London Music Hack Space welcomes Max MSP users. Desmond Dodecahedron writes…..

That's my right hand holding the Xbox controller and three people aren't even paying attention.

Last Thursday 24th May, Jean- Baptiste and Martin very kindly allowed the London Max MSP users group to be co-hosted at the Music Hack Space. Hopefully this is the start of a really good thing. We were previously guests of Lottolab at the Science Museum and if you haven’t been, you must try one of the Science Museum lates.

I decided to demonstrate a Max patch that I have been working on (and off) for about a year which is essentially an Xbox controlled device for generating new musical textures. I also wanted to widen the discussion to involve other people’s views on what they felt about controllers and instruments in general.

I began with a three chord tune played on a cheap purple and plastic ukulele purchased in Norwich. I asked if anyone could make a guess as to how long it would take the average person to learn to play Am D and E on the instrument. About three weeks was the answer, which considering the gain there seems to be quite a lot of, erm hurting fingers and frustration.

I have often wondered why considering that your smart phone has the computing power of the entire Apollo space mission, why most musical instruments haven’t progressed to the same degree as the rest of technology?  We now have driverless cars, gestural recognition and Shazam.  Have you ever seen a Monome on Later with Jools Holland ?

It seems quite fitting that we are about to mark 60 years of Enthronement and yet if you travelled back in time to the Marquee club or 2is coffee bar  in London,  you would see a drummer with  a drum kit, in front of which would be a singer standing with a mic stand maybe holding a guitar. There would be bass players , keyboard players , saxophonists etc.  Plus ça change – bet they said that 60 years ago too.  Why don’t we have really easy to play musical instruments nowadays?  The 1950s fifties housewife was rescued from the mangle by the introduction of the twintub washing machine and was consequently liberated  from the laundry to try a hand at the new appliances : the  hoover, cooker and the avocado slicer.


that's more like it - a waveform


I also introduced the notion of “missing music”.  I remember watching Professor Jim Al-Khalili present a tv programme  about Dmitri Mendeleev’s creation of the periodic table. Mendeleev  noted that gaps in the grid he had constructed must denote the existence of an element that had not yet been discovered.

Not all musical instruments have been invented yet, so it must follow that not all music has been heard yet.

Which brings me to Figure 1 below.

fig 1 - diversity vs popularity

Here is the entire spectrum of music as far as we know. Diversity here  refers to  harmonic and rhythmic variance.  For instance the world of classical/serious music and world/ethnic music tends to exploit a wider range of time signatures, and harmonic structures than pop music does.  So we have large chunks of musical void waiting to be filled.BTW I didn’t  do any actual research.  I mean I could have got hold of some data , but it would have taken ages and it might not have agreed with me. Sometimes you just don’t need peer review.Which is where my patch comes in.  I wanted to see if it could be possible using Max to create a system where interesting and possibly complex musical patterns could be generated from very simple seeds, but at the same time there would be a degree of precision over the outcome of the process.  This is another way of saying that over the years I have heard loads of random/ stochastic / generative stuff and it has not made me very haptic.I decided to use a games controller as the interface  – in this case an Xbox controller because they are ubiquitous and so people feel comfortable with their familiarity -unless you are over the age of 40 which incidentally is the ball park I like to figure in.I then continued the demonstration by quickly pointing out the main features of the patch, but it’s going to take a long time to write about it now, so I am going to upload an explanatory video once I have installed Snagit and learned how to do split screen stuff which will take ages.
There are two stages to creating musical patterns in the patch.  First you create 4 (or as many as you can cope with) rhythmic figures for each of the instruments or channels you want to use – for the sake of the Hack Space demo I just used a Kore Player with 3 simple sounds loaded in to midi channels 1 to 3.  Once the rhythmic patterns are created you store them as presets and they are subjected to variations in pitch groupings and subtle changes  in duration and velocity whilst being triggered by the LH trigger button of the Xbox controller. In addition the LH joystick rotates the “wheel of harmony” which means that you can “seamlessly move from a minor 6th chord to a pentatonic one, all within the space of a single arpeggio” . The Dpad controls pitch changes by navigating around a “pitch grid”. Each of the presets can be cycled randomly or in groups. The RH joystick can be assigned to control whatever parameters you want in whatever Vst plug in you decide to use in Max.The consequence of this is that you can end up with results that would be very difficult to achieve with standard methods. It enables the operator to be much more playful with harmonies and rhythm. It is much more akin to playing with Plasticineexcept that you can unmix it and start afresh time after time.It is also designed to be used by more than operator if so desired i.e. one person looks after pitch and harmony, the other rhythm, and the other timbre / sounds. It is this subdivision of traditional composite musician skills in to simpler operations that lends the device to the rapid pickup and play that is missing from so many other instruments.  So rather than get one boy to learn the mandolin in three weeks to play one tune, why not get three people to play ten tunes in just a couple of hours ?What if everyone played and created their own music –  because they could?After the hyperbole comes the disappointment – some examples:

A result by Desmond Dodecahedron


Some more results by Desmond Dodecahedron


Afterwards I had lots of interesting chats with people over pizzas and beer. If you have a patch and want to share it then this is the place you should come to usually the last Thursday of the month.

Best Wishes


Following Des came Ivaylo Chicanov who demonstrated his live sequencing patch “MaxReloop” which was designed using Max/MSP. MaxReloop uses rewire technology and sends transport messages to Propellerhead’s Reason software. These messages adjust marker and loop points allowing Ivaylo to jump around his pre sequenced performance sets and make stutter like effects. Ivaylo DJs, raps and performs using his MaxReloop software under his Electronic Element moniker.