Sevish Music

Sevish’s microtonal music workflow with Ableton Live and Scala

This is my answer to the question “Sevish, how do you make your music?”

I won’t discuss my creative process but I’ll explain my workflow and the tools used to get music made. What I like about my workflow is that it works superbly for me.

Sevish-workflow

Overview

I use Ableton Live to write, record, and mix my music. Within Live, I load VST instruments that have built-in microtonal scale support. I use Scala to produce the tuning files necessary to retune those VSTis. I play the VSTis using my MIDI keyboard, C-Thru AXiS-49, QWERTY keyboard and through mouse input. I also sample recordings that I have made using my Zoom H4n portable recorder.

DAWs/plugins

Ableton Live is a DAW (digital audio workstation) that has an effective workflow for electronic music. For my drum’n’bass, breakbeat electronic, it works just fine. Live has no built-in microtonal scale support, and the piano roll is always locked to a 12-note Halberstadt layout, which can be tricky.

It’s possible to make microtonal music in Ableton Live by using VST instruments or Max 4 Live instruments with microtuning support built in. As far as Ableton knows, MIDI data goes into these instruments and audio comes out. It’s up to the instruments themselves to provide the new tunings and scales that I use in my music.

I use a couple of Max 4 Live instruments that I made myself, plus several VSTi: Xen-Arts FMTS2, IVOR, XenFont, TAL-Sampler, u-he ACE and Garritan Personal Orchestra 4. All of these plugins have full keyboard tuning support, which is why I choose to use them. To tune up, they each require you to import a tuning file. I’ll elaborate on that later.

Tuning

Before writing a piece, it works well to have an idea already of the tuning you want to use. Scala can be used to invent musical tunings or specify an old one. I have written about how to invent your own scales with Scala, described other superbly expressive tunings that already exist, and hand-selected some interesting scales to download.

Once I have a scale in Scala that bends my ear in just the right way, it must be exported as a tuning file for it to be usable in those VST instruments. The common formats are:

  • .scl (GPO4, Plogue synths, Pianoteq, ZynAddSubFX etc.)
  • .tun (u-he synths, Linplug synths, Omnisphere, Alchemy, Anamark etc.)
  • .mid MIDI Tuning Standard SysEx tuning dump (Xen-Arts synths etc.)
  • .txt (Max/MSP instruments that use the coll object)

I wrote a guide to exporting .tun files, and the process is much the same for producing MIDI tuning dumps and .txt tuning files.

(If you’re a Max/MSP or Max 4 Live user, I also wrote a guide to microtuning your patches with the coll object, and microtuning using expr).

After I have some tuning files to work with I’ll load them up in one of my synths, and jam away until I play something I really like. I don’t go too deep in to the theory of it all; I leave that up to others. Using your ear and finding sounds you like is a good way to go.

Sound design

I like to record sounds on location with my H4n portable recorder. After recording I keep the audio in my personal sound library until I’m ready to use them in a project.

I almost never use the preset sounds on my synths. It’s best to patch in your own sound designs because that becomes a recognisable part of your craft. It’s well worth practicing this skill for yourself. Some days I do nothing but come up with new sound designs with my fave synths. That way I can save them in my personal library and use them only when inspiration strikes.

Input

The AXiS-49 is a hexagonal keyboard controller, and it’s best suited to exploring microtonal scales because it makes fingering really easy. Imagine trying to play a 15-note scale on a standard keyboard where the pattern repeats after every 12 notes… The fingering gets totally perplexing and that gets in the way of creativity. With the AXiS that’s no problem at all. The AXiS also greatly increases my reach, so I can play large chords easily.

The difficulty I find with the AXiS is that I use so many different tunings that it’s difficult to build up a muscle memory for any of them. And the buttons are so close together that I make mistakes quite easily.

It comes in handy to have a standard keyboard at times. I was given a 2 octave MIDI controller with some knobs on it which I can map to various functions in my DAW. Using this to recording automation in real-time is one way to breathe some life into a static synthesised part.

Finishing up

I mix and master in Ableton Live, then publish on my Bandcamp, YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Which you should definitely check out.


6 thoughts on “Sevish’s microtonal music workflow with Ableton Live and Scala”

  1. Daniel

    Hello thanks for the info, for quote a open source synth you can make this with pd. I use that but with a very chamberga method, send message midi since ableton or seq4, ardour to a pd an here, i change the midi number i.e 36 to 1, 37 to 1.11111, 37 to 1.2 (fake ratios, i don’ remember very well ). So i send the output of ableton live to my driver card and the the output of pure data, this is a orthodox method but i think that with libpd in mac or linux this would be better http://pd-pulp.net/.

    I have a question , i might use a scala for use all plugins or sofware with ( i.e thor in reason ) or only a special plugins.

    Reply

  2. Daniel

    Thanks for the info sevish, i don’t see thor in this list but i think that would be useful for me in the future. Un saludo : )

    Reply

    1. mrtjnbrndrgt

      I have a nice workaround for the standard MIDI keyboard role. Use the MIDI Effects->Tools-> GM Drum Map. I’ve just used it for 15-tet layout you can rename the instruments with numbers (it is possible to duplicate a group of chains e.g. numbers 0-14 in my case and duplicate select multipletracks and use arrow keys to adjust the registers accordingly). Now be sure everyting is in place and press [fold] button in your MIDI scores next to the normal keylayout I now at least have some numbers so I can edit without listening and monitoring with my ears all the time. Using numbers worked for me but C#^^ or whatever could also work..

      Cheers!

      p.s unfortunatly the option of giving the chains colours does not show up in the score view. Could be a nice future feature of ableton:)

      Reply

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