If, like me, your guitar is always just a little bit out of tune, at least with the 440Hz world around it, because your tuner’s battery is always flat, then you too will praise the arrival of the solar powered guitar tuner.
When I first saw the TC-1S, advertised in a real made-out-of-paper guitar magazine prior to Christmas 2010, my first thought was yes! and my second thought was why did this take so long? When I was a little child my aunt gave me a solar powered calculator the size of a credit card. I didn’t have a lot of equations to do but I thought it was neat as hell. A mobile electric thing that never runs out! That must have been mid Eighties. By 2010, why weren’t there solar powered things everywhere? And today, it’s still pretty much just calculators.
Tascam, unfortunately, knew it had something unique, and mistook this for the same thing as valuable. The price of a TC-1S was $50 for what, as we’ll see, is quite an under-featured tuner besides the solar bit. I don’t think many sold. A year later, looking for Christmas presents, I looked it up again: $17. Sold! (Currently it is $14.99 on Amazon.)
The tuner is attractive not just for its head slapping solar technology, but its design. It comes in a rainbow of bright, happy colors, like Apple used to offer, soft silicone jackets protecting the clean white device inside. It also has a tough nylon strap and a metal rock-climber’s looking clip so you can attach it to stuff that needs a tuner hanging off it. Tascam suggests hooking it on the outside of your gig bag to keep it charged, but they live in an experimental biodome where no one steals things.
Yes, to keep it charged. If I put my finger over the solar cells on my calculator, the display faded out; either there was enough light to work, or it was off. The TC-1S is charged by light (or by USB if you have no windows or bulbs, like perhaps a hostage) and stores that energy until switched on. This distinction is actually one I’d prefer it didn’t have, as internal rechargeable batteries become problematic when inevitably they lose capacity, as with the iPod. Right now it’s working well. In an east facing guitar room/office that often has the blinds drawn, the TC-1S always shows four bars – full charge – when I turn it on.
Input is simple, the usual internal mic for acoustic instruments, 1/4 inch jack for electric. There is no through or out, so you can’t leave it in the effects loop or between the guitar and amp – the first point in the tuner’s Damn Shame column. A device that never runs out of batteries would be nice to have permanently connected, getting around the four step unplug-replug ballet.
Expecting the simplest possible version of a digital tuner, it was surprising to find four ways to tune up using the LCD display.
- Needle: roughly emulates an analog tuner, animating three bars of the display as the needle.
- Strobe: a strobe-style tuner, where the speed of passing bars indicates how close you are to pitch.
- Fine: a more accurate version of Needle, with the whole screen covering only ±20 cents.
- Meter: a solid bar grows out from the center to the left or right, depending on whether you’re flat or sharp.
Strobe sounds the least intuitive, but is in fact the most, making tuning quick and easy. It’s like a game where caterpillars of segmented LCD are racing past the screen, and your job is to stop them. Traveling left means you’re flat, right means you’re sharp, their speed indicating by how much. Something makes sense about slowing them down as you turn the tuning peg, until eventually they freeze. In all modes, the played note is stated on the far right.
The Tascam seems good at ignoring the harmonics that often confuse tuners into giving skittish results, though it’s still a good idea to turn your tone knob down. It does a grand job of getting you in tune quickly without the doubt of more jittery machines.
One place you might appreciate the chance to tune up quickly is on stage, but you won’t be using the TC-1S for that as – second Damn Shame – it has no illumination. With an unlit black-on-gray LCD, it would be like trying to read a Casio by your feet in the dark.
The third Damn Shame: the USB port is hidden under the silicone jacket, so that you have to mangle the thing off of one end to reach it. You get the impression the port was added after the rest had been finalized.
The fourth: the tuner turns itself off after a few minutes, whether you like it or not. Heaven forbid you get caught up in a little jam while checking out how the first few tuned strings sound; the display will be blank when you regain your focus. This auto shutoff also makes it a wee bit annoying for longer jobs like setting intonation, as you have to keep leaning over to turn it back on. I understand why my digital cameras drop into standby after a bit, laptops, but something powered by the sun? We have several billion years before that power source dries up. Let’s splurge a little.
However, I’m still fond of my little blue TC-1S. I like its feel, its shape, its look, and its most important feature: it always turns on. While weak in almost every area – too dark for stage use, too narcoleptic for setups, less accurate than a true strobe, no through jack – it’s now at a price where all of that is fair. I’m more in tune than I’ve ever been, no longer listening out for handy sustained E, A or D notes from the TV while noodling around the house, because it’s always ready to go.
If the next version could power LEDs, add another jack, and stay on ’til you turn it off, it might be worth that fifty dollars.