Ableton Live’s New Microtuner Helps Musicians Escape the Ordinary

Tune in, drop out

  • Ableton Live’s new Microtuner lets you explore outside western concert tuning.
  • Scales and tunings are integral to musical culture.
  • The Microtuner is simple, easy to use, and absurdly powerful.
A musician using a computer and a keyboard to make music.

Soundtrap / Unsplash

Almost all the music you've listened to in your life has been limited to just 12 musical notes. Ableton's new Microtuner plugin expands that number into the infinite.

Microtuner lets musicians use custom scales with any musical interval between the notes. Thus instead of having the 12 half-step intervals used between notes in almost all western music, you can define any number of steps, with any size gap between them. This not only lets you load in scales from other parts of the world and other times in history, but it also lets you get experimental and create your own scales. 

"I know this seems a niche interest to most, but some of us feel utterly trapped and uninspired by being limited to one externally imposed, culturally specific tuning system. I suspect that if humanity survives, say 100 years, a synthesizer limited to 12edo will seem laughably archaic," said electronic musician Whim on a forum thread shared with Lifewire. 

Scales

Remember in school you'd sing Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do? Those are the eight white keys on a piano keyboard. Add in the black keys, and you have 12 notes or tones, and those are the only notes we use in most music. Guitar players, especially blues guitar players, get around this limit by stretching (or "bending") individual strings to play in-between tones. A trombone can, of course, do the same, as can a violin or another instrument without frets or keys with fixed intervals. 

But if you want to compose in a scale other than the ones we habitually use, you either have to use an instrument built for the job, like a Kalimba, or hack something together in your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software. 

Now, Ableton's Microtuner device lets you use alternate tuning schemes with all your regular software instruments. It lets you create new scales, import scales in a standard format from the Scala archive, and edit them. You can also create two different scales and morph between them. 

The implementation is pretty great too. In fact, the visualization of the loaded scales is so helpful that you might want to use the plugin even if you're just composing in a major or minor scale, to get a better idea of how the notes fit together—your chosen scale is shown by a circle, with the steps between notes represented as slices, like a pizza, only a pizza that has been cut with all the slices at different sizes. There's even a tool to automatically randomize the size of the slices.

The result is that it is now absurdly easy to work in alternative scales. If you use a hardware controller like Ableton's Push 2, you can just load the new device into your project, and the Push's gridded keyboard will conform to the new scale, just like if you'd chosen any of Push's built-in scales or modes. 

This opens up a whole new world of musical possibilities. It's both daunting and exciting. But not everybody is happy. 

Falling Flat

Technically, Ableton’s new device is superb. You really can dial in anything you want. But it ignores a large part of what makes microtuning interesting: the cultural aspect. While western concert music has evolved around the twelve semitones we all know, music around the world has evolved around different tunings, which are bound up in culture and history. 

A screenshot from the Ableton Live Microtuner

Ableton Live

This is one of the reasons you can spot Indian classical music, despite knowing nothing of its building blocks, and also why Flamenco shares some tonal makeup with some Arabic music–the scales used by certain “cultural genres” define them as much as the instruments used. 

And this aspect is missing from Microtuner. Musician Khyam Allami was asked to participate in building Ableton’s Microtuner, but declined, because this cultural aspect of tunings was not part of the brief. And that’s a shame, because including specific tunings and scales would not only make it easier for non-western musicians to get going, it would also open up a wealth of musical history to western-centric electronic musicians.

“I tried to articulate the need for a holistic and culturally inclusive approach to the subject and was met with a refrain to the tune of: we see this as a technical problem that needs a technical solution but we don’t want to do something culturally inappropriate,” says Allami on Twitter

On the other hand, if you strive to be culturally inclusive, then you risk leaving people out. If you strive to be technically inclusive, as Ableton has with this device, then you can include everybody.

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