrument to pitch is touted to take just 30 seconds, but we found this to vary quite a bit in testing – the longest tune up was around a minute, and we did have one or two problem strings to contend with. More on that later.
The Roadie Bass has a 27.5 Hz to 880 Hz detection range and can handle string gauges up to 140, while the Roadie 2 tops out at 75. This is thanks to a motor that's twice as powerful as the one in the Roadie 2. Once pitch is achieved on a string, the device automatically readies itself for the next one.
As before, the Roadie Bass can help take some of the tedium out of string changes with its wind/unwind feature, where the motor turns the peg grip at up to 40 rpm with 300:1 gearing, with slower speeds available on the fly just by turning the click wheel.
The robot tuner can work straight out of the box, on its own, but connecting it to the companion iOS/Android app extends its functionality. After installing the app, once logged in, the Wi-Fi connection can be terminated and the app will continue to talk to the Roadie Bass so long as you don't log out. The functionality is rather limited without Wi-Fi though.
New instruments and custom tunings can be created in the app, but if you want to send any of those to the Roadie Bass, you'll need to be signed in and connected to the internet to sync. This means you'll need to plan ahead, as you may use up precious mobile data allowance if new settings are created when out and about, and if you have the app running on a SIM-less tablet, well, you'll have to either try and convince the gig venue to let you use its Wi-Fi or wait until you get back to home base. Being able to sync just using Bluetooth would certainly be welcome.
The same app can be used to connect to the Roadie 2 as well, though the original Roadie will still need its own app to operate.
Taking the Roadie Bass on a road trip
The Roadie Bass doesn't just tune four, five or six string electric or acoustic bass guitars, it can also perform pitch duties on all of the other instruments that the Roadie 2 can manage – and that means electric/acoustic/classical guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukulele and so on. However, it's more powerful motor and more commanding presence were clearly designed to tackle thicker strings ... which presented a bit of a problem. I don't own a bass guitar of any shape or form. So, a road trip to seek out local bass players was called for.
To the victor, the Spoils
First up, we got a chance to join Matthew Holme from Plymouth (UK) creators of chaos, The Spoils Collective, at one of the band's rehearsals.
Matthew is partially sighted so the OLED display proved way too small to be of any use to him. However, the Roadie Bass could easily be set up by a band member and handed over to Matthew to do the actual tuning. And this is where the vibration feature comes into play.
When the Roadie Bass brought a string to tune, Matthew didn't see the light flashing but did feel the vibration and, because we were tuning up before band rehearsal, could also hear the double beep confirmation. Checking or changing tuning when the rehearsal setup was in full swing quickly drowned out any sounds coming from the device, so only the vibration could be relied upon here.
Matthew soon got the hang of tuning using the Roadie Bass, but wasn't quite sure how best to grip it. Holding it like a pistol did result in the occasional accidental turn of the scroll wheel, meaning that the string being tuned would then be out of sync with the pitch shown onscreen.
Usefully, the robotic guitar tech detected when something was amiss and sounded an error beep, while simultaneously going into a single long vibration, changing the status light to red and displaying a message onscreen, which needed confirmation or cancel to proceed. Though this did seem a tad hit and miss. A few deliberate tries to get an error message to appear failed, while accidentally picking the wrong string often resulted in the error.
After a few dry runs, Matthew soon got into his stride with the Roadie Bass but admitted that as he either tuned by ear or used a smartphone app, the cost of the device would be prohibitive. But the wind/unwind feature proved of interest for speeding up string changes by a not inconsiderable margin.
In the studio
Old strings seemed to be a problem for the Roadie Bass when tuning up producer and promoter Charlie Pritchard's electric bass (not plugged in). In spite of a good start, the device completely failed to move at all when tackling the A string in standard tuning. All of the other strings on this instrument, and an acoustic bass, electric guitar and parlour acoustic were brought to the desired pitch without issue, just the one A string.
Perhaps it was the rather threadbare condition of the string at the head (pictured below) that caused the Roadie Bass to be frustratingly inactive, or maybe it was some other aspect of the instrument. There's nothing in the device's specs or user manual to suggest that it's capable of serving as a string change alert system, we'll just have to try a restring and attack a Roadie-assisted tune-up again once a fresh set of bass strings arrive in the mailbox.
Apart from that one minor setback, the Roadie Bass performed as expected. Charlie noted that the more powerful motor did make first movement of the peg turner a bit brutal, moreso than the guitar-only Roadie 2 and causing the hand holding the device to move with the turn rather than stay rock steady. Also, noting that the design most definitely favored right handed players, he suggested a future design revision where the peg turner tube could be removed or rotated by 180 degrees to accommodate south paws.
"A left handed person won't be able to 'see' the screen while tuning, so that's the only challenge," Abir Farha from Band Industries told us. "But my colleague uses one himself (he's a lefty) and says he got used to it, that it isn't a problem."
Given that the Roadie Bass essentially extends the functionality of the Roadie 2 to include bass guitars out of the box, Charlie did wonder whether this would effectively replace the earlier model, meaning that a band could buy one device to be used by guitarists, bass players, ukulele strummers, mandolin players and so on, instead of having to buy instrument-specific flavors.
It would also prove more useful in the studio than the Roadie 2, for quickly bringing a long list of instruments to pitch before a recording session.
We checked with Band Industries, who confirmed that the Roadie 2 will continue to be produced.
At home with the Roadie Bass
We next met up with a young bassist called Tom Coulson, who is currently between bands. As with all of our road testers, Tom was impressed by the speed and accuracy of the Roadie Bass, and recognized its potential usefulness for a quick tune up between songs while on stage, particularly if needing to change from standard to an alternative tuning.
He did think that the scroll wheel was rather awkwardly placed, and that relocating it away from the grip would make accidental nudging during tuning less likely, or suggested including an option for some sort of lockout that requires user confirmation to manually move from string to string.
Because of the length of a bass neck, when tuning in 2 x 2 peg configuration, a player won't be able to easily see what's being displayed onscreen and definitely wouldn't be able to see the status light on the end of the barrel. Band Industries seems to have considered this as not only does the device vibrate when pitch is reached, but the front LED flashes (whether it's activated in the settings menu or not).
Tom was unique among our testers, in that he actually managed to freeze the system while scrolling and clicking like mad. The Roadie Bass didn't spit out any error messages or have its status light glow menacing red, it just stopped responding and the three line display went blank apart from the battery level indicator. However, the episode did prove useful for testing the system reset button, which can be found at the bottom and is activated using a thin wire such as a paper clip. A couple of sunken button pushes and the Roadie Bass came back to life. Phew!
So would the Roadie Bass find its way onto Tom's list of gig bag essentials? Although intrigued and impressed by the tech, its relatively high price tag and the fact that he tunes by ear or by using a YouTube video as a sonic reference resulted in a definite no.
What about life on the road?
Our final call was to Jake Galvin, a working bass player who gigs with a few bands local to him, primarily Antimatador, and who will be going on tour with Canadian guitarist Nick Johnston in August. Jake's go-to tuner is the excellent TC PolyTune floor stomp, which allows the player to strum all the strings at once and then just adjust those which are out and is significantly cheaper than the Roadie Bass. In his own words ...
"The Roadie Bass is quite a little gadget (and musicians love gadgets!). I've never really seen technology like this before so it almost felt like having a little personal robot companion. I found the unit easy to use and can definitely see how much time (and wrist strain) this could save on tasks such as string changes.
"As a bass player, I don't really have much use for a lot of the instrument modes, but it's good to know they're all available should I ever need to pass this unit around a band. However it's nice to see there's a 5 string bass mode as that's what I usually roll with. However, the Roadie Bass did have a little trouble picking up and tuning the low B if it was de-tuned too much. It seemed to kick in and work once we tuned the B string to a low A which is a tone down from standard tuning. Anything lower and the unit seemed to struggle a little.
"For me personally, I can imagine this unit being brilliant for home studio environments where a musician would have a whole load of guitars or basses on a guitar rack. Sometimes you have to try out many instruments to get the right sound, so with this you can tune your instruments in no time while they're still in the rack. And of course I can totally see this unit being perfect for guitar techs and the like, although I guess the clue is in the name there.
"I also play in a band with a singer song-writer from Devon called Alex Hart. She changes tuning between songs quite often and you can lose a few minutes throughout a show going through this process. This can be the equivalent of the length of an entire song if you're playing a 45 minute set. Why spend that time tuning when you could be playing music? So without doubt the main positive point about the Roadie Bass is the time it saves. And maybe it could even become a part of the show, as tuning isn't very discreet. You're certainly going to draw attention to yourself, mainly because people will simply wonder what the hell you're doing, or at the very least be intrigued by what it is you're using. For me personally, I've always been a fan of a pedal tuner when on stage. But there's no reason this couldn't become a part of my arsenal. The more gadgets the better!
"I should probably mention that musicians are also notoriously broke half the time. It can be a bit of a feast and famine line of work so the price mark is potentially one of the downsides to this unit, especially for the hobbyists out there who may prefer to get a cheaper tuner, whether that's a clip-on or floor based tuner. It'd be nice if the unit came with additional features in future also, like a permanent torch for navigating dark stages, or maybe even some string cutters built in somewhere so you had everything you needed for string changes in one unit. It would also be great if the grip was a little less boxy, with more of a pistol grip that fits in your hand more comfortably.
"But even saying that, there's no reason a band couldn't have a Roadie Bass in their kit to share between themselves instead of spending over £140 on one each. And as I said before, I can really see this being a must have for guitar techs and recording musicians."
After our meeting, Jake popped into his local music shop, and mentioned the Roadie Bass. The guys there said that they could envision such a device being a real time-saver in the store, allowing them to quickly move down the racks of instruments and tune as they went.
The bottom line
We've been using the Roadie 2 almost every day since it was released, tuning up using a floor stomp first and then using the Roadie 2 to keep strings in check or to quickly change to an alternative tuning, such as Open G or Drop D, and back to Standard again. We've also saved time and been saved from monotony while changing old strings for fresh ones. In short, we like it a lot.
And although the Roadie Bass did suffer a few minor mishaps during our tests, on the whole it was very well received. Until we revealed the price tag of US$149. If you can tune by ear, that can be done for free. Apps can also be had for free, though you will need to find a quiet nook to tune up – which is not always possible. While some stomp tuners can be quite expensive, there are lots of clip-ons and pedals that would leave you with a wallet full of change if you handed over $150 at the checkout.
The target user group is working musicians or guitar techs, and not bedroom noodlers, and as such, it would prove very useful on the road, in the studio and even tuning up racks of stringed instruments in a music store setting. And a big advantage with the Roadie Bass over the cheaper Roadie 2 is that all of the string pickers in the band will probably be able to use it, so it may actually work out less costly to plump for one Roadie Bass instead of an individual tuning device for each band member.
It's clear that Band Industries has tried to tick as many boxes as possible with the Roadie Bass. Well worth a look. It's available now.
Product page: Roadie Bass