My learning journey with Music Hackspace


This post is about my learning journey over the past 1 – 2 years – how I came to Music Hackspace and what it came to mean for me. I’m writing because I have gained so much from this platform. So I want to share and hopefully inspire others.

My engagement with Music Hackspace includes:

  • Frequently attending Max Meetups and other online events
  • Using 20+ individual courses
  • Using my Going Deeper subscription to the fullest
  • Following the Blog and other communications. 

Plus, I have an ever growing list of more content that I want to get to!

But first, to give some context, a little bit about me.

I’m a composer, formally trained in the classical concert tradition. Now I’m doing music technology and create experimental electronic music. I build digital instruments in Max/MSP, and I do live coding in TidalCycles and Sardine. I also contribute where I can to open source projects, leveraging my experience in IT. 

Several years ago I essentially restarted my musical life exclusively in the digital realm focusing on music created via DAWs with plugins. Initially, this brought me down a path towards music production – learning skills of editing, mixing, mastering, etc. This led to a focus towards deterministic music, extensive automation to control all the details, VSTs, and trying to create a perfect mix. While this was a great experience, at one point I realized I needed more creative flexibility and didn’t want to devote all my energy to mixing sonically polished products. I realized that I wanted (needed!) to create my own tools and make experimentation and improvisation a central part of my work.

So I turned to Max/MSP and started exploring! 

And what an amazing journey it has been! After my first major project I quickly realized how powerful and extensive the Max platform is making it well suited for my objective of gaining creative flexibility. But I also understood that it would take a long time to master, and — most importantly —  I needed some help!! While I’m a pretty good autodidact, this was a space where I needed guidance from experts and regular exposure to how other people use Max.

Finding Music Hackspace – the Instructors make the difference

Cycling ’74 has a page devoted to Resource for learning Max. That’s how I found Music Hackspace. While it wasn’t the only learning direction I pursued, I quickly found a home here. From my first engagement on, I found every course instructor, meetup presenter, organizer, etc. to be top notch. These are people who love music technology, love sharing what they know, and who know how to break it down for you. Plus they are musicians, composers, producers, engineers, etc who use these tools to build their own creative technology solutions. So they come from the same space I aspire to inhabit. That’s a big deal!

MHS Courses & learning structure

Most of the courses I have used follow a similar format. They have focused topics, learning agendas, short presentations/demos, example files, and learning exercises. The Max classes are really great at providing actual Max patch files to use in the course. Phelan Kane teaches many of these and he provides Max patches in pairs, where you have the opportunity to build the solution from a rough outline, then view the full patch to see how you did. It’s an ideal way to learn. (Ok, I admit that sometimes I cheat and skip right to the solution…)

I found this type of learning to be an excellent way to build skills and gain confidence. Plus it gave me a library of materials I still refer to when I’m working on Max patching.

I also have done a few sessions on modern orchestration techniques. Helen Noir is great! For the Violin class, she brought in a violinist who demonstrated playing techniques while Helen covered how to translate this with digital instruments. This combination was amazing. Even though I had a good background and composing experience in this area, I still learned a lot, including learning about recent developments in digital instruments with physical modeling, like using the Swam Instruments

In addition to Phelan Kane and Helen Noir, other instructors / artists I’ve had include: Umut Eldem, Massimiliano Cerioni, Ted Moore, Anna Lakatos, Ned Rush. All of them excellent!

Subscription Plan – Going Deeper

After completing a few courses, I found out about the subscription plan. I thought about it for a while, and my left brain made a list of all the courses I wanted to use and own, comparing costs of doing that against the cost of a subscription. I would save money this way, but I hesitated, because I wasn’t sure if I would stick with it. What if I lost interest or just forgot about it? In the end, my right brain won out because I wanted to be free to engage with new content and live sessions and not have to think – hey, do I really want to do this course right now? Maybe I should get it later when I have more time…. yadda yadda yadda.

Going Deeper was great! (And I didn’t forget about it!) It felt like an investment in my creative and technical me – investment in $ and learning time. It made me feel free to explore anything new that came up without worrying about whether I should buy something that I might not use right away. 

Max Meetups

The other thing I love about MHS is the monthly Max Meetups. These have been so good. Usually the format is to have an organizer who invites 2 – 3 presenters. It takes place in Zoom, so after the presentations there are breakout rooms for questions, informal discussion, etc. I’ve been participating in these now for a year and a half. The great thing is that I’ve been exposed to things I might never have found on my own. Or things that I didn’t understand very well, so I didn’t know enough to know it would interest me. 

The other thing I love about meetups is that it has greatly expanded the realm of things I want to explore – things like spectral synthesis, sonification, visual music, various live coding platforms, the Bach/Cage Max library, many Max externals, etc. Plus these sessions always give me a tangible sense that I am participating with a global community of people making music, sound, and art with technology and Max in specific. It is a great community to feel part of.

Just to give one example – at the Oct (2022) meetup Sabina Covarrubias presented her work with visual music using Max. She also covered a topic: “Digital wellness for artists.” She talked about how to cultivate resilience and the importance of differentiating between different types of work and phases in a project: technical design, programming, interface / UI work, and creative/expressive work. She urges us all to make time & space for each. What a great message!

Another fantastic session was the meetup last spring on the book Generating Sound and Organizing Time. The two authors – Graham Wakefield and Gregory Taylor – each presented for an hour. These guys literally “wrote the book” on gen~ programming – which is the essential for anyone who wants to use gen~ in Max. Of course the session was a huge firehose – each of them had enough material prepared easily for a 3 hour session! Hopefully MHS will bring them back for more (hint, hint…).

So, what have I gained from all of this?

I’ve done a lot of technical learning and training in my life. And I’ve learned that it doesn’t amount to much if you don’t use it. But with all my Music Hackspace related time, I feel that everything I’ve done has been useful. And it has this great cumulative impact. Specific things I’ve learned about include

  • Digital Synthesis techniques: (physical modeling, wavetable, subtractive, spectral, AI assisted)
  • Generative composition techniques
  • Digital Signal Processing: (audio signals, delay circuits, filters and effects processing, block diagrams, etc.)
  • Max/MSP objects and patch design; gen~ fundamentals
  • Basic sequencing in Max
  • Digital scoring techniques

More importantly, I’ve gained an excellent foundation and greatly expanded the areas I’m interested in. Furthermore, I have more confidence in tackling these things. 

But in the end, the proof’s in the pudding. So here is an example of a completed project that can be viewed on YouTube. It uses a digital instrument / Max patch that I created based on wavetable synthesis in gen~, but also uses various DSP techniques, delays, filters, VSTs etc. Embedded in this solution are many things I learned during my Music Hackspace journey.

Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think!

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