Sean Archibald

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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.

My recommendations:

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):

Scales to jam in (serious xen heads only):

  • You tell me!

Places where xen musicians discuss xen music and xen theory: