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If you are looking for a quick introduction to microtonal scales in computer music, then I invite you to watch my latest tutorial video.
Using Microtones in Electronic Music explains how to tune software synths to microtonal scales, for composition and production using a DAW-based workflow.
Microtonal music is a deep topic, and this tutorial video is just one possible starting point. If you know of alternative approaches then please do share your knowledge with others!
0:30 What software
2:00 Tuning up
4:37 Messing around with 19edo
14:40 19edo semaphore
18:19 A golden ratio inspired tuning
27:00 Some chords of 22edo
32:07 How a song like Gleam looks on piano roll
A new web app called Scale Workshop allows you to design and play your own microtonal scales. You can also tune various other synthesizers with it. It has just reached version 1.0 and is now recommended for use by the wider musician community.
Scale Workshop has these aims in mind:
Scale Workshop puts a polyphonic synth right inside your browser. You can audition and perform your scales by playing with a connected MIDI controller, QWERTY keyboard, or by using the touch-screen overlay.
Convert scl files and convert tun files to various tuning formats. Export formats include Scala .scl/.kbm, AnaMark TUN, Native Instruments Kontakt tuning script, Max/MSP coll text format and Pure Data text format.
Share your scales with other people by copy-and-pasting the URL in your address bar while working on your scale. The recipient will instantly see your scale information and can play it using their keyboard. This is invaluable for communicating your tuning ideas with others, or allowing your musical collaborators to export your tuning in whatever format they prefer. Try it out.
Display frequencies, cents and decimal values for your tuning across all 128 MIDI notes.
Note that this list is incomplete.
This has been a labour of love for almost 2 years – I hope that many people will find it useful! If you want to share any work you’ve created with Scale Workshop then I’d love to hear about it.
Now that Scale Workshop is in a stable state, I am going to focus my attention back on composing new music and hosting the Now&Xen microtonal podcast.
I’m always keen to see how other musicians are creating microtonal music and the ideas behind their craft. For a few years now I have been building a YouTube playlist of microtonal music tutorials and explanations. As the playlist now has over 140 videos, it’s a good time to share these hours of content with others.
One thing that makes microtonality fascinating is that the newcomers are exploring new tonal structures that even the old masters haven’t heard of. But new or old, when a musician shares their insight in a video, I include it in the above playlist.
The playlist features videos from: Tolgahan Çoğulu, Adam Neely, Dolores Catherino, minutephysics, This Exists, Elaine Walker, Stephen James Taylor and others.
Of all the software synths in the world, very few of them support microtonal scales. If you are a musician using Linux and open source software then your options are even fewer. It’s for that reason that I want to celebrate the news that amsynth 1.8.0 adds support for microtonal tunings!
amsynth is a virtual analog synthesizer that runs as a standalone or VST, LV2 or DSSI plugin. Its sonic characteristic is similar to other popular digital VA instruments – fantastic for leads, basses and stabby chords. It’s light on the DSP and the controls are very easy to understand, so amsynth will rightfully earn a place in my toolkit once I move my music production machine over to Linux.
The easiest way to get amsynth if you’re on a Debian-based distro is to add the KXStudio repositories and then install via apt. Assuming you already have the KXStudio repos on your system, simply run the following command:
sudo apt install amsynth
If you’re unable to use the above, download the source for amsynth 1.8.0 and build it.
Once you have amsynth up and running, microtunings can be loaded by right clicking the interface and selecting a .scl file. In addition, you can load up a .kbm file for custom key mappings.
If you need some Scala tuning files (.scl) to play with, generate some with my Scale Workshop browser tool, or install Scala itself. Scala is extremely powerful, though you need to install it to your PC along with all its dependencies.
Developers, TAKE NOTE of what amsynth developer Nick Dowell has achieved here – .scl and .kbm formats are BOTH supported. .scl files specify the intervals in the scale, and .kbm specify the base tuning of the scale, whether it is A = 440 Hz or something else entirely.
Without supporting both of these formats, a synth could barely be said to support microtonal scales at all. I’m so pleased that amsynth gets this right.
Judging by this page on amsynth’s GitHub, it looks like amsynth may become cross-platform in the future. Should this ever happen, then Windows and Mac users would also have access to this nifty, free and microtonal instrument too. I look forward to this and will follow amsynth’s progress into the future.
Retune for Live is a Max 4 Live MIDI device which accepts MIDI notes as input, then outputs polyphonic microtonal MIDI which you can route to your MIDI instruments. It works on instruments that don’t support microtonal scale input, as long as they respond to pitch bend. You specify the microtuning via csv file or scl tuning file.
It all works simply enough. You have one MIDI track where you can play and record polyphonic MIDI. The Retune for Live transmitter device sits on this track and beams the note & pitch-bend data intelligently to a number of receiver devices, each of which working for one monophonic part. So if you want 8-note polyphony then you must have 8 instances of the instrument/VST each driven by their own receiver device.
When I write microtonal music I usually rely on VSTis which have support for full-keyboard microtuning built in. There should be no compromises in your art – and my art is microtonal so if a synth has no microtuning or dodgy microtuning then I don’t use it at all.
Except that for a long time I have wanted to hear Clotho from the Columns soundtrack rendered in quarter-comma meantone tuning. To faithfully recreate the sound of the original game, I set out to use a YM2616 simulation. I found two YM2616-esque VSTs, GENNY and FMDrive, but GENNY doesn’t even have working pitch bend, so that’s straight out the window.
So I got myself a copy of FMDrive and downloaded a MIDI file of Clotho. MIDI retuning via Scala seemed dodgy and I could hear the results were wrong. After one night of trying different things I gave up. TobyBear’s microtuner is ancient and I couldn’t even get the ruddy thing to work at all. This is all a roundabout way of saying…
I tried Retune for Live and it just worked! So if you have Max 4 Live and want to get microtonal sounds from a synth that can’t be microtuned, give it a try. You can download Retune for Live for free or pay-what-you-like donation from the author Ursine.
As much as this solution was successful in my case, it uses more CPU power since you have to run multiple instances of the same instrument. For that reason I will avoid this solution for larger projects. But if you really need a certain sound (and you already paid big buck$ for Ableton Live and Max 4 Live), then Retune for Live might be the way to go.
Several months after my explorations with Retune for Live, I did convince the developer of FMDrive to implement some microtonal functions, but that’s a story for another day. As for my quarter-comma meantone rendition of Clotho, that was sadly lost in the great didn’t-back-it-up-and-hard-drive-died catastrophe of Spring 2016. It was badass though, I’ll remake it one day.
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.
This is my first video tutorial, showing how to design a distorted bass sound using FM synthesis in Xen-Arts’ FMTS 2 VSTi.
FMTS 2 is a freeware VST instrument for Windows which allows you to play microtonal scales. It’s developed by Xen-Arts. The FM operators can themselves be tuned to microtuning-related frequency relationships, so that the timbre has a sort of spectral microtuning within it. Quite mindblowing stuff and seriously underrated.
Download Xen-Arts FMTS 2– http://xen-arts.net/xen-fmts-2/
The tutorial just demonstrates a basic workflow, and it’s possible to go way deeper with this synth. If there is any interest in further videos like this, best to leave a comment below or on the YouTube video itself.
I’ve written before about how DAWs don’t often allow a custom piano roll designed for microtonal musicians. If you’re using a scale with more or less than 12 notes, then the piano roll doesn’t match up with what you hear from the synth. As an Ableton Live user, I wanted to know what workarounds I could use right NOW in order to make composing microtonal music a little easier.
My goal: display custom note names for every note on the piano roll!
Using a Drum Rack, it’s possible to change the note names displayed in the piano roll. Load up one of my sample Drum Racks (download here) and add it to an empty MIDI track. Create a MIDI clip on that track and make sure that ‘Fold’ is enabled on the piano roll. You should see something like below:
The example above shows a 9-note scale using the letters A B C D E F G H J.
Then, you must load your instrument on a new MIDI track, and connect the MIDI input of that track to the Drum Rack track (pre FX).
Once this routing is set up, you can compose in the piano roll of the Drum Rack track. The note names here can be a useful guide when you’re composing with microtonal scales.
Making these Drum Racks is time consuming because you have to name all 128 notes individually. I have done the hard work for you and made a pack of Drum Rack presets that you can drop into your project. Each one assumes that MIDI note 60 is middle C (this is the default for Scala keyboard mappings).
5 note scale: C, D, E, A, B
6 note scale: C, D, E, F, A, B
7 note scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B
8 note scale: C, D, E, F, G, H, A, B
9 note scale: C, D, E, F, G, H, J, A, B
10 note scale: C, C#, D, D#, E, E#, A, A#, B, B#
11 note scale: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, G, G#, A, A#, B
12 note scale: lol
13 note scale: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, B#
14 note scale: C, C#, D, D#, E, E#, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, B#
17 note scale: C, Db, C#, D, Eb, D#, E, F, Gb, F#, G, Ab, G#, A, Bb, A#, B
19 note scale: C, C#, Db, D, D#, Eb, E, E#, F, F#, Gb, G, G#, Ab, A, A#, Bb, B, B#
22 note scale: C, C#, D, D#, E, E#, F, F#, G, G#, Hb, H, H#, J, J#, K, K#, A, A#, B, B#, Cb
The note names that I chose for some of the mappings are somewhat arbitrary. But there is some method to the madness.
The note names for the 5 note through to the 9 note mappings just assign a unique letter for each note. The 10 note mapping has 5 naturals and 5 sharps. The 11 note mapping is similar to the standard 12 note mapping, without F#. The 13 note mapping is similar to the standard 12 note mapping, but B# is added. The 14 note mapping uses 7 naturals and 7 sharps.
The 17 note mapping is based on a circle of fifths. C# is actually higher than Db because the fifth is tuned sharp (i.e. it’s a superpythagorean tuning).
The 19 note mapping is also based on a circle of fifths.
The 22 note mapping is designed for 22-EDO, so that the naturals give you a symmetrical decatonic scale such as those described in Paul Erlich’s paper Tuning, Tonality, and 22-Tone Temperament.
There seems to be a performance drop if you have too many of these Drum Racks active. I’m using a 4 year old laptop, and editing the Drum Racks become tedious once there were about 4 of them active.
But the main problem is that you can’t change the colour of the notes, so you’re still stuck with the 7-white 5-black Halberstadt layout. Try to look at the note names and ignore the note colours.
It would be a great help if Ableton would implement some kind of key colour mapping feature in the Live’s piano roll. The only way this could happen is for users to actively ask for it. You should go and make the feature request now at Ableton’s forums and beta website.