Live coding environments are free, run on the cheapest hardware as well as the latest laptops, and offer new ways of thinking about music and sound that are leading a global movement. And one of the leading tools of that movement just hit a big milestone.

This isn’t just about a nerdy way of making music. TidalCycles is free, and tribes of people form around using it. Just as important as how impressive the tool may be, the results are spectacular and varied.

There are some people who take on live coding as their primary instrument – some who haven’t had experiencing using even computers or electronic music production tools before, let alone whole coding environments. But I think they’re worth a look even if you don’t envision yourself projecting code onstage as you type live. TidalCycles in particular had its origins not in computer science, but in creator Alex McLean’s research into rhythm and cycle. It’s a way of experiencing a musical idea as much as it is a particular tool.

TidalCycles has been one of the more popular tools, because it’s really easy to learn and musical. The one downside is a slightly convoluted install process, since it’s built on SuperCollider, as opposed to tools that now run in a Web browser. On the other hand, the payoff for that added work is you’ll never outgrow TidalCycles itself – because you can move to SuperCollider’s wider arrange of tools if you choose.

New in version 1.0 is a whole bunch of architectural improvement that really makes the environment feel mature. And there’s one major addition: controller input means you can play TidalCycles like an instrument, even without coding as your perform:
New functions
Updated innards
New ways of combining patterns
Input from live controllers
The ability to set tempo with patterns

Maybe just as important as the plumbing improvements, you also get expanded documentation and an all-new website.

Check out the full list of changes:

You’ll need to update some of your code as there’s been some renaming and so on.

But the ability to input OSC and MIDI is especially cool, not least because you can now “play” all the musical, rhythmic stuff TidalCycles does with patterns.

There’s enough musicality and sonic power in TidalCycles that it’s easy to imagine some people will take advantage of the live coding feedback as they create a patch, but play more in a conventional sense with controllers. I’ll be honest; I couldn’t quite wrap my head around typing code as the performance element in front of an audience. And that makes some sense; some people who aren’t comfortable playing actually find themselves more comfortable coding – and those people aren’t always programmers. Sometimes they’re non-programmers who find this an easier way to express themselves musically. Now, you can choose, or even combine the two approaches.

Also worth saying – TidalCycles has happened partly because of community contributions, but it’s also the work primarily of Alex himself. You can keep him doing this by “sending a coffee” – TidalCycles works on the old donationware model, even as the code itself is licensed free and open source. Do that here:

While we’ve got your attention, let’s look at what you can actually do with TidalCycles. Here’s our friend Miri Kat with her new single out this week, the sounds developed in that environment. It’s an ethereal, organic trip (the single is also on Bandcamp):

We put out Miri’s album Pursuit last year, not really having anything to do with it being made in a livecoding environment so much as I was in love with the music – and a lot of listeners responded the same way:

For an extended live set, here’s Alex himself playing in November in Tokyo:

And Alexandra Cardenas, one of the more active members of the TidalCycles scene, played what looked like a mind-blowing set in Bogota recently. On visuals is Olivia Jack, who created vibrant, eye-searing goodness in the live coding visual environment of her own invention, Hydra. (Hydra works in the browser, so you can try it right now.)

Unfortunately there are only clips – you had to be there – but here’s a taste of what we’re all missing out on:

See also the longer history of Tidal

It’ll be great to see where people go next. If you haven’t tried it yet, you can dive in now:

Image at top: Alex, performing as part of our workshop/party Encoded in Berlin in June.