Max/MSP Project

I mentioned in a previous post a thing called the Lemur, that can be used with Cycling 74’s Max/MSP. To explain a little, the Lemur is a kind of “control surface” that can be utilised in many different bits of software on PCs and Macs. Control surfaces roots are in computer-music, they were developed in order to allow computer based musicians to have a hands on way of controlling their entirely digital synthesisers. With a digital synthesiser as well as playing it (with a keyboard, just like a piano) there are seemingly endless parameters that can be changed whilst in use, to change the sound of the synth. Many of these controllers simply manifest themselves as a keyboard with an array of knobs, switches and buttons available however in the last few years, new technology has started to allow for much more inventive and intuitive options for controlling parameters. The Lemur, is a box with a touch screen. Using software provided with it you actually design your own interface with any type of slider, knob, button, switch, dimmer, button or display you can imagine. As well as this, it is a new type of touch screen, that allows you to touch it as many times as you want. So you can have (for example) 4 fingers spread out, each on its own touch sensitive slider. You could drag each slider up and down at a different speed, in a different direction. I’m afraid my explanation isn’t quite comprehensible so look here;

The Lemur is made by a company called Cycling 74 – who’s ‘flagship’ product is Max/MSP. Max, once you install it on your computer, does nothing. Max doesn’t have a set purpose or function, rather it allows the user to create their own program to do whatever they want; it just provides a framework for doing that. Its rather like a computer programming environment (eg C++, Java or Visual Basic) that specialises in maniupulating and controlling digital media. With Max/MSP and its various add-on options, you are given a toolkit for doing literally anything you could imagine with sound and music, video and images, and because you can utilise Java from within the software anything else that you might want to do with a computer. It is an extremely powerful tool.

As an aside, the software was originally brought to my attention by a friend of mine, Matt Donkin, who used Max for his 3rd year show for Interactive Arts. Matt’s project consists of a music keyboard, and a monitor. The two are linked via Max, and if you play notes that are in tune with one another, the monitor displays “tuneful” graphics. If you play random notes, then nothing very pretty is displayed. It’s an interesting idea. Most “visualisation” programs (such as you get with most computer-based media players) simply process the sound to extract the beats of the music. That is then the basis for displaying graphics to fit with the music. The problem is that the graphics are mostly randomly generated, the only thing that links to the music is the beat and that is often sketchy at best. With Matt’s project, it is the very notes themselves that create the image. Also the image that is created is intrinsically linked to the beat of the music, for the same reason.
Autechre’s Max Patch. Autechre are electronic artists, making forward thinking music mainly using Max/MSP. This image illustrates how complicated “Patches” (Max programs) can get.

I think its really intesting how finding out about a tool, such as this, can actually inspire someone. I guess it applies to me more than, perhaps, a sculptor; just because my work exists almost entirely in the digital realm. But I think anyone can derive inspiration from such things
. I’m sure there is an argument that an artist should have a concept, and then find the tools to create it, but I feel its just as valid to see a tool and then come up with the idea as a result of knowing about it. Such utilisation of the available resources and tools is one reason why Moore’s law (the idea that computing power will double every 18 months) has proved to be correct for the last 50 years and why advances are made so quickly. I suppose that my thinking comes down to this: If there is a way of doing something; someone will do it!

I’m currently developing an idea (that I will write about tomorrow) that will almost certainly be made possible by using Max.