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"Switching" in Procedural Generation

A friend recently told me of an idea he had: what if a video game employing procedural generation could legitimately surprise its own developer? This applies to music as well – I wish I had such moments more often in my algorithmic composition work.

Pondering this question made me think back to a recent video by producer Ned Rush: Melodic Phrase Generator in Ableton Live 11. In it, the artist starts with four C notes in the piano roll and uses a variety of MIDI filters to transform them into a shimmering pandiatonic texture with lots of variation. It’s worth a watch, but one moment that especially made me think is where he pulls out an arpeggiator and maps a random control signal to its “Style” setting (timestamp). Ableton Live allows mapping control signals to discrete popup menus as well as continuous knobs, so this causes the arpeggiator to switch randomly between 18 arpeggiation styles, including Up, Down, UpDown, Converge, Diverge, Pinky Up, Chord Trigger, Random, and more.

This was the most important part of Ned Rush’s patch, as these styles individually sound good and different from each other, so switching between them randomly sounds both good and diverse. From this, we can gather a valuable technique for procedural generation: switching or collaging among many individual algorithms, each of which has considerable care put into it. Imagine a “synthesizer” (or level generator, or whatever) with many different switched modes, coated in layers of “effects,” each with their own switched modes. Even with simple, haphazard randomness controlling the modes, the system will explore numerous combinatorial varieties. If this wears itself out quickly, then the modes can be grouped into categories, with switching within a category happening on a smaller time scale (or space scale) and switching between categories happening on a larger time scale.

Switching is a handy way to aid in achieving those elusive moments where a generative system does something truly unexpected. I recommend experimenting with it next time you play with algorithmic creativity.