My Technological Overhaul Continues

You’re not hearing from me because I bought Logic, and I’m playing with my new toy. You can imagine what it’s like for someone who has spent 32 years writing pieces based on repeating loops going out of phase with each other to start working with a software partly based on exactly that paradigm. It took me about two minutes to generate a typical-sounding Kyle Gann piece. I added some string chords, and it started sounding like John Luther Adams’s Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing. I added a percussion track and it started to sound like an Ives orchestral adagio. At that point I had to stop and give my aesthetic some serious philosophical thought.

One point of interest is the tuning capability, which is limited to a 12-pitch scale, repeating in every octave. The menu of tunings (File > Song Settings > Tuning) offers dozens of historically defined meantones and well temperaments replicated beyond any Baroque expert ability to distinguish them all by ear. Yet there is no harmonic series tuning, no tunings based on Ben Johnston’s piano music, nothing inspired by Harry Partch – although there is, somehow, the tuning of La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano (here called Well-Tempered Piano). You have to wonder what it is about people who design software and synths that they are savvy enough to realize that different tunings would be nice, yet naive enough to think that people making electronic music would want to work in meantone, let alone forty different meantones that differ only by a few cents here and there. It’s the strangest combination of sophistication and ignorance.

The program seems to only allow one 12-pitch tuning at a time; I could get 36 pitches to the octave by having three identical instruments with different user tunings, though there is no way to save user tunings, and I guess I’d have to record them as separate audio files. But I’ll be using sounds and scales from Kontakt anyway, and I’m having a blast with Logic’s glib usability.

On another rather technical microtonal note, L’il Miss’ Scale Oven software has brought about a revolution in the way I write microtonal keyboard music. When I write for live performance, every key I play is assigned to a certain pitch, and in the past I’ve generally had to keep the pitches in scalar order, running low to high. The reason is that most keyboard-based synths have built-in filtering systems so that if you tune a key more than a few half-steps from its intended pitch, the sound becomes extremely tinny in the lower register and very dull in the higher register. But L’il Miss’ Scale Oven reassigns to each key the sample whose pitch is closest to it, so that no such distortion occurs. So now, high pitches can be assigned to low notes on the keyboard and vice versa, and a lot of microtonal pitch configurations that were formerly unplayable become easy. For instance, in my piece The Day Revisited, I got to renotate the passage notated as follows:


like this:


Tremendously easier to play, and both of them produce the pitches given here:


where E in the first measure is actually 8/7 above D (231 cents), G# is 10/7 (617 cents), B is 12/7 (933 cents), E in the second measure is 9/8 (204 cents), A is 3/2 (702 cents), C quarter-tone sharp is 20/11 (1035 cents), E quarter-tone flat is 12/11 (165 cents), A quarter-tone flat is 16/11 (649 cents), C is 7/4 (969 cents), and so on. What I can do now is assign any pitch to any key on the keybord, and thus assign different harmonic areas to different registers, with concern only for maximum playability, and without concern for actual highness or lowness. My first piece to take full advantage of that was Fugitive Objects, the microtonal keyboard piece I wrote at the Atlantic Center, in which different musical objects were assigned to each octave for optimum playability. In general, the right hand plays the mid-register melody while the left hand plays both bass notes and high treble notes, which are all assigned within the same octave. I’ll put the mp3 up once I’ve finished revising it. Neither hand moves far from its original position, though the pitches are all over the place.

Perhaps this is an arcane matter, of interest to only a few people on the planet, but where better to put arcane information than on the internet, where the words “microtonal keyboard mapping” may well bring in the four or five people engrossed in exactly that subject?


  1. says

    I like the fact that the two software applications at the heart of my work are named “Logic” and “Reason”.
    Can’t go wrong with that team!
    But, you might want to look at Reason 3.5 for obtaining tunings. You can create instruments using Reason’s sampler modules and change the tuning for each of the keys. Still, the operative paradigm is the piano keyboard, so 12 note/octaves. But, as you suggest, you could create multiple instruments to extend the notes/octave.
    Typically, I use Reason to generate the sound material that I import into Logic tracks for mixing, etc.

  2. says

    For a concert in Montreal, I recently had to program a keyboard for a piece by the German microtonal composer Manfred Stahnke where he uses a non-linear mapping of piano microtonal notes in manner similar to what you’ve done for your piece The Day Revisited.

    Do to this I used Logic’s remarkably realistic Yahama piano sound in the EXS 24 and got around Logic’s microtonal tuning limitations by just mapping the notes in Max and sending each different note which had a different tuning value to a differently tuned instance of the EXS 24 sampler. The only hard part was figuring out how to get Logic not to receive all channels at once for each instances of the EXS 24. However, after I figured that out it worked beautifully and I’m so happy now that I have a template for doing this type of thing in the future.

    (hmm, I guess this means I’m one of those four or five people on the planet engrossed in this topic…)

  3. says

    Hi Kyle,
    Please note that you can save tunings in LMSO in the script format that Logic uses.
    But it’s a pity that there’s this 12-tone limitation. Some of the instruments that come with Logic are pretty god.

  4. says

    I don’t like to advertise my own software this way, but I thought it is relevant to this discussion. In my program blue, there is a microtonal piano roll which works with Scala scale definitions. It can handle any number of scale degrees per octave. Some older pictures are here, though the latest looks a little nicer, but more or less works the same. In the example pictures it shows it using a Bohlen-Pierce scale with 13 scale degrees to the tritave. One can load scales with any number of scale degrees per “octave” and it the piano roll will adjust to the number of scale degrees.
    The program is not for everyone, but I thought I’d mention it as I am not aware of any other programs which allow a match up between intention of musical writing and what is represented like this(mostly because they have to work with MIDI).
    KG replies: Hey, thanks for advertising it. I’ll look into it.

  5. mclaren says

    Blue is fantastic. It’s one of the great pieces of music software out there, on a par with William Schottstaedt’s SND or Barry Vercoe’s Csound.

    “12 out of” is one of the great curses of music. As Ivor Darreg and countless others have pointed out, whenever you get only 12 pitches out of any xenharmonic tuning, you always wind up being forced to compare it subconsciously to conventional 12-equal and 12-out-of usually comes off sounding out of tune, sour, and just plain bad (even in meantone, if you modulate too far into the wrong keys).

    “12 out of” does not work and cannot work. Composers need ALL the pitches in a xenharmonic tuning, not just some of them.

    The only really solid solution I’ve found is to abandon efforts to relate sequencer or 12-based notational pitches to the pitches in the microtonal tuning and simply use MIDI notes. It’s crufty and it’s ugly and it’s a kludge, but it works. The tragedy is that MIDI is not a 12-based system! It’s inherently tuning-agnostic, since MIDI only cares about which of the 128 notes you play, not what pitch those notes sound. Alas, 12-equal is like the QWERTY keyboard…it’s so thoroughly embedded in our culture that it creates a reality distortion field in everyone’s thinking and software designers wind up believing the fairy tale that “there are only 12 pitches, after all.”

  6. Jon Szanto says

    No one should have to restrict themselves to any arbitrary notes to an octave – or even to the use of octaves, for that matter! There are already a good number of available instruments in the VST format (which Logic can host) that do not have such restrictions. IIRC, Kyle, you’ve got Kontakt, and with that you’ve not only got freedom, but through multiple scripts you can utilize several different tunings at once (if desired). But this stuff will get sorted out over time, I’m sure…

  7. milton parker says

    I recently played with Antares’ infamous Auto-Tune pitch-correcting software for the first time recently, the industry standard plug-in used to rein in and precisely conform vocal takes to precise equal temperament in the studio (and increasingly, in live performances).
    Between Cher and Daft Punk we’ve pretty much heard what this plug-in sounds like when pushed to its limit in equal temperament. But I was happily shocked to discover the options in the ‘Scale’ menu included many non-12-based scales. It’s always reassuring to find presets in industry standard software with names like ‘Partch’, ‘(Wendy) Carlos Alpha’, ‘Carlos Beta’, ‘Harmonic’, ’19 / 21/ 34 / 53 Tone’, ‘Slendro’, ‘Arabic’, etc.
    Tuning is one of the easiest things in the world for software to navigate, a simple matter of punching the numbers in. The only thing needed is to make it loudly obvious that there’s enough customer interest to have these features incorporated.