04 July 2013

Pedal effects: TC Electronics Polytune


Note: this entry was already published in my old Spanish version of this blog, around August/2011. I am just revisiting it here.

You will find tuner pedals at any price. Practically, every brand has at least some model and, sometimes more than just one model. But there are some parameters that distinguish one from the other.

Precision is one of the most distinctive parameters. One Octave, in a tempered scale, is being divided in 12 semi-tones of 100 cents each one. Tuner's precision is being determined with their ability to represent the exact note with a deviation expressed in cents.

It seems that 25 cents is the deviation practically heard by anyone, while more fine ears can distinguish differences between 5 to 6 cents. Let see some typical tuners.

King of tuners, Peterson, has a tuner in a pedal format (Strobo Stomp II), which precision is of 0.1cent (a decim of cent!).
The Boss TU-3, very often seen in pedalboards, has a precision of 1 cent, as the Korg Pitchblack, among many others.

Most of tuners have a precision between 1 and 0.1 cent, which is more than enough for every ear.

One more characteristic to take into account is the response time of tuners. Each tuner reacts with a very different speed recognizing the note. Slow tuners, taking more time recognizing the note, make us to go from one side to other, while trying to tune the string. Speed tuners are even able to recognize notes as they are being triggered in a speed riff.
Tune speed isn't so critical when we are trying to intonate our guitar and, for that case, the great precision of a Peterson weights more than its response time (that's already good enough). But, a good speed is the best when we are trying to tune between songs.

One more interesting characteristic is the display. Most of tuners have several modes, that allow you to choose the way that better works for you. Peterson introduced a stroboscopic way to show the tuning process and, most of modern tuners have such a mode in a partial way.

Briefing it, most of tuner pedals have a precision more than enough to let you to tune your guitar so accurately that nobody could hear the deviation of the exact note and, therefore, what can differentiate tuners is the rest of their characteristics.

TC Electronics Polytune


The tuner comes in a small cardboard box, with lot of "marketing". Inside, the tuner pedal, a free subscription ticket (3 months) to Sound On Sound, a sticker of TC Electronics, a couple of velcro straps and the user manual, with instructions in several languages.
The unit includes a sealed battery (of short duration). You have to open the unit, to remove or install the battery. And, this is a darn easy operation.The unit has just a single big screw, in the center of the backside, with an slot as wide as a coin so, you can open and close it in an instant, without recurring to some screwdriver.

Once opened, you can access the battery but, rest of circuitry is hidden behind an internal cover, fixed with 4 more screws.

Product seems to be made of good materials, with good finishing and, it seems sturdy enough.

Controls and connexions

In front side, just the visor and the switch that activates the pedal.
In lateral sides, the input and output jacks.
Most of control are in the lateral upper side and, are as follow:


A very small button at left hand, that changes the mode between Needle and Stream (pseudo-stroboscopic).
9V Output

This output allows you to use the tuner to feed up other pedals, with a multi barrel-plug cable (not included).

Service Port

This mysterious USB plug would probably be of use for technical service repair and, maybe to update the software or firmware of this tuner. Service cable not included, neither.

9V Input

This is the input for the 9V AC Adapter, if you aren't going to use the internal battery. When you plug something there, the battery remains unconnected.


Every time you push this button, the reference tuning goes down in a semi-tone. You can drop your reference tuning up to 5 semi-tones.


This tuner allows two visualization modes, Needle and Stream. In the Needle mode you have the typical arrow, similar to analogic units, that allow you to know when the note is in tune. In Stream mode, there is some kind of stroboscopic display, where a set of lights move in semi-circle; when they stop, the string is in tune (this is my own preferred display).
With button Display, we are changing the mode in the following sequence: G Needle, G Stream, B Needle, B Stream. G means Guitar and, B means Bass Guitar.

Independently of the two display modes, the tuner works in two different working modes: Poly and Mono. But, you don't have to push any button to go from one to the other mode. As soon as the tuner detects more than just one string ringing at once, the mode Poly is triggered and, if we just play a single string, Mono it automatically enters in mode Mono.
In mode Mono, the display will depend on the election we already discussed related to button Display but, in mode Poly, the view is fixed and, independent of Display.
Each string is being represented by a group of 2 leds, having 6 groups of leds for a guitar and, up to 5 for a bass guitar. When each string is in tune, their corresponding leds light in green. When some string is out-of-tune, this will be shown with the help of a couple of red leds up or down the green in-tune group.

Mode Poly is just what differentiates this tuner from the rest. It was the first tuner to incorporate a multi-strings tuning system, where you can check and modify the status of all strings at once.

According to the maker, you achieve the best results working with the bridge (rear) pickup and, softly strumming strings with your thumb finger. If you try that, the display will automatically change to mode Poly and, you will see at a glance the tuning status of all your strings. This is really good for live performance, to re-tune any string between songs. After strumming strings and, while they are still ringing, you can act over the tuning keys of each out-of-tune string and see how they come back to tuning. You can strum more times until you got everything in tune.

But, you have to take note that the mode Poly hasn't the same accuracy or precision than the mode Mono. While mode Mono has a precision of 0.5 cents, mode Poly is less accurate but, equally useful.

Also, you should take into account that mode Poly WORKS ONLY with TRADITIONAL tuning and dropped tunings (up to 5 semi-tones below traditional tuning). Poly mode doesn't recognize any other kind of alternative tunings so, be sure to use mode Mono for those cases.

Finally, if you press simultaneously Display and Tuning buttons, you access to Calibration mode.
The calibration mode can establish a reference frequency for A (La) different of the default one (440 Hz).
You can change reference frequency between 435 and 445 Hz, with an interval of 1 Hz.

The Tuner works in True Bypass (according to the maker but, I seriously have my suspects that this isn't true because as soon as you feed it with power, even if the pedal is switched off, there is some internal checks that you can see in the display). When you switch it on, the sound is being muted, allowing you just to tune.

My impressions, after my tests

I've restricted my tests to check modes Poly and Mono, tuning guitars with different bridge systems: a fixed bridge (LP like), a deluxe floating bridge (strato deluxe), a vintage floating bridge (PRS 513) and a Floyd Rose bridge (Charvel SoCal Type 1).
The Poly display allows you to see the instability of all strings when you are tuning just one of them, in a guitar with a floating bridge, where you see the red lights going up and down in the meanwhile.

The Poly tests were very interesting. In every case, it was a very quick way to check the tuning status of each guitar but, I think it works way better for fixed bridge guitars and, I prefer to go string by string (mode Mono) in the case of floating bridges (you achieve quicker and accurate results like this).

Comparing it to my previous tuner, the Korg Pitchblack, it's clear to me that the Polytune reacts way quicker than the Korg unit, in a closer real-time to your changes in the peghead so, it results quicker to tune your strings.

I also think that it works better in Stream mode than in Needle. To my ear, I think the tuning I achieve  is more accurate in Stream mode.
The Korg Pitchblack has more visualization modes than the Polytune and, some are mixing Needle and Stroboscopic views.

I've also made some speed to detect notes tests while playing some riff. To clearly detect the note, it needs that you give that note with total clarity and not so speed. It doesn't seem to be the speeder tuner in the World; there are some other units that work with more speed and accuracy but, without any doubt, is quicker than the Pitchblack.

I am not going to do any demo video, because I've seen videos enough in Youtube and, I don't feel myself as adding something extra to those.

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