(Apps to Help With Playing In-Tune)
The hardest thing for me to practice on my Soprano Saxophone is matching proper tuning on short/staccato notes. I asked the internet, as I occasionally do, for feedback in finding an iOS app to help me practice my tuning. Of course, to practice playing any instrument in tune, one needs a tuner, and there are plenty of these apps available for iOS. But, whether or not they are of value to you, not all tuners offer the same set of features or work as well – I, for one, don’t care about changing the base-pitch from A=440Hz or changing tuning systems to anything that is not Equal Temperament (i.e., “normal”). All tuner apps will have visual feedback telling you what note it thinks you are trying to play, with some variant of ‘put the needle in the center of this back-and-forth range’ as visual feedback, but not all can really help you with your intonation, especially in the exact horn-specific circumstance I’ve described.
There were several popular options listed by the responses I got from the above, and poking around internet forums yielded some more feedback, plus I already own multiple ‘generic’ tuner apps, so I thought I’d do a quick 2c review of what I’ve found…
There are two sides to practicing one’s intonation on a horn:
1. Playing ‘Long Tones’ – A single note held out while you attempt to not waver in pitch or apply too much vibrato. For practicing long-tones, almost any chromatic tuner will do. Since you are holding out a note, you can watch and try to keep the pitch within bounds. ‘Guitar Specific’ tuners which only tune to the notes EADGBE or other sets of just 6 notes are, of course, of limited value to anyone playing a chromatic instrument like the saxophone.
2. Playing short/staccato notes – Using a quick attack and trying to hit a particular pitch dead on for a brief moment is my primary concern in practicing intonation and I find this to be more difficult for technology (and myself) to assess. Since it has less time to react and it also has to visually display what just happened, this is a harder task for an app to manage.
Some Points Of Differentiation:
- Is it sensitive/fast enough to react to short bursts of staccato playing?
- Is there a ‘history’ of some sort where, for a few seconds after playing a short note, you have some sense of how you just did with that last attempt?
- Is there the ability to record your playing?
- Is there a RTA (Real Time Analysis) feature where all frequencies are represented in the visual feedback or is it just a +/- display?
- Does the app have the ability to generate tones which one can try to match by ear? Is this automatic?
- Does the app have the ability to change transpositions – The note ‘C’ on a Soprano or Tenor sax is really the concert note ‘Bb’, so does the app allow the user to change over?
- Is there a metronome? Not that Intonation requires one, but it is something that is often included in these apps.
I. Free Tuners
These tuner apps are free and are usually supported by banner ads in the programs with the ability to ‘upgrade’ and pay a few $ to get rid of the ads and maybe add a feature like changing the fundamental from A-440 or altering the tuning system from Equal-Temperament to something else. I’m not going through anything close to all of them since there are dozens, I just wanted to pick a few to compare against the paid apps below…
1A. n-Track Tuner (Free/Banner Ads)
This app is my baseline for comparison as I’ve had the $2.99 ‘pro’ (no ads) upgrade to this app for several years.
- The main tuner screen doesn’t offer much feedback once the note you are playing is finished other than watching a particular frequency slowly fall. Since we’re talking about the slightest of frequency differences from a note, it is not the most useful visual feedback of your history.
- There are two other displays one can pick and you can sort of see a history of the last few seconds of your playing, but the two screens that do have a brief history window only have frequencies instead of pitches so you can’t really tell how far off the mark you were.
- Main Tuner screen displays input volume, frequency in Hz of the note being played, and the +/- cents that one is from the proper note.
- Can generate Tones to play along with, but you have to manually change the pitch being played by the app.
- Only displays sharps(#) and doesn’t have the ability to flip over to flats(b) instead.
- Doesn’t record, doesn’t do transpositions.
- Does allow you to change the ‘tuning modes’ which changes the math the program is using to determine what note you are trying to play
VERDICT: This app is more like a live RTA which happens to have a tuner, than it is a pure tuner. No other program offers its live Sonogram or ‘3D’ view, but these aren’t very helpful when it comes to tuning. OK, but not the best for this purpose.
1B. Musician’s Kit – Tuner, Metronome, and Sound Recorder (Free/Banner Ads)
- Can record your playing
- Can generate tones, but you have to manually change the notes, and what’s worse is that the iPhone’s mic will pick up that note and confuse what is being played by the app for what is being played by you which results in an incorrect reading.
- Does leave the ‘needle’ in its last position after hearing a short note, BUT the frequency range represented is so wide at +/- 40cents, you can’t really tell if you were super close or not. Also, oddly, when you are exactly in-tune, there is no sort of visual Green-Light-AOK feedback. You just see that the needle is in the middle of the range.
- Does have a metronome.
VERDICT: Not a great tuner app. Definitely doesn’t help with the fine gradiations of tuning required to check one’s intonation. Deleted off my phone.
1C. Free Chromatic Tuner: Pano Tuner (Free/Banner Ads)
- Allows for transposing
- Shows the Hz being played as a number
- A design where instead of the needle moving between pitches, the pitches are on a ‘wheel’ that rotates.
- In between playing notes, it will leave the note-wheel where it was so you can visually see what just happened and get a sense of how far from perfect pitch you were, though it isn’t quantitatively analyzed.
- You can change the range which the tuner will greenlight to be stricter.
VERDICT: Does a pretty good job of letting you test your tuning on staccato notes. Not feature filled – No tones, no recording, no metronome. But does one thing well – It’s a pretty good tuner. For the low-low cost of Free, not bad…
II. The NOT Free…
2. Intunator ($4.99)
Behold an app which would seem to be EXACTLY the kind of thing I’m looking for. An app specifically purpose built to practice intonation! Alas…
- As you play, the app guesses the note you’re aiming for and puts it on a vertical needle sore of display, but it’s main trick is that it will automatically play back/along a sine-wave of that pitch as well.
- Has no reviews on the app store.
- Doesn’t work with short notes because once you are done making a sound, it clears the display.
- You need to wear headphones to use it or else the tone being played back will confuse the tuner and possibly create some wonky feedback loop. Wearing headphones while playing horn = annoying.
VERDICT: I like the idea, and it is good for long tones, however, for a dollar less, TonalEnergy will do the exact same thing plus a whole lot more. Short-shorter = Don’t purchase. Deleted off my phone in favor of TonalEnergy which is listed below.
3.Tunable Tuner ($2.99)
This one has a kind of unique display: The target pitch is in the center of the X-axis at the top of the screen and has a narrow green band which descends to the bottom of the screen. Time is on the Y-axis and as you play, the note you are playing is a vertical line that wiggles left or right depending on the sharp/flat of your note and leaves a history tail going down the screen. The aim is to keep your wiggling line within that green center alley and while you are within the tolerance, a green field expands across the display. As soon as your pitch leaves that alley, the green field resets/disappears (Plenty of videos online, you can look that bit up).
- Plays tones and can even sustain chords, though you manually choose them. Generated tones will confuse the tuner.
- Transposes / Has a Metronome / Can Record your playing
- Tuner gives you a note/octave, cents (+\-), and frequency (hz) display
VERDICT: App is EXCELLENT for Long Tones. My biggest pet peeve is that I can’t find a way to clear the display and the long-tail display doesn’t leave any gaps for silence when you stop playing – it just pauses moving down the screen. As such, you don’t see any breaks between the notes you play and the display looks super erratic. Therefore for practicing short notes, the app is not very good. In general I’d recommend it to horn players, though it ain’t my favorite.
- $9.99? Yowza. No way I paid that for a tuner. I’m pretty sure I grabbed this app when it was temporarily free.
- ‘Studio’ mode does have a display where time is on the x-axis and a your pitch is on the y-axis so as you play, you see a horizontal line going up and down where the target tone is in the vertical center of the graph. Keen.
- BUT the app doesn’t react fast enough to be of value for practicing short notes. Even with adjusting the ‘sensitivity’ setting, I can’t get it to a place where it reacts to a short note, but doesn’t react to all background noise as well.
VERDICT: $10?!? It’s a tuner. The useful display is done almost identically if not better by Tonal Energy which costs $4. This app is not worth $10. End of story. Deleted off my phone.
5.TonalEnergy Chromatic Tuner and Metronome ($3.99)
This app is one of the most popular tuners on the app store and was the most recommended. Has all of the bells and whistles I could imagine. The most useful display for our purposes is the ‘Analysis’ screen which combines three displays. In the center is the TE version of a ‘needle display’, on the bottom, a plot of x-axis time / y-axis pitch with a the super imposition of the waveform recorded as well as a line representing the sharp/flat pitch variance and numbers telling how many cents off you were. On the top part of the screen is an RTA waveform display. Any of these can be expanded or temporarily frozen.
- Tone generator with Auto pitch play-along like Intunator
- Multiple styles of display and RTAs.
- Ability to record oneself in the app, even playing-along with an audio file.
- Can output to an AirPlay device.
- Can output MIDI to other apps (Like I said, serious bells+whistles).
VERDICT: I understand why this thing is the #1 recommendation and it looks like I’ll agree with popular opinion on this. My only gripe is its poopy graphic design. App looks like it was made by a hippie that took too much LSD with its rainbow colors and displays with overlaid controls that are not the most intuitive or cohesive design. I would like a more vanilla sort of needle display instead of its circles, but that’s just personal preference. But really, that’s it for complaints and short of them adding a specific staccato mode, I can’t see much else that one would want.
6.KORG Cortosia – GOOD SOUND TUNER ($9.99)
For me to completely ‘explain’ this app would take longer than I’d care to spend and I’m not even sure I could.
- Unique 5-pointed Star-shaped display that reacts to your playing by comparing it to some sort of mystery criteria established on some Korg website.
- When you are done playing a note, it assigns you a 1-100 score on your performance.
- Only built for testing notes of medium to long duration so my staccato practice is out the window.
- Sometimes when I play a note, even if the star display is reacting, the tuner doesn’t always display!
- Does a neat job of automatically taking notes on what you practiced so you can review your scores over time.
VERDICT: At $10, I would expect both a 100% reliable performance as well as some more guidance about what the app’s scoring system is looking for. Of value, but kind of unclear in its execution. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it.
So for my purposes at least, the clear winner (albeit a bit ugly) is TonalEnergy Tuner