Ambience chasers rejoice! Softskies, a new iTunes visualizer, is a new, powerful and highly customizable program that can generate an enormous variety of preset and user-specified atmospheric and cloud effects. While far from perfect, it does what it was designed to do pretty well, and should be on the short list of anyone seriously interested in buying a sound visualization app.
Once installed, Softskies shows up as a visualizer option on the View menu. The white splash screen takes its time coming and going (at least on my beloved but over-the-hill G4 iMac). I found no obvious way to turn it off. The welcome screen presents music art (if music is playing and art is available), a navigation instruction panel, and navigation choices as a column of icons running down the right side of the main iTunes window: “Natural”, “Living Images”, “Colorcalm”, “Vivid”, “Pastels”, “Skies Library” “Skies Designer” and “Settings”.
Depending on your settings and CPU load, everything but your atmospherics fades after a few moments and off you soar into pixel-induced bliss. The lower-right screenshot shows the default setting, “Natural-Blue Skies”. Sunsets and storms are the other natural options.
Clicking anywhere in the main iTunes window invokes Softskies.
The top two caps were generated in Sunsets; the bottom one in Storms. In my (admittedly) brief test with Softskies I’ve yet to see more of a “sun” than what you see on the right side of the window in the upper left cap. As for the storms module, it’s mostly just dark, turbulent clouds — fine as far as that goes, but how about some lightning, or rain — or lightning-illuminated rain? How about a sun shower? To say nothing of more exotic weather. I’d absolutely love to see tornados and hurricane eye-walls as options — though it might necessitate a name change for the product (and a huge amount of coding).
Anyway, gotta give ‘em credit for the rainbow (is nice).
These caps are from the misnamed “Living Images” module, which consists of high-quality images superimposed over the weather layer. Soundspectrum (http://www.soundspectrum.com/) calls Softskies “sky with no limit” but it’s actually pretty easy to hit some limits right away. In “Living Images” for example, all the overlays are inanimate objects. It’s all good stuff — lots of dramatic angles of picturesque buildings and castles and the like — and a boatload of absolutely beautiful Utah landscapes. It’s just that I was expecting, well, “living” images — animals, birds, reptiles, insects. I’d’ve settled for static shots. Another limitation: “Living Images” uses only blue skies. Whatever sky you’ve picked or designed prior to entering “Living Images” is discarded. Pity — I think the Utah landscapes would go great with the “Sunset” module.
The sheer customizability of Softskies is amazing. There’s a nice range of screen resolutions (the res options shown here correspond only to what my iMac supports — YMMV), and much power to control how image and music are tied together (I found the most direct and entertaining combo wasn’t sky/music but sky/talk-radio). The second panel is what you get when you choose “Vivid”. Too bad Ken Russell didn’t have it for Altered States. The Koyaanisqatsi people too. If you use the Sky Designer with one of these Vivid settings, and you crank up the wind and cloud warp and go full-screen, you could seriously disturb yourself — or whoever’s in the room with you. I kept High Quality Rendering turned off most of the time, out of pity for my Velocity Engine.
More configuration goodness/excess. Two background color settings. Cloud color. Cloud shading. Cloud warping — speed and scale. This should be enough to suit (and sate) your Inner God Player. When you’ve found just the right combination of unnatural or supernatural properties, click on “Save to My Skies” to make your creation invokable throughout Softskies. Sorry, only five presets — and you can’t name ‘em.
In its online documentation, Soundspectrum says Softskies V-Bar (a stand-alone app) lets you enjoy Softskies from other applications. True enough. But you can do the same thing just running iTunes in the background with visualization on, which I’m doing as I write this. The V-Bar can be configured to take up as much as half your screen, or just a sliver. It can come out from the side or the bottom of the screen, opaque or as transparent as you wish.
The stand-alone app is pretty self-explanatory and pretty much what you’d expect.
Navigation responsiveness was spotty. I admit to having only a gig of RAM (four years ago when I got this machine that would’ve been a boast) but I still expect a left arrow or a right arrow to take me up or down in the command hierarchy when I click it. Same goes for the keyboard. Most of the time things worked as intended, but I think asking them to work damn near all the time isn’t asking too much.
The bold/shadowed navigation text is readable and tolerable, but I think a better solution would be clean white text on a translucent black panel ala Apple’s pro apps or full-screen iPhoto 6.
In case the very talented programmers who did Softskies’ cloud algorithms (patent pending) are still laughing over my previous requests, here are some more knee-slappers on my wish list:
Cloud-type options: cirrus, cumulus, nimbus, cumulonimbus, etc. …
Night skies, with moon halos and constellations …
In the Living Images module, if there were a way to generate ambient light based on the cloudscapes that acted on the buildings and scenery — that would be seriously impressive (though I think my computer would choke) …
It would be nice to see actual sunsets/sunrises, with horizons and flattened, orange suns. It would be nice to watch those suns sink slowly (or quickly) below said horizons. All of this while tattered clouds form and dissipate in various user-defined ways.
I’m no expert when it comes to visualization software, but I was impressed with the beauty and configurability of Softskies. At $30 for the Platinum edition (which includes a screen saver, auxiliary audio inputs and support for media players other than iTunes) it strikes me as a good value. There’s also a more limited $20 Gold edition, and the standard feature-challenged Free Trial.