Learning Resources

Max/MSP – What is it?

Named after Max Matthews of Bell Labs, a pioneer in the world of computer music, ‘Max’ was authored by Miller Puckette in the late 1980s as a visual programming language for music, and after numerous updates and re-workings is now maintained and distributed by Cycling74. MSP stands for Max Signal Processing, and is a series of audio extensions to the program designed to allow real-time manipulation of signals to achieve digital synthesis and other audio effects.

The main difference between Max and similar audio coding programs is that, rather than typing lines of code such as in Java, C++ or Python, Max presents a canvas-like background on which ‘objects’ can be placed and connected together with cords. The possibilities the program offers are vast, ranging from simple mathematical functions, basic digital synthesis and MIDI control, to complex physical modelling of acoustic instruments, multi-layered sample manipulation and algorithmic composition & AI development.

How do I get started with Max?

Although Max is a subscription-based program, a free version is available in which you cannot save your own work, but can however make use of any pre-made patches you download from the Cycling74 programs, Max-related forums or this website. Even if you have no interest in building patches yourself, there is nothing lost by keeping the free version of the software on your computer and making use of other open-source patches for your own music-making. If, however, you wish to dive into the wonderful world of Max patching, you start with a 30-day free trial and access to all the inbuilt tutorials and help files.

While these are all very informative, sometimes it helps to be talked through the process of patching. With this is mind, there are two tutorial series available on YouTube that will really help your patching develop:
Sam Tarakajian’s Delicious Max Tutorials and
Peter Batchelor’s Max Tutorial Series
The former exhibits numerous exciting effects and processes to get your imagination fired up, whereas the latter handles teaching the program from a more academic standpoint intended to give you a fuller understanding of various available objects and how they interact. Both are well worth investing time into. Don’t be concerned if the design of your copy of Max appears different to what you see in their videos – it is simply an older version, virtually everything works exactly the same way in the latest version as how they show it.

Are there alternatives to Max?

If you have experience of line-based coding already, you may feel more at home with Supercollidor, a free open-source program with similar syntax to C and Javascript. Or, if you like the idea of Max but aren’t able to commit to a paid subscription, Pure Data (Pd) is a free alternative developed by Miller Puckette after he moved on from Max, which shares many similarities and functionality with the modern commercial version of Max/MSP.

Should Artificial Intelligence compose music?

It’s true that the idea of computers composing music ‘autonomously’ is quite a worrying thought. Is there a series of mathematical processes that can be plugged into a digital system to instantly generate ‘good’ music, far more efficiently than any human composer could manage? Will human composers eventually risk being made obsolete?

While these are all understandable concerns, there is much cause for optimism when discussing AI prospects in music. In his university Dissertation, Sam considers the history of musical AI and its potential future role in relation to human composers. He makes an argument for computer compositional systems never being truly ‘autonomous’, in fact they are closer to collaborators or partners due to their design being fundamentally rooted in human concerns of music and programming. If you would like to read the paper in full, please follow this link.

Some Existing Algorithmic and Generative Systems

Developed by David Cope as a successor to his Experiments in Musical Intelligence system (EMI), Emily Cope is an anthropomorphised algorithmic composer who has released two albums of material since 2009. Part of Emily’s design incorporates taking feedback from listeners (or Cope himself) regarding musical output, similar to how a human composer’s work might be partially shaped by feedback and criticism from friends, family and peers throughout their career. In addition, Cope has exposed the system to works by many existing composer to learn from, as the original EMI system was specifically designed to emulate these existing composers. It could be argued then, that Emily Howell’s compositional process is an organic one, similar to that of a human.

An initiative headed up by a team of musicians, programmers and academics, Jukedeck was designed primarily to give video creators easy access to original royalty-free music. On their website any user can select from a number of predetermined genres, instrumentation, tempo & duration settings to generate a piece in a matter of moments. While not as artistically independent as Emily Howell, Jukedeck is exceptionally simple to use and can output a great variety of music for use as a backing for many different types of video.

Brian Eno once described generative music as being akin to a set of chimes being played by the wind. In the iPad app Scape (developed by Eno & Peter Chilvers), the user places a number of background and foreground objects in a two-dimensional digital space, then watches as a series of rules and responsive algorithms react and combine to ‘play’ them, just as the wind does the chimes. More of a generative instrument than a standalone composer, Scape has the additional functionality to save numerous user-designed ‘scapes’ for future play. However, due to the nature of the generative rules and how they may interact at any given time, each piece will never be quite identical.

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