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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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you’re interested, check out some of my sounds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.This 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 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:
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:
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!Here’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.
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:
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).
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).
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.
Below are a few examples that follow the above guidelines.
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:
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.
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:
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
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!
I have made another tuning pack available—world scales! The pack contains tuning files used to retune various synthesisers. The following formats are supported: Scala (.scl/.kbm), Anamark TUN (.tun), MIDI Tuning dump (.mid).
The world is a massive place, with many creatures living on its surface. One such creature is called the human. Humans all over the world just love to make music; it’s one of a few things that can unite us all. But where you go in the world, you’ll notice that the musical scales differ just as much as the food, the clothes, the language, the customs, the creation stories…
It contains Ancient Greek, Arabic, Bulgarian, Chopi, North Indian (Hindustani), Indonesian, Japanese, Macedonian, Scottish, Thai, and Zimbabwean scales. A concise and tidy starter pack to sample what’s out there.
If you’re looking for scales to take your music to a transcendental place, then these long-lived musical traditions may have something for you. And if you’re looking for something a little different, I have other tuning packs on my music resources page.