Ableton Certified Trainer Phelan Kane walks you through the process of building a Max For Live device from scratch
Lust for Live
Max For Live – included with the Suite version of Ableton’s DAW and available separately for Standard edition owners – puts one of the most powerful visual audio and MIDI programming environments money can buy – Cycling ’74’s Max – right at the heart of your production system. Using Max For Live, you can build your own synths, samplers, effects, sequencers, arpeggiators and anything else your fevered imagination can come up with. But there’s a catch…
As an inevitable consequence of its remarkable depth, Max For Live isn’t exactly easy to use – which is where our Max For Live Masterclass comes in! Over the next eight pages, and in the accompanying hourlong video, Ableton Certified Trainer Phelan Kane is going to walk you through the process of creating your first Max For Live device: a simple digital distortion effect called Computer Music Degrader.
“What we’ve got here is a bitcrusher and sample rate mangler,” says Phelan. “It’s really easy to build, because it’s only a couple of controls. We’ve got a control that changes bit depth, so we can go from 24-bit all the way down to maybe 12-bit – a bit like the Akai MPC60 or even the E-MU SP-1200 from the 80s. Or you can go all the way down to maybe 8-bit, and even into chiptune territory – 4-bit nastiness. Eventually, down at the bottom, we get into 2-bit, and it’s just ‘broken’!
“The other control is a sample rate divider, called Ratio,” he continues. “When it’s on 1, we’ve got the sample rate that’s the setting of our host DAW, maybe 44.1kHz. Moving it down, we start to get into more aliasing effects, and add some dirty grunge to the audio signal. All the way down the bottom, again, it gets quite nasty.
“We’ve got to be a bit careful, cos this is going to be quite capable of making some really loud, extreme noises, so you don’t blow up your hearing.”
To the Max
“There’s a whole crazy world of stuff out there, all made with Max”
Yes indeed, by the time you’re done with this tutorial, you’ll be not only the proud owner of a handy new distortion device, but also up to speed on the basics of Max For Live and the sorts of things it can do. And once the M4L bug has bitten, there’s no limit to where the software can take you.
“Max’s has two main strong points,” explains Phelan. “In the data world – Max – it’s randomisation, crazy probability stuff. In the audio world – MSP – it’s all about processing and generating sounds. I’ve seen people make MIDI carpets, where you can jump around and trigger different breakbeats depending on where you stand. Or a MIDI step ladder. Somebody else made a webcam where you can pull stupid faces at the camera and it controls the cutoff frequency of a filter. There’s a whole crazy world of stuff out there, all made with Max.”
Although we’re only making an effect device here, Max For Live also enables the construction of powerful and elaborate instruments – both synthesis- and samplebased. Phelan describes the basics.
“You’ll bring MIDI data into your Max patch, using some of those Max objects to process numbers. You’ll have a note number that represents your diatonic keyboard scale, and you split that information into velocity and pitch. You convert your MIDI note number to frequency, and you trigger an oscillator, and use your velocity to control the dynamics. Obviously, you do that through an ADSR and a VCA – even though it’s software, it’s not really a voltagecontrolled amplifier; but people still use that terminology in Max For Live. So to make a simple synth is actually quite easy.”
The overarching message from Phelan is to explore the many, many processing and signal generating objects that come with Max For Live, and make good use of the comprehensive onboard Help system. “Every Max Help object is a working Max patch that you can actually click, copy and paste into your own patches,” he affirms. With all that said, let’s get building…
MAX FOR LIVE SPECIAL
Want to get started with Max For Live? Then follow along and build our Degrader device from scratch!