Connect Everything! (Introduction to MAX/MSP)

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It’s time to think about the programming bit of the Sound Extrusions project — that will be the other quite adventurous part of the whole project! While I’m away for some weeks to Europe, during great late summer time in Moravia, with all sorts of fruits and berries getting ripe in front of your eyes for later local brandy production … anyway, I’m diving into the programming part right now! The code will create the sound installation behaviour and online data interaction behind the visible porcelain speakers which were discussed previously. Let’s leave the plaster moulds drying out in The Edge basement for now and let’s have a look at the possible solutions of how to put a multichannel audio installation together. The first tool of choice nowadays will be the MAX/MSP or alternatively Pure Data (called Pd) environment.

It’s not so long ago when such a sound installation project would have to be hard-wired and made of specifically designed hardware parts and sound cards. I will discuss this approach with Milan Gustar from Music Academy in Prague soon as he’s one of the very experienced hardware wizards. Also I would like to take advantage of my trip to Europe and introduce a couple of exciting sound artists, using the MAX/MSP environment from the Czech Republic, to The Edge community as well. That’s one more reason to follow up some of the next posts! 🙂

MAX/MSP and Pd environment both originated with research into signal processing by Miller S. Puckette at IRCAM in the late 80s (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris, which is worth checking out anyway). MAX/MSP was developed into a commercial package later on by a San Francisco based software company called Cycling ’74, founded by David Zicarelli. Recent development saw MAX/MSP (MSP stands for Max Signal Processing) evolving into Max For Live — you guessed right, it became part of the Live Ableton Suite package. This incredibly creative mix of technologies becomes a very cool tool for sound and music production, with heaps of Max For Live effects and instrument presets available right now!

To find out, how such an environment can become a  creative trademark or even change the way we think about music making, please check out some great interviews at the Cycling ’74 website. There’s one interview with Matthew Ostrowski, who’s introducing his interactive sample based live performance technique with a glove controller, while the the second is with Damian Taylor (sound engineer of Bjőrk), who uses MAX/MSP for live stage applications and innovative composition techniques.

We still haven’t mentioned how such an environment works — the whole idea is to use objects in an easy-to-set-up graphic interface, which deliver realtime signal processing. In other words this is incredibly exciting, and a huge leap in instrument development and music performance alone. This approach of connecting specific objects is generally called visual programming (the objects are written in C programming language under the hood, but we are reconnecting them with audio and message virtual cables, so don’t stress out!). The most important objects, and the ones which make you understand how to use MAX/MSP anyway, are the basic objects connecting you to the sound card input and output (adc~ and dac~; the tilde “~” character denotes objects working with audio signals). The important thing is to make a difference between an audio signal connection and a “bang” trigger path, which helps to create specific logic in the code and sends messages instead.

How to structure such an application and how to treat a multichannel setup in MAX/MSP will be covered in some other posts to come, but for now… Thanks for reading!

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