When 'close enough' is just not good enough, you need a strobe tuner. Too expensive? Too bulky? Not when it's this palm-sized 'virtual' strobe.
The VS1 Virtual Strobe Tuner from Peterson seeks to offer most of the benefits of expensive mechanical strobe tuners, typically used by piano tuners and all good guitar techs, in a more affordable, portable package. Looking somewhat like a digital multimeter, with an LCD screen in the top half of the casing and a menu-driven control interface below, the VS1 is anything but intimidating in use. Power comes from three AA 1.5V batteries or any external 3V DC external power supply -- in view of the VS1's hearty appetite for batteries, however, I'm inclined to think that a PSU should be an included accessory (as I believe it is in Peterson's native USA), particularly for use in the studio where it might be left permanently on.
Audio connection is via a quarter-inch jack on the right-hand edge of the casing, with an adjacent link Thru. Audio passes at unity gain and without noticeable degradation, but I'd still recommend the avoidance of anything unnecessary between instrument and destination wherever possible, preferring to feed the tuner from an amp line out, in a live situation, or a spare mixer output in the studio.
Real strobe tuners use optical techniques with rotating discs to generate their unique pattern of moving bars, which approach and then achieve stillness when tuning is achieved. The downside is that, being high-precision electromechanical devices, true strobes, such as the renowned Peterson and Conn models of the '70s and beyond, are bulkier and far more expensive than the typical electronic tuner used by almost every guitar player today. The reason that serious users maintain that nothing else will do, however, is that strobe tuners are more accurate. Significantly more accurate in fact; a typical pedal-type or hand-held guitar tuner will achieve something around a ±2 cents (hundredths of a semitone) accuracy, whereas a strobe (even a 'virtual strobe') will achieve a tenth of a cent, equivalent to one thousandth of a semitone.
Does anybody need to be that in-tune? Well it certainly helps, especially when you consider that all guitars are inherently slightly out of tune by a few cents on some chords at some positions. If the error in your tuner happens to coincide with the guitar's own deviation on any one note, you are certainly going to hear it. And if you do your own guitar setups, plus or minus even a couple of cents is really pushing your luck for bridge saddle positioning. The other thing about strobes is that they track movements in pitch effectively in real-time, so fine-tuning becomes a lot easier, as you can just ease up to a note, watching the read-out slow to a standstill. Overall, tuning is certainly faster and less frustrating.
The VS1 is described as a 'virtual' strobe, obviously because it's not a real mechanical strobe. It does, however, have the primary characteristics of a real strobe in its display interface and its speed and accuracy. The backlit LCD replicates separate strobe-like bands that drift upwards if your note is sharp, and down when it is flat, becoming still in all relevant bands when you are perfectly in tune with the stored reference.
The unit defaults to a range of C0 to G8, but pressing and holding the 'down' button while powering-up activates an extended low range that allows you to tune the low 'B' of a five-string bass. A built-in condenser microphone allows tuning of acoustic instruments without pickups, although this does require close proximity and a low ambient noise level for any degree of success. Note sensing can be manual or automatic, with a choice of eight pre-programmed temperaments, including a 'sweetened', slightly stretched tuning for guitars, that seems to work rather well.
In use, the VS1 will be highly intuitive to anyone who has seen an effects processor in the last ten years. The up and down cursor buttons cycle through the menus -- offset, key, reference calibration, temperament, power-on defaults, and so forth -- and you then turn the data-entry wheel to select an item, pressing to confirm your selection.
In the studio, and especially in the workshop, the VS1 is a joy to use. So long as you mount it somewhere that allows you to see the display practically head-on and from not too far away, you will enjoy stability and accuracy comparable to the real thing. For stage use, I'm a little less convinced; the display is both relatively small and rather detailed and the backlight only just adequate. Also, despite the availability of an optional protective rubber boot, personally, I wouldn't want to put the VS1 in the vicinity of feet, or see it fall off too many amplifiers. Granted, it's a precision instrument, and should probably be treated as such in its placement, but if that means that you can't easily discern its display from your playing position... No such problem for the studio user however and, in any case, what else are you going to buy? If you want strobe precision without paying a real strobe price, the VS1 is the only game in town.
Tested with Peterson VS1 software version 1.6
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