Make microtonal music on Mac OS X

Seems like there are tonnes of Max OS X users who want to get into microtonal music but don’t know how to jump in. Although I’m a Windows-using peasant, I wanted to gather up some ideas to start you off. Let’s dip in…

Logic Pro microtuning

Logic Pro supports microtonal scales, and can even load Scala files! This can retune all of its built-in instruments and synthesisers (it doesn’t apply to any AUs or VSTs you’re running).

This online help file from Apple shows you how to find the tuning settings in Logic Pro X.

The big drawback—and I mean huge—it only supports 12-note scales, those scales must repeat at the octave, and each note can only deviate from 12-tet from plus or minus 100 cents (1 semitone).

These limitations restrict you to certain kinds of microtonal scales, and while there’s certainly room to explore within these limits, you’ll miss out on whole genres of microtonal scales that will blow your mind. You’ll miss the unimaginable cloud-like non-octave scales like Bohlen-Pierce and Wendy Carlos’ scales. Stretched-octave scales like Indonesian Slendro and Pelog also can’t be tuned faithfully. And large scales such as the 20-note eikosany, Harry Partch style just intonation, or large equal temperaments, are straight out unavailable.

Nevertheless, Logic makes it easy to microtune its high-quality instruments, even if it is crippled, so if you already own Logic then you should definitely check it out.

Microtonal AU and VST plugins for OS X

If you’re using a DAW that supports AU or VST plugins (such as Logic, Ableton Live, and some others) then you can make microtonal music by using certain plugins that support full microtuning. They can usually import a tuning file and that sets everything up for you.

It should come as no surprise that there are less *free* options for microtonal composition on a Mac than there are on Windows or Linux. But you can start with alphacanal Automat and Plogue Sforzando

If you’re willing to spend a little, then have a look through the big list of microtonal software plugins on the Xenharmonic Wiki.

Some people report success running Xen-Arts’ Windows-only VSTs using the free emulator WINE and a free VST host. If you’re of the technical mind to set up WINE, there’s a world of free VST synths for Windows awaiting you!

Making tuning files on OS X

If you want to design your own tunings and export them for use in other instruments then there’s the Custom Scale Editor (CSE) software from Hπ Instruments. It allows you to tune every MIDI note to whatever pitch you want, exports tunings in a variety of popular formats and can retune the output of sequencers and notation programs. Thanks to Juhani Nuorvala for reminding me to mention it!

I heard that the now discontinued Lil’ Miss Scale Oven was the way to go. Really, I’ve heard wonderful things and wish I could have a little play with it myself.

It’s also possible to install Scala on OS X for free. I’ve never been through this process, but I’ve heard that it’s one of the most challenging things you can attempt to do.

Follow the instructions on the Scala website, and go slowly and carefully. You will be confused. You will have to install other things to get it to work. You will want to cry. But it IS possible…

Other pathways to microtonality on OS X

Max/MSP, Pure Data and CSound are audio programming languages that can let you make sounds from the ground up. If you’re the tinkering type then try these!

Microtonal equal temperaments on a Max/MSP synth using expr
How to play microtonal scales on a Max/MSP synth

If you have any other methods of making microtonal music in OS X then get in touch so I can update this post!

11 thoughts on “Make microtonal music on Mac OS X”

  1. Juhani Nuorvala

    For years already, the essential tuning software for Mac has been CSE, or Custom Scale Editor. It performs most of the tasks of the now discontinued L’il Miss Scale Oven as well as Scala, plus it does other things, too, such as re-tune digital pianos.


  2. b0b

    With Sonic Pi, you can use fractional MIDI notes. For example, 69.15 is 15 cents sharp of A. You can define whole scales using this method, and write code to play music using those notes.


      1. Alex Enkerli

        Sonic Pi sure is fascinating. There are many other options for live coding (and they probably all support microtonality), but SPi is remarkably easy to use and to learn. The embedded tutorial is exemplary as it stimulates the imagination while enhancing the learning experience.

        Arrived here through a search for microtonality in Sonic Pi. As an ethnomusicologist, the fact that this language allows for decimal MIDI notes was a big attraction. Wondering what may be the best approach to add scales to be reused in the same way as preset ones.


  3. Andy Haring

    It also depends what software instruments you’re using. If you’re using a sampler, you can manually create and tune zones at any pitch you like. I use NI Kontakt, and it’s very easy to re-tune sample zones in that. You can have literally any set of tunings you can think of as long as you don’t mind defining them manually. Even when I’m not specifically/intentionally making tonally unusual music, I often find myself manually tweaking tunings for multisampled instruments.

    Synths are a bit more variable, but some allow you to change keyboard scaling. And, of course, if you build or tweak your own synths in Reaktor or something similar, you can define tuning however you like.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>