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.

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.

Writing for the real, AND virtual players

Let's be honest: when writing a piece for a real ensemble or orchestra, we know that it will probably remain in the realm of virtual instruments. Our piece will never, ever be performed by a real orchestra.

I had the honor and pleasure of having some of my pieces performed by real players. Very skilled musicians, sometimes among the best players for that instrument. Yet, this is something that can only happen in some special events for most of us.

The rest of us will, most of the time, continue to listen to their works from virtual performers and instruments.

That means that we have to find a balance between writing for real instruments, and at the same time make accurate prototypes, that will have to be considered an alternative form of the final piece. Our piece has to sound great both when read by real performer, and when performed by our samplers.

We write for virtual orchestras. This is no longer to be considered a second choice. Virtual orchestras very often go into feature films released in major theaters. Virtual orchestras are a real instrument, even if the human content is just that of the musicians who recorded the samples, and the composer that created the virtual performance.

Switching to a bigger computer monitor

So, you are thinking of switching to a bigger monitor, because you want to see your orchestral score in full size. Great idea! Accustomed to using pen or pencil on huge A3 music sheets, this seems the best thing we orchestral composers can do.

With the huge number of 4K – also known as Ultra High Definition (UHD) – computer monitors on the market, you may go right with one of them. Only to find that maybe they make everything look too small. At 3840 x 2160 pixels, things go in the micro dimension.

The old standard video definition on the Mac was 110 points per inch (ppi), and 96 it was on Windows. Hi-Definition mode (HiDPI), or Retina in Apple's jargon, has upped it to 220 ppi. To do it, they simply use twice the pixels per side (that is, four pixels for a single older pixel), and make everything look smoother.

So, on a 27" monitor, if you keep the original maximum definition you end up with about 160 ppi. This makes everything look too small. If you go Retina, you get too big text and icons, and a video definition that might be equal – or even lower – than your older monitor. That is, a typical 1920 x 1080 pixels, or the old Full HD 1080p.

Both Mac and Windows have a way to scale what you see in their preferences. Typically, on a 27" monitor you will want 2560 x 1440, that is the equivalent of the aged Quadruple High Definition (QHD). The effect of the scaling is not as good as with Retina, but good enough.

If you have an old Mac or PC, however, you might not immediately get UHD. To get it, on a Mac you can install the cheap and excellent shareware SwitchResX, and choose the preferred resolution. Be sure to never use "lower resolution" modes, because they would force the display to switch to a real resolution that is not native, and look fuzzy. With SwitchResX you can also automatically switch resolution depending on the foreground app – for example, a lower resolution when jockeying with files in the Finder, QHD for working with orchestral scores, and full UHD for watching movies.

With older computers you might end up with a 4K resolution, but only at 30 instead of 60 Hz. This is a slow frequency, that might make mouse and windows movements, scrolling and video not totally smooth. Speech can appear a fraction of a second too late. If you can stand it, it works. If you can't, either you switch to a low resolution from the display, or get a better video card or Mac. (As for my experience: I can barely notice it with video, and only occasionally; not a major issue for me).

And yes, I got an HP Z27, and am using it with an old Mac a 30 Hz, with software scaling to QHD. The picture is a bit small, but there is a lot of room for my orchestral scores. And if I want things bigger, I can just magnify them with Ctrl-Up, or momentarily switch to the lower, gorgeous, Retina resolution.

Better yet, since I find the user interface elements (text, icons, menus) too small, I can lower the scaled resolution to 2304 x 1296, that is a close approximation to what a 24" display looks like at Full HD.

Orchestral prototypes

We all agree that there is no substitute to a human player – a skilled one – playing contemporary techniques on real instruments. As for me, this is still the final goal of composing: making music for a community of people wanting to enjoy music, both as players and as listeners.

The use of computers and sound libraries is a help for composition. What once was done with a real piano, or even with the family or friends reading your freshly written music in the evening, is now done with this sophisticate keyboard instrument that is the sampler.

There is a growing opportunity of making nearly credible prototypes with the current tools. The libraries from IRCAM are explicitly made for contemporary music, and Xsample libraries contain several of the same techniques. Some smaller houses, like Soniccouture, Sonokinetic or 8Dio, have other useful sounds. VSL, Orchestral Tools, Spitfire Audio are adding more and more of these techniques, even if their core business is not mainly this niche, but the modern composer for media in advanced markets (like the sophisticate world of film and TV production in London, Paris or Berlin), where using the most recent vocabulary is allowed and even required.

My impression is that a composer is no longer forced to just imagine his/her music, but can put it to test with the available compositional tools. And if these tools can open a way to other new techniques – either in the world of acoustic or electronic instruments – music will gain something new.