Modulate This Takes A First Look at Max for Live


Last weekend I attended the Communikey Festival of Electronic Arts at the Atlas Center in Boulder, Colorado where I was lucky enough to be one of the first to see Max for Live in action. Cycling '74's Director of Engineering Darwin Grosse gave an hour and half seminar offering an preview of Max for Live. In this post I'll share my notes. Alas I only had my iPhone with me so some pics are low resolution.

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Overview of Cycling ‘74 Products
Darwin began the talk by describing Cycling '74's existing product line.

  1. Max – a graphical programming environment that provides user interface, timing, communications, and MIDI support
  2. MSP –for real-time audio synthesis and DSP
  3. Jitter – for video and matrix data processing

Max for Live
First Darwin gave us an overview of what Max for Live does. Rather than type my notes I’ll share the concise description from Communikey seminar description:

Cycling '74 and Ableton announced Max for Live, the integration of Cycling '74's Max/MSP environment into Ableton Live. Available as an add-on product to Ableton's  newly announced Live 8, Max for Live permits users to create devices that extend  and customize Live by creating instruments, controllers, audio effects, and MIDI  processors.

Devices developed with Max for Live utilize the same features as those created by Ableton engineers. This includes UI controls, MIDI mapping, multiple undo, tempo-based effects, sample-accurate automation, and comprehensive file and preset management. Devices created in Max can be shared with Ableton's new web collaboration features. An innovative “preview mode” feature permits editing in Max  while devices continue to process audio and/or MIDI as if they were inside Live. When an edited device is saved, it updates in place inside Live's device view.

Something For Everyone with Ready Made Devices
While the primary audience of Max for Live is certainly Tweakers who want to extend Live, it’s worth mentioning that Max for Live will ship with ready mad devices. Darwin demoed:

1. Step Sequencer
“Play up to four concurrent sequences, each with up to 16 steps and each playing a different instrument. It also features adjustable step size and step probability, sequence shift buttons (up, down, left, right), a "random" mode and comprehensive real-time MIDI options.”

2. Buffer Shuffler
 "Shuffles incoming audio by buffering the audio, then replaying it in whatever order you've specified. Each channel of the stereo signal can be shuffled with different patterns (unlike Beat Repeat) and there is also a "dice" mode that randomizes the shuffle pattern at each bar crossing. Finally, a smoothing setting limits the amount of clicking at each transition point. Use sensibly to add subtle variations or go full-on to see where it takes you.”

3. Loop Shifter
image“This instrument is essentially a creative loop playback device that generates some surprising and innovative results. If there was ever a "sound of Max," this device embodies it. It uses MIDI notes as triggers for playback states, each MIDI note representing one such "state": a combination of playback rate, loop points and filter settings. Although the Loop Shifter is a relatively simple device, these functions don't exist yet in any other commercial loop playback products.”

4. APC 40 Extension
Darwin didn’t demo this, but Max for Live will ship with an extension that “turns the APC40's button matrix into a hardware interface for programming MIDI sequences in Live. A mode switch on the APC takes you in and out of sequencer mode, where you can set and clear notes in a MIDI clip just as you would with an 808 or analog step sequencer.”

Live as a Real-Time Max Editing Platform
One of the downsides of working with Max Plugins is the workflow isn’t real-time. You have to edit, then compile, then preview as a VST. If something isn’t to your liking you repeat the process.

According to Darwin, Cycling ‘74 was looking for a platform that would support real-time workflow for device creation – which of course is why they partnered with Ableton.

So in Max for Live you simply click the edit button top on the top right hand side of a device and you enter the Max Editor. Close the editor and you are back in Live. In either mode, Lives audio engine doesn’t stop. The device actually operates while editing with no need for compilation! While demoing this feature he popped in and out of edit mode and built and played devices on the fly.

Other Benefits of Integrating Max Within Live
In addition to real-time device creation, the integration with Live means you can let Live do all the heavy lifting when it comes to handling functions related to tempo, storage, automation, or access to a MIDI controller. According to Darwin, it could take some new Max users a few weeks to master these features within Max. When using Max for Live a new user could create a functional device in part of a day!

Editor User Interface Includes Ableton + Max Objects

Max for Live’s editor has a pallet of objects that you use to build and patch devices. It’s a mixture of native Ableton looking objects and some from Max and design is a drag-and-drop affair. The inclusion of Ableton objects makes it very easy to build a device that will look and feel familiar to Live users. There are zones within the editor and other interface features that allow you to hide the complexity of the device by only sharing essential controls. Bottom line, you’ll be able to quickly build devices that you and others familiar with Live can use right away. Nice.

In a demo, Darwin used a combination of Live and Max components to create one oscillator synth with a graphical waveform display. He then patched this device to Live which exposed device parameters to Live automation.

OSC Control VIA iPhone Demo
For his last demo, Darwin demonstrated using a Max OSC handler to catch wireless messages from an iPhone app (one that he made but you could use 10Base-T Interactive’s Mrmr OSC Controller). He used his iPhone to launch clips and scenes. Very, very cool.

Integrated Documentation

I’m pleased to report that there are tutorials where documentation is overlaid within the editor window. I think this is fantastic and will help to jump-start new users.

According to Darwin, Jitter will work with Max for Live but is very CPU intensive. It will also require a full Max License.

Pricing and Availablity
Max for Live will be in testing for a few more months. According to Darwin “Pricing has not been finalized for the product, nor discounts for people that already use Cycling '74 products (two very common questions)”.

First Impressions
To me this presentation illustrated how flexible Max for Live is and made me feel optimistic that there will be some very creative and useful devices coming from the community once this product launches.

While I am an ex-software developer, I’ve stayed away from products like Max and Reaktor because I’m afraid I’ll get bogged down in programming and lose focus on music making and sound design. Max for Live’s integration with Live 8 makes this a very compelling product for me as I think it perfectly balances my wishes to extend Live and experiment while staying within a real-time creative work flow.

I for one am sold and can’t wait to get my hands on Max for Live and start making some devices! Stay tunes for more Modulate This posts on Max for Live. Don't forget you can also subscribe to Modulate This to keep up with Max for Live and other posts.

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Mark Mosher

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Hi, this is Mark Mosher. Welcome to my blog. I’m a synthesist, Composer, Producer, and Visualist living in Boulder CO. I’m also the founder of the Rocky Mountain Synth Meet and Synth Patrol.

I’ve been blogging wince 2005 and this blog is a mix of posts on artistic news as well as synth tech & technique posts under the category Modulate This!

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