What Is Sundog Scale Studio?
Sundog Scale Studio is a standalone software application for Windows and Mac, from developers Feel Your Sound, that helps you come up with musical ideas. You can create your own chord progressions, add arpeggios and melodies that all stay in the musical scale of your choice (of which there are a lot!). Let’s see if the claim on their website: “Get rid of writer’s block once and for all” is true!
The installation is quick and straightforward, like most normal Windows applications. At the end of the installation, you are taken to a webpage where you can view a 7 minute Quickstart video – very handy to know where to find most of Scale Studio’s functions! Plus, seeing someone using the program is, to me, way better than a text only manual.
After starting up the program, you have the option to either demo it with a few limitations (see the FAQ on their website) or register it by using the serial number you received after purchasing the software.
Sundog Scale Studio is a standalone application, and not a plugin (VST, AU, AAX etc.), so you would have to connect the software to your DAW via virtual MIDI drivers. I used LoopMidi because it is free and also works on 64-bit systems.
Here’s a quick overview of the interface:
In the red area, you can change the pattern/song settings like bpm, swing amount, amount of bars in a pattern, and the root note and scale. You will also find the chords button here that will take you to a page where you can create chord progressions.
Below the red area you’ll find the channel selection area – Scale Studio can send out midi data on 15 different channels.
Then there’s the Pattern Trigger area, and on the left you’ll see the piano roll on which you can draw the “note curve” of the pattern on the currently selected channel. I call it a “note curve” because not all the notes that you draw in will necessarily be triggered – this depends on what Gate Pattern you will create below it (officially this is just called Pattern, but I call it Gate Pattern to make the distinction a bit clearer). In the next section I will clarify what these patterns do.
To the right of the piano roll area, there are the track settings like: solo, mute, octave transpose, and MIDI channel, and you can set whether the current pattern will play the full chords, chord tones only, or scale tones only.
Below the track settings are the Gate Pattern settings, where you can load preset patterns, save your own, set the length of the pattern etc. If you click on the big Sundog logo at the bottom right of the interface, you will be taken to the manual that has a step by step guide of how to use the software.
Here’s how Sundog Scale Studio works in practice: first you choose a root note and scale to work in (you can always change this later while working on your project). Now you can go to the chords page to create a chord progression, and on the top row you can choose the position in the bar, and then click on a chord below to add it to the selected position:
When you have found a chord progression that you like to work with, you can either export the chord progression to midi or you can continue working in Sundog Scale Studio by clicking the Use Chords button.
You will be taken back to the main page. I decided to use Channel 1 as the chord track, so I changed the mode of Track 1 to Full Chords. In this mode, it doesn’t really matter at what vertical position you draw in a note in the pattern trigger, as all positions correspond to the currently selected chord anyway, so I drew in one long line running for the entire length of the pattern:
On the default setting it will only trigger a note every chord change, which is of course quite boring, but this is where the Gate Pattern area comes into play. The piano roll pattern above determines what note in the selected scale (or in this case the chord) should play at any given moment in the bar, but only if a note will be triggered by the Gate Pattern. So with the gate pattern off like this:
the resulting MIDI information will look like this:
But when I load a preset pattern that looks like this:
the resulting MIDI is this:
So essentially the Gate Pattern is an arpeggiator where the piano roll pattern defines the notes that should be played. In the Gate Pattern you can add MIDI note on and note off messages, change the velocity of triggered notes, and also change the octave and scale degrees of the notes.
On another track I want it to play arpeggios, so on Track 2, I change the mode to Chord Tones, and this mode ensures that only notes in the currently played chord will be triggered.
Now I draw in some descending curves in the piano roll and choose a random gate pattern preset (you can, of course, also create your own patterns from scratch):
the resulting MIDI is this:
I hope that you get the idea now!
Last but not least, I try to create a melody. It’s the same process as creating the arp (only this time I will choose scale notes instead of chord notes), I draw some curves in the piano roll and choose an appropriate gate pattern preset:
The result is this (Chords on staccato strings, Arpeggio on vibraphone and the melody on the piano):
Of course this isn’t perfect yet, the melody especially needs some more work (and I could have fine-tuned a bit more in the application), but it was a very quick process and I could see me working out this idea into a full blown song.
I can also change the scale now and see what it sounds like in, say, a harmonic minor:
Very interesting! There are about 300 scales in Sundog Scale Studio, including several more exotic ones. So if you have a basic idea for a song that you like, you can try putting it in any of those scales, to find your song a new and unique sound.
Points of Improvement
There are a few things which I would have liked to seen included in the application though. It would have been nice if the application contained an internal sound engine (it doesn’t have to be a good one, just some simple sounds would be sufficient) so you can quickly start up the program to generate some ideas instead of also having to start your DAW.
When creating chord progressions, Scale Studio adds the chords in their default root position, you can create inversions of these chords manually, but a handy feature would have been to turn on automatic voice leading.
You have to listen by ear to what chords sound good after one another when creating a chord progression, so perhaps a feature that would suggest follow up chords would be a welcome addition?
Also, you aren’t able to choose chromatic chords when creating a chord progression, only the ones in that scale – sometimes it’s nice to add the odd chromatic chord here and there.
Sundog also doesn’t have MIDI import, so you can’t really import songs you were already working on in your DAW, but you have to manually recreate it inside the application.
There’s also no undo and redo option, which could come in handy on a few occasions!
Sundog Scale Studio is indeed a great tool to use if you are lacking inspiration – it’s very quick to come up with viable ideas, and you can easily change scales to hear your ideas in a different light. You can also experiment with substituting chords in your existing chord progressions, for example, and making your chord progressions sound less predictable.
I have been told by the developer that many of the points I mentioned above are already on their to-do list, so hopefully we’ll see these features included in future updates. In this state, however, Sundog Scale Studio is already quite a fully featured package!