The Zillion, next to its 70s inspiration.

The Zillion, next to its 70s inspiration.

Machines give us something that would have amazed musicians from centuries past: they let us make melodies without playing them directly. Now, there are three ways of doing that. One, there are tools that take what you play and turn them into sequences. Two, there are interfaces for making melodies with touch, sliders and knobs.

And then there’s a third category: boxes that can actually generate new melodies, all under your control. You control the parameters of the sequence, but the content is algorithmically produced.

Future-Retro’s Zillion does just about anything you would ever dream of in that third category. It’s got a history: the basic algorithms are modeled after a rare 1970s gadget called the Triadex Muse, the work of legendary artificial intelligence pioneers Marvin Minsky and Edward Fredkin of MIT. (It’s hard to imagine AI experts doing anything like this now, somehow.)

The Triadex Muse used a massive series of sometimes-confusing faders, essentially using a bit of a hack to create logic from simple digital circuitry. From a theme you input, the box will then spin tunes over time. (A Light Show add-on was an option. Groovy. See the history of this box.)

There’s no light show or big faders on the Zillion. In their place, you get a touch ring and some simplified controls, aided by the display. But the basic concept remains the same, allowing this box through nerdy manipulations of “shift registers” – simple means of storing notes – can produce oodles of possibilities. (Zillions, perhaps, however many that may be.)

Those mysterious powers are cool, but you might first be impressed with the ways in which the Zillion has some more practical design considerations.


Operating the device gives you some nice live performance controls. You can quickly set loop points from both beginning and end, choosing just a few beats or dozens of bars. You can rapidly transpose, also from hot keys. You can confine music to scales – 16 built in, with dozens more available as user presets.

There’s manual step mode for editing, too. And you can control not only pitch but velocity with the latter fed by a separate source – that could be another pattern and, if your synth will use velocity to control another parameter, could generate other effects. With MIDI in, out, and thru, it should work conveniently with any MIDI-ready gear.

In fact, even if you hadn’t pondered going generative, you might pick up a Zillion for this easy performance control alone. Not only is everything controlled by hot keys, but those hot keys can be set from MIDI input for remote control. All the other basics are covered, too, and you can quickly set channel for using multiple devices. I’m impressed at least in browsing the box and the video on how few keystrokes are required for functions.

Where things get interesting, though, is the Muse-inspired algorithmic business. Enter a melody manually or from an external device, and you can spawn new tunes by interacting with the digital data on the device. Alter the logic, and you change the tune. It’s both the most compelling feature and perhaps the reason you might decide you want this — or not. It’s a different way of manipulating tunes. But it looks like Future-Retro have made an uncommonly approachable device for handling that.

I’m very keen to get this one in for review to see what the actual experience is like, musically speaking. But it’s great to see something special in terms of hardware sequencing, as I’ve found those options limited. That’s a shame, with so many great hardware instruments to control.

And at US$300, it could be irresistible – breathing more value into whatever nice gear you happen to own.

Stay tuned, but in the meantime, here’s inventor Jered Flickinger showing his creation to Andreas Schneider (of Schneidersladen and ALEX4, Berlin purveyors of such oddities), at NAMM earlier this year:

Future-Retro introducing the Zilion on NAMM 2014 from Andreas Schneider on Vimeo.

Full specs:
Zillion Sequencer

Via Synthtopia.

  • toni

    kind of turing machine on steroids, interesting.

  • BeatBeatt

    It sounds like a good idea… for a VSTi. 300$ for this kind of random generator looks like a lot IMHO. The melodies generated in the video are not very appealing.
    I love hardware gears but in this case “hardware” is just another name for dongle protection of their algorithm. This piece of hardware doesn’t seems like a lot of fun to use (no fancy LEDs or pressure sensitive drum pads or whatever makes MIDI hardware attractive) either

    • Peter Kirn

      Um… what?

      Things that make hardware attractive:
      1. (the big one) You can use them with hardware synthesizers without needing a computer. Fairly huge, that one – particularly for live setups.
      2. Consistently-mapped controls. Note the use of hotkeys. That can in turn help with muscle memory to make things faster.

      As for the notion that they’re making a “dongle” to protect their algorithms, there’s nothing to protect. The way this sequencer work has been widely known since the 1970s. And anyway, a dongle would provide no additional functionality; here, you have standalone operation, a clock source, and MIDI ports, in addition to the consistent physical controls.

      As for the melodies, remember that you can add whatever themes you like. Making demo videos that please people is hard.

    • BeatBeatt

      You’re right: you can use it with your synths with MIDI and without any computer. What you can do too is to try a computer + MIDI interface and something like PureData or Max. If you are into experimentation, algorithm and procedural music, you can do a lot more with M4L than with this gear and the Max licence is cheaper (279$ last time I’ve checked). I know it’s not “hype” to use a computer nowadays but it’s actually a great tool ;) Depends on how you use it though and it leads to your second point.

      I still think this is not a great MIDI gear regarding the control layout. Nothing to play with besides buttons to access menus or features (calling them hotkeys doesn’t start to fix this problem IMHO). And the only feedback is a LCD screen: what’s the difference between staring at a computer and staring at an LCD screen? Oh right: the computer is far more powerful… A well written M4L patch and a launchpad would do as good (better?) as this gear for improving your memory with a consistent layout. When we speak about making music with a computer, we don’t speak about making music with a keyboard and a mouse! We can use (cheap!!!) control surfaces to mimic this kind of gear and I would be really interested in hearing your opinion about that comparison (computer running M4L + control surface vs. Zilion).

      About the dongle thing: there is something to protect! Triadex Muse cost a lot on ebay nowadays and the Future Retro implementation of the original algorithm fit in a nice place on the market. But they could (should?) have released a M4L patch with a launchpad mapping for instance. But you know how it works: one people actually buy it and share it on the internet and you are screwed (commercially speaking). As you can’t share a MIDI gear on the internet (for now ;) making hardware is a kind of ultimate dongle protection. In fact, I’ve said that because I’ve seen a video of Dave Smith saying that he did move back to making hardware (after making software synths) because, among other things, it provides a kind of dongle protection against copy.

      Last point and I want to be clear on this: I don’t think their MIDI gear produces crappy melodies. I think the Muse algorithm generates not-so-interesting melodies. I used to play a lot with a software version of the Muse (here: and found that the general idea was great (I love procedual music in general) but that the result was somehow not-so-great-ish…

    • Earintel

      “As for the melodies, remember that you can add whatever themes you like.”?

      Not really. Zillion is very limited in what it permits the user to add as far as note data. The user can choose a scale for Zillion to reference, but that’s about all as far as user control in specifying the note data. Zillion is not going to give you a sequencer for playback of your own melody. Rather, the sequence of notes, timings, rests, bar length, etc. are only minimally influenced by your control over abstract conditions that the Zillion interprets in chaotic and uncontrolled ways.

      If the analogy were compared to rolling dice, the “hot keys” provide factors for a playing scenario, for example, where you can choose, say, how many dice to be rolled, on what table, and how many rolls total. Likewise, you can tell Zillion what 8 notes to vary through its algorithmic treatments, and the number of bars to play. However, neither the roll of the dice nor the algorithmic output of the Zillion is under your control. The results are up to the dice and the Zillion.

      Whatever note/rest combinations you get in your melody, Zillion is always the generator of it.

  • Luke

    I agree, this kind of thing just begs for an iPad app

    • Peter Kirn

      Except that iPads don’t have MIDI jacks. But I could see something interesting with reinterpreting the fader design on the original model – hopefully not a slavish representation, but building on the idea.

  • kerm

    I bought one of these and it’s a lot of fun. I like that it’s hardware. It stays put and drives my Yamaha DX27. It’s easy to use… you can instantly jump to any page and make large parameter changes. There is actually no menu diving. Nice balance between user constraints and randomness. No presets, though. You can save the sequence you’re working on, but only as the new default. Well worth the money to me.

  • Matt

    I really, really want this. But I don’t have the money to spend right now (though I do think the price is fair). Anyone know of a max for live patch etc. that is like this?

    • Fyrd Instruments

      Actually I’ve released a M4L patch of my Triadex Muse implementation on the Fyrd Instruments facebook page. No doc, no support, but it might be a good starting point for further experimentation!

      I don’t spend a lot of time on it so if you find any bugs, please send me a mail ;)

  • Ruslan

    Nice apparatus, really nice. It is important to bring such devices in hardware, because it pushes us forward into robotics of music.

  • Earintel

    “Enter a melody manually or from an external device, and you can spawn new tunes by interacting with the digital data on the device.” This is misleading if not false entirely. You cannot actually do this per se. A remixer it is not. Rather the Zillion is always the generator of any “melody” automatically through the algorithmic settings. Thus, user input is limited to an 8 note scale from which the Zillion will interpret in unexpected ways. Would make it a lot more useful. I find the randomness of its generated loops to be interesting at times as the beginnings of an idea. But, overall its data sounds unmusical and bleepy 99% of the time. Would have been a zillion times better and more useful as a compositional tool if it could remix the users inputed melody like a sequencer, but I’ve found no way to do it and it is not a procedure specified in the manual. Thus, I’m fairly sure it cannot be done. If someone knows differently, then please do explain as I would really like to have a reason to keep this beautiful and strange little instrument.