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.