Book Review: Supercollider for the Creative Musician

Dom Aversano

Supercollider for the creative musician.

Several years ago a professor of electronic music at a London University advised me not to learn Supercollider as it was ‘too much of a headache’ and it would be better just to learn Max. I nevertheless took a weekend course, but not long after my enthusiasm for the language petered out. I did not have the time to devote to learning and was put off by Supercollider’s patchy documentation. It felt like a programming language for experienced programmers more than an approachable tool for musicians and composers. So instead I learned Pure Data, working with that until I reached a point where my ideas diverged from anything that resembled patching cords, at which point, I knew I needed to give Supercollider a second chance.

A lot had changed in the ensuing years, and not least of all with the emergence of Eli Fieldsteel’s excellent YouTube tutorials. Eli did for SuperCollider what Daniel Shiffman did for Processing/P5JS by making the language accessible and approachable to someone with no previous programming experience. Just read the comments for Eli’s videos and you’ll find glowing praise for their clarity and organisation. This might not come as a complete surprise as he is an associate professor of composition at the University of Illinois. In addition to his teaching abilities, Eli’s sound design and composition skills are right up there. His tutorial example code involves usable sounds, rather than simply abstract archetypes of various synthesis and sampling techniques. When I heard Eli was publishing a book I was excited to experience his teaching practice through a new medium, and curious to know how he would approach this.

The title of the book ‘SuperCollider for the Creative Musician: A Practical Guide’ does not give a great deal away, and is somewhat tautological. The book is divided into three sections: Fundamentals, Creative Techniques, and Large-Scale Projects.

The Fundamentals section is the best-written introduction to the language yet. The language is broken down into its elements and explained with clarity and precision making it perfectly suited for a beginner, or as a refresher for people who might not have used the language in a while. In a sense, this section represents the concise manual Supercollider has always lacked. For programmers with more experience, it might clarify the basics but not represent any real challenge or introduce new ideas.

The second section, Creative Techniques, is more advanced. Familiar topics like synthesis, sampling, and sequencing, are covered, as well as more neglected topics such as GUI design. There are plenty of diagrams, code examples, and helpful tips that anyone would benefit from to improve their sound design and programming skills. The code is clear, readable, and well-crafted, in a manner that encourages a structured and interactive form of learning and makes for a good reference book. At this point, the book could have dissembled into vagueness and structural incoherence, but it holds together sharply.

The final section, Large-Scale Projects, is the most esoteric and advanced. Its focus is project designs that are event-based, state-based, or live-coded. Here Eli steps into a more philosophical and compositional terrain, showcasing the possibilities that coding environments offer, such as non-linear and generative composition. This short and dense section covers the topics well, providing insights into Eli’s idiosyncratic approach to coding and composition.

Overall, it is an excellent book that every Supercollider should own. It is clearer and more focused than The Supercollider Book, which with multiple authours is fascinating, but makes it less suitable for a beginner. Eli’s book makes the language feel friendlier and more approachable. The ideal would be to own both, but given a choice, I would recommend Eli’s as the best standard introduction.

My one criticism — if it is a criticism at all — is that I was hoping for something more personal to the authour’s style and composing practice, whereas this is perhaps closer to a learning guide or highly-sophisticated manual. Given the aforementioned lack of this in the Supercollider community Eli has done the right thing to opt to plug this hole. However, I hope that this represents the first book in a series in which he delves deeper into Supercollider and his unique approach to composition and sound design.



Eli Fieldsteel - authour of Supercollider for the Creative Musician
Eli Fieldsteel / authour of Supercollider for the Creative Musician

Click here to order a copy of Supercollider for the Creative Musician: A Practical Guide

Dom Aversano is a British-American composer, percussionist, and writer. You can discover more of his work at the Liner Notes.