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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:
Quartertone music displayed on a piano roll designed for semitones
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 However, when microtonal tunings are used, this guide no longer represents what is happening in our music.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.
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:
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.
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:
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
I wrote a guide to exporting .tun files, and the process is much the same for producing MIDI tuning dumps and .txt tuning files.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just for fun I’ll will be live streaming my next music making session. Tune in here:
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!
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?
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!
First let’s take a quick look inside the mtof object and see how it works. Really, mtof just performs one simple expression.
The mtof object on the left always gives the exact same result as the expr on the right. Got it?
Here is my mtof-killer expression in all its beasthood:
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-----------
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
I love the sound design potential of this synth, and the VA waveforms sound nice for a digital synth.
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. :)
Virtual analog with some weird characteristics, quirky yet bold.
It’s a SoundFont player. When you’re craving some 12-bit sounds.
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.
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.
Download the album: https://sevish.bandcamp.com/album/rhythm-and-xen
I grew up as a gamer. Luckily my aunt was into games too, so I got the chance to play oldschool systems from before my time such as the Atari 2600 and the NES. All of this cemented my interest in electronic music from a young age. (For what it’s worth, my ongoing fascination with drum & bass probably came by playing Rage Racer on the Sony Playstation).
Some years ago, fueled by the nostalgia of umpteen million nerds, the chiptune music genre took off and is still going strong today. For some, the only way to make this music happen is to record from the original hardware itself. For others, it’s good enough to cheat and use VSTs which recreate the sound. Today I want to share one method of writing microtonal chiptune music using a VST called One-SF2.
One-SF2 is a free soundfont player VST for Windows, and it has microtuning features baked right into it. Actually, it supports the MIDI tuning standard, so it can load all of the crazy scales I’ve been collecting in my tuning packs.
Remember the NES only had 5 sound channels. 2 are pulse/square channels, 1 is triangle, 1 is noise, and the last was used for low-quality digital sampling. You could recreate this capability by using 4 instances of One-SF2 (each using the Famicom soundfont), plus one audio channel with a bitcrusher effect. Read the technical specifications of the Famicom/NES sound chip if you want to strive for the most realistic result.
Here’s some xen chiptune drum & bass I cooked up a few years ago, in a game boy style.
Now, if only someone would make a version of Clotho from Columns tuned to a beautiful meantone, I could die a happy man…
Plogue Chipsounds supports Scala tuning files, emulates several oldschool chips, and opens the door to microtonal chiptune on Mac OS X and Windows (32/64-bit). Costs about 95 USD (as of early 2017).
Plogue Sforzando is a free and simple soundfont player much like One-SF2, but it works with the SFZ file format instead.
Pick up a second-hand console system and do it the old fashioned way, with tracker software and a soldering iron. Some trackers support microtones natively!
One-SF2 has a big brother, XenFont. This free, 32-bit Win-only VST adds heaps of synthesis functions on top of the basic soundfont player. A plethora of options exist for creating deep sound designs, so my own work always features XenFont instead of One-SF2.