Hands-on review: Roadie 2 automated robot guitar tuner
If the robots really are coming to take our jobs, tuning guitars is one chore they're welcome to.
Ask any guitar player about the least favourite aspect of their instrument and it’s a safe bet that most will say tuning the darn thing. It’s especially faffy if you’re the kind of player who likes to venture into the world of weird and wonderful tunings, with such cryptic, arcane names as ‘DADGAD’.
The issue is compounded if you happen to own more than one guitar, as you might keep one guitar in one tuning and other guitars in other tunings. If you play live, and your set list includes several songs in different tunings, you’re either going to have to take several guitars with you to every gig, or stand there on stage like a plank manually retuning your solitary instrument for minutes on end every time in front of your audience to the strains of that uniquely oppressive heaviness that characterises an awkward silence on stage. Frankly, ‘tuning up’ is a hassle we could all do without.
Enter Roadie 2, the automatic guitar tuner. A standalone automated tuner that you can easily move from guitar to guitar, fine-tuning (ho, ho) each one as you go.
Roadie 2 is - as you might have guessed - the follow-up to the original Roadie. What Roadie 2 brings to the tuning party is a screen, which is really incredibly useful when selecting and performing tuning; a more powerful rechargeable battery (500mAh, up from 300mAh); true standalone performance, whereby the companion Roadie app is handy to have on your smartphone but is not required for the tuner to work; and improved vibration sensing, rather than relying solely on a microphone - ideal for noisy situations (e.g. during a live concert or at rehearsals when your band mates just won’t stop noodling away).
Described as being “three times more accurate than the human ear” (whose ear, they don’t say, but apparently it's ours), Roadie 2 is a palm-sized black plastic unit approximately 3" square and weighing a negligible 90g, so very easy to slip into the back pocket of your jeans when playing live or rehearsing. Inside, is a 300:1 gear ratio motor capable of micro-movements for ultra-precise tuning and a set of sensors to pick up and analyse the string vibrations, all powered by a preinstalled rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The tuner is estimated to last around one month from a single charge (a battery level is featured on the screen) and our testing largely bears this out. As tuning only takes a minute or two, it’s not as if you need to run the tuner constantly. A USB-C charging cable is included.
Roadie 2 can also be used to re-string instruments from scratch with its automatic winding feature, in which the motor rotates at speeds up to 75rpm.
To begin tuning, you simply press and hold the button at one end of Roadie’s tuning head, which brings up a list of instrument types and available tunings on the crisp, bright OLED screen. There are 40 preset alternate and open tunings and you can also create and store your own custom tunings.
If you’ve already set up your favourites as named instruments - say, if you want to be ultra-precise about a specific guitar’s intonation, with a few cents variation from string to string, or you want to switch from guitar to mandolin mid-show - you can select this directly and Roadie will recall your preferences. Detection accuracy is less than +1 cent and tuning accuracy is up to +2 cents. The default reference A 440Hz setting is also customisable in 0.1Hz increments from 420Hz to 460Hz.
With a tuning chosen, you attach the ‘teeth’ end of Roadie’s tuning head to the first tuning peg and pluck the string. Roadie’s sensors pick up on the vibrations and the gear motor starts whirring, turning the tuning peg, more pronounced at first as the bulk of the tuning is done and then in tiny mesmeric ‘zip-zip... zip-zip’ increments back and forth until Roadie declares itself satisfied with this string via some buzzing, haptic feedback and a green light on the power/select button (which is normally a light blue colour). You now move to string two, repeat and complete the full instrument.
You can hop back and forth between strings, tunings, guitars etc using a combination of the button and the jog wheel in the tuning head and it’s much easier to actually use than it would be to try to explain. Take it from us, it’s intutive enough that we didn’t make many mistakes.
The companion mobile app acts like a control centre for the brain of your Roadie 2, communicating from phone to Roadie via Bluetooth 4.0 low energy. The app stores your instrument profiles, advanced tuning options such as reference pitch and capo tuning, the full list of alternate tunings and any custom tunings, as well as a music news section and Roadie updates. It’s not essential or necessary to have the app, but it’s nice to have and definitely extends the usefulness of Roadie 2.
While we’ve mostly been referencing guitars in this review, Roadie 2 can in fact be used for almost any stringed instrument with geared pegs: electric, acoustic, classical and steel guitars, seven and 12-string guitars, ukuleles, mandolins, banjos, etc. For bass guitars, there is a specific Roadie Bass version - which has a more powerful motor to wind the heavier strings - although we used our regular review model to tune a bass guitar a couple of times just fine. If you regularly tune both bass and six-string guitars, though, Band Industries advise that you buy (just) the bass version, as this is powerful enough to tune anything.
Most of the time, Roadie 2 is excellent. We do have a couple of gripes. Roadie struggled with tuning a 12-string acoustic guitar (to be honest, who doesn’t?), losing track of which string it should have been tuning and not finding the correct pitch for some octave strings. This didn’t happen every time, but it did happen.
Our prime beef with Roadie 2 is with the tuning teeth that grip the pegs on an instrument. For most instruments with kidney-bean style tuners (think any Fender guitar), these will slot perfectly into Roadie 2’s jaws. Even more ornate designs - such as the fancy-pants tuners on a recent-model Gretsch electric guitar - were still sufficiently slim for Roadie 2 to neatly take hold. The problem came with thicker tuning pegs, such as the flared ‘tulip’ design pegs found on e.g. many Gibson and Epiphone guitars. Not all such tuners will pose the problem, but at least two of our test guitars (we tuned over a dozen guitars, both vintage and modern, from a broad range of manufacturers) did.
These fatter pegs would not fit as comfortably in the Roadie’s teeth and we had to force the jaws to open wide enough, pushing the device quite firmly down onto the tuning peg. We were concerned about the long-term effects of this downward pressure on the tuning peg mechanism itself. Given how many guitars use these wider ‘vintage-style’ tuning pegs, we were surprised that Roadie 2 couldn’t more easily accommodate them.
We found a workaround by inserting just as much of the peg as we could into the Roadie’s jaws such that the robot tuner could still perform its magic, but it wasn’t ideal and not as slick an experience as with slimmer tuning pegs. This little snafu didn’t stop us tuning our guitars, many times over, but it’s a caveat to keep in mind all the same.
Regardless, Roadie 2 is an excellent tool that should be a serious consideration in the case of every stringed instrument. We haven’t stopped using it since we started this review and we can’t imagine going without it now. Is it expensive? Maybe a little. You can get tuner apps for your phone for free. You can get physical tuners for as little as £10. However, none of those options will actually tune the instrument for you, to within one-cent accuracy, in seconds. The amount of time and hassle that Roadie 2 saves you pays back your investment with each instrument you tune, retune, restring and tune again.
Plus, the magic of using Roadie never gets old: having a robot tune your guitar for you is very cool indeed.