Sevish Music

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Xen-Arts releases IVOR2 VSTi for microtonal music

IVOR is a free software synthesizer that allows you to compose and perform microtonal music. It has just seen a major update to version 2, making it more versatile and powerful than ever. It is a virtual analog synth that includes frequency modulation, ring modulation, pulse-width modulation, saturation, filters and various features specific to microtonal and spectral music.

IVOR2 front

The biggest change is the MOD-GEN section which allows deep control of various synth parameters with envelope generators, LFOs and AROs (audio rate oscillators).

Those AROs are especially important, as they allow the introduction of additional sideband spectra to the signal which give a more dense forestry of partials to your sound. This right here is a key aspect of designing sounds in IVOR2. There are several of these AROs at various parts of the signal chain for you to experiment with.

IVOR2 mod gen

The AROs can be tuned to microtuning-related intervals. This introduces tuning-related sidebands into the signal. There are over 100 partial sets to choose from, and you can load up your own via text file import. This is especially powerful for the creation of inharmonic or quasi-harmonic timbres that are matched to inharmonic or quasi-harmonic tunings, in such a way that sensory dissonance (timbral dissonance) can be reduced for extremely exotic scales.

Or you can just keep it to the harmonic series and play 12-tet music like a traditional synth. It’s good at that too.

But let’s stick with microtonality for a moment. You can tune IVOR2 to whatever tuning system you want. Equal tempered and just intonation tunings are possible, as are non-octave and stretched-octave scales. Totally arbitrary, irregular, historical and traditional scales are all possible too. There are no limits here, and you will be rewarded greatly for stepping outside of your comfort zone.

IVOR2 is very light on the CPU, just like its predecessor. I can run a whole bunch of instances of IVOR2 in real-time with my 3 year old laptop.

It is a quirky synth with its own characteristic sound. Yes it can do a lot of classic sounds too, but its unique aspects make it capable of so much more.

Make sure you read the manual and play through all the factory presets (I designed a bunch of them myself) so that you can get a sense of what is possible with IVOR2.

IVOR2 Download Page

A new microtonal instrument is coming…

Xen-Arts‘ IVOR2 looks ready to drop at any moment.

Why DAW developers should design a better piano roll

You might think that the humble piano roll has already been perfected. But more and more people these days are working with microtonal tunings. The old piano roll struggles to keep up with this new form of musical expression.

Definition of microtonal tuning: Any collection of pitches that is tuned differently to Western 12-tone equal temperament. A microtonal tuning may contain less than 12 or more than 12 notes per octave, and it may not repeat at the octave at all.

We could improve the piano roll to make these musicians’ lives easier. Here are some reasons why this is so:

Scumbag Piano Roll
Quartertone music displayed on a piano roll designed for semitones

The piano roll assumes a repeating pattern of 7 white and 5 black keys

The common pattern of 7 white and 5 black keys is known as the Halberstadt keyboard.

Halberstadt’s layout makes sense if you’re using standard tuning. Those black and white notes provide a useful guide to the eye to see what is going on with the music. However, when microtonal tunings are used, this guide no longer represents what is happening in our music.

Microtonal tunings can have less or more than 12 notes per octave. So as you go up and down by octaves, the markings on the piano roll slip further and further away from a true representation of the notes.

Let’s consider the case of 19-EDO (19 Equal Divisions of the Octave or 19-tone equal temperament). This tuning has 19 notes in one octave. We can play a C major triad in 19-EDO, though the notes are more spread apart than they would be in 12-EDO (standard tuning). In 12-EDO a major triad can be formed with the scale degrees 0-4-7. In 19-EDO the scale degrees are 0-6-11. When you view a 19-EDO C major triad on the standard piano roll, it confusingly looks as if the chord is formed with the notes C, F# and B.

C Major Chord in 19-EDO Piano Roll

This image should demonstrate that when you transpose the chord up one octave, the notes of the chord appear to change to G, C#, F#.

It was difficult enough to imagine that the notes C, F# and B would make a major triad, but to think that the next G, C# and F# produce the same chord one octave higher is an insane and disorganized way to work. Yet as a microtonalist this is how I have been forced to work with a piano roll every day for years.

And all this has just been an example in 19-EDO. A musician could be working in myriad other possibilities! The existing piano roll isn’t designed for this kind of flexibility, but we can change this! (Indeed Reaper’s piano roll is already head and shoulders above the rest, as I will explain later).

Points for improvement:

  • Allow the musician to specify how many notes are in the octave.
  • Allow the musician to specify where the white and black notes fall in the octave.
  • Bonus: allow more than 2 colours (black/white) for the notes. Because microtonalists working with unequal tunings would like to use multi-colored key layouts.

To clarify: DAWs send MIDI data in to the instrument/plugin and then receive audio out. The DAW isn’t aware if the musician has loaded a microtonal tuning in the instrument – indeed the DAW doesn’t need to know. Therefore the points for improvement suggested above are cosmetic. There is no need to completely change the way that audio is generated in the DAW. Just change the way that pitches appear to the musician.

Keyboard shortcuts also assume 12 notes

Many piano rolls allow you to use the shift+up shortcut to move a note up by 12 notes, or shift+down to move it down by 12 notes. This is a quick and useful method of moving notes up and down by an octave when using standard tuning. But if the user uses a larger or smaller tuning, then this shortcut becomes less helpful.

For example, when I’m working in 22-EDO, I must use an unusual series of keypresses to move a note up by one octave: shift+up shift+up down down. What this does is move the note up 12, up 12 again, then down 2 notes. This clearly isn’t an optimal way for me to jump by an octave of 22 notes.

Points for improvement:

  • Allow users to specify how many notes are in their tuning, so that the keyboard shortcut can respond to shift+up and shift+down keyboard shortcuts in the correct way.

Reaper’s piano roll is ahead of the rest

Being an Ableton Live user, I often look at the Reaper guys with jealousy. Reaper is a rock solid DAW and their piano roll has some useful features for microtonalists.

Notice anything remarkable about the piano roll below?

Reaper 19-tone piano roll 3

On the above picture, check out the notes on the left side. Here the musician Tall Kite has set up the piano roll with a custom layout and useful names for each note. Yes, Reaper allows you to do this! The custom keyboard layout is designed for 19-EDO.

Read this thread for instructions on how to make a microtonal piano roll in Reaper.

Reaper’s implementation is not perfect. Notice how the background markings on the main panel still show the original Halberstadt layout for 12 notes. Those markings don’t correspond to the layout on the left of the screen. But Reaper’s piano roll is a great move in the right direction. I hope Reaper will continue this good work.

How we move on from here: Take action now!

Musicians… Nobody will improve the piano roll unless we tell them about it! Write to your favourite software developers and explain to them what issues you have. Show them examples of other software that does the job well. Show them this page! Then spread the word so other musicians can do the same.

We now have a group on Facebook to help you make feature requests: MIRAGE – Microtonality Request Action Group Effort

Audio developers… At this stage, any audio software that caters to microtonal musicians has a unique selling point to differentiate against similar products on the market. So be a leader in supporting microtonal features to inspire a new generation of musicians. Help artists to create the future of music – not to do what has been done before.

Soon on the MIRAGE group we’ll have resources and recommendations for developers to support microtonality.

Shenmue I Slot House vs Sega Genesis

For this month’s #SaveShenmueHD tweetathon I decided to make a remix of the Shenmue I Slot House music using Mega Drive FM synth sounds. Mega Drive / Genesis geek for sure.

Well, I didn’t use an actual Mega Drive, but I did use FMDrive which sounds as perfect as I can tell. It’s easy to fall in love with that Yamaha YM2616 sound.

A few months back I remixed of the Fields of Time music from Chrono Cross, so if you are a Chrono fan you should check that out too:

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.

A look inside Dolores Catherino’s creative space

I’ve been following Dolores Catherino’s beautiful microtonal music for quite a while and it’s fascinating to get a look into her musical space. Everybody has a different approach to microtonality and hers is certainly different to mine. There are some very cool pieces of kit on display, like the Starr Labs Microzone U-648, H-Pi Tonal Plexus, Haken Continuum Fingerboard, and ROLI Seaboard.

This video also serves as a very inspiring introduction to why one would start using microtonal scales to push music into the future.

She also mentions that we could extend frequencies up above and beyond the range of human hearing (i.e. above 20kHz) with future advancements in sample rate fidelity and loudspeaker design. While it remains to be seen if this would have an effect on our perception of the music, it’s very interesting food for thought.

Free ambient patches for the Xen-Arts FMTS 2 synth

32 ambient and atmospheric patches for the FMTS2 virtual synthesizer.

The sounds included range from textures—to dense, pulsating polyrhythmic pads—to tuned percussion. Some patches have that characteristic FM yummy sound, and others try to avoid that. I created this bank for my own education and enjoyment a few months back, and it’s been buried on a dark corner of my website for a while.

Download zip of patches

Xen-Arts FMTS 2

Sevish in the studio, live stream starts in 12 hours

Just for fun I’ll will be live streaming my next music making session. Tune in here:
http://www.twitch.tv/sevishmusic/
Sunday 2:30am UTC

There will be live chat so we can discuss approaches to microtonal composition, sound design, audio engineering etc. Just follow the link to start watching. You’ll need to sign up for a free Twitch.tv account to get on the chat, and I hope you’ll do that so I can have some company while making noises.

I’ll be working on some new stuff, and maybe also creating some synth sound designs to be used later. I’m happy to load up the songs from Rhythm and Xen if you want to see how they were made. Never tried anything like this before so let’s do something new!

Microtonal equal temperaments on a Max/MSP synth using expr

The mtof object can take a MIDI note number and output the frequency of that note in standard 12-tone equal temperament tuning (aka 12-EDO). But what if you want to get away from this musical dogma? How about we start to explore say 13-EDO, 7-EDO, 24-EDO, or 41-EDO with Max/MSP?

Equal temperament on Wikipedia
Equal temperament on the Xenharmonic Wiki

Some years ago I wrote an expression that could quickly be dropped into any Max/MSP synth and then play microtonal equal temperaments. It’s a more generalised version of mtof and I want to share that with you today. It’s an mtof-killer!

mtof and expr

First let’s take a quick look inside the mtof object and see how it works. Really, mtof just performs one simple expression.

mtof-as-an-exprThe mtof object on the left always gives the exact same result as the expr on the right. Got it?

A replacement expr for microtonal equal temperaments

Here is my mtof-killer expression in all its beasthood:

An expression to replace mtof in microtonal settings

Nasty, right?

Copy and paste this code into Max/MSP and continue along with this tutorial.

----------begin_max5_patcher----------
882.3ocyXE0aaBCD94To9evh0GZlxRwfwD1aapaR8gsIsWampHfSp6.Cy3zl
1p0e6yXGRnYg.AkRSdvN9riuu6ymu6bd53i5YLNYNIy.7Qvkfd8dRJomRVtj
dEB5YD6OOHxOSsPCF49jw2ZLXwbBxbgRtfSedozjYhHhP7PJQu4FYzoL+HCv
uJVwjDlf4Gql23SbpbxhongJgRs7AK7RorYwTlbSUnvtPZpuH3FJa50bRfPq
KanyPyA.aSq7NDNu0xbn4JcK2JM.U6ErLjxnOpfDT9iUh+6wGk2K6FzXJZpO
kUOWL.XPYhRTRY6FsY61pA1sMJuCpGYgp1vKsYb4Igfvulv7GGovY6sdxig9
AOuwSSq1aUiTmiHmh1pLp1i6IQIxsp5iM479h7Ssw9ro6tmLby1Nrda2xEl2
4XVmm71OP26t4RkOlvqlvx8t+e5RZ6zXIOuNjpmBg0QgRzUr0PK2sPrXOUrA
3H6WShckbdruRynCTmSuc22zAiGZK+3hd04wCTRyc2IMDxbHV9wBujzrcOvH
semEQCav05Wl6JkSxHLguflvJYvJOBScZIU.bG6xFZI1zo0oFbvUt+cR9tfj
3XRNmrdEQ+jLgvIr.B3aWb9EfumHHua4phnLRPxLl3EHaBe5XEZFtkXifOmD
EtIOR6Z7HyQ1syxDzIz.0IUc9qXWOUbRzn7N8.6sTQw92arAj6W4j+LS9sGd
U4Vq8M253fVE.8.jf+x4+vX+PcsnxGjq6tGnrCImN5B8nQsnnQKUfPnKZnir
T42.WppdgHYdJGb5ISrAmARStGbpt05pqFHKv8rSlX0W90Snn98Aueqq.1u5
zSaMOdkLMthXmnFTdNTUdts2avKMS8YjUEmLdZPRTBe8TuEMdlPO7FS9Bwsv
OyT+NS88RDVwEPSul+zL85TWbV++fPou7IVy3yRlwCJNoKdnLnjFCIxPvrkA
fub0COKupanggD1K79CoY4kBDVSs.MFX4NTM.XvNGX6.iA2JvhogoIxp.yJh
6nB3X6piVKeLPwnR5ZeaK3FYKntmjgMBX3NGXvFALkyqcmBLuFiKqNEWtMFW
vNEWNMFWls3VLbQNsRiZ1s3Ewz8SSuivyVfFsUHybcqN4DdfdLkoGqSyXvI2
QK9I5+fWCetLsiPlyYFWmEe9HrgbFkBkM+yHSxvn
-----------end_max5_patcher-----------

How to use it

The ‘EDO’ value sets what equal tempered tuning you want. So a setting of 5 gives you 5-EDO, a setting of 34 gives you 34-EDO.

‘Reference Frequency’ is the standard pitch for the scale. Usually in Western music A = 440 Hz. You can also use 432 Hz if you believe in crystal healing and reptilian world leaders.

‘Reference MIDI Note#’ is the MIDI note to be tuned to the reference frequency (above). This could be MIDI note 69 if you want to tune to middle A, or MIDI note 60 if you want to tune to middle C.

For starters, try 5 for the EDO value, 440 Hz for the reference frequency and 69 for the reference MIDI note number. Have a play on the keyboard. It’s a cool sounding pentatonic scale, right?

Why this works

If you played with my example patch and got it working, then you don’t need to read this section. Just start using it in your projects and have fun exploring equal temperaments.

But if you absolutely must know how this magic is done, then keep reading! (Warning: I will assume that you already understand how to make expressions with the expr object).

Let’s look back at the original mtof expression, try to understand it, and then try to generalise it.

Output frequency = 8.175797 * pow(1.0594633,$f1)

Note that pow(a,b) is just the expr object’s way of saying a^b.

8.175797 is the frequency (in Hz) for MIDI note 0.
$f1 is the MIDI note number being played.
1.0594633 is the size of the smallest step size in 12-EDO. It is the value of a semitone.

Therefore an mtof object has this general structure:

Output frequency = Frequency of MIDI note 0 * pow(step size,MIDI note number)

Let’s start by swapping the step size of 1.0594633 with the step size from any n-EDO we want. But how do we calculate the step size? For n-EDO, it’s calculated like this:

step size of n-EDO = pow(2,1.0/n)

So let’s bring that into our in-progress generalised mtof:

Output frequency = Frequency of MIDI note 0 * pow( pow(2,1.0/n),MIDI note number )

That’s great, but unless you want MIDI note 0 to always be equal to 8.175797 Hz, how will we go about tuning our scale up to some standard pitch? Well first we need to know what our standard pitch is (aka reference frequency) and we also need to know what MIDI note number to assign that reference frequency to. Once we know these, we work backwards to find the frequency at MIDI note 0.

If our reference MIDI note number is higher than 0, then the frequency at MIDI note 0 will always be lower than the frequency at the reference MIDI note number. In fact:

Frequency at MIDI note 0 = reference frequency / pow(step size,reference MIDI note number)

We can re-use the step size calculation from before and insert it into the above calculation for MIDI note 0 frequency:

Frequency at MIDI note 0 = reference frequency / pow( pow(2,1.0/n),reference MIDI note number )

Above, we’ve just found a way to calculate the frequency at MIDI note 0 for any reference frequency assigned to any MIDI note number for any EDO of size n. That’s the entire left side of the mtof-killer worked out. So let’s bring alllll of this together:

Output frequency = Frequency of MIDI note 0 * pow(step size,MIDI note number)
                 = (reference frequency / pow( pow(2,1.0/n),reference MIDI note number )) * pow( pow(2,1.0/n),MIDI note number )

And finally we replace these English-language variables with integers and floats in expr format, such that:

$i1 = MIDI note number from the keyboard
$f2 = n-EDO
$f3 = reference frequency
$f4 = reference MIDI number

($f3 / pow ( pow (2,1.0/$f2),$i4)) * pow ( pow (2,1.0/$f2),$i1)

Well done if you kept up! I hope that explains how this expression alone can allow you to play microtonal equal tempered tunings in your Max/MSP projects.

UPDATE: Homebrewed methods like my one above are often inefficient. A commenter Toby noted:

This does the same thing in a simpler way:

expr $f3 * pow(2,($f1-$f4)/$f2)

If you need more power than this, for example you wish to create scales with arbitrary and variable step sizes, or you wish to play just intonation scales, then you should read How to play microtonal scales on a Max/MSP synth.

Sevish - Rhythm and Xen (Front cover)My recent album Rhythm and Xen uses many microtonal tunings. Give it a spin and see how all of this theory can be used to make accessible music with new moods.

Thanks for listening.

Instruments and FX used in Rhythm and Xen

It goes without saying (actually maybe it doesn’t) that if you want to make microtonal music, you need to have the right tools. For my album Rhythm and Xen I found the perfect set of tools that worked for me to get the sound that I wanted. And all while bending notes like a madman.

Stream and download Rhythm and Xen

First the machine: I produced half the tracks on a home-built desktop computer running Windows 7. The other half were produced on an Acer laptop running Windows 8. That should tell you there’s no need to get fancy and expensive, just grab a computer made within the last 5 years and start writing.

My DAW of choice is Ableton Live 9. I used to be an FL Studio user – a really common phrase for my generation – but when I picked up Ableton Live I preferred the workflow and the base functionality. There was no looking back.

As for the default synths that come with Live, throw ‘em out. They can’t be microtuned, so they’re only good for making music that everybody else makes.

For me, the key to making microtonal music in a DAW is to find some microtunable VSTs that you like the sound of. So here are the 5 VSTs I used in Rhythm and Xen:

U-He ACE

I love the sound design potential of this synth, and the VA waveforms sound nice for a digital synth.

Xen-Arts FMTS 2

FM synthesis built from the ground up to get spectrally microtuned sideband partials… what’s not to like? And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, it’s just a good FM synth. :)

Xen-Arts IVOR

Virtual analog with some weird characteristics, quirky yet bold.

Xen-Arts XenFont

It’s a SoundFont player. When you’re craving some 12-bit sounds.

Garritan Personal Orchestra 4

An affordable orchestral sound bank, nuff said. Sadly, the more I work with GPO4, the more I can recognise it from a mile off. So now that Rhythm and Xen is complete I’m gonna retire this one.

As far as VST instruments go, these 5 were all I needed. Although, I did create a couple of my own sound generators in Max/MSP to fulfil other needs. But if you’ve seen my downloadable music resources then you already know what those are.

FX and others

FX wise, I just love the collection from Variety of Sound. NastyDLA is all over this record, and I used some of their bus compressors in mastering. These plugins are amazing and free!

Oli Larkin’s Endless Series v3 is a really unique effect which can generate Shepard tones, endlessly rising tones. But the killer bit is, it can do endlessly rising or descending phaser and flanger effects too. You can create a sense of urgency doing this (great risers), or else just come up with some cool sound designs.

Sevish - Rhythm and Xen (Front cover)In the liner notes for Rhythm and Xen there a track-by-track breakdown of what instruments and compositional techniques were used. Some geeks just gotta know.

Download the album: https://sevish.bandcamp.com/album/rhythm-and-xen