What I'm talking about is Max for Live, the result of a collaboration between Ableton and San Francisco-based software company Cycling '74. Cycling '74 has been around since 1997, and their claim to fame is a set of programs called Max/MSP/Jitter—which give users a canvas upon which audio/visual and MIDI devices can be visually programmed by connecting together small components called "objects." These programs have developed a long and rich history over the past decade—shaping the music of a number of artists ranging from mainstream acts like Radiohead and Jamie Lidell to underground icons like Autechre and Monolake. It has been said that Monolake/Robert Henke even used Max/MSP to prototype much of Ableton Live's functionality.
So what can you do with Max for Live? To answer that question, we need to first look a little more closely at what can be done with Max/MSP/Jitter. Of the three, the best place to start would be Max, which is the name for the programming environment and the suite of objects that provide the base functionality for all patches created within it (MSP and Jitter are groups of specialized objects that run in Max). There are objects that perform almost any function you can think of, from simple addition and subtraction of numbers to complex functions like parsing and filtering out MIDI notes, or drawing to a virtual LCD. Each object can be dragged and dropped from a palette, or created via keyboard shortcuts. Once the object is on the canvas, it can then be connected to other objects by virtual patch cords drawn from the output of one object to the input of another. If you're clever enough you can do almost anything by connecting enough of these objects. Feel like controlling your ceiling fan using a MIDI controller? You can do that! More common applications include devices that send and receive MIDI (such as step sequencers or LFOs) or OpenSoundControl (OSC)—a more modern and flexible version of MIDI that can be used to create networked interfaces.
Even though you could spend years exploring the possibilities locked in the base Max objects, the MSP objects deserve a special bit of attention. These are the ones that allow Max to move past just dealing with control information and into the processing and generation of audio signals. As with anything to do with low-level digital audio, understanding the connections and relationships between the different MSP objects requires a decent grip on arithmetic and trigonometry. While I'm not talking about much more than what most kids learn before high school, a quick dip into the old books may be required as a refresher. This would be a good time to mention the documentation page on Cycling '74's website, which, in addition to providing tutorials and reference for any object in Max, links to a very useful explanation of the inner workings of digital audio. This may seem to be a bit over-and-above what is required to simply make music, but taking the time to read and absorb it will benefit your work in Max and any future audio-related work as well.
The examples of what you can create with the MSP objects in Max are incredibly varied. Some of my favorites include one of the "big three"—the three polished devices that shipped with Max for Live—called Buffer Shuffler. This slicer-style device is sort of like an older and wiser version of Beat Repeat (minus the pitch shifting) that gives you an immense amount of real-time control over divisions of both channels of a stereo audio signal. Robert Henke's Granulator instrument is another masterwork that on its own could probably cost almost as much as the Max for Live license. (Ableton is offering it for free for any registered Max for Live user.) This sample-based granular synthesizer can take a sound and build a collage by looping small portions of it in a semi-random fashion. Words don't do this thing justice, so be sure to check out the video on the Ableton site to see what I'm talking about.
Finally, the Classic Synths livepack created by Katsuhiro Chiba is an impressive example of what can be done with the MSP objects in Max. The Yamaha TX81Z clone that he built in Max even overcomes the limitation of Ableton's MIDI implementation by supporting the sending and receiving of Sysex messages via UDP. Speaking of limitations, the MSP objects do have one inconvenient limitation of their own: while you can send control messages between Max objects in separate devices, the MSP objects can only communicate with objects in their same device.
So having covered Max and MSP, it's time to take a look at the last of the Cycling '74 trinity, Jitter. Just as MSP is a set of objects that specialize in manipulating audio in Max, the Jitter objects are the same, except that they deal in video. There are Jitter objects for controlling playback of video files on your hard drive, for generating new video algorithmically and even for capturing live video from sources like webcams. These types of video sources can then be edited and transformed using the extensive set of FX objects.
The huge advantage to working with video in Max is that all of your video work can be controlled and synchronized to whatever music and audio events you have going on alongside it. With the integration into Ableton in Max for Live, this means you can take your live set to the next level by controlling and triggering video and music at the same time. This is exactly what Chicago producer Kate Simko is doing on her current tour, having worked with video artist Jeffrey Weeter to design a customized multimedia set that she can perform on her own while on the road. You don't necessarily need to commission a video artist to get started with video in Max, however. Late last year, with Max 5.1.7, Cycling '74 made things simpler than ever with a set of easy-to-use video objects called Vizzie.
Kapture is an incredibly useful tool that allows you to take snapshots of every parameter in a set and store it with a name to be recalled later. Another interesting relationship that the Live API allows is the automation of live parameters using the much-higher-than-MIDI resolution of an audio signal. Using this you could theoretically change the filter frequency of one track using the volume of audio coming into a different track. Fancy stuff.
Hopefully reading about all of the tools available in Max for Live has sparked some ideas of things you would create yourself. For example, right now I am working on a device that will go beyond the limitation of Live's External Instrument by providing a set of knobs that are wired to control an external hardware synthesizer—with each knob labeled to match the synth parameter it's controlling via MIDI CC. This will then allow for more intuitive automation lanes (no more trying to memorize which MIDI CC numbers are controlling which parameter for which device!). This will also help when interacting with Ableton Live via a Control Surface device like Novation Automap or with an iPad controller like TouchAble. Being able to immediately see and tweak the filter cutoff (for example) within the Automap display is the stuff dreams are made of.
If your head is spinning at this point, take a deep breath and remind yourself of one important fact: even if you never hit the edit button on a Max for Live object, you can still reap the benefits of being a Max for Live user. In addition to the devices I've described above, which are all available on the Ableton website, there is a huge community of max patchers putting out quality work for free on sites like maxforlive.com. The amount of variety and unique creations you can get from this ever-expanding base of devices can easily be worth the price of admission. ($249 by the way.)
While at the time of writing one of the major complaints about Max for Live is that there isn't a reduced-price runtime for Max for Live (and I agree this would be nice), I think this is sort of a blessing in disguise. I personally was a Max for Live user from day one, and I've just recently gotten into putting together my own patches. The process of learning the ins-and-outs of Max patching has taught me more about MIDI and digital audio than anything I've done in years. Max for Live is a rare opportunity for users to take one of the best DAWs out there and customize it to do almost anything they can think of.