Max For Live: Making Musicians Into Programmers

max for live logo

Ableton’s Live is one of the top music creation and performance platforms out there. It is a complete music suite with instruments, sound management and a performance interface. It is used by DJs, bands, and hobbyists. At a cost of several hundred dollars Live is within reach of most tech-savvy musicians. It is one of the must-have tools for almost anyone who is making electronic music these days. One of the reasons it is so popular is that it has a relatively simple user interface that hides complexity from the user and lets them focus on sounding good. If you’ve ever seen a DJ using software that looked like a multi-color spreadsheet that was probably Ableton.

max for live patch

This fall Ableton is releasing Max For Live, an API of sorts. It’s an API that is accessible only through another piece of music software, Max/MSP. Cycling74’s Max/MSP is a visual programming environment that can be used for signal processing, audio and, with the Jitter add-on, video. Max is powerful, just as powerful as Ableton, but it doesn’t hide it’s complexity. Max has hundreds of quirky objects (just check the online database MaxObjects) that can be used to build patches (like the one shown to the left). With a single object you can add quite simply take input from a camera , a Wiimote, an Arduino or an OSC Controller. Like Processing or openFrameworks, Max/MSP is an interactivity platform that is designed to be accessible to artists.

Max For Live is going to introduce a new generation of musicians to (visual) programming. And I don’t think that they’ll stop at playing around with the Ableton Live controls. They’ll build their own hardware (like Moldover’s Octomasher or as shown in his controllerism video). They’ll learn to use Arduino’s to track sensor inputs. A new generation of tools can be created with Max For Live and I think it’s safe to predict a lot of Max For Live based installations.

Ableton was founded ten years ago by the current CEO (Gerhard Behles) and CTO (Bernd Roggendorf), whom I met while I was in Berlin with the Geeks on a Plane. They saw that music production was going to move from specialized hardware to be solely done on the computer. They optimized for the 90% scenario and they see Max For Live as their long-tail offering (Personally, I think that their 90% scenario encompasses a huge swath of music needs from creation to production to performance to media management so that 10% is very niche indeed).

Now that their primary product has an API, Ableton is trying to figure out how they will move to the web. As Gerhard the CEO said, “I know that my company must move to the web, but I am an old-guy and need to get a web person to figure out what to do. I need someone who can do it”. They are hoping to hire a web genius that can handle that part of the business. In the coming months they’ll be adding integration to SoundCloud for easy uploading of samples, the ability to share sets over the web (streaming through Ableton’s servers) and to collaborate with other specific individuals online (Ableton has found that most of their users don’t really want to collaborate with just anyone. The user Y wants user X’s specific bass line. So share publicly, collaborate privately).

Unfortunately, there aren’t many resources for learning Max or Live. They both include tutorials, but I can tell you from firsthand experience that it’s a lot take in on your own. Luckily, there are a lot of enthusiast created video tutorials out there. If you’re interested in learning more about Max For Live I recommend checking out They’ve been posting a number of great tutorials/demos like the one posted after the jump. Tutorial: Beginning Max from max4live on Vimeo.


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  • Hey there,

    You should check out this film, Speaking In Code:

    It features another co-creator of Ableton, Robert Henke (Monoloake) and one of his amazing music machines, the Monodeck, that interfaces with the software.

    // Jason

  • as a beta tester, I just can say that this powerful tool was the only thing missing in our home-studio.

    the power of max in live, or vice versa, or or ….


  • Anonymous

    I’d like to point out a few details that might be misleading about this article. First: “If you’re interested in learning more about Max For Live I recommend checking out” To clarify, this website is a fansite created by a beta tester, and has no affiliation with Cycling ’74 or Ableton, the makers of Max for Live (still in beta, btw). If you want accurate and in-depth information about Max for Live, I would instead suggest going straight to the source and looking at the demo videos, press releases, and articles on and
    Also, “Unfortunately, there aren’t many resources for learning Max or Live.” There are many resources available to learn both MaxMSP and Ableton Live. On both sites, there are numerous articles, video demos, tutorials, active user communities, and links to schools and workshops where you can get instruction.

  • @Jason. — thanks, I will check it out.

    @ anon – As I say in the post:
    “They [Live and Max] both include tutorials, but I can tell you from firsthand experience that it’s a lot take in on your own. Luckily, there are a lot of enthusiast created video tutorials out there.”

    From their I reference Max4Live. I found the tutorials to be ok, but they definitely need more classes and cookbooks to be made available.

  • Andrew Benson

    Expect lots of resources, examples, articles, workshops and tutorials once Max for Live is finished and released. For now, it’s still in Beta, so if you have any specific documentation requests, please send them along via the appropriate channels.

    Andrew Benson

  • I am the admin of I do agree with the statement that there are a lot of resources for learning Max/MSP/Jitter. I learned these technologies several years ago and i did so because of the great resources listed on the corporate websites. They work very hard to try and make it easier for people to understand their technology. My site was created to be a community site for Max For Live and their associated technologies. As being such, I focused my site around teaching Max For Live. This means that there are tutorials that are focused on the Max For Live API. There are currently not that many video tutorials on this topic. I also strive to make it easier for new users to get involved with Max without having to get bombarded with all of the information that is out there. I create simple videos that teach them concepts one at a time in order to get them interested. At the end of the day I encourage people to use all of the resources that are available to them. I just want them to get interested in the technology and have fun with it.

    The master plan for the site is to be a central community where people can go to learn, see showcases of artists using Max For Live, find out about new hardware and software, and interact with other like minded users.

  • Great writeup. Also note my site where the user community will hopefully share devices with each other.

    Max for Live is not even released yet and there is already a ton of activity on the site. It should be a great resource.

  • This quite interesting post.

  • Thanks for the info! Great post