With the constantly growing popularity and ever-abstract nature of electronic music, it helps to sort through the sea by picking one concrete aspect and diving in. Today, Hopes&Fears looks at the revolutionary object-oriented computer program Max/MSP, that’s been used everywhere from the glossiest of club tracks to the most purgatorial waves of glitch. We examine the program's history and how its role changes from programmers to artists.

Max/MSP for average music junkies. Image 1.

Mike Sheffield







— a computer environment for realizing works of live electronic music, combining pre-designed building blocks into configurations useful for real-time computer music performance.



Max/MSP for average music junkies. Image 2.


Created by: Miller Puckette and Opcode Systems

When: 1988 (commericially available from 1990)

Developer: Cycling ‘74

Current Version: Max 7

Operating system: Windows, Mac OS X

Data types: int, float, list, symbol, bang, and signal



Its interface is minimal yet utilitarian, with a protocol for scheduling control and audio sample computations, an approach to modularization and component intercommunication, and a graphical representation and editor for patches. Max is an octopus. It can connect anything to anything else. It scrambles and deforms and filters a complex landscape of sound sources, and yet can be used in an intuitive way. Its simple form denies its most innovative qualities, as it’s creator Miller Puckette  once noted, “Most of what is essentially Max lies beneath the surface.”

Talking to Puckette in San Diego where he teaches at UCSD, he explained how Max was developed in 1988, at IRCAM, because he had a concert scheduled.

“It was being paid by IRCAM, which was the 'Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique,' which is this research institution in Paris that was run by Pierre Boulez... They had the hardware all very well down, but they didn't actually have any idea how to write software for doing real-time music performances, and so every time anyone did a piece of electronic music at IRCAM, they would have to have the software custom-written for that particular piece. And so there was a piece coming up, and I was hired to help work on it,” Puckette explained.

While many of the underlying ideas behind Max arose in the rich atmosphere of the MIT Experimental Music Studio in the early 1980s, Max would take its form throughout a heated, excited period of brainstorming and experimentation among a small group of researchers and musicians, composers, and performers at IRCAM during the period of 1985-1990. Max would be the second program Puckette wrote for IRCAM, but the first to be indefinitely reusable. It would take him a year.

“The piece was by Philippe Manoury, and it was called "Pluton," it was for piano and electronics. The premiere was July 1988, and so it was time to write another program, and this time I decided to make something that was actually reusable... for more than one piece of music. And so I came up with the programming environment Max, to try to basically just make it possible for composers to customize what it did for whatever piece of music was they were working on.”

While the program took a year, Max was unfit for commercial distribution until 1990, when Pucket and Opcode Systems patented the interface. By the mid 1990s, software company and music label Cycling ’74 took over all development of Max with a new feature called MSP, an extension program to Max, allowing for real-time audio synthesis, and the addition would eventually become synonymous with Max.


Daisy Bell


Earth’s Magnetic Field

Mapped magnetic field data to musical sounds



On the Other Ocean


“An improvisation by Maggi Payne and Arthur Stidfole centered around six pitches which, when they are played, activate electronic pitch-sensing circuits connected to the "interrupt" line and input ports of a microcomputer, Kim-1. The microcomputer can sense the order and timing in which the six pitches are played and can react by sending harmony-changing messages to two handmade music synthesizers. The relationship between the two musicians and the computer is an interactive one, with the computer changing the electronically-produced harmonies in response to what the musicians play, and the musicians influenced in their improvising by what the computer does.”




The Algorhytmic

Sound and the combination of the sound is triggered internally/coded internally.

Autechre — Nil

Listen also: Jim O’RoukeKim Cascone

The Extension

One of the most common modalities, where the program extends the possibility of an instrument.

Tim Hecker, who processes pipe organ

Listen also: Fennesz (processes piano)Holly Herndon (processes voice)Keith Fullerton Whitman (processes synthesizers)

The Data Mining

This modality investigates the dynamic interplay within specific sights, spaces and places.

Miya Masaoka, who pulls data from plants, skin, & beehives

Listen also: Bang Geul Han, who mines twitter, Kennikie Yoon who mines dance with Max/MSP

Data Mining aligns the sounds which any given data set giving whatever music is created a sense of indeterminacy. Data mining can come from environmental sources, chemical components, architecture, biofeedback, any pattern imaginable.



Max’s precursors are as varied as the program’s uses. The program’s namesake, Max Mathews, made strives in real-time computer music three decades earlier. He worked at Bell Labs and made MUSIC, the first widely used computer program for sound generation, in 1957. He was interested in composition as well as technology, and hooking up his violin to an IBM 704 computer in 1957, Mathews was one of the first to capture and synthesize sound from a live instrument for a computer composition. The methods Matthews laid out in the 50s would evolve as much as the source of the music would change depending on any composer’s specific vision. But Mathews's innovations had broken the wall.

“There was a thing that Max Mathews had written called RTSKED. That... was kind of the first stab at making sort of a modularized real-time control environment for doing computer music. It wasn't usable for the IRCAM situation because it was written for a specific piece of hardware that existed at Bell Laboratories, and on a specific kind of processor. Code wasn't portable in those days. It had to be something different from that, but in fact there were elements of that that I had to rethink, and make in a more general way to make it useful in the IRCAM.”

Mathews's earlier GROOVE program had emphasized the handling of ``voltage control" signals, sporadically occurring events which caused state changes in the synthesizer, but RTSKED separated the program into parallel tasks permitting the user to control the sequence of execution of the program by selecting which task to trigger next. RTSKED extended beyond music into triggered film.

And while coding is the lifeblood of Max, Puckette is quick to note how artists were equally important in its creation, “Computer music software most often arises as a result of interactions between artists and software writers,” Puckette noted at "Max at 17," a speech he gave to commemorate the software on it's 17th birthday.




Audio Facelyzer



Tokyo based art collective BRIDGE makes colorful and often very surreal imagery using Jitter, the Max environment for visual processing and synthesis which provides real-time video, 3-D, and matrix processing capability.



Talking to Puckette’s UCSD colleague & Wounded Knees flautist Suzanne Thorpe, she maintained interest in the nuts and bolts of Max but sought software mainly as a means to an end. “Composers figure out a way to engage with whatever technology they are using, that’s part of our job,” Thorpe noted, adding, “the approach is more about the project than the technology.” However multi-faceted Max could get, the beauty lied in the eye of the beholder, it was all about the composer’s imagination. Composers lived outside of the environment of code, diving into Max whenever it felt necessary. Composers like Thorpe thrived on variation, “Sometimes it's Max, sometimes it's Ableton, sometimes a rubber band.”

And while Thorpe seemed to be bridging a gap between composers and coders, experimental musician Tim Hecker seemed to be devoutly uninterested in the codes, “I cultivated an intentional ignorance about the depths of Max/MSP...it's [all about] what comes out, [it's] the end product, that matters.”

Hecker works in ambient computer music, using Max/MSP and Reaktor, among other programs, to digitally process and distorted live instruments from a guitar to a pipe organ. Max was the ability to mutate his abstractions, “I kind of consider it like a painter's canvas with sound... it's like a sculptural tool workbench, where you can hammer and stretch and melt, and do all these kinds of sculptural tropes.” From his Montreal home, Hecker talked about keeping an artist’s perspective intact rather than sweating the codes, and how relying on friends to code his patches has allowed him to maintain a more pure perspective.

Related programs


Allows users to construct “patches” that process signals – MIDI, audio, or video.“Deals with two- and three-dimensional collections of data instead of just signals going in time. And so it's suitable for processing images and the like.

Really what it does is just handle larger collections of numbers, organized in rectangles and cubes. That's one way of putting it. There are a lot of different ways of thinking about it.” Miller Pucket



A computer programming language for sound written in C, also known as a sound compiler or an audio programming language.



Max/MSP’s free cousin

“It's kind of a risky thing for a musician because it's a world of code... it's hard to do both the design of making patches, and keeping the compositional aspects high-level, or meta. I understand a lot of the objects, and how things work in the architecture, but I've relied on people who have made patches for me, and that's the truth of it. I made little modifications, but I'm not a coder, and I've always kept that at arm's length. I'm [interested in] how I can take this type of material and turn it into compositional fruit. So I've always had people help me with that stuff, and I use a ready-made set of objects, one of them's called PPOOLL, it's something that I've been using for ten years or so, and it's probably like 40-50 Max objects in an environment, that are all networked together, and you don't really need to know anything about Max. It's very technical, using that set themselves, but you don't need to know a lot about coding, or patching even, to be able to get musical fruit."

Whether experimenting in coding or simply looking for a means of expression, Max is an octopus producing ever-infinite fruit.


The reference manuals, the tutorials, the help patches and the Max mailing-list/forum