On learning Tidal Cycles and SuperCollider

My first exposure to the music programming language and environment SuperCollider was after listening to Tape’s 2008 album Luminarium. In an interview with the band, which now looks to be gone from the internet, I distinctly remember reading that one of the members processed the acoustic sounds with a program called SuperCollider. I was beyond excited to discover that this was a free program I could download from the internet, but after booting it up for the first time I was met with a blank white text editor and the only way I knew how to react at the time was ‘WTF!’ 1. Only a year or two later I would end up learning some Max programming at Macquarie Uni, which too seemed impossible, but text programming at this stage was a step too far.

In case you aren’t familiar with either Tidal Cycles or SuperCollider, they are both (at the very least) programming languages for algorithmic composition:

  • Tidal Cycles: “Live coding music with Algorithmic patterns”
  • SuperCollider: “A platform for audio synthesis and algorithmic composition, used by musicians, artists and researchers working with sound”

First cycles with Tidal

Fast forward to the lockdowns of 2020/2021 and I’ve already been programming for a few years at this point. Somehow I remembered an interesting musical movement/process called live coding (also known as algorave) - I had first heard about this in London but had kind of ignored it due to a lack of real interest in electronic music 2 (at least in relation to the rave in algorave). I had started mucking around with music again, getting really into electronic music in a way that I never had before, yet was getting bored and frustrated with typical Digital Audio Workstations. After some initial research online I decided that Tidal Cycles seemed like a popular choice with a nice community so I set off on learning the basics.

Two things struck me in this time:

  1. I was kicking myself for having not engaged with this more while in London - the Tidal Cycles creator Alex McLean had even completed his PhD at Goldsmiths in the department that I was studying in there.
  2. As I will discuss, SuperCollider had once again reared its head but this time I had some programming skills, and could hopefully get past the blank screen.

I got started with Tidal by watching Alex McLean’s excellent Tidal Club tutorials. From there it has been a combo of reading the docs, playing around with Tidal, revisiting the videos as I forget things and spending a bit of time in the Tidal Cycles discord and forum to get tips.

For vim users there is even a fantastic plugin, and assuming you have SuperCollider (and SuperDirt) loaded up, it will startup Tidal itself and send the first messages to SC when you evaluate the first chunk of code in a .tidal file.

One interesting outcome of learning Tidal is that it has made me curious about the underlying technologies, both SuperCollider (the default sound engine) and Haskell (the language that Tidal itself is written in). Perhaps a huge distraction from the goal of making music, I started to identify and grok the functional style of the Tidal language and syntax, and felt a strong desire to gel more with this style of coding. I distinctly remember a moment a few months ago where I finally understood the difference between Tidal’s # and $ as well as getting structure and values from left and right with |<, <|, >| and |>. All of these are confusing at first, but with time you start to adopt these concepts. My experience with Haskell is still very limited, but I get a real sense of how it has informed Tidal, and chaining functions together to make musical patterns probably feels like second nature to someone who has more Haskell know-how.

As for SuperCollider, its worth noting that it doesn’t even need to be used with Tidal Cycles at all. Tidal after all is just a language for generating patters. These patterns can be sent anywhere (over Open Sound Control) to control just about anything, be it a DAW, a modular synth or a Max patch. SuperCollider (and the suggested Quark SuperDirt) is just there as a default sound source, with synths, samplers and MIDI handling at the ready.

Some fun things to do in Tidal Cycles:

  • Sequence an external synth over MIDI
  • Play around with the relatively new Ableton Link support in Tidal
  • Write your first SynthDef in SC and get sound going from Tidal (there is a great tutorial as part of Tidal Club)
  • Try jux rev on just about anything - juxtaposes a reversed version of the pattern on the opposite L/R channel

Moving past SuperCollider’s blank page

As with wanting to know more about Haskell, I also wanted to know more about SuperCollider. This, I will say, has been much more difficult and time consuming than learning Tidal. While Tidal Cycles is a relatively small music-focused syntax, SuperCollider is a huge language. Sure, it does music, but it also does general purpose programming stuff in the sense that you can do things with string manipulation, iteration, branching and even file handling. Instead of the concise functional style of Tidal, SuperCollider is an Object Oriented beast which requires you to study documentation for different classes and their methods. This however is not a complaint, I actually love the interactive documentation in the SuperCollider IDE in which you can evaluate snippets of code as you are learning about various classes.

I won’t go too much more into what SC is and what it can do, but instead I’ll focus on how I’ve attempted to learn it thus far.

The obvious place to start with SuperCollider is Eli Fieldsteel’s absolutely incredible video tutorials. Most of these seem to have been recorded for his classes at University of Illinois which he (and the university) have generously offered up on YouTube. Not that I’ve been through all of them, but I’ve learned heaps from following the lectures and actually doing the homework he sets for each class. Eli Fieldsteel has a new book arriving later in the year which sounds great too - I will no doubt read that also! Without Eli’s videos on YouTube I don’t think I would have made it that deep into SuperCollider on my own.

I’ve also read the wonderful SuperCollider book which provides a different approach and is perhaps better suited to someone who has a little bit of SC under their belt - I’ve found that I gain more from it with time as I revisit it.

Another big source of inspiration and education has been Nathan Ho’s blog and SynthDef channel. In the SynthDef videos you get to sit back and watch a very experienced SC user creating music, commenting the code as he goes. I wish there was more content like this within the SuperCollider community, as initially it was difficult to even find enough evidence to suggest that SuperCollider was worth learning!

Finally, there are the built in tutorials within the SuperCollider IDE’s documentation. I’ve not worked through many of these but I’m thinking it could be a good way to cement some of the fundamentals.

It has taken a long while to get used to the syntax in SC - it’s just a bit strange, or at least its not one I had really been exposed to before (having been based on the Smalltalk language). One final note on my experience of using SuperCollider is that I’m pretty desperate to get back to editing in Neovim. I haven’t taken enough time to setup all the tooling to get it hooked up (most of it is ready and available). Mads Kjeldgaard has some blog posts about this. One exception is the relatively new development happening on the SuperCollider Language Server Protocol which is not yet Neovim compatible. Exciting developments ahead!

What next?

So where does this leave me now? How far have I got and where will I go?

  • Tidal Cycles is an incredible language for creating musical patterns. I still suck at it but I have moments where I write a very succinct piece of code that creates something really interesting and unpredictable, and I think ‘I would never have made this in Ableton’. That is really its strength to me, after all it is geared towards live performance so there is a sense of immediacy to it.
  • I find sound design a bit frustrating in Tidal Cycles - this has been the driving force behind me picking up SC. I struggle to make the built in synths sound dynamic and less rigid and wooden. I want them to breathe and modulate. I’m sure this is possible with more practice and skill, but using SuperDirt just makes me want to pop over to SuperCollider and build my own sound sources. I even considered just using VSTs in Ableton (controlled by Tidal), but decided that I’d like to stay fully text based.
  • I feel like going all in on SuperCollider! Sure, its a weird language, its not as terse and elegant as Tidal Cycles, its a lot more complex, but its really, really powerful. I’m constantly finding snippets of SuperCollider code that do crazy things. As someone who is less interested in performing live these days, supercollider has a lot more appeal - I can take my time when writing code and can accept more verbosity and complexity in return for greater control in the sound design. It also opens up a lot of opportunities for sound installations due to it not requiring human input like Tidal.
  • There is still a place in my heart for Max as that was my first introduction to any sort of programming. I’m kinda keen to stick to the type of coding I can do all on a keyboard (less clicking around) but there are some really exciting developments over at Cycling74 with things like RNBO!
  • After spending some solid time with SuperCollider I may loop back to Tidal Cycles and find that along with some custom synths in SuperCollider, it is the perfect combo of quick, expressive language from Tidal paired with careful sound design using SC.

This was not meant to be a Tidal vs SC shootout, but comparing them does make me think about the kind of music that I want to make, and what tool is going to be the right one for the job. Now, if only I could program these damn things better…


  1. Other ‘WTF!’ moments include opening a blank Max patcher for the first time and wondering how a bunch of seemingly unmusical ‘objects’ could make sound.

  2. I liked a small subset of electronic music, and electronic music that had been brought into the context of live bands, but I certainly did not get things like techno, house or UK garage.