Microtonality in Falcon

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UVI’s new synth/sampler has very sophisticated microtonal implementation – which enables ANY sounds that you load into it to have ANY imaginable tuning, and easily too.


by Warren Burt, March 2016


UVI’s new Falcon synth/sampler is a delight.  I got mine last November and it’s quickly become one of my main composing and performing tools.  One of the most attractive things about it, for me, is its microtonal abilities.  Briefly stated, any sound loaded into the machine can be put into any tuning you want, and that tuning can be mapped to a MIDI keyboard (or sequencer) in any way you desire.  So all of the UVI sound libraries, and any sounds you put into Falcon yourself, can be detuned in any way.  But it gets even better than this – with a Falcon patch, every LAYER of every patch can have its own unique tuning.  So you can have, for example, one layer in thirteen-tone equal temperament, and another layer in nineteen-tone equal temperament, making a very unpredictable sounding tuning, one in which the two voices can potentially be tuned more closely together around the root pitch (say MIDI C3 = 60) and then get farther apart as you go both above and below that pitch.

You load tunings in Falcon by loading in Scala scale (.scl) files, and you map the pitches of your scales to a keyboard, if your scale has more or less than 12 notes, using a Scale keyboard mapping (.kbm) file.  To really understand how tuning works in Falcon, we’ll have to take a brief look at Scala itself, a free program that is the standard for making tuning files for many software synthesizers and programs.  But first, let’s look at basic microtonal implementation in Falcon.

For normal, garden-variety microtonality, once a sound or sample set is loaded into Falcon, you expand the “Layers” level by clicking the leftmost triangle.  This brings up two panels, one marked “FX”, the other marked “Event.” If you click on the “+” just after “Event”, you’ll be presented with a menu of four options: “Arpeggiator,” “MIDI Player,” “Micro Tuner,” and “Script Processor.”  When you touch the “Micro Tuner” option, a further menu of scale types shows up.

You can select one of the preset scales, or you can click on “Default.”  If you do, a table shows up with lots of numbers in it.  If you move your mouse to the menu button on the top right of this table, and click on it, you’ll see another menu with four options: “Load Preset,” “Save Preset,” “Import Scala Tuning…” and “Import Scala Mapping….” as shown below.

Use “Save Preset” when you want to save a particular scale.  It will then appear at the bottom of your Scale Menu, as in the image to the right.

Use “Load Preset” to load scales you’ve saved, obviously.  If you save a Falcon patch with a tuning loaded into it, the tuning will be saved as part of the patch, as well.

Now, let’s try loading a Scala file into Falcon.  Go back to Figure 2 and have a look at the Micro Tuner table.  Notice that across the top are the names of pitch classes – C C# D etc.  Down the left are octave numbers, from -2 to 7.  And each place for each note has a number corresponding to the MIDI note number it will play.  So C3 is MIDI 60.00, G4 is 79.00 etc. 

In the Tuning Menu options, select “Import Scala Tuning…” Now you can navigate to where you have your cache of Scala files stored (more on that shortly).  I’ve navigated to a folder full of files of pentatonic (5 note) scales given by the Californian composer and instrument builder Lou Harrison.

Now once I’ve loaded the scale, notice what happens: C3 now has an “X” in it, indicating that that note will not sound, but C#3 now has 60.00 in it.  Similarly, there is an “X” on D3, but D# has 62.04 on it.  This means that D# will play the MIDI note 62 with 4 cents (.04 of a semitone) sharp detuning.  Similarly, E3 and F3 have no notes on them, but F#3 is tuned to MIDI note 63.86.  That is, MIDI note 63, with 86 cents (.86 of a semitone) sharpening.  In other words, the five notes of the Lou Harrison scale are placed on the black keys of the keyboard, with the white keys being turned off.  In Falcon, scales of less than 12 notes each have a “normalized” mapping like this.  Seven note scales get mapped to the white keys, etc.

But what if you want a different kind of mapping? What if, for example, you would want to use all the keys of a chromatic keyboard?  For that, one can use a Scala Keyboard Mapping (.kbm) file, to tell the Micro Tuner how you would like the pitches mapped.  Again, an explanation of how these files work is forthcoming, but for the moment, AFTER you’ve loaded in your Scala scale (.scl) file, click on the option “Import Scala Mapping…” and then navigate to a folder with Scala Keyboard Mapping files In them.  I’ve chosen a file called “5NoteScaleOnC.kbm” which has a 5 note scale mapped on the chromatic pitches from C to E, and then repeating starting on F (to Bb) etc.  On loading it, you’ll see the “X”s disappear, and a full Micro Tuner table of numbers appears. Notice that C3 is now MIDI note number 60, while MIDI note number 72 (an octave above), now appears on F3, and MIDI note number 84 (another octave above), now appears on A# 3. So now we have a 5 note scale mapped to the entire keyboard, centered on Middle C, C3, MIDI Note 60.  The complete chart is seen below.

Similarly, with scales of more than 12 notes per octave.  For example, let’s load a scale of thirteen tone equal temperament (statistically, one of the most dissonant possible scales, for those of you with punk affinities) with the “Import Scala Tuning” option, followed by loading a thirteen-note scale mapping file with the “Import Scala Mapping” option.   The result is like this – see Figure 7, with C3 = MIDI 60, but C#4 (13 notes higher) is now MIDI 72, and D5 (13 notes higher again) is now MIDI 84, etc.

Having gotten this far, it’s now time to look briefly at Scala, the standard tool for microtonal file making.  Scala is freeware, and it’s available for PC, Mac, and Linux machines.  From: http://www.huygens-fokker.org/scala/ .  It’s an immense program, but just as an introduction, let’s make a 14 note equal tempered scale file, followed by a 14 note keyboard mapping file, and then load them into Falcon.

Loading up Scala, you are first confronted with a screen as shown below.

To make a fourteen-note scale file, go to File/New/Equal temperament and when the Equal Temperament window appears, enter 14 in “Division,” make sure the “Formal Octave” is 2/1, and the “Number of tones” is also 14.  Then click OK.  This window will look like that to the right.




Pressing OK returns you to the Scala home screen.  Press “F6” to get a listing of your new scale, as in the following image.

To save your scale as a Scale (.scl) file, go to File/Save Scale As and then fill out a name for your scale in the window that appears (see image below), and be sure to put a comment in the bottom line.  Be sure to have some kind of comment there – some soft synths refuse to recognise Scala files if there is no comment in that line.  Click OK and your scale (.scl) file will appear in the directory you sent it to. 

Now, let’s make a keyboard mapping (.kbm) file.  With the fourteen-note scale still displaying in the Scala home page, go to “Edit/Edit Mapping” and click on the button that says “Get from Scale” at the top right of the window that appears, and then click “Fill” on the right side of the screen about half way down.  The slots for scale degrees fill in with consecutive numbers, as shown below.

Then click on “Save As” at the bottom of the screen, and again, give your file a name and put a comment on the bottom.  Click OK.  You now have saved a Keyboard Mapping (.kbm) file.

Load your scale and mapping file (in that order) into Falcon, and you will see that, in this case, C3 = 60, but D4 = 72, and E5 = 84 etc.  The scale is mapped to every 14 notes of the MIDI keyboard.  If playing MIDI keyboards where the normal octave mappings seems confusing to you – don’t worry – with a little experience, it will begin to seem quite natural.  At least it did for me.  And if you want to design your own keyboards to make a more “natural” mapping of the keys, I can highly recommend Lemur for the iPad, but that’s an article for another time.

Three other things to note.  In the Scala “Edit Keyboard Mapping” window, there is a button marked “Random Fill.”  If you click this, the order of your notes in the scale will be randomised, so that all the scale degrees will be there, but in a different order.  This can create much hilarity if you present these randomly mapped keyboards to your keyboard playing friends without telling them, and can also be used as an “idea generator,” with the random ordering of the notes potentially producing some useful riffs you might not have thought of on your own.

Also, as I said before if you add another layer to your Falcon program (Do it by right-clicking on “New Program” in the Tree View in the left hand panel. You’ll see “Add Layer” appearing in the drop-down menu), you can then put a different tuning into that layer, so you can have simultaneous tunings.

Finally, Micro Tuner is available in both the Layer level and at the master “Program” level.  If you put different tunings in both these levels, they will interact in pretty unpredictable ways.  Normally, of course, you’ll want to avoid this, and only have one tuning at either the Layer or Program levels, but if you’re the kind of exploratory mutant I seem to be, you’ll at least want to play around this a little bit, to see what kind of “found-object” tunings you might be able to come up with.  Have fun exploring!

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