Bending Reason: Microtones in the Virtual Realm

The problem with microtones and electronic instruments, as I understand it, is that these instruments are still being created in a cultural context where 12 notes per octave is the standard. Their design matches the implementation in mind, the social construction of harmony and tonality. Hardware reflects this most clearly, but software can have just as many, if not more, restrictions if its coded and designed with this 12-tone goal in mind.

My attempts at getting Reason to be more flexible with its pitch have been somewhat difficult. From the start, this software is only ever meant to construct musical sequences and phrases with 12 notes in mind–a serious problem for those devising systems with more than that. I’ve held off doing a lot of microtonal stuff with this software because of this, but I’m starting to work with some creative ways to “hack” existing automation features within Reason to aim for some in between notes. I had devised this approach early on, but it is quite labor intensive, so I’ve always held off and pursued the easier route of using 12 tone in order to access more of what the software has to offer.

Since I enjoy working in the 12 tone ultra plus system, my personal approach to microtonality and just intonation starts in 12 tone equal temperament, but looks at what existing notes can be “tweaked” to fit a just ratio, both to provide more harmonic tuning and expand the tonal palette. The major and minor third intervals are obvious: flatten an E relative to C by 14 or so cents to arrive at the 5/4 ratio. To my ears, 12 tone equal temperament does fine with the melodic essence of the third and fifth harmonic, so I don’t often bother with those as much, but it obviously doesn’t incorporate the 7th, 11th or 13th harmonics; these primes offer melodic and harmonic options that really don’t exist in traditional Western music; I will concede that 7 sometimes pokes its head in the mix, and I would argue that many people reach for a minor 7th interval with the 7th harmonic in mind, but aren’t aware of it. By altering existing 7th, 4th and 6th intervals in 12 tone, you can achieve those primes relative to your originating pitch–which is what I’m doing in this example.

Essentially, the approach was to take the maximum bend value of the pitch wheel and divide that number (when set to a half-step range) by percentage values taken from just intonation cent tables. From here I knew what value the wheel should be in order to bend the note just right to hit the right pitch, all I had to do was program in the automation to trigger this as it matched the note I wanted to bend in the sequencer. It would seem that some of the newer Reason instruments use percentage values for the pitch range, so this makes things much easier.

I kept it simple for this example. There are three synthesizer loops all using Reason’s “subtractor” synth (pad, bass, lead) accompanied by some recordings of loons in Yellowstone National Park and that weird sound that was coming out of my amp last week. The problem is that performing and improvising with these instruments is very difficult given what has to be done in order to get them to play microtonal sequences and melodies. What this is forcing me to do, however, is explore more ways I can use the non-audio parts of the instruments to create more unique sounds since it’s a lot simpler to use basic melodic patterns and sequences.

There are likely a few other ways to achieve this effect, but this makes the most sense to me and allows me to use a single VST at a time.

It’s very basic for now, but I think I’m on to something with this approach. It will be interesting to see how I can combine this with some guitar layers, or perhaps build out an entire electronic project. And if it sounds weird….well…that’s the point…

In Between

I’ve been a little hesitant to break this guitar out–or any microtonal stuff really–for a few months now…well maybe a little longer than a few months considering I played in a band for 4 years that hardly used any microtones.

I have a lot of reasons for avoiding–some deeper philosophical perspectives that attempt to fuse music theory with semiotics–but that’s a bunch of rambling for another time. For now, I just wanted to get back into these sounds and combine them with some of the more interesting, abstract delay and reverb techniques I’ve been using live and at home with other guitars and instruments.

There’s always the challenge in Just Intonation of trying to use multiple tonal centers, and you naturally want to gravitate toward a single one, a single key, but man, when it works, there’s nothing else that sounds like this.

New Release – Constituent

constituent_itunes

After some disastrous issues with my audio hardware, including an interface which seemed to enjoy sending power spikes into my computer and a failed attempt to solder a new USB socket onto the board (a project I may try again pending a new soldering iron), I finally had the equipment and time necessary to finish a new piece.

Constituent is the product of new equipment, a new DAW, some more focused approaches to ambient/minimalist concepts I previously worked on, a slightly different approach to Just Intonation, and some personal experiences represented in the overall feel and title of the piece.

I could yammer on and on about the new equipment, and while it does factor into my experience of making this piece–but knowing the overall realm of “audio” it will likely spark conversation that I find rather distracting and, frankly, very annoying. That’s all I’ll say on the matter.

There is truly no end to the amount of musicians, regardless of genre, who prefer to flee from any mention of musical “theory.” Sucks to be them. Ultimately music theory is, for me, an informed and educated approach to understanding and creating music. When I began writing ambient music, I simultaneously tackled two musical theories: Ambient music theory on its own, and Just Intonation. I had the fortune of studying with Jon Catler, as well as resources such as Harry Partch’s A Genesis of a Music to work with when it came to Just Intonation. For ambient music theory, I spent a great deal of time reading interviews and other material from the likes of Brian Eno, Steve Roach and Robert Rich, to name a few. WNYC’s New Sounds program also played a critical role.

I saw ambient music, however, as a way to create a malleable sonic environment, one that I was free to create my own terms and theories for. One of the first was the concept of the “dynamic drone.” While I’m by no means the first person to do such a thing, this was my terminology and desire for a drone that would shift in some way in its environment.

Constituent utilizes a very basic “dynamic drone.” After playing around with a few different loops for a while, I settled on a single string being plucked on the lap steel. This note was then slowed own by half and reversed. The result is the deep swell that rises to a thick stop as the loop brings the note back to its origin point. This note was coated in a few different modulations and two different FX-heavy reverb patches.

This process created a new effect for me: It introduced silence. While it may seem like I’d be no stranger to silence, looking back on my previous ambient works, very little is actually used. There is a tendency to fill the aural spectrum with sound, albeit in a minimalist way. Additionally, the use of delays, reverbs and devices such as eBows tend to create a sort of never-ending field of sound. Having this reverse effect on the single note created for a moment a pause of silence before the swell would loop back around again. I thought about leaving this alone, but felt inspired to play with it a little bit further. I wanted to improvise with silence in a way that one would with chord progressions–respecting the gaps of sound as best as I could.

My approach to Just Intonation is to gather a small number of powerful notes and utilize them to the best of their harmonic capabilities. Many people often here of Harry Partch’s 43-tone scale and similar adventures into Just Intonation and come to believe that epic scales are the only suitable approach. While it is true that to create a sonic fabric that allows for many different chords and potential key change, you will in fact need a large amount of notes, the structure of most of my pieces allow me to settle on a small grouping of notes. In the past this has been as small as four to six different notes; for Constituent, I chose to work with eight notes.

While I by no means neglect the sometimes-troubled Undertone series, I tend to view Just Intonation from an Overtone perspective, as most probably do. Simply put: It’s easier. Overtones are a bit easier to conceptualize and, I’ve found, drastically easier to hear–even in the higher primes. Because of this I often resort to the Overtone series with a limit on the 13th partial in almost all my music. There are even a few pieces on the upcoming IKILLYA album that make use of a few microtones. While I specifically tuned my guitars to hit these notes exactly in the studio, I usually bend and nail these notes by ear live (I also throw them in all over the place on older IKILLYA songs as well.)

Undertones, sadly, were always something “I’d get to.” Initially I thought about writing a new Dust piece solely with Undertone pitches both as a way to continue what I started with the first installment, and also for myself to create a piece that would sort of serve as a study piece for the harmonic nature of the Undertone series. While this may indeed happen in the future, I decided to use Constituent as an opportunity to start making more use of Undertones.

Though Constituent may not have distinct movements, it does have certain sections to it. After the dynamic drone swells in a few times, I begin what I refer to as a “harmonic improvisation” over the drone. Taking the 8-tone Undertone scale, I explored the harmonic effects these pitches had on the overall piece. Over time these notes begin to bleed through the silence–the same way a jazz or blues piece would grab those “blue-notes” that don’t exactly fit the key. Toward the end of the piece I engage in what I refer to as a “melodic improvisation.” Being somewhat unhappy with a piece that just sort of improvises to no real end, I improvised a melody and stuck with it: making small shifts in volume and cadence. The piece ends on this melody that came to me in the middle of the song. It’s not very distinct, and is perhaps best understood in retrospect.

I should note that even though I strove for accuracy in representing the Undertone pitches, it is more than likely that I’m off by a few cents here and there (perhaps more). Not only is it a bit harder to trust my ear when it comes to the Undertone series, the nature of the lap steel, which was both picked and played with an eBow on Constituent, creates somewhat unstable ground. Pressure, as well as the wide surface area of the steel itself makes it difficult to be precise. Ultimately, if one wishes to play with perfect intonation, be it in Just Intonation or Equal Temperament, they’d have to utilize completely computerized instruments–something I’m not terribly interested in.

The title Constituent itself is the result of several specific dreams I’ve had over the course of my life. I envision the strange resonance these dreams have in the waking world as being very similar to the mood Constituent sets. I’m not going to elaborate on this any further.


Constituent is currently available on my Bandcamp page. At some point I’ll upload this and other pieces to other streaming/download services.