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.