Incommunicable microtuning

Not many DAWs, notation programs, players, virtual synths and sound libraries allow for alternative tuning and microtonal accidentals. Some allow them, but then are unable to communicate to other software the altered notes.

For example, a DAW or music program may allow for microtonal accidentals, but then send out a message that most sound players can't understand (like VST Note Expression vs MIDI Tuning Standard).

Alternative tuning is useful for music in non-Western standards (Post-Minimalism meets Ancient India). Or for ancient music (for example, tuning a harpsichord to match a lute). Or for experimental music (Harry Partch-inspired microtuning scales, or the mystical Pythagorean tuning).

Microtonal accidentals are used in much contemporary music or hybrid music, but also to transcribe as finely as possible folk music. Some experimental rock/EDM is using clusters, and going over the walls of the Equal tempered system.

Yet, not all the DAWs, notation programs, and sound generators can communicate their alternative tuning and exoteric accidentals. A world open to the world in theory, but less in practice.

Composing at the sequencer or notation software

If you are like, a considerable amount of time is spent, before even touching a key, to decide if the project has to be done in a sequencer/DAW software, or a score notation program. If you can’t read written music, there is only a choice. If you can, you are falling between two stools, torn between two possible choices.

In general, I tend to go for a sequencer when I have to write for visual media, or to create a credible mockup of classical music. If I have to compose something in a style that implies sophisticate notation craft, I go for the notation software. If you are like me, you know that a written page of music is something more than music – it is an art in itself, where the composed symbols on the page translate into performed music, and are never just a mere transcription of resounding music.

There are situations where the choice continues to be hard. Hybrid scores, for example, might require so much realtime control, that notation software may lack the needed tools. Sibelius, for example, allows for MIDI controls written over the score. Handy, if all you have to do is to send an articulation switch here and there. Not much so, if you have to control the hectic filter opening or a synthesizer.

Dorico seems to promise to be the best of both worlds. As a notation program, it thinks are a contemporary composer does, with an innate flexibility in recording, transcription, separate editing of the two parallel graphic and performance layers. And then actual playback. As a sequencer, it has a clever piano roll page, where you can access notes as two overlapping layers (graphic; performance), running next to lines representing MIDI controllers and a lane with articulation changes.

Still, I feel that a sequencer will continue to be my preferred tool to model sound as clay; and notation software will mostly serve for art music, where either real performers are involved, or the graphic art is simply too important to leave it to a bare Score page in software conceived for noisier music.

Interlinking a score and its sounds

I confess: I’m (mostly) a serial composer. Hybridized with a spectral one. With no little influx from ambient and brutal noisemakers. I’m one of those kids who compose not only with notes, but also with everything happening to them. Odd bow movements, overblowing, punching unexpected parts of the skin with unintended tools.

As a consequence, there is this schizophrenia for which there are times when you have to accurately listen to the resulting sound, comparing it to the one you were imagining, and put it to the test of reality. And other times, when you need absolute silence, to prevent the wrong sounds to interfere with your creative process.

A discussion in the forum dedicated to Dorico, the notation program, offered an interesting perspective. You can easily and completely separate the score from the sound generator. Dorico can drive external players, like NI’s Kontakt or VSL’s Vienna Ensemble Pro. It can also switch to a silent player.

Therefore, you can build your orchestral template as accurately as possible. Make all the noise you like. When you need silence, just run Dorico without first running Vienna Ensemble Pro. No waiting time, no wrong sounds. Just you and your inner musical daemon.