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FM synthesis with Xen-Arts FMTS 2 video tutorial

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.

Free Ableton Drum Racks to customise your piano roll

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!

Enter the Drum Rack

Live Drum Rack set up for custom note names

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:

Ableton Live piano roll with a custom 9-note scale mapping

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).

Routing for custom piano roll trick in Ableton

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

>> Download the pack of Drum Racks (.zip) <<

About the chosen note names

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.

The limitations of the Drum Rack method

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.

More words about microtonal computer music

My workflow for making microtonal music in Live
Why DAW developers should design a better piano roll
VSTs for playing and composing microtonal music
Microtonal music in Bitwig Studio

Stereo Panning in Ableton Live

Just wanted to share a super simple Ableton Live effects rack. Despite its simplicity, this is the rack I use the most (in fact it’s my default rack preset). It’s a stereo pan. Download it.

Stereo Pan effect rack for Ableton Live

You see, Ableton Live strangely omits stereo panning while other DAWs such as Logic Pro and Pro Tools sensibly include it.

That thing that looks like a pan pot on the channel strip? Yeah that’s a balance control. It doesn’t actually let you manipulate a stereo signal, it just makes the left or right channel quieter. Stereo panning is different; it allows you to pan the left and right channel independently to any part of the stereo image.

I use this effects rack to tightly control the stereo image of my tracks and busses. And I never use Live’s balance control unless it’s on a mono track.

Installing the Stereo Pan effects rack

  1. Download Stereo Pan.
  2. Unzip the adg file.
  3. Drag the adg file on to an effects chain and Ableton will place the rack for you.

Example usage

  1. Instead of setting the balance control to 10 o’clock, try panning the left channel to 8 o’clock and the right channel to 12 o’clock.
  2. Create a return track with a stereo ping pong delay. Usually these delayed signals are hard left and hard right. Place the Stereo Pan rack after the delay to position the two delayed signals wherever you like in the stereo field.

If you’re interested, check out some of my sounds.

Sleep Deprived Cooked Alive remix stems

Sleep Deprived Cooked Alive is a drum & bass track from my album Rhythm and Xen. It’s written in 14-EDO (a microtonal tuning). It’s definitely one of the more popular tracks, so I’ve decided to release the remix stems for free.

Download the Sleep Deprived Cooked Alive remix stems pack

The pack includes audio stems, MIDI parts and tuning files to help you tune your synthesizers to 14-EDO. Refer to your synth’s manual to see if it supports these files. This should be enough to get a good remix going, or just to study my work if you’re learning microtonal music.

If you make anything with these stems then let me know! I would love to check it out.

Creative Commons Licence
Sleep Deprived Cooked Alive (stems pack) by Sevish is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://sevish.bandcamp.com/track/sleep-deprived-cooked-alive.

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

2 microtonal scales for your standard 12-tet guitar

I was reading some of Ivor Darreg’s writings and a really interesting idea jumped out.

“Try this: Move the bridge down until the 13th (instead of the 12th) fret sounds the octave of the open string. This will give an approximation of the 13-tone equal temperament.”

Here’s how it works. If you have a guitar with a movable bridge, then you can move it down such that the 13th fret gives you a perfect octave. This gives you a 13 tone scale to play on your guitar!

While its approximation to 13-edo is far from perfect (you’d need to completely move the frets for that) this should offer plenty of new tonal resources to the experimenting microtonal guitarist. Compared to 13-edo, the error is largest in the middle of the scale.

You can reverse this and push the bridge up such that the octave lies on the 11th fret, giving you a brand new 11-tone scale to experiment with. Again, it poorly approximates 11-edo but don’t worry about that, there are plenty of new sounds available through this method.

The idea can be pushed further:

“I fretted a guitar to 18-tone (Busoni’s proposed third-tones) and can use this guitar as a 17 or a 19 without the theoretical errors from moving the bridge spoiling any performances. So you can have three systems for the price of one.”

This really is “one weird trick that luthiers don’t want you to know!” Bwaha… ok I’ll see myself out the door.

For something a little different, check out 9 Alternative Tunings NOT for Guitar.

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

How to invent your own musical scales using Scala

When you want to edit photos, there’s Photoshop. When you want to listen to music there’s iTunes (if you’re a pro at life, there’s foobar2000). When you want to create your own musical scales, opening up endless possibility in harmonic and melodic expression, there is Scala.Scala is a multi-purpose toolkit for everything related to tunings, scales and microtonality. You have a hardware synth that you want to retune? Scala will do it. Or a softsynth? Scala can export the tuning files required to make that happen. Want to generate all kinds of crazy scales that you can use to compose new music? Scala has near infinite options for you to play with. Want to experiment with world music and historical scales? There’s a database of thousands on the Scala website.Scala tuning softwareThis is a beginner-level tutorial which deals with scale creation and microtonality in a practical way. I can’t attempt to cover everything Scala can do here. But you’ll learn some fundamentals.First I’ll show you how to create equal scales, then I’ll show you how to create just scales. If you don’t know what the difference is, just follow the tutorial from beginning to end, and read some of the links later to fill in the gaps of your knowledge. By the end of this tutorial you will have invented some of your own musical scales!

Equal Temperament scales

Equal temperaments are scales that divide an octave into some number of equally big pieces. The 12 note scale of Western music is an example, as each semitone is of equal size. So you already have experience with equal temperament scales and didn’t know it.In Scala, equal temperaments are trivially easy to create!A popular thing that beginning microtonalists like to do is to try quarter tones. The quarter tone scale divides the octave into 24 notes. Let’s make the scale in Scala. Load up Scala, type this line into the text field at the bottom, then hit enter:

equal 24

Explanation: When you type the command equal, followed by a number, Scala will produce an equal-tempered scale with that number of notes in an octave.But it looks like nothing happened after we hit enter. We still need to check that the scale was created correctly. So type:

show

This will show you the tuning data for the equal temperament scale you just created. As below:

  0:          1/1               0.000000 unison, perfect prime  1:         50.000 cents      50.000000  2:        100.000 cents     100.000000  3:        150.000 cents     150.000000  4:        200.000 cents     200.000000  5:        250.000 cents     250.000000  6:        300.000 cents     300.000000  7:        350.000 cents     350.000000  8:        400.000 cents     400.000000  9:        450.000 cents     450.000000 10:        500.000 cents     500.000000 11:        550.000 cents     550.000000 12:        600.000 cents     600.000000 13:        650.000 cents     650.000000 14:        700.000 cents     700.000000 15:        750.000 cents     750.000000 16:        800.000 cents     800.000000 17:        850.000 cents     850.000000 18:        900.000 cents     900.000000 19:        950.000 cents     950.000000 20:       1000.000 cents    1000.000000 21:       1050.000 cents    1050.000000 22:       1100.000 cents    1100.000000 23:       1150.000 cents    1150.000000 24:          2/1            1200.000000 octave

Explanation: The equal command that we just used has produced 24 items for us (24 notes in our scale). The  show command lets us see those 24. Each of these shows some number of “cents.” The cent is a measurement of how wide or narrow an interval is. Notice that each interval in our 24-equal scale goes up by 50 cents. 50 cents is exactly one quarter tone. 100 cents makes up a semitone, and 1200 the whole octave. Cents are a useful measurement to get your head around if you want to compare tunings with each other.That’s enough staring at numbers. Time to hear these quarter tones for the first time. On the Scala interface you’ll see a button which says play. Click that button!Chromatic ClavierHere’s the “chromatic clavier!” You can use this to try out your scale using your PC’s built in MIDI synth. A very handy tool indeed. Play using your mouse, or use the Sound Settings button to set up a MIDI keyboard controller.

Exercises

  1. Find some cool chords in the quarter tone scale which don’t exist in the normal Western scale.
  2. Create other equal tempered scales using the equal command that we used to create the quarter tone scale. Try any number you like, but make sure you play and listen to them using the chromatic clavier. Here are some numbers you can try which are known to give interesting musical results: 5, 13, 17, 22.

 

Equal Temperament scales (no octaves)

In the first part, we divided an octave into some number of equal parts. Amazingly, we are not limited to dividing octaves. We can choose to divide other intervals instead, such as a perfect fifth or whatever you like. But what’s the point?Every note in a non-octave scale has a unique identity. Consider that we know a note A as a note oscillating at 440 Hz, or some octave above (880 Hz, 1760 Hz) or below (220 Hz, 110 Hz, 55 Hz). If our scale doesn’t include octaves, then a note A won’t have any other counterparts higher or lower in the scale. This means that, as we climb up or down into different registers, we keep hitting unique note identities which haven’t been heard elsewhere in the scale!This approach is extremely fruitful for new sounds, sonorities and progressions. However composition technique must change drastically. For starters, there are no more chord inversions, since you can’t raise any notes up or down an octave. Of course, this makes voicing difficult too. But you gain a very wide variety of intervals to play with, and it will challenge and grow you as a composer to exploit non-octave scales. Just try it and see.Here’s how we do it. We’re going to create a scale which divides a perfect twelfth (an octave plus a fifth) into 13 equally spaced parts.

equal 13 3/1

Explanation: The equal command tells Scala that we’ll be making a scale where all notes are the same size. The number 13 shows that we want 13 notes. And that weird fraction on the end? That’s the big interval that will be split into 13 equal parts. Think of it as a pseudo-octave.Why 3/1? For now just take my word for it. 3/1 is a perfect twelfth. So rather than repeating at the 8th (octave), we’re repeating at the twelfth.Notice, if we don’t include the number 3/1, then Scala will assume that this is an octave based scale. (An octave, by the way, can be expressed as 2/1).Let’s see the cents values for the scale we created:

show

And the result:

  0:          1/1               0.000000 unison, perfect prime  1:        146.304 cents     146.304231  2:        292.608 cents     292.608462  3:        438.913 cents     438.912693  4:        585.217 cents     585.216923  5:        731.521 cents     731.521154  6:        877.825 cents     877.825385  7:       1024.130 cents    1024.129616  8:       1170.434 cents    1170.433847  9:       1316.738 cents    1316.738078 10:       1463.042 cents    1463.042308 11:       1609.347 cents    1609.346539 12:       1755.651 cents    1755.650770 13:          3/1            1901.955001 perfect 12th

Can you remember how many cents are in an octave?The answer is 1200 cents. Looking at the above list of intervals, we can see there’s no value too close to 1200 cents at all. But there’s this nasty 1170 cents interval that’s gonna sound noticeably flatter than an octave. On the other hand, that perfect twelfth at 1901.955 cents, is purely in tune. Whatever this scale is, it doesn’t represent anything we’re used to in Western music. There’s no perfect fifth, no octave…The scale we’ve just created is none other than the Bohlen-Pierce scale, a famous non-octave scale with many interesting properties. It sounds very alien until you have taken time to immerse yourself in it. Jam with the chromatic clavier and hear it for yourself (remember, just click the play button on the Scala interface to do this).

Exercises

  1. Try some other scales which divide the perfect twelfth. Use the same method as above, but replace the number 13 with any number you feel like.
  2. The perfect fifth is a ratio of 3/2. With this knowledge, try out some scales which divide the perfect fifth.
  3. Search for Bohlen-Pierce music on YouTube, and hear other people’s approaches to the scale. But only after you have tried to explore this unusual tonal territory for yourself.

Just Intonation scales

The topic of just intonation (JI) is deserving of several books in its own right. It is an old mathemusical theory in which many cultures have their own take.What could a name like “just intonation” mean… If you think of “just” as meaning fair, right, exact, and perfect – and intonation of course having to do with the accuracy and flavour of the pitch – then you should get the general idea. Just intonation is a tuning system that uses exact, perfect intervals.In fact, the pitches of just intonation are made up of ratios. Think of numbers such as 2/1, 3/2, or 15/8. (These intervals are an octave, perfect fifth and major seventh, respectively).

Just one quick way of making just intonation scales

Time to get creative! There are many ways to go about making your own just scale, but here’s one way that can get you exploring quickly.On the main Scala window, click on the Input button to open up the Input Current Scale window. Here you can enter the pitches you want to use. In this case we’ll enter some fractions at random, following some simple guidelines.

  1. Put one fraction per line.
  2. The last line should be 2/1. This makes sure that your scale repeats at the octave.
  3. To ensure that every pitch fits within a single octave, make sure that the numerator of each fraction is greater than the denominator, but less than double the value of the denominator.(For example 3/2 is okay. 1/2 isn’t okay because the numerator is less than the denominator. 5/2 isn’t okay because the numerator is greater than double the denominator.)
  4. The pure “JI effect” is generally stronger with simpler ratios, so avoid complicated fractions such as 51227/29096 and keep things simple.

Below are a few examples that follow the above guidelines.

ji-example-1 ji-example-2 ji-example-3

You can also use Kyle Gann’s anatomy of an octave to find some interesting numbers to plug in.Once you’re done, hit OK and you’ll be taken back to the main Scala window. At this point you will find 9 times out of 10 that Scala says “Scale is not monotonic ascending.” If you saw this message then it means that the pitches of your scale are in a weird order. To fix this issue, tap the Edit button on the main Scala window, tap the Ascending button, and finally click OK.Let’s take a quick look at what you made:

show

Take a quick look at the interesting names that Scala gives to the ratios you randomly chose.Now it’s time to hear your scale! Hit the Play button to show the Chromatic Clavier. You can hold shift when you click to hold multiple notes down and hear that solid JI sound.Alternatively you can play your scale using a connected MIDI controller or MIDI keyboard. To do this just click the Relay button on Scala’s main window and then click the Start Relaying button.Repeat this process of JI scale creation a few times, each time playing your scale using a keyboard to get a feel for the unique musicality of each one.Once you become comfortable with this process and you get to know certain ratios that you love the sound of then you can start to ignore the guidelines I gave before.

Further reading about just intonation

Now you know how to come up with a just intonation scale of your own. But you still might not know why you would want to use just intonation. There are many differing opinions out there and it’s easy to find them using Google. And I recommend you spend a lazy afternoon doing just that. Here are a few suggestions:

Further exercises

  1. Load up various scales from the Scala scale database. Use the command show to display the tuning data (boring numbers) for a scale. Is it meaningful to you?
  2. Jam with each scale. Is it meaningful now?
  3. Pick the weirdest scale you can find from the Scala scale database and jam until it sounds normal.
  4. This tutorial has only shown you how to create and play scales within Scala. Now learn to use your creations in other synths by reading my tutorial on exporting scales in Scala.
  5. Explore other tuning software. There is CSE and LMSO (for Mac OS X) and alt-tuner (for Reaper). Find what works best for you.

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

Kanun/Qanun SoundFont

Dr. Ozan Yarman has recorded his qanun and compiled this beautiful SoundFont for you to use in your own work.

http://ozanyarman.com/wpress/2015/01/kanunqanun-soundfont/

Qanun SoundFont (tuned exactly to 12 equal pitches), based on sampled sounds that I obtained from my 79-tone qanun during the Summer months of 2008, which I prepared using PolyPhontics + Audacity at the beginning of 2015.

Try playing Dr. Yarman’s qanun in a SoundFont player that is capable of rendering Turkish or Arabic maqam/makam scales faithfully, such as OneSF2 (Windows, free), Scordatura (Mac OS X, free), or microsynth (Mac OS X, $20) and you’re good to go!