Vol. 29 Issue 1 Reviews
Cycling ’74 radiaL Loop-based Performance Software

radial 1.0 (for Mac OS 9.x), 1.1 (for Mac OS X), US$ 199 (US$ 189 downloadable version); available from Cycling ’74, 379A Clementina Street, San Francisco, California 94103, USA; telephone (+1) 415-974-1818; fax (+1) 415-974-1812; electronic mail info@cycling74.com; Web www.cycling74.com/products/radial.html.

Reviewed by Meg Schedel
Covington, Kentucky, USA

Cycling ‘74 describes its product, radiaL, as “loop-based performance software with a beautiful and unique interface thoughtfully optimized for playing live or composing and designing in the moment.” The basic features of radiaL are similar to most loop-based programs, including: sample-accurate and synchronized playback of loops; support for AIFF, WAV, and MP3 file formats; dynamic interchange of loops and DSP effects; a built-in library of external MIDI controller templates; and a free collection of loops and plug-ins. The program’s history and development are very strongly oriented toward live/improvisational work rather than a production environment; it differs from most loop-based programs in that it does not include any way to view a linear time-line. radiaL, as the name implies, simply goes around in circles. The program’s strength lies in how it goes around in those circles.

When you first launch radiaL, you are presented with a series of small windows floating above whatever is currently open on your desktop (see screenshot above). I recommend creating a backdrop (under the system menu) unless you have absolutely no ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) tendencies, or are controlling radiaL through another program. The default backdrop is a black window that slides behind the other radiaL components. The only danger here is a little feature called rippL, which creates a series of concentric circles etched in white onto the black background. It is strangely addictive in a “Spirograph” kind of way, and I whiled away some time creating backdrop art. If even this feature proves to be too distracting it can be turned off through the Preferences panel.

The main windows of radiaL are: 1) the Channels window, which shows the current loops; 2) the Files window, which lets you access and load loops; 3) the Effects window, where you load, monitor, and tweak the parameters of VST plug-ins; 4) the Outputs window, which provides master fader and level meters for radiaL's audio outputs; and 5) the Top window, which displays the current play status and tempo, CPU usage, and available memory. The Files and Effects windows also have Inspector windows, allowing access to more settings than one file or effect at a time. The Files window links to the Sounds folder within the application folder, so you have to move your sounds into your application folder or create aliases to your sounds in order to access them. This small hassle is offset by a little piece of Unix code embedded in the file window: to navigate through the menus you press “../” in order to move up a directory level. In addition to the five main windows, there is a Clue window, providing a brief description as you move the mouse over a radiaL control. If the Clue window sounds like the “assistance area” in Max, that’s because it is: radiaL is an application designed and programmed in Max/MSP by jhno.

jhno, a.k.a. John Eichenseer, is a DJ and artist who worked as a developer for Cycling ‘74’s Pluggo software; he has also worked with Interval Research, Laurie Anderson, and Thomas Dolby. In a 1999 interview he stated: “I have been trying to create a set-up that I feel really comfortable with, so I can improvise. I would like to begin a piece, having no idea where it was going or what it would become—and then just keep adding and shaping elements on the fly.” This perfectly describes working with radiaL. If you are thinking of creating your own loop-based Max patch, I would advise you to try the 30-day trial version of radial and then reassess your goals. The synchronization algorithm is amazing. It is deceptively easy to create a coherent performance in radiaL; turning on the Free mode let’s you hear how much work the program is really doing for you.

jhno has programmed some pretty cool tricks in radiaL, especially the way loops are synchronized and sliced. radiaL adjusts the playback speed of a loop to match its tempo and calculates how fast to play back a loop based on its total duration. In order to sync loops cleanly, radiaL divides a loop into a number of small units called slices. The user has control over the length of these slices all the way down to the granular level. There needs to be a way to “fill in” the space after a slice of the loop has been played and there's still time to go until the next slice. radiaL fills in the space in one of four modes. The single arrow mode plays past the end of the slice and continues on for as long as it takes to reach the time when the next slice should be played, then skips back. The stacked arrow mode plays the portion of the slice and repeats that segment over and over until it's time to play the next slice. The double-headed arrow mode plays the portion of the slice forward and backward until it's time to move on. There is even a set of dice that represents random slicing which is very effective in moderation. It is astonishing how much the four modes affect the sound. I had fun using multiple copies of one loop on different channels with different slice and loop values, creating densely textured sounds from one source.

The interface is pretty intuitive; loops are displayed as circles with brightness corresponding to volume. Tick marks show how the loop can be cut, and a sweeping hand shows the current position. Meters abound, and there is an editable matrix window that shows levels of each parameter and their relationship to the output and effects that I found to be indispensable. Other than the interface and non-linearity, radiaL is pretty similar to many loop-based programs. Parameters can be controlled via MIDI or the computer keyboard, and a specialized plug-in enables real-time audio input. radiaL comes with a dozen VST plug-in effects, including a totally sweet tempo-synchronized filter/delay built specifically for use with radial. Intelligent programming ensures that plug-ins will not create feedback—the input level goes down when feedback is detected and goes back up when the danger has passed.

Another important plug-in is Gregory Taylor’s radiaLFO. For musicians missing the old analog synthesizer days, radiaL supplies the user with four low-frequency oscillators (LFOs), each of which can be mapped to four parameters including filtering, playback, and effects. Users can configure the LFOs’ shape, length, sync divisor (values at which the LFO output will be sampled), and smoothing parameter (which allows a gradual period for transitions). Thankfully, you can save your settings due to a judicious use of the Max Preset object. Of course, I wanted even more LFO’s to control parameters with, but it is pretty trivial to set up Max to send MIDI controller information to radiaL. In one of my projects, I’m using SoftVNS to track dancers whose movements control almost 50 parameters of 10 loop channels. radiaL performs beautifully, only hiccupping if I turn on too many effects at once.

If you know Max/MSP well, you may find radiaL confining. It is one person’s vision of an interface, and sometimes I found myself wishing I could control more options than the radiaLFO plug-in would let me. For example, I wanted to multiply the slice value on channel 3 by 1.5 and use it to control the loop length on channel 4. Easy in Max/MSP, impossible in radiaL without resorting to sending data from another program or controller. I really wanted to open radiaL in Max/MSP and start hacking (of course I tried—it doesn’t work), but even with these restrictions it is a powerful and flexible program. The other snag I ran into was in trying to stagger loops. radiaL was created for constant playback; in order to create overlapping patterns I had to add silence to the end of my soundfiles, or limit myself to four layers using squarewaves from radiaLFO to control muting. I think I’ll use it most in combination with Max/MSP: I really like the features and the interface, but I find using it only with the computer keyboard and MIDI controllers a bit restrictive. I don’t see myself creating a stable and flexible loop-based performance environment with wicked synchronization of my own in MSP any time soon, so I’ll settle for running two programs simultaneously.

RadiaL costs $189 to download, plus an extra $10 (shipping included) for a CD-ROM loaded with loops. The whole package is available for $199 (not including shipping). While the packaging is pretty sweet—the CD comes in a sleeve designed to look like a vinyl record—it is probably not worth the extra cost of shipping. The loop disc, however, is worth the ten clams; it contains about 500 MB of some of the most varied pre-recorded loops I have ever heard, and was a fun and easy way to start to use the power of radiaL without having to create a library of my own samples. It’s also easier to completely destroy someone else’s sound files (or so I’ve found). jhno’s loop “e-fas.aif” from the spooL collection at a pitch of 24, time of 0.02, slice of 2048, high-passed and randomized, adds a nice analog crackle when things are sounding too clean. Most of the loops on the CD have no legal restrictions, but there are about 60 MB that are for non-commercial use only.

Pros: intuitive interface, I was up and running in seconds; seamless synchronization of loops, option of turning it off; not processor-intensive (ten channels and eight effects took up 75% of my 1.25 GHz machine with 1.5 GB of memory; four channels and two effects took up only 18%); very stable unless you are programming the control map for MIDI while getting input. The documentation is superb, except the index is not linked to the page number referenced.
Cons: system configuration and plug-ins only work under an admin account making it difficult for use in an educational environment; font size and colors are not adjustable—file names are difficult to read; additional channels just continue across the screen in one row going off the screen instead of tiling.