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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.
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.
A tracker is a type of music sequencer that was popular in earlier days of computer music and the tracker scene is still very much alive today. Some trackers even support microtonal scales, allowing you to compose with xenharmonic, alternative tonal systems, and I wanted to share some of those here.
Post updated on 2021-10-13
Open ModPlug Tracker is a completely free music tracker for Windows. It can also be microtuned, so that you can compose music that explores tonal systems made before and after the reign of 12-tone equal temperament (from here on referred to as ‘The Dark Ages’).
OpenMPT can be microtuned by way of Scala files or TUN file import. (Learn how to produce those .tun files, or download some ready made tuning packs). You an also input notes directly, though they must be in the form of decimals. Once a tuning is imported into OpenMPT, you can edit it within the Tuning Properties screen.
One awesome feature is that OpenMPT will name the notes of your tuning with letters A-Z from the alphabet. This way, if you have more or less than 12 notes per octave then you can easily recognise your pitches. A5 is one octave above A4, X5 is one octave above X4 etc. It’s as easy as that. (DAW engineers take note, this is essential for microtonalists! We don’t need to see 12-TET note names when we’re using microtonal scales).
If you need even more control over your note pitches, it’s possible to fine-tune the frequency of each individual note.
Note that if you’re using VSTs within OpenMPT, the microtuning feature won’t work for those. Stick to the sampled instruments and your OpenMPT tunings will work just fine.
LSDj (Little Sound Dj) is a music tracker made for the original Game Boy, utilizing the Game Boy’s sound capabilities. It will run on real hardware via a flash cart, or you can run it in an emulator. I run it on an emulator on my smartphone. It’s a great way to kill some time on the bus/train/toilet.
By default, the frequency tables inside the ROM file are tuned to 12-tone equal temperament. But with the aid of a super helpful Perl script by abrasive, the frequency tables in LSDj can be fully microtuned to any tuning system you want. Even non-equal, non-just and non-octave scales are possible – it’s very flexible!
To do this, first of course you’ll need a copy of LSDj, then head to the Microtuning HOWTO page on LSDj’s wiki and download lsdj_tune1.4.
Note, the compiled .exe for lsdj_tune1.4 may give you the following message:
&Config::AUTOLOAD failed on Config::launcher at PERL2EXE_STORAGE/Config.pm line 72.
So it’s best to install Perl on your system and run the Perl script itself. For me, this works just fine. But note that you need to use the command line in order to run the script.
With all that set up, your best bet is to move LSDj and the tuning script into the same directory, then make a .bat file to set up your tuning command. I prefer using a .bat instead of writing directly in the command line, because I can save my command, edit it and repeat it later when I want to change the tuning.
When you run the command, you’ll end up with a patched version of the original ROM, so for each tuning you wish to use, you’ll get a new ROM. My Game Boy folder has several of them for various tunings.
Similarly to OpenMPT, with lsdj_tune you can set the note names of your tuning. This way when you make music in LSDj you won’t be encumbered with 12-TET note names from The Dark Ages. Here’s a really simple example using 5-EDO and the note names U V X Y Z:
perl lsdj_tune1.4.perl --cents 0,240,480,720,960,1200 --base A5 440 --names U,V,X,Y,Z --rom lsdj.gb --out lsdj_5edo.gb
Note: the names parameter doesn’t work in ET mode so here I have specified 5-EDO explicitly using cents.
Then load up your new patched LSDj ROM and enjoy! — 2 pulse channels, 1 PCM channel and 1 noise channel is way more exciting with microtones.
First you’ll need to download some Scala files (or make your own). Then install the tool by downloading it and dragging it on to your Renoise window. Within Renoise, make sure that your instrument is selected, and then run the tool. You’ll be able to load up one of your Scala tuning files and it will be applied to the instrument.
Update (December 2020): Ahornberg mentioned in the comments that GoatTracker 2 supports microtonal tuning via scala files (.scl). It also allows for customizable note names.
Many other trackers have no microtuning function built in, but you can still edit the pitch of each individual note. This can be done by using edit mode and assigning the same sample to different notes of the keyboard, each with some detuning.
Of course this is laborious work, so you might prefer one of the above options. Nevertheless this hasn’t held some people back. Here’s the proof, a tasty jam in just intonation using MilkyTracker:
Deflemask is another tracker that doesn’t have any built in support for microtuning. But my tuning tool Scale Workshop can generate a list of the fine tune parameters for any tuning you want to throw at it. Just load up your scale in Scale Workshop and then Export > Download Deflemask ‘fine tune’ reference (.txt). Then input the values from the text file into Deflemask as needed.
If there are more trackers that support microtonal scales then I would love to hear about them.
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.
Note – this was a highly speculative post written BEFORE the announcement of MIDI 2.0. It now turns out that MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE) is creating new convenient workflows for creating microtonal music with technology. Disregard everything written below.
MIDI has served musicians well for decades, but everyday microtonalists are struggling to make electronic music within the limitations of the MIDI spec. These limitations may not be apparent to your everyday musician, so I thought I would highlight some of the problems that are faced by those working in this field.
The existing MIDI standard allows you a mere 7 bits to store the value of the note being played. That gives us 128 notes in total. Oh don’t get me wrong, 128 notes is more than enough for standard tuning, but this isn’t 1890 anymore. People are starting to want something more than standard tuning.
128 notes simply isn’t enough for large microtonal scales. If I have 200 notes per octave, then to get a full piano range of 8 octaves I already need 1600 notes. If we were to represent every pitch of this scale with a MIDI note number, then note numbers would have to be represented by at least 11 bits (2048 notes).
But having all those note numbers (and a tuning table with 2048 values) isn’t an efficient solution. Bandwidth is now cheap – so let’s forget about MIDI note numbers altogether! We can just send frequencies directly as single floats.
Consider that we have a MIDI 2.0 system where frequencies are sent instead of note numbers. On a standard MIDI 2.0 keyboard controller you press middle A and it sends a note on message with a frequency value of 440.0. A connected MIDI sound module receives the message and starts outputting a sound at 440 Hz.
Now consider how easy it is for the microtonalist – they only need to purchase a single MIDI keyboard controller that allows them to set up microtonal tunings, and then it automatically works with every MIDI 2.0 sound module! That’s a great leap ahead of the mess we have today, where all MIDI controllers output note numbers 0-127 and each sound module has its own quirky method of assigning frequencies to those notes.
Pitch bend in the current MIDI spec is monophonic, so it affects all notes on the channel at the same time. This is fine if you’re playing lead keyboard for an 80’s disco funk band, not so cool in the 2010s. If I’m playing a chord and I want to bend one pitch up while another pitch gets bent down, the only way to do it is to put each note on its own individual channel. It’s quite an insane way to work, and you can see why it’s difficult to use pitch bend to play microtonal polyphonic music.
If it were possible to assign pitch bend data for each individual note, then even synths which didn’t support microtonality could be forced to play microtonal scales easily – as long as they supported the pitch bend correctly.
The only way to play polyphonic microtonal music using the pitch-bend method today, is to put each voice on to its own MIDI channel, of which there are a maximum of 16. So already you’re now limited to 16 note polyphony, and this will only work with multitimbral synths (i.e. they can receive data on all 16 channels and output all notes at the same time).
We can always write to developers thoughtfully, and ask them to add features the microtonalists need, with reasons why those features are helpful.
For now we’re stuck with the original MIDI, which to be fair is still an awesome spec. It allows us to connect pieces of kit from various manufacturers, and it all just works. So if you’re looking for ways to make microtonal music with MIDI instruments, here they are:
If you’re using hardware, then try to get hardware that can load and store tunings. Some synths support the MIDI tuning standard (MTS) which uses SysEx data to send note frequencies. It’s not commonly supported in most synths, so do your research before you buy.
If you’re working in a DAW, there are many VST instruments that can support microtonal scales. Sure you’re limited to 128 notes and monophonic pitch bend, but these instruments can set any frequency you like to each of the 128 notes. That’s a good start, and should keep you busy until we get a very microtonal MIDI 2.0.
EDIT: I’ve just been made aware of a new tuning method for MIDI synths. Worth a read!
I have written about my own workflow for microtonal composition using Ableton Live, Scala, and VSTs.
UPDATE August 6th 2020 – this post is now out-of-date because Bitwig have released the Micro-Pitch device. It is excellent so go and check it out. You can still read the rest of this article below to get a sense of life in the before time. :)
If you’re making music with Bitwig Studio, did you know it is also capable of playing microtonal music? It’s not difficult to set up – in fact Bitwig is already a shade above Ableton Live in terms of microtonal scale support. In this article I’ll discuss some possibilities and limitations for microtonal music in Bitwig Studio.
If you’re the kind of musician who wants to compose standard Western tuned music with the occasional microtonal melodic intonation, then the pitch bend method is an easy way to go. Bitwig essentially locks you into standard Western tuning (12-tone equal temperament) as a tonal framework, and you can specify your deviation from that tuning on a per-note basis.
Yes, you heard correctly. Bitwig supports per-note pitch bend for its built-in instruments! This really lowers the barrier of entry for a basic level of microtonality.
But if you want to go deep, using a microtonal scale as your tonal framework, then things start to get fiddly because you’ll be using those pitch bends on almost every single note. Copy and paste will be your friend here.
Remember that per-note pitch bend does not work for VST instruments. The MIDI spec doesn’t support per-note pitch bend, so this technique only works for the Bitwig internal instruments that share Bitwig’s own unique data structure.
You can use the Note MOD device to grab note information from any instrument track. That information can then be used to modulate other parameters within Bitwig’s instruments or effects.
The Note MOD device can be set up to allow you to play in microtonal equal temperaments with the Sampler, FM-4 and Polysynth instruments. That’s because these 3 instruments have a Pitch setting that can be modulated. Use the Note MOD device with the KEY modulator to modulate the Pitch setting of your instrument. A negative value will cause the notes to become smaller than a semitone, while a positive value will cause the notes to become larger than a semitone.
Of course, due to the fact that Bitwig supports VST instruments, you can simply load up tried-and-true VST instruments that support microtonal scales.
If you have a synth that can be tuned via tuning file import, then you’ll need to know how to generate those tuning files or you could simply download a few ready-made tuning packs. And don’t forget to check your synth’s manual to find out how to import your tuning files.
This method doesn’t update the look of your piano roll even if you update the tuning in your VST instrument. So you’ll be stuck in a piano roll scordatura hell, where the notes on the piano roll don’t quite match up with what you’re hearing. But don’t worry, most other DAW microtonalists are in the same ring of hell as you. Get cosy, I’ve been here for years.
In the past, SysEx was how MIDI devices sent and received data for their specific functions. This was a long time ago, before everything was done in the box with a GUI. Some new VST instruments and many old keyboard synths support microtuning via MIDI Tuning Standard (MTS) SysEx messages.
It looks like Bitwig doesn’t support SysEx messages yet (as of Spring 2016), and we’re not sure if it ever will. So MIDI Tuning Standard based microtuning is ruled out for now, sorry. Let’s hope the developers will implement it for all us nerds in the future. Cross your fingers, say prayers, burn incense, and send the developers a feature request…
In the core of Bitwig Studio there is a hidden modular environment that will later be opened up for musicians and tweakers to patch into. Without a doubt, Bitwig’s modular system could be used and abused to bend the notes in any which way you choose. Let’s wait for this one and see what the future holds.
If Bitwig Studio’s modular system inspires the same kind of sharing culture that Max for Live does, then it’s only a matter of time before some bright spark patches a microtuner plugin or microtonal synth in Bitwig modular.
If you know any other ways to squeeze a microtonal scale out of Bitwig Studio then drop a line in the comments.
You might think that the humble piano roll has already been perfected. But more and more people these days are working with microtonal tunings. The old piano roll struggles to keep up with this new form of musical expression.
Definition of microtonal tuning: Any collection of pitches that is tuned differently to Western 12-tone equal temperament. A microtonal tuning may contain less than 12 or more than 12 notes per octave, and it may not repeat at the octave at all.
We could improve the piano roll to make these musicians’ lives easier. Here are some reasons why this is so:
Quartertone music displayed on a piano roll designed for semitones
The common pattern of 7 white and 5 black keys is known as the Halberstadt keyboard.
Halberstadt’s layout makes sense if you’re using standard tuning. Those black and white notes provide a useful guide to the eye to see what is going on with the music. However, when microtonal tunings are used, this guide no longer represents what is happening in our music.
Microtonal tunings can have less or more than 12 notes per octave. So as you go up and down by octaves, the markings on the piano roll slip further and further away from a true representation of the notes.
Let’s consider the case of 19-EDO (19 Equal Divisions of the Octave or 19-tone equal temperament). This tuning has 19 notes in one octave. We can play a C major triad in 19-EDO, though the notes are more spread apart than they would be in 12-EDO (standard tuning). In 12-EDO a major triad can be formed with the scale degrees 0-4-7. In 19-EDO the scale degrees are 0-6-11. When you view a 19-EDO C major triad on the standard piano roll, it confusingly looks as if the chord is formed with the notes C, F# and B.
This image should demonstrate that when you transpose the chord up one octave, the notes of the chord appear to change to G, C#, F#.
It was difficult enough to imagine that the notes C, F# and B would make a major triad, but to think that the next G, C# and F# produce the same chord one octave higher is an insane and disorganized way to work. Yet as a microtonalist this is how I have been forced to work with a piano roll every day for years.
And all this has just been an example in 19-EDO. A musician could be working in myriad other possibilities! The existing piano roll isn’t designed for this kind of flexibility, but we can change this! (Indeed Reaper’s piano roll is already head and shoulders above the rest, as I will explain later).
Points for improvement:
To clarify: DAWs send MIDI data in to the instrument/plugin and then receive audio out. The DAW isn’t aware if the musician has loaded a microtonal tuning in the instrument – indeed the DAW doesn’t need to know. Therefore the points for improvement suggested above are cosmetic. There is no need to completely change the way that audio is generated in the DAW. Just change the way that pitches appear to the musician.
Many piano rolls allow you to use the shift+up shortcut to move a note up by 12 notes, or shift+down to move it down by 12 notes. This is a quick and useful method of moving notes up and down by an octave when using standard tuning. But if the user uses a larger or smaller tuning, then this shortcut becomes less helpful.
For example, when I’m working in 22-EDO, I must use an unusual series of keypresses to move a note up by one octave: shift+up shift+up down down. What this does is move the note up 12, up 12 again, then down 2 notes. This clearly isn’t an optimal way for me to jump by an octave of 22 notes.
Points for improvement:
Being an Ableton Live user, I often look at the Reaper guys with jealousy. Reaper is a rock solid DAW and their piano roll has some useful features for microtonalists.
Notice anything remarkable about the piano roll below?
On the above picture, check out the notes on the left side. Here the musician Tall Kite has set up the piano roll with a custom layout and useful names for each note. Yes, Reaper allows you to do this! The custom keyboard layout is designed for 19-EDO.
Read this thread for instructions on how to make a microtonal piano roll in Reaper.
Reaper’s implementation is not perfect. Notice how the background markings on the main panel still show the original Halberstadt layout for 12 notes. Those markings don’t correspond to the layout on the left of the screen. But Reaper’s piano roll is a great move in the right direction. I hope Reaper will continue this good work.
Musicians… Nobody will improve the piano roll unless we tell them about it! Write to your favourite software developers and explain to them what issues you have. Show them examples of other software that does the job well. Show them this page! Then spread the word so other musicians can do the same.
We now have a group on Facebook to help you make feature requests: MIRAGE – Microtonality Request Action Group Effort
Audio developers… At this stage, any audio software that caters to microtonal musicians has a unique selling point to differentiate against similar products on the market. So be a leader in supporting microtonal features to inspire a new generation of musicians. Help artists to create the future of music – not to do what has been done before.
Soon on the MIRAGE group we’ll have resources and recommendations for developers to support microtonality.
For this month’s #SaveShenmueHD tweetathon I decided to make a remix of the Shenmue I Slot House music using Mega Drive FM synth sounds. Mega Drive / Genesis geek for sure.
Well, I didn’t use an actual Mega Drive, but I did use FMDrive which sounds as perfect as I can tell. It’s easy to fall in love with that Yamaha YM2616 sound.
A few months back I remixed of the Fields of Time music from Chrono Cross, so if you are a Chrono fan you should check that out too:
This is my answer to the question “Sevish, how do you make your music?”
I won’t discuss my creative process but I’ll explain my workflow and the tools used to get music made. What I like about my workflow is that it works superbly for me.
I use Ableton Live to write, record, and mix my music. Within Live, I load VST instruments that have built-in microtonal scale support. I use Scala to produce the tuning files necessary to retune those VSTis. I play the VSTis using my MIDI keyboard, C-Thru AXiS-49, QWERTY keyboard and through mouse input. I also sample recordings that I have made using my Zoom H4n portable recorder.
Ableton Live is a DAW (digital audio workstation) that has an effective workflow for electronic music. For my drum’n’bass, breakbeat electronic, it works just fine. Live has no built-in microtonal scale support, and the piano roll is always locked to a 12-note Halberstadt layout, which can be tricky.
It’s possible to make microtonal music in Ableton Live by using VST instruments or Max 4 Live instruments with microtuning support built in. As far as Ableton knows, MIDI data goes into these instruments and audio comes out. It’s up to the instruments themselves to provide the new tunings and scales that I use in my music.
I use a couple of Max 4 Live instruments that I made myself, plus several VSTi: Xen-Arts FMTS2, IVOR, XenFont, TAL-Sampler, u-he ACE and Garritan Personal Orchestra 4. All of these plugins have full keyboard tuning support, which is why I choose to use them. To tune up, they each require you to import a tuning file. I’ll elaborate on that later.
Before writing a piece, it works well to have an idea already of the tuning you want to use. Scala can be used to invent musical tunings or specify an old one. I have written about how to invent your own scales with Scala, described other superbly expressive tunings that already exist, and hand-selected some interesting scales to download.
Once I have a scale in Scala that bends my ear in just the right way, it must be exported as a tuning file for it to be usable in those VST instruments. The common formats are:
I wrote a guide to exporting .tun files, and the process is much the same for producing MIDI tuning dumps and .txt tuning files.
After I have some tuning files to work with I’ll load them up in one of my synths, and jam away until I play something I really like. I don’t go too deep in to the theory of it all; I leave that up to others. Using your ear and finding sounds you like is a good way to go.
I like to record sounds on location with my H4n portable recorder. After recording I keep the audio in my personal sound library until I’m ready to use them in a project.
I almost never use the preset sounds on my synths. It’s best to patch in your own sound designs because that becomes a recognisable part of your craft. It’s well worth practicing this skill for yourself. Some days I do nothing but come up with new sound designs with my fave synths. That way I can save them in my personal library and use them only when inspiration strikes.
The AXiS-49 is a hexagonal keyboard controller, and it’s best suited to exploring microtonal scales because it makes fingering really easy. Imagine trying to play a 15-note scale on a standard keyboard where the pattern repeats after every 12 notes… The fingering gets totally perplexing and that gets in the way of creativity. With the AXiS that’s no problem at all. The AXiS also greatly increases my reach, so I can play large chords easily.
The difficulty I find with the AXiS is that I use so many different tunings that it’s difficult to build up a muscle memory for any of them. And the buttons are so close together that I make mistakes quite easily.
It comes in handy to have a standard keyboard at times. I was given a 2 octave MIDI controller with some knobs on it which I can map to various functions in my DAW. Using this to recording automation in real-time is one way to breathe some life into a static synthesised part.
I’ve been following Dolores Catherino’s beautiful microtonal music for quite a while and it’s fascinating to get a look into her musical space. Everybody has a different approach to microtonality and hers is certainly different to mine. There are some very cool pieces of kit on display, like the Starr Labs Microzone U-648, H-Pi Tonal Plexus, Haken Continuum Fingerboard, and ROLI Seaboard.
This video also serves as a very inspiring introduction to why one would start using microtonal scales to push music into the future.
She also mentions that we could extend frequencies up above and beyond the range of human hearing (i.e. above 20kHz) with future advancements in sample rate fidelity and loudspeaker design. While it remains to be seen if this would have an effect on our perception of the music, it’s very interesting food for thought.