Max/Msp (by now simply Max) is a visual programming language for developing software for musical and multimedia applications, available in real time. Today is one of the most important and used software by those interesting to compose music through the computer.

When? – Max is now used both for composing music with the computer or to develop new musical software and multimedia projects. It is not easy point out a precise date in which this software was made, because it is a final work of a long research activity. Max was designed and realized at Ircam, in Paris, by Miller Puckette. Himself underlined that Max born between the 1980 and the 1990, after finishing many research experiences in computer technology for music.[1]

RTSKED – The first fundamental step of this long research road was probably RTSKED. This is a control software developed by Max Mathews and Joseph Pasquale for a polyphonic synthesizer. Thanks to this software, the real time control of an external device was resolved in a more efficient way, even compared with that done by Max Mathews with the Groove system. RTSKED allowed to run simultaneously several control process, rather than the sequential actions, one for a time, introduced several years before by the Music N family of programming languages.[1] We must underlined that RTSKED, in turn, has a model in 4Ced, the 4C’s control software developed by Curtis Abbott at Ircam.[2]

Barry Vercoe – Many important was the research work carried out with Barry Vercoe from the 1979 to the Mid-Eighties. Today, Vercoe is famous first for Csound, but the collaboration with Puckette occurred for the real time systems. Even Miller Puckette has underlined the importance of these research, referring in particular to the technology of “score following”, capable to make the computer a sort of real human performer, able to follow others musicians during a real music performance.

Music500 – The previous features, in according with Puckette, were the most important reference models for the Max paradigm, while the code was implemented by others software such as the Music500. It was a research project inspired by Barry Vercoe’s Music 11 to which Miller Puckette worked starting in 1982, at MIT, Boston. It was only a first step to Max/Msp, since Music 500 not had a GUI, and worked only in deferred time.[1]

4X and Max – In 1985 Miller Puckette moved to Ircam, where Barry Vercoe called him to work for a new project named Synthetic Performer. This is a very important fact, since he had the possibility to try the 4X digital signal processor, developed by Italian physicist Giuseppe Di Giugno, and with which the Synthetic Performer was interfaced. Initially, Puckette wanted to implement the Music500 with the 4X, but several technical limits impeded this fusion. Later, Puckette maintained only the control part of the Music500, renaming Max, and removing the synthesis section. In those year even Max allowed only an alphanumerical approach, as the majority of software, and so Puckette decided to implement the synthesis part developing a method with which create virtual instruments, linking together virtual objects with a single input and output.[1]

First Max Applications – Although developed for the 4X, Max was used first with the Synthetic Performer in 1985. The year after was presented at MIT, Boston. In every case, that was a rudimentary version of Max, if compared with later versions. From a music composition point of view, the first musical works composed with Max were Alone by Tierry Lancino and Jupiter by Philippe Manoury, both in 1987. Clearly, was a very different version, if compared with the last.

C – But, these first applications, stimulated Puckette to improve his software. So, he start to work on a new version written in C programming language, to develop a Max version for Macintosh computer. This version, more similar to that used today, was used in 1987 for the musical work by Philippe Manoury named Pluton (premiered in 1988), then in 1988 was used for a live performance by Frédéric Durieux for a work named Parcours Pluriel. We must remember that if even these musical works was composed in the same years, the first music composition realized with Max it is Pluton. For this work, Max was linked via MIDI to the 4X, and a Macintosh computer was used for the control of the DSP.

Patcher – As previously mentioned, in the early versions Max not was very different from the Music N models, of which retained the alphanumeric approach and a modular design as the UG adopted by those software. The best feature that Puckette could be introduced in Max was a GUI for a most simplified approach to the software; so to make Max a more user friendly environment. Even the road for this improvement was very long. The first step could be traced in OEDIT, acronym of Orchestra EDITor, a GUI developed for the Music 11, but it ever worked, and so it was not officially presented. Was designed by Richard Steiger and Roger Hale. In addition to OEDIT, very important was the reference model offered by Formes[3], but the most important thing was that Puckette decided to work for this project in 1987, and in 1988 he finished Patcher, the first GUI for Max/Msp.

Sales – The new GUI give back a software interesting even for commercial use. In 1991 received a mention for the best software of the year by Keyboard Magazine. In a first time Max was sold through the Opcode Systems, at least until the late Nineties, before being sold to the David Zicarelli’s Cycling ’74, that even now deals with the development and sale.

Musical Works – Many works were composed with Max, insomuch as a simple list of compositions and composers would be boring. Nevertheless it is necessary a very short list useful to understand how much this computer instrument was used across-the-board by composers such as Pierre Boulez or Aphex Twin, Giorgio Nottoli or Radiohead, to name a few.

The Name – So much I could writing about Max, for example about the FTS and Jmax versions, or about how Jitter makes Max a multimedia environment, finally we may write about Pure Data designed even by Miller Puckette and based on his previous research for Max. Nevertheless, we cannot finish to talk about Max without spending some words about its name. Max was named in homage to Max Mathews, pioneer and father of computer music. More mysterious is the acronym MSP. Some years ago, the official site of Cycling ’74 wrote that MSP meant Max Signal Processing or Miller Smith Puckette but, without originality, I think that Musical Signal Processing could be good. In every case, I don’t think that this is more important of the large amount of musical works composed with this sophisticated technological instrument named Max, with or without Msp, and make it one of the most important software for those interested in composing music with the computer.



[1] Miller Puckette, MAX at Seventeen, Computer Music Journal, Vol. 26 [4], 2002.
[2] Max Mathews, Joseph Pasquale, RTSKED, a Scheduled Performance Language for the Crumar General Development System, Proceedings of International Computer Music Conference, San Francisco, 1981.
[3] Miller Puckette, Interprocess Communication and Timing in Real-Time Computer Music Performance, Proceedings of International Computer Music Conference, 1986.
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