In the 1970s, British mathematician John Conway devised Game of Life a simple turn based zero player game in-which patterns of cells evolve through generations, either surviving or not based on simple rules.
Cells are arranged in a 2D grid, and if they have neighbours determines whether or not they made the next turn. Here’s the rules, copied and pasted from Wikipedia:
- Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbours dies, as if caused by under-population.
- Any live cell with two or three live neighbours lives on to the next generation.
- Any live cell with more than three live neighbours dies, as if by overcrowding.
- Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbours becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.
A pre-determined pattern can be loaded to start the game, or the observer can draw in cells. As this plays out, you’ll find everything can either die after a few generations, things can evolve and last for many generations or they can even get stuck in a loops and constantly playout.
What’s amazing about this game is that it demonstrates simple rules can give way to complex systems.
This sort of generative, self-evolving pattern can cause some really interesting compositional possibilities, and has been exploited by musicians and programmers alike, for instance iOS app Runxt Life, this sequencer by Grant Muller or this Nintendo DS device named GlitchDS.
Newscool is a flagship ensemble and really shows off what Reaktor can do. It’s a groovebox (unsurprisingly) based on Conway’s Game of Life. Reaktor has this to say about it:
The sequencer is based on the Life model developed by John Conway in the 1970s. A two-dimensional pattern is processed in steps: An element of the pattern becomes alive (dark in this implementation) in the following step if three of its eight neighbors are alive in this step; it remains alive in the subsequent one if two or three neighbors are alive in the current one – else it dies (and becomes a light square again). Several patterns emerge over time by this set of rules: Gliders move over the grid, crosses oscillate in several phases, some objects remain stable and don’t change from step to step while others remain unstable forever. These patterns trigger the sound engine, generating “lively” sequences.
At the heart of it is two separate ensembles, at the top is ‘life’, a sequencer (in green), the eight tone generators (redy/pink) and the multi-fx unit (white) are both part of an ensemble called ‘NWSCL’:
Despite it’s simplicity, Newscool can look incredibly daunting, and for this reason, I suggest you download this plugin reset I’ve made for the tutorial. It has most of the main features disabled, so by enabling them you can hear what’s happening. Grab it here.
It makes sense to start by looking at the sequencer, or Life Sequencer, as Reaktor calls it. Although this is based on Game of Life, the main difference is that the sequencer loops back on itself, rather than cascading off into oblivion.
The left display is our Board Display, which is where we edit our patterns either by loading presets, drawing with our mouse or randomly generating cells. On the right is the Performer Display which shows the current stage of the sequence. This is uneditable.
Between these two boards you can see the length of the cycle (in yellow), which determines how long the loop is by the number of steps (red). In this example, we would get a loop of 16 x 16 steps, which is one bar in length.
With the Offset set at 0 our loops will start from the beginning, however if we were to add 3, for example, our loop would start 3 1/16th notes in. This is useful for getting your loop working with other elements, altering the emphasis of downbeats.
The two buttons underneath the Step are Run and Next. Run is enabled by default, and this will trigger our sequencer into life as soon as the MIDI clock is playing; if we stop, it stops too. Next cycles through each step of the sequence one by one, so we can hear exactly what’s going on.
Below this we have the Copy section. The blue and soft red arrows copy the current pattern to either the Board Display or Performer Display. The Loop menu above it changes the functionality of the Performer Display.
There’s three function, the first of which is Loop. This is the default setting that cycles back to the starting position. This works by copying over the Board Display’s pattern when the end of the loop is end of the length of steps is reached.
Start is the next mode. This allows the cells to carry on evolving regardless of the length and step settings. This can either peter out to nothing or get locked in a continual loop. In essence, this is never copying the Board Display to the Performer Display.
Lastly is the manual mode. I’ve found this really similar to Start, in that it will run ad infinitum. All of these modes can be overridden by triggering the the arrow buttons underneath.
The image below is a simple pattern to start off with. Notice the top right three squares disappear on the first turn – this is because they have no direct neighbours and die through under-population.
The crude ‘S’ shaped cells on the left turn into a ‘0’ shape and do nothing interesting. Whereas the the closed square bracket ‘]’ shape modulates through a few interesting shapes.
Simply by adding one square to this we can drastically alter the course of it, and that’s what makes this sequencer a really powerful generative tool.
I’ve added a single square to the ‘S’ and the ‘]‘ shape and run the sequence.
The ‘S’ shape has turned into what’s called a glider; and is a well-known phenomenon in Game of Life. This is shape that tumbles off into the distance. Our closed bracket shape now disappears in four turns.
Let’s look at the controls just underneath both displays.
On the left we have Load, Clear and Rnd, which will generate patterns in the Board Display, where Clear wipes the patterns and Rnd (obviously) generates a random patterns.
Load relates to the Presets menu, which you can access by click + drag, on where it says 4 Simple Gliders (that took me a while to figure out as I was clicking the up and down arrows, which do nothing).
You might notice the X-Size-Y changing with different presets; this is the width (X) and height (Y) of the Board Display grid, and it can be changed manually, even with a preset loaded. Ultimately, this affects the resolution of cells you can draw/load in.
On the right-hand side underneath the Pattern Display, there X-Wrap-Y, Offset and Sens. The X-Wrap-Y is perhaps one of the harder elements of the sequencer to wrap your head around. If you minimise both controls and looks carefully at thePattern Display you will see all of the dots are a dark blue colour.
This colour relates to one of the eight tone generators (more on this next). If you program a sequence you should hear just one tone playing. Changing the X and Y wrap will add new colours into the board. Adjusting just the x-wrap will scroll through the tone generators colours along the x-axis and the y-wrap along the y-axis:
Offsets is easiest to understand when both the X and Y Wrap at at minimum position. While here and Offset is at 0, the board is full of dark blue dots. Adjusting the Offset will scroll through the colours of all of the dots, unlike the X and Y Wrap which cycles through rainbow-like patterns.
Sens[itivity] will effect how many triggered are generated from the pattern. Fewer at full counter-clockwise and more as it’s dialled up. Now we’ve gotten our heads around the sequencer, let’s look at the tone generation and FX in the next ensemble; NWSCL.
NWSCL Tone Generators
NWSL is the ensemble that Life triggers, it contains a tone generation section on the left, an FX section on the right and various macro controls, LFOs and more.
NWSCL is the bar chart on the left. It uses eight parabolic wave tone generators (similar to a sine wave), triggered by the Life sequencer. These are colour coded peach, orange, gold, yellow, pale blue, a slightly darker blue, an even darker blue and almost navy.
As you might be able to tell I don’t have a pantone colour chart with me.
Each sequencer can be turned on or off with the buttons just below it. In the above image all tones are switched on bar the last two on the furthest right hand side.
In addition, there are several parameters that can be adjusted using the bar charts. They correspond to Pitch (pretty self explanatory, spanning four octaves), Kick (a short decaying pitch envelope).
Frequency Modulation related to the FM dial underneath this display. Frequency Modulation I will explain in more detail in different articles but in principle it’s like pitch modulation but rather than modulating by an LFO or other subsonic rate, we modulate pitches at audio rate. This is great for creating complex tones.
Ring Modulation is a bit like amplitude modulation (albeit rectified, but don’t worry about that). It will sound not dissimilar to a tremolo effect at lower amounts, and more metallic and atonal at greater amounts.
Lastly we have Decay and Amplitude, relating to the length of a triggered event and the volume of it. Underneath this display you’ll see knobs for FM, Drive and Decay, which all have an effect on all of the eight tones. Double clicking on the display will give you randomised values for each of the parameters:
All of these are great for making large changes to your pattern, FM and Drive increasing upper harmonics with Decay taking you from short sharp minimal bleeps and bloops to booming 808-like basses.
The final controls on the tone generation side of NWSCL are a bi-polar Pitch control for the range of the pitch modulation. Because it’s bi-polar, you will get the lowest pitches when it’s set to half way, which is confusingly around 6’o’clock:
Lastly we have three purple dials relating to an LFO for modulating all of the tone generator’s parameters. Mostly importantly are the Depth (amount of modulation) and Rate (speed of modulation). The Phase will control the start of the LFO’s cycle (0º being the what most people consider to be the start and 180º being the inverse of that). However as it’s not syncable I’ve found it to be a bit redundant.
Separating the two tone generators on the left and FX on the right is is our mixer section. I say mixer, it’s pretty rudimentary and just contains a dial for Level and Mix of the FX. There’s Rnd and Mute buttons that will randomise all controls on the NWSCL ensemble (not something personally want to do!) and Mute, incase you need to cut the volume quickly. Let’s move on to the FX.
Much like the tone generation side of things, the FX in NWSCL are controlled by eight colour coded bar charts. These are the same colours as the tones so it’s fair to infer that they relate to the them.
The Mix dial controls the amount of FX blended into the dry signal, and there’s the same purple LFO controls, so we’ll leave those where they are and move on to the the six parameters.
Starting off with the Pitch Shifter, this does much what it says on the tin – a WhammyPedal-like way of transposing the incoming signal up and down a in pitch. The Grain and Delay are connected to the Pitch Shift, as they’re contained within the same macro. Sometimes you wont hear what they do individually until you move another values.
Grain will give you a pseudo granular synth effect. Granular synthesis works with tiny (~20 – 60 millisecond) samples, shifting them around the stereo field and changing amplitude and pitch. This isn’t quite as involved but adjusting it will give you sounds ranging between a stutter quality to Xenakis-like ambience.
It’s hard to nail exactly what each does that there’s not much in the manual or explained in the Info section of the browser, but adjusting these three together will give you interesting glitches and super-short echoes. The Delay can sound a bit choppy at values in the middle, cranking it to extreme low and high measures is best.
As far as I can tell the Filter is a bi-polar control of several multi-mode filters. This means it can produce both high-pass and low-pass filtering.
The Amplitude and Decay control an AD (attack and decay) envelope for the effects section. There’s actually a Decay dial just below that will allow broader control over all eight tones but we can set individual decay times and amplitude values in the bar chart display. This is good for tightening up flabby patterns, especially when combined with high-pass filtering.
Similarly there’s a control for Filter and Feedback, which control the filter position and the amount of the signal fedback into itself. Feedback can work a bit like the Drive control on the other side of the ensemble, adding huge amounts of volume, bass and distortion in quite quickly. Easy to turn quite meek sounds into thunderous fuzzy washes.
NewScool doesn’t really seem like it’s built for carful construction of beats in a DAW scenario. It’s more for live performance and improvisation. Whilst many of the dials aren’t necessarily intuitive, they do allow for sounds to be radically changed on the fly, weather that be the pattern generation, tones or associated FX.
Have to send a massive shout out to YouTube user Brent Kallmer for his channel Blue Water VST. This had some NewScool tutorials that helped clear up some of the mess where the manual fell flat. Reaktor is fantastic but there’s not a tonne of literature to the level of complexity on some ensembles.
His channel is actually really good for general Reaktor and Ableton tutorials so give him a subscribe and hopefully he’ll make some more one day!
The manual was good but I’d say a good 80% of this is my own research, delving into the structure to see what I can find. In terms of build quality NewScool is way beyond my level of Reaktor construction but knowing a little can help you understand a lot.
If you’re interested in learning more about building in Reaktor I do emplore you to check out my getting started guide. One of my other favourite Reaktor ensembles is OkiComputer, which is a really powerful wavetable synth, check it out!
I will have some more Reaktor tutorials coming soon on SpaceDrone, building an additive synth, possibly Metahyiscal Function and more. Please do send me any requests you might have!
*UPDATE* I’ve made this accompanying YouTube video to describe in more detail how to use the Life sequencer as a trigger for a tone generator of your own.