It’s like esoteric music tech bingo: Mutable Instruments Eurorack meets just intonation meets open source meets virtualization meets microprocessor programming meets soldering.
Yes, so our friend Michael Forrest has a wonderfully clever video showing the whole thing. It’s worth a watch-through even if you have no intention of doing this – and if you do have the kit, it looks like a terrific weekend project.
Michael’s whole series is great, and exquisitely produced. Definitely go watch them.
Blog post – with a ton of resources:
He hacked Grids, too, which is possibly a better first hack to start with:
So wait – let’s back up and talk just intonation. Hopefully already this week, you read Khyam Allami talking about why 12-tone equal temperament, the default tuning in so much hardware and software, is overly limiting and leaves out a huge swath of the world’s musical practices, plus how the music tech world might approach alternatives (including using free tools he co-developed).
So let’s consider 12-tone equal temperament for a moment before talking about just intonation as one alternative. In order to get those equal divisions, you wind up using a logarithmic scale, which gives you the rather nasty ratio 2 (12√2 ≈ 1.05946). Western theory and even physics of sound texts will make claims about how this is connected to physics. They’ll say equal temperament is a western European invention. (That’s wrong, it was documented in various other cultures centuries earlier). They might get really wrong and mention Bach and the Well-Tempered Clavier. (Bach didn’t use equal temperament, as evidenced by the title he used.) They’ll say you hear logarithmically. (You don’t – not at either end of the audible spectrum. You can actually hear this yourself if you just make a linear sweep of an oscillator.) And they’ll say equal temperament and the chromatic scale are related to the harmonic series. (Well, roughly, but not precisely – and the gap between those two things is sort of the whole point of tuning. Plus, that doesn’t necessarily imply twelve subdivisions, anyway.)
That’s not to pile on 12-tone equal temperament any more than we did this week. It is fantastically useful for tuning orchestras or playing music across all 12 keys, which later becomes important to jazz and atonal music as well as pop. But even in 12-TET, there’s nuance – I’m not a great piano player, and even I have had a rich experience of playing a concert grand in a concert that was freshly tuned with what’s called “stretch tuning.”
Basically, think of tuning more like baking fine pastries and less like microwaving popcorn on a preset setting.
Okay, so just intonation – that’s actually far easier for us non-tuners to understand. It just means using whole-number ratios.
That’s it. Whole numbers – those are the fun ones I can count on my fingers! Phew!
In fact, all the demos you would naturally do to demonstrate the harmonic series or show how tuning subdivisions work on a string would naturally use whole-number ratios rather than something logarithmic because it will not hurt your brain so much. It’s something you can easily demonstrate in the real world without prior training, rather than only on paper. I’d even say, the only reason you’d teach 12-tone equal temperament first is some kind of demented masochism. Blame the Steinway piano and the hegemony of recent classical concert music, even though I adore both.
Just intonation – including so-called Pythagorean tuning (which like most things attributed to Pythagoras probably didn’t really come from someone named Pythagoras) – is probably a reasonable reference for a lot of electronic music. With the possibility of working outside harmony, there’s potential in this kind of system.
Basically, if I wanted to experiment with a new tuning in the same way that I experiment with modulation and filters and whatnot, I’d start with something like just intonation, because of its natural tendency to produce tuned harmonic ratios easily.
You also have a good starting point for a greater diversity of tuning, but from a reference that’s easy to grasp and reproduce. Again because of the tendency to center music in western European culture, lots of theory of tuning will try to explain just intonation as a starting point for those scales. But once you’re using whole-number tunings, you can easily get a lot of pentatonic and heptatonic tunings that come close to a whole lot of tunings worldwide. That doesn’t allow you to shortcut past the ways of learning pitch meaning in those cultures. But it’s a good start. Human approaches to mathematics and instrument construction do have a lot of commonalities. It’s certainly better than trying to cram everything into the more specific mold of western theory.
You’ll hear a lot of people get resistant to this notion and say things sound out of tune. But I’d note how many timbres and sounds that just a few years ago would have terrified people have now become commonplace.
Also, that reaction to things sounding “out of tune” – to fall back on those food metaphors again – is the equivalent of people saying food is “too spicy” just because they haven’t explored different dishes. The fact that someone would say this means they are already nuanced in their perception. Open your ears, and you might find something that is expressive to you.
Anyway, that’s it for me today. All this talking has made me want to turn some knobs… and also to go get some dinner.