Unpaid Commercial Endorsement

Hundreds of hours of my life have been spent retuning synthesizers. It’s the last task, once I’ve figured out a tuning I want to explore, before I get to hear anything. It’s a tedious, mind-numbing job, usually lasting anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, plus a break to give my brain a rest. I’ve got about 50 tunings stored on my Yamaha DX7-IIFD, four Proteus’s (one keyboard and three rack-mount) whose dozen-each user tunings have been tuned and retuned countless times, and many floppy disks with various tunings for my creaky old Akai sampler. Each one represents a half-hour of repetitive, meticulous number-crunching.

But now I’ve got Li’l Miss’ Scale Oven, Jeff Scott’s tuning software. [UPDATE: Mac format only! Shoulda mentioned that.] The time-intensive part was the four or five weeks it always takes me to brace myself to read the instructions. But once I got over that hurdle, they turned out to be the clearest, best-written software help text I’ve ever seen. Five minutes later I had entered a 30-pitch scale into my Kontakt II sampler software, and was playing it. The actual transferring-the-scale part didn’t take half a minute. I am astonished. And now I can use that script to retune any of my synths as well. You can define scales as cents, ratios, hertz, srutis, as scales that repeat at the octave, that don’t repeat, and that repeat within any other interval. It’s software conceived by a microtonalist, anticipating anything a microtonalist may want to try out. Conlon Nancarrow used to muse regretfully about how much easier his player piano studies would have been to write if he had had today’s sequencing software, and I feel like I just gained a similar advantage in mid-career. Never again will I have to perform that tedious task between conception and audition. Microtonal music just got easier to make than it probably ought to be.

My remaining problem, in the 2006 Complete Technical Makeover of Kyle Gann, is Kontakt II. On either my Mac laptop or new G-5 desktop, the sounds clip and quickly overload the CPU meter. Ian Turner, our brilliant sound tech guy in Bard’s electronic music department, says that Kontakt requires a separate internal hard drive with a 10,000 rpm rate to keep the samples on. I’m sure he’s right – Ian has a lot of experience with Kontakt – but can anyone confirm or disconfirm this from their own experience or offer alternatives? I loaded the samples on an external firewire drive, and that didn’t help. It’s hard to believe that everyone who’s ever bought Kontakt also bought an extra internal drive, and I’m really curious whether there’s any other way to make it work, so I appeal to the masses.

In any case, even if you’re not a microtonalist, EVEN IF YOU HATE MICROTONAL MUSIC, you must purchase Li’l Miss’ Scale Oven, just to be able to say you have it, and so that Jeff Scott (whom I don’t know, but have already erected a small shrine to, with incense) can make a million dollars for having invented this. It’s only $165, postage included.

UPDATE: I had forgotten that LMSO (Li’l Miss’ Scale Oven) is only for the Mac at present. I also should have mentioned Scala, a free tuning software that’s been around forever for the PC, and became available for the Mac a year or so ago. A student of mine had tremendous luck making microtonal music with Scala. It’s a very intelligent program, invented by the helpful and highly literate Manuel Op de Coul, but I played around with it for a few months, and never quite succeeded in retuning anything. LMSO was easier to figure out. I used to have a nice old Mac program called Unisyn that sent tunings to synthesizers, which became obsolete; LMSO is hardly the first software to fulfill that particular function, but I’m wowed by its usability and documentation. I don’t know enough about this stuff to be reviewing software, but you can say this for sure: if I have success with a piece of software, any idiot can figure it out.

As for Kontakt, I’ve already received an endless litany of technical issues. It doesn’t look like I’m going to get it to work without spending a couple thousand more dollars. I do wish that the people at Manny’s Music who sold it to me had warned me that the advertised technical specifications were nowhere near adequate to actually run the thing. Be warned.


  1. Miguel Frasconi says

    Hi Kyle,
    Good post. “Li’l Miss’…” is an excellent program. About Kontakt:
    I have been porting a bunch of my old hardware-sampler pieces over to Kontakt 2 and have come across that same problem. I have found that changing the “source” from “DFD” (which, as you know, reads the sample from the hard disc) to “sampler” (which reads the sample for RAM) solves the problem. Of course this means you can only use as many samples as can fit in the amount of RAM in your computer. But for my present purposes, this is fine, since all the pieces I’m porting over were built on machines that maxed out at 32 megs (sound so primitive now). Even the pieces that had 3 or 4 re-loads have no problem fitting into my computer’s 1.25 gig of RAM. I’m working on a 12″ powerbook running at 1.33 gHz, with an external firewire drive, and I find I always have to switch from “DFD” to “sampler” when loading a pre-made instrument.
    Let me know if this solves the problem.

  2. mclaren says

    Not only is Li’l Miss Scale Oven the best retuning software on the market, Jeff Scott, the guy who wrote the software, is one of the more talented microtonal composers today. His polymicrotonal composition combining 11 equal and 17 equal on his CD ZHXRGHAENIAN NIGHT MELODIES is one of the best polymicrotonal compositions ever done — arguably THE best such composition.
    Jeff Scott is a true polymath. Not only is he a first-rank software engineer, he’s a excellent composer and a superb writer. Check out the liner notes for ZNM, which give an inkling of his memorable prose:
    Alas, like so many other superbly talented microtonal composers, Jeff was relentlessly showered with verbal abuse on the various microtonal online forums, like Making Microtonal Music, until (like all the other serious microtonal composers) he quit posting and abandoned them.

  3. Yahya Abdal-Aziz says

    Here’s hoping Jeff Scott reads your blog! If he does, maybe he needs to know that the PC market is (a) big and (b) woefully deficient in user-friendly software to help automate those tedious chores, like retuning, that keep musicians’ productivity way down. If you’re reading this, Jeff, please consider porting LSMO to Windows XP!

  4. says

    Hi Kyle,
    as a very satisfied LMSO user, let me add that I’ve never got better user support for any software. Should you need help with LMSO, Jeff will answer your questions. He also listens to the user’s suggestions and keeps making improvements. If you look at the ‘baking method’ menu, you’ll see two Korg synths among the options. Well, they’re there because I happened to mention Jeff that I own a Korg Z1 to which he answered, “Didn’t realize you had a Z1. Do you want me to try and add Z1 sysex support?”

  5. Henry Lowengard says

    I wrote retuning software back in the 80s to tune my PROteus, DX7/E!, Mirage and various other tunable synths. My system was written in FORTH, so , it was part of the language and I could make it do all kinds of tricks. This software was used to tune the AFMM Chromelodeon simulator (which is my old PROteus), and lots other simulated instruments for the AFMM. I’ll probably be brushing it off when the AFMM’s Horvath/Terpstra keyboard finally gets into production. It was really good for testing out music perception theories and possibilities. But personally, I’m not so interested in static tuning anymore, going more for the dynamically retuned stuff where the pitch you hear lives in an ecosystem of pitches. That, and completely unpitched or unimportantly pitched music.
    Speaking of the AFMM, the afmm.org website is back after our provider evaporated.

  6. David DeMaris says

    I’m a user of the lower end Kompakt software, with samples loaded from an external 4200 RPM FW drive on a 1.3 Ghz powermac. The lessons I’ve learned on glitch avoidance are 1) reduce polyphony per sample to the minimum, 2) avoid NI’s reverb especially as it is not shared between samples 3) up the buffer size, especially during playback; you may have to render/freeze some tracks during playing and switch to a low latency setting for part entry, if hands on performance is a factor.
    I have 768M so I generally load samples to memory now. Also, on a powerbook, beware automated power management – you may be cycling your cpu on and off which is not obvious except when running NI softsynths. Use highest performance under energy saver settings. With all these in force, I don’t experience glitches but my typical polyphony use is modest.