I write electronic dance music and have used microtones in almost all my work since 2010.
What was your path to discovering alternate tunings?
My path to discovery actually took a lot longer than it should have. Since young, I've used the internet to research everything I'm interested in. At some point I became aware of microtonality and tried to get into it. I remember the first time, hearing a piece of quarter-tone percussion music from somewhere. I was so turned off by this crazy out-of-tune art music, and that was that.
Later, I got into gamelan music and realised that it too was microtonal. For a little while I wanted to compose my own gamelan music, but then I became curious about xen music in general. I got hold of 3 albums which inspired me greatly: Five Hemispheres by Randy Winchester, the Microtonal Etudes by Easley Blackwood, and Beauty in the Beast by Wendy Carlos. Then Elaine Walker's Bohlen-Pierce studies (recommended to me by Randy Winchester) inspired me further. I appreciated the pop-sensibilities in her recordings, so I started to apply xen scales to my own. The first attempts (mainly 15-tet and BP) failed. I finished up my last 12-tet record and continued my attempts to apply microtonality. About a year later I released my first microtonal album Golden Hour.
What are your current/past/future particular interests?
I compose electronic first and foremost; being a xen-head comes second. This whole xen thing is really new for all of us and I'm still learning every day. I like to experiment with different tunings and change it up. But 'being microtonal' isn't the only goal; it's just a part of what I do.
I'm particularly interested in the album as a format for electronic music. It's one of the great musical forms of our time. My own work is grouped up into albums and EPs.
Since 2010 I've run a small, online record label called split-notes. We release microtonal music that carries a groove. That means I leave the really experimental xen works for other labels to pick up. Each release on split-notes is available as a free download. My goal is to introduce more people to xen music without scaring them away with bowed cymbals, phase-locked just intonation drones, MIDI songs and other such nonsense.
What instruments or means have you successfully used in the making of microtonal music? Recommendations?
I run Ableton Live 9 and Max/MSP on Windows, using various VST/VSTi plugins. That's my way, but it's not the only way to get a sound.
Acoustic instruments for people who like to play:
- Get a microtonal fretboard fitted on a guitar. Ron Sword has written many scale books [dead link] for microtonal guitars.
- Kalimba can be retuned easily. I got one on the ultra cheap from eBay.
- Bohlen-Pierce clarinet if you're into BP.
- Build experimental instruments out of stuff lying around.
- Udderbot, fretless guitar, slide guitar, kazoo, viola, cello, violin, double bass, sing, whistle and hum etc.
Electronic stuff (more my kind of thing):
- Xen-Arts [dead link] produces freeware microtonal synths which are very powerful. Start here. (VST, Win only.)
- Both of the above scale tools allow full microtuning of electronic instruments. There is a good list of VSTs on KVR [dead link]. Some of these are also available as AUs for the Mac heads.
- Apple's Logic features built-in instruments which can be microtuned (though with some limitations).
- For orchestral sounds: Garritan Personal Orchestra
- If you want mad sound manipulation try: Camel Audio Alchemy
- A really good one: Albino by Linplug
- Classic softsynth: z3ta+ (z3ta+ 2 does not allow microtuning).
- ZynAddSubFX is a freeware synthesiser but I found it quite buggy.
You might want some kind of software to record, catalogue and analyse the scales you come up with:
- If you're on Windows or Linux get Scala for this.
- If you're on Mac try LMSO [dead link] if it still exists. Scala can run on Mac but you have to be a wiz to install it apparently.
Scales to jam in (for the absolute newbie):
- 5edo (cannot possibly sound wrong no matter what notes you press)
- 7edo (sounds like a wonky version of a normal diatonic scale)
Scales to jam in (for the budding xen pioneer):
- Just intonation (really harmonious by some arbitrary standard involving ratios)
- EDOs: 8 9 10 11 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 (you can go higher, but it becomes unwieldy)
- Literally too many others to mention.
Scales to jam in (serious xen heads only):
- You tell me!
Places where xen musicians discuss xen music and xen theory: