Images of the Week: Cellular Phonics

The following is a screenshot from Automaton, a new software-based sequencer from the company Audio Damage and an excellent mainstream example of generative music, in which sound is produced a series of mutating changes:

And this one is from the software’s user manual, which is available for free download (PDF):

The software, based on John Horton Conway‘s Game of Life, which dates back to 1970, allows user-programmed effects to alter sonic material according to the rules of cellular automata (by some small coincidence, also a concern of the Neal Stephenson novel, Anathem, mentioned here yesterday []). The white-filled boxes shown above are the sequencer (that is, the pattern of the music visualized in realtime), while the other colors refer to four effects implemented on the music: blue is Stutter, red is Modulate, orange is Bitcrush, and green is Replicate.

“Yes, this effectively makes it ancient history as far as computers are concerned,” a footnote in the user manual for Automaton states, in reference to the 1970 article in Scientific American by Martin Gardener that introduced Life to the general public. “The article suggested using checkers and a checkerboard to iterate generations by hand. No, the author wasn’t kidding.” (The massive shift in presumptions regarding computational power in the past 40 years again brings to mind matters that are at the heart of Stephenson’s Anathem — and, for that matter, Charles Stross’s earlier science fiction novel of humanity’s adaptation to change, Accelerando.)

Below, borrowed from a entry on Conway’s game, is an image (an animated GIF gile) depicting a looping example of how through a turn-based rule system, the cellular automata in Automaton might flow in two dimensions. The genius of this particular application of Life, the Glider Gun designed by mathemetician Bill Gosper, isn’t just that the little triangular doodles make their way off the screen in an orderly fashion (that is, without splintering, which is what so many Game of Life objects end up doing), but that the “gun” at the top of the screen keeps pumping out new gliders, as the triangular bits are refered to.

Automaton is just the latest in a series of software-based tools from Audio Damage, which has a tendency of making them look, online, for fun, like the physical effects boxes from which they are derived. The image accompanying Automaton appears to imagine an iPod-like (or iPhone-like) tool that runs Audio Damage, a tantalizing idea indeed:

More info on Automaton, including video, at The software programming is by Adam Schabtach (, user interface by Chris Randall (

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