I started learning Max/MSP a few years ago around when Ableton and Cycling ’74 collaborated to release Max for Live, a fully-integrated way to add visual programming and DSP to the powerful Ableton Live DAW. I’m a software engineer by trade but to be honest that training helped me little or none when it came to learning Max and its highly idiomatic way of doing things. Instead, I was helped along the way by a random assembly of included documentation, open-source patches, forum topics, blog posts, YouTube videos and magazine articles. Since then I’ve built synthesizers, hardware control patches, vocoders and audio visualizers in Max and I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible.
Learning Max can be exhausting and intimidating but with a little bit of help it’s amazing how easy it is to start building powerful devices that you can use right away. With that in mind, I’ve decided to collect my favourite places to look for guidance, inspiration, and patches to steal and disassemble for my own amusement.
1. Cycling ’74
If you’re an Ableton user who got Max For Live with version 9, you may never have heard the name. Cycling ’74 is the company that built Max/MSP and their community of employees, contributors and hackers is the closest thing there is to a definitive resource for all things Max. Their website can be unwieldy to navigate but if you can find what you’re looking for in their archives, it’s bound to be good. Most noteworthy is their long-running Jitter Recipes series which exhaustively explains key features of their video devices.
CDM is a great way to stay apprised of everything new in the digital music world – if you don’t already read it, you should. It’s also got a fantastic archive of reviews and updates on free and professional-grade Max devices, hardware integrations, and core features. They interview hardware manufacturers, software developers and artists using their products to get a complete picture of the music technology scene. Seeing how people use Max in the wild can teach you new ways to think about the software and get you thinking about your end goals for your music. If you’re interested in video or other formats, check out its sister sites CreateDigitalMotion and CreateDigitalNoise.
The unofficial but sort-of-official resource for Ableton’s side of the Max world. Light on the explanation and heavy on the examples, this rigidly-categorized device archive exemplifies the “learn-by-doing” approach favoured by the community. If you’re lucky, you’ll discover someone has already figured out the problem you’re having and posted the patch for you to cheat off.
YouTube user dude837 is a Max developer with an odd sense of humour and a very intuitive way of explaining and building complicated devices including instruments, audio effects, video processors, internet-connected generative artworks and even some extremely pointless devices. But sometimes it’s just cathartic to watch an expert get frustrated and swear at the software exactly the same way I do all the time.
People who care about video tend to prefer video sharing site Vimeo over Youtube so it makes sense that experts in Jitter, Max’s video device library, tend to flock to the site. Some of my favourite tinkerers are Vade (author of the excellent v002 shaders), Mike Todd and video wizard EthnoTekh. But a quick search will turn up dozens more experimental artists, programmers and 3d animators with channels full of Max goodness.
You almost certainly shouldn’t read all of it. But you should read enough of the beginning lessons that you know without asking what a bang is, why some of the patch cables are solid and some are squiggly and what it means when there’s a tilde (~) at the end of an object name lest you venture to the forums with a question only to be told to RTFM.
There you have it! How to Learn Max the Right Way™. In my opinion, doing things the right way is greatly overrated and should be distrusted as a methodology for any creative enterprise. Nonetheless it’s possible to learn something from experts sometimes. On the other hand, you may find that clicking randomly and connecting things that shouldn’t go together yields wonderful and unexpected results. Practice and enjoy!