What’s in for this season in music software? Cellular automata. You may have been exposed to a cellular automaton in the classic Game of Life; it’s basically a very simple biological simulator exposed as an intuitive, 2-dimensional grid of squares. If tic-tac-toe, Charles Darwin, and a petri dish of bacteria got together in one wild evening, you’d come up with something like this as a result. The Game of Life has been around since mathematician John Conway invented it in 1970, but lately it’s been cross-bred with music software to help patterns escape the rigid, boring repetition of traditional sequencer grids.

Cellular automata is in fine form on the beautiful, strange homebrew sequencer for the Nintendo DS, GlitchDS, which has had ongoing updates. It’s still fun as ever in Reaktor 5’s Newschool preset (old news, but enjoyable nonetheless). But in what’s so far the most anticipated plug-in release of the fall, CA takes on particularly powerful sonic possibilities in the first “experimental” release from beloved plug-in boutique Audio Damage:

Automaton [Product Page, Mac AU/VST; Windows VST]
Cost: US$49.99

Since the cellular automata grid can control anything, it’s what you hook it up to that matters — and that’s especially important, because it means instead of a set of knobs or sequence grid doing the same thing over and over and over and over again, CA “evolves” on its own, bringing much-needed change to your music. Automaton is a combination of a flexible CA sequencer with four effects:

1. Stutter (modulates a buffer, so you can combine Automaton with existing beat loops and patterns)
2. Modulate (a self-modulating ring modulator)
3. Bitcrush (which includes AD’s own “error” setting)
4. Replicate (based on their Replicant effect, which goes even further in the beat slicing realm a la Ableton’s Beat Repeat)

I’ve been playing around with the beta, and it’s just fantastic. I hope to finish off some special CDM presets and share them with you, though I’m a bit behind — let’s see if I can top the presets that come with the tool. One of the hallmarks of Audio Damage’s software in VST format is lots of MIDI learn support, and since it supports VST automation I anticipate some fun combining this with Kore. Either way, think easy tweaking and live performance control.

Now, question math geeks: any other cellular automata aside form the Game of Life that work well with music? I’m sure there are some experimental music projects out there that have used other CA, so link away.

Here are two tutorial videos of the tool in action, in case you haven’t seen them already:

Automaton Overview Pt. 1 – Sequencer… from Audio Damage on Vimeo.

Automaton Overview Pt. 2 – Effects… from Audio Damage on Vimeo.

  • chaircrusher

    I'm an early adopter — i.e. I woke up Sunday and saw it was available and bought it.

    Here's what I did to Julie Andrews singing "My Favorite Things":


  • I threw this together with about an hour's toying around. Uses 4 instances of Automaton, plus one each of Dubstation and Replicant. The sequencing is really very sparse, but the result is anything but.


  • I think Eduardo Reck Miranda did some important early work on using cellular automata to make music, which ended up being implemented in Chaosynth. I must admit that I haven't heard Chaosynth myself, but I thoroughly recommend checking out all that Eduardo is involved with!

  • not exactly a game-of-life-sequencer, but then again lots of fun: the freeware program Musinum (The music in the numbers) that I got to know in the year 2000 or so. It uses a fractal algorythm to generate midi sequences. Back then you would feed them into the built in synth of your soundcard. The developer Lars Kindermann was a physicist at the university I studied at during that time and now he is working at the southpole, and has established a live-strem with the sound of the under-sea down there. All very fascinating stuff. But back again to Musinum: Google it, it's a windows standalone software. I rebuilt it in PD and used it for the track "Zebras by numbers" on my myspace.com/paulchristophrose.

  • yeah

    Musinum was awesome.

    used it a bunch for source material

    even a live performance once

  • @paul rose: Any chance at seeing the PD patch rebuild of Musinum? I'd love to work with that program again but on a MacBook.

  • Very cool. The Fragulator processor included in Pluggo also uses a cellular automata algorithm. In a similar fashion to granular synthesis it fragments a signal and then loops the bits at varying frequencies. You can here an example in this post on AudioCookbook.org.

  • i have always liked musinum very much, and i have also

    built a 'musinum-remake' in reaktor and in puredata, called 'readymade'. its available from my page.

    unlike stated there, the pd-readymade does not work with

    pd extended out of the box, (at least not if you use square waves in the synths) due to a problem with

    'zexy' in extended.


  • BeepBoop

    Whoops, that didn't work. That's what I get for trying to use XHTML! Anyway thought this fit the bill and might prove of interest, albeit very General MIDI sounding:

  • My last comment was incorrect. Fragulator does not use a cellular automata algorithm. It's actually Pluggo's Harmonic Filter that does, which was also used on the example I linked.

  • @ george: hmmm the patch is so dirty, I wouldn't publish that. But then again, it's working. give me your mail and I send it to you …

  • @ paul: blix77 (at) gmail Thanks, looking forward to digging around in it.

  • Back to 'Automaton', a nice implementation and Igotta say this really does SERIOUS damage to the input source, Audio Damage really lived up to their name with this one and I gotta love them for not being 'nice' at all with their presets :).

    Enjoying it in combo with 'Kombinat' especially. Finally getting some use out of the Abba Boxset I got last Christmas (Secret Santa's my #$%, don't ask).

  • btw, probably obvious too most but if you set a 'Bit Crush' trigger to full 24 bit/100% mode and 'Master' to 'Send' mode you can use the 'Life' sequencer 'Out' to feed your choice of effect, thereby increasing the variety of FX possibility beyond just 'glitch' (though who would want to do that πŸ™‚ )

    Heck, with 'apulSoft's apTrigga2', you can make it into a drum or sample trigger πŸ˜‰

    'Life' is good.

  • Hmm, I've been messing around with Automaton for a few hours but I just keep getting same-sounding and rather useless results, maybe I'm doing something wrong, but unless I discover some holy grail I think I could have spent these $49.99 on something way more useful. This plugin seems to be a bit too experimental to be commercially viable.

  • ph

    I must say that as an example of how not to make a promo video this ranks sets a new standard. One would think it hard to be smug, self-satisfied and offensive about a product harnessing 1970s concepts but wow they succeeded.

    It seems like a fun toy but surely there are more professional ways to promote?

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  • @ Veqtor: I went to issue you a refund, but as far as I can tell you didn't actually purchase Automaton. There's no Göran Sandström in our customer database (nor any Sandström for that matter, nor anyone from Sweden with a name even remotely approaching that, nor anyone with oxo-unlimited.com as the email domain.) Let me know what name you purchased it under and I'll gladly refund your money, as we don't want anyone unhappy with a purchase of one of our products. Feel free to write me via the support page of the Audio Damage site with your receipt number and I'll process the refund.

    @ ph, I didn't try to come off as smug, self-satisfied, or offensive. Frankly, I can't stand doing those videos, but I can't see any easy way to explain this plugin without them. Despite what things may be like in the circles you travel in, the vast majority of people don't know what the Game of Life is, let alone cellular automata on the whole. The snide comment early on in the second video was a direct reference to a conversation on another site that you're obviously not privy to; it was actually something of an inside joke. I'm not a professional product demonstrator, so it would stand to reason that these demonstrations would be unprofessional. There are many things I can do okay, and a few things I can do well. Making these stupid screencasts ain't either of those.


  • @YJ: I'm a big fan of Newschool, and I specifically called it out when we first looked at Automaton. The use of Game of Life and Cellular Automata in general in music is an idea that's been around as long as you could put the two together. I agree that Automaton is indebted to Newschool, but in real-world use, using the CA grid to control effects instead of sound generators is quite different. I enjoy using both.

  • Oh, and PS, I'll see if there's anything I can cover that Chris didn't already.

    Heck, maybe I should try throwing Newschool and Automaton together in a host … πŸ˜‰

  • YJ

    thank you for your reply Peter.. but i don't think there was a need to delete my post..

    btw, the Lazyfish reaktor ensemble is called NEWSCOOL, and he was the first to integrate the game of life concept with music making into a graphical device.

    I know this, because I have studied and reverse engineered some of his Reaktor ensembles.

    Newscool for example was written about in the Keyboard magazine review of reaktor 5.

    I would appreciate if you don't delete my posts. Thanks

  • YJ

    Peter, you may want to correct your comments addendum.

    NEWSCOOL is not a Reaktor "preset", it is a Reaktor ENSEMBLE, programmed from scratch in Reaktor, programmed by Lazyfish, a russian reaktor programmer /musician who works for native instruments

    I think Lazyfish, Native Instrument's ensemble programmer deserves mention, because if it wasn't for him, Automaton would probably not exist.

    Thank you

  • Another 'Cellular Automata' related ensemble (parameter controls) within the Reaktor UL is the Robert Norris ensemble 'Granite' (uploaded 2004-06-22 for R4):


  • btw, seeing Martin's post (Martin Brinkmann having raised the bar on Reaktor ensemble programming many times over) inspired me to load up his 'anothermadloop' and feed it into 'Automaton'…what the 'session' produced was 'strictly non-commercial' but made the kind of fluid time, tactile sound pressure 'Wayfinding' I personally live for πŸ˜‰

    If there is any interest, i will post a link to the final 57 minute journey through the 'options' of this particular combination here?

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  • Chris, keep making those videos. Yeah it's not as slick as a Lexus commercial but perfect for a fun audio dismantler.After watching both for the Automaton, my interest was spiked enough to download and read the manual. Also well crafted. I rewatched the videos and now with my head around Automaton picked up some of the the finer programming points and performance technique that I missed on first viewing. You packed alot into these videos. Well done. This is a finely crafted little monster that could delve a tad deeper. (i.e. a Ricochet parameter subset within the replicator page) No need to get carried away here but that would seal the deal for me! Albeit, version 1.0 still looks sweet and complete.

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  • Thank you for the entertaining read! Alright playtime is over and back to school work.