Custom Quartz Compositions in Isadora

The What and Why

The more I work with Isadora, the more I feel like there isn’t anything it can’t do. As a programming environment for live performance it’s a fast way to build, create, and modify visual environments. One of the most interesting avenues for exploration in this regard is working with Quartz Composer. Quartz is a part of Apple’s integrated graphics technologies for developers and is built to render both 2D and 3D content by using the system’s GPU. This, for the most part, means that Quartz is fast. On top of being fast, it allows you access to GPU accelerated rendering making for visualizations that would be difficult if you were only relying on CPU strength.

Quartz has been interesting to me largely as it’s quick access to a GPU-accelerated high performance rendering environment capable of 2D, 3D and transparency. What’s not to love? As it turns out, there’s lot to be challenged by in Quartz. Like all programming environments it’s rife with its own idiosyncrasies, idioms, and approaches to the rendering process. It’s also a fair does of fun once you start to get your bearings.

Why does all of this matter? If you purchase the Isadora Core Video upgrade you have access to all of the Core Imaging processing plugins native to OS X. In addition to that you’re now able to use Quartz Composer patches as Actors in Isadora. This makes it possible to build a custom Quartz Composer patch and use it within the Isadora environment. Essentially this opens up a whole new set of possibilities for creating visual environments, effects, and interactivity for the production or installation that you might be working on.

Enough Already, Let’s Build Something

There are lots of things to keep in mind as you start this process, and perhaps one of the most useful guidelines I can offer is to be patent. Invariably there will be things that go wrong, or misbehave. It’s the nature of the beast, paying close attention to the details of the process is going to make or break you when it all comes down to it in the end.

We’re going to build a simple 3D Sphere in Quartz then prep it for control from Isadora. Easy.

Working in Quartz

First things first, you’ll need to get Quartz Composer. If you don’t already have it, you’ll need to download Quartz Composer. Check out I Love QC’s video about how to do this:

The next thing we’re going to do is to fire up QC. When prompted to choose a template, select the basic composition, and then click “Choose.”


One of the first things we need to talk about is what you’re seeing in the Quartz environment. The grid like window that you’re started with is your patch editor. Here you connect nodes in order to create or animate your scene.


You should also see a window that’s filled with black. This is your “viewer” window. Here you’ll see what you’re creating in the patch editor.


Additionally you can open up two more windows, by clicking the corresponding icons in the patch editor. First find the button for Patch Library, and click that to open up a list of nodes available for use within the network.

The Patch Library holds all of the objects that are available for use within the Quartz editor. While you can scroll through all of the possible objects when you’re programming, it’s often more efficient to use the search box at the bottom of the library.


Next open open up the patch inspector.
The patch inspector lets you see and edit the settings and parameters for a given object.

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Let’s start by making a sphere. In patch library search for “sphere” and add it to your patch. Out the gate we’ll notice that this sucks. Rather, this doesn’t currently look interesting, or like a sphere for that matter. What we’re currently seeing is a sphere rendered without any lighting effects. This means that we’re only seeing the outline of the sphere on the black background.


This brings us to one of the programming conventions in Quartz. In Quartz we have to place objects inside of other components in order to tell QC that we want a parent’s properties to propagate to the child component.

To see what that means let’s add a “lighting” patch to our network. Congratulations, nothing happened. In order to see the lighting object’s properties change the sphere, we need to place the sphere inside of that object. Select the sphere object in the editor, Command-X to cut, double click on the Lighting object, then Command-V to paste.


This is better, but only slightly.

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Let’s start by changing the size properties of our sphere. Open the Patch Inspector and click on the Sphere object in the editor. Now we can see a list of properties for our Sphere. Let’s start by adjusting the diameter of our sphere. I’m going to change my diameter to .25.

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Next, select “settings” from the drop down menu in the Patch Inspector. Here I’m going to turn up the number of sub divisions of my sphere to give it a smoother appearance.

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With our sphere looking pretty decent I want to add some subtle animation to give it a little more personality. We can do this by adding a LFO (low-frequency oscillator). We’ll use our LFO to give our sphere a little up and down motion. In the Patch Library search for LFO and add it to your editor next to your sphere.

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Next click the “Result” outlet on the “Wave Generator (LFO)” and connect it to the “Y Position” inlet on the sphere.

Wonderful… but this is going to make me sea sick.

Next we’re going to make some adjustments to the LFO. With your patch inspector open, click on the LFO. Let’s the following changes:

Period to 2
Phase to 0
Amplitude to .01
Offset to 0


Now you should have a sphere that’s very gently bouncing in the space.

Next let’s return to the parent lighting patch to make some changes to the lighting in this environment. We can get back to the parent either by clicking on the button “edit parent” or by clicking on the position in the string of objects where we want to go.

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In the root patch let’s click on the lighting object and change some parameters:

Material Specularity to 0.1
Material Shininess to 128
Light 1 Attenuation to .2
Light 1 X Position to -0.25
Light 1 Y Position 0.5
Light 1 Z Position to 1


Excellent. We should now have a sphere gently bobbing in space with a light located just barely to the left, up, and away (as a note these are locations in relation to our perspective looking at the sphere).

At this point we could leave this as it is and open it in Isadora, but it wouldn’t be very exciting. In order for Isadora to have access to make changes to a QC patch we have to “publish” the inputs that we want to change. In other words, we have to choose what parameters we want to have access to in Isadora before we save and close our QC patch.

I’m thinking that I’d like this sphere to have a few different qualities that can be changed from Isadora. I want to be able to:

  • Change the Lighting Color (Hue, Saturation, and Luminosity as separate controls)
  • Change the position of the light
  • Change the Sphere Size

In QC in order to pass a value to an object, the parameter in question needs to be published from the Root patch. This will make more sense in a second, but for now let’s dive into making some parameters available to Isadora. First up we’re going to add a HSL to our patch editor. This is going to give us the ability to control color as Hue, Saturation, and Luminosity as individual parameters.

Connect the Color outlet of the HSL to the Light 1 Color inlet on the lighting object.

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Now let’s do some publishing. Let’s start by right clicking on the HSL object. From the pop-up menu select “Publish Inputs” and one at a time publish Hue, Saturation, and Luminosity. You’ll know a parameter is being published if it’s got a green indicator light.


Next publish the X, Y, and Z position inputs for the lighting object. This time make sure you change the names Light X Pos, Light Y Pos, and Light Z Pos as you publish the parameters.


At this point we’ve published our Color values, and our position values, but only for the light. I still want to be able to change the diameter of sphere from Isadora. To do this we need to publish the diameter parameter variable from the “sphere” object, then again from the lighting object.

First double click on the lighting object to dive inside of it. Now publish the diameter parameter on the sphere, and make sure to name it “Sphere Diameter.” When you return to the root patch you’ll notice that you can now see the “Sphere Diameter” parameter.


We now need to publish this parameter one more time so that Isadora will be able to make changes to this variable.

Here we need to pause to talk about good house keeping. Like all things in life, the more organized you can keep your patches, the happier you will be in the long run. To this end we’re going to do a little input splitting, organizing, and commenting. Let’s start by right clicking anywhere in your patch and selecting “Add Note.” When you double click on this sticky note you’ll be able to edit the text inside of it. I’m going to call my first note “Lighting Qualities.”

Next I’m going to go back to my HSL, right click on the patch, and select “Input Splitter” and select Hue. You’ll notice that you now have a separate input for Hue that’s now separate from the HSL. Repeat this process for Saturation and Luminosity. I’m going to do the same thing to my lighting position variables that are published. Next I’m going to make another note called “Sphere Qualities” and then split m sphere diameter and drag it to be inside of this note. When I’m done my patch looks like this:

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Right now this seems like a lot of extra work. For something this simple, it sure is. The practice, however, is important to consider. In splitting out the published inputs, and organizing them in notes we can (at a glance) see what variables are published, and what they’re driving. Commenting and organizing your patches ultimately makes the process of working with them in the future all the easier.

With all of our hard work done, let’s save our Quartz patch.

Working in Isadora

Before we fire up Isadora it’s important to know where it looks to load quartz patches. Isadora is going to look in the Compositions folder that’s located in the Library, System Library, and User Library directories. You can tell Isadora to only look in any combination of these three at start up. Make sure that you copy your new quartz composition into one of those three directories (I’d recommend giving your custom quartz comps a unique color or folder to make them easier to find in the future).

With your QC patch in place, and Isadora fired up lets add our custom patch to a scene. Double click anywhere in the programming space and search for the name of your patch. I called mine Simple Sphere. We can now see that we have our composition with all of the variables we published in QC.


We can see what our composition looks like by adding a CI projector and connecting the image output form our QC actor to the image inlet on the projector. Let’s also make sure that we set the CI projector to keep the aspect ratio of our image.


When you do this you should see nothing. What gives?!
If you look back at your custom actor you’ll notice that the diameter of the sphere is currently set to 0. Change that parameter to the 0.1, or any other size you choose.

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You should now see a dim floating sphere. What gives?!
If you look at the position of your light you’ll notice that it’s currently set to 0,0,0, roughly the same location as the sphere. Let’s move our light so we can see our sphere:

Light 1 X Position to -0.25
Light 1 Y Position 0.5
Light 1 Z Position to 1

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If you’re connected to an external monitor or projector you’ll also want to make sure that you set the render properties to match the resolution of your output device:

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There you have it. You’ve now built a custom quartz patch that you can drive from Isadora.

2 thoughts on “Custom Quartz Compositions in Isadora

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