What is KVR Audio? | Submit News | Advertise | Developer Account

Options (Affects News & Product results only):

Quick Search KVR

"Quick Search" KVR Audio's Product Database, News Items, Developer Listings, Forum Topics and videos here. For advanced Product Database searching please use the full product search. For the forum you can use the phpBB forum search.

To utilize the power of Google you can use the integrated Google Site Search.

Products 0

Developers 0

News 0

Forum 0

Videos 0


Practical Microtonal Music Making

How to do this, that and the other. Share, learn, teach. How did X do that? How can I sound like Y?

Moderator: Moderators (Main)

1064 posts since 15 Oct, 2008

Postby Aroused by JarJar; Sun Dec 02, 2012 10:00 am

Hello to the handful of people of people who bother to read this thread!

I am going to try to show how simple it is to incorporate microtonal music into your productions using a digital audio workstation.

One reason that I am doing this is that I have noticed that in the virtual world, when you search for infromation about "microtonal music" you seem to find almost nothing but mystification and math. This is simply bizarre, as humans have been making microtonal music since time immemorial.

First of all, what do people mean by "microtonal"? Literally it means "tiny little step sizes". So understandably people assume it means things like 24 musical steps in an octave instead of the usual twelve. Nowadays by "microtonal" people usually mean simply "different than the standard Western 12-tone equal temperament".

The definition I use is a "spirit of the law" kind of definition: using different tunings for different feelings.

This- tuning is about feeling- is how tuning was done in the ancient world, and still is done in the traditional musics of the Middle East and India. The "micro" part is really a side effect of doing this, because you might not be using any small intervals in a tune at all, but the tuning of a note will be different in one place than it is in another, and that difference is a "microtone".

"Blue notes" in the blues and jazz are a perfect example of this. The difference between a major third and a blue third is typically somewhere around "half a quartertone", sometimes more, sometimes less. That's a "microtone". Middle Eastern music has countless examples- in one makam or raga, the third note in the scale for example might be, say, about a quartertone higher or lower than it is in another makam or raga. People just learn this by ear, there's never any need to have "golden ears" because it's done by feel. Different tunings evoke or are asscociated with different feelings.

Can you hear the difference between a singer singing "bluesy" or "straight"? Congratualtions, your ears are golden enough for microtonality. Technically, you are making microtonal distinctions of roughly half a quartone, and doing it effortlessly. Do not let anyone bullshit you about what you "can't hear" or try to sell you some story about how microtonality is "math".

So, the first order of business if you're going to do microtonal music using your digital audio workstation is to get some kind of acoustic instrument with flexible pitch. If could be your voice, a reed instrument (saxophones are very flexible with pitch), a violin (which has no frets). A regular guitar with a slide is a good one, because you can play any pitch and you can see that slide is placed differently from the fixed 12-tone equal temperament frets. Even if you do not record this instrument, whatever instrument it is that works for you, it is important to have around so that you always have contact with the whole reason for doing microtonal music in the first place, which is feeling and hearing.

Now, there are people who are mathmeticians and engineers who "have a personal relationship" with math. Their "true soul music" might be all about math, and I respect that. That kind of thing is outside whatever expertise I might have, though.

Okay, the next step is to check and see which synthesizers or samplers, hardware or software, you have which "support microtonality".

Pitchbend wheels are very common. If you're skilled with a pitchbend wheel, congratulations, you're already a "microtonal musician" even if you never realized it.

Few hardware synthesizers support microtuning other than having pitchbend or a ribbon controller. This is ironic, as the synthesizer which is generally credited as being the first ever, a century ago, the Telharmonium, was built for the express purpose of being able to play microtonal music (it had 36 tones to the octave). The ability to play microtonal music was a major motivating force in the original development of electronic instruments.

The Yamaha DX-7II has excellent microtonal support. Old Ensoniqs have very good microtonal support. There's a list of the tuning capabilities of many hardware synths here:


Many software synthesizers support any tuning you want, via the .tun format. Unless anyone has specific questions about specific other tuning formats, this is the format I'll be addressing in this thread, because it is so widely available. So, check out which of your synths support the .tun format.

Okay, I think that's enough the moment, I'll be back asap to continue.
1064 posts since 15 Oct, 2008

Postby Aroused by JarJar; Sun Dec 02, 2012 10:36 am

Okay, from this thread by memyselfandus:


a list of software synthesizers that support .tun tuning files. Thanks to everyone who contributed to that list.

Dimension Pro
Orion's internal plugs
Logic's internal synths
VaZ Modular
Plogue Chipsounds
Garritan ARIA Player
FMTS and IVOR plugins from Xen Arts
Homegrown Piano

...and this is not a complete list.

Now, in order to create .tun files as well as all kinds of other tuning files and other things, there is a great free program, Scala.


On the download page there are installation instructions.

Next step I'll show how to export a .tun file, then get to the real business of "but what tuning?"
1064 posts since 15 Oct, 2008

Postby Aroused by JarJar; Sun Dec 02, 2012 2:00 pm

Okay, once Scala is set up and you have your directories sorted out, you can open one of the thousands of tunings that come with the program, or make your own tuning (with Input and Edit). We'll get to choosing and making tunings shortly, just getting some practical things out of the way first.

The tuning files that come as a library with the program are in the .scl format.
Some softsynths support this format directly. Most support the .tun format.

Select or create a tuning,open it in Scala and press the "show" button or type "show" down below. Now you see your tuning. It's in .scl format.

To export to a .tun file, type in;

set synth

Scala will then say "to" and you type in:


Scala will then say:

Synthesizer 112: TUN standard .tun format for many softsynths, via text file

then type in:


and Scala will once again say "to". Type in the name you want for your .tun tuning file and there you go.


It's all extremely simple (if I can do something on a computer, believe me it must be actually very simple). You do have to sort out your directories, and this can be tedious not because it is difficult, but because it is not standardized. Some softsynths, such as the U-he synths, have their own tuning file folders. That's really handy, but it's just as handy if a softsynth lets you name a default tuning folder, and you can just open the default folder you've set for .tun files in Scala.

Anyway, once you've got this stuff sorted, you simply load the .tun file into your softsynth and you're off and running- whatever tuning we open, or cook up for ourselves in Scala, we can load into our softsynths and use.

Next, the fun stuff- creating or choosing a tuning.
177 posts since 11 Dec, 2006

Postby coquillo; Sun Dec 02, 2012 2:42 pm

I'm looking forward to the part about keyboards and such.
1064 posts since 15 Oct, 2008

Postby Aroused by JarJar; Mon Dec 03, 2012 12:43 am

coquillo wrote:I'm looking forward to the part about keyboards and such.

Because I want to deal with practical microtonal music, I'm not going to talk about the very expensive and very complex alternative keyboards which are intended for microtonal tunings. You don't need a keyboard with 512 keys to do microtonal music- you can use a regular keyboard or even no keyboard at all.
1064 posts since 15 Oct, 2008

Postby Aroused by JarJar; Mon Dec 03, 2012 1:42 am

Okay, to get down to business.

I'm going to start with the (in)famous "quartertones", or "24-equal temperament".

Everyone has heard of "quartertones", and many people even refer to microtonal music in general as "quartertones".

If you want to hear quartertone music, here you go:


that's by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead.

for a whole other face to "quartertones",


In this case "quartertone" is being used to mean "microtonal", as there a lot of variations from "straight" quartertones in the actual practice of middle eastern music, even in places where they nominally play in 24 equal temperament. The recording quality is dreadful, but it's a great video because you can hear how each makam has not only its own "scale", but its own tuning flavor.

The orchestra playing Greenwood's music is also making little variations from a straight 24-equal. Orchestras always flavor the pitches a little up or down.

We'll get to the difference between fixed and unfixed microtonal tunings, and how to "unfix" your synthesizer work, later. Right now I just want to introduce the basic stuff to get people going.

These two uses of quartertone music are the most commonly heard- "scary" orchestral work, and middle eastern music. There is another common kind of quartertone music, which is "modern classical", or "academic". You can find this on YouTube, most of the stuff there about quartertones is probably of this kind. I'm not going to talk about it, because it is the very stuff that turns so many people off from quartertones specifically and microtonality in general.
Check it out, though, you might like it.

And then there is what we might call the Don Ellis approach, because as far as I know he was the first to really do it. It is very simple- you've got "normal" Western music (12 tones to the octave) and you extend it using quartertones. This approach, I think, is going to be the most interesting and useful to most people here.

Okay, to make any tuning with equal step sizes dividing the octave in Scala is trivially easy. You just type:


in the command line. Scala will then ask you how many divisions. Since we're starting with quartertones, aka 24-equal, we type:


then hit "show" and there it is. You can also hit "play" at the top and a virtual keyboard will appear. It uses your onboard soundcard by default and is just for checking things out. It's pretty handy but do not rely on it to tell you the whole story about any tuning, because the only way to learn that is to use the tuning in actual music.

Now export your .tun file, as described above, open the .tun file in your software synth and you are ready to go.

I made a quick little demonstration of one of the many ways "quartertones" can be used to extend 12-tone equal temperament. It's the most obvious way- use the hairy dissonances offered by 24-equal, then resolve them to the traditional consonances of 12-tET with smooth voice leading (bascially, one note going to the next in a "singable" way).

http://soundcloud.com/aroused-by-jarjar ... light-abjj

In this example I take advantage of the fact that 24-tET has not one, but three "tritones", and the fact that augmented sevenths and diminished ninths can be very dissonant indeed. All these dissonances then resolve to conventional major/minor intervals. Just drop me a PM if you would like the MIDI file of this.

Okay, that's enough for now. Next step is to introduce the kind of tunings that lie at the opposite extreme of 24-tET, the kind of tunings people call "Just Intonation", which are infinite and unequal. Then we can compare and contrast and talk about which kind of approach might be best for you.
User avatar
182 posts since 3 Dec, 2007, from Cambridge, UK

Postby Woody Aki; Tue Dec 04, 2012 5:55 am

Been waiting for a thread of this sort for some while now. I'll be following from a distance with much interest!
1064 posts since 15 Oct, 2008

Postby Aroused by JarJar; Tue Dec 04, 2012 7:42 am

Woody Aki wrote:Been waiting for a thread of this sort for some while now. I'll be following from a distance with much interest!

Glad you're reading, thanks. There are some others in contact outside this forum reading too- hopefully some more people are checking out the infinite possibilities and already checking out the .tun format. I think it's only a matter of time before microtonality becomes a pretty standard addition to the musical things done in popular music. It's already used in film and television tracks, I've even heard it on the Disney Channel, which is surprising because most stuff there is heavily auto-tuned to 12-tET.

I'll get to the whole business of "Just Intonation", which is as (in)famous as "quartertones" asap, maybe tonight or tomorrow morning.
1064 posts since 15 Oct, 2008

Postby Aroused by JarJar; Wed Dec 05, 2012 5:08 am

In order understand Just Intonation, we have to go all the way back to the harmonic series.


A couple of words about the first sentence there:

Pitched musical instruments are often based on an approximate harmonic oscillator such as a string or a column of air.

The harmonic oscillators of synthesizers can only be said to be "approximate" if we make a "technically speaking..." appeal to the stochastic nature of our reality. The harmonic oscillations generated by synthesizers are not "approximate" in a sense meaningful to actual experience, the harmonic series they generate is better described as "exact".

In addition, the harmonicity of many acoustic instruments such as the human voice or bowed strings is so close to "ideal" that it is uncanny. You can calculate amplitude modulation and other effects on paper, using an ideal harmonic series, then execute them with acoustic instrument and they will happen just as you predicted. For all the "fuzzy" and "imperfect" nature of things in real life, the idealized description of how they work can be eerily accurate.

On the other hand, there are many musical instruments which do not generate partials we could reasonably call harmonic, or even approximately harmonic. Percussion, even pitched percussion, is the most obvious example, but even instruments designed to produce harmonic series can be played to generate partials which are audibly not harmonic. A saxophone played "straight" has harmonic partials spookily close to "ideal", but blasting on the thing, especially with a kinked reed, you get partials which will only be in an approximate harmonic series at most. Same with brass- at fortissimo, the harmonics are "stretched".

And of course there are synthesis methods which can generate inharmonic partials, such as FM.

When people say "Just Intonation", what they usually mean is "the intervals are tuned according to intervals found in the harmonic series". The term "Just" is very old, and is left over from the days when tuning to intervals found in the harmonic series was equated with "correct". In those days, the grand instrument, the "last word", was the acappella choir. "Correct" (Just) meant in practice "when the voices blend together", and it is a simple matter of acoustics and psychoacoustics that the harmonic partials of human voices blend together when the voices are singing in harmonic intervals. In other languages, instead of "Just" they use words that mean "pure" or "natural".

There has been tons of nonsense written by theoreticians about Just Intonation, both pro and con. My advice is to ignore all that stuff and remember the whole point of using different tunings, which is for different feelings.

Sometimes the blending of sounds or the rhythmic "buzzing" you get from using intervals taken from the harmonic series is exactly what you might want, and other times it might be wrong. Don't get caught up in the squabbling about what's best or whatever, which has been going on for thousands of years, just use what sounds right to you.

So, if you run across someone who approaches tuning by treating everything as if it is harmonic, or "the best", or if you run across the "enemy" of the person treating everything as if it is harmonic, which someone who pooh-poohs the whole business of harmonics and Just Intonation, you can tell right away that both these guys are nutjobs. In real life, harmonicity, inharmonicity, and everything in between, are part and parcel of sound and of musical tuning.

Okay, I made a simple little example to introduce some of the things that happen when you tune "Just", that is, tune your intervals to ratios found in the harmonic series.

https://soundcloud.com/aroused-by-jarja ... uning-abjj

In this example the major chords are tuned so that the major third is the same as the harmonic ratio 5:4, the difference between the fifth and fourth harmonic partials, or the 5 partial "octaved" down. The "dominant seventh" is tuned 7:4, the difference between the 7th and 4th partials, aka the 7th partial "octaved" down. The fifth is a pure fifth of 3:2, you can easily figure out where that comes from.

The progression could be informally described as "bVI7-I7-v7-I". I chose this because of the large number of shared tones between chords, and because the v7 has a "minor third" of 7:6 (the difference between the 3:2 fifth and the 7:4 seventh, which is 7:6, aka the difference between the 7th and 6th harmonic partials).

If you do a spectral analysis, you'll see that there are many higher frequencies, not just the fundamental tones, shared between the chords.

People who are not familiar with tuning but are intimate with synthesizers might notice that there is a kind similarity between the overall sound of this progression and the sound of sweeping filters through a spectrum. And they'd be right on.

People who sing in acappella (real acappella, not drill-with-a-piano-then-wing-it-in-concert) choirs might be saying WTF, those major chords are not "microtonal" at all, they're perfectly normal major chords. And they'd be right on- it's perfectly normal for a choir to cadence on a "Just" chord.

You'll notice a kind of "electric shaver" buzzing sound. This is not a synthesized effect, it is purely psychoacoustic. People in high-speed acapella choirs will recognize that effect as the same psychoacoustic effect you get when you get a "perfect blend". With human voices it's not that "electric" sounding of course, though Eastern Orthodox men's choirs for example can get very close to that precision.

You may notice that the "v7" before the final major chord sounds both "in tune" and "out of tune" at the same, or both consonant and dissonant. That's the effect of the 7:6 interval. In that interval, some harmonic partials are perfectly blending and some are heavily beating. (For those who have studied Western classical music, that's not a tuning for a minor third an orchestra would play, but it is right about the tuning an augmented second might be played. I'm using it here in a Middle Eastern way, as kind of "minor third".)

Keep in mind that I'm naming these intervals with numbers, and I had to instruct the synthesizer using numbers, but it's not about numbers. If it's "math" that you want to celebrate, use the standard 12-tone equal temperament- exponents of the roots of 2. :shock: Just Intonation is all about getting your intervals right out of "nature", it's far more simple and less "mathy" than standard 12-tET (and much easier to sing accurately).

People tune these intervals by ear all the time without having the foggiest idea about the numbers describing them.

Okay, that's enough for now. Next time we'll compare and contrast "quartertones" and "Just Intonation", and use those as reference points for the infinity of other tuning possibilities.
1064 posts since 15 Oct, 2008

Postby Aroused by JarJar; Wed Dec 05, 2012 5:26 am

To the moderators- I just wanted to point out that this is about music production using a DAW, not music theory, and I'm specifically addressing using .tun files.

I do have to present some basic tuning history/theory in order to do this, because practical, real-life, microtonal music making means you have to decide which manageable tunings to use. The huge-tunings + wildly expensive honeycomb keyboards approach obviously only works for a handful of people.

I'll specifically address manageable tunings for sequencers in the next post. Also, I will be addressing incorporating microtonality into productions without even using tuned synthesizers.
3846 posts since 28 Apr, 2006

Postby memyselfandus; Wed Dec 05, 2012 5:56 am

Excellent thread!! :clap:
266 posts since 2 Jul, 2012, from Mexico D.F.

Postby tanabarbier; Wed Dec 05, 2012 8:39 am

Excellent thread indeed, a big thank you from an other silent reader here.
3846 posts since 28 Apr, 2006

Postby memyselfandus; Sat Dec 08, 2012 9:35 am

1064 posts since 15 Oct, 2008

Postby Aroused by JarJar; Mon Dec 31, 2012 1:59 pm

Sorry to have disappeared- many heavy things all hit at the same time. Things have settled down so I should be able to get back to this soon!
16 posts since 11 Dec, 2012

Postby A Kind Machine; Fri Jan 04, 2013 12:31 pm

Great stuff! This is an aspect of music I haven't even dipped my feet into! Thanks for this!

Moderator: Moderators (Main)

Return to Production Techniques