Magnetosphere, the iTunes Music Visualizer

Magnetosphere, and other music visualization programs are fantastic to display while playing music at parties, or simply to relax and unwind. Many use a considerable amount of computing power, so are less suited to multi-tasking, as they can slow program response times unbearably.

I like having the iTunes visualizer running when I am listening to music and studying on paper (not actively doing anything on the computer). I like that there is something visual that I can look at in a quick break, or when I need to think deeply about something. For me, zoning out, letting my eyes focus on something that is not my textbook or notes, helps me remember facts that I had forgotten.

I also like to having it running while I am listening to music and reading a novel. It provides me with more of a sense of time passing. It encourages and reminds me to take the occasional break to drink, change where my eyes focus, and move around a little. Otherwise I'd spend all day immersed in my book, without any breaks!

Magnetosphere music visualizer
Magnetosphere music visualizer | Source

Technical facts

  • Originally written as a plug-in by Robert Hodkin using the Processing programming language.
  • Ported to the C++ programming language by thebarbariangroup, using the open source library, Cinder.

About Magnetosphere

Magnetosphere was launched by software company thebabariangroup in 2007. It was later sold to Apple and, after a few tweaks, it was incorporated into the iTunes music visualizer, and is available on both the Windows and MacOSX versions.

Magnetosphere features beautiful 'space' like animations, as well as wire frame models, clearly showing how the graphics are synchronized to the music. Dots, ribbons and lights are sent dancing, while planets and nebulae show magnetic and gravity forces, much like how particles react to the earth's own magnetosphere. Light pulses with the beat, and the amount of movement varies according to the fullness and volume of the music.

Using the iTunes visualizer

First, start playing music (not videos), as the visualizer takes over the iTunes window.

Enable the iTunes visualizer via the menu:

 View -> Show Visualizer 

or type the keyboard shortcut

 Command-T  on MacOSX
 Control-T  on Windows

You can make the visualizer take up the full screen by using the keyboard shortcut:

 Command-F  on MacOSX Control-F  on Windows

Hint: control iTunes using keyboard shortcuts to stay in the visualizer, and avoid using the mouse! (MacOSX iTunes shortcuts, Windows iTunes shortcuts).

You can control how the visualizer appears using the keys in the table below. You can change the type of animation, colour palettes, brightness, movement, how many particles appear, and if there is a background fog (nebula effect).

Note: Whenever you start and stop the visualizer, all settings revert to their defaults.

Magnetosphere options and keyboard shortcuts

Key
Option
Explanation
?
Toggle help screen
 
m
Change mode
Cycles through 20 different animation modes
p
Change palette
Changes colours (in some modes)
i
Toggle track information
 
c
Toggle autocycle
Cycle through modes automatically (on by default)
f
Toggle freeze mode
Lights pulse to the beat, but other effects are frozen
n
Toggle nebula mode
A nebula 'fog' can be displayed (in some modes)
l
Toggle camera lock
The 'camera' moves around by default
e
Enhance nebula
Increases the nebula effect (in some modes)
a
Add 100 light particles
There are 5 levels of light particles
s
Subtract 100 light particles
 
+
Increase light intensity
There are 5 levels of brightness
-
Decrease light intensity
 
r
Reset
Resets particle and intensity settings to default levels
Keyboard shortcuts for Magnetosphere, iTunes 10.4.1

Tip: Many of these options work with the other iTunes visualizations.

Other music visualization programs

Music visualization is when images are generated in real-time, and animated to music. Most modern media players across Windows, MacOSX and Linux, include support for visualization plugins.

Basic music visualizers have been around almost since music players have existed on computers. A blocky oscilloscope display, mimicking those on older amplifiers, is on the simple end of the music visualization scale. More complex visualizations animate multiple effects according to changes in beat, loudness, harmonics, pitch and even the 'shapes' of sounds (the harmonic spectrum).

Other popular music visualization plug-ins are:

  • Synaesthesia (Linux and Windows) - requires PulseAudio. It plays when CDs are run, with line input or when data is piped from another audio program, such as Esound. Please see the website for installation and running instructions. This program was written by my friend, Paul!
  • Neon (built into XBox 360) - you can play with the controller to alter the graphics, or let it run while you listen to music.
  • VSXu - (Linux and Windows) - an audio visualizer and real-time graphics design program that listens to the music you play through various programs, like iTunes, spotify, Winamp and more. It has been used at live events, and the website has information on how to use it as a DJ and VJ. Please see the website for installation and running instructions, and also how to use it as an artist and a programmer wanting to get into making 3D graphics.
  • Cthugha (all platforms) - this is described as "an oscilloscope on acid", and has been used at live events, parties and raves. The visualization reacts to changes in tempo, instruments and volume.

Magnetosphere - the default iTunes visualizer

Click thumbnail to view full-size
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iTunes visualizer screencapture
iTunes visualizer screencapture | Source
iTunes visualizer screencapture
iTunes visualizer screencapture | Source
iTunes visualizer screencapture
iTunes visualizer screencapture | Source
iTunes visualizer screencapture
iTunes visualizer screencapture | Source
iTunes visualizer screencapture
iTunes visualizer screencapture | Source
iTunes visualizer screencapture
iTunes visualizer screencapture | Source
iTunes visualizer screencapture
iTunes visualizer screencapture | Source
iTunes visualizer screencapture
iTunes visualizer screencapture | Source
iTunes visualizer screencapture
iTunes visualizer screencapture | Source
iTunes visualizer screencapture
iTunes visualizer screencapture | Source
iTunes visualizer screencapture
iTunes visualizer screencapture | Source
iTunes visualizer screencapture
iTunes visualizer screencapture | Source
iTunes visualizer screencapture
iTunes visualizer screencapture | Source
iTunes visualizer screencapture
iTunes visualizer screencapture | Source

Visualisation as meditation

I've recently started meditating, and find pure silence and closed eyes to be very distracting. My unconditioned brain panics at the quietness and starts to pull up all sorts of problems to solve.

To calm my monkey mind, and to get the other benefits of meditation - relaxed muscles, better pain control, less stress, better sleep - meditating to soft music and having a visualization playing on the screen at the same time has been very useful.

Using the visualization was a baby step to being able to meditate with eyes closed, although I have yet to be comfortable with quiet - I still need music or background noise of something relaxing like rain falling to put my brain to sleep.

Your favorite?

Which is your favourite music visualization in iTunes, or any other music player?
When do you like to use music visualizers?
Let us know in the comments below!

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