An Interview with Robert Henke
Robert Henke is a brilliant electronic musician who records and performs under his own name and also as Monolake. His music has been described as minimalist yet complex techno with an architectural sound. For me, his music is very spatial and multi-dimensional.I find it takes me on an extraordinary journey through space and time, similar to a great work of fiction. Henke recently said, “The last century was about the creation of electronic music. This century is about performance.”
In recent years Henke’s work has strayed outside the boundaries of clubs and CDs. He performs amazing surround concerts and has begun to create densely layered, immersive multi media installation works that have shown internationally. Henke is relentless in his drive to designing the perfect unique tools for each project. He is one of those rare artists that is also a brilliant designer.
Henke is also active in creating tools for other musicians, since the founding of the company in 1999 he is part of the development team of the software program Ableton Live. In 2003, Henke began an evolving design on a performance controller in 2003 that came to inspire the Akai APC40 control surface. He has also been involved in the development of Max for Live.
Henke has worked in Max/MSP for over 15 years. I caught up with him at Expo ’74 to talk about the interesting journey that he has taken.
What brought you to use Max/MSP?
Well, I’m not a musician, I can’t play an instrument, and I really like the idea of a machine doing things. I like step sequencers. I like statistical and stochastic functions for creating clouds of sounds, and clouds of events. I see myself more as someone who is writing a structure, and the structure then creates the music. And Max is pretty much the ideal tool for this kind of thinking.
How would you describe your patches? Are they messy, are they organized, are they minimal, are they maximal?
This changed over the last 20 years. My first patches were very small, because I worked on a Macintosh Plus, which was extremely limited. Then my patches became very big, because I tried to solve every possible problem with one single, big patch. Then my patches became very small again. What I do these days is that I try to come up with a patch which solves 90 percent of what I want to do, and I try to do this within a very short amount of time, so that I spend more time actually making music than programming Max.
It’s a tricky thing with Max: You can spend weeks in refining a patch, and afterwards, the initial idea is pretty much gone. Now you have the perfect tool, but you’re not interested in using it anymore. So I try to make small patches, which do a lot of good things.
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Is it true that Live was originally written in Max MSP?
There was a step sequencer, which had been developed by Gerhard Behles and myself, and this step sequencer had a few features, which later found its way into Live. For instance, the fact that you can switch patterns for each track individually. And a lot of the effects in Ableton Live I prototyped in Max, like the Grain Delay, which is a classic type of Max patch. The Chorus was a Max patch as is was the Waveshaper/Saturator. The Operator synthesizer started as a Max patch, at least in parts. Live itself was written from scratch in C++. But I like the idea that it’s a Max patch, because everyone who is into Max obviously understands that this is impossible. [Laughs] It’s a nice urban myth.
Do you have any favorite object?
Favorite object? Well, in the old days, the recipe was pretty much: Table, Counter, and Random… Metro!, of course! I think Metro, to me, is the Max object of choice, if I have to choose one. It just bangs regularly by itself. [Laughs]
Do you make your own objects?
No. Maybe 15 years ago I dove into the SDK, and I thought, let’s go hard-core. But then I realized pretty quickly that what I really want to do is making music. And there’s (already) such an abundance of tools. I really don’t see why I need to invent yet another tool at this time.
What do you think’s going to happen in the next few days, at this Expo ’74 conference? What do you hope to get out of it?
Well, I have a kind of official task to do here. I’m looking for interesting people who might at some point contribute content for MaxForLive. Or would be interested in working for Ableton. That’s just the very straightforward answer. I’m also hoping to get inspiration, ideas for my own creative works. In general, to hang out with people who can expand my idea of what’s possible. Because Max is a language and everyone is using that language in a different way. I’m always amazed when communicating with other people who are using Max, because we are all using the same tool, but we achieve totally different results. And that’s very interesting, and very inspiring!
Regarding Max, I think what I really like about Max am that it has the potential to change the way you think about music. It did this for me. It really freed me from this linear idea of something which has a start and an end. And this was a total liberation. I realized more than before that what I’m interested in in music is some kind of constantly changing, endless state, and Max is the ideal tool that. It’s actually a tool for sculpturing music, much more than for recording. A Max patch looks like an abstract painting. The music you make with Max is potentially endless, and it all somehow fits together.
Do you have any tips for somebody new to it?
Yeah: Try simple things. The biggest mistake one can make is trying to come up with the one single patch that does everything. Make a simple patch, and try to work with that simple patch for a period of time. Because making a tool is one thing, but mastering a tool and working with a tool is another thing. And if you’re constantly creating a new tool, you will never master it. And that’s a danger, in Max, that the Edit button is so close. [Laughs] Maybe people should sometimes just use Max Runtime for a month. Cycling ’74 should force people to use Max Runtime for one month a year, so they can’t make new patches, they just have to use what they already did. [Laughs] It’s kind of a responsibility of Cycling ’74 towards the development of art. [Laughs] So it would be the ‘Max Play Days’. You can think about Max Play parties and stuff like that.
Do you still play in clubs a lot?
I do, I’m touring. I play in clubs. And I more and more enjoy extending what you can do in a club. The more ‘famous’ I get, the more I try to find out how far I can push it. So the last thing I started was that I decided I’d like to play 4-channel live sets, even in a club. There are people who say, oh, it’s a club, it’s mono anyway, no one cares if the snare comes from there, from there, or from there. But, as a matter of fact, since my music is so much about atmospheres, and the beats are just one part of it, the atmospheres tremendously benefit from four channels. So this is one way how I try to expand the club idea. Another idea is that I’m really trying to perform ‘live’ as much as possible with a lot of control over my live set. And there Max plays an important role, because Max works as the bridge between Ableton Live and my hardware controller. So yeah, I try to make club music, which is not club music. And that’s what I really like when performing; Presenting people with something they usually do not hear in a club, and still make sure they can dance. That’s a challenge, but it’s also very satisfying.
I really enjoy being a part of this event here, and I strongly believe, that the integration of Max and Live will create tremendous possibilities. And it will do so because it simplifies things. The German computer pioneer, Konrad Zuse, who I think built the first working computer based on tubes, in Berlin in 1930s, once said that ‘not the most advanced ideas, but those who create the most immediate and simple results are the ones which succeed.’ And Max for Live will simplify a lot of things and therefore will enable more people to do outstanding things with easier access. Therefore people will be encouraged to explore new ideas, and this will definitely have an impact on what people will do artistically.
So this was the positive side of Max for Live. The negative side of Max for Live is that people might project a lot of expectations. I have the feeling that for a lot of people who are not really deeply into Max, it’s this kind of secret weapon, and they believe it’s the Holy Grail of everything and once you know Max, you can do everything. And of course that’s not true, because there are all kinds of little limitations, and awkward things, like in any environment. I guess what will happen is that at first people are extremely euphoric, then a lot of people will become really upset about the limitations, and afterwards, people will realize that it’s cool nevertheless, and will be extremely happy. That’s the curve I know from every Live release. Total anticipation, and euphoric statements, then total frustration, and afterwards people just use it and love it. MaxForLive will be pretty much the same thing. The one thing I’m really curious about is what people actually are going to do with it. Because the possibilities of this combination are really beyond anything else I could imagine. I believe we will see stunning results, and we will see surprising results. People will come up with ideas, which totally exceed what any one of us would imagine people would do. We can already see people doing stuff with Live itself that we would never have come up with. And the combination of Max and Live is just like a new universe.
I started working more with Max, actually. I had a period where I was fed up with programming, and I just wanted to make music, and I felt that making Max patches is a waste of time. And this phase is over, since maybe a year or something, I enjoy making Max patches again. And it was independent of the release of Max 5. It just happened that I again felt there’s a way of expression possible in Max that I was missing. Now I’m kind of back to Max. And then MaxForLive finally came true, so it all works very well together. I actually can’t wait to use MaxForLive more. It’s fun.
Explain what MaxForLive is.
Well, MaxForLive is a version of Max, which runs inside Live. This combines two very different applications into something new and exciting. The benefit of Max which runs in Live is: if you come from a Max perspective, you have access to features which are difficult to realize in Max. Max is really good for things that have nothing to do with a timeline at all. Live is really good in dealing with timeline-based operations, because we have all this stuff there. So if you want to control a Max patch to create a change over a long period of time, and you need a timeline, MaxForLive is a very good answer for that. It frees the Max user to do something that is hard to do in Max. From a Live perspective, MaxForLive opens up the possibility to create your own effects, and to create your own synthesizers. It also allows you control Live in a new way, and therefore extend the functionality of Live, helps to customize Live. We realize that a lot of our customers have very individual ideas how they would like to use Live. The problem is, if you asked 100 people what they want, how we should continue developing Live, you’d get 100 different answers. And we just cannot fulfill every need for every person. It would just be impossible. MaxForLive allows people to solve their very individual problems with a high degree of elegance.
To give an example, you could want that if you play in a live situation, if you played a clip that the color of this clip changes. So that you actually realize, oh, I played this clip before. That’s a feature that totally makes sense from a live performer perspective, but it’s certainly not a feature we would ever implement in Live ourselves, because it’s such a special feature. It’s a special request. It’s not something that you would want to see in a menu of Live. But with MaxForLive, this is a task that is extremely simple to do. So you play on stage, and all your clips are green, and you play a few clips, and afterwards the clips are orange. You know, OK, I played these clips already. This is a very simple patch in MaxForLive, which enhances the functionality of Live in a totally meaningful way. It’s very personal, and it applies only for those few hundred people who like this feature, but for them this feature is extremely important. And that, I think, is a nice example of how a very simple Max patch can solve a problem, which is very essential for a few people. Actually this example is something I did already. I color the LEDs on my MIDI controller, so if I played a clip already, it has a different color.
What type of hardware controller do you use?
I built my own hardware controller, because I was not satisfied with any commercial product. And I so underestimated the effort. [Laughs] It took me more than a year to build my controller.
Is Ableton going to be putting it out? Is it going to become a commercial product?
It kind of has. My controller is called the Monodeck II, there’s a lot of information on my web site about it. A lot of ideas from the Monodeck, which had been realized in 2005, 2006, are now, four years later, part of the Akai APC40 controller. So there’s obviously a connection there. The Monodeck will never be a commercial product, but the Akai APC40, which was developed by Akai with Ableton, is the logical consequence out of that. If the Monodeck ever breaks, then I will just grab my APC40, and it’s all good. The first Monodeck was a really self-made, DIY kind of thing. Which gave the security people at the airport a hard time. The Monodeck II just looks like a professional product, so no one cares anymore.
If you have something really DIY they think it’s a bomb or something.
Yeah. The thing with the Monodeck is, and with the Monodeck II, that I have some wood stuff in there, as distancing parts. I realized because a lady at the x-ray told me once that, explosives are organic materials, too. So if you look at my controller on the x-ray, you see blocks of organic substance in there, and that’s classic ‘Alarm, there’s an explosive in there!!’ trigger. So they always check it.