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 Forum index » How-tos » Micro Tuning
Microtonal hardware synths
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sizone



Joined: Jun 09, 2009
Posts: 130
Location: Honolulu HI
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PostPosted: Sat Aug 22, 2009 6:29 am    Post subject: Microtonal hardware synths Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

I saw a thread for softsynths and, dagnabbit, I think my beloved black 19'' rack gear is deserving of the same.

These guys maintain what is probably the most complete list of gear
http://www.microtonal-synthesis.com/

Microtonal synths are pretty uncommon. Of the ones that are out there most only allow retuning of the twelve tone scale. Good for just intonation, but not much else. Full keyboard range retuning only popped up in hardware in a handfull of hardware classes made, almost exclusively, during the late '80s and early '90s.
The companies that implemented it can be counted on one hand: Ensoniq, E-mu, Yamaha, Waldorf and Marion (I may have overlooked a a few others, please correct me if I'm wrong).
Until the mid '90s and the advent of the midi tuning standard (props here to Robert Rich) there was no standard for tuning systems. Most of the hassle in retunning comes from the fact that every synth has its own bizarre and quirky tuning scheme. It's advised that if you have interest in this subject that you get some practice with the hexadecimal format and sysex messages as you're going to need to be good with both to set up scales.

Here's the gear I know about first-hand.
Yamaha: Probably the most obtuse tuning schema, also the most ubiquitous. Most of Yamaha's pro line starting with the dx7II and ending sometime around the vlx production era featured a global tuning schema. I can speak first hand about the tg-77 (and it's relatives, the sy77 and sy99). After causing poor Manuel some headaches these now work perfectly with scala. They're all digital and track well. As long as you have scala or lmso running, sending new scales to them is a minimal hassle. Sound-wise they're a mix of rompler and fm synthesis. The fm routines are 6 op and they've got some deliciously plastic multimode filters. Because of the rompler action you can use them to set up patches similar to Roland's LA synthesis schema. The fm modules are 6 operator, the algorhythms are largely user configurable and the envelopes are 5 stage looping. You can get some -very- interesting sounds from these synths. In terms of celebrity status, Dwayne Goettel of Skinny Puppy used one during the early '90s. They're solidly built and tend to sell relatively cheaply. The tg-77 is probably my favorite synth. Patching it via the front panel is doable owing to the LARGE lcd display and the bookmarking system. It's still easier to patch with software, but soundiver is getting harder and harder to run and there isn't much in the way of substitutes.

Marion MSR-2, Prosynth
Marion was Tom Oberheim's synth company in the early 90's. These are both 1 u rack synths. The difference between the two is that the MSR-2 has an expansion slot for adding a board to double the polyphony. These are HARD to find, but not -terribly- expensive. I have an MSR-2 and it took me almost 5 years (and a stroke of luck) to acquire. They're basically matrix-6s with a few differences. The improvements over the matrix: Polyphony is 8 voices, polytimbrlity actually works, they're stereo. And, of course, they're microtonal. There's two features lacking from the matrix, the envelopes don't have the more esoteric modes that the matrix does, so they're not as complex and they can't be looped in as interesting a way. The tracking generator is also absent, but it's a little harder to morn the loss of a feature almost no one understood. Also, they lack the matrix's cv trigger in, but have jacks to allow you to run external sources through the filter. These synths tune -very- accurately, but notes in the lowest and highest register may become inaudible (the dco's range isn't perfect). They're also supported by scala.

Ensoniq: -Everything- Ensoniq made starting with (I think) the EPS supports microtuning. I've got a TS-12 and a Fizmo. The Fizmo supports the midi tuning standard, so retuning it is a breeze (same with the whole mr/zr range). It's supported in scala. The TS isn't yet supported by scala, but probably will be if I ever get around to spending a weekend dissecting and documenting some sysex dumps and send the results out to Manual. There's nothing I can say about the fizmo, you have to play one to understand. The TS is a really high quality rompler/sampler with "transwave" (not quite wavetable) and "hyperwave" (wavestation style wave sequencing). It's very interesting, but due to Ensoniqs disk handling format getting samples on to it is not really all that easy. It should also be noted that all of the three neat features just mentioned are in dogged competition for processor clicks, so if you set up a patch with a transwave and a microtonal scale, polyphony will go way down. TS series synths are also -ridiculously- overpriced. I lucked out in finding one with a busted keyboard which is the only reason I could afford one.

Waldorf: The Microwave 1 supports microtuning. I don't have one and despite my disgusting glut of synths this still leaves a nagging sense of loss somewhere deep inside my soul.

E-mu: Everything made from the Proteus to the Creative buyout supports microtuning. Their sampler range does too, but scales tunings are stored along with the sample banks and I haven't yet figured out how to move the two around independently.

I'm getting tired so it's time to stop.
Two last things.
Sending scales via scala takes a little trial and error. The easiest way is to set the destination synths device id to 1 or ALL, turn off everything else in your midi chain, set the scala dev id to match and dump away. It should also be noted that if your synth has room for more than one user tuning, scala will dump the new tuning to the first memory slot, you'll have to copy it over and repeat to get multiple scales into memory.

The cheapest means to hardware microtuning is probably going to be in the form of either an E-mu proteus or a Yamaha tx81z. I've found the former at a computer salvage place for ....hehehehe... $5 (long since given to an ex g/f Rolling Eyes what was I thinking, synths are always faithful, girls are not). The later is common and usually runs for less than $50.
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MusicMan11712



Joined: Aug 08, 2009
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PostPosted: Sat Aug 22, 2009 12:32 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

I find this a very interesting topic, even though I haven't done anything with microtonal tunings. Your thoughts and the link you posted are very good resources.

I took a look at the site you posted and it looks quite comprehensive. It even jogged a memory of a Terry Riley event I went to (probably late 1970s). Between pieces (extended meditative offerings), he tuned a number of keys on his keyboard/organ. As I seem to recall he tuned them to some get certain intervals the way he wanted them. I don't recall the specifics, but my thought is that based on the tonality, he was establishing perfect intervals. I don't know if I looked or asked, but I seem to think he had trimpots for each key on the keyboard.

Anyone else have info about Terry Riley? (If it was on the microtonal website, I didn't see it.)

Anyhow, thanks for posting your thoughts and the link.

Steve
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abstraktor



Joined: Apr 27, 2009
Posts: 189
Location: glasgow, scotland

PostPosted: Sun Aug 23, 2009 8:01 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

around about 1980 Riley had a modified Yamaha YC -45D organ which he tuned to just intonation. Presumably he would have to retune it to perform in a different key. Seems that just intonation was very popular with la monte young, tony conrad et al. although I would imagine that the Theatre of Eternal Music was a bit louder than a terry Riley performance!
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Octahedra



Joined: Nov 29, 2008
Posts: 149
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PostPosted: Mon Aug 24, 2009 2:22 am    Post subject: Re: Microtonal hardware synths Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

sizone wrote:
Two last things.
Sending scales via scala takes a little trial and error. The easiest way is to set the destination synths device id to 1 or ALL, turn off everything else in your midi chain, set the scala dev id to match and dump away. It should also be noted that if your synth has room for more than one user tuning, scala will dump the new tuning to the first memory slot, you'll have to copy it over and repeat to get multiple scales into memory.


I've also had problems getting the data from Scala to my synth (Yamaha DX11) but for a different reason. If you get midi buffer errors as I did, the computer is transmitting the data too fast for the synth to cope with.

What you can do is to export the data dump from Scala as a midi file, and load this file into your midi sequencing software. In the case of the DX11 (I'm not sure how other hardware synths are handled by Scala) this midi file is a sequence of tiny sysex messages, not the synth's own default format of a single complete data dump, so there's a lot of redundant data doing it this way. Next, turn down the tempo in your sequencer (my Sonar defaults to 120BPM so I usually set it to about 30). Then you can transmit the data with no problems. Finally, use the controls on the synth itself to transmit the tuning setup back to the sequencer in the synth's usual format of a single sysex dump. This smaller version of the data is more convenient to store and transmit when you need it in the future.

Gordon
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