Why use Max For Live?
Computer Music: So, Phelan, how can building our own devices in Max For Live actually help us make better music? Phelan: “You want to be able to make your music stand out from the crowd. It’s a competitive market nowadays; there’s a lot of noise out there. In the lessons I’ve taught in uni, it’s like, ‘Don’t use presets’. Or maybe, ‘Use a preset but tweak it’, or, ‘Have enough knowledge to be able to fit it into your own sound landscape’. The aim is to open up the synth – Massive, Wavetable or whatever – and make sounds from scratch. A little bit of theory can really empower someone to create stuff themselves, as opposed to using a sound they might have got off a website or something. And Max goes one level beyond that, as you build the device itself. There’s another level of taxonomy you can jump into. If you learn the process, you can build the most insane instrument or effect, that’s not in anyone else’s toolkit.
“A little bit of theory can make you dangerous. If you know a little bit more music theory, you’ll be able to express yourself musically more, won’t you? Lots of people don’t study music theory so much, and maybe their music could be enhanced by knowing about modes and harmonic progressions. The same thing applies to technology: if you know more about how synths work, you can make a crazy idea that you’ve got in your head using Max.
“There’s a fine line between technicality and musical know-how, and I think the best music nowadays is sort of a mix of those two things. Scientist obviously comes from an engineering background and is maybe not such a muso, but he’s using his dub production techniques to make something that’s different and new. Maybe someone like Flying Lotus might manipulate samples in a different way, but using a bit more musical theory to compose an arrangement. To make any decent musical statement, you need that marriage between music theory and technology.”
: When you say Max For Live helps people take their music further, what examples have you seen? PK: “Radiohead are a great example. Jonny Greenwood’s been a massive Max fiend for years – since KidA. I taught Ed O’Brien, the guitar player, and Phil Selway, the drummer, how to use Live. I helped them to install a home studio so they could bring their musical ideas to the band. This was the time of HailtotheThief. Radiohead had gone for the guitar thing, and then KidA turned them onto synths; but I think at that time Thom and Jonny were taking a lead in terms of the output of the band, and Phil and Ed wanted to get a bit more involved in contributing musical ideas, and coming from a drumming and a guitar background, they wanted to brush up on music tech a little bit.
“So they saw me for two months, and the idea was to look at how technology could extend their instruments, extend their creativity. Jonny’s done a lot of stuff with Max, a lot of randomisation and probability stuff, crazy little drum machines… And if you listen to some of the Thom Yorke solo stuff, it’s heavily synthetic: vocals across synths, modulars and computer-generated stuff.”
: A coming together of rock music and electronica… PK: “The interesting thing for me nowadays is that it’s not about analogue or digital; it’s not about a modular or a piece of software – it’s a hybrid. We talk about hybrid workflow – you’re in the box but out of the box. You might have a nice bus compressor, and you do all your work in the box and run it through the bus compressor. Or you might have one external synth that you track into Ableton Live or whatever. It’s that mixed methodology stuff that’s most exciting.”
: And can that mixed methodology be applied to integrating Max For Live into the creative studio workflow, as opposed to approaching it with a particular goal? PK: “Absolutely. I’ve got loads of synths and drum machines in my studio, but sometimes I go in there and don’t make music – I just make sounds. I might spend four hours making bass patches and saving them, then come back to it another week and write loads of music with them. I guess it’s similar with Max: you could go into the studio and just make loads of weird Max objects, just for the pure fun of doing sound design with data.”
“Build the most insane instrument that’s not in anyone else’s toolkit”
Phelan Kane at Ableton’s kitted-out studio in London