Is this a valuable tool for committed guitarists, or a crutch for the lazy and tone‑deaf?
Founder and inventor Chris Adams claimed that he would be able to turn almost any six‑string, steel‑strung or electric guitar into an instrument that could automatically tune itself. Not only that, but Tronical’s self‑tuning system would be invisible to the audience, didn’t make the instrument heavier or change its balance, and could be retrofitted without any drilling, routing or other damage to the guitar. The answers to all the obvious questions were yes. It also worked with floating tremolo systems and it could switch rapidly between alternate tunings; and yes, the user could still tune manually, and could store and recall his or her custom tunings.
It turns out that Gibson had acquired an exclusive license to their technology, which eventually surfaced with some neat refinements in that company’s Robot Guitars. However, a combination of high cost, limited production runs and other challenges meant that these have remained the choice of a few musicians.
What’s more is that since its initial launch, it has been further refined and the new system now fits in its entirety behind the headstock of the guitar. It requiring no wiring or replacement of bridge, saddles or controls. The system is from Tronical themselves, called Tronical Tune.
The Tronical Tune system consists of 3 main components. First, there’s a set of motorised machine heads called Roboheads. From the front of the headstock, these look like conventional locking tuners, but behind it they extend perhaps three times as far as a typical set of Grovers. Second, there’s a rectangular plastic housing with LEDs, which contains the battery and the brains of the system. And third, there’s a black plastic plate, which sits flush against the back of the headstock, with the machine heads passing through it.
While the brain is common to all Tronical configurations, the machine heads and the plate must precisely match the geometry of your headstock. This means that you need to be careful to order the correct system for your guitar. If you have an obscure model or a custom‑made instrument, the chances are that you won’t be able to use it. However, the range of guitars that is supported is already very impressive, including most current six‑string models from the likes of Gibson, Fender, Ibanez, Guild, Taylor and Yamaha, as well as many smaller manufacturers. New models are being added and will be available for order.
Everything you need to install the system is supplied. A screwdriver is needed to remove your existing machine heads, and the instructions are very clear. With a bit of practice, I’m sure that an experienced guitar tech could fit the entire system in five minutes or so, and there’s no drilling required. The Tronical machine heads don’t even need to be attached by woodscrews, as they are held in place by holes in the plastic plate. Despite their size, they are surprisingly light, and really don’t change the balance of the guitar. The battery pack may not be charged on arrival, so be sure to charge this during installation. A single charge is enough for several weeks of light‑to‑moderate use, or perhaps a couple of days of intensive use, and charging is impressively fast. It has been rated at 300 uses on a single charge.
To the user, the system’s brain has 6 buttons. 5 of these are arranged in a cross shape with the outer 4 acting rather like cursor keys for navigating through system options and the central one serving to confirm choices. The 6th button, to the lower right, turns the system on, and with combinations of this and the central button access various different modes of tuning. The visual aid comes from a row of 6 LEDs labelled with the note names of each string, and several further LEDs around the controls. All of these are capable of displaying a number of different colors are bright enough to be visible even on the darkest stage.
Tronical warns that the system should not be used with string gauges heavier than 13‑56, a restriction which may bother few guitarists these days. Fitting these to the locking machine heads was relatively straightforward, though the low E can be a bit of a squeeze. There are several warnings about the damage that can be done to the machine heads by over‑tightening the locking heads. This should never be done using a tool other than a coin or the supplied wrench. The manual recommends taking an extra turn around the post with the high B and E strings, and even then, I found the B prone to slippage on a couple of occasions. When stringing the Roboheads, the locking cap needs to be screwed down firmly enough to clamp the string in place, but not so tight as to damage the mechanism.
Once you’ve tightened the locking mechanisms, you can power up the system and the system will start to tune after a couple of strums. Taking each string in turn from low to high, you hold down the Up button until the tension begins to approach the correct pitch for that string, after which you can simply twang the string until its LED lights up green to indicate that it is in tune. The need to trim and lock the string ends means that it’ll never be quite as fast as restringing a guitar with conventional machine heads using an string winder, but once you’ve done it a couple of times, it becomes very easy. I do not think it would really be possible or quick to change a broken string on stage.
The Tronical Tune system offers 2 basic tuning modes: all strings at once, or single‑string tuning, accessed by pressing and releasing or by pressing and holding the power button. As you’d expect, the first is faster, while the latter is more robust, especially in the face of noisy environments and other impediments. Among the many configuration options is the ability to specify how accurately you wish the system to tune each string. You can setup for the loosest ±3.5 cent option results in speedier tuning, but you can go as tight as ±1 cent.
One thing you notice straight away is that the motorized machine heads make a grinding sound in motion, which is easily audible across a quiet stage. They seem to be programmed to operate in the way that most learn to tune a guitar, ensuring that they always tune up rather than down to the note, so you quite often find them tuning around the note as they go alternately sharp and flat.
As you tune, the note LEDs on the back of the brain change color to indicate what’s action is being performed. Notes that are in tune show up green, while those that are not yet in tune glow red. Yellow indicates that a particular string’s pitch is being measured, and blue that the relevant machine head is in motion. If your string is so far out of tune that it falls out of the pitch window, it appears purple. In all‑strings‑at‑once mode, you’ll also sometimes see the LEDs flash white, indicating that interference between strings is slowing the tuning process. This happens most often in open tunings where multiple strings are tuned in. It’s important that the plate matches exactly the geometry of the headstock. Octaves in DADGAD and open D tunings, for instance, I often found that the middle D string’s LED flashed white. You can adjust the sensitivity by going into configuration mode, but I never managed to get over this entirely. It’s not a huge problem, though, and you can always go into single‑string mode if needs be.
A couple of strums in all‑strings‑at‑once mode is usually enough to get 3 or 4 of the LEDs lit up green, after which you’ll have to mute the strings and pluck any remaining ones individually. Even at high accuracy levels, it’s pretty fast; not fast enough that you could do it mid‑song, but faster than manual tuning, especially where tuning is quite far off to start with. I tested the all‑strings‑at‑once mode’s vulnerability to noise interference by turning up the stereo and tuning next to the speaker, and encountered no problems. However, as mentioned above, it works better in standard tuning than in some other tunings like DADGAD. I found single‑string mode more reliable and nearly as fast. Either way, getting your guitar in tune does require some attention to what the LEDs are telling you. Tronical Tune is not a magic button that can instantly put your guitar in tune without any intervention from the user. Every now and then, I find that it convinced itself too easily that a string was in tune when it clearly wasn’t, so it pays to check by ear or with a tuner.
An unusual feature of the Tronical system is that on an instrument with a 3×3 headstock, the bass‑side tuners work backwards. This is relevant because the Tronical machine heads can also be turned manually and as they have a much lower gearing than any conventional alternative, this can be a very good way of fine‑tuning where appropriate.
Seeing the system in action
Adding Tronical Tune to your guitar changes your relationship with the instrument, in more ways than you’d expect. If you’ve ever felt like experimenting with different tunings this is the perfect tool for dispelling your fears, letting you easily dabble in DADGAD or beyond and return at the touch of a button to the comfort of standard tuning. I also found myself much more conscious of tuning. Unlike conventional machine heads, these require no woodscrews, as they fit neatly into holes in the plastic plate. When your guitar is tuned accurately all the time, the compromises associated with equal temperament really start to annoy you, and for the first time, I found myself hearing that strings were getting old before I felt it.
The flip side of this is that it’s easy to fall into the trap of expecting too much from Tronical Tune. It’s an amazing piece of technology, which works very well, but it’s not magic and it needs to be used with care. This is a product for those who simply can’t be bothered. It builds a lot of functions into a small package, with inevitable consequences for the user interface; and while you quickly learn the basic operations, I’m still regularly consulting the manual for less common functions even after some familiarity.
In short, if you want something that will free you from ever having to worry about tuning again, buy a keyboard. Tronical Tune is for those who are worried about tuning, and are seeking a better way of managing it. It is hugely innovative, but at the same time, it’s a natural and significant evolution of the same technological process that gave us tuning forks and then digital tuners. It’s not cheap, but it’s a small fraction of the price of a top‑flight instrument. When you consider what it actually does, it certainly represents value for money. If you have a single main instrument, Tronical Tune will make it more dependable, more versatile and, ultimately, in tune more of the time, and I think it’s an option that all serious guitarists should consider.