Folks often ask me how do you make microtonal music on your computer? This article explains all the essential software and hardware I used to write my most recent album. My current setup is based on Linux, Bitwig Studio and various synth plugins. This article also discusses alternative software choices just in case your preferences differ to mine.
You could probably get away with using a 5 year old laptop for sure. My PC is an Entroware Ares with an Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB DDR4 RAM, one SSD and one spinning rust.
Isomorphic keyboards such as my C-Thru AXiS-49 work well for microtonal music because scale and chord fingerings remain the same in each key, whereas a standard MIDI keyboard requires you to learn a different fingering for each key. The keys are all nerdy lil hexagons, it’s cute. It just plugs in via USB and my system recognises it instantly as a MIDI input device.
I bought a second hand M-Audio Keystation 88es from Gumtree for 50 quid. Good deals can be had if you buy used. It’s my preferred MIDI controller; I even prefer it over the axis! There’s something about the traditional 1-D style keyboard that feels natural to play.
The acoustics in my office space are awful so I have my near-field monitors kept in storage until I eventually get a new space for music production. I actually used headphones to produce and master my last 3 albums. It’s not really recommended, but you can still get a good enough sound on headphones if you use references. My current headphones are Audio-Technica ATH-M50x.
If you want to record live audio using microphones then you’ll also want to get an audio interface. I skipped that part as I mostly just produce with softsynths and samples. I have a Zoom H4N that I sometimes use to record audio to SD card.
The Linux distribution you choose comes down to personal preference. If you want to replicate my setup it would be easier to go with a Debian-based distro so you can use the KXStudio repository (more about KXStudio down below). The screenshot below is from my own machine.
The distro I’m using is KDE Neon which is based on Ubuntu LTS. I’m into KDE because I find it to be lightweight, fast, stable and customisable to my liking. Of course it makes sense to run a lightweight desktop environment so you have more resources available for your audio software. XFCE and MATE are two other lightweight desktop environments that you could try.
Another option is to use a distro that is designed for audio and multimedia work, such as Ubuntu Studio. This way you get the low latency kernel and other audio tweaks set up by default. I really have no judgement here – just use what you like.
I rely on KXStudio applications to turn my Linux machine in to a music production powerhouse. There are quite a few parts to KXStudio so here’s a breakdown of what I found useful:
Cadence is a set of tools for audio production all in one application. It performs system checks, manages JACK, calls other tools and make system tweaks. It launches automatically when I boot, so I can then launch my DAW and get straight to having fun.
Carla is a plugin host that can load up various Linux synths and effects. There’s even a way to load Windows VSTs with it but I haven’t taken the time to figure that out – I’m happy with Linux-native software currently. The reason Carla is so crucial for me is that it can be loaded not just as a standalone app but also as a Linux VST. This is extremely useful if your DAW only supports VST plugins but you want to use LV2 plugins too – Carla acts as a VST-LV2 bridge in this case.
You can install the KXStudio apps by first setting up the KXStudio repo in your package manager. The repo also contains a large number of music plugins so you can install them via your package manager rather than compiling manually. This is so useful! It even contains all the u-he Linux synths (you still need to pay for a license as they are proprietary) and Zyn-Fusion (the new interface for ZynAddSubFX)!
When doing any kind of real-time audio processing or recording, you’ll want to use the low latency kernel rather than the generic kernel. This may help prevent crackling and reduce your system’s audio I/O latency. If you’re using a distro that is designed for audio work such as Ubuntu Studio then you already have this kernel. Otherwise if you’re using a generic distro you should search online for how to install and use the low latency Linux kernel.
You should also add your user to the audio group. This gives your Linux user permission to use desktop audio devices.
These days I’m using Bitwig Studio as my DAW. I will explain why below and also mention a few alternatives.
As a former Ableton user I found it easy to switch over to Bitwig Studio. Bitwig has a native Linux version which works well with the apps I installed from KXStudio. It is not free software – you buy a license and then get 1 year of upgrades. My first year expired recently but I’m happy to continue using my current version as it’s very stable.
Bitwig Studio supports Linux VST plugins, but note that it does not support Linux LV2 plugins. This is disappointing because most free/libre audio plugins seem to use the LV2 standard and not VST. And this is why the Carla plugin host is so essential – it allows me to bridge LV2 plugins into Bitwig!
Bitwig’s built-in synths support MPE polyphonic pitch-bend. Its piano roll allows you to detune each note individually using an intuitive interface. That does entail a lot of manual work but gives you unprecedented pitch control in a polyphonic setting. MPE is also quite future proof being that it’s part of the MIDI 2.0 spec. I’m waiting to see if future synths will work seamlessly with Bitwig’s implementation of polyphonic pitch-bend.
Some people will prefer using Bitwig’s polyphonic pitch-bend over my usual approach (which is to use plugins that can import tuning files – more on that further below)!
There are various alternatives to Bitwig Studio and I’ll mention a few below.
Ardour is one of the most widely used free-and-open-source DAWs for Linux. Supports MIDI and synth plugins, so you can use plugins to get microtones.
Reaper – one of the best DAWs on any platform, full stop. They have been working on a native Linux version that I hear is quite stable. The license is far cheaper than most other proprietary DAWs and the demo version gives full access to all features, including saving and loading projects, with no time limit (though you should really buy their thing if you use it a lot).
Reaper also lets you customise the key colours and layout of the piano roll. This is one of those issues that only microtonalists seem to understand is useful!
LMMS comes bundled with a modified version of ZynAddSubFX, so if you’re an LMMS user you already have a powerful microtonal synth to play around with.
Bear in mind that many synths don’t support microtonal tunings; they are locked in to 12-tone equal temperament. The synths that are bundled with your DAW will most likely lock you in (there are exceptions).
It’s for this reason that I use synth plugins that have built-in microtonal support. That way, it doesn’t matter which DAW you use as long as your DAW supports plugins. Below is a showcase of Linux-native plugins with support for microtonal tunings.
Surge is a powerful open-source synth with an excellent implementation of microtonal tuning via .scl and .kbm files. It’s cross-platform and can run as an LV2 or VST plugin. You can also use it with VCV rack.
Zyn-Fusion is a powerful synth capable of additive, subtractive, FM and PM synthesis. It can be microtuned by importing Scala (.scl) files. Alternatively you can enter tuning data directly via the UI. It loads Scala keymap files (.kbm) which is very helpful.
Modartt’s Pianoteq is well known in the music world for its rather good piano sound. It’s a physically-modelled piano – this has some benefits over sample-based pianos. First, it has a tiny footprint of just a few megabytes storage, as opposed to the gigs and gigs often required by sample-based pianos. Second, you can tweak the parameters of the physical model to get interesting variants on the typical piano sound. Here’s an example that will interest microtonalists: you could design a piano with quietened even harmonics (e.g. harmonics 2, 4, 6, etc.) so that the timbre will blend better with the Bohlen-Pierce scale (this scale features primarily odd harmonics). This kind of sound design possibility is pure excitement for nerds like me.
I regard Pianoteq as a model example of how developers should implement microtuning features. It supports .scl files but also the .kbm format that allows the user to create any specific full-keyboard microtuning. Additionally they provide a tone circle graphic that allows you to visualise how the overtones of the piano timbre align with your tuning. That’s not necessary to have, but is a really nice feature.
Pianoteq supports Linux, macOS and Windows natively so it’s a good plugin for almost anybody who wants to write microtonal piano music. Just note that the Stage version has no microtonal support; you’ll need to get the Standard or Pro version if you want to retune the piano. A Standard license costs €249.
The v1 plugins (except for drumkv1) all support microtuning via .scl file.
As far as I’m aware samplv1 is the only microtonal-capable sampler plugin for Linux, so you will want to grab this!
kbm files are supported which means these synths can do full-keyboard microtuning. Your tuning can be saved per-instance or optionally saved as a system setting (in case you want to always use the same microtonal tuning in every instance).
This same developer also created the Qtractor DAW for Linux.
ACE – virtual semi-modular synthesizer
Bazille – virtual modular synthesizer
Diva – virtual analog synthesizer
Hive2 – wavetable synthesizer
Repro – virtual analog synthesizer
Zebra2 – various synthesizer
Many of the u-he synths have Linux versions available and can be microtuned using .tun file import.
Please be aware the Linux versions of our plug-ins are still considered beta. While the plug-ins are stable, we are not able to provide the same level of support for these products as we do for the macOS and Windows versions. Support is provided via the Linux and u-he communities on our forum.
I have a license for ACE and was using it on Windows for a few years. It’s nice to know that I can continue using it on my new setup.
EP MK1 is a free, physically-modeled electric piano plugin by Mike Moreno Audio. It has two methods for microtuning – you can dial in any equal temperament you want via the interface or you can load a text file containing a list of frequencies. The text file can be easily generated by Scale Workshop (I’m not sure if any other tuning software supports Pure Data text files).
I think EP MK1’s electric piano simulation is actually pretty usable within a mix. And with the recent addition of support for Pure Data text files it’s possible to tune every MIDI note to an arbitrary frequency. I finally have good reason to use this plugin on my next album.
Amsynth is a subtractive synth and it’s quite easy to use.
One to watch out for – Vital is a wavetable synth currently in development as of October 2019. It will support microtonal tuning via .tun or .scl file and will also be free and open source. The same developer created the Helm synth so I’m expecting good things.
Pure Data is a visual programming environment for audio similar to Max/MSP. It is free and very powerful.
Camomile is a VST wrapper for Pure Data patches. In other words, it allows you to turn your Pd creations into VSTs that you can load in to your DAW! It is cross-platform, so your creations can run on Linux, macOS and Windows.
The combination of Pure Data and Camomile is comparable to Max 4 Live.
Vinyl by Calf Audio is a vinyl emulation audio effect. So what, you ask. Well, it has one useful feature called ‘drone’ which applies an oscillating pitch-drifting to whatever audio you feed into it. If you dial in a lot of ‘drone’ you can recreate that warbly lo-fi tape-wow sound, or if you use just a little you can add a subtle intonation drift that will add interest to an otherwise perfectly accurate digital synth sound. Those of you who have composed just intonation music using digital synths will know the buzzing periodicity/phase-locking kinda sound. Just a little ‘drone’ adds enough error to the intonation to prevent that buzzing from happening.
Most synths don’t provide any interface for customising your own microtonal scales – instead they load a tuning file that you have to create yourself. For that, you’ll need some special software.
If you’re just getting started, try Scale Workshop – it can generate microtonal scales and export to a variety of tuning file formats. It’s free and open-source (MIT license). Because it runs in your web browser it doesn’t require installation. It works well on Linux, Windows, macOS, iOS and Android.
For serious experimenters, you might want to graduate from Scale Workshop and use Scala. It’s also free, and can be installed by following the instructions on their official website. It’s not as user friendly as the alternatives but it has about ten thousand cool features hidden away.
If you want to re-tune hardware synths or use MIDI Tuning Standard then you will want to get Scala and not Scale Workshop!
This is the important bit!! Once you have created a tuning file using Scala or Scale Workshop, simply load it up in your synth of choice. Read your synth’s user manual for how to do this. Now you can jam away in your chosen microtuning.
This year I released ‘Horixens‘, an album of microtonal electronic music. Tracks 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 9 are produced, mixed and mastered on Linux with Bitwig Studio. Tracks 5 and 6 were produced on my old Windows/Ableton rig but mixed and mastered on Linux.
Are you making music on Linux, or making any kind of microtonal music? Let me know in the comments what works for you and how you got it running! Everybody has a different workflow and we can all learn something from one another.
My first experience with Linux was Fedora Core 3 in the early 2000s. It was neat but I wanted to play Stepmania and Rollercoaster Tycoon so I stuck with Windows. Later I got into music production. Again, Windows stuck. The spell was broken by Windows 10 which is literally so bad. I got back into Linux and saw how much it had matured. That’s when I committed to it.
(I do use a MacBook Pro at work which is pretty good but has various issues of its own).
The transition to Linux was a gradual process and not free of frustration. But once you go through that pain, you end up with a rock-solid system. Recently I booted up the old Windows machine so I could go back to a couple of old projects and was quickly reminded of how often I used to deal with crashes on Ableton+Windows.
The main issue I’m finding (and others’ experiences will of course vary) is that most audio software developers target Windows and macOS but leave Linux out entirely. I think this trend is slowly reversing – and I have so much appreciation and respect for developers who add support for native Linux.
What you’re referring to as Linux, is in fact, GNU/Linux, or as I’ve recently taken to calling it, GNU plus Linux plus KDE plus JACK plus Bitwig Studio plus Carla plus Scale Workshop plus ZynAddSubFX.