Unless you’re in an experimental rock band or junior high orchestra, keeping your instrument in tune is a must. Don’t pay for expensive physical tuners, though, as these tuning apps work just as well for a fraction of the cost.
There are thousands of musical instruments in the world, each of which falls into one of five categories: keyboard, string, percussion, brass, and woodwind. Every instrument has unique tuning requirements, so it’s no surprise there are so many different types of tuners to choose from. Instead of buying a one-size-fits-all tuner at your local music store or spending thousands of dollars on a highly calibrated physical tuner, download a free (or at least inexpensive) digital tuner app that works just as well. Plus, it’s one less piece of gear to lug around.
Update, 9/15/21: Checked content for accuracy. Updated pricing for iStrobosoft.
Each of these apps has what it takes to help you tune your instrument in tune, but depending on what that instrument is, you might need additional, more robust tools as well. Here are the most important features to look for in a tuning app, and why they are necessary:
- Visual Feedback: Tuning your instrument should only take a minute or two, and trying to figure out a tuner with a complex or cluttered interface can drag the process out. The best tuning apps should show you exactly what pitch you’re playing in, as well as how flat or sharp it is so you can fix it and move on.
- Pitch Pipe Playback: If you prefer to hear a pitch then tune your instrument to it, make sure the app you choose can play chromatic pitches across several octaves, so it can accommodate both low- and high-register instruments.
- Semitone/Cent Accuracy: In addition to showing you what pitch you’re playing, the best instrument tuner apps should also show you the accuracy of the pitch down to the exact cent. While guitar players don’t need to worry about this as much, it is an important option for orchestras tuning to the European standard of A=442Hz, rather than A=440, for example.
- Multiple Tunings for Guitar: Standard guitar tuning works for most folks, but if you’re feeling crazy and want to try drop C or other exotic tunings, find a tuner app that can show you what those notes are and how to tune the strings accordingly.
From the brilliant minds over at Yousician comes a robust and capable app for tuning your ax: GuitarTuna (Free). It’s great for other plucked-string instruments as well, like bass, mandoline, ukulele, banjo, balalaika, and even orchestral-stringed instruments. The app is popular with both beginners and advanced musicians because of its simple interface and how fast and accurate its tuning algorithm is (which you can access on iOS and Android devices, as well as online). It has an auto-mode tuner, which automatically detects which instrument and the specific string you’re tuning, as well as a chromatic tuner setting. There are even alternative tuning options you can try.
GuitarTuna is also awesome because it offers additional features beyond a tuner, including a metronome, chord library, and six fun musical games that help you train your ear and ensure you’re playing chords correctly. The app only needs access to your smartphone’s microphone to detect pitches (no cords required, even for electric instruments), and its background noise cancellation ensures the tuner only focuses on your instrument.
Boss has made some of the most popular electronic devices—from pedals to physical tuners—that musicians have relied upon for years. Now, with Boss Tuner (Free), older and younger musicians alike can get in tune digitally. The app looks visually similar to Boss’s physical TU-3 and TU-3W tuners and pedals, and it still provides easy and accurate chromatic tuning for band and orchestra instruments.
The dial at the top of the app displays the pitch you’re playing, and the LED segment meter acts as a visual tuning indicator, moving to the left or right depending on whether you are sharp or flat. The app helps you fine tune down to +1/-1 cent, with a range of A#0 (29.14Hz)-G8 (6,271.93Hz) so it’s great for double basses as well as piccolos. It also plays reference pitches as a steady drone until you tell it not to, so you won’t have to keep tapping the screen to hear a note. Boss Tuner also has other settings you can tinker with, from customizing the reference pitch, to adjusting the sensitivity and key view type. The app is easy to use and doesn’t have any popup ads.
Strobe tuners are the oldest type of electronic tuning devices, built in 1936. Strobe tuners are known for having unbeatable mechanical precision, so if fine-tuning is important to you, check out iStrobosoft ($4.99/Android, $9.99/iOS). While physical strobe tuners cost several thousand dollars and lack portability, you can still reap the benefits of a physical model with a digital strobe tuning app, and for a fraction of the price. You can tune by using your device’s microphone or by plugging in an external microphone and manually calibrating it to 1/10th cent with the app, and watching the strobe on your display to nail the pitch.
iStroboSoft lets you adjust the note and octave window so you can tune to your intended note and not an octave below or above it. With the press of a button, you can also transpose the tuner up or down an octave if you are using drop tuning or a capo, and you can customize the input frequency if you want to tune to something other than A=440Hz. iStrobosoft’s amazing noise filter automatically tunes out other instruments and any background noise, so it can focus on your instrument alone.
If you are too cool for standard tuning, don’t fret: Pro Guitar Tuner (Free) is a great chromatic tuning app with a huge library of non-traditional guitar tunings. You can choose from relatively common tunings like drop C, or choose one of the other 106 tuning options like E Modal, Double Drop F, Augmented Fourths, All Fifths, and G Tuning. You can even save your favorite tunings so they’re easier to reference in the future.
Once you choose the tuning you want, the tuner adjusts the display accordingly so you can see what you need to tune each of your strings to. If you want to hear what a string sounds like, tap on it to hear. The only weird thing about the guitar tuner is that a few of thee strings were either a few cents sharp or flat, which, while negligible, may require additional fine tuning if you have a good ear. Other than dealing with the occasional ad—which you can resolve with a Premium upgrade for a $9.99 one-time purchase, or as a $0.99/month subscription—Pro Guitar Tuner is a great tuning app for guitar players, and its robust library of creative tunings help keep things exciting.