It's rare these days for a truly unique piece of gear to rear its head. What is surprising about the Sonic Nuance TDI is that it is such a simple combination of two familiar, somewhat mundane tools — a direct box and a digital tuner. It's hard to believe that no one has thought of merging these two devices before, but it turns out it's a very handy thing. Think about it — the combination could be very useful and space-saving in the studio with analog synths, guitars, basses, and other instruments that frequently need tuning and are often recorded direct. And in certain live settings, this combo box could reside on a performer's pedalboard as their main tuner, while providing a high-quality XLR output as needed.

The TDI (which stands for "Tuner & DI") is a stompbox-sized floor unit, with the usual DI box appointments such as a ground-lift switch, 1/4'' instrument-level I/O, and an XLR mic-level output. There is neither a pad nor a polarity switch, but it does have a 9 V power jack and a heavy-duty footswitch to mute the output signal and engage the built-in digital tuner.

As a direct box, it is a passive unit employing a top-of-the-line Jensen JT-DB transformer. I A/B'd it against all my passive DI boxes, and the TDI sounded as good or better than the lot of them — very clean and bright, lots of headroom. The kicker for me was the clever notion of having phantom power supply the juice for the built-in tuner. Just plug the XLR output into a favorite mic preamp with phantom power, and you've got an accurate, easy-to-read digital tuner accessible at the stomp of a switch. No battery or external power supply to deal with (though the tuner will work with a 9 V adaptor, in cases where phantom is unavailable). Genius!

When recording Mike Germaine at Verdant Studio recently, I had Mike's 12-string guitar going through an amp, but also through the TDI to a separate track, as a direct "safety." There was very little floor clutter, and it was super-easy for Mike to check the tuning on the finicky 12-string often, with just a tap of the foot and just one box on the floor. "I could get used to this thing," he said at one point.

Is the TDI perfect? No, but really, it's close enough. The only grumble I had was with some confusing labeling. The power switch is marked "Off Up" and accompanied with a warning "Do NOT (un)plug XLR when ON." Odd, right? But it turns out to simply be a reminder that, as with any mic connected to phantom power, there will be a big thumpy burst if the unit is unplugged with the audio unmuted. But it's easy enough to flip the on/off button or engage the tuner/mute footswitch.

A related aesthetic side-note / mini-rant: I cringe whenever I see one of those plastic clip-on tuners jammed onto a guitar neck. They are ubiquitous (admittedly, my studio has at least a half dozen kicking around — they do work), yet I find them to be distractingly ugly. And these days, when performances and recording sessions are so thoroughly photographed and video'd, I can't help thinking, "Man, photos with those cheap plastic thingies are gonna look weird and dated ten years from now." Whether you agree with me or not, the Sonic Nuance TDI gives you one less reason to use one of those undignified clip-ons, because it keeps the tuner on the floor, where it arguably belongs.

Sonic Nuance owner Ted Burmas is a one-man show based in California. As the designer of the TDI, Ted was recently awarded a patent for it, and he assembles, programs, and tests each unit himself.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

Or Learn More