If you’ve ever played guitar, you’ll be familiar with today’s standard chromatic tuners. They’re about as unglamorous as little electronic gizmos can get—cheap plastic things that light up when you’re in tune and sit there stupidly when you’re not. They’re exactly the type of straightforward, single-purpose devices that can totally be replaced by any app with a halfway decent design. But to call Tunable a mere replacement is a disservice. It’s got features you never even realized your old tuner lacked.
The app’s main function is to tell you if you’re in tune. But it doesn’t just tell you—it shows you. Play a note, and you’ll see your pitch traced as a vertical line on the screen. If you’re within the green band in the center, you’re money. If you’re to the right or the left, you’re either sharp or flat. But what’s so great is that the feedback isn’t limited to that instant. The app continually charts the last second or two of activity on your screen, a "pitch history" that gives you a simple visual sense of how steady you’re playing.
Now, for a guitar player, that’s not going to be especially useful. Either you’re in tune or your not. But for other instruments, like the trumpet or saxophone, that rely on the player to sustain notes, it could be invaluable. "The majority of tuners really focus on whether an instrument is in tune or out of tune for a moment in time," says Seth Sandler, one of the developers. "We’d like to think that Tunable is really one of the first tuners that caters to these other types of instruments."
It’s not necessarily the first tuner to incorporate visualization, but Sandler thinks it has a good chance of being the first one musicians will find useful from the moment they open it. In addition to the pitch history, Tunable also includes a tone generator and a metronome—a fairly sophisticated little kit of tools—but there’s practically zero learning curve for figuring them all out. Much of that is owed to the app’s simple, sharp UI, which draws from an unlikely source of inspiration: an old Ideo concept for futuristic digital books.
"We wanted musicians to be able to understand what they’re seeing without having to read a manual," Sandler says. "That can be tough since graphs can often feel technical. [But] when exploring different usability scenarios, we were reminded of Ideo’s Nelson concept and how focusing on typography, negative space, and color was really effective." It’s not the most obvious inspiration for a redesigned tuner, but one that made for harmonious results nonetheless.