How to Create Microtonal Music Using Ableton Live’s Microtuner
View the keys of a piano, then imagine the frets of a guitar. These instruments divide music into semitones – a series of steps used to build scales – the foundation of Western music.
But Western music is not all the music in the world, far from it. And even within that there are many fretless instruments where “in between” notes are possible – a fretless bass or a cello, for example. Music that does not depend on semitones is called microtonal – anything with note divisions less than a semitone.
These days, when it comes to computer music, it’s easier than ever to create microtonal music, either natively in DAWs (like Bitwig Studio, which has its own Micro-Pitch plugin) or with using VST/AU plug-ins, such as TAL-Sampler and ACE from U-He.
A major element, or benefit, of this is the supply of pre-existing ladders; Scala is dedicated software for creating alternate tunings, and its .scl preset files are compatible with many microtonal applications. There is a huge set of .scl files available on the Huygens-Fokker website (opens in a new tab)and even if you’re strictly interested in creating your own scales, these small files (about 4KB each) are an incredibly useful learning resource.
And then we come to Ableton, whose new Microtuner Max For Live device (free for Live 11 users) successfully integrates everything we need to load, edit or create microtonal scales, and a little more. It has a very clean Ableton-style interface; the principles are easy to understand, and there are just a few steps to get it working with your chosen Live Instrument devices. Microtonality in Live can stand alone, or it can be incorporated into any other type of composition – rhythms, regular western scales (equal temperament), microtones, can all exist together.
This increased accessibility offered by modern software is good for everyone; Microtones are another tool we can use in our productions and performances, perhaps to create subtle pitch shifts, almost like a harmonizing effect, but it’s really about harnessing entirely new relationships between notes in scales and chords.
Perhaps in hopes of creating catchy passages in a more western style of music, creating unique and unexpected sounds, which can create a killer dynamic when you resolve to a “normal” major or minor scale, or embrace fully the music of other cultures, where you might be working with musicians who use entirely different harmonic and tonal frameworks, as in Indian music.
Any fretless instrument, as we mentioned earlier, is capable of playing microtonal music, alongside custom fretted instruments (there are microtonal basses and guitars), or traditional instruments – a sitar, for example. example, is microtonal, a theremin is microtonal (this is probably the classic example in electronic music). Any instrument that can glide between notes is mostly there!
If you want to hear microtonal music in the sense western musicians use it, try the works of American composers Terry Riley (opens in a new tab)Harry Partch and Ben Johnston (opens in a new tab)or even the strings of Radiohead’s “How To Disappear Completely” on the album Kid A.
Step 1: Start by installing Microtuner. It’s included in Live 11 Suite, so it’s a free download from your account on the Ableton website (opens in a new tab) if you are up to date. Then go to the Huygens-Fokker website (opens in a new tab) and download the bundle of .scl files. Open Live 11 and load MicroTuner into a MIDI track – it’s a MIDI effect device, so you’ll need to add an instrument afterwards – we’re using Wavetable for this tutorial; only the default preset will do. Wavetable is MPE compatible, so leave Microtuner’s MPE switch on.
2nd step: It’s time to plug in your MIDI. Different instruments require different settings. MPE devices require this switch to be on, and Microtuner’s Pitch Bend value must also match the pitch bend range of the chosen instrument – i.e. 24 or 48. Using Microtuner n doesn’t preclude using other MIDI and audio effects, and it helps to add the Ableton Tuner at the end of the chain, for visual reference. You can use Ableton Push to access device controls; the grid-based pad layout makes a lot of sense when using musical intervals other than the usual western variants.
Step 3: Let’s start by trying out a factory scale. Microtuner has two tabs. Navigate to the A tab and the Scale File section. In the top selector, Folder, select Collection. Below, in the file selector, select Nine. The diagram to the right will show the notes used in this scale. Then move on to testing the other preset folders and files. Note that you can change the base frequency of the scale, using the control to the left, as well as transpose the whole instrument up or down by +/- 64 semitones.
Step 4: We can now try creating a custom random scale in tab B. Click on the small yellow square to activate Generator B. Try these settings: Pitch 13 (the number of “slices” you will get), Octave 1/1 (setting the overall note range), and Randomize 100% (the degree of the notes will be distributed, instead of evenly distributed over the available range). Finally, click the Generate button and watch the slices appear on screen.
Step 5: Microtuner gives us the possibility to mix two scales together. Let’s try. Add a few MIDI notes and you’ll only hear notes from the currently active tab. However, if you activate Blend – the small button at the bottom right – another pane opens where you can display both scales at once. Use the vertical slider to mix the two scales, which will create a new level of musical interaction. As your MIDI notes pass through Microtuner, you’ll hear the scales change as you change the mix value, which can range from full A to full B – like a DJ’s crossfader.
Step 6: Let’s try using some scales we downloaded from the Scala library. Start over with the default Microtuner settings. Choose a .scl file from the folder you downloaded and drag and drop it onto tab A (you can also drag the entire folder). You will see the folder and file entries updated to reflect the name of this new file, and of course the diagram updates to indicate the number of notes in the scale. It’s that simple. Note that if you download the free Scala software, you can create and export your own .scl files.
Step 7: If you are using multiple instances of Microtuner in the same project, you will probably want them to use a consistent tuning. This is achieved by using the Mode button on the left of the device. Choose which Microtuner will be the tuning source and leave the mode selector in this setting on Lead. In other microtuners, choose Follow instead – this message appears: “The device is now synchronized with a leader device”. From there, any changes you make to the first Microtuner will carry over to the other.
Step 8: Note that the editor on the right of the device also has a follow mode, do not confuse the two. The editor is used to modify the pitch of each individual note in our new scale. Any scale can be edited, whether imported or generated. The Position box displays the currently selected note – type a different number here to switch to editing a different note – they will be highlighted as you do so. Below you can enter a new + or – offset value in cents (100 cents = 1 semitone).
Step 9: It is not possible to export the new scales you create, to use them in other software, but Microtuner is a Max For Live device, so as always we can save everything we do as a preset , in our user library. You can also use Live’s In/Out Routing feature to capture the output to an audio clip in a separate track. Whether you’re into pure experimentation and sound design, or want to engage in “non-Western” musical pursuits, Microtuner will get you there.