Microtonal Music in Live – Scale of Fifths

Microtonal music can bring a whole new meaning to your music. When you start exploring Microtonal music you are exploring the edge of what is possible. This article will look deep into making Microtonal music in Ableton Live. But to start lets look at what Tunning and Temperament is.


There is a difference between that pitch reference, that concert tuning, and temperament or scale you build from that pitch reference. When we are talking about tuning there are 2 things we need to keep in mind and understand how they are separate, but interrelated.A440_vs_A432

Most music and DAWS are set to the reference pitch at A=440hz. All this means is that the first note, that all others are built from, is at 440. There are many different ways to calculate what the frequency of the next note is. This is when you get into tuning schemes, and temperament.


If you are intersted in 432hz based music then check out my 432 Essentials. It will give you a huge library of sounds in 432 and Scale Of Fifths temperament. 


There has been endless books and theories on Temperament and the basic mathematical structures of tuning. We will not go deep into this subject. If you are interested I highly suggest this blog http://www.roelhollander.eu/ It has a lot of information on tuning and the theories behind it.

To overview lets just stick with music that fits a perfect circular system, like western music, and look at Equal Temperament, Just Intonation, and Scale of Fifths.

What is Temperament:

“In musical tuning, a temperament is a system of tuning which slightly compromises the pure intervals of just intonation in order to meet other requirements of the system. Most instruments in modern Western music are tuned in the equal temperament system. Temperament is especially important for keyboard instruments, which typically allow a player to play only the pitches assigned to the various keys, and lack any way to alter the pitch of a note in performance. Historically, the use of just intonation,pythagorean tuning and meantone temperament meant that such instruments could sound “in tune” in one key, or some keys, but would then have more dissonance in other keys.”

We won’t go too deep into this, but this all boils down to one simple fact. The world is not a perfect place. As amazing as humans are with mathematics, perception, and bending them for expression, music has the innate flaw of an imperfect system. So to try and make up for it in western musical traditions we made a compromise. That is where Equal Temperament came in. We detuned all the notes that make up our twelve notes per octave. This means everything is slightly out of harmony, but the trade off is we can move from key to key and it sounds relatively good.

Creating Micro Tonal Music in Ableton Live

Now lets look at how we can change the temperament in Ableton Live. Live does not give us any settings or tools to globally change the sets temperament. We can however go in and create new instruments in whatever temperament we want.  As an example we will be looking at the Scale Of Fifths tunning.

Video Example

The first thing to keep in mind is we have to Detune each individual note in the 12 note octave. We can do this with Instrument Racks. Here is an instrument rack with one sampler in it.

Instrument Racks

This way we can Detune the note.   So in this case I can tune down the C Note. Now we need to be able to make different chains for the different notes though. We do this by making multiple chains in the instrument rack.

Create Chains

You can right click, or double click on a mac, to create a new chain. This way you can make 12 chains. One for each note. The only problem now is if you play a note it plays all 12 chains.  So we need to make it so each chain only plays a single note. We do this with the MIDI Effect called Scale.

Adding Midi Effects

By putting this effect in each chain before the instrument we can decide to let one note though. You do this by clicking all the orange squares on the grid until you only have one, being the note you want to pass through and play.

You have to do this for each note in each chain.

4 Midi

The last image showed the C note, but now with c# I can just adjust the Base Note in the MIDI Scale Effect to C# and now it will only let C# be played. I will also dial in the detuning of that note to fit the Scale of Fifths Temperament.

Here is an image that shows what you Detune each note to be..

Detune Scale of Fifths

For Operator you Detune it a little different. Here is how you would Detune Operator.

6 Detune Operator SOF

When I create the chains for a new instrument I color them and name them. Here is an image of that:

SOf Instrument Rack

Once you build this  you can just take any instrument and drag it into every chain. So you will have the same instrument repeated 12 times. You will then have to retune it slightly to fit the Scale of Fifths.

Here is a basic Instrument Rack for Analog as an Example:

Download Example Preset

Enjoy diving into the world or Microtonal music. I would love to hear how you have used these techniques in your production and your thoughts. Join the conversation by commenting below.


432_finalIf you are intersted in 432hz based music then check out my 432 Essentials. It will give you a huge library of sounds in 432 and in the Scale Of Fifths temperament.


  1. Casey January 22, 2015 at 8:56 pm - Reply

    LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE!!!! thank you so much! i’ve been playing with 432 and have been working creating synths with the ancient solfeggio scale but couldnt get the tones all in one instrument, this is exactly what i needed to come across at this stage!! sooooo beautiful! Peace Love & Blessings!

  2. Soulfeggio January 22, 2015 at 8:57 pm - Reply

    LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE!!!! thank you so much! i’ve been playing with 432 and have been working creating synths with the ancient solfeggio scale but couldnt get the tones all in one instrument, this is exactly what i needed to come across at this stage!! sooooo beautiful! Peace Love & Blessings!

    • Soulfeggio January 23, 2015 at 4:07 pm - Reply

      sorry bout the double post that was weeeeeeiiiird!

  3. Sevish May 6, 2015 at 6:48 am - Reply

    It’s disappointing, the lengths one has to go to just to get some microtones out of the default Live instruments. I say, don’t use ’em. There are plenty of good VSTs that support microtuning right out of the box, or you could always make your own things in Max 4 Live. I will be seriously impressed if Ableton baked some microtuning features right into their instruments. I would be even more impressed if they allowed for customisable piano rolls (for all those weird-numbered scales, 15 notes or 22 notes or what have you). But it seems the future of music is a little more difficult to achieve than that. I’ll also go ahead and say, 432 Hz isn’t the future we’re looking for – let’s go deeper than this.

    • Subaqueous May 14, 2015 at 10:22 am - Reply

      Oh I hear you! I am working on some M4L stuff to make it easier, but it might be a minute.

      • Sevish March 29, 2016 at 10:35 pm - Reply

        Hey Subaqueous, did you make any progress on your M4L stuff? I’m still interested in new software for the creation of microtonal music. If you have any new approaches to share it might be something I can discuss and feature on my microtonal blog.

  4. Kodama January 13, 2017 at 1:53 pm - Reply

    I’m not a musician. I’m learning to use sound for its healing application, primarily using tuning forks and chimes. But most sites selling these instruments will only tell you “note C” or maybe “note A in Pythagorean tuning,” which tells me virtually nothing of value. It is important that I know the exact frequency, root pitch, and the scale. This information is absolutely required when having instruments custom made.

    When I went looking for a simple table that listed the frequencies for the notes using different scales and included A432 as a reference pitch, I thought a quick search would do the trick. But my search turned into an epic quest that took many exhausting hours. So when I say “thank you” for the A440 vs A432 table, know that it is heartfelt.

    • Subaqueous January 16, 2017 at 2:24 pm - Reply

      Wow, sweet. Thanks so much Kodama.

      I don’t know the pathagorean tuning for different keys though. Do you? I was looking for that info forever.

      Thanks Kodama.

  5. Lyndon Kidman July 13, 2017 at 3:01 am - Reply

    I did this technique some time ago however I used the ‘key assign’ function next to the chain selector button, to lock each chain to it’s rightful place on the keyboard. That way you don’t have to have so many instances of the “scale” effect using up CPU power, let alone having 12 instances of your instrument. Ideally I would have 24 or more notes represented, because it’s always a little disappointing when you’re noodling away for a bit of shredding in the top end only to start hitting silent buttons. But ey, 24 operators? More practical to go for .scl files in Serum etc for the time being, finances allowing of course. For me it feels like 50% bud and 50% sticks and leaves

  6. Nikolai Winge January 18, 2018 at 5:47 am - Reply

    Great tutorial and it works for 12 tones in a scale but how to go about it if you want to map a quarter tone scale over two octaves fx ?
    And I noticed operator it does not receive so many decimal points when tuning to frequency .
    Thank you for your work on this 🙂

    • Subaqueous January 18, 2018 at 3:29 pm - Reply

      I am not sure. I have not done anything outside of 12 tone. Might need a custom controller at that point.

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