Sound Squares: a microtone-capable iOS app.

Sound Squares is a programmable synthesizer app that is available for the iPhone or iPad. It presents an ingenious user interface that splits the entire screen into a series of squares, each of which are fully programmable to play any pitch between C1 to C8 as any of four wave shapes, and tuned to the precise cent. So far, this is the only iOS app I’ve encountered that is a legitimately useful tool for those of us who deal with unconventional tuning systems.

Before I go any further, please take a look at the screen from which one operates the synth (click to enlarge):

This is the screen that one is greeted with upon opening the app. One simply taps the square(s) to sound the given pitch(es). There is no limit to how many pitches can sound at once, which is one of the most crucial features of the app for my purposes.

Undoubtedly, this is a powerful application for people who perform and compose music using iOS apps and similar. I would imagine, however, that my uses are far less common, but no less fruitful.

Below, you’ll see the screen as it appears after one has selected an individual square to edit. Notice that I’ve adjusted the tuning knob to read 50 cents. No, this has nothing to do with the well-known rapper, but it does make C4 sound 50 cents (one 1/4-tone) high:

You’ll notice that one can also adjust many other parameters, and then also apply them globally to all the squares.

I conduct a good deal of music that involves quarter-tones, and the first task I completed with Sound Squares was the creation of a quarter-tone scale over the range of a 11th. Although this range is not huge, Sound Sqaures has the capability of quickly transposing the entire playing grid by any interval, in increments of octaves or semitones:

I’ve very happy to report that I use my programmed quarter-tone configuration consistently whenever I’m learning a piece than makes use of quarter-tones!

To demonstrate further: I recently created a playing grid that will play the first 16 partials of a given fundamental. As you likely know, tuning to cents in this case is marginally inexact, as partials are accurately expressed as ratios. Without getting into an in-depth ancillary discussion concerning this minor discrepancy, it will suffice to point out that humans are generally unable to discern a difference between two successive pitches that are closer than 4 cents from each other. So, rounding to the nearest cent is more than acceptable for any performance-related purpose. In fact, the 7th partial is most often related as a pitch lowered by a 1/6-tone in scores. A 1/6-tone is 33 1/3 cents – less accurate than the 31 cent figure that lies closest to the pitch level of the 7th partial, but acceptably accurate for performance, nonetheless.

The ability to sound the partials above any fundamental, in any permutation, was incredibly useful while I worked on Georg Friedich Haas’ In Vain this past season (If you are unfamiliar with this epic 21st century masterwork, please take a listen here). Much of this work calls for the ensemble to play various partials together above the same fundamental. Not only is Sound Squares able to help one hear these harmonies while studying, but one can also play these tones right in rehearsal (with the aid of a speaker) for members of the ensemble to hear and tune to.

I anticipate returning to Sound Squares frequently in my personal preparation. There are countless possibilities past the quart-tone and partial-based ones I’ve mentioned; I believe that Sound Squares could adapt to any tuning system, and many musician (including people performing early music in various archaic temperaments) could benefit from it greatly.


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