Modular synthesizers present some beautiful possibilities for sound design and composition. For constructing certain kinds of sounds, and certain automated rhythmic and melodic structures, they’re beautiful – and endure for a reason.

Now, that description could fit both software and hardware modulars. And of course, hardware has some inarguable, irreplaceable advantages. But the same things that make it great to work with can also be limiting. You can’t dynamically change patches without some plugging and replugging, you’re limited by what modules you’ve got bolted into a rack, and … oh yeah, apart from size and weight, these things cost money.

So let’s sing the praises of computers for a moment – because it’s great that we can choose either, or both.

Money alone is reason. I think anyone with a cheap-ass laptop and absolutely no cash should still get access to the joy of modular. Deeper pockets don’t mean more talent. And beyond that, there are advantages to working with environments that are dynamic, computerized, and even open and open source. That’s true enough whether you use them on their own or in conjunction with hardware.

Enter Automatonism, by Johan Eriksson.

It’s free, it’s open source, it’s a collection of modules built in Pure Data (Pd). That means you can run it on macOS, Windows, and Linux, on a laptop or on a Raspberry Pi, or even build patches you use in games and apps.

And while there are other free modular tools for computers, this one is uniquely hardware modular-like in its design — meaning it’s more approachable, and uses the signal flow and compositional conception from that gear. Commercial software from Native Instruments (REAKTOR Blocks) and Softube (Modular) have done that, and with great sound and prettier front panels, but this may be the most approachable free and open source solution. (And it runs everywhere Pd runs, including mobile platforms.)

Sure, you could build this yourself, but this saves loads of time.

automatonism

You get 67 modules, covering all the basics (oscillators and filters and clocks and whatnot) and some nice advanced stuff (FM, granular delays, and so on).

The modules are coupled with easy-to-follow documentation for building your basic West Coast and East Coast synth patches, too. And the developer promises more modules are coming – or you can build your own, using Pd.

Crucially, you can also use all of this in real-time — whereas Pd normally is a glitchy mess while you’re patching. Johan proves that by doing weird, wonderful live patching performances:

If you know how to use Pd, this is all instantly useful – and even advanced users I’m sure will welcome it. But you really don’t need to know much about Pd.

The developer claims you don’t need to know anything, and includes easy instructions. But you’ll want to know something, as the first question on the video tells me. Let’s just solve this right now:

Q. I cannot get my cursor to change from the pointer finger to an arrow. I can drag modules and connect them but I can’t change any parameters. What am I missing?

A. That’s because Pure Data has two modes of operation: EDIT mode and PERFORMANCE mode. EDIT mode, the pointer finger, lets you drag stuff around and connect cables, while PERFORMANCE mode, the arrow, lets you interact with sliders and other GUI objects. Swap between the two easily under the EDIT menu in Pure Data or by shortcut cmd+e [ctrl-e Windows/Linux]

Now you’re ready!

This is also a bit like software-with-concept album, as the developer has also created a wild, ear-tickling IDM EP to go with it. This should give you an idea of the range of sounds possible with Automatonism; of course, your own musical idiom can be very different, if you like, using the same tools. I suspect some hardware lovers will listen to this and say “ah, that sounds like a computer, not warm analog gear.” To that, I say… first, I love Pd’s computer-ish character, and second, you can design sounds, process, mix, and master to make the end result sound like anything you want, anyway, if you know what you’re doing.

Johan took a pretty nerdy, Pd purist angle on this, and … I love it for what it is!

But this is truly one of the best things I’ve seen with Pd in a long time — and perhaps the best-documented project for the platform yet, full stop.

It’s definitely becoming part of my music toolkit. Have a look:

https://www.automatonism.com/

  • One of the coolest things about this is the fact that it works with vanilla Pd, which means it will work on the Organelle, the OWL, The Qubit Nebulae, the Bela, etc. Lots of cool small systems run Pd these days, and a couple of them allow for CV in/out, so you could integrate your software modular with your hardware modular pretty easily (even before you go the expert sleepers route).

  • Tom

    This is REALLY cool

  • vltr

    There’s also XODULAR, a “virtual modular synthesizer environment” for Pure Data: http://www.monologx.com/xodular/
    And ecoSYSTEM by the same developer, which is an interesting pre-defined modular system.

    • true. in fact automatonism is the successor of xodular. same author, software improved.

  • Nick Demopoulos

    This is really cool and must have been a ton of work. Thank you so much for making this available, and from the few modules I’ve checked out this sounds really really great.

  • Yessa!!

  • Andrew Garton

    This genuinely makes me happy.

  • papernoise

    This totally made my day! So excited to try this out! Pd really started to interest me a lot lately, and this comes just at the right moment.

  • Kris Keyser

    Just curious- this seems like it’d be amazing to run on a Raspberry Pi but the link to PD that they include indicates the latest version is for Raspberry Pi 2 and up. Would something like this still run on the original Raspberry Pi? I was pretty sure PD used to run on there no problem

    • papernoise

      Would very much love to know that as well…. especially it could be interesting to see how it works with a Pi3 and the upcoming pisound interface (http://blokas.io/)

      • daxophoneme

        I’ve run Pd with extra libraries on Pi2 and Pi3 fine. When you get into spectral processing (pitch-tracking, pitch-shifting, formant-shifting), the audio engine can choke, but I would imagine that basic synth plug-ins should run fine on the Pi1. It shouldn’t take too much effort to try.

  • Dream Hike

    This looks amazing. Just curious. Has anyone had any luck running PD on an ipad? Just bought an ipad pro and would love to have this on there.

    • sux

      you might want to check out WebPd (link below), there you can run Pd in a browser. This should work on your ipad, I haven’t checked though
      https://github.com/sebpiq/WebPd

    • mnb

      there is “pdparty” and “mobmuplat” for running pd patches on ios

  • heinrichz

    Very cool and sounds really great actually..certainly not easy on the eyes though, especially with complex patches;)

  • Chad Eby

    Fantastic! A possible replacement for my beloved generative AMS (Alsa Modular Synth) that has grown quite long in the tooth now and needs a pretty specific environment to thrive. Thanks for the pointer.

  • Mafgar

    I kinda wish there was a forum for this? I can’t seem to get the ADSR envelope to work properly and I dunno who to ask 🙂

    • probably muffwiggler would be a good place?

  • sux

    The parallels from Pd to the modular world have always been very obvious. Still it was very tedious work to get the modular action going. So when I started to be interested in Pd I always wondered why nobody had come up with an easy to use toolkit for creating sounds.

    Now it is here and it seems very well done. So congrats to automatonism for pulling this of. With all this euphoria for the small project we shouldn’t forget to mention all the people who develop Pd – they are the best <3

    • mnb

      there are and have been a few pd-based “toolkits for creating sound”, with a special/different focus though: for example “netpd” for collaborative sessions, “la malinette” for physical computing etc. (iir), “rjlib” for a more low level approach, “stamp album”, and probably a lot more. including my own “pure_modules”, which are even compatible (as i have just found out) with
      johans good work (you have to deal with another state-saving mechanism though, and he has way better documentation…)

  • brian hennessey

    Cool. Kind of like old-school BuzzMachines!