A guide to seven powerful programs for music and visuals

Dom Aversano

What should I learn? A guide to seven powerful programs for music and visuals.

The British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings described an approach to learning music that reduces it down to two tasks: the first is to know what to practise, and the second is to practise it. The same approach works for coding, and though it is a simple philosophy that does not necessarily make it easy. Knowing what to practise can feel daunting amid such a huge array of tools and approaches, making it all the more important to be clear about what you wish to learn so you can then devote yourself without doubt or distraction to the task of studying.

As ever the most important thing is not the tool but the skills, knowledge, and imagination of the person using it. However, nobody wants to attempt to hammer a nail into the wall with a screwdriver. Some programs are more suited to certain tasks than others, so it is important to have a sense of their strengths and weaknesses before taking serious steps into learning them.

What follows is a summary and description of some popular programs to help you navigate your way to what inspires you most, so you can learn with passion and energy.

Pure Data

Pure Data is an open-source programming language for audio and visual (GEM) coding that was developed by Miller Puckette in the mid-1990s. It is a dataflow language where objects are patched together using cords, in a manner appealing to those who like to conceptualise programs as a network of physical objects. 

Getting started in Pure Data is not especially difficult even without any programming experience, since it has good documentation and plenty of tutorials. You can build interesting and simple programs within days or weeks, and with experience, it is possible to build complex and professional programs.

The tactile and playful process of patching things together also represents a weakness of Pure Data, since once your programs become more advanced you need increasing numbers of patch cables, and dragging hundreds – or even thousands – of them from one place to another becomes monotonous work.

Cost: free

Introductory Tutorial 

Official Website

Max/MSP/Jitter and Max for Live

Max/MSP is Pure Data’s sibling, which makes it quite easy to migrate from one program to the other, but there are significant and important differences too. The graphical user interface (GUI) for Max is more refined and allows for organising patching chords in elegant ways that help mental clarity. With Max for Live you have Max built into Ableton – bringing together two powerful programs.

Max has a big community surrounding it in which you can find plenty of tutorials, Discord channels, and a vast library of instruments to pull apart. Just as Pure Data has GEM for visualisation Max has Jitter, in which you can create highly sophisticated visuals. All in all, this represents an incredibly powerful setup for music and visuals.

The potential downsides are that Max is paid, so if you’re on a small budget Pure Data might be better suited. It also suffers from the same patch cord fatigue as Pure Data, where you can end up attaching cords from one place to another in a repetitive manner.

Cost: $9.99 per month / $399 permanent licence or $250 for students and teachers

Introductory Tutorial

Official Website

SuperCollider

SuperCollider is an open-source language developed by James McCartney that was released in 1996, and a more traditional programming language than either Pure Data or Max. If you enjoy coding it is an immensely powerful tool where your imagination is the limit when it comes to sound design, since with as little as a single line of code you are capable of creating stunning musical outputs. 

However, SuperCollider is difficult, so if you have no programming experience expect to put in many hours before you feel comfortable. Its documentation is inconsistent and written in a way that sometimes assumes a high level of technical understanding. Thankfully, there is a generous and helpful online forum that is very welcoming to newcomers, so if you are determined to learn, do not be put off by the challenge.

An area that SuperCollider is lacking in comparison to Max and Pure Data is a sophisticated built-in environment for visuals, and although you can use it to create GUIs, they do not have the same elegance as in Max.

Cost: free

Introductory Tutorial 

Official website

TidalCycles

Though built from SuperCollider, TidalCycles is nevertheless much easier to learn. Designed for the creation of algorithmic music, it is popular in live coding or algorave music. The language is intuitive and uses music terminology in its syntax, giving people with an existing understanding of music an easy way into coding. There is a community built around it complete with Discord channels and an active community blog.

The downsides to TidalCycles are the installation is difficult, and it is a somewhat specialist tool that does not have as broad capabilities as the aforementioned programs.

Cost: free

Introductory Tutorial 

Official Websit

P5JS

P5JS is an open-source Javascript library that is a tool of choice for generative visual artists. The combination of a gentle learning curve and the ease of being able to run it straight from your browser makes it something easy to incorporate into one’s life, either as a simple tool for sketching out visual ideas or as something much more powerful that is capable of generating world-class works of art.

It is hard to mention P5JS without also mentioning Daniel Shiffmen, one of the most charismatic, humorous, and engaging programming teachers, who has rightly earned himself a reputation as such. He is the authour of a fascinating book called The Nature of Code which takes inspiration from natural systems, and like P5JS is open-source and freely available. 

Cost: free

Introductory Tutorial

Official Website

Tone.js

Like P5JS, Tone.js is also a Javascript library, and one that opens the door to a whole world of musical possibilities in the web browser. In the words of its creators it ‘offers common DAW (digital audio workstation) features like a global transport for synchronizing and scheduling events as well as prebuilt synths and effects’ while allowing for ‘high-performance building blocks to create your own synthesizers, effects, and complex control signals.’

Since it is web based one can get a feel for it by delving into some of the examples on offer

Cost: free

Introductory Tutorial

Official website

TouchDesigner

In TouchDesigner you can create magnificent live 3D visuals without the need for coding. Its visual modular environment allows you to patch together modules in intuitive and creative ways, and it is easy to input midi or OSC if you want to incorporate a new visual dimension to your music. To help learn there is an active forum, live meetups, and many tutorial videos on this site. While the initial stages of using TouchDesigner are not difficult, one can become virtuosic with the option of even writing your own code in the programming language Python. 

There is a showcase of work made using TouchDesigner on their website which gives you a sense of what it is capable of.

Cost: All features $2200 / pro version $600 / free for personal and non-commercial use. 

Introductory Tutorial

Official Website

Max meetup – October 23rd

Date & Time: Saturday 23rd October 2021 4pm UK / 5pm Berlin / 8am LA / 11am NYC

Meetup length 2-hours

Level: Open the all levels

Meetups are a great way to meet and be inspired by the Max community.

What to expect? 

The meetup runs via Zoom and will be approx. 2-hours in length.

This session focuses on <add topic> and will feature presentations from expert practitioners.

Speakers:

Michele Zaccagnini – Beyond Jitter: audiovisuals in Max using shaders

  • Overview: In this presentation I will demystify, or at least whet your appetite for, shaders in Max. I will also present a set of tools I helped develop to port MIDI and audio to shaders, and have them rendered in all sorts of formats. While shaders can be intimidating at first, they are incredibly powerful and offer enormous possibilities for the audiovisual composer. They are entirely run on the GPU and allow for completely flexible visual programming which is very suitable for abstract visuals.  After years of practicing audiovisual composition I believe that the Max+Shaders combo is simply delicious! 
  • More info https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCXMQVkLE-bKdA7cycXECtCQ https://www.patreon.com/michelez 

Philip Meyer:  Modular Sequencing with Jamoma

  • Overview: I am in the process of building a modular system for creating dynamic musical sequences. This is the early stages of a long-term project for me to build a powerful environment in which I can create intricate, novel compositions as dynamic data systems, eschewing the need for a timeline. For this project, I decided to use the Jamoma package for the first time. This seems at present to have been a good decision – Jamoma’s “MVC” architecture is intuitive and clean, and the cueing system is working well so far. I am eager to show the group what I have made so far and gather any feedback, advice, or ideas the group may have. I’m particularly curious to hear the thoughts of anybody who has extensive experience with Jamoma. I might also be interested in bringing any collaborators or beta testers on to the project if anybody is so inclined.
  • More info: 
    • Philip-meyer.com
    • Bbandcamp: inter-modal.bandcamp.com 

Following these presentations breakout rooms are created where you can:

  • Talk to the presenters and ask questions

  • Fancy a collaboration challenge? In one of the breakout rooms, host Ned Rush will be leading ‘Ready, Steady, Patch!’ sign up to learn more!

  • Show other participants your projects, ask for help, or help others out

  • Meet peers in the chill-out breakout room

Requirements

  • A computer and internet connection
  • A Zoom account

Berlin Code of Conduct

We ask all participants to read and follow the Berlin Code of Conduct and contribute to creating a welcoming environment for everyone.

 Supported by Cycling ‘74

Getting started with Max – October Series

Date & Time: Wednesdays 6th / 13th / 20th / 27th October – 6pm UK / 7pm Berlin / 10am LA / 1pm NYC

Length 2-hours

Level: Beginners curious about programming

Get started with interactive audio and MIDI, and discover the possibilities of the Max environment. In this series of workshops, you will learn how to manipulate audio, MIDI, virtual instruments and program your own interactive canvas.

Connect together Max’s building blocks to create unexpected results, and use them in your music productions. Through a series of guided exercises you will engage in the pragmatic creation of a basic MIDI sequencer device that features a wealth of musical manipulation options.

Learn from guided examples and live interactions with teachers and other participants.

This series of online workshops aims to enable you to work with Max confidently on your own.

Sessions overview: 

Session 1 – Understand the Max environment

Session 2 – Connect building blocks together and work with data

Session 3 – Master the user interface

Session 4 – Work with your MIDI instruments

Requirements

  • A computer and internet connection

  • A good working knowledge of computer systems

  • Access to a copy of Max 8

About the workshop leader 

Kyle Duffield is a Toronto based Interactive Experience Design Professional who creates immersive interactive installations and brand activations. He is also known for his affiliation with the studio space Electric Perfume. His decade-plus expertise spans audio, video, creative coding, electronics, and interaction design with the intent of bringing play and multisensory spectacle to public spaces. As an Educator, he has facilitated interactive media courses and workshops with various institutions, galleries, and universities across Canada, Shanghai, the UK, and online. Currently, Kyle is a Cycling 74 Max Certified Trainer, and is focusing on creating unforgettable technological experiences.

Using Collab-Hub with Max for Collaborative Network Performance / LIVE Session – September 19th

Date and Time: Sunday 19th September 2021 6pm UK / 7pm Berlin / 10am LA / 1pm NYC

Length: approx. 2- hours

Level: Intermediate

Collab-Hub offers the ability to connect multiple Max patches together over the internet, allowing performers across the world to share control data with one another during collaborative performances. In this workshop you will learn how to add Collab-Hub’s user-friendly modules to any Max patch, how to send and receive data between multiple connected users, and how to map that data to the parameters of your instrument or effect. You will also learn techniques for sharing data between Max and web pages, opening the door for building multi-platform networked experiences between mobile devices and your favourite patches.

By the end of this session a successful student will be able to:

  • Build a Max patch that connects to the Collab-Hub web server
  • Retrofit Collab-Hub modules and mapping strategies into an existing Max/Jitter patch
  • Send and receive data in both Control and Event formats between their Max patch and other connected clients
  • Explore methods for building advanced messaging networks with the Push and Publish transmission methods

Session Study Topics

  • Introduction to Collab-Hub and the Collab-Hub Max client modules
  • Sending and Receiving Control and Event data (from within Max patches and/or a web interface)
  • Mapping Data to Synthesis Parameters
  • Understanding Push/Publish distribution types and Room organization

Requirements

  • A computer and internet connection
  • A web cam and mic
  • A Zoom account
  • Access to a copy of Max 8 (i.e. trial or full license)

About the workshop leaders 

Nick Hwang is a composer and sonic artist interested in interactivity, collaborative systems, and gameful performance. He is an Assistant Professor in the Media Arts and Game Development program at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Eric Sheffield is a musician and maker currently interested in physics-based modeling, networked performance, and popular music. He currently teaches as Visiting Assistant Professor in both the Music and Emerging Technology in Business + Design departments at Miami University.

Anthony T. Marasco is an Assistant Professor of Music Technology and Composition at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. As a composer and sound artist, his works feature custom-made software and electronic instruments, hacked consumer hardware, and networked systems for designing audience/performer collaborative experiences.

Max meetup – September

Date & Time: Saturday 25th September 2021 4pm UK / 5pm Berlin / 8am LA / 11am NYC

Meetup length 2-hours

Level: Open the all levels

Meetups are a great way to meet and be inspired by the Max community.

What to expect? 

The meetup runs via Zoom and will be approx. 2-hours in length.

This session will feature presentations from expert practitioners.

Mari Kimura – MUGIC®, motion sensor for performance 

  • Mari will be discussing and demonstrating works using MUGIC®, a motion sensor for performance that runs on Max, Ableton or any DAW as a MIDI controller. MUGIC® is now used by artists and in many universities including Harvard, University of Toronto and Miami, and my classes at Juilliard and UC Irvine.  https://mugicmotion.com/ 
  • MARI KIMURA is a violinist/composer and a developer of MUGIC® motion sensor. She is also a professor at UC Irvine and at The Juilliard School. Mari has been at the forefront of violinists who are extending the technical and expressive capabilities of the instrument.  

Dr. Zeynep Özcan: Proprius

  • Will be talking about their work Proprius, a biologically interactive musical ecosystem. The ecosystem implemented in Processing. The data generated in Processing is transmitted to Max via OSC for the musical output to be generated in real-time. Zeynep will discuss the creative decisions made in the conception of the work and how the system evolved in years to come. 
  • Bio: Dr. Zeynep Özcan is a sonic artist, author, and lecturer at the Department of Performing Arts Technology at the University of Michigan.
  • http://zeynepozcan.net

Anastasia Clarke: Evolution of a Max performance patch 

  • Will discuss the evolution of a Max performance patch including custom effects that have been used for improvisation and composition, and have now been adapted for use with Ableton Live / Max for Live.
  • Bio: Anastasia Clarke is a composer, sound designer, and artist living in Lenapehoking / New York City. Their work asks how music and sound can be used as tools or catalysts for healing and activism, through both cognitive and communal engagements.
  • https://anastasiaclarke.info/ 

 Following these presentations breakout rooms are created where you can: 

  • Talk to the presenters and ask questions
  • Join a room on topics of your choice
  • Show other participants your projects, ask for help, or help others out
  • Meet peers in the chill-out breakout room

Requirements

  • A computer and internet connection
  • A Zoom account

 Berlin Code of Conduct

We ask all participants to read and follow the Berlin Code of Conduct and contribute to creating a welcoming environment for everyone.

Supported by Cycling ‘74

Getting confident with Max – September series

Dates & Times: Tuesdays 21st & 28th September + 5th & 12th October – 6pm GMT / 7pm CET / 10am PST / 1pm EST

Level: Beginner

Cycling 74’s Max / MSP offers a vast playground of programming opportunities to create your own sound design and multimedia applications. In this workshop you will build a patch using items from the Max tool bar such as Beap and Vizzie as well using media from your own collection, plus explore ways to open up, reverse engineer and modify existing resources within the Max application.

Series Learning Outcomes

By the end of this series a successful student will be able to:

  • Confidently navigate the Max environment to quickly gain access to content and learning resources.
  • Deploy resources into a patch.
  • Connect and explore these resources to develop ideas for sound and media design, composition and performance.
  • Navigate the help file system and reverse engineer existing content in the Max application.

Session Study Topics

  • The Tools available in a Max such as Beap and Vizzie modules.
  • Playlists and drag and drop media.
  • Bpatches, prototypes and snippets.
  • The helpfile system.

Requirements

  • A computer and internet connection
  • A web cam and mic
  • A Zoom account
  • Access to a copy of Max 8 (i.e. trial or full license)

About the workshop leader  

Duncan Wilson (aka Ned Rush) is a musician, producer and content creator based in the UK. Whilst perhaps largely known for his Youtube channel, he has also released music independently as well developing content for Isotonik Studios.

https://linktr.ee/nedrush

Getting started with Max – September Series

Dates & Times: 

Session 1: Wednesday 15th September at 6pm UK / 7pm Berlin / 10am LA / 1pm NYC

Session 2: Wednesday 22nd September at 6pm UK / 7pm Berlin / 10am LA / 1pm NYC

Session 3: Wednesday 29th September at 6pm UK / 7pm Berlin / 10am LA / 1pm NYC

Session 4: Wednesday 6th October at 6pm UK / 7pm Berlin / 10am LA / 1pm NYC

Level: Beginners curious about programming

Get started with interactive audio and MIDI, and discover the possibilities of the Max environment. In this series of workshops, you will learn how to manipulate audio, MIDI, virtual instruments and program your own interactive canvas.

Connect together Max’s building blocks to create unexpected results, and use them in your music productions. Through a series of guided exercises you will engage in the pragmatic creation of a basic MIDI sequencer device that features a wealth of musical manipulation options.

Learn from guided examples and live interactions with teachers and other participants.

This series of online workshops aims to enable you to work with Max confidently on your own.

Sessions overview 

Session 1 – Understand the Max environment

Session 2 – Connect building blocks together and work with data

Session 3 – Master the user interface

Session 4 – Work with your MIDI instruments

Requirements

    • A computer and internet connection
    • A good working knowledge of computer systems
    • Access to a copy of Max 8

About the workshop leader 

Phelan Kane is a Berlin & London based music producer, engineer, artist, developer and educator. For over twenty years he has been active in both the music industry and the contemporary music education sector, with a focus on electronic music and alternative bands.

He specialises in sound design and production techniques such as synthesis and sampling, alongside audio processing and plug-in development.

He is currently running the electronic music record label Meta Junction Recordings and the audio software development company Meta Function, which specialize in Max for Live devices releasing the M4L synth Wave Junction in partnership with Sonicstate.

Getting started with Max – August Series

Dates & Times: Starting Friday 6th August 6pm UK / 7pm Berlin / 10am LA / 1pm NYC

Level: Beginners curious about programming

Get started with interactive audio and MIDI, and discover the possibilities of the Max environment. In this series of workshops, you will learn how to manipulate audio, MIDI, virtual instruments and program your own interactive canvas.

Connect together Max’s building blocks to create unexpected results, and use them in your music productions. Through a series of guided exercises you will engage in the pragmatic creation of a basic MIDI sequencer device that features a wealth of musical manipulation options.

Learn from guided examples and live interactions with teachers and other participants.

This series of online workshops aims to enable you to work with Max confidently on your own.

Sessions overview 

Session 1 – Understand the Max environment (Friday 6th August at 6pm UK / 7pm Berlin / 10am LA / 1pm NYC)

Session 2 – Connect building blocks together and work with data (Friday 13th August at 6pm UK / 7pm Berlin / 10am LA / 1pm NYC)

Session 3 – Master the user interface (Friday 20th August at 6pm UK / 7pm Berlin / 10am LA / 1pm NYC)

Session 4 – Work with your MIDI instruments (Friday 27th August at 6pm UK / 7pm Berlin / 10am LA / 1pm NYC)

Requirements

  • A computer and internet connection

  • A good working knowledge of computer systems

  • Access to a copy of Max 8

  • A Zoom account

About the workshop leader 

Melody Loveless is an artist, creative technologist, and educator based in Brooklyn, NYC. Her work ranges from live coding performance, generative sound installations, multisensory performance, and more. She has taught at various institutes across NYC including NYU, the New School, Hunter College, and Harvestworks and is part of Cycling 74’s Max Certified Trainer Program.

Max meetup – August 14th

Date & Time: Saturday 14th August – 4pm UK / 5pm Berlin / 8am LA / 11am NYC

Meetup length 2-hours 

Level: Open to all levels

Meetups are a great way to meet and be inspired by the Max community.

What to expect? 

The meetup runs via Zoom and will be approx. 2-hours in length.

This session will feature presentations from expert practitioners.

Following these presentations breakout rooms are created where you can: 

  • Talk to the presenters and ask questions

  • Join a room on topics of your choice

  • Show other participants your projects, ask for help, or help others out

  • Meet peers in the chill-out breakout room

The list of presenters will be updated and announced before the meetup. 

Requirements

  • A computer and internet connection
  • A Zoom account

Berlin Code of Conduct

We ask all participants to read and follow the Berlin Code of Conduct and contribute to creating a welcoming environment for everyone.

Supported by Cycling ‘74

Max meetup – July 24th

Date & Time: Saturday 24th July 4pm UK / 5pm Berlin / 8am LA / 11am NYC

Level: Open to all levels

Hosted by Melody Loveless.

Meetups are a great way to meet and be inspired by the Max community.

What to expect? 

The meetup runs via Zoom and will be approx. 2-hours in length.

This session will feature presentations from 3 expert practitioners: 

Viola Yip

Daniel McKemie

Virginia de las Pozas: Axine M

Following these presentations breakout rooms are created where you can:

  • Talk to the presenters and ask questions

  • Join a room on topics of your choice

  • Show other participants your projects, ask for help, or help others out

  • Meet peers in the chill-out breakout room

Requirements: 

  • A computer and internet connection
  • A Zoom account

 Berlin Code of Conduct

We ask all participants to read and follow the Berlin Code of Conduct and contribute to creating a welcoming environment for everyone.

Supported by Cycling ‘74