What's Max/MSP and why would you want (or not want) to learn it?
April 21, 2014 6:18 PM   Subscribe

I see that an electronic music course at a college is teaching Max/MSP. What is the relationship of using this program to learn electronic music versus using Ableton, Reason, Logic, ProTools, C-Base, or any of the other common, commercial programs people in the music business use? Is there any advantage for a student to take this Max/MSP academic electronic music course if his thing is making beats with Reason at this point?
posted by DMelanogaster to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know a whoooole lot about it but I think of Max/MSP as sort of a programming environment - something you'd use to make your own interactive sound making tools. A quick googling vaguely supports this notion - but I'm sure someone with direct experience will be able to tell you more.

Certainly, I know plenty of people who make music solely with, say, ableton or reason, so I don't think it's necessarily a *must have* thing, but it's always sounded interesting (to the non-music-producing me)
posted by RustyBrooks at 6:27 PM on April 21, 2014

I'd put it this way, from my knowledge: Max/MSP is much more about creating instruments and sounds, Ableton is about mixing/manipulating/filtering those sounds or playing them out live, and many of the others are composition/recording tools. There's actually a Max for Live that lets you use your Max devices in Ableton.

If you want to use existing instruments (where Reason is a set of instruments) for composition and twiddling of beats, then it's not the course for you. If you want to do even cooler things (in my opinion) then Max/MSP opens up that world.
posted by mikeh at 6:32 PM on April 21, 2014

Max/Msp is a programming environment that allows you to create and modify instruments, controllers, effects, and to put into combination any kind of input or output (MIDI triggers, video projection, live sources, etc.). There is a large power users community online that often share codes for synths, instruments, effects, routing modules, and others. You have to be willing to learn the language; if you don't have an interest for CS, programming and tinkering, you will find this quite time consuming and perhaps not very inspiring. The payoffs of knowing your ways around Max are really high (you get to create your own tools to process/manage sounds), but getting there is a challenge in itself. One of the places I see Max MSP quite a bit is in multidisciplinary arts, installations and interactive performances, where it is used to create homemade programming solutions.
posted by ddaavviidd at 8:10 PM on April 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ableton/Reason/Etc are like buying a keyboard. Max/MSP is like buying the tools to build one.
posted by azarbayejani at 1:43 AM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just got home from playing a show where one of the performers used Max/Msp, and I used Pd (puredata), which is very closely related. So this is near and dear to me.

I think of it this way. Max/MSP will require/enable you to know more about digital signal processing and music software in order to do much of anything. It does not come with, for example, any synths or samplers. It does come with all of the parts necessary to make such instruments, though. Why would you want that? Well, if you wanted a sampler that loads a soundfile and simply plays it back, you're better off with one of the other programs you listed, probably. But what if you had an idea for a unique kind of sampler. What if, instead of playing a soundfile from beginning to end, the sampler played random bits of the file and jumped around erratically.

Or what if, you play something live and sample it, and the software loops a bit of it, divides the sound into, say, 8 steps or beats (maybe 1/16 notes, say), and randomly pitches each step up an octave or down an octave, or simply plays it at its original pitch. And then once you made that, what if you wanted the ability to turn off and on each step of the sample, so you can play with the rhythm. And maybe add a delay effect that randomly chooses a delay time from a set of tempo subdivisions (1/4 note, 1/32 note, etc) and randomly sets the delay feedback each time the delay time changes? What if you then created the ability to reverse the volume envelope for each step (so it fades in at each step)? What if you made it so all of these parameters change when you sing into a microphone above a certain volume threshold?

It doesn't really do it justice to say that other software gives you synths/samplers/etc, while Max/MSP gives you the tools to make synths. It gives you the tools to make whole new instruments.

That is to say, you may or may not want to do any of these specific things, but you might like to be able to pursue this type of creative process. Max/MSP will lend itself to a vast, nearly unlimited array of creative options. You'll have to learn a lot, but the more you know, the more creative you can be.
posted by univac at 1:59 AM on April 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

Eric Lyon, an academic who teaches MAX/MSP to students at the Sonic Arts Research Centre at Queen's University Belfast, starts his first intro lecture quoting Kim Deal / The Breeders: "I'll be your whatever you want." That, he says, is what MAX/MSP is: it'll be your whatever you want it be.

You want that each time you kick that kickdrum you can trigger a loop? Sure, MAX lets you make an object that'll do it. Easy. You want some feature of the sound of that kickdrum (its volume, the frequencies involved, the rate at which you're kicking it, the gaps between the kicks) to control something (anything) else? Like maybe the level of filter or compression on that sample, or the selection of new sample, or the recording and triggering of a new sample? Easy. People made these patches for you already, you can download them from the (extensive) open source community that exists in parallel with MAX/MSP. You want some of those kickdrum parameters to control video (and any feature of the video - transport, effects, etc) as well? Sure.

Univac's right that it gives you the tools to make whole new instruments. And the further point is right as well: a lot of people are interested in MAX/MSP not just to make music (in the way that, say, a Reason or Ableton user might just want a device that lets them make music) – the process of writing patches and objects for MAX/MSP is certainly an end in itself, an accomplishment that can be satisfying even if it doesn't sound particularly musical (for a given value of 'music'). There's a neat interview with Björk's producer Damian Taylor over here at the home of MAX, Cycling74, about the process of creating new instruments with Björk for her Biophilia LP, and about how it challenged his 'linear' view of music and composition. Worth a read if you're interested!
posted by Joeruckus at 3:05 AM on April 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

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