Taking Max Onstage With Herbie Hancock

For decades, Herbie Hancock has been creating great music while pushing the state-of-the-art. He seems to delight in finding ways to project his musical ideas via new technologies, and is constantly searching for new tools and techniques for his musical explorations.

Earlier this year I began working with Herbie and Brian McCullough (his Studio and Technical Manager) to develop some Max-based solutions for managing his onstage workflow.


Herbie and Brian in Herbie’s studio in Los Angeles.

The Challenge

Herbie’s rig is constantly evolving, with hardware, software and controllers undergoing change. Currently his main synthesizer keyboard is a Korg Kronos workstation. There is also a Yamaha Motif in a rack, along with two RME Fireface UFX’s (clocked with an Apogee Big Ben) for audio interface. He also uses a Roland AX “keytar” and a Roland VP-770 vocoder. An iMac and a Mac mini, each running Logic, Live and Max, control this entire system.


An incarnation of some of the gear Herbie takes on the road with him.

For controllers, Herbie is using a Pok foot controller to manage the Looper device in Ableton Live, and a KMI Quneo to provide effects control. Finally, there are 2 Korg microKey37’s used to trigger clips and play an occasional melody line.

What Herbie needed was a way of being able to manage presets and songs throughout the entire system. Not only does he use presets on the hardware synths, but also requires access to presets on the software synthesizers hosted in both Live and Logic. All of this needed to be controlled from different playing locations, with the entire system synchronized throughout the stage area. Some of Herbie’s songs require clips to be triggered in different ways (and using different devices), so he also needed to create a song manager and a master set list.

The Solution


Herbie warming up for a testing session at UCLA.

We decided that the most flexible way to do this would be to create a smart “MIDI patch bay” in Max, and to present the UI for this via TouchOSC on the iPad. The result is a MIDI patch bay that could be a hub for all of the MIDI control data that needed to be sent around the rig.

Herbie uses a single bank of 127 sounds for all of his shows that he was accessing via the screen on the Kronos. This bank of 127 preset names is stored in a Max patch, and each preset refers to a preset anywhere in the rest of the rig. The preset contains data about its audio and MIDI routing, and also data about other devices’ configuration when the preset is selected.

I implemented this system in Max using Javascript code. Javascript made it easy for me to script the necessary commends to configure the TouchOSC interface I created, and the use of a JS Global object for the state of the system means I can easily add functionality as we expand the rig – and makes it possible for me to query the state of the system easily from new sections of code.

Here’s what a page of Herbie’s preset chooser currently looks like:

The Vocoder and Omnisphere get their own global buttons because we need to be able to go to them at any time. Presets like “Rockit” and “Chameleon” access preset multis which include all of the likely sounds for those songs mapped over the full range of the MIDI controller keyboard being used.

It is important to note that a “song” in the set list can represent almost anything. A song may be something that Herbie wants to play it on the acoustic piano. It might be an elaborately controlled sequential system of clips in Live. It may be a free form improvisation with clips in Live with a beat synced looper and multiple sounds triggered from multiple MIDI controllers. In fact, the song structure may be abandoned at any time during a show, but we still need to “keep in touch” with the song in case we want to return to it later. Combining this with a clear and easy-to-remember UI represents the evolution of this system.

This preset system is only part of his onstage control system. Currently Herbie uses 5 iPads onstage: one for the Omnisphere app, one for TouchAble clip launching, and 3 for our preset/song list/song system.

Future plans include the use of gesture recorders and MIDI recorders, some of which will involve the awesome Bach project. We’re also working on a new looping application that will act as a “loop orchestrator”, providing mixing and arranging controls for each recorded loop.

Herbie’s vision is to expand on these stage management tools so they are useful in the studio. We’ve got this far with Max without even needing to turn on the DSP, so there is a lot more room to explore!

Taking Max Onstage With Herbie Hancock

Jan 24, 2013 at 1:41pm

awesome !! i really enjoyed reading this article, thanks for being aware of the hardware software relationship of musical creation. As a growing youth i have always tried my best to delve into the understanding and knowledge of how these components are put together and the way to utilize many of the best types of paths there are in sound production and manipulation while understanding the integrity of true analog based and digitally based routes available to date.
Remembering the basics and applying true creativity is always going to grow a heart of understanding in the musical mind while keeping true to the roots of practicality. Herbie Hancock has really shown us how a dedicated mind and a humble heart can live forever within the realm of creativity.
As for myself, now 32 years young, Iʻm always trying my best to find Sound Gear that could help me expand my tastes for sonic enjoyment to share with loved ones and for personal development as well.
Thank you Cycling74.com. dj Gammablasta aka Mixelsdrop (Oahu, Hawaii)

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Aug 15, 2013 at 9:57pm

I saw Herbie and his quartet last night in Santiago and I was very intrigued by his setup.
Being a performing keyboardist I have tried many different controller setups and I have come to the conclusion that for me the simpler the better especially with midi and computers, I’ve had several unexpected surprises in the middle of a concert.
For a living legend such as him it makes sense to get help from programming experts and also have a stage hand. The concert was great and he was having a great time with his rig !. At one point the vocoder stopped working in the middle of a song, Zakir Husaain took over at that point while they figured out what happened…. The band played amazing and Herbie is a great artist and a beautiful person, a try master. Great work with the programming !

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