Putting Max into Words
Our Italian friends Maurizio Giri and Alessandro Cipriani, authors of Electronic Music and Sound Design, tell us why their book is worth checking out and offer insight into its writing in this interview with Cycling ’74.
How did you first get started on the book? What gave you the idea to make a textbook focussed on MaxMSP?
It has been many years since Alessandro wrote a book about Csound with Riccardo Bianchini, entitled “Virtual Sound”. Meanwhile, in teaching our courses we developed new ideas about electronic music education. We now think that MaxMSP is a great software to implement our ideas about a “Theory+Practice” course.
I understand that the book was originally written in Italian. Did you do your own translation to English as well?
No, we and our publisher ContempoNet launched a call on the Cycling ’74 forum and on a few sites for freelance translators looking for somebody who would be fluent in Italian, a good writer in English, but who would also know both the theory of sound synthesis, signal processing, and have a good knowledge of Max/MSP. Several people answered and we finally chose David Stutz, with whom we had an intense collaboration, discussing all the details and the nuances of both languages. Finally the three of us learned a lot from this translation process. We’ve been told that somebody is starting to use both books to learn a second technical language.
One thing I really appreciate about the book is the integration of practical examples, like the “Algorithm Completion” exercises. Did this idea come out of teaching experience?
Yes, definitely. The worst case in electronic music learning is to remain passive, to understand all the patches and the theory, but remain unable to correct, to invent, to be creative and active. The practical chapters of the book also include many activities. These activities and tasks activate the knowledge and practical skills of the reader. When learning a foreign language, there is a gap between what one knows and what one is able to use in practice. The same is true of a programming language: a student can understand how algorithms work without being able to build them from scratch. The activities in this book that concentrate on replacing parts of algorithms, completing unfinished algorithms, correcting algorithms with bugs, and reverse engineering, have been included to pose problems to which the readers are encouraged to find their own solutions. This causes the learning process to become more active and creative. Our approach involves interactions between the perception of sounds and the knowledge deriving from reading the book and doing the practical activities, but also interactions between these two factors and the user’s own skills and creativity.
With the vast amount of information online, I’m intrigued to see the sudden interest in printed books on MaxMSP, both yours and Francisco Colasanto’s Spanish-language book. What can we gain from a printed textbook that is different from what you might find online or in the software?
It’s not so important whether a book is physical or virtual, it’s the project behind it that really counts, as well as the integration with the software material (we have hundreds of patches, interactive examples, etc.) The goal of a book like ours is to create an integrated path: it’s not just heterogeneous material, it’s not just information on a specific kind of synthesis, it’s not just a MaxMSP manual. We teach the reader to create sounds with MaxMSP, but the real value is in the integration and completeness of the whole concept: you learn to program MaxMSP while also learning theory and applying those skills and knowledge to creating sound. A person might start from scratch and end up dealing with physical modeling!
How did you guys first get involved with MaxMSP? Did you learn Max in a University setting?
Alessandro: I have been teaching, working and writing on Csound and Computer Music Theory for a long time. Only 5 years ago I decided to add MaxMSP to my courses, because of its worldwide use in live performance, and also because of the different approach towards programming. The possibilities of control of automations of parameters on a timeline born with Max for Live reinforced my idea that MaxMSP can be very useful both for composing and for teaching sound synthesis and signal processing, and I used the writing of the book to deepen my knowledge of this software in relationship with the theory.
Maurizio: I first met Max at the “Colloquio di Informatica Musicale” (the Italian computer music conference) in Genoa in 1991. Zack Settel presented the IRCAM Max/FTS, a system capable of realtime audio synthesis (which was amazing at the time). A few months later I purchased Max v. 2.2 from Opcode. Since then I used it for almost all my electronic compositions, and for teaching. I think it is an invaluable tool to “dive into” electronic music concepts.
What resources did you rely on when you were learning to use MaxMSP?
The reference manual, the tutorials, the help patches and the Max mailing-list/forum. The forum was (and still is) a crucial resource, because you end up exchanging ideas and information with the best MaxMSP programmers and power users.
In addition to the Max-specific information there is a pretty deep discussion of signal processing, synthesis, and essential sound concepts in the book. Lot’s of informative illustrations I might add. This is a difficult question to articulate, but do you feel like Max and similar tools create additional challenges or concepts that sound designers and musicians must learn? Things that aren’t covered by music and sound theory or signal processing texts?
Once Giuseppe Di Giugno talked about the difference between teaching to scientific researchers or to musicians/sound designers. He said something that we can roughly summarize like this: for the former group “the real thing” is the formula, or the algorithm; making sounds variating the parameters is just an exercise. For musicians and sound designers making sounds is “the real thing” while learning the algorithm is a means to reach their goals. Obviously this boundary between the two approaches is becoming less and less clear. We are directing our book primarily to musicians and sound designers and because of that we try to invent examples which “sound good” and are stimulating for the practice of composing, so our patches are not just examples to serve the theory. When you follow that approach you find that in some cases the usual theory doesn’t explain some of the reasons that lie behind the good “tips and tricks” that one can use in sound design. Therefore sometimes we had to add some concepts in the theory sections, that was the case for multiple harmonics, filters, and the “grey zones” between the Harmonicity and Inharmonicity of sounds. In addition to that, MaxMSP is a multimedia environment, you can use several body interfaces to control the parameters and that area expands the theory immensely.
I understand this book is the first in a series of books. What sorts of things should we expect for the next installment?
The second volume will cover a range of additional topics in the realm of sound synthesis and signal processing, including Dynamics Processing (Compressor, Expander, Gate, Limiter, Envelope Follower etc.), Delay Lines Techniques (Echo, Loop, Flanger, Chorus, Phaser, Pitch Shifting, Comb and Allpass Filters, Karplus-Strong Algorithm, etc.), Reverberation and Spatialization, Digital Audio and Sampled Sounds Manipulation (such as Beat Slicing, Blocks Technique, Scrubbing, etc.), MIDI, OSC, Rewire and Realtime Control, Max for Live. The third volume will be concerned with Non-Linear Techniques (such as AM and FM Synthesis, Phase Modulation, Phase distortion, Non-Linear Distortion, Waveshaping, etc.), Microsound (Granular Synthesis, Formant Synthesis, Micromontage, etc.), Jitter for Audio, Analysis and Resynthesis, Convolution, Physical Modeling, introduction to Electronic Composition and Procedural Sound Design.
What is the Max user community like in Italy? Anybody doing amazing work that we should know about?
Today there are many notable Italian artists/programmers. We cannot remember all of them now, so we apologize to the others. In no particular order: Giorgio Sancristoforo, an artist who developes very interesting Max/MSP software, Bruno Zamborlin, a researcher collaborating with IRCAM at the “gesture follower”, Michele Tadini, composer, programmer and teacher, Fabio Cifariello Ciardi, who created a Stock Exchange data sonification installation based on his software named “sMax”, Lorenzo Bianchi (Lorbi) who works on live improvisation and installations, Franz Rosati who developed a stochastic granulator in MaxMSP for his performances, Marco Domenichetti who works with Jitter installations, Guido Montalcini (Smider) a musician who created interesting generative software based on MaxMSP, Alessandro Petrolati, who created software such as Density, a granular synthesis application written in MaxMSP.
There are certainly other people in Italy that are doing interesting works with Max, and we’d like to hear from them! There is an Italian Forum for Electronic Music and Max/MSP discussion at http://www.virtual-sound.com/forum.
There is so much here. Besides you guys, did you have any help writing the book or developing the supporting materials? Did you guys get support from the Max community?
People have been supportive from the very beginning, but it took 4 years of research before the actual project was ready. In particular we were helped by three of our ex students, Gabriele Cappellani, Franz Rosati and Salvatore Mudanò, to do proof-reading, graphics and the interactive examples connected to the theory.
Visit the Virtual Sound website.