I will give a talk about electronic microtonal music at this year’s EUROMicroFest 2017. If you’re traveling distance from Freiburg im Breisgau in Germany, come to E-WERK to enjoy some music and get some insight from composers working in the field of microtonal music. My talk titled Microtonal with a Beat is at 8:30pm on Friday, May 19th.
Eschholzstraße 77, 79106 Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany
Talks, Lectures and Presentations: Entrance Free
Concert tickets: 15€ / 10€
Microtonal Projects and our partner un-sound are delighted to announce that the EUROMicroFest2017 Freiburg event will be take place from 18-20 May at E-WERK in Freiburg, Germany. It will focus on 72- division, 19- division and just tunings. It will feature the bassoonist Christopher Watford (USA), the hornist and composer Michael H. Dixon (AUS) and duo Contour (Stephen Altoft, microtonal trumpets, and Lee Ferguson, percussion) (GER) with guests vocalist Jan F.Kurth (GER) & guitarist Casey Hale (USA).Keynote Lectures will be given by electronic composer and YouTube artist Sevish (UK), as well as jazz musician and composer Christian Klinkenberg (BEL).
Before I start sharing all this amazing stuff I found, please help me out. I’m trying to verify my Spotify Sevish profile, but it requires 250 followers. If everyone could hit the green “follow” button (and tell your friends) I will be able to get verified. This gives me more control over my artist profile, which will be useful because there’s a new Sevish album on the way.
A while ago I realized that a tonne of people are still using Spotify, so I started exploring the platform for myself. Of course, I wanted to see how much microtonal music was on there, because it’s the FUTURE (and past) of music. Would you believe that no playlists for microtonal music show up in the search results?
Well, I took care of that. The new playlist is aptly named Microtonal Music & Xenharmonic Music. I have tried to order new releases at the top, such as Brendan Byrnes’ Neutral Paradise, and King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s 70’s Anatolian rock inspired Flying Microtonal Banana, which both came out this month. But scroll down past that and you’ll hear over 500 songs which will take over 2 days to listen through. A mix of genres of microtonal music were included, though mostly non-traditional musics (otherwise the playlist would easily be dominated by world music).
Marcus Satellite’s From On High is also on the platform, which was exciting for me as I never had the chance until now to hear it in its entirety. For me it already ranks amongst the most well-developed late-90s electronica. On top of that, I found that Stephen James Taylor, David Fiuczynski, MonoNeon all have their work up on the ‘fy. No doubt there is a lot more out there that I wasn’t able to dig up.
I didn’t pay for a premium subscription, because the artists receive extremely little in return. And hearing adverts for obnoxious house music in between Terry Riley tracks is one of the most frustrating experiences. I won’t be using Spotify anymore but if you like to use it then I hope you enjoy the playlist.
I recently wrote a tutorial about how to change the root note of your microtonal scale, where I used Scala’s Edit Mapping dialog. There is so much more I want to say about keyboard mappings. This time I’m explaining how to map various microtonal tunings on to a standard MIDI keyboard in a sensible way.
Needless to say, this topic is important for musicians who want to use microtonal tunings on their standard MIDI keyboard controller. I’ll be using Scala for this tutorial.
This is an incredibly simple but powerful idea. Scale degrees are numbers that describe the order of notes in a scale. The root note of a scale is always scale degree 0, and the degree numbers increase as you go up the scale. For a 7 note scale, the scale starts on degree 0, then passes through 1-6. When we reach 7, we’re an octave up from where we started. In this case, 7 would be called the octave degree.
The familiar 12-equal scale could also be described with scale degrees. Let’s take C to be our root note, so C = 0. The rest is as follows:
When we’re working with large scales, notating by scale degree becomes an efficient way of describing what notes we want to play. We will also use scale degrees to tell Scala how to map notes to a keyboard.
Imagine we have an excellent microtonal 7-note scale, such as 7-EDO, mavila, or something else. By default, your synth maps these notes linearly and chromatically across your MIDI keyboard. Press the C key, and at the same time press the key which is 7 steps above it (that’s a G). You will hear an octave! That’s incredibly jarring, because we expect to hear an octave from C to C, not from C to G.
Linear mapping of a 7-note scale on to chromatic keys:
The scale degrees in red are octaves. NOT fifths!
Custom mappings help to make a regular pattern that is much more familiar and easy to navigate:
The diagrams above should make it obvious that linear mapping is a problem. With linear mapping, fingering becomes irregular as you go up and down by aural octaves. For a 7 note scale, we can simply skip out the 5 black keys to get a regular, repeating pattern.
Start off by loading a 7 note scale into Scala. I simply typed ‘equal 7’ to get 7-EDO.
Then go to Edit > Edit Mapping (Alt+P).
The mapping should repeat every 12 notes on our keyboard, so set Size to 12. Remember that’s 7 notes from our scale, plus 5 black notes we’ll skip out, totalling 12.
Set a value for Formal octave degree, which is 7 in this case.
Fill out the remaining fields as shown below:
If you don’t see the fields at the bottom, make sure you enter a value for Size. Scala will then create the empty fields for you automatically, and you can type in the scale degrees that you want for your mapping.
Note that we’re skipping the sharps/blacks, so you can leave those fields blank. Or if you’re like me, you will see this as an opportunity to enter duplicate notes and create a sweet sounding pentatonic mode from the main scale.
Once you’re done, click Save As and save the resulting mapping file. Scala mappings are saved in .kbm format. The great thing about this, is that you can mix and match your .kbm mapping files with .scl tuning files that you have collected. So if you have several .scl tuning files with 7 notes, then you can use this same .kbm mapping file on all of them.
While you have a scale and a mapping loaded at the same time, now is a good time to export your tuning for softsynths, or relay it to hardware synths. It feels much easier to play with the new mapping.
Now imagine that we have a tuning much larger than 12 notes, and we want to select just the notes that we want to map on the keyboard. For example, let’s try the calm vibes of 31-EDO. Just for context here is some music written in 31-EDO. 31 is a very nice meantone temperament, very close to quarter-comma meantone.
Here is how 31-EDO would be linearly mapped to a keyboard:
I don’t know about you, but my hands aren’t wide enough to hit that octave.
Seriously this is just ridiculous. 31 notes is too many for most musicians to keep track of, so let’s just pick 12 notes for our mapping:
The 12 notes that I selected give a quasi-12-equal. But you should feel free to choose your own notes and experiment with what your ear likes.
Go to Edit > Clear Mapping to reset your mapping back to normal, then go to Edit > Edit Mapping to open the keyboard mapping dialog. Fill in the Size (12) and Formal octave degree (31) then enter the scale degree for each note of the mapping.
As before, now is a good time to save your .kbm mapping file, and load it up on a synth of your choice.
Instead of using Scala’s keyboard mapping functions, we could do it with the mode command instead. The mode command lets you choose a subset of notes from your currently loaded scale, and then it deletes the remaining notes.
The end result would be a single .scl file with the extra notes removed, instead of the usual .scl and .kbm pair (containing the full gamut of notes plus tuning information). You might use this method if your synth supports .scl files but not .kbm files.
Imagine that we want to recreate the above quasi-12-equal mode from 31-EDO. Just type these commands into Scala:
equal 31 mode 3 3 2 3 2 3 3 2 3 2 3 2 show
You’ll get the following output from Scala:
0: 1/1 0.000000 unison, perfect prime 1: 116.129 cents 116.129032 2: 232.258 cents 232.258065 3: 309.677 cents 309.677419 4: 425.806 cents 425.806452 5: 503.226 cents 503.225806 6: 619.355 cents 619.354839 7: 735.484 cents 735.483871 8: 812.903 cents 812.903226 9: 929.032 cents 929.032258 10: 1006.452 cents 1006.451613 11: 1122.581 cents 1122.580645 12: 2/1 1200.000000 octave
Note that, when you use the mode command, you enter the difference (in scale degrees) between successive notes of the scale. The table below shows you how the difference between scale degrees relates to the scale degrees themselves.
You should also notice that 3 + 3 + 2 + 3 + 2 + 3 + 3 + 2 + 3 + 2 + 3 + 2 = 31. The sum of these digits must be equal to the octave degree, which is 31 in this case. Otherwise, the mode command will give you an error: Scale and mode size are unequal.
It’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.
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.
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.
|MIDI note number||60||61||62||63||64||65||66||67||68||69||70||71|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Just ignore the note names (C4, C#4 etc.) because they don’t have any relation to 22-edo.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.