Why it took 28 years to make a guitar tuner !

Necessity, the mother of invention

So they say.

As a guitar teacher and player in the 70s and 80s, I spent an inordinately amount of time tuning my numerous instruments as well as those of my students.

In those years, we carried tuning forks, pitch pipes and rather large contraptions with buttons, dials and needles. LEDs were just beginning to enter the large-scale consumer market.

The tuners worked, sort of, but as a perfectionist, I was thinking of the better mousetrap… and a better guitar tuner.

My original 1985 idea revolved around 3 novel characteristics unavailable on guitar tuners at that time:

  1. A credit card size tuner placed on the guitar’s side where many musicians already stuck notes with song titles and other info.
  2. A tuner with only one button ON/OFF, everything else being automatic, including identification of the string being played.
  3. A smart algorithm that would smooth out pitch transitions and display only practical answer: should I tighten the string, loosen it or keep it as is?

This was before the advent of clip-on tuners so sticking it on the guitar itself was quite a new twist. I had just come back from Japan where I had bought a credit-card thickness calculator, so I was confident it could be done.

And with automatic string recognition, imagine the convenience of having your tuner always available at the touch of a finger… even on stage.

But the most interesting idea was the focus on “functional” rather than “real-time” precision. But to achieve this, we needed an additional layer of interpretation on top of brute frequency calculations.

One of the first mock-up design

Guitar players know that the frequency of a plucked string actually varies as it is played… from an attack frequency (whose pitch depends on the force and angle of the attack) to a resolution frequency, but also with interference from powerful harmonics, generated by the guitar body’s own resonance as well as from the sympathetic vibration of other strings. This is why precise real-time calculations of frequency — which most tuners aimed for — resulted in fluctuating displays that bothered many amateur guitar players.

OK, a great idea, but where from here?

Where is the technology?

I easily convinced a close friend and crack electrical engineer to join this project.

We started by making real time frequency tests and analysis of plucked guitar strings from various instruments. We designed a real size mock up with the help of a professional graphic designer and started to identify available electronic components.

We worked on a shoebox assembly of what we hoped would eventually be reduced to credit card size.

The first tests were done using Switched Capacity Filters (SCF) with an original production cost estimate of $16.40. Not that far from our intended $15 production cost and $60 sale price. Yes, in those days, electronic tuners were expensive, with prices ranging from $60 to $120!

Quickly the project hit difficulties. With the then available electronic components, it turned out to be next to impossible to achieve, at a reasonable price, the required frequency recognition and analysis. The project was getting much bigger than first anticipated and was in need of major cash injection for further R&D. But how to convince potential investors?

In 1992, turning to computer code rather than physical components, we programmed a computerized working rendition of the tuner. With this and the mock up pasted on the guitar, we approached several investors and secured the promise of a $100,000 seed fund.

Advances in Digital Signal Processing chips offered a better path than SCF and we were aiming to come up with a final product that could wholesale around $10.

Unfortunately, the investor’s priorities later changed and the seed money for the tuner’s development was cancelled.

The computerised version

Smart phones to the rescue

Years went by when one day, with the advent of smart phones, the idea resurfaced. What was next to impossible to achieve at a reasonable cost a few years ago had now become normal number-crunching work for smart phone chips.

A new team was put in place and although the problems related to interpreting the guitar strings’ frequencies were still present, complex mathematical algorithms were available to finally allow the design of a “smart” tuner; one that accounted for the different strings’ specific characteristics to provide the user with a stable and precise reading and course of action.

After 28 years of trials and adjustments, here is one of the smartest guitar tuner on the block:

Although it boasts an absolute precision up to 1 hundredth of a semitone, it is its functional precision that sets it apart from the others. In “smart” mode, rather than displaying the fluctuating frequency of the plucked strings, this tuner analyses the frequency’s evolution taking into consideration the specific behavior of the string being played. In actual fact, each of the 6 strings have individual characteristics regarding length and strength of it’s attack, resolution and fade-out frequencies, as well as its harmonic content and its influence on other strings.

Following fancy calculations, the tuner returns the only answer that is really required: should I tighten, loosen or leave the string as it is?

See it at GuitarLabTuner.com

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