Backburner Month 15: Hypsibius

This is an entry from a list of projects I hope to some day finish. Return to the backburnered projects index.

What is it? A microtonal music tracker.

A tracker is a piece of software for writing music in an almost spreadsheet-like way: trackers give you tables of notes with other pieces of metadata next to them, like volume or other effects. Writing in a tracker can often involve writing small pieces of repeating music that get assembled together with relatively few tracks using relatively few instruments. It's no surprise that trackers are often used for writing chiptunes!

Microtonal music is music that uses a non-twelve-note scale. The specifics of why and how are complicated (and I've written about them elsewhere) but the short handwavey explanation is this: that the reason we use twelve notes per octave on most of the instruments you find in the Western world is that, when we split the octave into twelve equal or near-equal parts, we get notes which often sound good together, but that doesn't mean that's the only way of carving up the space of possible sounds in a way that sounds good together, though. We settled on twelve for lots of historical reasons, but there are plenty of other approaches that we could have taken that still sound good, although different!

So my goal for Hypsibius was to write a tracker that didn't hard-code the assumption that every note was a note on our traditional 12-note scale. Instead, I wanted the user to be able create (and export or import) scales which describe which notes were available to a given composition by specifying them in terms of cents, allowing a composition to have access to either more or fewer possible notes. For that matter, I wanted users to be able to specify how those scales repeat: some systems of tuning don't repeat every octave, but use larger intervals, so a user might want to use the Bohlen-Pierce scale which repeats not every octave but every tritave.

Once they had specified a scale, the user could then use that scale to write music, which could be played and exported. My plan was, at least at first, to stick to a relatively small number of waveforms—sine and square and saw waves—with the intention that most of the music created by Hypsibius would be chiptunes-like. Eventually I might add the ability to play other samples or soundfonts, but to begin with Hypsibius was going to be a pretty barebones affair: the interesting part isn't the instruments, but rather the ability to choose your palette before composing music.

Why write it? I've written before about microtonal tuning because it's a perennial fascination of mine. I love microtonal compositions, but on the other hand, I've found it's also somewhat hard for a casual and relatively inexperienced musician like myself to experiment with. Microtonal instruments are rare and software that supports microtonal music tends to be fiddly and rather hard to get familiar with: you often need to use explicit note-bending, since the MIDI format that underlies much of digital music hard-codes assumptions about 12-note scales.

On the other hand, one kind of music software that's straightforward, usually inexpensive, and requires no special equipment is the music tracker: there are plenty of open-source trackers out there, and some simple ones are even embedded in barebones software packages like the Pico-8 fantasy console. These are often ridiculously easy to get started with, with the major hurdle being their barebones, number-heavy interfaces, but those interfaces also make them even easier to create in the first place!

So that's why I figured I'd put them both together: trackers, being simple to make and use, could be a way of making microtonal music much more accessible. In particular, the idea of putting together a tracker which can be parameterized by arbitrary tunings simply by giving it a list of frequences in cents would allow a musician to experiment with wildly unusual tunings in a trivial way.

Why the name? Hypsibius is the genus of tardigrades, also known as “water bears”. Tardigrades are microscopic eight-legged creatures found all around the world, but are also famously resilient to wildly extreme conditions, and have been found in a stunning range of temperatures and environments. Many people find them alien and fascinating, and I also find microtonal music to be alien and fascinating, hence the association. They'd make a great logo or mascot, too.

(I was actually going to call them “extremophiles” in this description, but I discovered while writing this post that that's incorrect: tardigrades can survive in extreme conditions but, unlike true extremophiles, they do not seek them out or thrive in them.)

#backburner #software #music