What makes music software popular? Simple recording, DJ, and remix apps unsurprisingly do well. But perhaps as a testament to the importance of individual music expression, some stranger entries do, too. And those less-typical software creations can give you new ways of exploring music creation and performance. Just take Nodal.

GarageBand sits comfortably at the top of the sellers list on Apple’s App Store. But, at least briefly, a generative composition tool has rocketed to second place. Nodal 1.7, available for both Mac and Windows, is unlike most music production tools. In place of linear track arrangement, clusters of graphical nodes represent musical structure, awaiting real-time experimentation. In a network you create, “virtual players” produce patterns by traversing a geometric map defining pitch, rhythm, and sequence.

Nodal and tools like it have always been able to create musical machines from simple elements, letting the user define an arrangement and then set it in motion. But Nodal 1.7 is a major release in that it allows MIDI control, so that you can actually “play” the structure and not just sit back and let it roll.

This isn’t just for ambient music lovers, either – sync features mean you can use Nodal just as easily in rhythmic pieces or even dance music.

Developer Peter Mcilwain tells CDM:

We think new features make [Nodal 1.7] a serious composing tool. Firstly, it can be synced to other applications. Next, individual networks can be triggered (like clips in Ableton) from MIDI notes. The velocity levels in these networks can be scaled according to the velocity of the triggering note. Also, the edges or connections between nodes can now contain MIDI controller curves. This is all demonstrated in [the YouTube clip at top].

The triggering aspect means that you can perform with a generative system in a very intuitive way. Also, I have been working on a piece for a flute ensemble in which I create a triggering score in Logic. This information is then sent to Nodal. Nodal then sends back MIDI which is rendered and recorded in Logic. I’m finding this a fascinating and natural way to work.

Nodal has slipped a bit since Peter first contacted me, but seeing this among the top Mac App Store apps to me is tremendously satisfying. Peter tells us they’re not giving up their day jobs, but it’s nice just to get to support great software.

Nodal: Generative Music Software

I’d love to hear more about Nodal here, especially if you’re making interesting stuff with it. Of course, to discuss with other Nodal users, your best bet is the Nodal discussion group:

Support | Nodal Google Group

The development team – Jon McCormack, Alan Dorin, Aidan Lane, Jon McCormack and Peter McIlwain of Monash University’s Centre for Electronic Media Art in Australia – have published technical papers, too:

Nodal R&D / Technical Papers

Nodal fans / users … or other folks doing development … we’d love to hear from you.

For more generative goodness, see also:

Intermorphic and Noatikl / Mixtilk, a cross-platform system that also includes mobile tools for iOS, from the same team that collaborated with Brian Eno and worked on the landmark SSEYO Koan system.

Hans Kuder’s Tiction uses graphical nodes as does Nodal, and, built in Processing, works on any OS (including Linux). Unfortunately, I’m not sure what happens to Hans or the tool; if anyone knows, let us know.

There are probably others I’m forgetting as the coffee settles in, so chime in in comments.

  • deb

    very nice. i can see this being useful. it will also be useful to the legions of TV composers (or rather their respective staffs) that will snap this up to make music that sounds like everyone else making music on TV. Expect to hear it all over various cop/crime/forensic/detective shows. At least the nice developers will get something for their pockets.

  • oh wow, I've been playing off and on with an old copy of nodal I had on my hard drive from a few years ago (think it was open source at one point) … futzing aroung with the IAC and soundflower.

    This looks super awesome and it's great to see a great piece of software get some time in the limelight and a little cash.

    Definitely going to be buying this version. Looks incredible for live set stuff.

  • Random Chance

    I played around with a very old version of Nodal and it did not work too well. Looks like this new version is a little more polished. Too bad it isn't free anymore. With all the payed for music software I already own I have no incentive to buy yet another piece of software, especially one as quirky but also limited as this one. Guess, I should be aiming at building my own live impro tool based on Petri nets or some other already established visual formalism suitable to the description of events in time.

  • New versions of Tiction on this link:

  • Deb – how do your concerns jive with the dozens of other algorithmic composition environments which have always been out there? I don't understand how Nodal changes this. For the past fifteen years, have people been generating lots of canned music with Koan? OpenMusic? RTClib? Symbolic Composer? M? It is just another tool, and "generative" music has been there as about long as computer music.

  • "What makes music software popular?"

    I'd say that what makes computer software popular is paradoxically – not resembling a computer. So much of the field is still dominated by the design decisions of emulating pianos and multi-track tape. Algorithmic composition is hardly "a-typical", it is using computers natively for what computers are good at, instead of pretending that they are something else.

    What made synthesizers popular? Not the exploitation of circuits to envision sounds and relationships between them, but the promise of a cheap, compact way to emulate the sounds of other instruments.

    The marketplace is lame, and I think it is wonderful if people are gradually coming around to learn what synthesis and computer music are essentially about.