Max 6 in Public Beta; For Home-brewing Music Tools Graphically, Perhaps the Biggest Single Update Yet
Just because a music tool fills your screen with tools and options doesn’t necessarily make it easier to realize your ideas. From the beginning, the appeal of Max – as with other tools that let you roll your own musical tools from a set of pre-built building blocks – has been the blank canvas.
Max 6 would appear to aim to make the gap between your ideas and those tools still narrower, and to make the results more sonically-pleasing. The reveal: it could also change how you work with patches in performance and production. I was surprised when early teasers failed to impress some users, perhaps owing to scant information. Now, Max 6 is available in public beta, and the details are far clearer. Even if Max 5 was the biggest user interface overhaul in many years, Max 6 appears to be the biggest leap in actual functionality.
It’s what I’d describe as a kitchen-sink approach, adding to every aspect of the tool, so there’s almost certain to be some things here you won’t use. What could appeal to new users, though, are I think two major changes.
More visual patching feedback and discoverability. First, building upon what we saw in Max 5, Max’s approach is to provide as much visual information as possible about what you’re doing. It’s probably the polar opposite of what we saw earlier this week in something like the live-coding environment Overtone: Max’s UI is actively involved with you as you patch. There are visual tools for finding the objects you want, then visual feedback to tell you what those objects do, plus an always-visible reference bar and rewritten help. This more-active UI should make Max more accessible to people who like this sort of visual reference as they work. No approach will appeal to everyone – some people will find all that UI a bit more than they like – but Max’s developers appear to be exploiting as much as they can with interactive visual patching.
Multiple patches at once. New objects for filters and data, a 64-bit audio engine, and low-level programming are all well and good. But the change that may more profoundly impact users and workflow is be the way Max 6 handles multiple patches. Max – and by extension Pd – have in the past made each patch operate independently. Sound may stop when you open a patch, and there’s no easy or fully reliable way to use multiple patches at once. (Compare, for example, SuperCollider, which uses a server/client model that lacks this limitation.) That changes with Max 6: you can now operate multiple patches at the same time, mix them together with independent volume, mute, and solo controls, and open and close them without interrupting your audio flow. (At least one reader notes via Twitter that you can open more than one patch at once – I’d just say this makes it better, with more reliable sound and essential mixing capabilities.) Update: since I mentioned Pd, Seppo notes that the pd~ object provides similar functionality in regards to multiple patches and multi-core operation. This has been an ongoing discussion in the libpd group, so I think we’ll revisit that separately!
One upshot of this change: some users have turned to Ableton Live just to host multiple patches. For users whose live performance set involves Ableton, that’s a good thing. But it could be overkill if all you want to do is bring up a few nifty patches and play with them. Now, I think we’ll start to see more people onstage with only Max again. (Check back in a few months to see if I’m right.)
Here’s an overview of what’s new:
Discoverability: A “wheel” makes the mysterious functions of different objects immediately visible; Object Explorer makes them easier to find, and new help and reference sidebar keep documentation close at hand.
64-bit audio engine
Open multiple patches, solo and mute them, open and close them without stopping audio, mix audio between them with independent volume, and take advantage of multiple processors with multiple patches.
Low level building blocks: You don’t get new synth objects, but you could build them yourself. New low-level data-crunching goodness work with MSP audio, Jitter Matrix, and OpenGL textures
New visuals: Vector graphics and “HTML5 Canvas-like” UI scripting (though to me it’s a shame this isn’t just the HTML5 Canvas). There are also massively-expanded Jitter powers, but those are best left to our sister site Create Digital Motion.
Filters: New filter-visualizing tools for audio filter construction and manipulation.
Dictionary data type and associated objects let you describe information in a more structured way (all kinds of potential here from control to composition)
Projects now let you organize data, media, and scripts in the manner more associated with conventional development environments
What about Ableton? No news on that front, but I expect more soon. Max for Live users will at the very least get the advantages above, since Max for Live is really Max inside Live.
Looking over all that Max does, I have to say, I’m really amazed. I wonder if computer musicians ever pause to consider how fortunate we are. Even if this isn’t the tool for you, its availability – compounded by the availability of a range of other tools – is itself worth reflection.
Max is a program that shouldn’t exist, doing a number of things it shouldn’t do, for a user base that shouldn’t exist, doing things they shouldn’t be doing.
It doesn’t make sense that you could maintain a commercial project for this kind of audience, that you’d wind up with something this mature and powerful that had a continuous lineage stretching back to the 1980s. It doesn’t make sense that musicians would embrace such a tool and produce invention. The only explanation is sheer love.
Then, even as Max reaches new heights, some of the alternatives you have for making your own music tools are simultaneously growing by leaps and bounds. They provide very different approaches to music making (compare Overtone and SuperCollider, or Pd and libpd, or AudioMulch, or new Web audio tools). There really aren’t many fields that have this kind of choice, free and commercial, in their medium. In science and engineering, there’s private and public funding, producing some amazing tools but nothing with this kind of meeting of power and accesibility. There’s just something about music.
The fact that Cycling ‘74 can maintain a business model – just as open source projects maintain volunteer contributions – is a testament to sheer passion and love for music, and a commitment to perpetually re-imagining how that music is made from an atomic level up. There was a wonderful piece on C creator and UNIX co-creator Dennis Ritchie, whom I remembered yesterday, that observed that what he did was to do what others said couldn’t be done. From Max itself to what people make with it, I think that fits nicely.
So, have a look at the public beta, and let us know what you think. The release of Max 6 has caused more people to ask what this means for Pd and other tools, or even whether to patch things from scratch at all, but I’ll leave that question to a bit later. (I do have my own opinion about which tool fits which circumstance and user, but that’s best left to a separate discussion.) For now, you can try Max yourself and see what the fuss is about. If it doesn’t fit your means of music-making, know that you have a wide array of other options – pre-built to low-level code to old-fashioned tape-and-mic approaches, and everything in between. Go out and listen and see what you discover.