Digital software instruments give you opportunities to explore new sounds and timbres, so why not add tuning to the list? Kore@CDM contributor and sound designer Eoin Rossney helps us navigate the potentially intimidating world of microtuning. Microtonal sound simply refers, generally, to tunings beyond the now-standard 12-Tone Equal Temperament we find on modern pianos. First off, microtuning doesn’t have to sound dissonant or “out of tune” – like other choices with synthesis, it can simply give you some new sonic abilities. Native Instruments’ synths are well-suited to the task, as many having tuning capabilities built-in. If you’re using plug-ins to assist your microtonal voyage, Kore is a natural with its plug-in hosting capabilities. But the most important thing is just to dive in somewhere and see what happens – with no physical instrument to retune, it’s something anyone can do.
We’ve got a massive set of resources here to get started. It’s a bit stream-of-consciousness, but take a browse; there’s surely something in here to get you started. We’ll follow up with some specific microtuned instrument examples. Enjoy! -PK
Introducing Microtonal Sound
Before we begin, there are one or two things you should know:
Forcing incoming midi to a scale isn’t necessarily microtuning. Ableton Live’s Scale plugin, for example, maps incoming notes to a scale, but that scale will still have only 12 intervals per octave: Microtonal scales have notes between the western 12 note-per-octave pitches.
Microtonal doesn’t necessarily mean dissonant. In fact, in classical music, some ‘subtle’ or meantone tunings can sound more “in tune” than conventional tunings. Ed.: That’s because composers in previous centuries didn’t use the 12-Tone Equal Tempered tuning we generally use on pianos today – on the contrary, many of them would likely think your Steinway grand sounds out of tune. -PK Depending on how you play the scale, some harmonies can sound beautifully pure, but hit a wrong note and things get nasty.
Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. Going through some of the available tunings out there, results can vary from making sound almost inaudible to making your instrument sound quite “alive”, with pitches changing depending on what notes are held.
Quick Tip: Instant Microtuning on PC
To get started, here’s a quick hack for trying out microtonal sound. The easiest way by far to retune your Windows synths is to grab Tobybear’s MicroTuner. This basic VST allows you to load Scala .scl tunings by drag and drop and then imposes them on your synth. (Scala is the standard format for tuning tables.) This is more of a hack than a proper retuning, but it works.
Here’s how it’s done:
Step 1: Download/install the Tobybear Midibag plugins
Step 2: Download/extract the Scala scale library
Step 3: Place Microtuner in front of your instrument
Step 4: Drag the .scl file onto the GUI
Step 4: Olé!
One cool thing is that you can automate the tuning information for every single note (from C-2 to G8), which obviously means you can morph between up to 8 tunings with Kore. The bad news is that currently the VST parameters don’t move when you load a scale, so you have to tune your scales manually (let’s just say 88 notes per scale is going to take you a while). (Ed. This is an interesting problem – worth researching a fix. But I think you should also be able to morph between tuning by using parameters within NI synths that support Scala tuning tables, so that may be a much better route than using MicroTuner for this very reason. In the mean-time, though, this remains a nice, drag-and-drop solution for getting your toes wet by experimenting. We’ll follow this up with a future story. -PK)
Mac users don’t seem to have such a neat solution available, unless you Mac users know of a tip I don’t. Scala or Max Magic Microtuner will do the job for free, but… it’s not quite that simple. There is a ‘Scala For Dummies’ text, as well. (Ed.: On the Mac, I believe Max Magic Microtuner is in fact the preferred solution. It’s tougher to use, but quite deep.)
The difficulty for a newbie to microtuning (such as myself) is context: having 3700 available tunings is all well and good, but it’s difficult to know where to begin when you’ve never re-tuned a single instrument. This is where more functional Microtuners come into play.
LMSO on Mac: Custom Microtuning for Kontakt, Absynth, and Others
L’il Miss’ Scale Oven (LMSO) is a Mac-only “Scale Analysis and Editing Tool” made by Red Barn
Goat Farm, which touts scale support for several Kore-enabled products (Absynth, Kontakt and Reaktor natively) and beyond. If you also want to use instruments that don’t explicitly support tuning, you can also retune with their other tool, Nuscale, which first appeared on the Atari ST in 1988.
RBGF’s Jeff talks about what Nuscale can do:
…you can map any note to any pitch you like, and have multiple layers at once. So you can have hundreds and hundreds of notes, if you want, per instrument simultaneously. You can also dynamically modulate, interact with the tuning in real time by ear, see what’s happening in live graphical displays, change tunings in real time, even sequence them, if desired, with no glitching. It kind of covers pretty much everything anyone would want to do, but also handles the simple cases in a straightforward manner.
LMSO can retune VSTs and hardware synths, via native format or System Exclusive MIDI /MTS (MIDI Tuning Standard). The can give your instruments “ethnic tunings, nonoctave scales, natural intonations, experimental and historical scales — all treated uniformly.” There’s a page of examples which give an idea of what’s on offer. This system is designed to get you creating your own tunings, and will let you share tunings in SysEx, SMF, Scala, raw MIDI data and proprietary formats.
According to the product page, new software compatibility/formats can be added as new instruments are released, if requested. I asked Jeff about .nkp support (Kontakt’s native tuning format):
LMSO creates script plugins for Kontakt. These enable a number of additional features not possible with .nkps, such as using entire banks of tunings at once and selecting between them during live play with controllers or keys, all with visual feedback. There is also a separate morphing tuning plugin that allows the continuous or discrete sweeping between any two scales in Kontakt, which can provide for interesting glide and other effects.
Jeff also tells me that LMSO can both save to and read from native format (.gly) Absynth tunings. The tool also has some significant updates coming:
There are new versions released several times a year. Major new functionality is constantly being added. This has been going on like this for many years now. There is also a subsystem in LMSO from a previous program which dates back 20 years.
A fairly substantial new release with groundbreaking features that will change the face of what is possible musically will be first demonstrated as part of a seminar on xenharmonics I am giving at this year’s electro-music festival on August 14.
LMSO comes with a Universal Tuning Format Translator and a 16-part multi-timbral synth which has been optimized for retuning on the fly. There’s even a Thermometer Panel for meauring consonance/dissonance of a given scale. Though the Nonoctave site might seem a little dated, it’s fascinating reading. It’s worth checking out the LMSO Tutorials section, which could also be safely entitled “more than you could possibly have thought existed on the subject of synth tuning,” and the forum is an equally enlightening place (check out the many linked examples of microtonal music).
The full version of LMSO is $165, and you can get a scaled-down version for $115 with just four supported Tuning formats (MIDI and Absynth included), and a generally reduced feature set. Check out the editions page for more info. Do you own LMSO? Do hit us up in comments and let us know how you’re getting on with it.
Another interesting piece of information caught my eye in the list of LMSO products which require special tuning formats:
Metasynth™ by UI — not an ordinary synth but a sample-editor with extensive analysis and resynthesis capabilities. Scales can be loaded to specify the partials for resynthesis. By combining LMSO with Metasynth, you can intimately specify the exact tuning of every overtone used by your sounds, and even extract scales from sound timbres to be used in your synthesizers. I can’t begin to express how amazing these possibilities are.
Nice. Ed.: I’m a long-time fan of U&I’s MetaSynth. It doesn’t support real-time operation, but it could be a good candidate for producing interesting samples to load into Kontakt and turn into real-time instruments. -PK
Windows: Microtuning and Other Power Tools with Fractal Tune Smithy
While there won’t be a Windows version of LMSO, Jeff did have a recommendation for Windows users: “On the PC, I recommend people check out a program called Fractal Tune Smithy which is written by a knowledgeable gentleman named Robert Walker from Scotland.”
Indeed, FTS seems to be far more than just a simple Microtuner. It’s also an algorithmic music generator, a polyrhythmical metronome, pitch tracer (making it possible to transpose birdsong!), easy front-end for CSound, lissajous chord display (pictured below) and a Waveform Player – which is not what you think it is.
Smithy can also read Scala tunings, and display its own tunings in Scala. That means, as with the other tools, it could be a handy companion to Kontakt, Absynth, and the like.
Single users pay no more than $45 for a license; you can output to a MIDI sequencer for $35 or simply use the program in standalone (play mode) for a paltry $14. Check out the Sound on Sound review here (halfway down the page).
Windows/Mac: Justonic Pitch Palette
Another for-fee (US$99) option for Windows/Mac users is Justonic Pitch Palette. Though the Justonic site isn’t quite so content-rich as Nonoctave’s, there are some similar features on offer here, such as realtime movement between scales, a chord detector and a sweet chord oscilloscope:
Mac/Windows: Free Tuning Tools
Of course, not everyone can afford to fork out (har, har) for custom software – if you want to get your feet wet before diving in, you’re in luck: Scala is a free cross-platform (Windows / Mac OS X 10.4+ / Linux / Unix) tuning tool. As you might have noticed from reading this roundup, its .scl format is widely supported. According to the web page:
…It supports scale creation, editing, comparison, analysis, storage, tuning of electronic instruments, and MIDI file generation and tuning conversion. All this is integrated into a single application with a wide variety of mathematical routines and scale creation methods. Scala is ideal for the exploration of tunings and becoming familiar with the concepts involved.
Some cool features – among quite a few others – include:
- command line interface (I’m thinking Chuck/Csound integration? These are listed as exportable formats)
- exports to a large number of formats (including Absynth, FM7, Kontakt & Reaktor)
- realtime microtonal midi filtering/remapping
- chord/scale/mode recognition
Even if you don’t grab the software, it might be worth picking up the scale archive (zip download) of over 3700 files, which will be compatible with a lot of softsynths out there. Check out this page for more info on the Scala .scl format, including a list of compatible software.
Another free option is Max Magic Microtuner (Mac) . Although most download sites list this as a ‘demo’ (suggesting commercial software), I can’t find a place to buy it, and it’s listed on dontcrack.org as freeware. There’s a Yahoo group and several product pages around the place, and overall this definitely looks worth checking out. According to dontcrack:
Max Magic Microtuner is a Macintosh application (OS X and OS 9 Carbon) for creating and editing microtonal scales and keyboard mappings. You can import, edit and export 128-note MIDI Tuning Standard keymap files (.syx, .mid) compatible with the Native Instruments FM7 softsynth and with all hardware and software synthesizers supporting the MTS format; you can also import and export native Scala (.scl) microtuning files, and Native Instruments Pro-52/Pro-53 microtuning files (.p5m, export-only).
If all this talk of tuning is leaving your head spinning, you might be interested in these resources on the topic:
Wikipedia entry for Microtonal Music
Playing in the Cracks by Jim Aiken
MAX Microtuner External
MicrotonalGuitar.com Microtonal tutorial
Microtonal Controllers on CDM
How about a full weekend immersed in microtonality? UK Microfest is a bi-annual event held in Surrey, UK which is run by the non-for-profit Microtonal Projects Ltd. The next event is scheduled for March 2009 (pending funding), which should at least give you plenty of time to save up for a plane ticket. The draft programme is currently as follows:
Pre-event: at the invitation of Riverhouse, Christopher Redgate will give a lunchtime recital, playing some microtonal music.
Friday 6 March, 2009
from 9.00am – 2.00pm: rehearsal time for anyone who wants it
2.00 – 7.00pm: setting up time for Geoff Smith
from 6.30pm: free buffet supper for festival ticket holders
7.30pm: Geoff Smith (dulcimers)
HAXAN – witchcraft through the ages
Saturday 7 March, 2009
10.30am – 11.15am: Charles Lucy introduces his music and tuning system
11.30am – 12.15pm: Carla Rees plays new music for quarter-tone bass flute
2.00pm: Pascale Criton: keynote lecture by UKM3 featured composer
3.00pm: Performance of music by Pascale Criton by Dedalus Ensemble
(Amelie Berson, flute; Didier Aschor, guitar; Deborah Walker; cello)
6.00pm: performance by Neil Haverstick (microtonal guitars)
8.00pm: a cabaret-style performance including films with microtonal music and a piece by Greg Schiemer for 17 mobile phones (open offers for additions welcome!)
Sunday 8 March, 2009
Research and New Developments morning:
10.00am Geoff Palmer (University of Aberdeen)
10.30am Andrian Pertout (University of Melbourne)
11.00am Eleri Pound (University of Leeds)
11.30 Aaron Hunt (H-Pi Instruments)
1.00pm: New Microtonal Brass Music with Stephen Altoft and Matthias Maintz (trumpets) and Samuel Stoll (horn)
3.30pm: John Schneider (microtonal guitars)
5.30pm: Conference dinner
7.30pm: SEA Music (classical Thai music)
Donald Bousted, director of Microtonal Projects, had this to say:
The venue will be as before – there have been 2 previous UK MicroFest events:
But there is also the possibility of one event being in Kingston upon Thames. Both towns are within 30 mins from London’s Waterloo terminal and they are within 20 mins of each other.
The interest has been growing. The numbers for UKM2 we roughly double those for UKM1. However, the weekend costs several thousand pounds to put on so we can’t proceed without funding. So the simple answer is that we have to wait for decisions about this until we can announce the event ‘officially’. However, we’ve managed it twice before, so …
One of the advantages of holding the event out of central London is that the venue and accommodation is much cheaper. We will inform of accommodation options if and when we can verify that the event will proceed.
Here’s a one-page review (pdf) of Microfest 2007.
American readers can check out the American Festival of Microtonal Music (AFMM) – WARNING – website causes a hard crash in Firefox, I won’t link directly, though you can reportedly watch videos and listen to a browser-based radio station from the site.
This festival has been running since 1981 and this year took place between April and May, and the emphasis is on performance rather than performance and seminars. It looks like an interesting sounding board for new and old works – a starting point for checking out AFMM recordings is CD Baby or eMusic