Sevish Music

Brendan Byrnes’ new album “Neutral Paradise” gives me hope for the future of microtonal music

Brendan Byrnes Neutral Paradise front coverIt’s time for celebration today, as Brendan Byrnes has just released a follow up to his album Micropangaea. Titled Neutral Paradise, it is every bit the stunning journey that its predecessor was. Brendan continues his exploration of xenharmonic avant-rock while developing his instantly recognisable and intense sound further.

Neutral Paradise features a variety of songs and instrumentals that are inspired by the “hybrid landscapes, cultures, energy, and complicated beauty” of Los Angeles. Most of the pop-friendly tracks come at the beginning of the album, with more exploratory works coming in later.

The gradual shift here from the familiar to the new is genius, as it gives the ear time to adjust. If you are just discovering microtonal/xenharmonic music for the first time, it can be quite an ear-bender. The melodies are novel and have an aesthetic that can feel strange at first. But Brendan makes it work, guiding you along with his vocals and the driving rhythms. It all makes musical sense when you listen to it. So when that more exploratory “Side B” comes in, you are all the more ready for it.

For me, the highlight of this record is the 6th track, Paradise. It’s a super dreamy song backed by steady rock groove, yet still manages to ramp up a few times to this powerful chorus that shimmers and glitters with sweeping synth lines and Brendan’s echoing falsetto. Despite my love for this song in particular, I have a feeling that others will take their own favourites, because there are so many strong songs on the album.

You can get Neutral Paradise now from Brendan Byrnes’ Bandcamp, on a pay-what-you-like basis. It will be available on Spotify, iTunes and the other big music platforms within the next couple of weeks.

What makes me hopeful for the future of microtonal music, is that people like Brendan are popping up with increasing frequency. They know how to write a song that is listener-friendly, a song that makes you feel something when you hear it. They know how to explore xenharmonic territory where few people are treading. They are keen to present their music in the highest quality way possible. And they know how to put all these things together into one package that everyone can enjoy. It’s takes a wide range of skills and a great deal of time to make all this come together, so it’s little surprise that we had to wait 4 years since Brendan’s last solo album.

So the next time somebody says “microtonal music is just out-of-tune, we use 12-equal for a reason, let’s stick to our traditions”, you just point them over to Brendan Byrnes and have their world turned upside down.

Scala tutorial – how to change the key of your scale

So, you’re making your own microtonal tunings in Scala. You’ve explored for a while and came up with all kinds of original scales by yourself. There’s just one problem — all those scales are in the key of C! This quick tutorial will show you how to change key in a microtonal scale using Scala.

Changing key in Scala

By default, Scala will assume that the base note of the scale (1/1 or unison) lives on MIDI note 60 (middle C of the keyboard) at a frequency of 261.6 Hz. To change this, we use the Edit Mapping dialog. You can find it at Edit > Edit Mapping.

This page looks confusing, but there are only 3 fields we need to change in order to change the key of your scale.

The first field to change is ‘Key for 1/1’. This field tells Scala which key on a physical MIDI keyboard you want to use for 1/1 (the first note of your scale). You can change this value by 1 for each semitone away from C. For example if you want your scale to start on D then you can enter 62 here. For A above middle C, use 69.

Next, set the ‘Reference key’ field to be the same value as ‘Key for 1/1’. This might seem redundant, but there are situations where they would differ. For an easy time, make these two values the same.

Finally, we can set the ‘Reference frequency’ to any frequency in Hz. So if we want to play in the key of D, we would enter 293.66Hz.

Note name C C#/Db D D#/Eb E F F#/Gb G G#/Ab A A#/Bb B
MIDI note number 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71
Frequency 261.63 277.18 293.66 311.13 329.63 349.23 369.99 392.00 415.30 440.00 466.16 493.88

Saving your keyboard mapping for re-use

You should save your mapping to use it again later. To do so, you’ll need to open the Edit Mapping dialog again (Edit > Edit mapping). Just click on the Save As button that appears on that dialog.

scl/kbm format

Scala saves mappings seperately from tunings. The keyboard mapping data is saved into a .kbm file. You can mix and match your .scl tunings with your .kbm files.

Alternative formats such as the AnaMark TUN file (.tun) store the tuning and the mapping all in one file. So if you’re converting a .scl file into a .tun file, make sure that you have loaded your .kbm keyboard mapping beforehand. The same advice applies if you’re using Scala’s relay feature to retune a hardware synth via MIDI.

Some frequencies are better than others

A little tip for you EDM-loving bass music explorers. The most bootyshakingest bass lives around 45-55Hz. That range approximately covers the keys of F# to A.

You can also use this tutorial to tune scales to 432Hz. Before you follow the tutorial steps, stand outside and absorb sunlight for 10 hours while noticing that the horizon is indeed flat and not a curve. If you see a chemtrail, stand for an extra hour. Finally you can click Save As.

That’s it

Thanks to Paris for suggesting this tutorial. I recently overhauled sevish.com and it’s now possible to email me directly from my contact page. Most of my tutorials these days were requested by people who discovered my blog. Feel free to send in suggestions.

Further reading

Clip from a new tune

It’s been a long while since I uploaded any sounds and I couldn’t resist. This is the ending and fadeout to a tune I’ve been working on.

Just a reminder that I am working on a new album, however slowly…

Inharmonic Strings and the Hyperpiano

Vibrating strings produce (more or less) harmonic overtones. If two strings are tuned in some simple frequency ratio such as 3/2, 4/3 or 5/3, then those harmonic overtones match up nicely and avoid roughness. But if the two strings are tuned in some haphazard fashion then the overtones of each string won’t match up, causing the overtones to clash with each other.

We can actually plot out a graph which shows the interval between two strings and the corresponding dissonance. This is called a dissonance curve, and for a normal string it looks something like this:

So what.

Well, imagine a weird kind of string that produces inharmonic overtones, such that the dissonance curve looks different to the one above. Because the dissonance curve is different, you couldn’t play Air on the G String and expect it to sound good. You could however write new music that would fit with the novel dissonance curve.

Today, such a string is more than just a mathematical curiosity. It exists in the physical world.

Inharmonic Strings and the Hyperpiano” (by Kevin Hobby and William Sethares) is a paper published in Applied Acoustics. The strings in their hyperpiano have a stretched out dissonance curve where the double-octave sounds most consonant and the octave becomes dissonant. Okay so maybe it’s not going to be used on every new pop record, but this kind of freaky instrument can produce game-changing new tonalities.

Since the dissonance curve is stretched out to the double-octave or “hyperoctave”, Kevin Hobby suggests we might try tuning a hyperpiano instrument to 12 equal divisions of the hyperoctave. Wait, isn’t that just 6-EDO – a whole tone scale? Actually, it isn’t! They may be identical tunings, but the octave is considered a dissonant interval on the hyperpiano, analogous to the tritone on a normal piano. So it makes a lot more sense to describe this tuning as 12 equal divisions of the hyperoctave. Really.

The ringing of the strange hyperpiano sounds like a death bell for the unwavering cult-like belief in pure ratios and true frequencies. Tuning and timbre are deeply linked. If we’re willing to experiment with new timbres then we can uncover new musical vocabulary for the future to come.

The next step is to explore all this for yourself – download the sampled hyperpiano and give it a play.

Microtonal piano roll for Ableton Live

Here’s a tutorial to help you make microtonal music in Ableton Live. We’re going to mod Ableton Live’s piano roll to play 22-tone equal temperament (aka 22-edo). You can apply this technique to other piano roll designs, with some limitations discussed later. Abletonalists unite!

First I should provide some context as to why this tutorial will be so useful. Check out this mindblowing M-Audio Keystation 88 with the keys rearranged to play 22-edo. It was a little project of William Lynch‘s a few months ago.

William Lynch's 22-tone per-octave M-Audio Keystation 88

This keyboard layout is Steve Rezsutek’s design as discussed in Paul Erlich’s paper Tuning, Tonality, and Twenty-Two-Tone Temperament.

There are gaps between some white keys because white keys actually come in different shapes and sizes, making things look a little messy when rearranged. You also need extra black keys to make this work, so you can see a few missing at the upper end of the keyboard. Spare keys can be found on second-hand broken keyboards or bought as replacement from the manufacturer. Soon we’ll be able to 3D print each key for any given piano roll layout (this could be a great project for a music technology student). Obviously this is all very DIY, but at this point in time nobody is mass producing microtonal instruments. Everybody in the microtonal scene right now hacks and invents their own unique stuff.

Truth be told, I’m planning to use some of my Rhythm and Xen album sales to buy a new keyboard and make one of these for myself.

The goal of this tutorial is to recreate Rezsutek’s keyboard layout in the Ableton Live piano roll. Erlich suggests to remove all the E notes, so that you have something that looks like below:

22-tone-temperament-Rezsutek-keyboard-layout

ableton-live-microtonal-piano-roll-22

Not only will this tutorial show you how to make a dope 22-note piano roll like above, but you’ll also be able to actually HEAR and PLAY music in this novel tuning system. It’s a beautiful system that includes such wonderful intervals as the subminor third, the 7th and 11th harmonics, and near-quartertones, plus a variety of rich chords, progressions and comma pumps.

This technique isn’t specific to 22-edo; you can adapt the method for other tunings too.

To make this happen, we will be using the piano roll ‘Fold’ function, as well as taking a few other steps to make everything sound correct.

Making the layout in Live

This is the easiest part, and you might know this trick already if you’re knowledgeable with Ableton Live. We will create a MIDI clip that has one massive chord containing every note except for all the Es. Then we will enable Fold so that the Es disappear from the piano roll. So let’s look at it step by step:

Create yourself a new MIDI clip and make sure that Fold is disabled. Then start building up a chord containing all the notes except for the Es:

ableton-live-22-edo-piano-roll-tutorial-1

It’s easiest to work up from the bottom. Once you have made one octave you can copy and paste to fill in the rest of the notes.

ableton-live-22-edo-piano-roll-tutorial-2

Once you have added all the notes from C-2 to G8 you can move the whole chord to the left, so that it is outside of the range of the clip. This way, you won’t hear an almighty cluster of pain when you play the clip.

ableton-live-22-edo-piano-roll-tutorial-3

Ctrl+A to select all the notes in the chord, then tap 0 to disable all the notes. This will protect you from hearing these notes if you have MIDI Editor Preview enabled.

Then click on the Fold button to enable it. All of the Es will disappear from the piano roll.

ableton-live-22-edo-piano-roll-tutorial-4

Just ignore the note names (C4, C#4 etc.) because they don’t have any relation to 22-edo.

Making the tuning file

Now we have our custom piano roll layout set up in Ableton Live, but that doesn’t mean that the notes will play a 22-edo scale. You can’t just drop Operator on to the MIDI track and expect everything to be tuned to 22-edo automatically. At this point, you should make sure that you have some kind of MIDI instrument or VST/AU plugin that supports microtonal scales.

I will use Scala to design a tuning file with 24 notes in total. Each note will be tuned to a note from 22-edo, and 2 of the notes will be duplicates that fill in the missing Es.

First we type ‘equal 22’ into scala and hit enter. This generates the scale. Then we click on ‘Edit’ to see all of the notes that were generated. By Scala tuning standards, 1/1 will fall on middle C at ~261 Hz unless a keyboard mapping is specified. So we can assume 1/1 is C, and therefore the notes 218.18182 and 818.18182 should be duplicated to fill in the missing Es.

ableton-live-22-edo-piano-roll-tutorial-5

You can just select 218.18182 and 818.18182, then Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V to duplicate them. Finally, click on the ‘Ascending’ button to make sure that all the pitches are in the correct order. Click OK when done, and save your progress.

Or if you’re too lazy for all of this, save the below text as a .scl file:

! 22-edo-no-Es.scl
!
22-EDO with no Es
 24
!
 54.54545
 109.09091
 163.63636
 218.18182
 218.18182
 272.72727
 327.27273
 381.81818
 436.36364
 490.90909
 545.45455
 600.00000
 654.54545
 709.09091
 763.63636
 818.18182
 818.18182
 872.72727
 927.27273
 981.81818
 1036.36364
 1090.90909
 1145.45455
 2/1

All that’s left is to export this scale for the synth you’re using. You can read your synth’s manual to determine which format of tuning file it needs. Then export the correct format file using Scala. Watch my YouTube video tutorial below to find out how to export various kinds of microtonal tuning files with Scala.

Making it all come together

Head back to Ableton Live as quick as possible, then drop an awesome VST instrument on to the MIDI channel you used earlier. Load the tuning file you created into the VST, then jammmmmm. The setup is finished, so start writing!

Remember that octave transpose works differently now because your scale actually spans (what Live thinks of as) 2 octaves:

Ctrl+↑ to move a note up by a tritone.
Ctrl+↑↑ to move a note up by an octave.
Ctrl+↓ to move a note down by a tritone.
Ctrl+↓↓ to move a note down by an octave.

Make sure to read Paul Erlich’s paper Tuning, Tonality, and Twenty-Two-Tone Temperament for more insight into the musical possibilities of this scale.

Download an example project

Update: I made an example project with one MIDI clip already set up for you. In the project folder you’ll also find tuning files in 3 different formats.

Applying this to other tuning systems

I suspect that the Fold method will work easily for any scale less than 12 notes. It will also work for any even-numbered scale with 12 to 24 notes in total, as long as the pattern of white and black notes repeats every 12 MIDI notes. This is because the “octave transpose” function (Ctrl+↑ or Ctrl+↓) in Ableton Live’s piano roll transposes by 12 notes and ignores folding. So an asymmetric piano roll layout will be broken by octave transposition.

Music in 22

There’s a long list of 22-tone music on the Xenharmonic Wiki. And here’s a song I created in 22-tone equal temperament back in 2010:

Further exercises

  1. Use the Fold method to create piano roll layouts for other tuning systems.
  2. Find out if absolutely all piano roll layouts are possible with the Fold method. Why/why not?
  3. Recreate this software piano roll in hardware by disassembling a MIDI keyboard and re-arranging the black and white keys by hand. (How to remove keys from an M-Audio Keystation)
  4. If you’re still trying to figure out why the piano roll needs to be modded in the first place, read my article about why DAW developers should design a better piano roll.
  5. Start evangelizing to audio technology developers, asking them to support microtonal piano layouts and microtonal tunings.

Xen-Arts VSTi Microtuning Library

Xen-Arts have recently made available a pack of microtonal tunings that you can download and use in your projects. Various formats are included, so all you need is a VST instrument that supports .scl Scala files, AnaMark TUN files or MIDI tuning dumps.

The pack includes equal scales, harmonic scales, subharmonic scales, and three of Wendy Carlos’ non-octave temperaments.

Xen Arts VSTi Microtuning Library

This resource is a good alternative to the whopping 4000+ Scala file database that leaves many beginners paralysed for choice. The Xen-Arts’ pack provides text documentation to help you understand the tunings included. As such, I believe it’s a good resource to get you started.

Some time ago, I also produced some starter packs of microtuning files. Using these in addition to the new Xen-Arts pack will keep you busy for several months at least. By that time, you should be crafting unique microtonal scales of your own.

Video tutorial – How to export various tuning file formats in Scala

I have covered this topic before on my blog, but I thought I could do better and make a short video tutorial.

When you’re designing musical tunings in Scala, you might eventually want to export your tuning to use it in a synthesizer. Synthesizers support various tuning file formats, so you’ll need to know how to make a few different kinds. This video shows you how to export Scala files (.scl), export AnaMark tuning files (.tun), and export MIDI Tuning Standard dumps (.mid). Right at the end of the video you’ll also find out how to retune other synths like the Yamaha DX7ii.

Wasting & Thirsting by Cryptic Ruse

Increasingly, people in this crazy world are looking for something positive, something uplifting so they can get reprieve from the chaos around them. For some, that comes as an addiction to sharing inspiring quotes on Facebook, while others find peace meditating to mass-produced new-age music.

But we understand that not everybody is in that boat. Some people are actually looking for more DOOM in their lives. This is where Cryptic Ruse’s Wasting & Thirsting comes in.

Wasting & Thirsting is an album of microtonal doom drone metal. It is an atmospheric dark-zone where down-tuned distorted guitar and a ton of processing create the entirety of the music. I could barely tell where one track ends and the next begins as the effect is so hypnotising. Each of the 3 tracks uses a different microtonal tuning system, and yes Cryptic Ruse had a custom guitar made for each tuning.

This music throbs, beats and moans as clusters of sludgy microtones overlap each other. There is no percussion. There are no vocals. Just a droning anti-aum to help you fade away into t h e a b y s s o f d e s p a i r.

Like any good drone, you sorely miss it once it ends. The only solution is to flip over the mp3 and play it again.

Wasting & Thirsting by Cryptic Ruse was released on August 14, 2016. You can download it from their bandcamp.

Making microtonal music with tracker software

A tracker is a type of music sequencer that was popular back in the day. The tracker scene is still alive, and you can thank it for all the catchy tunes you hear while using keygens. A handful of trackers also support microtonal scales, and I wanted to share some of those today.

OpenMPT (Open ModPluG Tracker)

Open ModPlug Tracker is a completely free music tracker for Windows. It can also be microtuned, so that you can compose music that explores tonal systems made before and after the reign of 12-tone equal temperament (from here on referred to as ‘The Dark Ages’).

OpenMPT

OpenMPT can be microtuned by way of Scala files or TUN file import. (Learn how to produce those .tun files, or download some ready made tuning packs). You an also input notes directly, though they must be in the form of decimals. Once a tuning is imported into OpenMPT, you can edit it within the Tuning Properties screen.

OpenMPT microtonal tuning

One awesome feature is that OpenMPT will name the notes of your tuning with letters A-Z from the alphabet. This way, if you have more or less than 12 notes per octave then you can easily recognise your pitches. A5 is one octave above A4, X5 is one octave above X4 etc. It’s as easy as that. (DAW engineers take note, this is essential for microtonalists! We don’t need to see 12-TET note names when we’re using microtonal scales).

If you need even more control over your note pitches, it’s possible to fine-tune the frequency of each individual note.

Note that if you’re using VSTs within OpenMPT, the microtuning feature won’t work for those. Stick to the sampled instruments and your OpenMPT tunings will work just fine.

Little Sound Dj

LSDj (Little Sound Dj) is a music tracker made for the original Game Boy, utilizing the Game Boy’s sound capabilities. It will run on real hardware via a flash cart, or you can run it in an emulator. I run it on an emulator on my smartphone. It’s a great way to kill some time on the bus/train/toilet.

LSDJ

By default, the frequency tables inside the ROM file are tuned to 12-tone equal temperament. But with the aid of a super helpful Perl script by abrasive, the frequency tables in LSDj can be fully microtuned to any tuning system you want. Even non-equal, non-just and non-octave scales are possible – it’s very flexible!

To do this, first of course you’ll need a copy of LSDj, then head to the Microtuning HOWTO page on LSDj’s wiki and download lsdj_tune1.4.

Note, the compiled .exe for lsdj_tune1.4 may give you the following message:

&Config::AUTOLOAD failed on Config::launcher at PERL2EXE_STORAGE/Config.pm line 72.

So it’s best to install Perl on your system and run the Perl script itself. For me, this works just fine. But note that you need to use the command line in order to run the script.

With all that set up, your best bet is to move LSDj and the tuning script into the same directory, then make a .bat file to set up your tuning command. I prefer using a .bat instead of writing directly in the command line, because I can save my command, edit it and repeat it later when I want to change the tuning.

When you run the command, you’ll end up with a patched version of the original ROM, so for each tuning you wish to use, you’ll get a new ROM. My Game Boy folder has several of them for various tunings.

Similarly to OpenMPT, with lsdj_tune you can set the note names of your tuning. This way when you make music in LSDj you won’t be encumbered with 12-TET note names from The Dark Ages. Here’s a really simple example using 5-EDO and the note names U V X Y Z:

perl lsdj_tune1.4.perl --cents 0,240,480,720,960,1200 --base A5 440 --names U,V,X,Y,Z --rom lsdj.gb --out lsdj_5edo.gb

Note: the names parameter doesn’t work in ET mode so here I have specified 5-EDO explicitly using cents.

Then load up your new patched LSDj ROM and enjoy! — 2 pulse channels, 1 PCM channel and 1 noise channel is way more exciting with microtones.

LSDJ-5edo

Renoise

Renoise instruments can be retuned by using a neat scl to xrni tool.

First you’ll need to download some Scala files (or make your own). Then install the tool by downloading it and dragging it on to your Renoise window. Within Renoise, make sure that your instrument is selected, and then run the tool. You’ll be able to load up one of your Scala tuning files and it will be applied to the instrument.

MikyTracker

MilkyTracker doesn’t have any microtuning function built in, but you can edit the pitch of each individual note. This can be done by using edit mode and assigning the same sample to different notes of the keyboard, each with some detuning.

Obviously this takes a while to set up, so you might find OpenMPT to be more user friendly. Nevertheless this hasn’t held some people back. Here’s the proof, a tasty jam in just intonation using MilkyTracker:

Other trackers

If there are more trackers that support microtonal scales then I would love to hear about them.

Important links

Further reading

FM synthesis with Xen-Arts FMTS 2 video tutorial

This is my first video tutorial, showing how to design a distorted bass sound using FM synthesis in Xen-Arts’ FMTS 2 VSTi.

FMTS 2 is a freeware VST instrument for Windows which allows you to play microtonal scales. It’s developed by Xen-Arts. The FM operators can themselves be tuned to microtuning-related frequency relationships, so that the timbre has a sort of spectral microtuning within it. Quite mindblowing stuff and seriously underrated.

Download Xen-Arts FMTS 2– http://xen-arts.net/xen-fmts-2/

The tutorial just demonstrates a basic workflow, and it’s possible to go way deeper with this synth. If there is any interest in further videos like this, best to leave a comment below or on the YouTube video itself.