Given the state of the economy current conditions taking a hit on discretionary spending, I was somewhat apprehensive about traveling west for the NAMM show this year. While times are indeed tough, I got a sense of overall optimism from many of the manufacturers and product representatives I spoke with. While there will be consolidation and restructuring in management and sales, all agree that development and innovation will continue. Signs of this abounded at NAMM with a number of cool new products. This was an especially big year for Ableton with the announcement of a number of watershed products.

NAMM 2009

At NAMM 2008, Cycling 74 and Ableton announced a collaboration that would yield new developments for their products. While the goal here was not much of a mystery, this year’s announcement of MAX for Live took the wraps off the fruits of their work. This is indeed big news, and really ushers in a new era for the integration of music technology products. MAX is a programming environment, while Live is performance/production tool; each does what the other doesn’t. With MAX for Live, MAX patches will be able to open in Live, like any other plug-in. There will be direct MIDI and audio input and output connections between the two, and both will share sample accurate timing. While this type of inter-application communication has always been available using Propellerheads’ ReWire technology, MAX for Live will make this much easier, and will undoubtedly spawn a wave of innovative development, particularly in the area of live performance. As is typical with these types of major trade show announcements, no firm release date or price point was mentioned, but my guess is that a final release might happen this fall.

The collaborative spirit must be alive and well in Berlin, as collaboration was a big theme for Ableton this year, While the Cycling 74 partnership centered on software, a partnership with AKAI resulted in the APC40 hardware controller for Live. While Live supports a number of hardware controllers that greatly enhance the performance experience, nothing comes close to the tight integration of these two products. AKAI was once the de facto standard for hardware samplers, but the swift adoption of software samplers nearly signaled the company’s demise. While their MPC series is a must-have tool for hip hop production, the company has had a hard time establishing an identity beyond that. In 2004 AKAI was acquired by DJ supplier Numark, and has since focused on developing performance tools. While Ableton indicates that there are collaborations with other hardware manufacturers, AKAI is the first of these to see the light of day. While pricing and availability were not announced at the show, a street price of 399.00 is listed at some online retailers.

Along with their partnerships with other manufacturers, Ableton announced a new service that will be built into the upcoming Live 8. The Share Live Set feature will allow users to upload their projects to a Ableton server, where they can be accessed by any user on the Net. The technology here takes a cue from the cloud computing concept, where data is stored on a central server where it can be accessed and synced by any number of users. While a number of Web start-ups were founded on the idea of providing resources for musicians to collaborate online, this idea has yet to really take off. Live users are by and large forward-looking musicians, and with a reliable infrastructure in place, this community may take full advantage of the technology. In the area of online eduction, this is profound, and this service could become the backbone of a creative music curriculum, beyond simply learning how to use Live. Again, pricing and availability for this service has yet to be announced.

Significant updates have been an annual event for Ableton, and while the prior three NAMM announcements point to new directions for the company, the upcoming release of Live 8 certainly merits as much attention. Ableton updates are always significant, and manage to expand the program without sacrificing its ease of use. The new features in Live 8 continue this, adding requested features along with capabilities users have come to expect. Live’s new groove engine adds groove quantize functions that are commonly found in other DAWs. Their version allows for both MIDI and audio quantization as well as a groove analysis tool that extracts timing information and creates a groove template from it. Along with this is a new warping engine that allows easy manipulation of individual beats within a clip. While this function has always been a part of Live, the new algorithms used here significantly reduce the related audio artifacts –which may or may not be a good thing for those of the “glitch” persuasion. Ableton has been steadily expanding the collection of effects in Live, and the addition of a vocoder and a multi-band compressor, among others, builds on what’s already available. Finally, while some performers use Live as a kind of looping device, it’s always been more clumsy than hardware loopers on the market. The success of many performers who use looping, like New York’s Battles, has brought a renewed interest in this technique. The looper that comes with Live 8 looks like a capable solution, and further strengthens Live’s position as the premier performance software on the planet.

MAX 5

Apr 26 2008

Perhaps the most anticipated software development this spring was the release of the MAX/MSP/Jitter version 5 from Cycling 74, which came out last week. For those of you who don’t already know, MAX is object oriented programming environment for sound, music, video applications. Wikipedia has a very good overview and history of the program listed under Max (software).

MAX FM2

A MAX/MSP Patch

 

While updates over the years have focused on, new objects and support for new OS technologies, the basic look and feel of MAX hasn’t changed much since it’s initial commercial release from Opcode. (Does anyone remember them?) MAX 5 addresses this with a complete rewrite of the entire underlining code, aligning it with current hardware and OS software platforms. A revised user interface includes a variety of on-screen de-bugging tools. Some of these, like a visual display of signal level at any connection, easily translate into powerful ways to learn about signal flow and processing. Visually, objects are much easier to look at, and a new user interface view separates the underlying patch structure from how it appears to a user/performer. Last year Cycling 74 announced an alliance with Ableton, makers of Live, and entire look of the new release of MAX looks a lot like its German cousin.

MAX FM1

A MAX/MSP patch in presentation view

While many cutting edge artists and researchers are using MAX, people often ask about the difference between it and other “modular” sound synthesis tools, specifically Native Instrument’s Reaktor. Why would you use one and not the other? You can think of Reaktor as a greatly expanded software version of Alessandro Cortini’s Buchla 200e, which I talked about in an earlier entry. It’s a really great tool for building all sorts of software instruments. One of it’s strengths is the capability to design control panels that clearly display the parameters and functions you build into an instrument. You only see the controls you are going to use, and depending on the instrument, that can be a few, or many. While MAX 5 addresses this with its new presentation view, there’s more to MAX than building synthesizers.

The real power of MAX is that it’s a complete programming environment with objects to process, store and retrieve data input. These expanded capabilities make it a great to build all sorts of cool, interactive performance systems. Best of all, it includes Open Sound Control and Rewire capabilities, which means you can use it with a variety of other software, including Reaktor and even Reason. Got a Nintendo Wii? Your Wii controller sends all sorts of data about position and acceleration that the game receives via Bluetooth. Got Bluetooth on your laptop? You can program a simple interface using MAX that will take the data coming into your computer from your Wii controller and translate it into MIDI data that you can use to control Reaktor or Reason.

Pretty cool… That said, MAX (or Reaktor for that matter) isn’t for everyone. If you’ve got some hacker instincts, you’ll be able to get around MAX after working through the excellent tutorials that come with the program. Plan on a few weekends of focused study and experimentation and you’ll be on your way. Cycling 74 has a very good video introduction that will give you a taste of what the program is all about.